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On Wednesday, a group of 21 US senators and representatives sent a letter to the Department of Veterans Affairs calling on it to allow VA doctors to discuss and recommend marijuana as medicine in states where it is legal.
[image:1 align:left]The bipartisan effort was led by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Steve Daines (R-MT), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Dina Titus (D-NV), and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). All represent medical marijuana states.
Under current VA policy, embodied in VHA Directive 2011-004, which expires Sunday, VA doctors are prohibited recommending marijuana as a treatment option even in legal states. This discourages patients and doctors from being honest with each other.
"According to the current directive, VA providers are prohibited from completing forms seeking recommendations or opinions regarding a veteran's participation in a state-sanctioned marijuana program. This policy disincentivizes doctors and patients from being honest with each other," the solons wrote. "Congress has taken initial steps to alleviate this conflict in law and we will continue to work toward this goal. However, you are in a position to make this change when the current VHA directive expires at the end of this month. We ask that you act to ensure that our veterans' access to care is not compromised and that doctors and patients are allowed to have honest discussions about treatment options."
If patients can't get a recommendation from their VA docs and thus can't access dispensaries, they would be tempted to go elsewhere for recommendations, to doctors "likely far less familiar with their symptoms and medical history," the solons wrote.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]Noting that there has been a "sea change" in the legal framework around marijuana since the directive was issued in 2011, they asked that "upon the directive's expiration, any new directive remove barriers that would interfere with the doctor-patient relationship in states that have chosen to legalize marijuana for medical purposes."
But without a new directive, even though the old one is expiring, it will be the status quo at the VA, said Michael Krawitz, a US Air Force veteran and executive director of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access. Krawitz participated in the process that led to the production and distribution of the directive.
"VA Directives remain in effect with full force even after expiration unless they are officially replaced or rescinded," he said. "Although I can understand that patients might not know that and might get uneasy about the expiring directive, but in practicality there should be no change in clinical practices caused by the expiration."
While VA patients could be spooked by the expiration, the status quo is unacceptable, said Dr. Sue Sisley, MD, in clinical psychiatry and internal medicine, who has two decades of experience treating veterans and who is set to do a pilot study on medical marijuana and PTSD for veterans.
"I've worked with veterans all over the country who are dealing with severe and chronic, debilitating medical problems," she said. "They just want the treatment that is going to help them the most, with the least side effects. I have seen firsthand the dramatic improvement so many veterans have had while taking cannabis. Not only have they experienced relief from problems such as PTSD, chronic pain, and migraines, but many of them have also been able to break their addiction to more dangerous drugs, such as opioids and benzodiazepines."
[image:3 align:left caption:true]VA staff physician Deborah Gilman, MD, said current VA policy forces physicians to ignore the science if it conflicts with policy.
"Unlike private practice physicians, VA physicians are under a gag order regarding discussing marijuana with patients," she said. "In other settings, doctors can be honest about their medical opinions regarding treatment options, based on science. In the VA, an administrator can write policy that you can't disagree with without losing your job. Veterans are fearful of losing either their medical benefits or their access to health care if they acknowledge using marijuana. This causes a VA doctor to give you a medical opinion based on the VA regulation, not on the science. I knew many VA doctors whose professional opinion was that cannabis might help some of their patients, but they could never say so in their office or in public."
"There is nothing more sacred in healthcare than the doctor-patient relationship," said Sisley. "Right now we are seeing interference with that coveted relationship. No government policy should come between a doctor and their patients. The only people who should be making medical decisions for veterans are their physicians, not a bureaucrat and not a law enforcement official. These men and women have sacrificed so much for their country. It's only fair that they get the care that they deserve, and have access to the whole range of treatment options."
For Krawitz, it's about getting health care he and countless other vets deserve.
"I suffer from a combination of internal injuries and broken bones leading me to be a perfect candidate for cannabis as an adjunct pain treatment," he explained. "I need to be able to go in and see my VA doctor and have a honest conversation where my doctor feels free to gain knowledge now available through continuing medical education and relay that information to me in writing even if that is the very documentation is what I need to participate in a state medical marijuana program."
Now it's up to Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald. He's heard from Congress, he's heard from patients, he's heard from doctors and scientists. We'll see if he's listening.
This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.
New York's long-delayed medical marijuana program finally rolled out this month, not with a bang, but with a whimper. What looks to be the country's tightest medical marijuana program has an extremely limited number of producers and retailers, a tiny number of eligible patients, a dearth of doctors, and forbids both smoking marijuana and using edibles.
[image:1 align:left]For patients and advocates, the very limited arrival of medical marijuana in the Empire State is not the end point they hoped to achieve. Now, instead of resting on their laurels, they will have to continue to fight to make the program one that actually serves the needs of New Yorkers.
"It's a start," said the Drug Policy Alliance's Julie Netherland, until recently the deputy director of the group's New York Policy Office, where she was deeply involved in massaging the law through the legislature and past a reluctant governor. "It's the first time New Yorkers can legally purchase medical marijuana, and it's the result of the hard work of thousands of patients and family members across New York."
But, she was quick to grant, the program has some serious issues, immediate ones in the way the program has been rolled out and longer-term ones with the statute itself.
Here are seven ways New York's medical marijuana program falls short:
Not Enough Access to Doctors
Under the law, before doctors can recommend medical marijuana to patients, they must complete a $249 four-hour course on the drug and then register with the Health Department. As of Thursday, only 306 physicians had done so. Unlike neighboring New Jersey, the Health Department maintains no public registry of doctors certified to recommend medical marijuana, making it that much more difficult for potential patients to find doctors who might certify them to purchase it. So far, only 465 patients have been certified by the department to buy medical marijuana.
