Decriminalization

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Chronicle AM: AAA Slams Per Se Marijuana Drugged Driving Laws, Brit College Hands Out Pill Test Kits, More... (5/10/16)

In a major study, AAA finds no scientific basis for drugged driving laws that assume impairment based on THC levels, Orlando becomes the latest city to downgrade small-time pot possession, the Ohio House approves a medical marijuana bill--but no smoking--an English university begins handing out pill test kits to students, and more.

Pill testing kits distributed by Britain's Newcastle University and its local SSDP chapter. (SSDP Newcastle)
Marijuana Policy

AAA Study: No Scientific Basis for Laws Regulating Marijuana and Driving. A new study from the American Automobile Association's Safety Foundation has found that per se limits (those that base an assumption of impaired driving on a specified level of THC in one's system) are "arbitrary and unsupported by the evidence."  Six states have  per se marijuana impaired driving laws, while nine states have zero tolerance marijuana DUID laws, and the AAA calls for scrapping them. They should be replaced by police officers trained to detect impairment, with a THC test as a back-up, the automobile club said.

Orlando "Decriminalizes" Pot Possession. The city council voted 4-3 Tuesday to adopt a revised measure that makes possession of 20 grams or less of weed a violation of city code. Police officers will have the discretion to issue civil citations instead of arresting violators. The fine is $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second,  and a third offense will generate a mandatory court appearance.  Small-time pot possession remains a misdemeanor under state law.

Medical Marijuana

Ohio House Approves Medical Marijuana Bill. The House voted 71-26 Tuesday to approve a medical marijuana bill, House Bill 523. Patients under a doctor's supervision could use marijuana oils, tinctures, edibles, and vapors, but could not smoke it, nor could they grow their own.  The bill specifies 18 conditions for which medical marijuana could be used and now goes to the Senate.  Meanwhile, activists are working to get a more patient-friendly medical marijuana initiative on the November ballot.

Harm Reduction

Maryland Governor Signs Needle Access Expansion Bill. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) Tuesday signed into law Senate Bill 97, which will allow thousands of Marylanders to access life-saving needle exchange programs.  The bill passed both chambers with overwhelming support. Maryland ranks 2nd nationally in new per capita HIV infections, and needle exchanges are a proven method of reducing and preventing new infections.

International

British University Handing Out Drug Test Kits to Students. In what as described as a first of its kind harm reduction effort, Newcastle University and the local Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) chapter have joined forces to distribute drug test kits so students can check and see if they drugs they are about to consume are safe or not.  “Although drugs are illegal, statistics suggest lots of young people still use illegal drugs, and that the prevalence of this use is even higher within student communities," said SSDP President Holly Robinson.  “We recognize the safest way to take drugs is not to take drugs but, as some individuals will always choose to take them, we believe it is important to make information and services available to minimise the risks."

Chronicle AM: TN Pregnant Women Drug Law Fails, AR Welfare Drug Testing Starting, More... (3/24/16)

An asset forfeiture reform bill moves in New Hampshire, Arkansas and West Virginia advance welfare drug testing, a global commission on public health calls for drug decriminalization, and more.

Medical Marijuana

Louisiana House Committee Approves Bill to Set Up Medical Marijuana Shops. The House Health and Welfare Committee Wednesday approved House Bill 446, sponsored by Rep. H. Bernard LeBas (D-Ville Platte). The bill would create a licensing scheme for the distribution of medical marijuana products. The bill now heads for a House floor vote. It must still be approved by the Senate.

More Michigan Protests Over Dispensary Raids. Dozens of patients, advocates, and supporters took to the steps of the state capitol in Lansing Tuesday to protest a new wave of raids by the Michigan State Police and local narcotics teams. Both state Sen. Coleman Young (D-Detroit) and Rep. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) addressed the crowd.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Kentucky Senate Restores Funding for Heroin Fight. The Senate Wednesday agreed to restore $12 million in funding for anti-heroin efforts that had been proposed by Gov. Matt Bevin (R), but cut by the House last week. House Democrats had slashed the $32 million over two years proposed by the governor to $20 million. Now, the House and Senate will have to thrash out the difference in conference committee.

Asset Forfeiture

New Hampshire House Approves Bill to End Civil Asset Forfeiture. The House Wednesday approved House Bill 636, which would require a criminal conviction before assets could be seized and which would move seized goods from the drug forfeiture fund to the state's general fund. Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) is threatening to veto the bill, saying that because of the state's opioid crisis, this isn't the time to eliminate law enforcement resources.

Drug Policy

Hawaii Lawmakers Take Up Resolution Urging Study on Drug Decriminalization. The House Judiciary Committee today is hearing a resolution, HCR 127, that calls on the state's Legislative Research Bureau to "conduct a study on the feasibility and advisability of decriminalizing the illegal possession of drugs for personal use in Hawaii" so that it "would constitute an administrative or civil violation rather than a criminal offense." If the resolution passes both chambers, the study would be due before year's end to be ready for next year's legislative session. The study would examine Portugal's experience with decriminalization as a possible model for the state.

Drug Testing

Arkansas Welfare Drug Testing to Begin Within Days. The head of the Department of Workforce Services, Daryl Bassett, said Wednesday that the state's welfare drug testing program would get underway within "seven to 10 days." Under the program, all applicants for government aid would be screened for possible drug use and those deemed likely to have been using drugs would have to undergo drug testing. Refusal to take the drug test will result in being denied benefits for six months. Someone who tests positive can continue to receive aid if he follows treatment and recovery plans set by state officials.

West Virginia Governor Signs Welfare Drug Test Bill. Gov. Early Ray Tomblin (D) today signed into law a bill that mandates screening of all welfare applicants for drug use and drug testing those for whom case workers have "reasonable suspicion" of drug use. Applicants who fail drug tests can continue to receive benefits as long as they enroll in drug treatment and job training programs, but a second failed test could mean loss of benefits for up to a year, and a third would earn a lifetime ban.

