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Check Those Pills! Harm Reduction and Club Drugs [FEATURE]

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 07:27

[This article was written in partnership with Alternet, and was originally published here.]

With the holiday break coming up soon, millions of young Americans will be looking to party. And tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of them will be looking to stimulant drugs, especially Ecstasy (MDMA), to help them dance to the throbbing beats far into the night. MDMA is a synthetic stimulant with a chemical structure related to both methamphetamine and mescaline. It's great at providing the energy for partying the night away with a psychedelic tinge. The new scene drug, Molly, is simply Ecstasy in powdered form.

[image:1 align:left]According to the 2013 National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health, some 17 million Americans have taken Ecstasy at least once, more than a half million reported taking it within the past month, and about three-quarters of a million reported taking it for the first time that year. Those monthly-use and first-use figures have been roughly stable for the past few years.

Some of those fun-seekers are going to take too much. And some of them are going to end up ingesting something they thought was Ecstasy, but wasn't. And one or two or three of them might die. Despite breathless media reports, people dying from Ecstasy or from what they thought was Ecstasy or what they thought was a drug like Ecstasy, is not that big a problem, especially compared with the 16,000 or so people who died last year from opiate overdoses. The number of Ecstasy-related deaths each year ranges from the single digits to the low dozens.

Still it is a problem. Any avoidable death is a problem, and those deaths are largely avoidable. They occur because of varying combinations of ignorance, greed and bad public policy. Some people are working to prevent those deaths, and the work extends from the club or rave or festival door to the halls of power in Washington.

The harm reduction group Dance Safe is among those doing that work. The small non-profit offers educational services, encourages people to submit their pills for testing ("drug checking"), and has informational booths at venues that will let them.

Where 20 years ago, the Ecstasy and party drug scene was largely limited to word-of-mouth raves, things have changed, said Dance Safe executive director Missy Wooldridge.

"We've seen a real explosion in the scene that has been transformed from an underground rave culture to a real mainstream electronic dance music culture," she said. "People are likely to experiment with drugs at raves and dances, as well as with friends at parties or night clubs."

They are also likely to be ingesting either adulterated Ecstasy or other new synthetic drugs misleadingly marketed as Ecstasy. That is reflected in reports on drug checking websites such as Pill Reports and Ecstasy Data, as well as drug discussion forums like Bluelight.

Pill Reports warns that Yellow Pacman tablets found earlier this month in Kansas and Texas contain not MDMA but the synthetic methylone, a methcathinone stimulant that is a chemical analog to MDMA, but is not MDMA. And at least two different pills currently being peddled in Canada as Ecstasy are actually methamphetamine.

"A lot of what we're seeing is the new psychoactive substances infiltrating the market and the scene," said Wooldridge. "People can purchase these substances online. I see a lot of positive results for methcathinone, MDPV, methylone, and the like. Similarly, people think they're taking LSD, but it's actual N-Bomb, or maybe ketamine. People operate under misconceptions about what they're taking, and that can be serious because there are lots of differences in things like onset, duration and potency."

Educated, sophisticated drug consumers may take advantage of drug checking services, as well as have advanced understandings of drug potency, duration and the like, but they are a minority. Most people just want to party, and they want to do it with Ecstasy.

"In contrast with some places in Europe, the market for people seeking out new synthetics is very small in the US," said Stefani Jones, nightlife community engagement manager at the Drug Policy Alliance "But that doesn't mean they're not here. Many of the people buying them are after MDMA, but here in the US, the market is young people, and many are not that well-informed or familiar with notions like drug checking to see what's in that powder. It's largely an uninformed market, so there's a lot of adulteration."

Dance Safe's Wooldridge concurred.

[image:2 align:right caption:true]"People are taking these substances unknowingly for the most part, rather than checking them out," the Denver-based activist said. "There is a relatively small segment that is into the experimentation and the understanding, but most users are not that sophisticated and are taking these drugs without really knowing what they are."

When people die, as two people did at New York's massive Electric Zoo festival last year, the pressure is on promoters and club owners to crack down on drugs, to increase security, even to decrease or do away with harm reduction measures out of fear of appearing to encourage drug use. In large part, that's because of the RAVE Act, a 2003 law sponsored by then Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) that threatens owners and promoters with possible criminal sanctions for encouraging drug use.

"The RAVE Act is the elephant in the room," said Wooldridge. "Its intent wasn't to harm or prosecute legitimate event producers, but to expand the crack house laws and go after people solely having events for drug use or sales. But there has been an unintended consequence. People in the industry fear that if they attempt to address drug use they'll be help legally liable for overdoses or other emergencies. Their legal teams and insurance companies say to stay clear, turn a blind eye, but that increases the risks. We need to educate the lawyers and insurers on this. Show me a case where an event producer has been prosecuted for doing harm reduction."

"If the law is making owners scared, we should change the law so they are explicitly protected," said Jones. "Put the focus on the health and safety of the patrons. Including harm reduction shouldn't be seen as encouraging drug activity, but as prioritizing health and safety. Changing the law at the federal level would send a message to the industry that harm reduction is valuable and you won't get in trouble, and that could change the landscape of festivals."

One woman is working to do just that. Dede Goldsmith didn't mean to become a reformer, but when her daughter, Shelley, a University of Virginia student, died after taking Ecstasy at Washington, DC electronic music show the same weekend at the Electonic Zoo last year, that's what happened.

She told Vox in an October interview that when one of Shelley's friends told her Shelley had taken Molly, her first response was, "Who is Molly?" In her search for answers, she came to the realization that Molly didn't kill her daughter; federal drug prohibition and policies that discourage education about safe drug use did.