"This is the number one complaint of patients," said Netherland, sketching out an almost Kafkaesque process. "The Health Department is telling me if I'm a patient, I should go see my doctor and see if he participates in the program and if not, to encourage him to register," she said. "If the doctors says he's not going to register, then I'm supposed to ask him for a referral, but the doctor isn't going to know about any list of certified doctors to refer me to, and then it's incumbent on me to tell him. It's just another set of hoops for patients to jump through."
At least the Health Department has now agreed to make the list of certified physicians available to patients.
Not Enough Dispensaries
In a state of 20 million, only eight dispensaries opened January 7, and only another dozen are envisioned under the June 2014 medical marijuana law. Weedmaps lists only three for New York City -- one each in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens. By way of comparison, Los Angeles had 135 permitted dispensaries and probably three times as many actually operating.
New York is not only heavily populated, it's big. With only 20 dispensaries, large geographical swathes of the state will remain without access. Long Island, for instance, will have two dispensaries, but right now, it's a two-hour drive into the city.
"I'm disappointed that only eight dispensaries will open by the deadline," said Missy Miller from Atlantic Beach. "There are none opening on Long Island, which leaves my son Oliver, who suffers from life-threatening seizures, out of luck. This only highlights concerns we have had all along that the state has licensed way too few producers and dispensaries to serve a state as populous and geographically large as New York."
No Personal Cultivation
Unlike the majority of medical marijuana states, patients can't just grow their own. That means they are dependent on the dispensary system, with all its limitations.
Access Is Limited to Specified Qualifying Medical Conditions
The state law only allows medical marijuana for a list of specified medical conditions, including cancer, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, and chronic pain. The law allows the Commissioner of Health to add other diseases and conditions, but just last week, he refused to add PTSD, Alzheimer's, muscular dystrophy, dystonia, rheumatoid arthritis.
"We're hearing every day from patients with all kinds of conditions," said Netherland. "The commissioner was directed by law to consider those five additional conditions, but he declined to add any. That was a huge blow to patients across the state hoping he would do the right thing. Half the medical marijuana states include PTSD; we thought there was strong scientific evidence to include it."
[image:2 align:right]Limitations on Forms of Ingestion
The law bans the sale of smokable marijuana. New York joins Minnesota as the only two medical marijuana states that ban smoking; 21 others do not. The state will only allow oils and capsules that can be administered orally, and liquid forms of marijuana may also be vaporized.
"The law prohibits any smoking, but regulations prohibit any access to the whole plant," said Netherland. "That means all the products will be extracts, oils, or tinctures. This is also an issue for a lot of our patients.
Limitations on Strains
The law only provides for five producers, and each producer can only grow five strains.
"We know there are dozens and dozens of therapeutic strains," said Netherland. "We'd like to have the flexibility to match symptoms with strains. One of the issues is that all of the products have to be approved by the Health Department."
Access for Limited Income Patients
Advocates sought unsuccessfully to get provisions to ensure access for low income patients. Medical marijuana is not covered by insurance, and could run between $200 and $1300 a month, depending on the product and the condition. Now it will be up to the charitable instincts of dispensaries.
"We had encouraged the state to create incentive programs for producers to have programs for low income access, and we also encouraged the state to set up a program itself. It chose to do neither," Netherland said. "Now, patients are basically waiting to see if dispensaries will step up."
"There's lots of room for improvement," she said. "We anticipated a lot of these problems when the law was passed, and we're looking at going back to the legislature. We'll be back in Albany in the coming months talking about the need to expand the program and make it work from the patient's standpoint."
It looks like there's plenty of work to be done.
This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.
With the New Year, the Obama administration has unleashed a new campaign of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids targeting Central American women and children who fled to the US in 2014 to escape violence in their home countries. Some 17,000 are at immediate risk of being dragged from their homes and families and being detained and deported.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]"Our borders are not open to illegal migration; if you come here illegally, we will send you back consistent with our laws and values," Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement announcing the action.
Some 121 people were arrested in raids last weekend, Johnson said, with many of them housed in euphemistically named "family residential centers" before their imminent deportation. The raids took place in Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas.
Johnson's statement noted that back in November, the administration had broadened its deportation actions beyond "criminals and threats to public safety" (including at least 250,000 people deported for drug offenses) to include those who threaten "border security" by having arrived uninvited after January 1, 2014.
Democratic presidential contenders Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley both railed against the raids, with Sanders saying that while he is an ally of the president, "I don't agree with him on this," and O'Malley decrying them, saying "Jesus himself was a refugee child."
Protestors gathered in Boston Friday for an event organized by the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coaltion (MIRA) echoed complaints being heard around the nation.
"I came to this country fleeing the terror of the Pinochet military dictatorship in Chile," said the Unitarian Universalist Rev. Maria Cristina Vlassidis Burgoa. "I know what it's like to be 12 years old and to live in fear that at any moment, an unmarked car will stop at your house and take your family away one by one. I know what it's like to fear that you will be the next one to disappear. My grandmother, my mother, and I were fortunate to find refuge here and build a life. Today, as a US citizen I denounce the massive deportations and raids as a violation of human rights."
"The home raids that terrorize the community, separate families, and wake up sleeping children must stop. Arresting, detaining, and deporting them is not the answer," said MIRA executive director Eva Millona. "Such crisis requires compassion and humane solutions."
[image:2 align:right caption:true]Those would include letting them stay in the country under Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Enforced Departure. The latter is the program that allowed Obama to regain some favor with the immigrant community when he used it to ensure that some five million young people whose parents brought them into the country illegally -- the Dreamers -- would be allowed to stay.
The people being targeted now are part of the 100,000 or so children and parents who fled gang violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras during the immigration "crisis" of 2014, when the specter of masses of Central Americans coming to the border and turning themselves in to seek asylum temporarily focused the nation's attention -- and the Republicans' ire -- on the issue.
