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Sweeping Bipartisan Federal Sentencing Reform Legislation Filed [FEATURE]

Mon, 10/05/2015 - 19:22

A bipartisan group of senators including heavyweights like Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Assistant Democratic Leader Dick Durbin rolled out comprehensive sentencing reform legislation Thursday. The bill aims at reducing prison sentences for some drug offenders and seeking to curb recidivism by bolstering reentry programs for prisoners. The legislation would, however, also expand mandatory minimum sentences in some for some non-drug offenses.

[image:1 align:left]The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 is also cosponsored by Senators John Cornyn (R-TX), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Mike Lee (R-UT), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Cory Booker (D-NJ).

It is arguably the most sweeping legislation to roll back drug war excesses yet, and it represents "small government" conservatives cooperating with liberals and civil rights advocates -- a remarkable step in this era of poisoned partisan relations in Washington. If passed, it would free some currently serving prisoners, as well as cut sentences for future offenders.

The bill narrows the scope of mandatory minimum prison sentences to focus on the most serious drug offenders and violent criminals, while broadening ways defendants with minimal non-felony criminal histories can avoid triggering mandatory minimum sentences. The bill also reduces certain mandatory minimums, providing judges with greater discretion when determining appropriate sentences, and preserves "cooperation incentives" to aid law enforcement in tracking down kingpins.

In addition to reducing prison terms for some offenders through sentencing reform, qualifying inmates can earn reduced sentences through recidivism reduction programs outlined in the CORRECTIONS Act introduced by Cornyn and Whitehouse. The bill also makes retroactive the Fair Sentencing Act and certain statutory reforms that address inequities in drug sentences.

According to a summary provided by Sen. Grassley's office, the bill:

Reforms and Targets Enhanced Mandatory Minimums for Prior Drug Felons: The bill reduces the enhanced penalties that apply to repeat drug offenders and eliminates the three-strike mandatory life provision, but it allows those enhanced penalties to be applied to offenders with prior convictions for serious violent and serious drug felonies.

Broadens the Existing Safety Valve and Creates a Second Safety Valve: The bill expands the existing safety valve to offenders with more extensive criminal histories but excludes defendants with prior felonies and violent or drug trafficking offenses unless a court finds those prior offenses substantially overstate the defendant's criminal history and danger of recidivism. The bill also creates a second safety valve that gives judges discretion to sentence certain low-level offenders below the 10-year mandatory minimum. But defendants convicted of serious violent and serious drug felonies cannot benefit from these reforms.

Reforms Enhanced Mandatory Minimums and Sentences for Firearm Offenses: The bill expands the reach of the enhanced mandatory minimum for violent firearm offenders to those with prior federal or state firearm offenses but reduces that mandatory minimum to provide courts with greater flexibility in sentencing. The bill also raises the statutory maximum for unlawful possession of firearms but lowers the enhanced mandatory minimum for repeat offenders.

Creates New Mandatory Minimums for Interstate Domestic Violence and Certain Export Control Violations: The bill adds new mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes involving interstate domestic violence and creates a new mandatory minimum for providing weapons and other defense materials to prohibited countries and terrorists.

Applies the Fair Sentencing Act and Certain Sentencing Reforms Retroactively

Provides for Prison Reform based on the Cornyn-Whitehouse CORRECTIONS Act: The bill requires the Department of Justice to conduct risk assessments to classify all federal inmates and to use the results to assign inmates to appropriate recidivism reduction programs, including work and education programs, drug rehabilitation, job training, and faith-based programs. Eligible prisoners who successfully complete these programs can earn early release and may spend the final portion (up to 25 percent) of their remaining sentence in home confinement or a halfway house.

Limits Solitary Confinement for Juveniles in Federal Custody and Improves the Accuracy of Federal Criminal Records

Provides for a Report and Inventory of All Federal Criminal Offenses

[image:2 align:right caption:true]"This historic reform bill addresses legitimate over-incarceration concerns while targeting violent criminals and masterminds in the drug trade," Grassley said. "This bill is an important component in my ongoing effort as Judiciary Committee chairman to ensure access to justice for both the victims and the accused."

"The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country on earth," said Durbin. "Mandatory minimum sentences were once seen as a strong deterrent. In reality they have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety. Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, our country must reform these outdated and ineffective laws that have cost American taxpayers billions of dollars. This bipartisan group is committed to getting this done."

"Crafting criminal justice reform in this Congress is like a Rubik's cube, but this group of Republicans and Democrats worked hard to come up with a fair and balanced package that will make a real difference," said Schumer. "This bill would make much needed reforms to sentencing for nonviolent offenders, resulting in a much fairer criminal justice system. I'm hopeful that we can continue moving the ball forward in a bipartisan way to make the reforms our system needs."

"For decades, our broken criminal justice system has held our nation back from realizing its full potential," said Booker. "Today, we take a step forward. Mass incarceration has cost taxpayers billions of dollars, drained our economy, compromised public safety, hurt our children, and disproportionately affected communities of color while devaluing the very idea of justice in America. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is a promising, bipartisan step forward to help right this wrong."

Although the bill doesn't move completely away from the resort to mandatory minimums, it is still garnering general support among the civil rights, drug reform, and criminal justice reform communities.

[image:3 align:left caption:true]"The legislation is recognition from leadership in both parties that the war on drugs has failed and that the harsh sentencing laws that appealed to lawmakers in the 80s and 90s have had disastrous consequences -- especially for communities of color," said Michael Collins, Policy Manager at the Drug Policy Alliance. "There are things we like about the bill and things we don't, and much more action is needed to tackle mass incarceration, but this is a worthy compromise."