On the anniversary of her daughter's death in August, Goldsmith launched the Amend the RAVE Act campaign. Its goal, Goldsmith says, is "to make EDM festivals and concerts safer for our young people. Specifically, I am asking for language to be added to the law to make it clear that event organizers and venue owners can implement safety measures to reduce the risk of medical emergencies, including those associated with drug use, without fear of prosecution by federal authorities. As the law currently stands, many owners believe that they will be accused of 'maintaining a drug involved premises' under the act if they institute such measures, opening themselves to criminal or civil prosecution."

[image:3 align:left caption:true]"It's not that producers don't care, it’s that they're terrified," said Wooldridge. "Amending the RAVE Act can be a way to organize the community so people don't fear law enforcement if they're addressing drug use. What's more detrimental—a fatal overdose or having harm reduction teams and medical teams on site?"

"The campaign is just getting underway," said Jones. "They're collecting signatures, and Dede is just having first meetings with legislators to try to get them on board, to try to get some bipartisan support."

In the meantime, other steps can be taken.  

"One of the biggest things we can do is to educate with a true public health approach," Wooldridge said. "We need to have honest conversations and we need to implement drug testing; we have to have that opportunity to create an early warning system when these substances begin to appear."

"Education is really, really critical," said Jones. "We need to be able to get real drug education out to young people and meet them where they are. We need to be explicit about what the drugs are, what they look like, what the common dose it. Integrating harm reduction practices into the culture is also really important, and Dance Safe is great at that."

An effective means of tracking new and available drugs, such as a publicly funded, more comprehensive version of the drug checking websites would also be useful. But that requires someone willing to spend the money.

"We don't really have a surveillance system set up to track these new psychoactive substances," Wooldridge complained. "We don't have the public health monitoring. As a non-profit, we do some of that on a small scale, but we don't have the capacity or the resources to really do the job. What are the priorities and where is the funding to collect the data?"

"Changing policy to allow for drug checking is also an important avenue to pursue," said Jones. "If we're going to be in a world where drugs remain illegal, we will continue to have problems with imitations and new synthetics, with people not knowing what they're getting. That would be the least we can do."

There is one other obvious response.

"It's unrealistic to think we can keep drugs out of clubs and bars and festivals. Trying to do that causes more harm than good," Wooldridge said. "We need to be realistic and recognize drug use first and foremost as a health concern, not a criminal justice issue. These drugs are often being sold as something they're not, and that's because of prohibition and the black market," said Wooldridge. "One obvious option is legalization and regulation. Then you'd have quality control and you wouldn't need all this drug-checking."

But we're not there yet. Until we are, people are going to have to watch out for themselves and for each other. Check those drugs, kids!

Categories: Latest News

On Marijuana, Congress Giveth and Congress Taketh Away [FEATURE]

Mon, 12/15/2014 - 07:14

[This article was written in partnership with Alternet, and was originally published here.]

With final approval by the Senate Saturday night, the Congress has successfully approved a massive, $1.1 trillion dollar omnibus spending bill, and the president has signaled he will sign it. The bill includes two provisions that illustrate Congress's currently schizophrenic approach to loosening marijuana laws.

[image:1 align:left]On the one hand, the bill contains an amendment that will effectively end federal interference in states where medical marijuana is legal by barring the Justice Department from using its funds to go after patients and providers there. On the other hand, it also contains a rider that seeks to undo the will of the voters of the nation's capital by blocking the District of Columbia from enacting the recently approved Measure 71 marijuana possession and cultivation legalization initiative.

Sponsored by Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Sam Farr (D-CA), and 10 others, the medical marijuana amendment is blunt. After listing all the medical marijuana states, it says: "None of the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may be used… to prevent such States from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana." (The bill also includes similar language barring the use of Justice Department funds to interfere with hemp research authorized under the already approved Agricultural Act of 2014.)

The amendment is also important. In the past three years alone, the Justice Department has threatened elected officials, dispensary operators, and their landlords with legal action over medical marijuana. Those threats have delayed or stopped implementation of medical marijuana laws in at least six states. Similarly, threats of criminal prosecution and/or asset forfeiture aimed at landlords in California and Colorado have resulted in the closure of at least 600 state law-abiding medical marijuana businesses.

And DEA teams have aggressively raided and US Attorneys have prosecuted medical marijuana patients and providers. One stark example is the case of the Kettle Falls Five, a family of patients who were growing medical marijuana for their own personal use in accordance with Washington state law. In a state where marijuana is legal, federal prosecutors are seeking to send a pair of elderly patients and their children to prison. That prosecution is now in doubt.

"This is truly a long-fought victory for medical marijuana patients who have lived in fear of being caught in the crossfire of conflicting state and federal laws for nearly two decades," said Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access (ASA), which has lobbied for years for passage of the measure. "But this is also a victory for taxpayers because of the hundreds of millions of dollars saved on unnecessary and harmful enforcement."

Last year, ASA issued a report showing the Obama administration had spent $80 million a year on medical marijuana enforcement. That may be chump change in a trillion-dollar spending bill, but it's still $80 million that could be better used each year.

"Congress has finally initiated a drawdown in the federal government's war on medical marijuana," said Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). "This legislation makes it clear that the DEA has no business interfering in states' medical marijuana laws. Taxpayer money should not be used to punish seriously ill people who use medical marijuana and the caregivers who provide it to them."

"For the first time, Congress is letting states set their own medical marijuana and hemp policies, a huge step forward for sensible drug policy," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "States will continue to reform their marijuana laws and Congress will be forced to accommodate them. It's not a question of if, but when, federal marijuana prohibition will be repealed."

