The House approves a bill that could open the door to states drug testing people seeking unemployment benefits, harsh sentencing bills advance in Ohio and Kentucky, Houston decriminalizes marijuana possession (in most cases), and more.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]Marijuana Policy
Arizona PAC Plans to File 2018 Legalization Initiative. A political action committee called Safer Arizona was set to file a marijuana legalization initiative with state officials Thursday. Arizona voters narrowly devoted a similar measure last year, but organizers say this one will have some differences, including requiring that people be at least 21 before they can buy it. They will have to gather 150,000 valid voter signatures by July to qualify for the 2018 ballot.
Guam Legalization Bill Gets Hearing. In a hearing Tuesday on a marijuana legalization measure, Bill 8-34, representatives of the judiciary said they took no position on the bill, but cautioned that implementing legalization would require a review of the island territory's entire criminal code. Guam Customs and Quarantine acting chief, Maj. Phillip Taijeron also testified, saying he supported the will of the people. "If the will of the people is to enact Bill 8-34, then I am in support of Bill 8-34," Taijeron said.
New York State Assembly Passes Landmark Legislation to Seal Past Marijuana Possession Convictions. The Assembly voted Tuesday in favor of Assembly Bill 2142, which would seal the criminal records of people who have been unjustly and unconstitutionally arrested for simple possession of marijuana in public view. The vote was 95 in favor and 38 opposed.This sealing legislation has taken on increased importance amid the Trump Administration’s rhetoric and actions targeting immigrant communities. On the national level, simple marijuana possession is the fourth most common cause of deportation, according to the report "Secure Communities and ICE Deportations: A Failed Program?" Sealing records will provide a measure of protection for immigrants by making it difficult or impossible for immigration authorities to meet their legal burden of proof for a judge to find a lawful permanent resident deportable. Additionally, sealing will guard against the Trump administration's Executive Order targeting noncitizens with any criminal arrests and/or convictions for deportation. If the arrest is also sealed and the sealed information is not shared with the FBI, these individuals may be at lower risk of becoming an enforcement target.
Houston to Decriminalize Marijuana Possession. The nation's fourth largest city is ready to decriminalize small-time marijuana possession. As of March 1, under a new "Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program," in most circumstances people caught with an ounce or less will face no jail, no tickets, no court appearances and no criminal record. Houston and surrounding Harris County have spent $200 million prosecuting 100,000 pot possession cases in the past decade, with "no tangible public safety benefit," said District Attorney Kim Ogg (D), who took office this year.
Virginia Republicans Kill CBD Expansion Bill. Patient advocates burst into tears Wednesday night as six House Republicans voted to kill a major expansion of the state's CBD law, which limited its use to people with epilepsy. Senate Bill 1298 would have expanded the law to allow its use for treatment for 13 more conditions, but the bill was killed by a 5-6 party line vote in the subcommittee that writes criminal law.
Colorado Cops Lobby Hard, Defeat Asset Forfeiture Reform. A proposal to expand oversight of police seizures of property was defeated in a party line vote in a Senate committee Wednesday, with Republicans casting all the "no" votes. The measure, Senate Bill 17-136, would also have prevented law enforcement agencies from turning property over to the federal government to get around state restrictions unless the property was worth more than $50,000. The vote came after a parade of law enforcement officers testified against the bill.
House Approves Measure Aimed at Expanding Drug Testing of People Who File for Unemployment Assistance. The House approved H.J. Res 42, which would repeal a recently finalized Department of Labor rule that interpreted a 2012 federal law that permits states to drug test people who file for unemployment insurance in certain circumstances. Advocates see the repeal of the Department of Labor rule as a first step by some Republicans in Congress at undoing federal restrictions on states conditioning receipt of unemployment and other forms of public assistance on a drug test. The measure now goes before the Senate.
Kentucky Senate Passes Bill Toughening Penalties for Heroin, Fentanyl Sales. The Senate voted unanimously Thursday to approve a bill increasing penalties for people trafficking even the smallest amounts of heroin and fentanyl. The measure, Senate Bill 14, rolls back sentencing reforms enacted in 2011. Under those reforms, trafficking less than House Bill 4, which reverses a state Supreme Court ruling that only the weight of actual cocaine -- not filler -- be used when imposing stiffer sentences for possession and trafficking. Under the bill, prosecutors would be able to sentence defendants based on the weight of the entire mixture. Under the bill, a pound of powder that contained only a gram of cocaine would be considered a pound of cocaine for sentencing purposes. The bill now moves to the Senate.