Amid predictable calls for more walls, more border agents, and immediate deportation, many of the asylum-seekers were placed in "family detention centers," but others were released, often with GPS ankle bracelets. The vast majority were processed without legal counsel and without any real understanding of the legal proceedings that would determine their futures. The people being targeted now are those whose asylum applications were rejected or those who, for one reason or another, failed to show up at immigration hearings.
The cruel irony of the situation is that it is US policy to deport these people back to countries wracked by poverty and violence that is due at least in part to other US policies -- the imposition of US-style drug war on the region, and even earlier, Ronald Reagan's anti-communist crusade to thwart the region's leftist revolutionary movements in the 1980s. US policy helped to push these people out of Central America, and now US policy is to push them back in.
The US can't be blamed for all the woes of Central America, of course, but it has certainly been a contributing factor. The violent gangs that have helped turn the region into one of the deadliest on the planet, such as Mara Salvatrucha, Barrio 18, evolved in Salvadoran immigrant communities in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, DC, after hundreds of thousands fled the violent civil war in which Ronald Reagan and US taxpayers spent $4 billion to ensure that leftist revolution was neutered. Some 75,000 people died in that conflict.
After the young Central American immigrants learned the fine art of gang-banging up north, deported gang members brought those skills back with them to the old country, laying the groundwork for the emergence of increasingly powerful and deadly street gangs, particularly in El Salvador and Honduras.
And, thanks to the "success" of the Reagan administration in shutting down Caribbean cocaine smuggling routes into Miami in the early 1980s, the new deportees came home to countries increasingly awash in cocaine as Colombian smugglers began using the region as a trampoline, a transshipment point for drugs headed on to Mexico before reaching their ultimate destination in the US.
[image:3 align:left caption:true]"Drug prohibition makes drug transshipment very lucrative for organized crime," said Adam Isacson, a drug policy analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America. (WOLA). "US efforts to interdict aerial and maritime drug shipments in the Caribbean in the 1980s and 1990s caused more and more cocaine to pass through Central America, a region recovering from civil war."
Another drug war "success" also had ramifications for the region, Isacson said.
"The mid-90s takedown of the big Colombian cartels -- the Medellin and Cali cartels -- gave more market share to the Mexican organizations, which relied more heavily on Central American territory," he explained.
"The groups transshipped drugs through Central America further corrupted and undermined already weak security and judicial institutions," Isacson continued. "And that made those institutions less able to protect their citizens."
And more vulnerable to hyper-violent Mexican drug trafficking organizations, such as El Chapo Guzman's Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas, who began expanding their presence in Central America as they came under pressure from Mexican authorities, bolstered by US anti-drug assistance, at home.
Now, Central America is one of the most violent regions in the world, and El Salvador has the highest murder rate the world has seen in 20 years, taking the dubious title of world's murder capital from neighboring Honduras, which claims an official decline in murders this year. Some observers are skeptical.
Jeannette Aguilar, director of Institute of Public Opinion at the Central American University in El Salvador, told USA Today the apparent reduction could be artificial because the cartels have learned that too many bodies is bad publicity and have become adept at disposing of them.
"Because of the evolution of dismembering bodies, decomposing them, incinerating them, it's difficult to know if homicides have really fallen," she said.
The American policy response to violence, much of it drug trade-related, and social decomposition has historically been heavy on assistance to the military and police forces, like the Central American Regional Security Initiative, but that looks like it is finally beginning to change this year. Just last month, Congress approved $750 million in aid for the region that shifts the focus away from security initiatives and instead targets structural issues that have crippled the region.
The bill stipulates that 75% of the funds can only be spent after government take on issues of corruption, transparency, immunity, and criminality. Equally important, it calls on regional governments to "support programs to reduce poverty, create jobs, and promote equitable economic growth in areas contributing to large numbers of migrants."
It will be up to the governments of those countries to try to make progress in alleviating the conditions causing so many to flee, but as our policy-makers decide the fates of the people who have already sought refuge here, they would be remiss to ignore our own role in helping this crisis to happen.
This story was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.
A highly potent form of marijuana has made its way to the East Coast, and law enforcement and "advocates" are very worried. In fact, they're so worried that they are making false and baseless claims about its dangers.
[image:1 align:right caption:true]The stuff is basically butane hash oil, which is now generically called "dabs." It can come in the form of oils, "budder," or "wax." The stuff known as "shatter" has THC concentrated to extremely high levels, reportedly as high as 90%. The stoniest buds from pot plants, on the other hand, have a THC level of around 25% to 30%.
Shatter is the hash oil derivative in the form of marijuana wax, and is typically produced as a thin, hard, translucent sheet, which will shatter in pieces if dropped to the floor. It is generally vaped, rather than smoked.
Make no mistake -- dabs is strong stuff. One toke of dabs contains about as much THC as a joint of pot, and even experienced pot smokers have been known to have unpleasant experiences after biting off more than they can chew. And some of the processes used to extract dabs from raw marijuana are dangerous, leading to explosions that have damaged property and cost lives.
Just before Christmas, police in Virginia busted a truck carrying hundreds of pounds of marijuana and 15 pounds of shatter, the largest shatter bust ever on the East Coast. With the stuff going for $60 a gram in legal and medical marijuana states, police estimated the value of the shatter seizure at $270,000.
That bust appears to have set off some over-the-top warnings from cops and people like the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Even though dabs is business-as-usual in legal marijuana states, "experts are warning that Shatter is dangerous, for a variety of reasons," New Jersey 101.5 reported.
[image:2 align:left caption:true]The "expert" in question was Angelo Valente, executive director of the Partnership for a Drug Free New Jersey, who quickly conflated shatter production with shatter consumption.
"This is extremely dangerous, there are many home explosions in this process," Valente said. "So there's not only concern about the use of this type of a chemical going into a child or a young person's body, but also the immediate concern about explosions that we might be seeing in the state of New Jersey." The bottom line, he said, was that it was important for local residents "to become aware of just how dangerous Shatter and any other illegal drugs can be to them, both short term and long term."