Harm Reduction

King County Sheriff Says He Would Not Arrest Drug Users Going to Seattle Safe Injection Site. King County Sheriff John Urquhart edged ever closer Tuesday to outright support of a safe injection site in Seattle. "I guarantee you," said Urquhart, "that if you're going into a safe injection site, you will not be arrested by any of my deputies, period." But he was careful to add that while he was "intrigued" by the success of Vancouver's InSite supervised injection facility, he is not yet ready to endorse them for Seattle.

Pregnancy

Tennessee Law That Allows Assault Charges for Pregnant Drug Users Not Renewed. The state's two-year experiment with arresting pregnant drug users is about to come to an end after the legislature failed to re-authorize the law this week. At least a hundred women have been prosecuted under the program, which has been condemned by human rights, civil rights, and pregnant women's rights advocates.

International

Leading Global Health Commission Calls for Reform of Drug Policies Worldwide. A leading global public health commission is calling for new policies that would transform our approach to drug use, addiction and control worldwide, including the decriminalization of minor and non-violent drug offenses. According to a report released this morning by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and The Lancet, the war on drugs and zero-tolerance policies have undercut public health across the globe and have directly contributed to many of today's most urgent public health crises, while doing little to affect drug markets or drug use. The Johns Hopkins University -- Lancet Commission on Public Health and International Drug Policy calls for worldwide reform of drug policies, including: the decriminalization of minor and non-violent drug use, possession and petty sale; enactment of policies that reduce violence and discrimination in drug policing; increased access to controlled medicines that could reduce the risk of overdose deaths; and greater investments in health and social services for drug users. The report is based on an extensive review by the Commissioners of the published evidence, and on original analyses and modeling on violence, incarceration and infectious diseases associated with drug policies.

Will UNGASS 2016 Be the Beginning of the End for the War on Drugs?

This article is by Ann Fordham and Martin Jelsma, and is republished from openDemocracy. It is part a series of articles about this April's UNGASS. Further information appears below.

In April 2016, the UN will dedicate, for the third time in its history, a United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) to discuss global drug policy. The UNGASS has the potential to be a ground-breaking moment that could change the course of the international drug control system. However, political divisions and entrenched institutional dynamics have dampened hopes that it will go down in history as the beginning of the end of the war on drugs.

At the joint request of Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala, the General Assembly decided to bring forward the convention of a special session to assess "the achievements and challenges in countering the world drug problem", originally foreseen for 2019 or 2020. The three countries stated at the time that "revising the approach on drugs maintained so far by the international community can no longer be postponed", and the UN needed to exercise leadership to "conduct an in-depth review analyzing all available options, including regulatory or market measures, in order to establish a new paradigm that would impede the flow of resources to organized crime groups". An international meeting had to be convened, "capable of taking the decisions necessary to increase the effectiveness of the strategies and instruments with which the global community addresses the challenges of drugs and their consequences".

Conventional drug control wisdom has put forward the view that stopping the supply of drugs at the source would solve the 'world drug problem', but Latin American countries bear witness to the failure of this approach. Stirred into action by the futility of spending billions of dollars to fight an unwinnable and increasingly violent war on drugs, it is no surprise that political leaders from Latin America have been at the forefront of the drug policy debate. From their perspective, the high human cost in terms of violence, insecurity, mass incarceration and the exacerbation of the social and economic vulnerability of some of society’s most marginalised groups – can no longer be justified as necessary collateral damage in pursuit of eradicating drug markets.

A growing group of Latin American and Caribbean countries are calling for a real discussion on alternative policies. In the meantime, Uruguay has moved to create the world's first national legally regulated cannabis market for recreational use, and similar initiatives have happened in the US at the state level. This opening up of the long entrenched and seemingly immovable discussion on prohibitionist drug control principles is unprecedented and has implications for global policy.

In this context, the UNGASS in April represents a critical juncture, an opportunity for an honest evaluation of global drug policy and how to address the most pressing challenges going forward. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in recognition of this rare and important opportunity, has urged member states to use the 2016 UNGASS "to conduct a wide-ranging and open debate that considers all options."

The UNGASS preparations

The initial discussions to prepare for the UNGASS were fraught with disagreements over many procedural aspects. These included difficult negotiations over the extent to which the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna would lead the process; how to strike the right balance between the UN capitals of Vienna, Geneva and New York in the preparations; how to ensure meaningful involvement of all relevant UN agencies, academia and civil society; and – last but not least – how open the debate should be: should it be restricted to a discussion of how to improve the implementation of the 2009 Political Declaration and the achievement of its targets for 2019, or should the UNGASS be an opportunity to challenge the current global drug control strategy, possibly even questioning its foundation of the three UN drug conventions?

 

These difficult negotiations, which on the surface often appeared to be arguments over procedure, reflected the deep political divisions within the international drug policy debate. The much-revered 'Vienna Consensus' continues to weaken as the divide between some governments becomes increasingly irreconcilable. A growing number of countries now believe that the traditional repressive drug control approach, based on zero-tolerance, has not worked and has led to disastrous consequences for human rights, public health, citizen security and sustainable development, and as a result it has to be modernised.

 

Some countries calling for an open and inclusive debate at the UNGASS questioned whether this could be truly achieved with a process led by the Vienna-based drug control apparatus, given that the CND, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) have all gained quite a conservative reputation over the decades. Conducting all the preparations in Vienna led to a further problem for inclusivity, given that at least 70 member states do not have permanent representation there and would therefore struggle to fully participate in the process. The point of convening an UNGASS, is that by definition all UN member states and the whole UN system should be included on a equal basis, but limiting the political negotiations on the outcomes exclusively to Vienna, means that in practice the countries and UN agencies not represented in Vienna have much less influence on the process.

In the end, the hard fought-over resolution on the procedures decided that the UNGASS "will have an inclusive preparatory process that includes extensive substantive consultations, allowing organs, entities and specialized agencies of the United Nations system, relevant international and regional organizations, civil society and other relevant stakeholders to fully contribute to the process", while the CND "as the central policymaking body within the United Nations system dealing with drug-related matters, shall lead this process", inviting the president of the General Assembly to "support, guide and stay involved in the process".

