2016

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Chronicle AM: CT Ends Civil Forfeiture, Sessions Calls for More Drug War (Again), More... (7/12/17)

Connecticut has become the 14th state to end civil asset forfeiture, Nevada's state government is moving to ease a potential marijuana shortage, Jeff Sessions gives another drug war speech, and more.

Attorney General Sessions showed up at DARE to slam Obama-era drug reforms. (senate.gov).
Marijuana Policy

Massachusetts Governor Says Deal on Legalization Close. Gov. Charlie Baker (R) said Thursday lawmakers are close to reaching a deal on a bill that will regulate legal marijuana in the state. The House had favored a 28% tax and allowing localities to ban pot businesses without a popular vote, while the Senate held to the 12% tax included in the voter-approved legalization initiative and wouldn't allow pot shop bans without a popular vote. "I'm told there are only a couple minor things that are outstanding. I hope they get them done because if they don't get them done, I think at some point, we're going to have to go forward with the law as it was written," said Baker.

Nevada Regulators Set to Approve Emergency Regs to Avoid Pot Shortage.State tax officials are set to vote Thursday on an emergency regulation that they hope will allow marijuana stores to avoid running out of supply. The regulation would allow the state to issue distribution licenses that are currently being held up by a legal challenge from liquor distributors, who want a cut of the action. Because of heavy demand since legal sales started July 1, some shops are "running on fumes," said Nevada Dispensary Association President Andrew Jolley.

Asset Forfeiture

Connecticut Governor Signs Bill Ending Civil Asset Forfeiture. Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) on Monday signed into law House Bill 7146, which ends property or cash seizures in the state without a criminal conviction. Connecticut becomes the 14th state to require a criminal conviction in most or all forfeiture cases.

Drug Policy

Attorney General Sessions Again Attacks Drug, Sentencing Reforms. In a speech at the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) training conference in Dallas on Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the country's drug problem "unprecedented" and generally blamed it on Obama-era sentencing reforms that led prosecutors "not to charge the most serious offenses." Sessions said a new Justice Department police directing prosecutors to seek mandatory minimum sentences was the way to go. "We are going to trust our prosecutors again," Sessions said Tuesday. "This policy empowers trust in professionals to apply the law fairly and exercise discretion when appropriate."

Chronicle AM: Canada Expanding Safe Injection Sites, FL Sued Over MedMJ Smoke Ban, More... (7/6/17)

Canada is expanding the use of safe injection sites, the man behind Florida's successful medical marijuana constitutional amendment is suing the state over a smoking ban enacted by lawmakers, Massachusetts lawmakers continue to struggle with how to implement marijuana legalization, and more.

Vancouver's Insite supervised injection facility (vch.ca)
Marijuana Policy

Massachusetts House Speaker Wants Marijuana Talks Suspended Until Budget is Passed. Legislators locked in a battle over how to implement the state's voter-approved pot legalization law are being told to put the issue on hold until solons can get a budget passed. House Speaker Roberto DeLeo (D), whose chamber is backing a plan that radically increases taxes and would allow localities to ban marijuana businesses without a popular vote, called Wednesday for setting the issue aside to take on the budget. But Senate President Stan Rosenberg (D) countered that the Senate could work on both bills and that "mischief makers are once again at work."

Nevada Opening Pot Sales Exceed Store Owners' Expectations. Legal marijuana sales that began just after midnight Saturday have exceeded the expectations of pot shop operators. Long lines formed in the wee hours Saturday morning, and shops are continuing to report heavy interest, with lines forming again before shops opened for business on Monday. "I'm very happy with the way sales have gone and continue to go, especially when you consider that the word didn't really get out ahead of time," Andrew Jolley, president of the Nevada Dispensary Association and a store owner told Leafly. "The public really only had a couple of weeks' notice, whereas Colorado had a full year to prepare."

