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This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.
Florida state Rep. Kristin Jacobs (D-Coconut Creek) is a woman on a mission, albeit a strange and misinformed one. For the last three years, Jacobs has waged a lonely crusade in Tallahassee to ban kratom, the herb derived from a Southeast Asian tree and widely used for pain relief, withdrawal from opiates, and as a less harmful alternative to opiates.
[image:1 align:left]She's at it again this year, having just introduced a measure, House Bill 183, that would add mitragynine and hydroxymitragynine, the active constituents of kratom, to the state's controlled substances list. And she's invoking the specter of Hitler as she does so.
Saying the kratom ban was a "fall on the sword issue" for her, Jacobs railed against the people who have opposed her prohibitionist efforts, accusing them of Goebbels-like propaganda.
"They have a story," she told the St. Peters Blog. "Just like Hitler believed if you tell a lie over and over again, it becomes the truth."
Portraying herself as a bravely challenging a "lie machine… a powerful lobby with lots of money," Jacobs warned against "Big Kratom." "It's not just what they're doing here," she said. "They're doing the same thing around the country."
"They" would be the American Kratom Association and the Botanical Education Alliance. The former was founded by Susan Ash, a 46-year-old who began taking kratom while being treated for dependence on prescription pain relievers and now takes a small dose daily to ease chronic pain and depression. She was so impressed with the results, she founded the group in 2015 to represent kratom consumers. The group now has more than 2,000 members and lobbies against efforts to ban the drug.
The latter is a small nonprofit organization "dedicated to educating consumers, lawmakers, law enforcement, and the media aboutstyl safe and therapeutic natural supplements including Mitragyna speciosa, also known as Kratom," the group says on its web page. "Our mission is to increase understanding in order to influence public policy and protect natural supplements. Our vision is to create a society where every adult has the right to access safe and effective natural supplements."
According to the American Kratom Association, "Kratom is not a drug. Kratom is not an opiate. Kratom is not a synthetic substance. Naturally occurring Kratom is a safe herbal supplement that's more akin to tea and coffee than any other substances. Kratom behaves as a partial mu-opioid receptor agonist and is used for pain management, energy, even depression and anxiety that are so common among Americans. Kratom contains no opiates, but it does bind to the same receptor sites in the brain. Chocolate, coffee, exercise and even human breast milk hit these receptor sites in a similar fashion."
Unsurprisingly, Jacobs disagrees. She calls the herb a "scourge on society" and says it "is an opiate," breezily lumping it in with heroin and pain pill mills.
In Jacobs' dystopian vision, she foresees babies born with withdrawal symptoms, emergency room doctors treating strung-out kratom junkies in the throes of withdrawal, and "addicts with glassy eyes and shaky hands" lurking about until the dreaded kratom overdose gets them. "How many more are going to die?" she asks.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]Well, not many, actually. Like opiates, kratom relieves pain, slows bowel activity, produces euphoric feelings, and creates physical addiction and a withdrawal syndrome. But unlike opiates, it causes a pleasant, caffeine-type buzz in small doses and, more significantly, it is apparently very difficult -- if not impossible -- to overdose on it. The few deaths where kratom is implicated include poly-drug use, or as in a case reported by the New York Times, suicide by a young kratom user who was also being treated for depression.
"Direct kratom overdoses from the life-threatening respiratory depression that usually occurs with opioid overdoses have not been reported," says Oliver Grundmann, clinical associate professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Florida, told journalist Maia Szalavitz at Vice. Grundmann should know; he just reviewed the research on kratom for the International Journal of Legal Medicine.
Szalavitz also consulted Mark Swogger, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center, who with his colleagues analyzed 161 "experience reports" posted by kratom users on the drug information site Erowid.org for a recent study in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs.
"I think it's pretty safe to say that kratom has at least some addiction potential. The data is fairly strong on that and our study also found that people are reporting addiction," but "overall, we found that it's really mild compared to opioid addiction and it didn't seem to last as long."
Jacobs' inflammatory and ill-founded comments generated a quick and strong reaction from kratom advocates. Kendra Jowers, who sits on the advisory board of the Botanical Education Alliance, didn't mince any words.
