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Chronicle AM: Obama Commutes More Drug Sentences, Iran Hangs More Drug Prisoners, More... (1/17/17)

As his term winds down, President Obama continues to free more drug prisoners; New Jersey Dems plan a legalization bill, Wisconsin Dems plan a medical marijuana bill, and more.

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

New York Times Editorial Board Calls on Feds to Remove Barriers to Marijuana Research. In a Tuesday editorial, the Times cited last week's report from the National Academy of Sciences as it called on the federal government to reschedule marijuana out of Schedule I or, at least, remove regulatory barriers to further research on it. Marijuana "does not belong with LSD and heroin on Schedule I," the Times declared, but "even if Mr. Trump and Congress are unwilling to reclassify marijuana, they could remove the regulatory barriers to research and let scientists get to work."

New Jersey Democrats Prepare Legalization Bill, Despite Christie's Opposition. State Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D) said Monday that he and other Democrats will introduced a legalization bill in February, despite the opposition of Gov. Chris Christie (R). But Christie will be gone after the next election, and the legalization bill will still be there.

Medical Marijuana

Wisconsin Democrats to File Medical Marijuana Bill. State Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D) and Rep. Chris Taylor (D) are circulating a medical marijuana after Republican Assembly Speak Robin Vos said he would be open to the idea. Republicans control both houses of the state legislature, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald is not in favor. The Democratic pair have until January 26 to come up with cosponsors and file the bill.

Sentencing

Obama Commutes Sentences for Another 200+ Drug Offenders, and Chelsea Manning, Too. President Obama Tuesday announced he has commuted the sentences of 209 federal prisoners, nearly all drug offenders, as well as imprisoned leaker Chelsea Manning. Tuesday's actions bring to 1,385 the number of sentences commuted under Obama, far exceeding the number of commutations granted by any modern president.

International

Iran Hangs 14 More Drug Prisoners. At least 14 people were hanged at Karaj Central Prison on drug-related charges in the past week, Iran Human Rights reported Tuesday. The group named 10 of the executed: Mohammad Soleimani, Ali Ebadi, Ali Reza Moradi, Majid Badarloo, Omid Garshasebi, Ali Yousefi, Seyed Ali Sorouri, Ebrahim Jafari, Ali Mohammad Lorestani, and Mohsen Jelokhani. The continuing executions come even as the Iranian parliament considers ending the death penalty for drug offenses.

Brazil Approves First Marijuana-Based Medicine. Brazil's National Health Surveillance Agency (Anvisa)has issued a license for Metavyl, a drug containing 27 milligrams of THC and 25 milligrams of CBD per milliliter. The drug will be available as an oral spray. But Anvisa has designated Metavyl a "black label" drug, meaning it can only be used by patients who have not responded to conventional medicines.

Chronicle AM: More Obama Commutations Coming, HIA Sues DEA Over CBD, More... (1/16/17)

President Obama will commute more drug sentences before he leaves office this week, the hemp industry sues the DEA over its new CBD rule, New York's governor wants to fix his state's decriminalization law, and more.

Obama is about to free hundreds more nonviolent drug offenders. (whitehouse.gov)
Marijuana Policy

New York Governor to Propose Clarifications to State's Decriminalization Law. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has announced plans to remove a loophole in the state's decades-old decriminalization law that lets police charge people with a criminal offense for possession in "public view." That loophole has been applied mainly against racial minorities. Governor Cuomo pushed heavily for closing that loophole in 2014 but was blocked by Senate Republicans who opposed a measure that would have standardized the penalty for all low-level possession as a violation, which would have resulted in a fine instead of arrest.

Medical Marijuana

HIA Sues DEA Over CBD. The Hemp Industries Association filed a judicial review action against the DEA last Friday over the agency's new rule establishing coding for marijuana derivatives such as CBD cannabis oil. The DEA overstepped its bounds and put at risk a booming cannabis and hemp industry, the suit alleges.

North Dakota Bill Would Delay Medical Marijuana Implementation. State Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner (R-Dickinson) has introduced a bill, Senate Bill 2154, that would suspend implementation of parts of the state's new voter-approved medical marijuana law until the legislature could write a comprehensive law to govern medical marijuana in the state.

Sentencing

Obama Set to Commute Sentences for Hundreds More This Week. As the clock ticks down on his term, President Obama is set to keep on granting clemency to drug offenders up until the last minute. Justice Department officials say he will grant hundreds more commutations this week. He has already cut the sentences of more than 1,100 nonviolent drug offenders, more than any president in modern history.