Medical Marijuana

Florida Sued Over No Smoking Provision in Medical Marijuana Law. Orlando attorney John Morgan, the mastermind and chief funder of the state's voter-approved medical marijuana law, filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging a legislative ban on smoking medical marijuana. He is asking the courts to throw out the implementing law, saying legislators violated the will of the voters by altering the constitutional amendment they approved last November. "Inhalation is a medically effective and efficient way to deliver Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and other cannabinoids, to the bloodstream," the lawsuit argues. "By redefining the constitutionally defined term 'medical use' to exclude smoking, the Legislature substitutes its medical judgment for that of 'a licensed Florida physician' and is in direct conflict with the specifically articulated Constitutional process."

West Virginia Medical Marijuana Law Now in Effect. The state's Medical Cannabis Act went into effect Wednesday, but it could still be months or years before Mountain State patients are able to medicate with marijuana. But now an advisory board has been appointed to create a regulatory framework for medical marijuana regulations, and it could be 2019 before patients are able to legally purchase their medicine.

Drug Testing

Colorado Employers Begin to Walk Away from Testing for Marijuana. Changing social attitudes and a tight labor market are pushing employers in the state to drop screenings for marijuana from pre-employment drug tests, said a spokesman for the Mountain States Employers Council. "We're finding that for employers, it's such a tight labor market, that they can't always afford to have a zero-tolerance approach to somebody's off-duty marijuana use, Curtis Graves told Colorado Public Radio.

Harm Reduction

Mississippi Law Easing Naloxone Access Now in Effect. As of July 1, health care providers can write "standing prescriptions" for the opioid overdose reversal drug for family members of people strung out on opioids. "This will save many lives," said Rep. Tommy Reynolds (D-Water Valley).

International

Canada Expanding Safe Injection Sites. Once there was only InSite, the Vancouver safe injection site under constant assault from the Conservative federal government. But now, the Liberals are in power, and the number of safe injection sites has expanded to seven, including three in Montreal and another in Vancouver. Another Montreal site is set to open soon, and so are three in Toronto, with more than a dozen other potential sites being considered.

Medical Marijuana Update

Busy, busy. Lawmakers in Arkansas and North Dakota try to "fix" medical marijuana initiatives, New York chronic pain patients can now use medical marijuana, a CBD compromise is reached in Georgia, and more.

Arizona

Last Thursday, the Court of Appeals upheld limits on PTSD recommendations. The state court of appeals ruled that the Department of Health Services was acting legally when it decided that doctors could only recommend medical marijuana for "palliative care" for PTSD. The department argued there was no evidence showing marijuana could actually cure people of PTSD. The department also limited recommendations to people who were already being treated for PTSD. An Arizona medical marijuana nurses group filed suit against the restrictions, but now the court has ruled against them.

Arkansas

Last Wednesday, a bill to ban edibles and public smoking won a committee vote. A bill that would bar medical marijuana patients from consuming edibles or from smoking their medicine in public was approved by the House Rules Committee. But the measure, House Bill 1400, faces an uphill battle to win final approval because any changes to the voter-approved medical marijuana law require a two-thirds vote to pass.

Last Friday, the bill passed the House. The House voted to approve House Bill 1400, which would prohibit the smoking of medical marijuana anywhere tobacco smoking is prohibited. The bill passed 88-0. Under the bill, knowingly smoking medical marijuana in the presence of a pregnant woman would be prohibited. The measure also prohibits those under 21 from smoking medical marijuana. A bill that would have banned smoking medical marijuana at all has already died in the Senate.

On Monday, the House killed a bill banning edibles. The House voted 52-40 to kill House Bill 1991, which would have banned the commercial production of medical marijuana edibles in the state. Bill sponsor Rep. Robin Lundstrum (R-Springdale) argued that patients could make their own and that medical marijuana is medicine, not candy, but her arguments failed to sway her peers.

Georgia

Last Thursday, lawmakers reached a compromise on a CBD cannabis oil bill. Lawmakers appear to have reached an agreement that would add six illnesses and conditions to the state's list of qualifying medical conditions, allow the use of CBD cannabis oil in hospice care, and keep the allowable level of THC in cannabis oil at 5% or less. That means Senate Bill 16 should now be able to pass out of the House Human Services Committee and head for a House floor vote.