UN special sessions are rare and crucial moments in UN-level policy making and are designed to ensure a coherent UN system-wide response to global problems of major concern to the international community. This has so far been less than optimal in discussions on global drug policy. After initial slow engagement from other key UN agencies, significant contributions have now been made from UNDP, UNAIDS and the WHO. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has also submitted a comprehensive reportthat outlines the most pertinent human rights violations in relation to drug control policies, while the Human Rights Council held a high level panel in September 2015 on the topic of "the impact of the world drug problem on the enjoyment of human rights".

A Civil Society Task Force (CSTF) was convened to ensure the participation of civil society in the process. The CSTF has representatives from every region of the world, as well as representatives of the key affected populations such as people who use drugs and subsistence farmers growing drug-linked crops among others. Initially, formal recognition of the CSTF was challenging – civil society has always had to fight for visibility and access at the CND but over the last year there has been increasing support for this initiative from governments.  A major victory for the CSTF was explicit support from the president of the General Assembly, who presided over an Informal Interactive Stakeholder Dialogue in New York on the 10 February 2016 organised with the CSTF in support of the preparatory process. The calls for progressive policiesbased in principles of harm reduction, of public health and of human rights from global civil society were deafening at the event.

Shifting regional priorities

 

In terms of regional perspectives, as noted above, the impetus for pushing for another UNGASS on drugs followed growing calls for reform from across Latin America at the highest political level. In fact, the previous UNGASS meetings in 1990 and 1998 had been convened in response to similar calls from Colombia and Mexico. Around them, a group of like-minded countries is gradually shaping up around certain positions, including Ecuador, Uruguay and Costa Rica and supported by Brazil and Bolivia on some issues. Caribbean countries have long been largely absent from the debate, not least because discussions have been limited to the CND in Vienna, where few Caribbean countries are represented – although Jamaica has recently joined the chorus of dissent and the discussion on several other islands has intensified.

In terms of European, particularly European Union (EU), engagement, this has been markedly different from Latin America and reflects the fact that Europe has managed to avoid the sharpest edges of a repressive approach to drug control. European countries have not experienced to the same extent, the high human cost in terms of violence, insecurity, and mass incarceration experienced in Latin America.  Of course the context is different, but in addition, many European governments have been pragmatic, have prioritised health care, harm reduction and human rights protection. While in Europe there are some serious issues regarding the criminalisation of people who use drugs and disproportionate sentences for minor drug offences, most European countries have managed to keep a certain distance from the escalation of the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s in the US, Latin America and Asia. At the international level, the leadership that EU governments have shown in this regard has been critical in shifting the drug policy narrative towards public health, harm reduction and human rights principles.

On issues where common positions can be found, the EU can have a strong impact on the global debate. For example, a united EU promoted the principle of proper sequencing with respect to ensuring that subsistence farmers have sufficient access to alternative livelihoods before being forced to abandon their drug-linked crops. The EU has also demonstrated unity and commitment on harm reduction and the removal of death penalty for drug offences, although a global consensus on these issues is not yet in sight.

Unfortunately, there are also crucial areas where a strong European voice has been absent, and the EU has failed to understand or acknowledge the sense of urgency and relevance of this UNGASS. This is clearly the case with regard to the shift in priority that Latin American countries are seeking, to move away from arresting small-time dealers and chasing drug shipments towards reducing drug-related violence, organised crime and corruption instead. In a sense, this is a plea for a harm reduction policy on the supply side: the drugs market will not be “eliminated or significantly reduced” by 2019, and it is time to forget the hollow illusion of a drug-free world.

Instead, government policy could be more sophisticated and focus on mitigating the most harmful aspects of the drug trade through reducing the levels of illicit drug market-related violence, crime, insecurity and corruption. This thinking mirrors similar priority shifts that have previously taken place in Europe under the harm reduction banner, with governments taking a pragmatic approach to reduce the harms associated with drug consumption without necessarily seeking to stop the use of drugs. These harm reduction policies and programmes have significantly reduced drug-related harm such as overdose deaths, and HIV and hepatitis C prevalence among people who inject drugs.

Cannabis policy and UN treaties

 

Another example is the lack of EU engagement in the debate about global cannabis policy developments, the result of the absence of a common EU position on cannabis and huge national policy variations. Demonstrating an ostrich-like denial regarding cannabis policy developments in the Americas but also at local levels within the EU, the EU common position for the UNGASS underscores the need to “maintain a strong and unequivocal commitment to the UN conventions” and that there is “sufficient scope and flexibility within the provisions of the UN Conventions to accommodate a wide range of approaches to drug policy”. In addition, the issue of drug control is a low political priority as the EU currently has it hands full with the refugee crisis and existential threats around the euro and the future of European integration.

A game-changing difference between this UNGASS and the preceding ones is the fact that the position of the US has fundamentally changed. No longer among the hardliners, the US has acknowledged, both at the UN but also more recently domestically, that the over-reliance on incarceration has failed. In August 2013, US Attorney General Eric Holder admitted that mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences were ‘draconian’ and that too many Americans had been imprisoned for too long for no good law enforcement justification. He made it clear that the status quo was unsustainable and damaging. In 2015, President Obama began a process to commute the sentences of around 6,000 federal drug offenders. In early 2016 the congressional task force created to examine overcrowding in the federal prison system, recommended the repeal of federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences. Different legislative initiatives have been tabled, including the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would cut many mandatory minimums for drug offences in half.

The domino effect of cannabis regulation at state level makes the US less sure-footed of condemning other countries for not stringently adhering to a zero-tolerance approach. Cannabis regulation for recreational use is outside of the scope of the current UN treaty framework for drugs, creating a significant problem for the US since it undermines its credibility to continue defending the conventions as they stand. The big question is whether this will lead to the US accepting more flexibility in policy areas that have been explored elsewhere. These include initiatives such as decriminalisation, drug consumption rooms or the regulation of coca in Bolivia, all policy options that the US currently opposes.