"It's difficult to know how to respond to what Representative Jacobs said, because what she said was borderline lunatic," Jowers told the Florida Report. "And I think any sane, rational person could recognize it as such -- whether they have personal ties to kratom or not," she said.
"When Representative Jacobs feels the need to compare an advocacy organization like the Botanical Education Alliance to the Third Reich, she's already lost the argument. She's already shown that she has no winning hand; that's why she resorts to such absurd and outrageously dishonest appeals to emotion and irrationality. We are a group of professionals from across the country who have volunteered our time to fight for people's right to use a natural supplement to curtail their pain and wean off of addiction to opioids and alcohol. To liken us to Hitler is reprehensible and entirely unprofessional," Jowers continued. "That is not to mention how abhorrent and obscene it was for her to trivialize one of the worst atrocities in human history."
[image:3 align:left caption:true]Jowers wasn't done. She also took umbrage at Jacobs' portrayal of kratom users as glassy-eyed addicts.
"She may not have named names, but those were personal attacks. Because when she characterizes kratom users this way -- glassy-eyed, shaking, helpless addicts who aren't competent to understand what they're fighting for here -- she is personally attacking the tens of thousands of Floridians who use kratom to responsibly manage their health conditions," Jowers noted.
"Kratom users are mothers, grandmothers, brothers, sisters, and notably, veterans suffering from PTSD, pain, and addiction that may have resulted from what they've endured in the course of their service to this country. I guarantee, you encounter kratom users all the time, and you would have no idea that they are using it unless they were to tell you -- contrary to Representative Jacobs' histrionic and inaccurate characterization," Jowers added.
The American Kratom Association and the Botanical Education Alliance have led the charge against the DEA's move to federally ban kratom -- a pushback that resulted in the agency's unprecedented decision to delay or possibly even undo the proposed ban. And now they are leading the charge to push back against Rep. Jacobs and her war on the herb.
special to Drug War Chronicle by independent investigative journalist Clarence Walker, email@example.com
Raymond Lambis is a free man -- at least for now.
[image:1 align:left]He was looking at 10 years to life on federal drug charges, but the case was built on a controversial technology -- "Stingray" -- and in a precedent-setting 2016 decision widely celebrated by legal experts and privacy advocates, a federal judge ruled that use of the device without a search warrant violated the Fourth Amendment's proscription against unreasonable search and seizure.
The decision -- and the technology -- has implications that go far beyond the shadowy world of drug dealers and DEA agents. Stingray is a generic term for a cell-site simulator, a device that can mimic cell towers as a means of tracking down cell phones. Law enforcement can use Stingray to pick up phone calls, voicemail messages, and text messages, and to pinpoint the physical location of a targeted phone to within a few feet.
In the Lambis case, federal prosecutors argued that they didn't need a warrant to use the wide-ranging Stingray, but federal district court Judge William H. Pauley shot them down.
"Absent a search warrant," Judge Pauley held in his 14-page opinion, "the government may not turn a citizen's cell phone into a tracking device."
But that's exactly what DEA agents did to build their case against Lambis. They used Stingray to locate his cell phone inside his family residence, then conducted a warrantless search of his bedroom and uncovered a large amount of cocaine.
Federal prosecutors had a fallback argument -- that even if a warrant were necessary to track Lambis' phone, once his father gave agents at his door permission to enter and Lambis then "consented" to a search, the search should be allowed -- but Pauley wasn't having that, either.
"The procurement of a 'voluntary' consent to search based upon a prior illegal search taints that consent," he held.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]But if federal prosecutors have their way, the DEA and other federal agents will be able to do it again. In September, prosecutors from the US Attorneys Office for the Southern District of New York filed an appeal of Pauley's decision with the US 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.
"We're obviously disappointed about that," Lambis' attorney Alan Seidler told Drug War Chronicle.
So is the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Rebecca Jeschke, a digital rights analyst for the group, told the Chronicle that if the government wins on appeal, everyone's privacy will be eroded.
"As we use cell phones more and more, a successful appeal will touch nearly every American," she said.
A successful appeal would be salt in the wounds of legal scholars and privacy advocates who hailed Pauley's forceful decision in Lambis as a major victory against warrantless surveillance by the government.