Stingray: Privacy, Surveillance, the War on Drugs, and Your Phone [FEATURE]

special to Drug War Chronicle by independent investigative journalist Clarence Walker, cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com

Raymond Lambis is a free man -- at least for now.

He was looking at 10 years to life on federal drug charges, but the case was built on a controversial technology -- "Stingray" -- and in a precedent-setting 2016 decision widely celebrated by legal experts and privacy advocates, a federal judge ruled that use of the device without a search warrant violated the Fourth Amendment's proscription against unreasonable search and seizure.

The decision -- and the technology -- has implications that go far beyond the shadowy world of drug dealers and DEA agents. Stingray is a generic term for a cell-site simulator, a device that can mimic cell towers as a means of tracking down cell phones. Law enforcement can use Stingray to pick up phone calls, voicemail messages, and text messages, and to pinpoint the physical location of a targeted phone to within a few feet.

In the Lambis case, federal prosecutors argued that they didn't need a warrant to use the wide-ranging Stingray, but federal district court Judge William H. Pauley shot them down.

"Absent a search warrant," Judge Pauley held in his 14-page opinion, "the government may not turn a citizen's cell phone into a tracking device."

But that's exactly what DEA agents did to build their case against Lambis. They used Stingray to locate his cell phone inside his family residence, then conducted a warrantless search of his bedroom and uncovered a large amount of cocaine.

Federal prosecutors had a fallback argument -- that even if a warrant were necessary to track Lambis' phone, once his father gave agents at his door permission to enter and Lambis then "consented" to a search, the search should be allowed -- but Pauley wasn't having that, either.

"The procurement of a 'voluntary' consent to search based upon a prior illegal search taints that consent," he held.

US District Court Judge William H. Pauley
But if federal prosecutors have their way, the DEA and other federal agents will be able to do it again. In September, prosecutors from the US Attorneys Office for the Southern District of New York filed an appeal of Pauley's decision with the US 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.

"We're obviously disappointed about that," Lambis' attorney Alan Seidler told Drug War Chronicle.

So is the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Rebecca Jeschke, a digital rights analyst for the group, told the Chronicle that if the government wins on appeal, everyone's privacy will be eroded.

"As we use cell phones more and more, a successful appeal will touch nearly every American," she said.

A successful appeal would be salt in the wounds of legal scholars and privacy advocates who hailed Pauley's forceful decision in Lambis as a major victory against warrantless surveillance by the government.

"This is the first federal ruling I know of where a judge squarely ruled that the Fourth Amendment required police to get a warrant to use a Stingray, and further, suppressed evidence derived from warrantless use of the technology," ACLU Attorney Nathan Wessler told the New York Times at the time. "After decades of secret and warrantless use of Stingray technology by law enforcement to track phones, a federal judge has finally held authorities to account."

According to an ACLU report, at least 60 state, local, and federal law enforcement agencies in 23 states have used Stingray to suck up citizens' cell phone data.

Stingray in the Lambis Case

According to court documents, the trail to Raymond Lambis' front door began with a DEA investigation into an alleged drug pipeline importing large amounts of cocaine from South America beginning in early 2015. DEA agents obtained a wiretap warrant to glean information about the numbers dialed from a specific cell phone.

After agents obtained the warrant, they monitored messages off a Blackberry between two suspected drug traffickers. During one particular conversation agents overheard a voice referring to someone named "Patilla," whose phone had a 646 area code.

Messages between Patilla and the other, unnamed party indicated that Patilla could supply hydrochloric acid, which is used by traffickers in the heroin-refining process. DEA agents then got a warrant to order the phone company to provide "approximate location," or "cell-site location information" (CSLI).

A frequent complaint of defense attorneys and privacy advocates has been that law enforcement, and DEA agents in particular, will mislead judges into thinking the warrant they sign off on is to get specific cell-site information from a carrier when what agents are really doing is using Stingray to locate a person's phone or actual address. As the Chronicle reported in 2013, "The Stingray technology not only raises Fourth Amendment concerns, it also raise questions about whether police withhold information from judges to monitorcitizens without probable cause.That's what happened in Lambis.

In the Lambis case, DEA Special Agent Kathryn Glover obtained a warrant seeking cell-site data and location information for that 646 phone, but did not tell the judge DEA would be using Stingray to conduct a search to pin down Lambis' exact location.