Massachusetts

Last Thursday, bills to protect patients' employment rights filed. Even as the state Supreme Court heard a case on employment rights for medical marijuana patients, two bills alive in the state legislature would do just that. Rep. Frank Smizik (D-Brookline) has introduced House Bill 2385, which would explicitlyprotect the rights of a medical marijuana patient to use the drug without facing discrimination in hiring, firing or terms of employment. The bill would also protect medical marijuana patients from discrimination in education, housing and child welfare and custody cases. That bill is currently before the Committee on Marijuana Policy. A similar bill was filed last sessions, but didn't pass. A second bill, House Bill 113, is aimed mostly at updating state law to bring it in line with the Americans With Disabilities Act, but one provision clarifies that employers cannot take adverse employment action against someone for using medical marijuana. That bill is before the Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities.

Nebraska

Last Wednesday, a medical marijuana bill got a charged hearing. At a hearing in the Judiciary Committee, law enforcement, the state attorney general's office, and the state's top doctor all came out in opposition to a medical marijuana bill, Legislative Bill 622, but legislators also heard emotional testimony in favor of the bill from Army veterans and others who said they would benefit from access to medical marijuana. Five of the bill's sponsors sit on the eight-member Judiciary Committee, so the bill is likely to make it to a House floor vote, where opposition has killed similar measures in past years.

Last Friday, the bill headed for a floor vote. The legislature's Judiciary Committee voted 6-1to advance Legislative Bill 622, which would bring medical marijuana to the Cornhusker state. The bill would authorize cultivation, manufacture, and distribution of medical marijuana products, but would ban smoking the herb or allowing patients to grow their own. The bill is opposed by Gov. Pete Ricketts (R), as well as the state's law enforcement establishment.

Nevada

On Monday, a bill was filed to let medical marijuana patients carry guns. State Sen. Kevin Atkinson (D-Las Vegas) filed Senate Bill 351. That measure would allow medical marijuana users to possess a firearm and a concealed carry permit. Current state law requires sheriffs to deny such permits for medical marijuana users.

New Hampshire

On Monday, Na Senate committee approved the use of medical marijuana for Ehrlers-Danlos syndrome. The Senate Health, Human Services, and Elderly Committee has approved a bill that would add Ehlers-Danlos syndrome to the state's list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana. The measure now heads for a Senate floor vote. If it passes there, the House will take it up.

New York

Last Thursday, the Health Department said New Yorkers suffering chronic pain will be able to use medical marijuana starting this week. After announcing in December that it planned to add chronic paid to its list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana, the Health Department said patients could start getting recommendations for chronic pain beginning Wednesday. The department also announced that physicians' assistants can now recommend medical marijuana. "Improving patient access to medical marijuana continues to be one of our top priorities, as it has been since the launch of the program," Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said in a statement. "These key enhancements further that goal."

North Dakota

On Tuesday, advocates threatened a lawsuit or new initiative in the face of legislative meddling. The head of the committee that ran the state's successful medical marijuana initiative campaign warned legislators that they could face a legal challenge or even another initiative campaign if they don't back away from changes contemplated in Senate Bill 2344, which has already passed the Senate. That measure bars patients and caregivers from growing their own plants and restricts the use of smoked medical marijuana to cases where a physician attests that no other form of marijuana would be effective. The comments came from Rilie Ray Morgan as he testified before the House Human Services Committee.

Tennessee

On Tuesday, a medical marijuana bill was prounounced dead. Rep. Jeremy Faison (R-Crosby) said that his medical marijuana bill, House Bill 495, is dead because senators were afraid to vote for it. "The Senate, bless their heart, are just scared to death of their voters," Faison said Tuesday after the House Health Committee shelved the bill and instead approved a non-binding marijuana-related resolution to study the issue over the summer.

Utah

On Tuesday, advocates announced plans for a 2018 initiative. Medical marijuana advocates are gearing up to try to put an initiative on the state's 2018 ballot. They said they would begin the process of signature gathering next month, and they cite promising polling. The state legislature has so far thwarted efforts to create a robust medical marijuana program.