"This is the first federal ruling I know of where a judge squarely ruled that the Fourth Amendment required police to get a warrant to use a Stingray, and further, suppressed evidence derived from warrantless use of the technology," ACLU Attorney Nathan Wessler told the New York Times at the time. "After decades of secret and warrantless use of Stingray technology by law enforcement to track phones, a federal judge has finally held authorities to account."
According to an ACLU report, at least 60 state, local, and federal law enforcement agencies in 23 states have used Stingray to suck up citizens' cell phone data.
Stingray in the Lambis Case
According to court documents, the trail to Raymond Lambis' front door began with a DEA investigation into an alleged drug pipeline importing large amounts of cocaine from South America beginning in early 2015. DEA agents obtained a wiretap warrant to glean information about the numbers dialed from a specific cell phone.
After agents obtained the warrant, they monitored messages off a Blackberry between two suspected drug traffickers. During one particular conversation agents overheard a voice referring to someone named "Patilla," whose phone had a 646 area code.
Messages between Patilla and the other, unnamed party indicated that Patilla could supply hydrochloric acid, which is used by traffickers in the heroin-refining process. DEA agents then got a warrant to order the phone company to provide "approximate location," or "cell-site location information" (CSLI).
A frequent complaint of defense attorneys and privacy advocates has been that law enforcement, and DEA agents in particular, will mislead judges into thinking the warrant they sign off on is to get specific cell-site information from a carrier when what agents are really doing is using Stingray to locate a person's phone or actual address. As the Chronicle reported in 2013, "The Stingray technology not only raises Fourth Amendment concerns, it also raise questions about whether police withhold information from judges to monitorcitizens without probable cause.That's what happened in Lambis.
In the Lambis case, DEA Special Agent Kathryn Glover obtained a warrant seeking cell-site data and location information for that 646 phone, but did not tell the judge DEA would be using Stingray to conduct a search to pin down Lambis' exact location.
"So they went to the effort to get a warrant, but then didn't tell the judge they intended to use that same warrant to use a Stingray," ACLU technology specialist Christopher Soghoian told Ars Technica. "It is so important for federal courts to recognize that use of a Stingray is a search of a Fourth Amendment-protected place, and not only is a warrant required, but the court authorizing the surveillance must be told they are authorizing the use of a Stingray."
But the phone carrier's CSLI data, which Agent Glover said in her warrant application would be used to track down the 646 phone, only guided DEA agents to the "general area" of Broadway and 177th Street in Manhattan. To pinpoint the 'house or building where the phone most likely resided with its owner the DEA unleashed Stingray to first zero in on the exact building and then on the exact apartment.
[image:3 align:left] A DEA technician using a hand-held Stingray walked through the building until he picked up the strongest signal -- coming from inside the Lambis apartment. Then, DEA agents knocked on the door, and Lambis' father allowed the gun-toting agents inside. When agents asked if anyone else lived there, the elderly man knocked on his son's door, and Lambis opened it up only to be confronted by the DEA.
Faced by the agents in his home, he then consented to a search of his bedroom, where agents discovered a kilo of cocaine, empty ziplock bags, a scale, and eight cell phones. He was charged with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and other drug-related charges. It was Lambis' defense motion to throw out that evidence as a result of an unlawful search that led to Pauley's ruling.
The States Aren't Waiting for the Federal Courts
The courts aren't the only place Stingray is running into headwinds. Thanks to decisions like that in the Lambis case, some states have begun passing privacy legislation aiming at protecting citizens' cell phone data from warrantless searches by Stingray or similar cell-site simulators used by police. Among them are California, Illinois, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Washington.
"Citizens have the right to expect that they will not have their personal information investigated by police without a warrant," said Rep. Edith H Ajello (D-Providence) after passage of a 2016 Rhode Island bill that prohibits obtaining cell phone data by cell-site technology.
"Requiring a warrant won't make it difficult for police to do their job," concurred Sen. Donna Nesselbush (D-North Providence). "It's essentially updating search warrant law for the information age."
"As advances in technology enable police to more efficiently investigate and solve crimes, it's important that we help them to know they are following state laws and the Constitution," said Illinois Sen. Daniel Bliss (D-Evanston) upon passage of similar legislation there in 2016. That law, the Citizen Privacy Protection Act, went into effect January 1.