"In an age of intense partisan conflict, it's heartening to see lawmakers across the spectrum working together on restoring justice in this country," said Maj. Neill Franklin (Ret.), executive director for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group of criminal justice professionals working to end the drug war. "We could reduce the impact that drug prohibition has on people of color and for so many others who have been victims of unreasonable and ineffective drug prohibition laws. There's still a lot of work to be done, but this is a considerable step in the right direction."

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights was also on board.

"Today marks a unique moment in our history and an important step forward in making long overdue reforms to our justice system," said Wade Henderson, the group's CEO. "This bill represents the most robust bipartisan effort at criminal justice reform in years. "This harmonic convergence of left and right -- of civil rights and small government advocates -- represents a coalition of conscience that can carry this legislation to the White House. We applaud the effort and look forward to working with the cosponsors on this legislation."

Now, the bill has to actually get through Congress. Given the high-powered and bipartisan support in the Senate, prospects look good there, but whether the House will be willing to sign on remains to be seen.

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Here Comes the Big One: The ReformCA Marijuana Legalization Initiative [FEATURE]

Mon, 10/05/2015 - 06:14

The California Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform, also known as ReformCA, has filed a draft marijuana legalization initiative with state officials, the group announced Sunday. The long-anticipated move means the campaign best-placed to bring legalization to the Golden State can finally get underway.

[image:1 align:right]The Control, Regulate and Tax Cannabis Act of 2016 would allow people 21 and over to possess and cultivate limited amounts of marijuana and it would set up legal marijuana commerce overseen by a pair of new state agencies, the California Cannabis Commission and the Office of Cannabis Regulatory Affairs.

"We believe this effort has the most statewide input and consensus, and thus the greatest likelihood of succeeding on the 2016 ballot," ReformCA said. "We engaged in extensive discussions with thousands of stakeholders across California, including community leaders, activists, elected officials, city and county employees and locals."

ReformCA also consulted with the California NAACP, the Latino Voters' Leagues, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and medical, health care and environmental groups. It took part in lengthy discussions with the Drafting Advisory Group, which includes state and national activist and industry groups, including the Drug Policy Alliance, the Marijuana Policy Project, Americans for Safe Access, the California Cannabis Industry Association, the Greater Los Angeles Collective Alliance, the Emerald Growers Association, New Approach, the Harborside Group, and the Council on Responsible Cannabis Regulation.

"We've filed our proposed initiative language based on the policy priorities and common sense reforms Californians have been asking for for six years now" and the Manatt, Phelp and Phillips Law Firm has created "an elegant policy document," ReformCA said, adding that it was crafted to comport with the guidelines laid down by pro-legalization Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom's Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy and to complement the statewide medical marijuana regulation scheme approved last month by the legislature.

A handful of other legalization initiatives have already been filed, and some are approved for signature gathering, but there isn't much sign that any of them have the bucks or the organization to get the job done. It takes some 365,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November 2016 elections, a number that means paid signature gathering at a cost that could run a million dollars or more.

And that's just to get on the ballot. With 38 million residents and some of the country's largest media markets, California is an expensive place to run an initiative advertising campaign -- as in $10 million or $20 million or more.

[image:2 align:left caption:true]There is money out there, and unlike 2010, when Richard Lee's Proposition 19 came up short, both financially and at the polls, the state's already existing legal (medical) marijuana industry looks to be gearing up to help. Earlier this year, contributed $2 million toward the cause, with half going to an initiative campaign committee that will spend it on the initiative it likes best. The other half is going to a PAC that will work to elect pro-legalization candidates. Facebook cofounder Sean Parker, who did support Prop 19, says he will probably invest in a legalization initiative, too.

But if, as expected, both the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Policy Project get behind the ReformCA initiative -- they were a teensy bit nervous last week -- that should help open the floodgates and pave the way to getting those signatures and making the ballot.

This is a first draft of the initiative, and the campaign is seeking feedback before filing a final version, but only until midnight Pacific Time this Wednesday. Here's what it will do:

  • Personal Use and Cultivation. Legalizes possession of up to an ounce by people 21 and over and allows for personal cultivation of up to 100 square feet and the possession of "the results of lawfully harvested homegrown cannabis."
  • Unlawful Acts. A $100 fine for minors possessing or sharing not more than an ounce with other minors; a $500 fine for adults providing less than an ounce to minors, for minors who possess more than an ounce but less than a pound, for adults who possess more than an ounce, for public consumption, and for smoking up in a moving vehicle; either a misdemeanor or infraction (prosecutor's choice) for possessing more than a pound, selling more than an ounce but less than a pound, growing marijuana beyond 100 square feet without a license or as a minor; a felony for providing pot to minors under 18, distribution to other states, growing on federal or state protected lands, or engaging in violence.
  • Driving. No measuring metabolites. Instead: "A person shall be deemed to be under the influence of cannabis if, as a result of consuming cannabis, his or her mental or physical abilities are so impaired that he or she is no longer able to drive a vehicle or operate a vessel with the caution of a sober person, using ordinary care, under similar circumstances. This standard shall be the sole standard used in determining driving under the influence allegations."
  • Employment. Does not affect employers' ability to fire employees for marijuana use.
  • Medical Marijuana. With limited exceptions, "does not infringe upon the protections granted under the Compassionate Use Act of 1996," grants business licenses to existing, compliant medical marijuana businesses.
  • Regulated Marijuana Commerce. Establishes the California Cannabis Commission and the Office of Cannabis Regulatory Affairs to regulate and rule-make; envisions licenses for cultivation, nursery, manufacturing, distribution, transportation, retail, and testing enterprises.
  • Local Control. Cities and counties can ban marijuana commerce, including retail outlets, but not delivery services, but only by popular vote -- not by executive or legislative action. This means the default position is "no ban."Localities cannot ban personal cultivation.
  • Taxation. Tax on cultivators of $2 per square foot licensed; production tax paid by first purchaser of $15 an ounce ($5 an ounce for first 500 pounds from small producers); 10% retail sales tax -- half to the state and half to the locality.