Virginia

Last Thursday, the governor signed a bill legalizing pharmacy distribution of CBD and THC-A oil. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) signed Senate Bill 1027 into law. The bill allows for companies to manufacture and provide CBD cannabis oil and THC-A oil for the treatment of epilepsy and provides for its distribution through pharmacies.

[For extensive information about the medical marijuana debate, presented in a neutral format, visit MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org.]

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

(See our Top Ten Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2016 feature story too.)

The year that just ended has seen a serious outbreak of bloody violence against drug users and sellers in one country, it has seen drug offenders hung by the hundreds in another, it has seen efforts to fight the spread of drug-related HIV/AIDS falter for lack of funding, and it has seen the tenacity of the prohibitionist apparatus in the halls of the United Nations.

But there was also good news emanating from various corners of the world, including advances in marijuana legalization in Canada, the US, and Europe and the flouting of the proscription against the coca trade in the UN anti-drug treaties. And speaking of treaties, alhough we didn't include it this year because the drug policy implications remain unclear, the fruition of years'-long peace negotiations between Colombia and the leftist rebels of the FARC, which brings an end to the Western hemisphere's longest-running guerrilla war, is certainly worth noting.

Here are the ten most notable international drug policy events of 2016, the good, the bad, and the ugly:

The UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs saw progress, but achingly little. (Wikimedia.org)
1. The UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs

The global prohibitionist consenus was under growing strain at the UNGASS on Drugs, as civil society pressed the UN bureaucracy and member states for reforms as never before. But changes come at a glacial pace at the level of global diplomacy, and the vision of the UNGASS as a platform for discussing fundamental issues and plotting a new course ran up against the resistance of drug war hard-liners like Russia and China, and the studied indifference of European governments, who preferred that the UN drug policy center of gravity remain at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna. And while the US delegation advocated for some good stances, it, too, opposed any meddling with the trio of UN conventions that form the legal backbone of global drug prohibition.

Still, there were some incremental victories. UN agencies submitted their own position papers, many highly progressive, as were the submissions from some countries and international organizations. EU states and others fought hard for language opposing the death penalty for drug offenses, though unsuccessfully. And while the UNGASS Outcome Document avoids most big issues, it puts strong emphasis on treatment and alternatives to incarceration. It acknowledges the importance of human rights and proportionate sentencing. It has support for naloxone (the overdose antidote), medication-assisted treatment (e.g. methadone and buprenorphine), and safe injecting equipment, though avoiding the term "harm reduction" itself. And it calls for addressing obstacles to opioid availability. (Read a detailed report on UNGASS by some of our colleagues here, and read about some of our own work for the UNGASS here.)

2. Global Harm Reduction for AIDS Remains Tragically Underfunded, and Facing Worse. Despite the repeatedly-proven positive impact of harm reduction measures in reducing the spread and prevalence of HIV/AIDS, donors continue to refuse to pony up to pay for such measures. The UNAIDS program estimates that $2.3 billion was needed to fund AIDS-related harm reduction programs last year, but only $160 million was actually invested by donors as most member states cut their aid levels. That's only 7% of the requested funding level. That's after 2015 saw the first drop in support in five years (see pages 21-22) in funding for AIDS efforts in low- and middle-income countries. The world spends an estimated $100 billion a year on fighting drugs, but it can't come up with 2.3% of that figure to fight drug-related AIDS harms. Harm Reduction International has proposed a "10x20" shift of 10% of law enforcement funding toward harm reduction services by 2020 to address the gap.

Harm reduction's global funding challenges are further impacted by the global AIDS-fighting budget, which has taken a hit as the rise in the dollar has reduced the spending power of contributions from donor countries that use other currencies. Even worse, many of the countries currently benefiting from UN harm reduction funding have progressed economically to a point at which they are supposed to begin funding their own programs according to the UN development framework. But that may not be a realistic expectation, especially for the sometimes politically fraught programs needed to address disease transmission related to drug use.