"So they went to the effort to get a warrant, but then didn't tell the judge they intended to use that same warrant to use a Stingray," ACLU technology specialist Christopher Soghoian told Ars Technica. "It is so important for federal courts to recognize that use of a Stingray is a search of a Fourth Amendment-protected place, and not only is a warrant required, but the court authorizing the surveillance must be told they are authorizing the use of a Stingray."

But the phone carrier's CSLI data, which Agent Glover said in her warrant application would be used to track down the 646 phone, only guided DEA agents to the "general area" of Broadway and 177th Street in Manhattan. To pinpoint the 'house or building where the phone most likely resided with its owner the DEA unleashed Stingray to first zero in on the exact building and then on the exact apartment.

A DEA technician using a hand-held Stingray walked through the building until he picked up the strongest signal -- coming from inside the Lambis apartment. Then, DEA agents knocked on the door, and Lambis' father allowed the gun-toting agents inside. When agents asked if anyone else lived there, the elderly man knocked on his son's door, and Lambis opened it up only to be confronted by the DEA.

Faced by the agents in his home, he then consented to a search of his bedroom, where agents discovered a kilo of cocaine, empty ziplock bags, a scale, and eight cell phones. He was charged with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and other drug-related charges. It was Lambis' defense motion to throw out that evidence as a result of an unlawful search that led to Pauley's ruling.

The States Aren't Waiting for the Federal Courts

The courts aren't the only place Stingray is running into headwinds. Thanks to decisions like that in the Lambis case, some states have begun passing privacy legislation aiming at protecting citizens' cell phone data from warrantless searches by Stingray or similar cell-site simulators used by police. Among them are California, Illinois, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Washington.

"Citizens have the right to expect that they will not have their personal information investigated by police without a warrant," said Rep. Edith H Ajello (D-Providence) after passage of a 2016 Rhode Island bill that prohibits obtaining cell phone data by cell-site technology.

"Requiring a warrant won't make it difficult for police to do their job," concurred Sen. Donna Nesselbush (D-North Providence). "It's essentially updating search warrant law for the information age."

"As advances in technology enable police to more efficiently investigate and solve crimes, it's important that we help them to know they are following state laws and the Constitution," said Illinois Sen. Daniel Bliss (D-Evanston) upon passage of similar legislation there in 2016. That law, the Citizen Privacy Protection Act, went into effect January 1.

While the states aren't waiting for the federal courts to provide protections, the Lambis decision and related controversies over Stingray technology have created such a firestorm that the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security are now requiring agents to obtain a warrant before using Stingray in investigations. But that could change if the appeals court rules in the government's favor. Stay tuned.

Journalist Clarence Walker can be reached at cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com.

Chronicle AM: Guam Gov Files Legalization Bill, More Iran Drug Executions, More... (1/11/17)

Marijuana legalization bills get filed in Guam and the District of Columbia, the Global Drug Policy Commission asks Obama to commute more sentences, Chris Christie vows to fight drug addiction during his last year in office, and more.

Iran has already executed ten drug offenders this year, with another dozen set to face the gallows. (iranhr.org)
Marijuana Policy

Guam Governor Files Legalization Bill. Gov. Eddie Calvo Tuesday introduced a bill to legalize marijuana on the US island territory. "I am introducing this bill, not because I personally support the recreational use of marijuana, but as a solution to the regulatory labyrinth that sprouted from the voter-mandated medical marijuana program," Calvo said in a press release. The measure would legalize marijuana for people over 21 and impose a 15% tax on sales. Medical marijuana patients would be exempt from the tax.

DC Councilmember Files Bill for Legal Marijuana Commerce and Regulation. Councilmember David Grosso Tuesday filed a bill to establish a full tax and regulatory framework for legal marijuana commerce. If passed, the bill would put the District in conflict with Congress, which must approve city spending. But Grosso said that Congress had forced the District's hand with its meddling in city affairs.

Drug Policy

New Jersey Governor Vows to Heighten Fight Against Drug Addiction. In his final state of the state address, Gov. Chris Christie (R) said he will spend his last year as governor fighting drug addiction. "Our state faces a crisis which is more urgent to New Jersey's families than any other issue we could confront," Christie told the legislature in Trenton. "Beyond the human cost, which is incalculable, there is a real cost to every part of life in New Jersey." Christie is pushing for treatment instead of jail for nonviolent drug offenders, expanded drug courts, and expanded needle exchange programs, among other initiatives.