Remember this is just the draft, but ReformCA is finally out of the gate. California should join the ranks of the legalization states next year, and the Control, Regulate and Tax Cannabis Act of 2016 is the most likely vehicle.

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Despite Legalization and Decrim, Marijuana Arrests Spiked Last Year [FEATURE]

Wed, 09/30/2015 - 16:58

Despite marijuana legalization being in effect in two states last year and decriminalization laws in nearly 20 more, the number of marijuana arrests actually increased last year, according to data from the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report.

[image:1 align:left]Pot arrests accounted for nearly 45% of all drug arrests, which totaled 1.56 million last year. Drug arrests were the single largest category of offenses. There were three times as many drug arrests last year as there were arrests for violent crimes.

There were 700,993 marijuana arrests in 2014, compared with 693,000 in 2013. More than 88% of those arrests were for simple possession -- also an increase over 2013, by 2%.

Last year, people were being arrested for marijuana offenses at a rate of one every 45 seconds. That compares with one every half hour in 1965 and one every two minutes in 1990, when marijuana arrests really started skyrocketing. In that year, there were some 330,000 pot arrests; they peaked in 2007, with nearly 900,000. Last year's number represent a 20% decline from the 2007, but is still an increase over 2013.

The spread of legalization and decriminalization in the West is reflected in the numbers. Marijuana arrests were more likely to occur in the Midwest and South, while many fewer arrests were reported in the West.

Marijuana reform advocates were quick to denounce the uptick.

"These numbers refute the myth that nobody actually gets arrested for using marijuana. Could you imagine if hundreds of thousands of adults were arrested last year simply for possessing alcohol? That would be crazy. It's even crazier that hundreds of thousands of adults were arrested for possessing a less harmful substance," said Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project.

[image:2 align:right caption:true]"It's hard to imagine why more people were arrested for marijuana possession when fewer people than ever believe it should be a crime," Tvert continued. "Law enforcement officials should not be wasting their time and resources arresting and prosecuting adults for using marijuana. While law enforcement was busy making nearly three quarters of a million marijuana arrests, more than 35% of murders went unsolved, the clearance rate for rape was less than 40%, and for robbery and property crimes, it was below 30%."

"It's unacceptable that police still put this many people in handcuffs for something that a growing majority of Americans think should be legal," said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. "A record number of states are expected to vote on legalizing marijuana next year, so we hope and expect to see these numbers significantly dropping soon. There's just no good reason that so much police time and taxpayer money is spent punishing people for marijuana when so many murders, rapes and robberies go unsolved."

The numbers should decrease next year. By the end of 2016, legalization will have been fully in effect in Alaska, DC, and Oregon, as well as in Colorado and Washington, where it was in effect all of last year. But for the numbers to have gone up last year even as legalization and decriminalization expanded across the country strongly suggests that enforcing the marijuana laws continues to be a favorite pastime for law enforcement.

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As Peace Negotiations Advance, Colombia Revamps Drug Policy [FEATURE]

Wed, 09/23/2015 - 22:04

Marking the end of an era, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos Tuesday unveiled a new policy for dealing with coca cultivation and cocaine production, one that will rely on crop substitution and alternative development, with manual crop eradication only to be used as a last resort.

[image:1 align:left caption:true]Santos then flew to Havana, where he met with leaders of the leftist FARC guerrillas and Wednesday announced an agreement on a transitional justice deal that should lead to the end of the world's longest-running insurgency by March 2016. The agreement on how to deal with combatants in the nearly half-century long civil war is the latest in peace talks that have been going on in Havana since November 2012. Negotiators had already forged agreements on the thorny issues of land reform, the FARC's political participation after peace is achieved, and how to deal with illicit drug production.

Colombia's years-long policy of attempting to eradicate coca crops by spraying fields with herbicides will be history at the end of this month. That policy was backed and financed by the United States as part of its multi-billion dollar effort to defeat drug trafficking and, later, to defeat the FARC.

Despite the billions spent, Colombia remains the world's largest coca and cocaine producer, according to the US government. While production is down from record levels early this century, it rose 39% last year to about 276,000 acres. Figures from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime show a lower extent of cultivation (170,000 acres), but echo that it is on the increase. According to UNODC, the increase was 44% last year.

The plan announced Tuesday, the Integrated Plan for Crop Substitution, has as its goals reducing the crime associated with the drug trade by reorienting policing efforts toward processing, trafficking, and money laundering -- not harassing peasants -- improving state capacity through the improvement of social, economic, and political conditions in the countryside, and dealing with drug consumption with a focus on human rights, public health, and human development.