[image:2 align:right]But if federal marijuana prohibition will someday be repealed, no one has told congressional Republicans, and congressional Democrats didn't seem to care much, either. The second part of Congress's schizoid pot policy two-step was a slap in the face to both marijuana legalization and the will of the voters of the District of Columbia.

Maryland Rep. Andy Harris (R) authored a rider to the bill that says that the District cannot "enact or carry out any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.) or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative."

Republican House committee heads got it inserted into the House version of the bill, and Senate Democrats didn't consider it important enough to fight to remove.

Marijuana reform proponents (and believers in democratic rule for the residents of DC) were livid, and they are not ready to roll over in the face of congressional attempts to quash legalization in the District.

"In light of recent events in Ferguson and New York, it would be particularly disturbing if Congress has chosen to overturn the will of the voters in a majority black city," said Dr. Malik Burnett, DPA policy manager and vice-chair of the DC Cannabis Coalition, the group that got Measure 71 passed. "DC voters chose to reform their marijuana laws, which have a direct impact on how communities of color interact with police. Congress should not undermine that."

[image:3 align:left caption:true]"By prohibiting the regulation of marijuana in the District, they are ensuring authorities have no control over it," Tvert said. "If drug cartels and gangs had lobbyists on the Hill, preventing marijuana regulation would be their top legislative priority. If the District can regulate and tax alcohol sales, it should be allowed to do the same with a less harmful substance like marijuana."

The District city council has been advancing a bill that would tax and regulate marijuana sales, but the Harris rider effectively kills that. Less certain, however, is whether it can really block Measure 71 from taking effect.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; Rep. Eleanor Holmes Horton, the Congressional Delegate from DC.; Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY), the ranking member on the House appropriations subcommittee that funds DC; Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee; and others have said that the DC rider allows Initiative 71 to stand. The DC government is blocked from enacting any new marijuana law reforms but it is free to implement and carry out reforms that have already been enacted.

The congressional Republicans who pushed the measure naturally disagree. They argue that Measure 71 has not been enacted because the DC council has not yet sent it to Congress and that the rider thus blocks it from being implemented.

While the question is likely to end up being settled in the courts, the next move is up to the District city council. It can go ahead and send the measure to Congress despite what the budget bill rider says. Advocates are urging the council to do just that.

And the council seems to be in a mood to stick up for the initiative -- and for democratic rights for the District. DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson told The Washington Post even before the final Senate vote that he plans to ignore the rider. He said he will instead follow normal procedure for voter-approved initiatives in a city that exists under the congressional thumb. He will sent a bill implementing the initiative to Congress next month for a 30-day review in which lawmakers can vote it up or down.

And if that doesn't work, there's still the courts.

"If the question is whether I'd be open to legal action, the answer is yes," Mendelson told Politico after the House vote.

Whether Congress has successfully blocked marijuana legalization in DC clearly remains to be seen. What is not in dispute, though, is that Congress has taken a major step toward clearing the way for medical marijuana, and that's a big deal.

Categories: Latest News

GOP Effort to Block DC Marijuana Reforms Continues, Advocates Pressure Dems [FEATURE]

Wed, 12/10/2014 - 02:49

[This article was written in partnership with Alternet, and was originally published here.]

[image:1 align:right]Reflecting the will of the voters, the elected representatives of the people of Washington, DC -- the DC city council -- approved marijuana decriminalization earlier this year. District voters went even further than the council in last month's elections, approving an initiative to legalize the possession and cultivation of small amounts of pot with a whopping 70% of the vote.

Now, congressional Republicans are working feverishly to block the District from putting the results of this exercise in democracy into effect. Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) is leading a House effort to block federal funds being used for DC pot law reforms. Harris has crafted an amendment to the DC appropriations bill that would bar the use of federal or local funds to implement the reforms, and Rep. Harold Rodgers (R-KY), head of the House Appropriations Committee, has agreed to include Harris's amendment in the bill.

And, according to the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which has been deeply involved in DC marijuana reform efforts, "Democrats are rumored to be cutting a deal with Republicans" that would sacrifice legalization in order to save decriminalization."

[Update: Late Tuesday afternoon, DPA released the following report: "Currently, sources are reporting that Congress is considering allowing Initiative 71, approved by 70% of District residents, to stand while preventing future action on the District of Columbia's ability to tax and regulate marijuana. These reports stand in sharp contrast to a previously reported deal that would have stopped the ballot measure from taking effect."]

House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) hasn't exactly quelled those rumors. At a press conference last Friday, she said she supported the District's autonomy, but stopped short of saying any Republican moves to block the implementation of decriminalization or legalization would be a "deal breaker" on agreement for a broader appropriations package. (Republicans are also seeking to use the appropriations bill to overturn DC firearms safety laws.)

[image:2 align:left caption:true]"I have expressed concerns about treating the District of Columbia in a fair way, respecting home rule," Pelosi said. "I'm not saying any one of them is a deal breaker, but I'm saying this is an array of concerns that we have: clean air, good food standards, workplace safety, fairness to the District of Columbia, how the top line dollar is allocated within the legislation."

That not-so-ringing endorsement of the District's ability to democratically determine its own drug policies, as well as the rumored deals, has prompted DPA and other reform supporters to ramp up the pressure on congressional Democrats. In an open letter to the Democratic leadership today, a number of civil rights and other advocacy groups, including DPA, DC Votes, and the DC branches of the ACLU, NAACP, and NOW, called on the Democrats to grow a backbone.