Law Enforcement

Federal Bill to Clear Way for more Surplus Military Gear for Police Filed. Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX) has filed House Resolution 426, which would bar the federal government from limiting the sale or donation of excess federal property to state and local agencies for law enforcement purposes. The bill is a response to the Obama administration's short-lived decision last year to block the transfer of military-style equipment to domestic police forces.

Sentencing

Global Drug Policy Commission Asks Obama to Free More Prisoners. In an open letter to the outgoing president, the commission, which includes a number of former heads of state, thanked Obama for his efforts to shift from a punitive approach to drugs, noted that he had freed more than a thousand drug war prisoners through his clemency program, and asked for more: "We hope that in these final days of your presidency, you will use the power of your office to commute even more prison sentences of low-level drug offenders, and restore dignity and hope to their lives," the commission wrote. "May your example inspire not only your successor, but also governors across the country."

International

Colombia Coca Cultivation Set to Increase. Colombia's post-conflict minister, Rafael Pardo, said Tuesday that coca cultivation will increase this year, the third year in a row that has seen increases in the country's coca crop. Pardo said part of the reason was the government's turn away from using aerial eradication, but that a bigger part was the government's devaluation of the peso, which dramatically increased profit margins for drug traffickers.

Iran Starts New Year With Spate of Drug Executions. The world's leading drug executioner is at again. In the first week of the new year, Iran executed 16 people, 10 of them for drug offenses. Iran executes hundreds of people each year, with drug offenders accounting for an increasing number of them. In 2015, the last year with full statistics, 66% of all executions in Iran were for drug offenses. Another 12 prisoners were set to be executed for drug offenses this week.

Chronicle AM: Sessions Provides No Clarity on MJ Policy, MO Legalizers Trying Again, More... (1/10/17)

Sen. Jeff Sessions is on the hotseat today and Wednesday during his Senate confirmation hearings, Missouri activists gear up for a 2018 legalization initiative, and more.

Sen. Jeff Sessions left the marijuana situation still muddied Tuesday. (senate.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Sessions Evades Firm Answer on State Marijuana Laws, Leaves Door Open for Federal Enforcement. During his confirmation hearing for the position of Attorney General Tuesday, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) avoided giving a straight answer on how he will handle states that have legalized marijuana. When asked by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) if he would use Justice Department resources to prosecute medical marijuana patients in states where it is legal, Sessions replied, "I won't commit to never enforcing federal law… but absolutely it is a problem of resources for our federal government. And when asked by Leahy if he agreed with Obama Justice Department guidelines that have largely allowed marijuana legalization to proceed at the state level, Sessions responded with evasion. When asked by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) about states' right to experiment with marijuana legalization, Sessions responded that marijuana was illegal at the federal level: "One obvious concern is the United States Congress has made the possession in every state and distribution an illegal act. If that's' something that's not desired any longer Congress should pass a law to change the rule, it is not the Attorney General's job to decide what laws to enforce."

Missouri Legalization Initiative Approved for Signature Gathering. Missouri came just a couple of dozen of signatures away from being able to vote on marijuana legalization in 2016, and activists there are already gearing up for 2018. A legalization initiative has been approved for signature gathering. It would make marijuana legal for people 21 and over, and medical marijuana would be legal for minors with a doctor's permission.

Medical Marijuana

Connecticut Medical Marijuana Expansion Hearing Wednesday. A panel of eight physician specialists will hear public testimony on expanding medical conditions covered by the state's medical marijuana law Wednesday. Patients are expected to ask the panel to expand the law to include conditions such as eczema, arthritis, and fibromyalgia. The panel will make a recommendation to the Consumer Protection Commissioner, who can then propose the change to a legislative oversight committee, which would make a final decision. The whole process could take a year or more.

South Carolina Medical Marijuana Bill Filed. State Sen. Tom Davis (R-Beaufort) and state Rep. Peter McCoy (R-Charleston) Tuesday filed identical versions of the South Carolina Compassionate Care Act (Senate Bill 212) at the statehouse. The bill would allow qualifying patients with debilitating medical conditions and a recommendation from their doctor to use medical cannabis.

Key Minnesota GOP Legislator Wants to Block Any New Qualifying Conditions. Longtime medical marijuana skeptic and former House Majority Leader Rep. Matt Dan (R-Dellwood) has filed a measure, House File 120, that would block the state health commissioner from adding new qualifying conditions to the state's medical marijuana law. It's a power that has been used sparingly -- "intractable pain" was added after a year's wait -- but Dean wants it used not at all. His bill would accomplish that by striking out the phrase "or any other medical condition or its treatment approved by the commissioner."