It sets out six foci:

  1. Social Investment. That will include state and private spending on roads, energy supply, water supply, and investment in public health and education.
  2. Crop Substitution. A phased-in plan with community involvement that will create socio-economic stabilization and create new income opportunities. Agreements will be made with whole communities, not individual growers. Once a community has agreed to crop substitution, voluntary coca eradication will begin. If there is no agreement to eradicate, the government will do it manually, by force.
  3. Interdiction. Interdiction will continue, but in concert with the priorities of local communities and farmers. The plan also envisions "strengthening the legal tools available to fight the illegal drug business."
  4. Investigations and Prosecutions. The government will give top priority to going after "intermediate and top links of the drug trafficking chain," not peasant farmers.
  5. Prevention and Treatment. The new plan will emphasize youth prevention, as well as drug treatment using "programs founded on evidence." The plan calls for an increase in the quantity and quality of drug treatment offered.
  6. Institutional Reforms. The plan will create a new agency for alternative development in illicit cultivation zones. The agency will establish metrics for success, which will be made public on a regular basis.

The government's plan is in line with the recommendations of its Advisory Commission on Drug Policy in Colombia, which in a May report, called for drug policy to be based on evidence and the principles of public health, harm reduction and human rights, with effective state institutions to coordinate policy implementation. Combating the drug trade should focus on trafficking organizations and money laundering, and peasant coca growers should be offered alternative development, not criminal prosecution, the report also recommended. (The report and the issues it addressed were recently discussed at this " target="_blank">Brookings Institution event.)

[image:2 align:right caption:true]"With this program we hope to have a twofold result: reducing the illicit cultivation and improving the living conditions of hundreds of thousands of peasants," Santos said in a speech from the presidential palace.

The plan will focus on the southern provinces of Narino and Putumayo, "where there are some 26,000 families that produce coca," Santos said. "Work will be done to construct roads, schools, health clinics, aqueducts and service networks," he added, noting that coca cultivation is most extensive in areas where the state is weakest.

While the government will seek agreements with communities to voluntarily eradicate their coca crops, "if an agreement is not reached, forced eradication will be resorted to," Santos warned. Forced eradication has led to conflict between farmers and eradicators in the past, with nearly 200 eradicators killed in attacks from unhappy peasants or guerrillas of the FARC, which has taxed and protected coca cultivation in areas under its control.

When Santos arrived in Havana Wednesday he was sounding optimistic, both about the new approach to coca cultivation and about the prospects for peace.

"We've already started. And if we can move forward now, imagine how much we could move forward if we do away with the conflict," said Santos. "We've already talked with the FARC about joint plans for the substitution of crops. Imagine what this means. That the FARC, instead of defending illicit crops and the entire drug trafficking chain, will help the state in their eradication. As the slogan says, with peace we will do more," Santos said.

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California Legislature Passes Historic Medical Marijuana Regulation Package [FEATURE]

Thu, 09/17/2015 - 18:28

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

After nearly 20 years of wrangling over what is and is not legal under California's 1996 Proposition 215 medical marijuana law, the state legislature has passed a set of bills designed to bring order to the chaos.

[image:1 align:left]Fresh from working with the office of Gov. Jerry Brown (D) on acceptable language, the Assembly and the Senate Friday passed Assembly Bill 243, Assembly Bill 266, and Senate Bill 643 just hours before the session ended.

If, as expected, Gov. Brown signs the bills into law, the medical marijuana status quo, rife with ambiguities, contradictions, and grey areas, will be transformed into a robust, strictly regulated medical marijuana industry. It won't always be painless, and there will be winners and losers.

The general consensus -- although not universal -- is that patients will benefit from the package of bills. They will gain access to quality-controlled medical marijuana through unambiguously legal means, and even though localities will retain the ability to ban dispensaries, patients will now be able to have their medicine delivered anywhere in the state.

Growers who seek the security of legality also stand to benefit. They will be able to come out from the shadows, pay their fees, get their licenses, and go about their business. But growers using the ambiguity of the state's current lack of regulation as a cover for grey or black market production will probably find their wiggle-room decreased. A similar dynamic will be at play in other sectors of the industry, including some that have operated in the open throughout the years.

"Big Marijuana," that favorite bogey-man of prohibitionists, doesn't fare so well. There are constraints on vertical integration within the industry, and the licensing scheme foreseen is tilted toward small and medium producers.

[image:2 align:right caption:true]The bills will once and for all clarify to law enforcement that licensed medical marijuana producers and activities "are not unlawful under state law and shall not be an offense subject to arrest, prosecution, or sanction under state law, or be subject to a civil fine or be a basis for seizure or forfeiture of assets under state law."

The bills also clarify that medical marijuana can be a profit-making and -taking industry. Some local law enforcement and prosecutors have used making a profit as a basis for charging medical marijuana operators. Now, no more.

Patients and caregivers maintain their Prop 215 rights to possess and grow their own medicine, but collectives will be phased out, and anyone who wants to grow more than a personal amount will need a license. The bills provide for 12 different types of licenses, for "specialty," small, and medium indoor, outdoor, and mixed-light commercial grows; manufacturers, testers, transporters, distributors, and dispensaries.

"This is an important and inevitable step forward. It finally lays the groundwork for a legally regulated medical cannabis distribution and production system in California," said Dale Gieringer, longtime director of California NORML.

"There was a pretty broad coalition of groups that contributed to the process of drafting the bills and who managed to more or less concur on the final thing, despite some reservations," he said in something of an understatement.