"As you conclude negotiations over the FY15 Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill, we urge you to reject all efforts to include undemocratic restrictions on DC's rights," said the letter addressed to Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). "As you know, the spending bill passed by the House included new provisions that would interfere in the District of Columbia's local affairs, including language intended to overturn the results of a local voter initiative. The undersigned organizations advocate on diverse issues, but are united in our opposition to the inclusion of social policy riders targeting the District of Columbia in the appropriations bill."

[image:3 align:right]"Democratic leadership made it clear they would stand with voters on this crucial racial justice issue, and push back against Republican opposition to the DC law," said Michael Collins, policy manager at DPA's office of national affairs. "Democrats have always made claims of supporting DC home rule now is their chance to stand with 70% of voters in the District who voted for marijuana reform," Collins said.

Advocates are particularly dismayed given the racial disparities in the enforcement of marijuana laws in the District. According to a 2013 ACLU report, not only did DC have the highest per capita number of pot possession arrests -- more than three times the national average -- but it also saw black people arrested for pot possession at a rate more than eight times that of whites. In that regard, DC was second, trailing only the state of Iowa among the 50 states.

The Republican efforts to interfere -- and block these moves to reduce racial disparities in the District -- takes on added salience in the context of weeks of protests nationwide over racially biased policing.

"In light of recent events in Ferguson and New York, it is particularly disturbing that Congress would choose to overturn the will of the voters in a majority black city," said DPA policy manager and vice-chair of the DC Cannabis Campaign, which was responsible for the passage of Initiative 71, the legalization initiative. "DC voters chose to reform their marijuana laws, which have a direct impact on how communities of color interact with police. Congress is poised to undermine that."

But the Republican Party is no longer a monolith when it comes to marijuana law reform. On at least five votes this year, some Republican legislators voted in favor of such reforms. It is questionable whether the GOP could block DC's reforms on a straight up-and-down vote. By tying the effort to the broader appropriations bill, however, the issue is placed in the hands of the congressional leadership, and that could leave the District hanging out to dry. It's time for Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to stand up for the District and for democratic principals, the advocates say, and they are prodding them today.

Categories: Latest News

The March Toward Marijuana Legalization: 2016 and Beyond [FEATURE]

Fri, 11/28/2014 - 20:26

State-level marijuana law reform won big in this month's elections, with legalization initiatives triumphing convincingly in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC. The Florida medical marijuana initiative lost, but only because it had a higher bar of 60% of the popular vote. It ended up with 57%, a clear sign of solid majority support. And don't forget Guam -- the US territory approved medical marijuana with 56% of the vote.

[image:1 align:left caption:true]Local marijuana reform initiatives also fared well. In Maine, Massachusetts, and Michigan, activists built on earlier successes to win more victories this year, while in New Mexico, voters in Albuquerque and Santa Fe voted in favor of decriminalizing pot possession.

All in all, a good year for marijuana law reform, the second good election year in a row. Since 2012, voters in four states and DC have been asked to legalize marijuana. They've now said yes in all of them.

And now, eyes to turn to 2016 and beyond. There are excellent prospects for more victories in the West, as well as in the Northeast. And there could be some surprises lurking out there in the middle of the country.

California, of course, is the big prize, and efforts are already well underway to ensure that legalization is on the ballot in 2016 -- and that it actually wins this time. Arizona and Nevada are also on the radar, and the Nevada initiative campaign has already turned in twice the number of signatures needed to make the 2016 ballot.

In the Northeast, both Maine and Massachusetts are initiative states, and legalization appears headed for the ballot in both. In Rhode Island and Vermont, the push will come in the state legislatures.

"Things are clearly headed in the right direction," said Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) communications director Mason Tvert, scanning the post-election terrain. "Even in a midterm where we saw large Republican gains, we also saw large gains for marijuana policy reform. A lot of people would say the turnout was smaller and more conservative, yet we still saw strong majorities approving measures making marijuana legal in various states and cities."

MPP will be backing 2016 initiatives in five states, Tvert said, although the Nevada legislature could ease its burden by just approving an initiative rather than punting to the voters.

"In Nevada, the petition drive has just wrapped up. At this point, our goal there is to pass the ballot initiative; if the legislature chooses to take an objective look and give it some real consideration, that would be excellent, too," he said.

"We also have committees filed to support initiatives in Arizona, California, Maine, and Massachusetts," Tvert said. "In California, we want to begin to raise money to support that effort, but it's pretty early in the process. We expect to see very solid support for such a measure in California, especially running in a presidential election year when support for legalizing marijuana has been growing nationwide. Prop 19 got 47% in 2010; that will be six years ago come 2016."

"We have a pretty comprehensive statewide coalition working on this," said Dale Gieringer, executive director of California NORML, which is a key part of that grouping, the California Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform. "The coalition includes us, the Prop 19 people, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, MPP, the Emerald Growers Association, and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) has been a partner in this, too."

A little less than two years out, it's a work in progress, said Gieringer.

"Pretty much all the leading groups interested in drug reform are interested in collaborating, but exactly how that will work hasn't been settled yet," he said.

Now that four states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana, Gieringer sees some political space for pushing the envelope.

"Home cultivation will be in it," he said. "They have that in Oregon and Colorado, and we're going to have it in California. I also want to provide for on-site consumption; we're working to get that instituted here in Oakland. In Colorado, they banned public use, which is one thing if you mean smoking pot on the street, but governments tend to have an expansive view of what constitutes public use, like a public accommodation under the Civil Rights Act. I think we can provide for licensed on-site consumption, at least by local option."

And no reason to make what he called "unnecessary concessions."

"We have a DUID law, and we don't need to change that," he said. "They didn't do that in Colorado and Oregon, and we don't need to do it. We learned a lesson in Washington -- that lack of an express DUID provision didn't make a difference -- and we're not going to repeat that."