The Middletown Patch went a step further. "'Shatter' is five times more potent than pot, and can cause explosions once lit," read the sub-head to its headline about "Dangerous New Form of Marijuana Out There, Police Warn."
After explaining that shatter is made by mixing marijuana and butane, the Patch wrote that "police departments across the country are reporting explosions, fires and injuries after teens lit the drug on fire to smoke it."
This is just bad reporting. Shatter does not "cause explosions once lit" and police departments are not "reporting explosions, fires, and injuries after "teens lit the drug on fire to smoke it." The Patch has confused what can happen with home hash oil extraction efforts (you can blow up) with what does not happen with hash oil consumption (you don't blow up).
[image:3 align:right caption:true]It isn't just New Jersey where small local media outlets are perpetrating hysterical reporting. WWLP News 22 in Lafayette, Indiana, spoke with "national trainer and speaker for drug prevention" Officer Jermaine Galloway and came away with the bottom line that dabbing "takes marijuana to a new and potentially deadly level" because the THC level "can be nine times higher than regular pot smoking."
That's wrong in a couple of different ways. First, shatter is three, four, or maybe five times stronger than high-grade buds, not nine times. And second, it still doesn't kill you.
The Washington Post, on the other hand, produced a much more level-headed piece on the phenomenon:
"Although the high potency of shatter is troubling to parents and law enforcement officials, marijuana advocates point out that no one has died from ingesting marijuana. 'As long as people are educated about the proper dosage,' said Morgan Fox of the Marijuana Policy Project, 'it hasn't presented any problem.' He likened the difference between shatter and regular marijuana to the difference between whiskey and beer.
"Ry Prichard, a writer and photographer for The Denver Post's Cannabist blog, noted that hash oil is not new, but shatter is a relatively recent refinement as a result of proliferating medical and recreational cannabis programs.
"'Shatter and other concentrated cannabis products,' Prichard said, 'give a stronger, more immediate effect and have shown to have great benefits with a variety of medical conditions because of the quick-acting nature of inhalation or vaporization.'
"He noted that more than half of the daily sales for dispensaries in Colorado come from concentrates, primarily in edible cannabis products."
The Post also addressed the issue of hash oil explosions:
"Fox said legalizing and regulating marijuana was the way to protect homes from hash oil extraction fires, 'so businesses are doing it, instead of people making it themselves.'
"Prichard said legal makers of shatter and other concentrates in Colorado are highly regulated, and those who make it illegally are subject to felony charges."
Okay, shatter has made it to the East Coast. It's stronger than buds, so dabs newbies should be careful to not overdo it, but it's not going to explode in your face while doing it and it's not going to kill you. Just don't mess around with trying to make it at home. That could explode in your face and that could kill you. It's good that at least some media outlets are now taking the trouble to get the story right.
An as yet unnamed man killed by police in Rawlins, Wyoming, on December 30, after they were called to a convenience store about a person believed to be selling drugs in the parking lot, and Burlington, Vermont, resident Kenneth Stephens, 56, shot and killed by a state trooper and a DEA agent on December 22 when he met them with a rifle as they raided his apartment, were the last two people to make the Drug War Chronicle's drug war death toll tally, bringing it to 56 for the year.
[image:1 align:left]This is the fifth year the Drug War Chronicle has tallied drug war deaths. There were 54 in 2011, 63 in 2012, 41 in 2013, and 39 in 2014. That's an average of just a hair under one a week during the past five 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 searching for marijuana fields.
The dead included three other police officers, two Hattiesburg, Mississippi, cops gunned down in a traffic stop turned drug search in May and a Memphis cop gunned down over a $20 pot deal in August.
But 90% of the drug war dead are civilians. While some of the deaths are accidental and some are clearly justifiable, as when people are actually shooting at police, others are more questionable. Were all those guys in vehicles who got killed because police "feared for their lives" really trying to run down and kill cops over a drug bust, or were they just trying to get away?
And some are just downright outrageous -- one might even say criminal, although local prosecutors generally seem to disagree. In only one of the cases listed below was the police officer arrested, and in that case, she walked. Here are the worst drug war killings of 2015:
1. In February, Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, Police Officer Lisa Mearkle shot and killed David Kassick, 59, after he fled a traffic stop. Kassick was a relapsed heroin user who had done time in federal prison for heroin sales, and was carrying a needle and a spoon with residue on him. Video from Mearkle's stun gun shows her repeatedly tazing Kassick as he lay on his belly in the snow and yelling at him to show his hands as they jerk around from the tazing before firing two shots into his back four seconds apart. Mearkle was arrested on murder charges in April, but acquitted of murder charges in November.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]2. In March, Volusia County, Florida, Sheriff's Deputy Todd Raible shot and killed Derek Cruice, 26, during a dawn SWAT raid aimed at a small-time marijuana sales operation. Cruice, who was unarmed, was shot in the face. Police claimed they were "met with resistance and a shooting occurred," but Cruice's roommates vehemently disagreed. "He had no weapons on him or in the house," roommate Steven Cochran told the Daytona Beach News Journal. "Nobody was making any kind of resistance or keeping them from doing their job." Cruice wasn't even wearing a shirt, he said. "It's kind of hard to conceal anything or hide anything when this is all you have on. They entered the house and fired." Another roommate bluntly called the deputy's action's "murder." A grand jury directed by State Attorney R.J Larizza disagreed. In Ocober, it failed to indict Raible on any charge. Cruice was a popular figure in the local community, and there were protests over his death. The cops scored half a pound of weed and some cash, but no weapons in the raid.