Getting the package passed required the juggling of many moving parts, not only in the state legislature and executive branch, but in balancing the interests of groups ranging from state law enforcement and local government associations to the various interest groups within the medical marijuana industry -- patients, growers, dispensary operators, manufacturers, distributors -- as well as groups, such as those concerned with environmental degradation, who see themselves impacted by the medical marijuana industry.

Making sure the proper balance was reached is going to require careful scrutiny and ongoing monitoring of rulemaking and implementation, Gieringer said.

"This is a really complicated piece of legislation, and we're combing through it carefully, looking for possible glitches," he said. "There are some problematic details, but most of the potential glitches are in the future. It's going to take at least a year for this to ramp up, and there's a new agency that has to be up by January, and we're now also going to have all these local governments starting to take a look at this and deciding what they want to do. There are hardly any jurisdictions in the state that recognize commercial cultivation, but there are probably 40,000 people doing that now. How many cities and counties are going to act to recognize and ally themselves with the growers they're already harboring?"

[image:3 align:left]That's something Hezekiah Allen is wondering, too. The son of Mendocino County pot farmers, he's followed in their footsteps, but has now traded farm apparel for suit and tie as chair and executive director of the Emerald Growers Association, and was deeply involved in the sausage-making around the bills. They were overdue, he said.

"Regulation is never an easy thing to transition to, but there has been a decades long crisis due first to prohibition and then to the unregulated nature of this industry, and at the end of the day, we took a monumental and historic step toward bringing some order to this industry and creating stronger communities," he said. "It's a pretty amazing thing."

Not only does the legislation treat marijuana growing as an agricultural issue and address questions of direct relevance to producers, it also seems to support small and medium producers, Allen pointed out.

"We only ever wanted to be farmers -- that's how we should be regulated -- and cultivation is pretty firmly in the agriculture category," he said. "We also really believe in decentralized economies and small, sustainable agriculture moving forward. This legislation outlines specific policy tools to license small and medium producers, but not large ones. That's a real bias toward small and medium producers."

Allen also pronounced himself pleased that the legislation allowed for addressing things like standards for what can be called organic and standards for pesticides.

"There is a mish-mash of state-federal policy challenges, one example being organic standards," he said. "It's really challenging for us to label anything as organic given that the FDA 'owns' the term, but the state already has the Organic Produce Act, which created provisions that gives us authority to develop organic standards, and this legislation takes that another step forward."

It's a similar issue with pesticides, Allen said. There are no guidelines for pesticides with medical marijuana because the federal government hasn't established them, but the legislation encourages state regulators to develop guidelines.

"We called for this," he said.

Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the country's largest medical marijuana advocacy group, was also deeply involved in the work in Sacramento.

"We think the regulatory bills are mostly good," said ASA press secretary Chris Brown. "We've researched licensing and regulation in the past and found it perfectly compatible with patient access. We also think it's very important to have a system in place for medical marijuana before adult use comes in, so it won't be seen as the unregulated part of a broader market."

ASA wasn't happy with everything, though.

"There was a late provision added that sets a maximum 100 square feet of cultivation space per patient," Brown noted. "We didn't know about that and we don't like it."

And there will be ongoing concerns as the regulatory rulemaking process takes shape.

"There are a lot of issues around vertical integration, and there are things we're going to have to monitor closely to see if they create problems moving forward," Brown said. "We will monitor things as they move forward, and we'll be very active in rulemaking and implementation. We have a lot of experience with that in other states, and our activists are great in terms of getting their voices heard."

Some other voices from the medical marijuana community are even less happy. At Harborside Health Center in Oakland, the state's largest dispensary, executive director and cofounder Steve DeAngelo "welcomed" the legislation, but had some "concerns."

"Harborside welcomes the long overdue enactment of statewide medical cannabis regulations -- almost two decades after Proposition 215 called for them," said DeAngelo. "However, we are concerned that time pressures made it impossible for legislators to adequately consider the impact of the new regulations on medical cannabis patients and the organizations that serve them. In addition, some of the language in the bill is unclear or may be in conflict with prior legislation. Harborside looks forward to working with lawmakers next session to address and resolve these outstanding issues."

And Steven Kubby of the American Medical Marijuana Association is threatening to sue over what he calls the "hijacking" of Proposition 215.

"Our medical cannabis rights, protected for nearly 20 years by Prop. 215, have been hijacked and Prop. 215 is under attack like never before. The new law is an unacceptable and illegal infringement on our rights under Prop. 215," said Kubby. "I'm getting calls from frightened patients who fear their own state government is planning on going after cannabis doctors as if they are some sort of dangerous threat that must be carefully supervised. Sick people cannot handle this kind of stress. Thousands of patients will die because of this calculated attempt to thwart the will of the people and deprive them of medical cannabis and the doctors who write recommendations to use the healing herb," he added.

Kubby cited the 100 square foot patient garden limit, provisions that allow localities to ban medical marijuana activitiies, and new restrictions on medical marijuana-recommending doctors.

Clearly, there remains work to be done. Potency and purity standards haven't been set yet, the dual licensing structure with both state and local permits hasn't been settled, and lots of issues remain to be hashed out by state officials charged with writing regulations to implement the bills. And the critics need to be addressed, assuaged, or proven wrong.

But California's billion dollar medical marijuana industry is about to come in from the cold.

Categories: Latest News

Illinois Governor Vetoes Heroin Bill Over Medicaid Treatment Funding [FEATURE]

Wed, 08/26/2015 - 19:45

Faced with a public health crisis related to heroin and prescription opioid use, the Illinois state government created a bipartisan Heroin Task Force in a comprehensive effort to address the problem from all angles. The task force created a set of policy recommendations that were embodied in House Bill 1, the Heroin Crisis Act.