Although more than any other group in the coalition, CANORML represents the interests of marijuana consumers, Gieringer said it's not pot smokers or growers who are going to make an initiative victorious.

[image:2 align:right caption:true]"Marijuana users are 12% to 15% of the population here; we really have to depend on more than that," he said. "The users and growers will not determine this campaign. And I'm sure there will be people discontented with however the initiative turns out; there always are. But there aren't that many growers in the state, anyhow. Some growers didn't like Prop 19, but it failed for other reasons. It didn't win in Los Angeles County, and that's not because of the growers."

In some states, such as Massachusetts, activists have been piling up marijuana reform victories for years. MassCANN/NORML and the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts have an unbroken record of winning non-binding public policy questions on marijuana reform issues going back seven election cycles. Voters in the Bay State have also signaled their approval of marijuana law reform by passing statewide medical marijuana (2008) and decriminalization initiatives (2012).

Now, Bay State Repeal has formed to free the weed in 2016, and it has a pot populist tinge to it. The group wants home cultivation, not just to keep prices down, but "to keep the cops from busting through the door just because there is marijuana growing there" and it wants taxation and regulation, but only "moderate," not "cash-cow taxation or giant licensing fees."

In Maine, where MPP has been active, putting successful municipal legalization initiatives on the ballot in Portland and South Portland (but losing one in Lewiston), there could be not one but two legalization initiatives unless differing actors come together. In addition to the MPP effort, a new group, Legalize Maine, is also moving forward with plans for an initiative.

As with Bay State Repeal, there is a pot populist tinge. Legalize Maine couches its argument not only in terms of justice and common sense, but also talks about jobs and economic development. And it wants marijuana regulated in a way that "focuses on people instead of large economic interests that seeks to dominate the marijuana industry."

Legalization could also pop up in some unexpected places, too. While the major movement organizations already have selected targets for 2016 and have plans well afoot, things could break faster than the big players anticipate, and local activists in some states -- Arkansas and Missouri, for example -- may manage to get initiatives on the ballot without significant outside support.

In Missouri, Show Me Cannabis has been undertaking a vigorous and energetic campaign to put an initiative on the ballot in 2016. It submitted its initiative to state officials earlier this month; the first step in getting the measure before the voters. Similar efforts by different groups are also underway next door in Arkansas.

Those Ozark-area efforts don't have the backing of big national organization behind them, but that could change.

[image:3 align:right caption:true]"If these initiatives are well-drafted and the polling is strong, we'll help as best we can, but we're not making any financial commitments," said DPA executive director Ethan Nadelmann. "We have a major commitment in California, and we're helping MPP draft initiatives in other states. In Missouri, let's make sure there's a solid draft initiative, and if the polling is there, well, a victory in Missouri would be very compelling."

Seeing marijuana legalization creep along the West Coast, make inroads on the East Coast, and maybe even in the Ozarks would make for a very impressive 2016, but some Midwestern activists are looking further down the road.

Led by indefatigable Tim Beck, Michigan activists have managed to pass municipal personal legalization initiatives in all the state's largest cities in the past few years. This year, they went eight for 13 with similar initiatives in smaller Michigan communities.

Michigan voters also approved marijuana in a statewide initiative in 2008, but, for Beck, getting the state's dispensary situation settled -- not legalization -- is the first order of business.

"Although the state legislature is totally controlled by the GOP, we've been working with them, and they've kind of seen the light on a regulated system with a lot of local control, which is big with Republicans," he said. "We have one of the best medical marijuana laws in the country, and it's going to get better with a regulated dispensary system, as well as ingestibles. We won 95-14 in the House, and it's going through the Senate now," he said.

"We have over 1.5 million people now living in cities that have decriminalized," Beck said. "And we liberated 140,000 this year -- on the cheap. This has an impact. When we have dispensaries and when we have decriminalization, local officials won't be able to say 'Oh, we don't want marijuana here,' because the voters do."

Legalization may not be the first order of business, but it is the ultimate goal, Beck said.

"My philosophy has never been that the solution is medical, but straight-out, unadorned legalization, but we're -having to do it on our own," he explained. "Michigan is fly-over country for the big players. It's a large state with a population of more than 10 million, so it's expensive to win a campaign, and it's a bit more conservative than the East or West coasts."

That means Michigan needs to be patient.

"Our realistic priority for the next couple of years is to work with the legislature," Beck said. "We have a new class of entrepreneurs who have come out of the closet, and we've been able to fund our own lobbyist to the tune of about $150,000. Once we get dispensaries, then we'll turn to decriminalization at the statehouse. We had a decriminalization bill this year, but it was introduced by a Democrat and went nowhere."

Beck is also waiting for the opinion polls to move further in the right direction.

"There's a weird dichotomy in our polling," the veteran activist explained. "We get well over 60% saying yes to reallocating police resources away from small-time marijuana users, but when it comes to legalization, that number drops dramatically. We might be at 50%; we'll do another poll at year's end, but I don't think much will change. It's hard to demand that anyone open their checkbook when you're only running 50%. We have to just keep going on an incremental basis. Maybe by 2018 or 2020, we'll be ready."

While Beck counsels patience, Nadelmann is counseling prudence. And while he is of course happy that all the legalization initiatives passed, he doesn't want people to think it's going to be a walk in the park from here on in.

"The downside is a sense of overconfidence, a feeling that marijuana will legalize itself," he said. "That could make it more difficult to fundraise if there's a sense that you can put anything on the ballot and not anticipate serious opposition. There could be a sense in the industry that you can be free riders while the activists raise the money."