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.
[image:1 align:right caption:true]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.
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."
Both Congress and state legislatures are getting back to work, and the bills are starting to pile up; South Dakota activists eye a 2018 legalization initiative, and more.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]Marijuana Policy
Some California Dispensaries Are Already Selling Marijuana to All Adult Comers. Legal recreational marijuana sales won't begin in the state until at least 2018, but some medical marijuana dispensaries are already selling pot to anyone over 21. "Dozens" of dispensaries are advertising that they no longer require a doctor's recommendation to make purchases. Many, if not all, of these "Prop 64 friendly" dispensaries are unlicensed.
South Dakota Activists Eye 2018 Legalization Initiative. The state has twice rejected medical marijuana at the polls, but that isn't stopping a new group, New Approach South Dakota, from planning a 2018 legalization initiative. The group says it will submit a proposal to the attorney general's office next week.
DC Mayor Announces Plan to End Driver's License Suspensions for Drug Offenses. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) said Monday that her administration plans to change a law that suspends the driver's license of people arrested for drug offenses. "In Washington, DC, we value and support rehabilitation and promote employment as a critical component of successful reentry," Mayor Bowser said in a statement. "This change will ensure that the DC criminal code is tailored to public safety, not maintaining antiquated and ineffective policies that place unnecessary burdens on District residents."
Federal Bill to Protect Medical Marijuana Businesses From Asset Forfeiture Filed. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) last Thursday filed House Resolution 331, which would shield medical marijuana-related conduct authorized by state law from federal asset forfeiture attempts. The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary and Energy and Commerce committees.
Mississippi Medical Marijuana Bill Filed. Rep. Joel Bomgar (R-Madison) has filed House Bill 179, which would ensure that any "qualifying patient who possesses a valid registry identification card is not subject to arrest, prosecution, or penalty in any manner." The bill specifies a list of qualifying conditions, allow for caregivers for patients who can't grow their own, and allow for dispensaries. Patients could possess up to 2. 5 ounces of marijuana.
Indiana Medical Marijuana Bill Filed. State Sen. Karen Tallian (D-Indianapolis) has filed Senate Bill 255, which would allow patients with a specified list of conditions or "any persistent or chronic illness or condition" to use medical marijuana with a physician's recommendation. The measure would also create a statewide medical marijuana program. Tallian has introduced similar bills in past years that have gone nowhere.
Nebraska Medical Marijuana Bill Coming Soon. State Sen. Anna Wishart (D-Lincoln) says she will introduce a comprehensive medical marijuana bill this session. A similar measure came within three votes of advancing last year, but the measure would still face an uphill battle in the legislature and a probable veto from Gov. Pete Ricketts (R).
New Mexico Medical Marijuana Fix Bill Filed. State Sen. Cisco McSorly (D-Albuquerque) has filed Senate Bill 8, which would more than double the amount of medical marijuana licensed producers can grow in the state and expand the amount of marijuana that patients could possess. "This bill will guarantee there is an adequate supply of marijuana for our patients," McSorley said.
Florida Bill to Make Kratom a Controlled Substance Filed. State Rep. Kristin Jacobs (D-Coconut Grove) last Friday filed House Bill 183, which would add mitragynine and hydroxymitragynine, the psychoactive components of kratom, to the state's controlled substances act. Under the bill, selling, manufacturing, or importing kratom would be a misdemeanor.
Nebraska Bill Would (Mostly) End Lifetime Ban on Food Stamps for Drug Felons. State Sen. Mike Groene (R-North Platte) last Friday filed Legislative Bill 128, which would end the lifetime ban on food stamps for drug felons, but only if they got drug abuse treatment after their most recent conviction. Alternately, drug felons could take and pass voluntary drug tests every six months to qualify. People with more than two drug felonies would continue to be banned from receiving food stamps. A measure to completely end the ban failed last year.
Federal Bill Filed to Ease Access to Overdose Reversal Drug. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and a bipartisan group of 18 cosponsors have filed House Resolution 304, which would ease bureaucratic obstacles to emergency medical care providers wishing to administer the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone. The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary and Energy and Commerce committees.
(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:
[image:1 align:left caption:true]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.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]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.
[image:3 align:left caption:true]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.
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.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
[image:1 align:left]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.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]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.
[image:3 align:left caption:true]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.