3. Also in March, also in Florida, Putnam County sheriff's deputies shot and killed Andrew Anthony Williams, 48, as he attempted to flee in his vehicle from a "reverse sting." That's where cops pose as drug dealers, sell unwary customers small amounts of drugs, then arrest them. Deputies had successfully sold drugs to and arrested 10 people, but when they identified themselves and tried to arrest Williams, who was number 11, he declined. News 4 Jax had it this way: "…when they tried to arrest Williams, he took off in a blue SUV and, swerving to avoid deputies, ran into a tree. Williams then backed up and tried to take off again toward deputies causing four of them to open fire on Williams SUV, hitting him an unknown number of times."
Williams' death stinks for two reasons, First, reverse drug stings are a controversial tactic, sometimes arguably justifiable at the higher echelons of the drug trade, where selling sizeable quantities of drugs to a player to see where they go help crack a drug ring, but that logic isn’t at work here, where the only result is to round up some street drug buyers and drag them into the criminal justice system. Is having deputies pretend to be drug dealers to bust small-time users really the county's best use of its law enforcement resources?
And then there's the no-witness "he was going to run me over" defense used by the police to justify the killing. It happens not infrequently. Williams may have decided that getting busted on a minor dope charge was worth trying to murder a group of police officers with his vehicle. But could it have been that he was just trying to get away?
4. In April, 73-year-old Tulsa, Oklahoma, sheriff's Reserve Officer Charles Robert Bates shot and killed meth and gun trafficking suspect Eric Harris when he mistakenly opened fire with his pistol instead of his Taser. The shooting occurred in the midst of a struggle as Harris had attempted to flee on foot and there is no evidence that Bates intended to kill Harris, but the killing led to scandal over Sheriff Stanley Glanz's relationship with Bates and how the retiree volunteer managed to get in the middle of a Violent Crimes Task Force operation. Glanz was forced to resign in October and was indicted on a misdemeanor records tampering charge over his failure to release Bates' personnel records. Those records indicate that even though top sheriff's officials knew Bates wasn’t well-trained enough, they pressured others to ignore it. Bates himself was indicted for second degree manslaughter and goes on trial in April.
5. In July, Seneca, South Carolina, Police Officer Mark Tiller shot and killed 19-year-old Zachary Hammond. Hammond was behind the wheel of a car at fast food restaurant parking lot. He had driven there with a female passenger who was going to sell a small amount of marijuana to what turned out to be an undercover cop. Police said Hammond drove toward the officer, forcing him to fire, but that account was challenged by Eric Bland, an attorney representing Hammond's family. Bland said that the autopsy report showed that Hammond had been shot from behind and that the vehicle was not moving. The autopsy showed a first shot entering the teen's left rear shoulder and a second in his side five inches away that went through his heart and lungs before exiting his lower right side.
"It is clearly, clearly from the back," Bland said after viewing pictures of the bullet wounds at the coroner's office. "It is physically impossible for him to be trying to flee or run over the officer that shot him. This is a 19-year-old kid without a weapon in his car, clearly in the Hardee's parking lot on a date, and within five minutes he has two shots that appear to be in his back and his side, from an officer shooting him from the back -- and he's dead and this family needs answers."
The killing was egregious enough to spark a Justice Department investigation, which is still ongoing, but not enough to convince local prosecutors to go after Officer Tiller. In October, Solicitor Chrissy Adams declined to file criminal charges against Tiller. A federal wrongful death lawsuit filed by Hammond's family is pending.
[image:3 align:left caption:true]6. In September, a still unnamed member of an Akron, Ohio, SWAT team shot and killed Omar Ali, 27, during a raid on his hookah store. Police were investigating Ali for drug sales and domestic violence when they broke down the door to his business, then encountered him in the main room of his shop. Police said they ordered him to put his hands up, but he allegedly refused those commands and reached toward the back of his waistband. The unnamed SWAT officer then shot him. Police found no weapon in his waistband. What they did find was 2.8 grams of heroin and five doses of Suboxone hidden in his butt-crack.
7. In July, a group of police officers in Southhaven, Mississippi, arrested Troy Goode, 30, after he was behaving erratically under the influence of LSD he had ingested in anticipation of a Widespread Panic concert. His wife attempted to drive him home, but at some point, he got out of the car and began creating a disturbance. Police were called, and they chased and arrested him, hogtieing him face down on a stretcher. He was charged with resisting arrest, then taken in an ambulance to a hospital, where he died two hours later. In December, the State Medical Examiner ruled that Goode had died of "LSD toxicity," but given that there are no known cases of fatal LSD overdoses, that finding is hard to credit. Goode's family isn't buying it; they instead cite an,independent autopsy report that found Goode died after being hogtied and left prone for an extended period. That stress position caused him to have trouble breathing and, as his heart attempted to compensate, it went into cardiac arrhythmia. "He was suffocating. His heart increased into what is called tachycardia," family attorney Tim Edwards said. "There is no scientific basis to attribute his death to LSD. This was lethal force, putting someone in a prolonged hogtied position," Edwards said. "This was not a situation where a 300-pound man attacked a police officer in the dark. This was a science nerd." The family has asked the Justice Department to file a civil rights investigation and says it plans to file a lawsuit over Goode's death this month.
Last century's international prohibitionist consensus on drug policy continued to crumble this year, with moves to relax controls on medical and personal use of marijuana leading the way. But harm reduction measures such as supervised injection sites are also on the rise, international civil society and even some governments are laying the groundwork for reforming the global drug control regime next year at the UN, America's most stalwart drug war ally in South America changes its tune, and more.
Here are the biggest international drug policy stories of the year, in no particular order:
[image:1 align:left caption:true]Canada Elects a Marijuana-Legalizing Prime Minister. We may have a handful of legal pot states, but Canada is about to become the first country in North America to free the weed. Newly elected Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made marijuana legalization a central plank of his election campaign, and this month, he immediately ordered his new Justice Minister to get on it after winning the election. In the annual throne speech last week, his government reiterated its intention to legalize it. It won't happen overnight, but it's coming.