There are other potential pitfalls. Entrepreneurs trying to push the envelope could push too far, Nadelmann said.

"Don't forget the Montana disaster," he warned, referring the wide open medical marijuana expansion there that created a backlash that drove the industry back into the ground. "Don't be short-sighted and greedy, and contribute and support the organizations working on this."

And don't forget federal pot prohibition.

It's one thing for a handful of states -- or even more -- to legalize marijuana, but as long as federal marijuana prohibition remains on the books, even the legal marijuana states could theoretically face a concerted federal effort to roll back the clock. Using federal marijuana prohibition as a hammer, a hostile Congress and president could wreak havoc with state-level regulation and taxation. (Ironically, a move to do that could result in marijuana being legal to smoke and possess in those states, but not to sell or be taxed or regulated.)

But if repealing federal pot prohibition is the Holy Grail, reformers still have a ways to go.

"A lot more states are going to have to approve this before it gets to the point where repeal can pass," said Nadelmann. "When you look at medical marijuana and how slowly that moves on Capitol Hill, you see that it wasn't until this year that we actually got something passed, and that was just to stop federal interference in medical marijuana states. I'm more optimistic about winning votes like that next year, to get the federal government out of the way."

Congress has not been especially responsive to growing support for marijuana legalization, and there's no reason to expect that to change anytime soon, Nadelmann said.

"It's hard to imagine Congress playing any sort of leadership role on this stuff," he explained.

Maybe when we have 24 legal marijuana states, not just four of them. That means there's still plenty of work to be done at the state house and the ballot box.

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Marijuana Arrests Drop, But Still 1.5 Million Drug Arrests Last Year [FEATURE]

Mon, 11/10/2014 - 21:24

More than 1.5 million people were arrested for drug offenses in the US last year, and more than 693,000 of those for marijuana offenses. The figures come from the FBI's 2013 Uniform Crime Report, which was released today.

[image:1 align:left caption:true]That's about one pot bust and slightly more than one other drug arrest every minute, 365 days a year. The vast majority of them are for simple possession. Over 87% of all marijuana arrests and 82% of all drug arrests were for possession only.

Marijuana arrests have declined from peaks early in this century. In 2008, there were a record 872,000 marijuana arrests, so pot busts have declined by slightly more than 20% since then. But arrests for other drug offenses continue apace, actually increasingly slightly last year. Still, because of the decline in marijuana arrests, the overall number of drug arrests dropped by about 50,000.

In 2008, marijuana arrests accounted for a majority (52%) of all drug arrests. Now, it is down to 40.6%.

Some of the decline in marijuana arrests can be attributed to the passage of decriminalization and legalization laws, particularly in the West, where pot arrests accounted for only 18% of all drug arrests. California decriminalized pot possession in 2011, and Colorado and Washington legalized it in the 2012 elections.

[image:2 align:right caption:true]In other parts of the country, marijuana arrests continued to roll along, even in the Northeast, where they accounted for 46% of all drug arrests. In the South, the figure was 49.8%, and in the Midwest, pot accounted for 51.7% of all drug arrests.

When it comes to race, blacks continue to be disproportionately represented among drug arrestees. African-Americans accounted for 30.7% of all drug arrests, but they only make up about 13% of the population. That means blacks are being arrested for drugs at 2 ½ times the rate their percentage of the population would predict.

Drug arrests were the single largest category of arrests made in the US and accounted for about 13% of all arrests. The 1.5 million drug arrests well exceeded second place larceny-theft (1.232 million) and third place driving under the influence (1.167 million). More than three times as many people were arrested for drug offenses than for all violent crimes combined (480,000).

The continued law enforcement emphasis on drug enforcement drew criticism from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).

[image:3 align:left caption:true]"Police made more drug arrests than for any other single category of crime. Meanwhile, only 64% of murders and 48% of violent crimes generally are being solved," said LEAP executive director Major Neill Franklin (Ret.), citing the FBI statistics. "We clearly have our priorities in the wrong place."

The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), fresh from last week's successful "marijuana midterms," pronounced itself pleased with the decline in pot busts, but called for them to end, not just diminish.

"We're pleased to see the drop, but arresting even one adult for using a substance that is objectively less harmful than alcohol is inexcusable," said MPP communications director Mason Tvert. "Every year we see millions of violent crimes attributed to alcohol, and the evidence is clear that marijuana is not a significant contributing factor in such incidents. Yet our laws continue to steer adults toward drinking by threatening to punish them if they make the safer choice. These arrest numbers demonstrate that the threat is very real," he noted.

Tvert also echoed LEAP in criticizing law enforcement priorities.

"Law enforcement officials should be spending their time and resources addressing serious crimes, not arresting and prosecuting adults for using marijuana," he said. "Every year, these statistics show hundreds of thousands of marijuana-related arrests are taking place and countless violent crimes are going unsolved. We have to wonder how many of those crimes could be solved -- or prevented -- if police weren't wasting their time enforcing failed marijuana prohibition laws."

The laws must change, he said.

"A majority of Americans think marijuana should be legal for adults and treated similarly to alcohol. Voters in four states and the District of Columbia have now passed laws that reflect that, and we expect several more will do over the next few years. It's time for our laws to catch up with public opinion."

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Federal Sentencing Reforms Go Into Effect Today [FEATURE]

Sat, 11/01/2014 - 21:04

Federal drug sentencing reforms adopted earlier this year by the US Sentencing Commission went into effect today. They should result in tens of thousands of federal prisoners seeing their sentences cut and being released early, as well as ensuring that future offenders are not sentenced so harshly.