[image:1 align:left caption:true]The bill passed the House and Senate in May, and was sent to Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) in June, where it sat on his desk until this week. On Monday, Rauner finally acted -- not by signing the bill, but by vetoing critical sections of it that he says the state cannot afford. He has now sent the bill back to the legislature and asked it to remove the offending sections.

But saying, "People are dying," the measure's House sponsor, Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), has vowed an effort to override the veto. An override could be within reach -- the bill passed by veto-proof majorities in both houses -- but for members of a governor's own party, a veto override is a hard vote to take.

Here's what the bill does:

  • It increases the availability of opiate overdose reversal drugs and requires private insurance to cover at least one of them, as well as acute treatment and stabilization services. It allows licensed pharmacists to dispense overdose reversal drugs, allows school nurses to administer them to students suffering from overdoses, and provides protection from civil liability for people who administer them in good faith.
  • It requires the Department of Human Services and the State Board of Education to develop a three-year pilot heroin prevention program for all schools in the state, requires the Department of Human Services to develop materials to educate prescription opiate users on the dangers of those drugs, and it requires the Department of Insurance to convene working groups on drug treatment and mental illness and on parity between state and federal mental health laws.
  • It intensifies the state's prescription monitoring program by tightening reporting requirements and it requires doctors to now document the medical necessity of any three sequential 30-day prescriptions for Schedule II opioids.
  • On the criminal justice front, it permits multiple chances at drug court and prevents prosecutors from unilaterally blocking entry to drug court, and it requires prosecutors and public defenders to undergo mandatory education on addiction and addiction treatment. It also increases criminal penalties for "doctor shopping" if fraud is involved.
  • It requires Medicaid coverage of all heroin treatment, including methadone and other opiate maintenance treatment, as well as all anti-overdose medications.

[image:2 align:right caption:true]It's the latter provision to which Rauner objects.

"I support all of the above measures and applaud the multifaceted approach to combating this epidemic in Illinois. Unfortunately, the bill also includes provisions that will impose a very costly mandate on the State's Medicaid providers. I am returning the bill with a recommendation to address that concern," he said in a veto statement.

"House Bill 1 mandates that fee-for-service and medical assistance Medicaid programs cover all forms of medication assisted treatment of alcohol or opioid dependence, and it removes utilization controls and prior authorization requirements," Rauner continued. "These changes would limit our ability to contain rising costs at a time when the State is facing unprecedented fiscal difficulties. Importantly, the State's Medicaid programs already cover multiple forms of medication necessary to treat alcohol and opioid dependence. But without adequate funding to support mandated coverage for all forms of treatment, regardless of cost, this change would add to the State's deficit."

His recommendation is simply to delete the language requiring Medicaid coverage.

Rep. Lang and other bill supporters aren't going for that.

[image:3 align:left]"There's a human cost to not doing it," Lang said. "People are addicted, people are sick, people are dying. You want to talk about the costs of providing methadone and Narcan to addicts, but you forget totally that if you cure them or they get off the stuff, there's a savings to the Medicaid system on a different line item, because they're no longer in emergency rooms, they're no longer a burden to law enforcement."

Heroin and opiate addiction is a serious problem in Illinois. The rate of drug overdose deaths has nearly doubled since 1999, and in the Chicago suburbs, people have been dying of drug overdoses at a rate of three per day since 2012. In the state as a whole, 633 people died of heroin overdoses last year, with nearly half (283) in Chicago.

At the same time as the problem with heroin and prescription opioids has been deepening, the state's ability to provide treatment has been decreasing. According to a report this month from the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, the state's ranking for drug treatment capacity has fallen from 28th in the nation in 2009 to 47th this year. This as demand for heroin and opiate treatment statewide is increasing dramatically. In Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, 35% of drug treatment admissions are for heroin, more than twice the national average.

The consortium's director and the study's lead author, Kathleen Kane-Willis, noted that Illinois is one of only a few states nationwide that doesn't allow Medicaid coverage of opiate maintenance treatment.

"We're going to pay for not paying," she said.

But bill supporters could also find the votes to override the veto. Rep. Lang says that is what's he going to try to do, and with a 114-0 vote in the House and a 46-6 vote in the Senate the first time around, he has plenty of supporters to ask. If that happens, Illinois will get the drug treatment it needs, and Rauner will still be able to maintain his fiscally conservative credentials.

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Obama's Heroin Initiative: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back? [FEATURE]

Tue, 08/18/2015 - 19:50

This article was produced in collaboration with Alternet and first appeared here.

The White House Monday announced a new initiative to combat heroin that will pair law enforcement and public health in what it called a bid to shift the focus of the fight from punishing drug addicts to treating them. Under the plan, drug intelligence officers will work with public health officials to track heroin supplies, how it gets to street-level dealers, and how and where it's getting cut with sometimes deadly adulterants.

[image:1 align:right]The initiative has won support from some elected officials in states hard-hit by rising levels of heroin use and heroin overdose deaths. But drug reform advocates called it "one step forward, two steps back."

Under the plan, announced today as part of a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) funding program by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, $5 million will go to "a broad range of efforts that will reduce the trafficking, distribution, and use of heroin," with half of that funding a Heroin Response Strategy involving an "unprecedented partnership" of five HIDTA programs -- Appalachia, New England, Philadelphia/Camden, New York/New Jersey, and Washington/Baltimore -- to fight smack.