3. America's Most Populous State Legalizes Marijuana, and So Do Several More. You know the global prohibitionist consensus is crumbling when the rot sets in at home, and that's what happened in November's US elections. California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts all voted to legalize marijuana, joining Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, which had led the way in 2012 and 2014. Now, some 50 million Americans live in pot-legal states, and that's going to mean increasing pressure on the government in Washington to end federal pot prohibition. It's also an example to the rest of the world.

4. Europe's Prohibitionist Consensus Begins Crumbling Around the Edges. No European nation has legalized marijuana, but signs are increasing that somebody is going to do it soon. If 2016 was any indication, the best candidates may be Italy, where a broadly supported legalization bill got a parliamentary hearing this year before surprise election results upset the country's political apple cart; Germany, where "legalization is in the air" as Berlin moves toward allowing cannabis coffee shops and Dusseldorf moves toward total marijuana legalization; and Denmark, where Copenhagen is trying yet again to legalize weed. In both Denmark and Germany, legalization isn't currently favored by the central governments, while in Italy, everything is in limbo after Europe's populist uprising swept the prime minister out of office. Still, the pressure is mounting in Europe.

Amsterdam's famed cannabis coffee houses look set to final get a legal source of supply. (Wikimedia.org)
5. The Dutch Are Finally Going to Do Something About the "Back Door Problem." The Dutch have allowed for the sale of marijuana at "coffee shops" since the 1980s, but never made any provision for a legal pot supply for retailers. Now, after 20 years of blocking any effort to decriminalize marijuana production, Prime Minister Mark Rutte's VVD party has had a change of heart. At a party conference in November, the VVD voted to support "smart regulation" of marijuana and "to redesign the entire domain surrounding soft drugs." The full text of the resolution, supported by 81% of party members, reads: "While the sale of cannabis is tolerated at the front door, stock acquisition is now illegal. The VVD wants to end this strange situation and regulate the policy on soft drugs in a smarter way. It's time to redesign the entire domain surrounding soft drugs. This redevelopment can only take place on a national level. Municipalities should stop experiments with cannabis cultivation as soon as possible." The opposition political parties are already in support of solving the long-lived "back door problem."

6. Canada's Move Toward Marijuana Legalization Continues Apace. Justin Trudeau and the Liberals swept the Tories out of power in October 2015 with a platform that included a clear-cut call for marijuana legalization. Movement toward that goal has been slow but steady, with the task force charged with clearing the way calling for wide-ranging legalization in a report report issued in December. The Liberals say they expect to file legalization bills in the parliament this spring, and Canada remains on track to free the weed.

7. Bolivia Ignores UN Drug Treaty, Agrees to Export Coca to Ecuador. Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former coca grower union leader himself, opened the year campaigning to decriminalize the coca trade and closed it without waiting for the UN to act by inking an agreement with Ecuador to export coca there. The agreement would appear to violate the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which bans the export of coca leaf because it contains the cocaine alkaloid, but neither Bolivia nor Ecuador seem to care.

Mexico's latest drug war marked its 10th anniversary last month. (Wikimedia.org)
8. Mexico Marks a Decade of Brutal Drug Wars. In December, 2006, then-President Felipe Calderon sent the Mexican army into the state of Michoacan in what he said was a bid to get serious about fighting the drug trade. It didn't work, and in fact, led to the worst prohibition-related violence in the country's history, with an estimated 100,000 + killed and tens of thousands more gone missing. Attention to the cartel wars peaked in 2012, which was a presidential election year in both the US and Mexico, and the level of killing declined after that, but has now risen back to those levels. Calderon's replacement, Enrique Pena Nieto, has publicly deemphasized the drug war, but has not substantially shifted the policy. The arrest of Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman has weakened his cartel, but that has only led to more violence as new competitors vie for supremacy.

There are signs of hope on the policy front though, if early ones, with medical marijuana being implemented, attitudes toward legalization softening, and the government playing a role in forwarding the international debate on drug policy reform.