[image:1 align:left]The Sentencing Commission, an independent body in the judicial branch which is charged with setting federal sentencing guidelines, voted unanimously in April to reduce the guidelines for most drug sentences. Then, in July, it voted—again unanimously—to make those sentencing reductions retroactive, meaning they will be applied to current federal drug prisoners.

Congress had an opportunity to disapprove of the sentencing reductions, but failed to act, so the changes are now in effect.

As of today, current federal drug prisoners can begin petitioning courts for sentence cuts based on what the new guidelines call for. If the courts determine they are eligible for the sentence cuts and a reduction is appropriate, the sentences will be reduced. That will result in some federal prisoners getting out early, but none will be released until a year from today.

The sentence cuts will not, though, reduce mandatory minimum sentences, which are set by Congress. Prisoners serving sentences longer than the mandatory minimum may win sentencing reductions, but not below the mandatory minimum.

(The federal sentencing reform group Families Against Mandatory Minimums provides an overview page on the move and what it means, as well as FAQ page for prisoners and their families.)

For the past two decades, the Sentencing Commission has attempted to rein in the harshly punitive impulses in Congress that led it to impose lengthy prison sentences for even low-level drug offenses in the 1980s. The federal prison population has increased more than three-fold since 1980, driven largely by the war on drugs. According to the Bureau of Prisons, the 98,482 federal drug prisoners make up 48.8% of all federal prisoners.

[image:2 align:right caption:true]"The reduction in drug guidelines that becomes effective tomorrow represents a significant step toward the goal the Commission has prioritized of reducing federal prison costs and overcrowding without endangering public safety," Judge Patti Saris, chair of the Commission, said in a statement. "Commissioners worked together to develop an approach that advances the causes of fairness, justice, fiscal responsibility, and public safety, and I am very pleased that we were able to agree unanimously on this reasonable solution. I am also gratified that Congress permitted this important reform to go forward."

According to the Commission, more than 46,000 current drug prisoners will be eligible for sentence reductions through retroactive application of the revised sentencing guidelines. The Commission estimates that the sentence cuts will reduce the federal prison population by 6,500 within five years and more significantly as time goes on.

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) applauded the sentencing reductions, and especially the Commission's move to apply them to current prisoners.

"It makes little sense, of course, to reform harsh sentencing laws proactively but not retroactively," said Ethan Nadelmann, DPA executive director. "But that’s what politicians do when they’re scared of allowing people out of prison early. The Sentencing Commission really had no choice but to rectify the moral absurdity of keeping people locked up based on sentences that are no longer the law. What they did was right and just."

"This is an important step toward undoing some of the worst harms of the drug war by allowing people to be reunited with their families," added DPA media relations manager Tony Papa, who served 12 years in prison for a nonviolent drug offense.

[image:3 align:left caption:true]While the Sentencing Commission has been working for years to address prison overcrowding and unduly harsh sentencing, recent years have also seen some advances in Congress. In 2010 Congress unanimously passed legislation reducing the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity. Bipartisan legislation reforming mandatory minimum sentencing, the Smarter Sentencing Act (S 1410), has already passed out of committee this year and is awaiting a floor vote in the Senate. Attorney General Eric Holder has made numerous changes this year, including directing U.S. Attorneys to charge certain drug offenders in a way that ensures they won’t be subject to punitive mandatory minimum sentencing.

Sentencing Commission Chair Judge Parris said Congress still needs to get around to passing comprehensive reforms.

"Only Congress can act to fully solve the crisis in federal prison budgets and populations and address the many systemic problems the Commission has found resulting from mandatory minimum penalties," she said. "I hope that Congress will act promptly to pass comprehensive sentencing reform legislation."

Maybe then we can actually reverse the decades-long trend of sustained growth in the federal prison population. Actually, thanks to reforms already passed by Congress, we may see the first decrease in the federal prison population announced next month, when the Bureau of Justice Statistics issues its annual prison population report. The preliminary numbers suggest that the population may have peaked in 2012.

This move by the Sentencing Commission will only accelerate that (presumed) trend, but will only result in sentence reductions for about half of incarcerated federal drug offenders. There is still more work to be done. 

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Marijuana Reform on Local Ballots in Five States Next Week: The Rundown [FEATURE]

Wed, 10/29/2014 - 06:58

Election Day is less than a week away, and it's not just statewide marijuana, medical marijuana, sentencing reform, and drug testing initiatives that we're watching. In five states, voters in some cities or counties will have opportunities to cast ballots for local marijuana reform measures.

[image:1 align:left]In four out of the five states—California being the exception—the local initiatives, some binding, some not, are chances to vote for decriminalizing or legalizing pot. In all of those states, these city- or county-level measures are just the latest steps in sometimes years-long campaigns laying the groundwork for state-level legalization, either through the ballot box or through the legislature.

California is a special case this year. With pot possession already decriminalized, its unique medical marijuana laws providing broad, if uneven, access, and the near certainty that statewide legalization is going to be on the ballot in 2016, nobody is bothering with local legalization measures in 2014 (although they had successful ones in a number of cities in the past).

In California, all the action is about medical marijuana. Let's start there.

California

With the state legislature unable or unwilling to pass statewide medical marijuana regulations, battles on the topic regularly devolve to the local level. This year is no exception. There are three broad areas of contention this year: cultivation, dispensaries, and taxes.

Four counties are dealing with cultivation issues. In Butte County, Measure B is a less restrictive ordinance than Measure A, which was passed by the board of supervisors. Both are on the ballot. In Lake County, Measure O and Measure P, both seek to overturn the restrictive Measure N, which was narrowly approved by voters last year. Measure O would allow more plants to be grown, while Measure P declares that personal—not commercial—grows  are a fundamental right and that people growing for their own use are exempt from county cultivation ordinances.