While the states aren't waiting for the federal courts to provide protections, the Lambis decision and related controversies over Stingray technology have created such a firestorm that the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security are now requiring agents to obtain a warrant before using Stingray in investigations. But that could change if the appeals court rules in the government's favor. Stay tuned.
Journalist Clarence Walker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(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.
This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.
California's agricultural bounty is fabled, from the endless olive and almond groves of the Central Valley to the world-class grapes of the Napa Valley to the winter vegetables of the Imperial Valley to the garlic fields of Gilroy, and beyond. But the biggest item in California's agricultural cornucopia is cannabis.
[image:1 align:right]According to report last week from the Orange County Register, California's marijuana crop is not only the most valuable agricultural product in the nation's number one agricultural producer state, it totally blows away the competition.
Using cash farm receipt data from the state Department of Food and Agriculture for ag crops and its own estimate of in-state pot production (see discussion below), the Register pegs the value of California's marijuana crop at more than the top five leading agricultural commodities combined.
Here's how it breaks down, in billions of dollars:
- Marijuana -- $23.3
- Milk -- $6.28
- Almonds -- $5.33
- Grapes -- $4.95
- Cattle, calves -- $3.39
- Lettuce -- $2.25
That estimate of $23.3 billion for the pot crop is humongous, and it's nearly three times what the industry investors the Arcview Group estimated the size of the state's legal market would be in the near post-legalization era. So, how did the Register come up with it, and what could explain it?
The newspaper extrapolated from seizures of pot plants, which have averaged more than two million a year in the state for the past five years, and, citing the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, used the common heuristic that seizures account for only 10% to 20% of drugs produced. That led it to an estimate of 13.2 million plants grown in the state in 2015 (with 2.6 million destroyed), based on the high-end 20% figure.
It then assumed that each plant would produce one pound of pot at a market price of $1,765 a pound. Outdoor plans can produce much more than a pound, but indoor plants may only produce a few ounces, so the one-pound average figure is safely conservative.
The $1,765 per pound farm gate price is probably optimistic, though, especially for outdoor grown marijuana, which fetches a lower price than indoor, and especially for large producers moving multi-dozen or hundred pound loads.
[image:2 align:left caption:true]And maybe law enforcement in California is damned good at sniffing out pot crops and seizes a higher proportion of the crop than the rule of thumb would suggest. Still, even if the cops seized 40% of the crop and farmers only got $1,000 a pound, the crop would still be valued at $8 billion and still be at the top of the farm revenue heap.
And it would still exceed the estimate of what the state's legal marijuana market would look like -- in 2020. Arcview estimated revenues of $6.5 billion by then under legalization. For 2015, the year the Register is looking at, Arcview pegged the state's legal (medical) market at $2.8 billion.
Even making conservative assumptions about the value of the pot crop, it's clear that California pot producers are growing billions of dollars' worth of marijuana that is not accounted for by the state's legal market. Where does it all go? Ask any of those state troopers perched like vultures along the interstate highways heading back east.
That's a phenomenon that's not going to stop when California's legal marijuana market goes into full effect. It's not going to stop until people in states like Illinois and Florida and New York can grow their own. In the meantime, California pot growers are willing to take the risk if it brings the green.
With 2016 now behind us, it's time for some year-end accounting, and when it comes to fatalities related to drug law enforcement, that accounting means tallying up the bodies. The good news is that drug war deaths are down slightly from last year; the bad news is that people are still being killed at the rate of about once a week, as has been the norm in recent years. There were 49 people killed in the drug war last year.
[image:1 align:left]This is the sixth year that Drug War Chronicle has tallied drug war deaths. There were 54 in 2011, 63 in 2012, 41 in 2013, 39 in 2014, and 56 in 2015, That's an average of just a hair under one a week during the past six years.
The Chronicle's tally only include deaths directly related to US domestic drug law enforcement operations -- full-fledged, door-busting, pre-dawn SWAT raids, to traffic stops turned drug busts, to police buy-bust operations. Some of the deaths are by misadventure, not gunshot, including several people who died after ingesting drugs in a bid to avoid getting busted and two law enforcement officers who separately dropped dead while.