The US is No Longer the Bogeyman of International Drug Reform. It's not like 2001, when Jamaican decriminalization got put on the back burner after thunderous protests from the US embassy, or even 2009, early in the Obama administration, when more muffled protests from the US helped put the kibosh on drug decriminalization in Mexico. It's more difficult for Washington to criticize other countries when the Obama administration has signaled it can live with legal marijuana in US states, but the administration seems less inclined to do so, anyway. Last year, William Brownfield, head of the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs enunciated a policy of tolerance toward reform efforts abroad, and the State Department reiterated that again this year. It's not all roses, though; the prohibitionist beast may be weakening, but its tail still twitches.
Laying the Groundwork for UNGASS on Drugs. The UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs is coming next spring, and the international drug reform movement was busy preparing for it this year. In May, during the High Level Thematic Debate on drugs, reform groups released an open letter calling on the UN to respect countries' drug policy reforms, and in June, while the UNODC marked global anti-drug day, global civil society fought back with events and demonstrations around the globe. Then, in October, Sir Richard Branson provoked a kerfluffle by leaking a UNODC draft document that urged governments to consider drug decriminalization, forcing the agency to walk it back under pressure from at least one country. At year's end, the European Parliamentary Council called for a public health-oriented global drug policy. A lot more has been going on behind the scenes, too, but drug reform at the UN moves at a glacial pace. Stay tuned.
Afghan Opium Production Declines. For the first time since 2009, opium production has decreased in Afghanistan, the UNODC reported. The area under cultivation declined by 19% from last year -- an all-time high -- and production declined even more, by 48%. UNODC attributed the decline to drought conditions. "The low (overall) production can be attributed to a reduction in area under cultivation, but more importantly to a drop in opium yield per hectare," said the report, which was released last week. "The lack (of) sufficient water for irrigation... affected the decision of some farmers not to cultivate poppy."
[image:2 align:right caption:true]Iran Drug Death Penalty Mania Shows First Signs of Receding. Iran has executed hundreds of people for drug offenses this year, but a campaign to end European and UN funding of Iran's drug war has been picking up steam. Some European countries, including Denmark, Great Britain, and Ireland have stopped funding, and in October, the UN special rapporteur on Iran warned that it was using UN support to justify its aggressive use of the death penalty. But that didn't stop the UN Office on Drugs and Crime from this month increasing funding for Iranian anti-drug operations. While the struggle continues on the international front, this month, Iranian parliamentarians themselves expressed discomfort with the death toll. At least 70 are supporting an effort to end the death penalty in nonviolent drug smuggling cases. Lawmakers are now preparing a bill to present to the parliament.
Columbia Stops Aerial Spraying of Herbicide on Coca Fields, Farmers. With US backing and encouragement, the Colombian government sprayed the herbicide glyphosate on coca crops for years despite peasant protests that it was causing illness and damaging other crops and livestock. But in April, after a World Health Organization report reclassified the herbicide as "probably carcinogenic to humans," the health ministry called for the suspension of spraying. The following month, Colombia ended the program despite US pressure to continue it. Then, in September, President Juan Manuel Santos deepened the departure from two decades of US-style drug policies, unveiling a new national drug strategy that will emphasize alternative development.
Mexico Marijuana Moves. In a country where public opinion does not favor legalization, the Supreme Court stunned the nation in November by ruling that people have the right to grow and use marijuana. The decision does not undo Mexico's marijuana laws, but does open the door for a wave of legal actions that could end in their being rewritten. It also opened the door for a national debate on marijuana policy, with President Enrique Pena Nieto promising it will occur early next year.
Medical Marijuana Advances. More countries okayed the use of medical marijuana in 2015, including Australia, Croatia, and, just this week, Colombia. Meanwhile, Chile harvested its first medical marijuana crop in April, the Italian Army began growing it in May (to address shortages within the country), and the Dalai Lama endorsed it in June. That same month, Costa Rica outlined requirements for a pending medical marijuana bill, and in July, Israel announced it would make it available in pharmacies and allow more doctors to prescribe it.
[image:3 align:left caption:true]Jamaica Decriminalizes Ganja. In February, parliament voted to approve a government-supported decriminalization bill, and the law went into effect in April. Now, anyone, including foreign tourists, can now possess up to two ounces of ganja and face only a $5 fine. And any household can now grow up to five plants. Adult Rastafarians can also now use the herb for religious purposes. The law also paved the way for a regulatory authority for medical, scientific, and therapeutic uses. In July, Justice Minister Mark Golding signed an order to expunge minor marijuana convictions, and by December, the government had granted its second "marijuana exemption" allowing Rastafarians at a festival to partake of (and possess and transport) Jah Herb without fear of arrest.
Supervised Injection Sites Expand. The harm reduction measure allows drug users to ingest their drugs under medical supervision and without fear of arrest and has been proven to improve outcomes for users and the community without increasing crime or other negatives and without fear of arrest. At the beginning of the year, there were supervised injection sites in eight countries -- Australia, Canada, Germany, Holland, Luxembourg, Norway, Spain, and Switzerland. By year's end, two more countries got them up and running, France in the spring and Slovenia in the fall. Late in the year, Ireland approved a supervised injection site in Dublin. Meanwhile, in the US, the Drug Policy Alliance and other advocates are mounting a campaign to open one in New York City, which would be the first (official) one in the country.
This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.
After several years of jostling since the defeat of Proposition 19 in 2010, the smoke has cleared in California and it now appears that a single, well-funded marijuana legalization initiative will go before the voters next November. That vehicle is the California Control, Tax, and Regulate Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), backed by Silicon Valley tech billionaire Sean Parker, WeedMaps head Justin Hartfield, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), and a growing cast of state and national players.
[image:1 align:left]The AUMU has sucked all the air out of the room for other proposed initiatives, most notably the measure from the California Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform (ReformCA), which had been widely assumed to the effort around which the state's various cannabis factions could coalesce.