In Nevada County, Measure S would liberalize the county's restrictive cultivation ordinance by allowing indoor cultivation anywhere, eliminating some minimum distance and other restrictions, and allowing up to 60 plants to be grown on plots over 30 acres. In Shasta County, Measure A is a referendum on an ordinance banning outdoor grows and home cultivation. A "no" vote on Measure A would repeal the ordinance.

[image:2 align:right caption:true]Dispensaries are on the ballot in a number of cities and counties. In Orange County's Santa Ana, two competing measures are on the ballot. Measure CC would allow for a minimum of 22 dispensaries, while the more restrictive, city council-sponsored Measure BB has no minimum number of dispensaries, a higher tax rate, and more restrictions than Measure CC.

In San Diego County, two cities have dispensary measures on the ballot. In Encinitas, Measure F would allow dispensaries and tax them at a 2.5% rate, while in La Mesa, Measure J would do the same thing. In Riverside County, Blythe's Measure Z would authorize and regulate dispensaries, with a 15% business tax.

Straight taxation questions are also on the ballot in Santa Cruz County (Measure K), the city of Santa Cruz (Measure L), Shasta Lake City (Measure C), and two Riverside County communities, Cathedral City (Measure N) and Desert Hot Springs, which has both a cultivation tax measure (Measure HH) and a dispensary tax measure (Measure II) on the ballot.

[Thanks to the Drug Policy Forum of California and its November 2014 Election Guide for the information on California local initiatives.]

Maine

In Maine, the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and local allies are sponsoring possession legalization initiatives in two towns, Lewiston and South Portland. A similar effort in York was blocked by recalcitrant town leaders. This year's effort builds on last year's success in Portland, Maine's largest city, where a similar initiative was approved with 67% of the vote.

In Lewiston, the personal legalization initiative is Question 2; it South Portland, it is Citizen-Initiated Ordinance #5.

Lewiston is the state's second largest city, while South Portland is its fourth largest. Victories in those two cities next week, along with last year's victory in Portland, will lay the groundwork for a statewide legalization push in 2016, which MPP says is coming.

Massachusetts

For the last six election cycles, activists with the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts and MassCann/NORML have been laying the groundwork for marijuana law reform through the use of non-binding Public Policy Questions (PPQs), by which voters signal their reform desires to their elected representatives. The questions have been on medical marijuana, decriminalization, and legalization—and they have never lost.

[image:3 align:left caption:true]Public opinion in the form of successful public policy questions helped decriminalize marijuana in 2008 and legalize marijuana in 2012. This year, the questions are all about legalization, and the aim is clear: making Massachusetts a legal marijuana state within the next couple of years.

This year, the question asks: "Shall the State Representative from this district be instructed to vote in favor of legislation that would allow the state to regulate and tax marijuana in the same manner as alcohol?"

Voters will be answering that question in the following districts: 4th Barnstable, 4th Berkshire, 1st Essex, 2nd Franklin, 14th Middlesex, 15th Middlesex, 24th Middlesex, and 8th Norfolk.

But wait--there's more. Meanwhile, Bay State Repeal has an even less restrictive question on the ballot in five districts. That question asks whether voters would like to tell their representatives to "replace the state's restrictions on marijuana with a law that regulates the cultivation and commerce in marijuana by persons over the age of 21, in the same manner as laws that apply to the cultivation and sale of fruits, vegetables, and herbs."

That question will be asked the following districts: 4th Essex, 7th Essex, 8th Essex, 3rd Middlesex, and 6th Middlesex. A slightly different form of the question will be asked in the 2nd Hampshire district. 

Michigan

In an fight led by the Safer Michigan Coalition, marijuana decriminalization is on the ballot in 11 Michigan towns and cities this year. Like the efforts in Maine and Massachusetts, the effort in Michigan this year is part of an ongoing process whose ultimate end is legalization. Eleven other Michigan cities, including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and Lansing—the state's largest cities—have already passed similar measures. No city has ever defeated one.

This year, voters will have the chance to do the same in Berkley, Clare, Frankfort, Harrison, Huntington Woods, Lapeer, Mt. Pleasant, Onaway, Port Huron, Pleasant Ridge and Saginaw.

All will be voting on questions similar to this one, from Port Huron: "Shall the Charter of the City of Port Huron, Michigan be amended such that nothing in the Code of Ordinances shall apply to the use, possession or transfer of less than 1 ounce of marijuana, on private property, or transportation of 1 ounce or less of marijuana, by a person who has attained the age of 21 years?"

New Mexico

The state's most populous county, Bernalillo County, and its third most populous, Santa Fe County, will vote on advisory, non-binding questions designed to measure popular support for marijuana decriminalization.

In both counties, the question asks: "Are you in favor of the [...] County Commission supporting County, City, and Statewide efforts to decriminalize possession of one ounce or less of marijuana?"

There should also have been a pair of municipal decriminalization initiatives in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, but it didn't work out that way. The Drug Policy Alliance and Progress New Mexico worked through the summer and into the fall to put the initiatives before the voters in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, but neither actually happened.

In Santa Fe, the city council, when presented with the qualified initiative, just voted to accept it instead of putting it to a popular vote. In Albuquerque, the reason no vote is occurring is not so happy. Although the city council voted to put the initiative on the November ballot, Mayor Richard Berry (R) vetoed it.

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If the past is any indication, these building-block local initiatives should all fare very well at the polls and continue to build the number of American political jurisdictions that have gone on record for ending pot prohibition. Come back next week to see if we can confirm that. 

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