UNGASS outcomes: change of course

 

The past several years have seen significant changes in the global drug policy landscape representing a trend towards more humane and proportional responses based on health, human rights and development principles. To some extent, the UNGASS will acknowledge those advances and thereby consolidate the significant change of course that is happening in various regions of the world. Perhaps the most significant advance will be on the issue of access to controlled medicines – an area that has long been de-prioritised in favour of a focus on repressive, law enforcement-led approaches to reduce the illicit drug trade. Most drugs included in the schedules of the UN conventions also have important medical purposes, and several appear on the WHO “List of Essential Medicines”.  However, the availability of opiate painkillers like morphine for example, has been dramatically low in most developing countries due to overly strict regulations reflecting over-riding concerns about diversion and addiction rather than a need to ensure access to pain relief.

Unfortunately, other areas of progress remain stilted. Russia, alongside several Asian and Middle Eastern countries, has played hardball in the negotiations, effectively putting the brakes on the shifting discourse. The negotiations are driven by consensus, making it unlikely that contested policies in the field of harm reduction, or reforms like decriminalisation, despite being widely accepted and propounded by all relevant UN agencies, will be explicitly recommended in the UNGASS outcome document. Likewise, a clear condemnation of the death penalty for drug offences is probably going to be blocked by a small group of countries. The prophecy that allowing the CND to take full control over the UNGASS preparations would undermine progress towards a more system-wide coherent UN drugs policy seems to be being borne out. Negotiations about the UNGASS outcomes have taken place mostly in ‘informal’ sessions in Vienna, dominated by a minority of member states and from which civil society is excluded from participating or even observing.

For the General Assembly, an obvious priority for this UNGASS would be how to align UN drug policy with the recently adopted new global framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but negotiations in Vienna carry on as if they are negotiating another CND resolution. Submissions from other member states, UN agencies and civil society calling for a recognition of the failure of repressive responses and highlighting the need to connect the drugs issue with the agreed UN priorities for the future of the planet have so far not been reflected in successive drafts of the UNGASS outcome document.  The general tone of these drafts is very much ‘business-as-usual’.

At present, few countries are willing to openly acknowledge the existence of structural deficiencies with regard to UN system-wide coherence, the institutional architecture and the legal treaty framework. No easy solutions are available for reforming the foundations of the global control system and consensus will be hard to find, but a continued denial of the reality of the on-going policy trends and the resulting tensions with the treaty system will not make them disappear. In fact, to do so will hinder the much-needed evolution of the UN drug control system and its ability to adapt to the realities of today. Towards this end, it could be helpful if the UNGASS outcome leads to the convening of an advisory group or an expert panel to think through different scenarios for the future evolution of the system, especially in the lead up to the next important moment in 2019 when member states will have to agree a new global action plan on drugs, hopefully more in line with the broader set of UN priority goals for the next decade.

Although it is clear that the so-called ‘Vienna consensus’ has been breaking apart for some time and there is a growing desire to find viable policy alternatives to repression and punishment, there are still powerful countries and entrenched bureaucracies that are staunchly opposed to any kind of reform. The divisions between member states but also between UN agencies on this issue have become too visible to ignore and the UNGASS is a perfect opportunity for an honest assessment of the performance of the international drug control system and the options for a change of course.

Given the high human cost of the damaging approaches pursued to date, many people around the world have high hopes that governments will not squander this opportunity. And yet, to what extent the UNGASS can really live up to these hopes remains to be seen. The latest dynamics in Vienna do not bode well, as bureaucratic machinations, political complacency and exclusion seem to rule the process. The lack of vision, inclusivity and commitment to finding new solutions to many of the challenges that remain must be strongly condemned, especially given the urgency expressed by those countries that called for this moment in the first place.

This article was written by Ann Fordham of the International Drug Policy Consortium and Martin Jelsma of the Transnational Institute. It is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organisation with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights. The partnership coincides with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.

Chronicle AM: PA MedMJ Bill Finally Moving, WA Governor Vetoes Hemp Bill, More... (3/15/16)

Rhode Island voters may get a say on pot legalization, no medical marijuana deliveries for Los Angeles, the Pennsylvania medical marijuana bill is finally moving, Colombia's high criminal court expands the parameters of decriminalization, and more.

No hemp fields for Washington state after the governor vetoed the hemp bill because...budgets. (votehemp.org)
Marijuana Policy

Rhode Island Governor Open to Legalization Referendum. Gov. Gina Raimundo (D) said today that she is open to the idea of a statewide referendum on marijuana legalization proposed by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D). The referendum would be non-binding. There is "some talk at the General Assembly of maybe putting it on the ballot to ask the voters their opinion of should we do this? And I would be open to that, because I think it's a big issue and it would be good know where the voters stand," Raimundo said. The talk comes as the legislature considers pending legalization proposals.

Medical Marijuana

California Appeals Court Upholds Ban on LA Pot Deliveries. A three-judge appellate court panel Monday upheld a lower court's decision to temporarily ban Nestdrop, an app that allowed people in the city to have marijuana delivered to their door. But the decision will have an impact beyond Nestdrop; the justices held that under the city's zoning law, Proposition D, all delivery services are barred from operating in the city.

Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Bill Moves After Long Delay. The House Monday night passed an amended version of Sen. Mike Folmer's Senate Bill 3. The vote comes 10 months after the bill passed the Senate. The bill still faces a final House vote and then must return to the Senate for its approval of the amended version.

Hemp

Washington Governor Vetoes Hemp Bill for No Good Reason. Gov. Jay Inslee (D) has vetoed Senate Bill 6206, which would have legalized industrial hemp production in the state. Inslee's reason nothing to do with the substance of the bill; he is irritated with the legislature for failing to pass a budget bill. Inslee said the hemp measure was "a worthy bill," but he couldn't sign it until "a budget agreement is reached." The bill passed the House unanimously and the Senate 48-1, so a veto override is possible.  

International

Colombian Supreme Court of Justice Rules "Addicts" Can Carry More Than "Minimum Dose" of Drugs. The high criminal court ruled that "addicts" can carry more than the legal "minimum dose" of drugs out of "necessity" without being charged with a crime. The ruling came in the case of soldier caught with 50 grams of marijuana, 2 ½ times the decriminalized amount of 20 grams. Instead of the "minimum dose," the courts will have to contend with the "supply dose," enough of the drug to meet to the user's needs. Prior to this ruling, people caught in excess of the "minimum dose" faced charges of drug possession with intent to traffic. They can still be charged that way, but now have an additional defense.