Instead, more than half of the ReformCA board members have now endorsed the AUMA, including Oaksterdam University founder and Prop 19 organizer Richard Lee, California Cannabis Industry Association director Nate Bradley, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) head Neill Franklin, Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) deputy director Stacia Cosner, and Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap head David Bronner.
That move came earlier this month, after proponents of the AUMA amended their initial proposal to provide safeguards against child use and protections for workers, small businesses, and local governments that also bring it closer in line with Newsom's Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy.
"These amendments reflect a collaborative process of public and expert engagement and make an extremely strong measure even stronger," Dr. Donald O. Lyman, MD, the measure's lead proponent said in a statement. "This measure now includes even more protections for children, workers, small business, and local governments while ensuring strict prohibitions on marketing to kids and monopoly practices."
"We have carefully reviewed amendments submitted by the proponents of the AUMA, and we're convinced it's time to endorse that initiative and unite everyone behind a single, consensus measure to achieve a legal regulated system, which a majority of voters have consistently said they want," Bronner said in a statement.
Here's what the AUMA would do:
Local control. Cities and counties can regulate or totally prohibit commercial marijuana cultivation, processing, sales, and deliveries, but they can't ban deliveries merely passing through their jurisdiction. They can ban even personal outdoor grows, but not indoor ones.
Personal possession. Adults 21 and over can possess up to an ounce or eight grams of concentrate.
Personal cultivation. Adults can grow up to six plants per household, if their localities don't ban personal outdoor grows. Also, landlords maintain the right to ban cultivation or even possession on their property. Growers can possess all the fruits of their harvest.
Social consumption. Localities may allow on-site marijuana consumption at designated businesses.
Public consumption. Not allowed.
Taxation. A 15% excise tax on marijuana products, plus state and local sales taxes, plus a $9.25 an ounce cultivation tax on buds and a $2.75 one on leaves. Also, counties may impose additional taxes, subject to a popular vote.
Regulation. The state agencies empowered to regulate medical marijuana under this year's three-bill regulation package have their briefs expanded to include non-medical marijuana as well.
Licensing. Provides tiered licensing based on business type and size, but to protect small businesses bars the issuance of the largest tier of cultivation licenses for five years and creates a special licensing tier for "microbusinesses."
Employee drug testing. Still allowed.
Criminal offenses. Possession of more than an ounce, cultivation of more than six plants, unlicensed sales, and possession for sale are all six-month misdemeanors, reduced from felonies, although they can still be charged as felonies in some cases.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]This past weekend, the AUMA picked up the support of Tim Blake, organizer of the Emerald Cup in Santa Rosa, which this year drew a record crow to the annual growers' competition/trade show.
"You know what, I'm going to endorse this thing," Blake told activists assembled for a legalization debate.
His endorsement drew a mixed reaction from the crowd, many of whom want to see a more wide open form of legalization. That's a sentiment that's shared by some prominent figures in the state's marijuana community. Dale Gieringer, a ReformCA board member and long-time head of Cal NORML is one of them.
"This is like 60% legalization," he said. "Some people on the board endorsed it, but I didn't endorse, and Cal NORML doesn't endorse it. We're a consumer organization, and from the standpoint of consumers, the AUMA is the worst drafted one," he said, ticking off a list of issues.
"Cities can still ban dispensaries, deliveries, and outdoor cultivation," he noted, "and it makes it illegal to consume publicly. There are a lot of medical marijuana users in San Francisco where the only legal place they can smoke is the street. And it treats vaping like smoking, which is totally outrageous and unjustified in our opinion."
"These are all major disappointments," he said. "This was an opportunity for California to move ahead of the rest of the country, but instead they blew it with excessive language. This is 60 pages of text. We'll be looking at years and years of litigation."
[image:3 align:left caption:true]That doesn't necessarily mean Cal NORML will oppose it, though, Gieringer said.
"If it ends up being the only thing on the ballot in November, I suspect we would support it," he conceded.
At this point, that looks extremely likely to be the case. None of the other initiatives are showing any signs that they have the organization or the funding to go out and get the 365,000 valid voter signatures needed to make the ballot.
Gieringer also conceded that passage of the AUMA would be progress.
"If it passes, it will do three valuable things," he said. "Adults can grow six plants and possess an ounce. Just allowing for personal use is extremely important. The AUMA decreases mandatory felony penalties for cultivation or possession with intent to sell down to misdemeanors in most cases, and that's important. And it establishes a legal marketplace for adult use."
The AUMA may not be perfect, but unless Californians are willing to go another election cycle or wait for the legislature to legalize it, this is most likely what they'll have a chance to vote for.
As the year winds down, we look back on the big stories in drug policy, from marijuana reform to climbing fatal overdose levels to sentencing reforms and beyond.
[image:1 align:right caption:true]The Sky Hasn't Fallen on Legal Marijuana States. The great social experiment with marijuana legalization appears to be going off without a serious hitch, and that's great news for people in states where it will likely be an issue next year. No outbreaks of reefer-induced mass criminality have taken place, no hordes of zombie school kids have appeared. In fact, very little at all seems to have happened, except that in Washington state, marijuana arrests are way down, tax revenues are flowing in, and, and ditto for Colorado, where legal pot has created 16,000 jobs (not to mention thousands more in weed-related industries) and, in Denver at least, a real estate boom is going on. Evaluating the impacts of a policy shift like ending state-level marijuana prohibition is a complicated and long-term affair, but so far it we're not seeing any signs of major social policy disaster.
The Marijuana Majority Solidifies. Marijuana legalization is now consistently winning majority support in national polls. An April CBS News poll (released on 4/20) reported support at "an all-time high" at 53%, while a Pew Research poll that some month also came in at 53%. An October Gallup poll had support at 58%, a November Morning Consult poll had it at 55%. This is really quite remarkable: Less than a decade ago, fewer than a third of people were ready to legalize it. Beginning in 2012 or 2013, public opinion reached the tipping point, and now we've clearly tipped.