9. Iran Has Second Thoughts About the Death Penalty for Drugs. The Islamic Republic is perhaps the world's leading drug executioner, with drug offenders accounting for the vast majority of the more than a thousand people it executed in 2015 (2016 numbers aren't in yet), but there are increasing signs the regime could change course. In November, the parliament agreed to expedite deliberations on a measure that would dramatically limit the number of people facing execution for drugs. Now, the proposal will get top priority in the Legal and Social Affairs Committee before heading before the full parliament. The measure would limit the death penalty to "organized drug lords," "armed trafficking," "repeat offenders," and "bulk drug distributors."

10. The Philippines Wages a Bloody War on Drug Users and Sellers. With the election of former Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte as president, the country descended into a veritable blood-bath, as police and "vigilantes" seemingly competed to see who could kill more people faster. Duterte has brushed off criticism from the US, the UN, and human rights groups, and even insulted his critics, although he did have kind words to say about Donald Trump, who had kind words to say about him. As of year's end, the death toll was around 6,000, with the vigilantes claiming a slight lead over the cops.

Chronicle AM: MA MJ Shop Delay Protested, Prison Population Still Dropping, More... (12/30/16)

Massachusetts marijuana shops get delayed by six months, Nevada personal legalization goes into effect next week, the national prison population continues a slow decline, and more.

Hemp is on the move in America. (Vote Hemp)
Marijuana Policy

Amid Protests, MA Governor Signs Law Pushing Back Legalization Implementation. Gov. Charlie Baker (R) Friday signed into law a bill delaying the opening of retail marijuana shops for six months, from January 2018 to July 2018. He did so as demonstrators gathered at the capitol to protest the measure, which was hot-rodded through the legislature by a mere handful of solons on Wednesday. The delay "not only flies in the face of the will of the voters who voted for the January 2018 deadline, it shows contempt for the legislature itself, having been passed, not after three readings to the full House and Senate, but in the course of less than an hour by just two senators and five representatives," said the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, which organized the protest.

Nevada Legalization Goes Into Effect Next Week. Voters approved the Question 2 marijuana legalization initiative in November and will begin to enjoy the fruits of their victory on January 1, when the new law goes into effect. It will allow people 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of weed or an eighth-ounce of cannabis concentrates. But retail sales won't go into effect until the state sets up a regulatory structure. The state has until January 2018 to get it done.

Industrial Hemp

Vote Hemp Issues Year-End Report: Four More Hemp States. The industry lobbying and educational group points to hemp victories in Alabama, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island this year, as well as hemp-related bills passing in some other states that have already approved industrial hemp production. In all, hemp bills were introduced in 29 states in 2016.

Sentencing

Nation's Prison Population Now at 13-Year Low. Driven largely by a drop in the federal prison population, the country's overall prison and jail population dropped 2% in 2015, pushing it down to levels not seen in more than a decade, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported Thursday. The decline continues a downward trend that began in 2009. A 7% decline in federal prisoners accounting for 40% of the overall decrease, but states including California and Texas also saw significant prisoner population reductions.

Activist and Author Tony Papa Wins a Pardon. The Drug Policy Alliance's Tony Papa was granted a pardon by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo Friday. Papa served 12 years of a 15-to-life sentence for drug trafficking before he was granted clemencyby then Gov. George Pataki (R) in 1997. Since then, he has authored two books, pursued a career as an artist, and been a devoted drug reform activist.

International

Poll: British Columbia Voters Ready to Legalize Hard Drugs to Fight Opioid Crisis. A new survey of provincial attitudes toward drugs and addiction finds that nearly two-thirds of residents are open to considering hard drug legalization in the context of the province's ongoing opioid crisis. Some 63% said they were either completely willing to consider legalization or open to considering it with more information, while only 20% flat-out rejected it. Another 17% said they were not willing now, but might change their minds with new information.

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: Joe Manchin Wants New Drug War, AZ&MI Appeals Courts Rule for MedMJ, More... (12/21/16)

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin (D) calls for a new war on drugs and gets roundly ridiculed for it, appeals courts in Arizona and Michigan issue favorable medical marijuana rulings, a Missouri bill would end the asset forfeiture loophole that lets state police circumvent tough state laws by going to the feds, and more.