Many of those killed either brandished a weapon or actually shot at police officers, demonstrating once again that attempting to enforce drug prohibition in a society rife with weapons is a recipe for trouble. Some of those were homeowners wielding weapons against middle-of-the-night intruders who they may or may not have known were police.
But numerous others were killed in their vehicles by police who claimed suspects were trying to run them down and feared for their lives when they opened fire. Could those people have been merely trying to flee from the cops? Or were they really ready to kill police to go to avoid going to jail on a drug charge?
Which is not to understate the dangers to police enforcing the drug laws. The drug war took the lives of four police officers last year, one in a shootout with a suspect, one in an undercover drug buy gone bad, one while doing a drug interdiction training exercise at a bus station, and one while engaged in a nighttime drug raid over a single syringe. That's about par for the course; over the six years the Chronicle has been keeping count about one cop gets killed for every 10 dead civilians.
Here are December's drug war deaths:
On December 7, in Dallas, Texas, Keelan Charles Murray, 37, shot and killed himself as local police operating as part of a DEA drug task force attempted to arrest him for receiving a package of synthetic opioids. Police said they were clearing the apartment when they heard a gunshot from upstairs. A Duncanville police officer then shot Murray in the shoulder, and Murray then turned his own gun on himself. Murray was locally notorious for having sold heroin to former Dallas Cowboy football player Matt Tuinei, who overdosed on it and died in 199. Dallas Police are investigating.
On December 11, in White Hall, West Virginia, Marion County police attempting to serve a drug arrest warrant shot and killed Randy Lee Cumberledge, 39, in the parking lot of the local Walmart. Police said they spotted Cumberledge's vehicle, but when they approached and ordered him to show his hands, he put his vehicle into gear and "drove aggressively" toward a deputy. Both the deputy and a White Hall police officer opened fire, killing Cumberland. There was no mention of any firearms recovered. The West Virginia State Police are investigating.
On December 12, in Byron, Georgia, member of a Peach County Drug Task Force SWAT team shot and killed Rainer Smith, 31, when he allegedly opened fire on them with a shotgun as they forced their way into his home to arrest him. Smith wounded two Byron police officers before return fire from police killed him. Police said no one answered the door when they arrived, so they forced their way in, and were immediately met by gunfire. Smith's live-in girlfriend and infant daughter were in the home with him. They were uninjured. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is investigating.
On December 21, in Knox, Indiana, Knox Police shot and killed William Newman, 46, as they attempted to arrest him for possession of methamphetamine, failure to appear for dealing meth, and violating parole. Police said Knox attempted to flee, almost running down an officer, and they opened fire. He died in a local hospital hours later. The Indiana State Police are investigating.
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.
This article as produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.
Four states, including California, the nation's most populous, voted to legalize marijuana on November 8. That doubles the number of legal states to eight (plus the District of Columbia), and more than quadruples the number of people living in legal marijuana states, bringing the number to something around 64 million.
Every one of those states legalized marijuana through the initiative process, but we're not going to see any more initiatives on state ballots until 2018, and perhaps 2020. That means that if we are to make more progress on spreading marijuana legalization in the next couple of years, it's going to have to come at the state house instead of the ballot box.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]That's the same pattern we saw with medical marijuana. California led the way via the initiative process in 1996, with several other states following in 1998 and 2000 before Hawaii became the first state to okay medical marijuana via the state legislature.
The election of Donald Trump is causing great uncertainty about the future of legal marijuana, and will act as a drag on legislators until his stance is clarified. Just as governors hesitated to implement medical marijuana programs in the face of federal hostility a decade ago, legislators will hesitate to move toward legalization in the face of uncertainty, or worse, outright hostility from a Trump administration.
Still, efforts to legalize marijuana through the legislative process have been underway for several years in a handful of states and have already come close to passage in some of them. And now, especially in New England, the pressure of neighboring states having already embraced legalization is fueling legalization fervor. But it's not just New England. The marijuana legalization message is resonating across the land.
Getting a bill through a state legislature is a long, multi-stage process, with too many opportunities for getting derailed, from obstinate committee chairs to skeptical governors wielding the veto pen. Despite the obstacles, here are five states that could get it done before the 2018 mid-terms:
Connecticut already has medical marijuana and decriminalized possession in 2011 with the support of Gov. Dannel Malloy (D). Malloy had said that decriminalization was as far as he wanted to go, but he's hinting at changing his tune after marijuana's big victory on Election Day. "We might have to reexamine our legal position, our position of enforcement, based on what some surrounding states are doing," Malloy said three days later.