Groundwork Well Laid for Marijuana Legalization Efforts Next Year. Efforts are well-advanced in a half-dozen states states to put legalization initiatives on the ballot next year. A Nevada initiative has already qualified for the November ballot and a Massachusetts initiative has also met its initial signature gathering hurdle (but must let the legislature have a chance to act before gathering a token amount of additional signatures to qualify for November). Initiative signature gathering campaigns are also well-advanced in Arizona, Maine, and Michigan, and while the California effort lags behind, an initiative backed by some deep-pocketed funders should qualify for November as well. State polls in those states show majorities for legalization, but support numbers only in the 50s suggests that victories are by no means inevitable. Those numbers tend to get pushed down in the course of an actual campaign, especially if there's well-funded opposition. And serious efforts are underway in two states, Rhode Island and Vermont, to pass legalization at the state house next year.
Monopoly Marijuana Gets Rejected in the Heartland. In a clear signal that marijuana legalization is not inevitable, a well-funded, but equally well-loathed legalization initiative went down in flames in November. The ResponsibleOhio initiative would have enshrined within the state constitution a "monopoly" under which pot would be legalized, but only 10 growers could produce commercial pot crops. The effort was opposed by the state's Republican political establishment, as well as the usual suspects in law enforcement, but also by most of the state's marijuana legalization activists. Concerns about the role of industry money in the movement are on the rise, but ResponsibleOhio wasn't even industry money -- it was just a set of wealth investors hoping to cash in with their privileged positions in a newly legal and high lucrative industry.
Black Lives Matter's Policing Critique Implicates the Drug War. The most energetic mass movement since 2011's Occupy Wall Street (and beyond) is taking direct aim at policing abuses that have festered for a generation -- and the war on drugs is deeply implicated in them. BLM's Campaign Zero manifesto to end police violence includes numerous drug war-related reform targets. From the militarization of policing to mass incarceration, from stop-and-frisk to "policing for profit," the objects of BLM's ire are key components of the drug war, and the movement is raising the racial justice imperative in the loudest fashion possible.
[image:2 align:left caption:true]Overdoses Kill Tens of Thousands, Harm Reduction Responses Emerge. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death in the US, claiming some 44,000 lives a year. Heroin is involved in more than 8,000 of those deaths, but prescription opiates are involved in twice that number. Deaths related to prescription opiates are actually leveling off in line with a decrease in prescribing beginning in 2012, but heroin deaths, which quadrupled between 2002 and 2013, are not, especially as people who once had access to pain pills resort to the black market. With the rising death toll -- and the changing demographics of users; younger, whiter, less "urban" -- has come a new openness toward harm reduction measures that can actually save lives, especially the wider availability of the opiate overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan). Access to the drug is being increased around the country, thousands of lives are being saved, even the drug czar is for it. It's not like having supervised injection facilities, where users can inject under medical supervision, and which are proven to practically eliminate overdoses (Vancouver's InSite points to exactly zero fatal overdoses in nearly 16,000 injections), but it's a start.
Asset Forfeiture Reform Picks Up Steam. The use of asset forfeiture has been a favorite drug war tactic of police and prosecutors for years, and has grown to the point where federal law enforcement seized more from citizens than burglars did last year. It's been 15 years since the last round of federal asset forfeiture reform, and the pressure is building in Washington. The year started off with then Attorney General Holder abruptly limiting federal seizure sharing with state and local cops, which cut off a main conduit for local cops to get around state asset forfeiture laws (the federal equitable sharing program allowed seizing law enforcement agencies to keep 80% of seizures, while state laws often required seizures to go into general funds). That was followed by the filing of a Rand Paul bill to end federal civil asset forfeiture with a House panel signaling support. The practice is also under fire in the states, where more than a dozen took up bills this year. In two states, Maryland and Wyoming, bills passed the legislature, only to be vetoed by Republican governors, but new asset forfeiture reform laws went into effect July 1 in Montana and New Mexico and passed in Michigan in the fall. Look for more asset forfeiture reform battles next year, both in Congress and at the statehouse.
[image:3 align:right caption:true]6,000 Federal Drug War Prisoners Come Home. At the end of October, the largest prisoner release in recent US history took place, with some 6,000 prisoners set free after their drug sentences were cut thanks to policy changes by the US Sentencing Commission. Another 8,000 are set to be released the same time next year. Along with other sentencing reforms enacted in the past few years, the move has resulted in the federal prison population declining for the first time since Ronald Reagan unleashed the modern drug war in the early 1980s.
Obama Commutes Drug Sentences. President Obama commuted the sentences of 68 drug offenders earlier this year, and just last week he commuted the sentences of nearly a hundred more. Obama has now issued more commutations (which actually free people still behind bars, as opposed to pardons, which are granted after the fact) than the last five presidents combined, and with some 35,000 having petitioned for commutations at the invitation of the Justice Department, we could well see another big batch next year before he leaves office.
Drug Policy Becomes a Presidential Election Issue. In a good way. On the issue of marijuana policy, Bernie Sanders has become the first serious mainstream presidential candidate to endorse marijuana legalization, and, as this Marijuana Policy Project report card on the presidential candidates shows, many of the others -- from both parties -- support medical marijuana, decriminalization, and/or a states' rights approach to legalization. Not all of them do, of course, but supporting marijuana reform is now a thoroughly mainstream position in presidential politics. Similarly, the candidates have been addressing high rates of prescription opiate and heroin use, with even some GOP candidates talking about treating addiction as a health and public health issue, not a criminal justice one. Democratic contenders have also been addressing the problem as a public health issue, most recently in the New Hampshire Democratic debate. We've come a long way from competing to see who can be the "toughest" on drugs.
(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)