Chronicle AM: Asset Forfeiture Actions in Three States, Trump Kratom Petition Needs Signatures, More... (1/5/17)

It's going to cost big bucks to get into the Arkansas medical marijuana growing business, a petition urging Donald Trump not to let the DEA ban kratom seeks signatures, there is asset forfeiture action in three states, and more.

The American Kratom Association is petitioning Donald Trump to block any ban on the herb. (Project CBD)
Medical Marijuana

Arkansas Sets Grower License Fee at $100,000. People who want one of the five commercial medical marijuana cultivation licenses the state is preparing to issue better have deep pockets. The Medical Marijuana Commission has set an annual fee of $100,000 for those licenses. But wait, there's more: That's in addition to a $15,000 application fee, only half of which will be refunded if the application is rejected. And applicants must show proof they have a million dollars in assets or surety bond and $500,000 in cash. One commission member argued for a lower, $15,000 license fee, saying he didn't want some residents to be shut out of the opportunity, but that move didn't fly.

Kratom

Less Than Three Weeks Remain to Sign Trump Kratom Petition. The American Kratom Association has organized a petition urging President-elect Donald Trump to halt the DEA's effort to criminalize kratom or to reverse any last-minute ban that might occur under the Obama administration. The group has set a target of 25,000 signatures before January 22, but only has 8,000 so far.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Ohio Governor Signs Naloxone Expansion Bill. Gov. John Kasich (R) has signed into law Senate Bill 319, which expands access to the anti-overdose drug naloxone to entities such as homeless shelters, halfway houses, schools, and treatment centers that deal with populations at higher risk of overdose. It also offers civil immunity to law enforcement officers who carry and use naloxone.

Asset Forfeiture

Kansas Bill Would Undo Police Asset Forfeiture Reporting Requirements. The first bill introduced in the 2017 legislative session, Senate Bill 1, would repeal a state law requiring law enforcement agencies to file annual reports on the money and other assets they seize. The bill is the creation of the Legislative Committee on Post Audit, which filed a report last summer noting that few police agencies comply with the reporting requirements, so the committee's solution was to kill the requirement. The bill is not yet available on the legislative website. The session starts next week.

Michigan Bill Would Reform Civil Asset Forfeiture. State Rep. Peter Lucido (R-Macomb County) has introduced House Bill 4629, which would reform the state's forfeiture laws by killing a provision that requires property owners whose property is seized to pay 10% of what police feel it is worth within 20 days to get the property back. Lucido said that the next step is getting rid of civil asset forfeiture. The bill is not yet available on the legislative website.

Ohio Governor Signs Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill. Gov. John Kasich (R) has signed into House Bill 347, which limits civil asset forfeiture proceedings to cases involving at least $15,000 in cash and requires a criminal conviction or at least a criminal charge be filed in most cases before forfeiture proceedings can begin.

ALERT: Urge President Obama to Grant Blanket Clemencies

President Obama's historic visit to a federal prison, July 2015
In April 2014, the Obama administration issued an historic call for clemency petitions. Since that time, Pres. Obama has released more than 1,200 people under this program, most of them nonviolent prisoners who've served ten years or more for low-level offenses

The next few weeks are Obama's last chance to show such mercy to more people. A range of organization and individuals, including mayors, foundation executives and philanthropists, formerly incarcerated including past clemency recipients and others, have urged the president to take a broader approach that will help more people. Advocates have also noted the program to date has largely left out prisoners convicted of marijuana offenses, and that it has failed to proportionately help female prisoners, many of whom were charged for the drug trafficking offenses of their partners under conspiracy laws.

Please use our form to urge Pres. Obama to grant as many more appropriate clemencies as he can. When you're done, please use this call tool from Weekly Actions to Resist Trump to call the White House too. Lastly, please use the comment board on this web page to post any petitions or other efforts you know about that advocate on individual clemency appeals or in support of the general clemency effort.

Suggestions for the president include:

  • issuing blanket commutations for crack cocaine prisoners still serving the longer sentences Congress repealed in 2010;
  • giving special priority to veterans, elderly prisoners, and prisoners sentenced to double mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses;
  • granting relief to prisoners who have multiple convictions but whose sentences were triggered only by drug offenses;
  • granting blanket relief to any drug war prisoners serving a more than 20-year sentence, possibly excepting only the highest-level kingpins, as well blanket relief to prisoners with much shorter sentences who have just one or two convictions;
  • reconsider clemency petitions from marijuana prisoners and women who may have been convicted under conspiracy laws; and
  • use existing categorizations about prisoners' risk of re-offending, based on prison officials' determinations as well as age and past offenses, as an expedited vetting process to be able to get these done before January 20th.