Another $4 million in HIDTA funds will go toward prevention in 18 HIDTAs, including programs that feature "key partnerships between law enforcement agencies and their counterparts in public health and education," the announcement says. Another $1.3 million will go to five Southwest border HIDTAs "to enhance investigational efforts" against the Mexican trafficking organizations supplying most of the nation's heroin.

"The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program helps Federal, state, and local authorities to coordinate drug enforcement operations, support prevention efforts and improve public health and safety," said ONDCP head Michael Botticelli. "The new Heroin Response Strategy demonstrates a strong commitment to address the heroin and prescription opioid epidemic as both a public health and a public safety issue. This Administration will continue to expand community-based efforts to prevent drug use, pursue 'smart on crime' approaches to drug enforcement, increase access to treatment, work to reduce overdose deaths, and support the millions of Americans in recovery."

[image:2 align:left caption:true]The funding will pay for 15 drug intelligence officers and 15 health policy analysts to work within the HIDTA programs. The narcs will gather information on trafficking patterns and trends and feed it to street-level law enforcement. The health policy analysts will increase overdose monitoring, look for dope cut with dangerous adulterants, and train first responders on how to use the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone.

The announcement comes amidst rising clamor over heroin's comeback and increasingly lethality in recent years. While the causes of the increase in heroin use are multifaceted and debatable, the reality of it doesn't seem to be. According to the Centers for Disease Control in a report released last month, more than half a million people were using heroin in 2013, up 150% from 2007.

The number of heroin overdose deaths is climbing even faster. The CDC reported that fatal overdoses hovered around 2,000 a year in the early 2000s before doubling to around 4,000 in 2011, and then doubling again to 8,257 two years later in 2013.

The sound of more federal funding is music to the ears of politicians in states like New Hampshire, which saw more than 300 heroin overdose deaths last year and where Republicans and Democrats are squabbling over how much money to spend on drug treatment. Elected officials across the political spectrum had kind words for the initiative Monday.

[image:3 align:right caption:true]"While the announcement of additional federal support for New England is an important first step, we must see these resources move as quickly as possible and we will need continued engagement from our federal partners to help combat this pressing public health and safety challenge," said Gov. Maggie Hassan (D).

"Stemming the tide requires investments in prevention, treatment and recovery, and broad cooperation at the federal, state and local levels," said US Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D).

"Today's announcement is welcome news for New Hampshire and other New England states that are confronting this crisis," added US Senator Kelly Ayotte (R). "We must take a multi-pronged approach in this fight, and prevention is a key part of that."

But the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) took a more skeptical view.

"Half of what they're doing is right -- the focus on health and overdose prevention -- but the other half, the side that focuses on the failed arrest and incarceration policies of the past is destined to ruin lives and fail," said Bill Piper, director of the group's office of national affairs.

DPA took particular exception to the use of the HIDTA program as a vehicle for addressing heroin use, noting that even though its mandate was originally to focus on high-level drug traffickers, its programs "lack congressional oversight and generally waste resources pursuing individuals engaged in low-level drug crimes."

HIDTAs came into being in 1988, with five being created to focus on "top priority" areas. But since then, the HIDTA program has swollen to 28 different regional HIDTAs covering more than 60% of the US population, including such major drug trafficking hotbeds as South Dakota and Wyoming.

And, thanks to Congress, since 1998, no HIDTA money can be spent on drug treatment. DPA and other advocates have pointed out that this statutory ban reduces program flexibility and access to treatment, and have called on Congress to repeal the ban, eliminate the HIDTA program altogether, or move it out of the White House and into the Justice Department and merge it with the Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force as the Bush administration once proposed.

If the Obama administration wants to really address drug use as a public health issue and not throw away more money on failed drug war policies, DPA had some suggestions:

  • "Shifting federal resources from enforcement and incarceration to treatment and public health program funding to save more lives and realize substantial savings for taxpayers. The federal government's drug control budget has increased exponentially throughout the years. Despite a recent change in rhetoric, the federal government still focuses the vast majority of its drug-related spending on interdiction, enforcement and incarceration.
  • "Committing more federal investments into naloxone access, overdose prevention, and greater access to methadone and buprenorphine and other forms of evidence-based treatment.
  • "Funding community-based initiatives such as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion that reduce barriers to drug treatment and other health services.
  • "Removing barriers to methadone and other forms of medication assisted treatment in military treatment facilities that care for active duty and veterans.
  • "Investing more funding into making overdose prevention and medication assisted treatment available to incarcerated individuals who are at elevated risk of substance use and overdose.
  • "Eliminating federal legal barriers to research trials for supervised injection facilities and heroin assisted treatment."
Categories: Latest News

How to Deal With New Psychoactive Substances? [FEATURE]

Tue, 08/18/2015 - 14:31

This story was written in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

In recent years, we've been inundated with wave after wave of media panics over strange new drugs. First came "fake weed" (or as NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton called it last week, "weaponized marijuana"); then came "bath salts," with the infamous face-eating episode that wasn't; and most recently, "flakka," labeled as "$5 insanity" by one media outlet.

[image:1 align:left caption:true]These new (to the recreational drug market) substances mimic the effects of currently illegal drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine and amphetamines, or ecstasy. The states and Congress have rushed to address the drugs by prohibiting them, but that has proven to be a game of cat and mouse, with innovative chemists and manufacturers replacing banned drugs with new variants faster than politicians can act.