Medical marijuana saw court victories in Arizona and Michigan this week. (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

California Bill Would Ban Bud Billboards. Over the past year, billboards advertising marijuana products and businesses have popped up all over the state, but now, some lawmakers want to impose strict limits on marijuana advertising. Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) is one of the sponsors of Assembly Bill 64, which would bar ads that could be seen by minors "We have legal adult use and medical use, and we want to make sure that advertising hits the target audience as much as possible and doesn't slip beyond that," Bonta said. "We want to target adults and patients and not the broader audience that includes kids and carpools and school buses and families." The bill would require a two-thirds majority to pass because it would amend Proposition 64.

Medical Marijuana

Arizona Appeals Court Rules Local Officials Can't Use Fed Law to Hassle Dispensaries. In a unanimous decision, the state Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that local officials can't use the federal ban on marijuana to refuse to provide zoning for dispensaries. Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery (R) had no legal basis to claim that federal law trumps the state's voter-approved medical marijuana, the court held.

Arkansas Regulators Set Number of Commercial Grows at Five. The state Medical Marijuana Commission voted Tuesday to allow up to five commercial cultivation centers in the state. The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment, approved by voters last month, specified that there could be between four and eight centers; the commission opted to start on the low end. Grows won't start, however, until rules about growing, processing, and distribution are finalized.

Michigan Appeals Court Rules Medical Marijuana Law Protects People Transporting It. The state Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the state's medical marijuana law extends to people accused of illegally transporting it. A state law written after voters approved medical marijuana, requires that it be stored in the trunk or other inaccessible part of the vehicle, but the court held that law is invalid because it imposes additional requirements on medical marijuana users.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

West Virginia Democratic Senator Calls for "War on Drugs" to Fight Opioid Crisis. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) said Tuesday a new "war on drugs" in necessary to combat rampant opioid use, sparking immediate ridicule on Twitter and other social media. "We need to declare a war on drugs," Manchin said on CNN when asked what President-elect Donald Trump should do about the opioid situation. Manchin added that he has met addicts who started out smoking marijuana but ended up taking prescription drugs and then moving on to heroin. "It's just been unbelievable," he said. But it was Manchin's resort to last-century tropes that the Internet found unbelievable. Taking on his call for a new drug war, one Twitter user responded, "If only someone would have thought to do that, say, 30 or 40 years ago. Genius!!"

Asset Forfeiture

Missouri Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill Filed. State Rep. Shamed Dogan (R-St. Louis) has pre-filed House Bill 231, which would close a loophole that allowed state and local police to circumvent tough state asset forfeiture laws by turning cases over to the feds. The bill would prohibit such behavior unless the amount involved was more than $100,000 cash.

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

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

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

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

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

Medical Marijuana

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

Pardons and Commutations

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

International

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

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

Chronicle AM: Marijuana Legal in MA, DEA Says Even Low-THC CBD Still Illegal, More... (12/15/16)

New England marijuana policy is in flux, as Massachusetts legalizes it, Connecticut's governor disses it, and a key New Hampshire politician says "let's do it," the DEA clarifies that CBD cannabis oils are still illegal under federal law, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Connecticut Governor Doesn't Want to Legalize It. Stopping just short of saying he would veto a legalization bill, Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) said Thursday the legislature shouldn't waste its time on considering the issue. "First of all, I think it's a mistake what Massachusetts has done and other states have done,'' Malloy told reporters in Hartford. "I think we should hit the pause button and watch how it works in the region... I think it's a mistake.''

Massachusetts Legalization Now in Effect. State officials have certified the results of the November 8 election, and that means Bay State residents can now legally possess up to an ounce of pot in public and 10 ounces at home, and they can start growing up to six pot plants per person, with a limit of 12 per house. Marijuana retail and related businesses will not be licensed, though, until January 2018 -- if there are no delays.

New Hampshire Democratic Leader Says It's Time to Create a Path to Legalization. State Sen. Jeff Woodburn (D-Dalton), the Senate Minority Leader, said Wednesday he plans to file a marijuana legalization bill. "I think it's important New Hampshire recognize what's going on around us, but also listen to what the people are asking for. It's important -- I'm a civics teacher by background -- that we have a legitimate government. That means the people have been asking in overwhelming surveys that they support marijuana being legalized and it's important that our elected officials listen to and respond to their desires," he said. New Hampshire is the only New England state that has not even decriminalized possession.