Bloody Gunfights in Mexico's Reynosa.  Prohibition-related violence flared in the Mexican border town of Reynosa, just across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas, Sunday, when at least nine suspected cartel gunmen died in battles with government forces. At least three separate armed clashes took place, with gunmen also setting vehicles afire and blocking roads. The operation was aimed at taking down Gulf Cartel leaders in the city, but it wasn't clear if the police and military found their targets.

 

Chronicle AM: US Signals Flexibility on International Drug Reforms, Senate Set to Approve CARA, More... (3/9/16)

In the run-up to UNGASS, the US is signalling some flexibility if other countries want to decriminalize drugs, the Senate is poised to pass a bill to deal with heroin and prescription opiate use, crackdowns could be coming for unpermitted dispensaries in Los Angeles and San Diego, and more.

State Department's William Brownfield signals "flexibility" on other countries' drug reform efforts. (state.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Illinois Decriminalization Bill Wins Senate Committee Vote. The Senate Criminal Law Committee voted Tuesday to advance a decriminalization bill, Senate Bill 2228, sponsored by Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago). The bill would drop criminal penalties for possession of less than 10 grams of pot, but also set a limit at which someone can be prosecuted for drugged driving at 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood. A decrim bill was vetoed last year by Gov. Bruce Rauner (R); this one attempts to address his concerns by lowering the amount decriminalized, increasing the fine from $100 to $200, and by lowering the nanogram limit.

Colorado Springs Wants Its Cannabis Social Clubs to Go Away. The city council voted Tuesday night to ban "cannabis consumption clubs" despite overwhelming public support for them at the council before the vote was taken. But it isn't going to happen overnight. The council gave the clubs eight years to shut down. In the meantime, they will have to be licensed by the city and pay for the privilege of doing so.

Medical Marijuana

Los Angeles County to Crack Down on Illegal Dispensaries. The county supervisors voted Tuesday to crack down on dispensaries in unincorporated areas of the county. The county will create a "Medical Marijuana Dispensary Enforcement Team" to shut down and prosecute the unpermitted operations, which have been banned since 2011.

San Diego Licensed Dispensaries Call for Crackdown on Unlicensed Ones. The Association of Cannabis Professionals, which represents licensed dispensaries, is calling on the city to shut down dispensaries operating without a license. There are an estimated 30 unpermitted dispensaries in the city, and the seven licensed ones are claiming they can't compete because of the increased costs they bear to get and stay legal. "The City of San Diego spent nearly four years developing regulations, and our members spent nearly two years, and hundreds of thousands of dollars, to meet the conditions needed to obtain their permits from the City of San Diego,” says Association President Chris Siegel. “But despite having jumped through all of these hoops and costs, in order to do things right, the City continues to allow unpermitted dispensaries to operate with impunity."

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Senate About to Pass Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. Senators voted 83-6 to advance the bill Monday, setting the stage for a final vote sometime this week. The bill, S 524, is sponsored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and has 42 cosponsors. It would provide support drug treatment, education, and prevention initiatives, and expanded prescription drug monitoring programs.

Harm Reduction

Iowa Senate Approves Opioid Overdose Reversal Drug Bill. The Senate voted 48-0 Tuesday to approve Senate File 2218, which would allow police, fire departments, EMS programs and others to carry and use naloxone (Narcan), the opioid overdose reversal drug. The bill now goes to the House

International

Top State Department Official Gives Green Light for Other Countries to Decriminalize Drugs. William Brownfield, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs ("drugs and thugs"), told reporters at the United Nations Tuesday that it was less concerned with how countries attempted to deal with drug problems than with reducing the harms from drug use. "The issue is not precisely whether a government has chosen to decriminalize or not to decriminalize," Brownfield remarked. "It is whether the government is working cooperatively to reduce the harm of a product. A nation can reach its own determination," he added, suggesting that countries should feel free to consider removing penalties for drug use.

Chronicle AM: WA Drug Task to Disband, Cites Legalization; Harm Reduction Bills Advance in FL, NM, More... (2/18/16)

Even South Carolinians want drug policy reform, a Washington state drug task force calls it quits after marijuana legalization, harm reduction measures advance in Florida and New Mexico, and more.

With marijuana legal, drug task forces are having to reassess. (Darrin Frisby Harris/DPA)
Marijuana Policy

Oregon House Passes Marijuana Fine-Tuning Bill. The House voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to approve House Bill 4014, one of three bills this session aimed at fine tuning the state's marijuana legalization program. The bill removes residency restrictions for owning cannabusinesses, reduces some penalties for marijuana offenses, and adjusts licensing requirements to fit the needs of small farms, among other provisions.

Medical Marijuana

Arkansas Attorney General Approves Medical Marijuana Initiative. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge (R) has certified the popular name and title of the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment of 2016. Now, initiative backers can begin the process of gathering some 85,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

Asset Forfeiture

Iowa Legislature Punts on Asset Forfeiture Reform. A subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday took up Senate File 2166, which would have ended civil asset forfeiture in the state, but after a contentious hearing, the subcommittee voted to simply study the issue and develop recommendations for addressing it next year.

Drug Policy

Poll Finds South Carolinians Surprisingly Open to Drug Reforms. According to a a new poll released by the Drug Policy Alliance, a large majority of South Carolina's notably conservative primary voters supports ending mass incarceration, even across party lines. A substantial majority, furthermore, supports decriminalizing drug possession. Some 70% said they considered reducing incarceration rates an important issue and 59% said they favored decriminalizing drug possession.

Drug Testing

Maine Moves to Make It Easier for Employers to Do Drug Testing. The Department of Labor is calling on lawmakers to streamline the approval process for employee drug testing policies and to implement a program to train managers to spot drug-related impairment in the workplace. The proposal comes as an amendment to LD 1384, which is the subject of a Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee work session today.