"In recent years, lawmakers have moved to ban wave after wave of NPSs, only to see more emerge," said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "All 50 states have passed laws against synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones, and federally, there are 26 unique compounds under Schedule I. And the DEA, which has legal authority to criminalize drugs administratively, has banned more than two dozen. These laws take time, which allows manufacturers to create new compounds."

Not only is the prohibitionist reflex ineffective, it arguably increases the harms associated with the use of these drugs. But to ignore them or ban them aren't the only policy choices, and some advocates are calling for these novel substances to instead be controlled and regulated. One model they point to is New Zealand, which instead of banning "legal highs," moved to regulate them in 2013.

New Psychoactive Substances

Before turning to policy options, though, it's worth a moment to figure out just exactly what we're talking about when we talk about "new synthetic drugs," and why maybe that isn't the best term to use to describe these substances.

In a conference call organized by the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for regulation over prohibition, Earth and Fire Erowid, the administrators of the Erowid drug information web site -- "Documenting the complex relationship between humans and psychoactives" -- tried to bring some rigor to a domain where science too often gets lost in the distortions of moral panic.

"Synthetic drugs is a term used to imply scary new street drugs," said Earth Erowid. "But nearly all pharmaceutical drugs are synthetic, whether they're cannabinoids, opioids, stimulants, or sedatives. You don't want to use the phrase 'synthetic drugs' unless you're talking about every pharmaceutical developed over the past 50 years."

"A more accurate and appropriate term is "new psychoactive substances," he said. "That's the standard term in Europe."

NPSs can be grouped into some general categories, based on the effects they seek to replicate, the Erowids said:

[image:2 align:right caption:true]Replacement Cannabinoids. Sometimes sold as powders, sometimes sprinkled on herbal blends. These are not cannabis, but new synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists. The specific compounds include JWH 018 and AB-PINACA, among many others. Several of these have been associated with death and serious medical complications.

Replacement Euphoric Stimulants. These include cathinones like methedrone, MDPV ("bath salts"), and Alpha PDP ("flakka"), as well as compounds related to Ritalin.

Replacement Psychedelics. The best known are the NBOMe series ("N-Bomb"). They are often distributed on blotters, and many people who think they're buying LSD are getting this. The NBOMe class has been linked to about 20 deaths.

Replacement Dissociatives. These are PCP-like chemicals, including various ketamine variants and methoxetamine.

Replacement Opioids. These include chemicals such as AH 7921 and U4770.

The Drug Policy Alliance has a similar, if not quite identical, taxonomy here.

The deaths and other adverse reactions that have been linked to NPSs have occurred under regimes of either prohibition or its opposite -- no regulation. "Legal highs" were just that, NPSs yet to be banned but lacking any sort of reliable labeling or quality control. Many formerly "legal highs" are now illegal, but the harm continues, and new NPSs continue to come on the market, legal until the politicians get to work.

"There's a reason for that, said Earth Erowid. "People are looking for legal replacements for illegal drug effects," he explained. "Most people simply want a stimulant or a psychedelic, and they're willing to try anything if it's legal."

"That may hold true for "fake marijuana" users than other NPS users," said Joseph Palamar, an assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at New York University's Langone Medical Center.

"Synthetic marijuana users have different profiles from other NPS users," he said "They are resorting to using it as a legal replacement for marijuana as a means of avoiding arrest, especially minorities. Other NPS users, especially clubbers and ravers, may be taking them unwittingly, Palamar added, pointing a finger especially at "Molly," which is supposed to be pure MDMA in powder form, but often isn't.

"Molly is the biggest system of unintentional NPS use that ever came around," said Palamar. "A lot of the drug users, especially Molly users, are unknowingly taking NPSs.

(The Erowids helpfully pointed out that there are a number of web sites where users can submit their Molly for testing, including one they run at

[image:3 align:left caption:true]There are other options for dealing with NPSs beyond the extremes of prohibition on the one hand and laissez-faire on the other. In some cases, it may be politically feasible to simply legalize the currently prohibited drug they are imitating.

Roger Goodman, chairman of the Washington state House Public Safety Committee and senior member of the Judiciary Committee, said that legalizing weed is a start.

"By legalizing marijuana, we have no problem with synthetic marijuana," said Goodman. "No one wants to use that. We have a rational regulatory approach. Prohibition is in the past for us. Marijuana is a good first step for us. We know better than to impose prohibition and outlaw any particular substance."

Legalizing marijuana more widely could put a real dent in the synthetic cannabinoids market, but there is no immediate prospect for legalizing drugs such as meth, cocaine, and the psychedelics and putting a dent in the market for other NPSs that way. That means if we're not going to prohibit them and we're not going to ignore them, we're going to have to regulate them.

That's what New Zealand did with its 2013 law, which transformed unregulated "legal highs" into regulated "legal highs" sold with labels at established stores. Drug makers were required to submit their products for testing and labeling before they could be approved for legal sale.

"I really look to the New Zealand law," said Goodman. "It provided for licensing and testing, and it got rid of the criminal actors. It seemed like a very rational way to go."

"That model would encourage manufacturers to make safer products," DPA's Smith concurred.

But, alas, the New Zealand law is no more. It was overturned and replaced with a more prohibitionist retrenchment a year later amidst complaints that drug users were getting high and hanging around the dope shops like winos in front of liquor stores. That is a lesson for legalizers (or regulators) here. Not only are progressive drug reforms difficult to enact, they also sometimes require a strong defense.

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