This is a brief moment in time when it is possible to change the lives of drug war victims in the most dramatic way possible. Your emails and phone calls to Pres. Obama could make all the difference for any number of people. Thank you for taking a stand for justice.

Chronicle AM: Maine Init Losers Still Fighting, New Cartel Gains Strength in MX, More... (12/29/16)

Maine election losers seek to block the implementation of marijuana legalization, Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel is being overtaken by an upstart, and more.

With El Chapo behind bars, the Sinaloa Cartel is being overtaken by rivals.
Marijuana Policy

Sore Losers Department: Maine Marijuana Foes Now Seek Moratorium on Implementing Legalization. The anti-legalization group Mainers Protecting Our Youth and Communities, whose effort to defeat the marijuana initiative failed and whose effort to overturn the results via a recount also failed, is now calling for a moratorium on implementing the law. The law calls for a nine-month period for regulators to make rules for retailers and social clubs, but the group says that isn't enough.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Michigan Overdose Reversal Drugs Will Be Easier to Obtain Next Week. Thanks to bills signed into law Wednesday, Michiganders will have easier access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan) beginning January 1. One bill allows pharmacists to dispense the drug without a prescription under a standing order from the state's chief medical officer. Another bill gives school boards the ability to get a prescription for naloxone to be administered by a school nurse or other trained employee in case a student overdoses.

International

DEA Says There's a New Biggest Cartel in Mexico. The days of Sinaloa Cartel dominance of the Mexican drug trade and criminal underworld are over, and "El Chapo" Guzman's men have been ousted by a relatively new player on the scene: the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG in its Spanish initials), the DEA says. The group operates in at least half of Mexico's states, as well as along the entire Pacific Coast of North and South America, as well as having distribution operations in Asia, Oceania, and Europe.

The Top Ten Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2016 [FEATURE]

As 2016 comes to a tumultuous end, we look back on the year in drugs and drug policy. It's definitely a mixed bag, with some major victories for drug reform, especially marijuana legalization, but also some major challenges, especially around heroin and prescription opioids, and the threat of things taking a turn for the worse next year. Here are the ten biggest domestic drug policy stories of the year. (Check back for a top ten international drug policy stories soon.)

1. Marijuana Legalization Wins Big

Legalization initiatives won in California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada, losing only in Arizona. These weren't the first states to do so -- Colorado and Washington led the way in 2012, with Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC, following in 2014 -- but in one fell swoop, states with a combined population of nearly 50 million people just freed the weed. Add in the earlier states, and we're now talking about around 67 million people, or more than one-fifth of the national population.

The question is where does marijuana win next? We won't see state legalization initiatives until 2018, (and conventional wisdom may suggest waiting for the higher-turnout 2020 presidential election year), and most of the low-hanging fruit in terms of initiative states has been harvested, but activists in Michigan came this close to qualifying for the ballot this year and are raring to go again. In the meantime, there are the state legislatures. When AlterNet looked into the crystal ball a few weeks ago, the best bets looked like Connecticut, Maryland, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

2. Medical Marijuana Wins Big

Medical marijuana is even more popular than legal marijuana, and it went four-for-four at the ballot box in November, adding Arkansas, Florida, Montana, North Dakota to the list of full-blown medical marijuana states. That makes 28 states -- more than half the country -- that allow for medical marijuana, along with another dozen or so red states that have passed limited CBD-only medical marijuana laws as a sop to public opinion.

It's worth noting that Montana is a special case. Voters there approved medical marijuana in 2004, only to see a Republican-dominated state legislature gut the program in 2011. The initiative approved by voters this year reinstates that program, and shuttered dispensaries are now set to reopen.

The increasing acceptance of medical marijuana is going to make it that much harder for the DEA or the Trump administration to balk at reclassifying marijuana away from Schedule I, which is supposedly reserved for dangerous substances with no medical uses. It may also, along with the growing number of legal pot states, provide the necessary impetus to changing federal banking laws to allow pot businesses to behave like normal businesses.