Harm Reduction

Florida Needle Exchange Bill Advances. The House Health and Human Services Committee Wednesday unanimously approved House Bill 81, which would create a pilot program to establish needle exchange programs in Miami-Dade County. The bill now heads for a House floor vote. Companion legislation in the Senate, Senate Bill 242, also awaits a floor vote.

New Mexico Legislature Approves Overdose Prevention Bills. A pair of bills that would allow individuals and organizations to possess and distribute the opioid reversal drug naloxone (Narcan®) have passed out of the legislature and are headed for the governor's desk. The measures are House Bill 277 and Senate Bill 262.

Law Enforcement

Washington State Drug Task Force to Disband, Cites Marijuana Legalization, Funding Cuts. The East Side Narcotics Task Force is going out of business in June after a quarter-century of fighting drug offenses. "The member agencies did an evaluation of the task force and its mission, and what we decided was that the task force had run its course and that due to a variety of challenges, it was time to sunset the task force and look at other options," Bellevue Police Chief Steve Mylett explained. One of those challenges was marijuana legalization: "When the state law changed, it made us pause and take a look at our mission," Mylett said. "When I arrived in Bellevue (in April 2015), the police chiefs were already discussing how marijuana laws were changing the whole drug trade landscape." He also complained that federal grants to fund such task forces were declining.

International

Saudis Execute Two Yemenis for Smuggling Hash. Yemeni citizens Ahmed Mubarek and Abdul Salam al-Jamali were executed in the Saudi border city of Jazan Wednesday after being convicted of smuggling hashish into the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has already executed 62 people this year, putting it on a pace to exceed last year's 153 executions, the highest number in two decades. It's not clear how many people have been executed for drug offenses.

A Maryland Lawmaker's Paradigm-Shifting Approach to the Heroin and Pain Pill Crisis [FEATURE]

With nearly 47,000 Americans dying of drug overdoses in 2014 -- more than from gunshots or car crashes -- the problem of heroin and prescription opioid (pain pill) addiction is getting well-deserved attention. From community town halls to state capitals, as well as in Congress and on the rival presidential campaigns, the crisis is spawning demands for solutions.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/dan-morhaim-180px.jpg
Dan Morhaim
The response, in general, has been more sympathetic than to earlier waves of hard drug use, such as heroin in the 1960s or crack cocaine in the 1980s, which brought down the harsh drug war policies of Nixon and Reagan. Now, there are more calls for drug treatment than for further law enforcement crackdowns, police departments are carrying overdose reversal drugs, and public health agencies are taking on a more prominent role.

But addicts continue to be arrested, with all the deleterious consequences that entails, and, when it comes to policy, the problem of addiction remains largely in the realm of criminal justice. Harm reduction practices proven in other parts of the world improve both the lives of drug users and those of the communities they live in continue to be shunted aside in the US.

That could change in at least one state. Veteran Maryland Delegate Dan Morhaim (D-Baltimore County) has just introduced a paradigm-shifting package of bills that would begin to move the state's posture toward drug use from prohibition to public health and harm reduction. Morhaim, a practicing physician with three decades of frontline hospital ERs, brings to his approach a vision formed by that experience.

If enacted, Morhaim's package would mark a radical, but commonsensical, humane, and scientifically-supported shift in Maryland's drug policies. Here's what it includes:

  • Emergency Room Treatment on Demand. House Bill 908 provides treatment on demand in emergency rooms and hospital settings. The bill requires acute care hospitals to have a counselor available or on-call at all times and specified arrangements for transferring patients to appropriate treatment settings. Addicted patients make up a large percentage of uninsured visits to ERs, making them an ideal place for initial therapeutic contact.
  • Safe Consumption Sites. House Bill 1212 allows individuals to use drugs in approved facilities while supervised by trained staff who also provide sterile equipment, monitor the person for overdose and offer treatment referrals. Similar on-going programs in Australia, Canada, and several European countries have eliminated overdose deaths, reduced the spread of disease, and provided points of accessto the most hard-to-reach drug users.
  • Drug Decriminalization. House Bill 1219 decriminalizes the possession and use of small quantities of drugs: one gram of meth or heroin, two grams of cocaine, 10 hits of MDMA, 150 micrograms of LSD. The object is to keep otherwise non-criminal drug users out of the criminal justice system, saving resources and avoiding saddling more residents with criminal records.
  • Heroin Maintenance. House Bill 1267 allows a four-year pilot study of "poly-morphone assisted treatment" with pharmaceutical grade opioids, including heroin, to treat under medical supervision a small number of hardcore users who have proven resistant to other forms of treatment. Ongoing heroin maintenance programs in several European countries have been shown to reduce illegal drug use, decrease crime, reduce the black market for heroin, and lead to less chaotic lives for their participants.

The package didn't exactly come out of nowhere. Morhaim's experiences in the ER, where he dealt not only with direct consequences of drug use -- overdoses, infections -- but also direct consequences of drug prohibition -- old women injured in muggings for black market drug money, the toll of dead and wounded in black market drug turf battles -- colored his approach.

"I'm a physician, not a prosecuting attorney," Morhaim told the Chronicle. "I come at this from a public health perspective. We talk about 'surges' to fight this and that, but what we haven't had in this country is a surge in the public health approach, real, substantive public health. This is different, and some will see it as controversial, but I'm comfortable with that. This is something that's really corroding the heart and soul of our society."

He wasn't alone.

"I've had a lot of conversations, and my district has generally been very supportive of these kind of innovative things. No negative feedback. There's a broad consensus that the war on drugs is a failure," Morhaim said. "People are really cognizant of that. And I'm an Emergency Room physician at a Level II trauma center, I've also done healthcare for the homeless. I've been on the front lines, seen the carnage, the death, the violence, and the way this affects the families, and I'm speaking from true experience, and people respect that."

Not only did Morhaim have support in his community, he had support from a strong group of advocates and experts.

"As things were coming to a head, Delegate Morhaim reached out to us at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA)," said DPA staff attorney Lindsay LaSalle, who was involved in developing the proposals. "He said he felt like he could offer progressive solutions to the crisis and he wanted our subject matter expertise to help develop those proposals."