Medical Marijuana

DEA Clarifies That, Yes, It Still Considers CBD to Be Illegal. The DEA Wednesday added a new code for marijuana extracts, including low-THC CBD cannabis oils, in the Federal Register. The code defines marijuana extracts as "an extract containing one or more cannabinoids that has been derived from any plant of the genus Cannabis, other than the separated resin (whether crude or purified) obtained from the plant." That means that marijuana extracts, even those derived from low-THC industrial hemp, are considered marijuana and are placed under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.

Maine Governor Says State Should "Get Rid Of" Medical Marijuana After Legalization. Tea Party Republican Gov. Paul LePage called for an end to the state's medical marijuana program Thursday. "If you've got recreational marijuana, it's over the counter," he said. "Why do we need medical marijuana?" But initiative backers said the intent of the legalization initiative was to respect medical marijuana and have "dual programs running side by side."

Tennessee Republicans Roll Out Medical Marijuana Bill. State Sen. Steve Dickerson (R-Nashville) and state Rep. Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby) held a press conference Wednesday to introduce their "conservative proposal" to allow for the use of medical marijuana. Their draft bill would set a limit of 50 grow houses statewide, with each allowed to operate one on-site and two storefront dispensaries. It appears to make no provision for patient or caregiver grows. And it limits medical marijuana eligibility to a small list of specified conditions, including cancer, HIV/AIDS, ALS, PTSD, and Alzheimer's.

Chronicle AM: Petition to Make DEA Stop Lying, New DEA National Threat Assessment, More... (12/6/16)

Medical marijuana advocates want the DEA to quit fibbing about weed, Massachusetts pols say they may delay implementation of legal pot commerce, a medical marijuana bill gets filed in Texas, and more.

DEA marijuana prosecutions are trending down. (dea.gov)
Marijuana Policy

California Roadside Drug Testing Bill Filed. After being defeated last session over concerns that field drug testing devices are not reliable, Assemblyman Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale) is back with a new roadside drug testing bill for the next session, Assembly Bill 6. Lackey says it's all about pot: "The ballot initiative passed this year to legalize marijuana will result in more marijuana consumers on our state's highways and roads," Lackey said in a statement. "It is imperative that we invest in a broad spectrum of technologies and research to best identify marijuana-impaired drivers."

Massachusetts Senate President Says Legal Marijuana Commerce Could Be Delayed. The successful Question 4 marijuana legalization initiative means pot possession, use, and home cultivation is legal as of December 15 and authorizes stores to start selling it in January 2018, but now, key legislators are saying that might not happen on time. Senate President Stan Rosenberg (D) said Monday there is "a strong feeling that we ought to be looking at the later dates, rather than the earlier dates."

Medical Marijuana

ASA Files Petition With DOJ to Make DEA Stop Lying About Marijuana. Americans for Safe Access (ASA) Monday filed a petition under the Information Quality Act with the Justice Department "demanding that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) immediately update misinformation about cannabis." Under the Information Quality Act, federal administrative agencies are required to ensure that the information they disseminate is accurate and objective. ASA says the DEA has violated the act at least 25 times.

Texas Lawmaker Files Medical Marijuana Bill. State Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) Tuesday filed a bill to allow for the use of medical marijuana in the Lonestar State. The bill lists qualifying conditions and would allow for private dispensaries, but would not set amount limits. Menendez said that should be left between the doctor and the patient. The bill is not yet available on the state legislative website.

Law Enforcement

DEA Releases 2016 Drug Threat Assessment. The DEA has released its 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment, which emphasizes issues around the use of prescription opioids and heroin and warns about rising opioid overdose rates. The assessment also notes that DEA marijuana prosecutions are declining, but that more of the cases that are prosecuted are domestic, as opposed to Mexican marijuana imports. The assessment also reports declines in Mexican marijuana seizures in every border district but one.

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