Drug reformers are nervous about the future. (Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)
3. The Republicans Take Control in Washington

The Trump victory and Republican control of both houses of Congress has profound drug policy implications, for everything from legal marijuana to funding for needle exchange programs to sentencing policy to the border and foreign policy and beyond. Early Trump cabinet picks, such as Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) to lead the Justice Department, are ominous for progressive drug reform, but as with many other policy spheres, what Trump will actually do is a big unknown. It's probably safe to say that any harm reduction programs requiring federal funding or approval are in danger, that any further sentencing reforms are going to be in for a tough slog, and that any federal spending for mental health and substance abuse treatment will face an uphill battle. But the cops will probably get more money.

The really big question mark is around marijuana policy. Trump has signaled he's okay with letting the states experiment, but Sen. Sessions is one of the most retrograde of drug warriors in Washington. Time will tell, but in the meantime, the marijuana industry is on tenterhooks and respect for the will of voters in pot legal states and even medical marijuana states is an open question.

4. The Opioid Epidemic Continues

Just as this year comes to an end, the CDC announced that opioid overdose deaths last year had topped 33,000, and with 12,000 heroin overdoses, junk had overtaken gunplay as a cause of death. There's little sign that things have gotten any better this year.

The crisis has provoked numerous responses, at both the state and the federal levels, some good, but some not. Just this month, Congress approved a billion dollars in opioid treatment and prevention programs, and the overdose epidemic has prompted the loosening of access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone and prodded ongoing efforts to embrace more harm reduction approaches, such as supervised injection sites.

On the other hand, prosecutors in states across the country have taken to charging the people who sell opioids (prescription or otherwise) to people who overdose and die with murder, more intrusive and privacy-invading prescription monitoring programs have been established, and the tightening of the screws on opioid prescriptions is leaving some chronic pain sufferers in the lurch and leading others to seek out opioids on the black market.

5. Obama Commutes More Than a Thousand Drug War Sentences

In a bid to undo some of the most egregious excesses of the drug war, President Obama has now cut the sentences of and freed more than a thousand people sentenced under the harsh laws of the 1980s, particularly the racially-biased crack cocaine laws, who have already served more time than they would have if sentenced under current laws passed during the Obama administration. He has commuted more sentences in a single year than any president in history, and he has commuted more sentences than the last 11 presidents combined.

The commutations come under a program announced by then-Attorney General Eric Holder, who encouraged drug war prisoners to apply for them. The bad news is that the clock is likely to run out before Obama has a chance to deal with thousands of pending applications backlogged in the Office of the Pardons Attorney. The good news is that he still has six weeks to issue more commutations and free more drug war prisoners.

6. The DEA Gets a Wake-Up Call When It Tries to Ban Kratom

Derived from a Southeast Asian tree, kratom has become popular as an unregulated alternative to opioids for relaxation and pain relief, not to mention withdrawing from opioids. It has very low overdose potential compared to other opioids and has become a go-to drug for hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of people.

Perturbed by its rising popularity, the DEA moved in late summer to use its emergency scheduling powers to ban kratom, but was hit with an unprecedented buzz saw of opposition from kratom users, scientists, researchers, and even Republican senators like Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who authored and encouraged his colleagues to sign a letter to the DEA asking the agency to postpone its planned scheduling.

The DEA backed off -- but didn't back down -- in October, announcing that it was shelving its ban plan for now and instead opening a period of public comment. That period ended on December 1, but before it did, the agency was inundated with submissions from people opposing the ban. Now, the DEA will factor in that input, as well as formal input from the Food and Drug Administration before making its decision.

The battle around kratom isn't over, and the DEA could still ban it in the end, but the whole episode demonstrates how much the ground has shifted under the agency. DEA doesn't just get its way anymore.

7. Federal Funds for Needle Exchanges Flow Again

It actually happened late in 2015, but the impact was felt this year. In December 2015, Congress approved an omnibus budget bill that removed the ban on federal funding of needle exchanges. The ban had been in place for 20 years, except for a two-year stretch between 2009 and 2011, when Democrats controlled the House.

Federal funding for needle exchanges is another drug policy response that could be endangered by Republican control of both the Congress and the presidency.

Vancouver's safe injection site. Is one coming to a city near you? (vch.ca)
8. The Slow Turn Towards Safe Injection Sites Accelerates

When will the US join the ranks of nations that embrace the harm reduction tactic of supervised drug consumption sites? Maybe sooner than you think. Moves are underway in at least three major US cities to get such facilities open, a need made all the more urgent by the nation's ongoing opioid crisis, as the Drug Policy Alliance noted in a December report calling for a number of interventions, including safe injection sites, to address it.