DPA, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), whose executive director, Neill Franklin, is a former Baltimore police officer, and the Open Society Foundations joined with academics, lawyers, doctors, and harm reductionists to develop and refine the policy proposals that became the bill package. Local institutions of higher learning, including the University of Maryland, the University of Baltimore, and Johns Hopkins University, had academics involved in the effort as well.

Passing the bills won't be easy, and it's not likely to happen this year, but Morhaim and his supporters are playing to win in the not-too-distant future.

"Dan is currently on the second year of a four year term," LaSalle said. "These bills were introduced strategically this term with the understanding that it would be a year of educating colleagues and generating positive media coverage. This is always a long game; we don't expect passage this year, but we hope to gain traction on one or more of these in the next two or three years."

"I've been in the legislature a long time, and I've learned you just have to be persistent, you listen and address concerns, maybe you accept an amendment to a bill," Morhaim said.

He pointed to the successful effort to get medical marijuana through the legislature.

"On that, people had suggestions, and we said let's fix it in the bill," he recalled. "Law enforcement didn't oppose it because I sat down and worked with them."

He also recalled legislative battles he had fought -- and won -- around smoking in restaurants and the use of safety seats for children.

"Banning smoking in restaurants seemed impossible in 1995, but now it's commonplace," he said. "The same with kids safety seats. Both of those were hard-fought on the political level, but when we talk to people, we can convince them. These things take time, but when you recognize what's not working, then you can explore what is. People are looking for answers."

Although Morhaim's package of bills is the most comprehensive, explicit harm reduction interventions are being considered in other places, too. California will see a safe consumption site bill introduced next week, and activists and officials in a number of cities, including New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle are laying the groundwork for such facilities at the local level.

"We're getting traction on these issues," said LaSalle. "Nevada was the first state with a heroin-assisted treatment bill, and while it didn't get out of committee, we had robust hearings, with international experts. And that California bill will be moving forward this session. Drug treatment and harm reduction don't always go hand in hand, but in this case the treatment community is cosponsoring or officially supporting safe consumption sites."

Meanwhile, some states are moving in the opposite direction. In Maine, the administration of Tea Party Gov. Paul Le Page (R) is seeking to reverse a law passed last year that defelonized drug possession. (The rambunctious Republican has also called for guillotining drug dealers, blamed black drug dealers for impregnating white Maine girls, and called for vigilantes to shoot drug dealers.) And next door in New Hampshire, the attorney general wants to start charging heroin suppliers with murder in the event of fatal overdoses. Prosecutors in other states have also dusted off long-unused statutes to bring murder or manslaughter charges.

"We need to ask those people why they're doubling down on a failed policy," said LaSalle. "Why would this work now when it's just more of the same that's been in place for four decades, and now we have use and overdoses and Hep C increasing."

"I understand the impulse to 'Do Something!' in response, and because criminalization has been our go-to response, it seems logical that increasing penalties or prosecutions is a way to solve the problem, but we know, we have shown, that it is not. It's frustrating."

It can be worse than frustrating, too, LaSalle noted.

"Using murder charges as a whipping stick in the case of overdoses is really counterproductive," she said. "If the goal is to reduce overdoses, this is going to reduce the likelihood of anyone calling 911. Maybe they shared their stash, and if they could face murder charges, they now have a serious disincentive to call."

Clearly, the war on drugs is not over. But after half a century of relying predominantly on the forces of repression to deal with drug use, a new vision, both smarter and more humane, is emerging. Now comes the political fight to enact it.

Annapolis, MD
United States

Chronicle AM: Houston Decriminalizes, Detroit Tightens Snitch Procedures, More... (12/28/14)

America's fourth largest city decriminalizes on Friday, Detroit tightens up on police use of paid snitches, a federal judge in Denver is hearing a pot banking case, and more.

Decrim comes to Houston this weekend. (wikimedia/spacecaptain)
Marijuana Policy

Denver Federal Judge Hears Marijuana Banking Case Today. US District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson is hearing arguments today in a case filed by Fourth Corner Credit Union against the Federal Reserve Bank's Kansas City branch. The credit union was designed to serve the legal marijuana industry, but the Fed rejected its application, so the credit union sued in July. It is asking the court to force the Fed to accept its application. There is no deadline for issuing a decision.

Decriminalization Coming to Houston on Friday. Beginning this weekend, Harris County will not charge first-time marijuana possession offenders, instead diverting them into the county's First Chance Intervention Program. People diverted instead of arrested will have to pay a $100 fee and engage in either eight hours of community service or eight hours of "cognitive class." Harris County is the nation's third most populous.

Medical Marijuana

Michigan Bill Would Bar Employers From Firing Patients. Rep. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) and Rep. Sam Singh (D-East Lansing) have filed House Bill 5161 to protect the employment rights of medical marijuana patients. The bill would protect patients with registration cards, but they could still be fired if their marijuana use interferes with their job performance.

Law Enforcement

In Wake of Scandal, Detroit Cops Rein in Use of Paid Snitches. After a police corruption case in which Detroit narcs ripped off drug dealers and used informants to sell their stashes, the Detroit Police have tightened the rules on the use of paid snitches. Now, individual officers have to get permission from supervisors to use someone as a snitch, they must follow departmental rules for the use of informants, and they can't cut informal plea deals with potential snitches, among other changes.

Chronicle AM: Gallup Poll: 58% for Marijuana Legalization, MI Forfeiture Reforms Signed, More (10/21/15)

The trend toward supporting marijuana legalization is becoming ever more apparent, asset forfeiture reforms become law in Michigan, but get attacked by law enforcement in Tennessee, harm reductionists call on the UN to officially release a drug decriminalization document, and more.

Truckers and other labor groups are urging the House to reject hair drug testing. (wikimedia/Veronica538)
Marijuana Policy

New Gallup Poll Has Support for Marijuana Legalization at 58%. A new Gallup poll released today has 58% saying marijuana should be legal in the US. That ties the 58% reported by Gallup two years ago after support declined to 51% last year.The 58% figure is the highest ever recorded in a Gallup poll, and is consistent with majority support for marijuana legalization reported in other state and national polls in recent months. Gallup says that figure is likely to continue to increase, thanks both to younger residents being more likely to support legalization and the dying off of older Americans, who are more likely to oppose legalization. Click on the title link for our Chronicle news brief on the poll.