For veteran legislators such as state Reps. Juan Candelaria (D-New Haven) and Toni Walker (D-New Haven), Malloy's softening couldn't come soon enough. They've authored legalization bills in past sessions, but they haven't gotten much traction. Look for them to be back at it again next year, with the changed New England political landscape smoothing the road.
Maryland approved medical marijuana in 2014 (although the long-delayed program has yet to see any actual dispensaries open) and decriminalization last year under then Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley.
The bad news is that O'Malley is gone now, replaced by anti-marijuana Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. The good news is that the legislature has already demonstrated a willingness to override Hogan's vetoes when it comes to pot policy; it did that this year with a housekeeping bill that decriminalized the possession of paraphernalia (an oversight in the 2015 decriminalization bill).
Reform-minded legislators last year filed a legalization bill, the Marijuana Control and Revenue Act of 2015, in both houses, but they were stymied by unfriendly committee chairs. They're going to be back next year, backed by a carefully-built coalition of drug reform, social justice, and public health groups -- and with the support of a healthy majority of Marylanders, according to recent polls.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]Eyeing next door neighbor Colorado, New Mexico is another state ripe for marijuana legalization. Two polls this year had popular support for legalization at 61%, and Democrats have now won control of the state legislature. That means two different moves toward legalization could occur: Rep. Bill McCamley (D-Mesilla Park) has filed a legalization bill the last two years, and says he will do it again next year. "It's not an academic exercise anymore," he said. And Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino (D-Albuquerque) also says he will be introducing a constitutional amendment that would take the issue to a popular vote.
But like Maryland, legalizers face an anti-marijuana Republican governor in Susana Martinez. Either Martinez is going to have to have a pot epiphany or the legislature is going to have to have enough votes to override a probable veto.
This may be the best prospect of the bunch. Medical marijuana is well-established in the state, decriminalization has been in effect for four years, and now, in the wake of the legalization victory in neighboring Massachusetts, Gov. Gina Raimundo (D) says she's ready to more seriously consider doing the same in Rhode Island, although she has concerns about public safety and how any legislation is drafted.
Democrats control both houses of the legislature, and both House Speaker Thomas Mattiello and Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio say they are ready to take up legalization bills. That would be a pleasant change: For the past six years, legalization bills have been filed, but never voted on.
Rhode Island's political leaders finally look ready to catch up to their constituents, 55% of whom supported legalization in a recent poll from Brown University and who smoke pot at the highest rate of any state, reporting a 16% past month use rate.
Vermont very nearly became the first state to legalize weed through the legislative process this year. A legalization bill, S. 241, was supported by Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) and passed with strong support in the Senate, only to die in the House.
Now, a pair of key lawmakers said they are ready to try to get legalization through the legislature again. Sen. Dick Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said legalization votes in Maine and Massachusetts are forcing the state's hand. "For me, that's a game-changer, that Massachusetts has voted to legalize," Sears said.
Sears' counterpart in the House, Judiciary Committee chairwoman Rep. Maxine Grad, is also ready to go, saying the Maine and Massachusetts votes will make lawmakers more amenable to moving forward.
There's just one problem: Shumlin is gone now, replaced by incoming Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who is not a big fan of government regulation, but is not a big fan of marijuana legalization, either. "I can appreciate the discussion around ending the prohibition of marijuana," he said, but had many, many concerns about this year's bill. Still, it's possible legislators will have heard those concerns and will come up with a bill that Scott can live with -- or a majority that can override a veto.
This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.
As incoming president, Donald Trump will be, among other things, the man in charge of the nation's drug policy. Whether he takes a hand-on, direct approach to policy-making or whether he delegates decision-making authority on drug matters to subordinates -- think Attorney General Jeff Sessions and shudder -- the buck ultimately stops with Donald.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]What a Trump administration will do with states that have legalized marijuana is a huge burning question, but the drug policy horizon extends well beyond weed. The Obama administration has championed federal drug sentencing reform, and the president is now commuting the sentences of dozens of drug offenders each week as the clock ticks down on his tenure. Will Trump reverse course?