In New York City, the city council has approved a $100,000 study into the feasibility of safe injection sites, while in San Francisco, city public health officials have endorsed a call for them there and have even suggested they need as many as a half dozen. But San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee opposes them, so battle lines are being drawn.

The best bet may be Seattle, where city and surrounding King County officials are on board with a plan to open safe injection sites to fight heroin and prescription opioid abuse. That plan, conceived by the Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force, was released in September.

9. Asset Forfeiture Reform Advances

Nearly 20 years after Congress passed limited federal civil asset forfeiture reform, the practice is now under sustained assault in the states. More than a half-dozen states had passed civil asset forfeiture reforms before the year began, and this year the following states came on board (although some of the new laws did not end, but only modified or restricted civil asset forfeiture): California, Florida, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Wyoming.

And next year looks to be more of the same. Bills have already been filed in Missouri and Texas, and renewed efforts are likely in New Hampshire and Wisconsin, where they were thwarted this year.

10. The DEA is Busting Fewer People

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) reported in December that convictions for drug cases referred by the DEA continued a 10-year decline. During Fiscal Year 2016, federal prosecutors won 9,553 criminal convictions on cases referred by the DEA. That's down 7.1% from the previous year, down 25% from five years ago, and down 35% from 10 years ago. TRAC notes that the decline in convictions is the result of fewer referrals by the DEA, not a lowered conviction rate, which has held steady.

Chronicle AM: MO Tech School Drug Testing Victory, AZ MedMJ DUID Victory, More... (12/23/16)

A federal appeals court sharply restricts mandatory drug testing at a Missouri technical college, an Arizona appeals court says prosecutors must actually prove impairment before convicting medical marijuana patients of DUID, the DEA seems to be a bit less busy than in years past, and more.

DEA is doing a little less of this these days, according to federal conviction numbers. (dea.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Connecticut Senate Leader Prioritizes Marijuana Legalization Bill. Marijuana legalization is a key part of state Senate President Martin Looney's (D-New Haven) legislative agenda for the session beginning next month. He has pre-filed a legalization bill that would legalize pot and tax its sale in a manner similar to Colorado as part of a 10-bill package representing his priorities. The bill is not yet available on the legislative website. The move comes despite Gov. Dannel Malloy's (D) rejection of legalization earlier this month and could set up a veto battle if the bill actually passes.

Medical Marijuana

Arizona Appeals Court Rules State Must Prove Patients Were Actually Impaired By Marijuana Before Convicting Them of DUID. Medical marijuana users can't be convicted of DUID solely for having marijuana in their systems absent proof they were actually impaired, the court ruled Thursday. Arizona is a zero-tolerance DUID state, and that's a problem, the judges said. "According to evidence here, there is no scientific consensus about the concentration of THC that generally is sufficient to impair a human being,'' appellate Judge Diane Johnsen wrote. The court also clarified that it is up to the state to prove impairment, not up to the defendant to disprove it. The ruling comes just two days after another division of the appellate court blocked Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery in his bid to cite federal prohibition as a reason to refuse zoning requests for dispensaries.

Drug Testing

Missouri Technical College Can't Force Student Drug Tests, Appeals Court Rules. The State Technical College of Missouri violated the Constitution by forcing incoming students to submit to a drug test, the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled. The school instituted the policy in 2011 despite no evidence of accidents being caused by drug use and required students to take a drug test within 10 days of the start of classes. Students shortly filed a class action lawsuit, which won in district court, but was overturned by a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit. But now, that decision has been overturned by the 8th Circuit en banc, which held that drug testing can only be required in "safety-sensitive" programs.

Wisconsin Lawmaker Backs Away From Proposal to Impose High School Drug Testing. Rep. Joel Kleefisch (R-Oconomowoc) is retreating from a proposal to require school district to drug test student involved in extracurricular activities after the notion was panned by critics including Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who has no problems imposing drug testing on poor people. Now Kleefisch says he will instead ponder legislation that would require school districts to provide a way for parents to voluntarily have their children drug tested.

Law Enforcement

DEA Drug Convictions Continue to Drop. The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) reports that convictions for drug cases referred by the DEA continue a 10-year decline. During Fiscal Year 2016, federal prosecutors won 9,553 criminal convictions on cases referred by the DEA. That's down 7.1% from the previous year, down 25% from five years ago, and down 35% from 10 years ago. TRAC notes that the decline in convictions is the result of fewer referrals by the DEA, not a lowered conviction rate, which has held steady.

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