Asset Forfeiture

Michigan Governor Signs Asset Forfeiture Reform Package. Gov. Rick Snyder (R) Tuesday signed into law a seven-bill package aimed at beginning to rein in asset forfeiture abuses in the state. The bills don't end civil asset forfeiture, but increase the burden of proof required to seize and keep confiscated property and require law enforcement agencies to file annual reports documenting their seizure activities.

Tennessee Cops Lobby Against Asset Forfeiture Reform. Law enforcement officials Monday lobbied lawmakers to not adopt asset forfeiture reforms in the Volunteer State. Shelby County Prosecutor Steve Jones, said seizing assets to fund policing activities was "government at its best" and warned that changing the law would result in more crime. He wasn't the only one. Click on the link for more.

Drug Testing

Unions Fight Truck Driver Hair Drug Testing. The AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department is trying to stop a proposal that would allow hair drug testing for truck drivers. The proposal is included in a highway bill that passed the Senate in July. The union has no problem with urine testing, which has been in place since 1991, but says that hair testing is untested. "[Health and Human Services] has not approved hair specimen for use in drug tests, and no HHS-issued technical standards for hair testing exist -- and for good reason. Hair testing is not ready for primetime," the union said. The union argues that hair testing could cause positive test results from environmental exposure -- not just personal drug use.

West Virginia Lawmakers Continue to Ponder Welfare Drug Testing. Even though efforts to push through welfare drug testing have failed in the past, legislators Monday were back at it. At a hearing, state health officials told lawmakers fewer than 220 of 2,700 adults enrolled in the food stamp program were likely to use illegal drugs. The committee will continue to study the issue through the year, members said.

International

International Harm Reduction Conference Delegates Call on UN to Officially Release Leaked Drug Decriminalization Paper. More than 500 delegates at the International Harm Reduction Conference in Kuala Lumpur called on the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) today to officially release a document proposing drug decriminalization. The paper had been leaked by Sir Richard Branson, prompting UNODC to say the paper was "not a final document." "The overwhelming support from our delegates today for the UNODC's drug decriminalization recommendations should embolden them to show brave leadership on this issue, and publish the document in its current form," said Rick Lines, head of the International Harm Reduction Association, which organized the conference.

Chronicle AM: Chile Decriminalization Vote, Miami Beach Decriminalizes, CDC Heroin Warning, More (7/8/15)

A bill decriminalizing marijuana possession and allowing personal cultivation is moving in Chile, a bill regulating the medical marijuana industry is moving in California, the CDC issues another warning about heroin, Miami Beach is the latest South Florida community to decriminalize, and more.

Heroin overdoses nearly doubled between 2011 and 2013, according to the CDC. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Montana Legalization and Medical Marijuana Initiatives Filed. Two separate marijuana reform initiatives have been filed with the secretary of state's office recently. They are ballot issues #7 and #8 on the official website. Ballot Issue #7 is the legalization initiative, submitted by a Glendive man who says he plans to bicycle the state to gather signatures. Ballot Issue #8 is the medical marijuana initiative. Both initiatives are now being reviewed by legislative services and must be okayed before signature gathering can begin.

Miami Beach Decriminalizes Possession. Miami Beach city commissioners voted unanimously today to approve an ordinance to fine those caught with small amounts of marijuana instead of arresting and jailing them. Under the ordinance, police will have the option of issuing a $100 ticket to people caught with less than 20 grams, but could still arrest them at the officer's discretion. Miami-Dade County recently passed decriminalization, and Palm Beach is considering a similar move.

Medical Marijuana

California Medical Marijuana Regulation Bill Advances. The Assembly Business and Professions Committee approved the medical marijuana regulation bill, Senate Bill 643, on Tuesday. The bill provides a statewide regulatory framework for the industry, and has already passed out of the Senate.

Opiates

CDC Again Sounds Alarm on Rising Heroin Use. In a report released Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned that heroin use in the US has grown at "an alarming rate," with overdose deaths doubling between 2011 and 2013. Heroin use is up among multiple demographic groups, but the biggest increases were among white people, women, and people with higher incomes and private insurance. "Heroin use is increasing at an alarming rate in many parts of society, driven by both the prescription opioid epidemic and cheaper, more available heroin," CDC Director Tom Frieden said. "To reverse this trend we need an all-of-society response -- to improve opioid prescribing practices to prevent addiction, expand access to effective treatment for those who are addicted, increase use of naloxone to reverse overdoses, and work with law enforcement partners like DEA to reduce the supply of heroin."

International

Chilean House Approves Decriminalization, Personal Cultivation Bill. The lower house of the Chilean congress has approved a measure that would decriminalize possession of marijuana for personal use of up to 10 grams and allow people to grow up to six plants of their own. Now, the bill must be reviewed by a health committee before the lower house votes again on its specific elements. The bill would then go to the upper chamber.

Poll: BC Residents Say Legalize It! A new Insights West poll has support for marijuana legalization at 67% among adult residents. Support was even higher among young adults, with the 18-to-34 age bracket coming in at 72%. Click the link for more details.

Canadian Electronic Music Festival in Doubt After Offering Pill Testing Services. Just yesterday, we noted that the Evolve Music and Awareness Festival set for this weekend in Nova Scotia had taken the ground-breaking harm reduction step of offering pill testing services for attendees. But now there's a hitch: As a result of the pill testing plan, his insurance company underwriters have pulled its liability insurance, and now the festival may not be able to go on at all. Organizers are looking at their options.

Moroccan Head of State Rejects Legalizing Marijuana Cultivation. Head of state Abdelilah Benkirane said Tuesday his government will not allow the legalization of cannabis cultivation, and that those who claim differently are selling "illusions" to the country's hash farmers. Morocco is one of the world's leading hash producers. Opposition parties have called for the legalization of cultivation.

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