There's also a huge cry for drug treatment in response to increasing heroin and prescription opioid use. Will a Trump administration be sympathetic? And what about harm reduction -- needle exchanges, supervised consumption sites, and the like? Do such programs have a future under Trump?
The short answer is: Who knows? Trump is proving day by day that how he governs will not necessarily have much correlation with anything he said on the campaign trail. And, as with his approach to many policy areas, what he has said about drugs, both during the campaign and in his earlier life, sounds both spur-of-the-moment and self-contradictory.
But Trump is not just a rather unpredictable president-elect. He's also a person with his own personal and family history, and that history includes a close encounter with substance abuse that sheds some light on his attitudes towards drugs and may influence his drug policy decision-making.
Donald Trump's older brother, and his overbearing father's namesake, "Freddy, Jr." was a full-blown alcoholic by his mid-20s (and Donald's teens) and drank himself into an early grave at the age of 43 in 1981. Freddy wasn't ready to take over the family business and instead became a fun-loving airline pilot, but his descent into the bottle had a traumatic -- and lasting -- impact on his little brother.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]"I learned a lot from my brother Fred's death," Trump told Esquire in a 2004 interview. "He was a great-looking guy. He had the best personality. He had everything. But he had a problem with alcohol and cigarettes. He knew he had the problem, and it's a tough problem to have. He was ten years older than me, and he would always tell me not to drink or smoke. And to this day I've never had a cigarette. I've never had a glass of alcohol. I won't even drink a cup of coffee. I just stay away from those things because he had such a tremendous problem. Fred did me a great favor. It's one of the greatest favors anyone's ever done for me," he recalled.
Trump's experience with his brother turned him into a teetotaler, although he does swill Diet Coke instead. And he admits to one other "vice" in revealing terms. In a 2007 video, he said that hot women are his "alcoholism," especially "beautiful" teens.
"I never understood why people don't go after the alcohol companies like they did the tobacco companies," he continued in the Esquire interview. "Alcohol is a much worse problem than cigarettes."
Still, the free-wheeling marketeer wasn't ready to reinstate Prohibition because of Freddy, and that attitude extended to drugs. In the early 1990s, Trump reportedly talked about drug legalization, calling drug law enforcement "a joke" and saying "You have to legalize drugs to win that war. You have to take the profits away from these drug czars."
But Trump was singing a different tune on the campaign trail, especially in New Hampshire, which has been hit hard by the opioid wave. In a November 2015 interview with ABC News' Martha Raddatz, Trump backtracked.
"Well, I did not think about it," he confessed. "I said it's something that should be studied and maybe should continue to be studied. But it's not something I'd be willing to do right now. I think it's something that I've always said maybe it has to be looked at because we do such a poor job of policing. We don't want to build walls. We don't want to do anything. And if you're not going to want to do the policing, you're going to have to start thinking about other alternatives. But it's not something that I would want to do."
[image:3 align:left caption:true]That suggests that he thinks if we just enforce drug laws more vigorously, we could solve the problem. But it also suggests that he hasn't really been paying attention to the last 40 years of the war on drugs. Still, he has also said that marijuana legalization "should be a state issue, state by state," suggesting that he will not try to roll back pot legalization in the eight states that have now voted to free the weed.
And in an October 15 speech in New Hampshire, where he made his most coherent remarks about drug policy, he was mainly about building the wall on the Mexican border to stop the flow of heroin from Mexico. But in that speech, he at least sketched the outlines of response that included increased access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone, increased reliance on drug courts, and increased access to the silver bullet of drug addiction, "abuse-deterring drugs." But he didn't say anything about how much he would be willing to spend on treatment and recovery (Hillary Clinton rolled out a $10 billion plan), nor how he would pay for it.
As with many policy areas, Trump's positions on drug policy are murky, seemingly only half-developed, and full of potential contradictions. Will having a teetotaler with a dead alcoholic brother in the White House make for better drug policies or an administration more understanding of the travails of addiction? As with many things Trump, we shall have to wait for his actions. Nominating drug war hardliners like Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) to head the Justice Department and giving Vice President-elect Mike Pence props for enacting mandatory minimum drug sentences aren't good omens, though.