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Drug Policy

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Published: Mon, 19 Mar 2018 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Mon, 19 Mar 2018 19:06:46 -0400


Kansas Registers Drug Offenders as Well as Sex Offenders

Wed, 14 Mar 2018 17:29:00 -0400

Back when meth was the drug war's primary target, several states created registries for people convicted of making or selling the drug. Kansas went further than anyone else. There, anyone convicted of manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to distribute any illegal recreational drugs other than cannabis are required to register for a minimum of 15 years—and unlike other states, the Kansas registry includes their picture. (It formerly included their addresses, but that was later removed due to fear of retaliation.) More than 4,500 Kansans are now registered drug offenders, and many of them face surveillance, public isolation, and other unnecessary hardships as a result. Kansas lawmakers are now reviewing a bill that would eliminate drug offenders from the criminal registry. "It is a drain on resources with no science, studies, or data to justify it," defense lawyer Jennifer Roth said at a hearing. While they are on the registry, those convicted of drug charges are required to appear at the country sheriff's office four times a year. They must also make an appearance any time they move, get a new job, buy a vehicle, change emails, or get a tattoo. Each quarterly visit costs offenders $20, and failing to register—an offense that includes failing to make any one of those appearances—can lead to prison sentences. The consequences can be crushing. The formerly incarcerated already have an extremely difficult time obtaining a job. And many people examining the registry fail to distinguish between drug charges and sex-related offenses, leading to further problems. The public is hostile to sex criminals, and people are quick to assume the worst about persons registered (though many sex offenders on the registry may not deserve to be there either). This harsh public treatment leads to social isolation, and critics of the registries suggest such isolation makes recidivism more rather than less likely. Similarly, while there isn't much evidence that registries actually prevent crime, several studies suggest that felons without foreseeable job prospects are more likely become repeat offenders. "The problem with these registries is that we're creating a class of untouchables within our society who cannot rent apartments or secure employment," George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley told Prison Legal News during the original push to add drug offenders to the registries. "When you diminish the likelihood that ex-felons can live and work in society, you increase the chances that they will return to criminal behavior." In light of such problems, other states have rolled back their registering requirements. Hopefully Kansas will join them soon.[...]

Report: Imprisoning Drug Users Doesn't Stop Drug Use or Prevent Overdoses

Thu, 08 Mar 2018 16:00:00 -0500

Louisiana imprisons people at a higher rate for drug crimes than any other state in the country. Oklahoma ranks second. One might then think that Louisiana and Oklahoma would have correspondingly lower rates of drug use and drug overdoses. Nope. According to a new report released by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the two states rank pretty high in drug use and overdose deaths. This newly released set of findings shows that incarcerating people for drug crimes does not correlate with either less drug use or fewer overdoses. Louisiana ranks 13th in the county in drug use. Oklahoma ranks 10th in rates of both drug use and overdose deaths. Contrast them with permissive California, which ranks 47th in drug imprisonment (though keep in mind that still works out to nearly 16,000 people). California does rank very high in drug use rates. It's second, just behind Colorado—and this is excluding marijuana, which has been legalized in both states. But California also ranks 40th in drug overdoses, surprisingly low. So California may be more permissive and have greater drug use rates, but these drug users are less likely to die of overdoses than those in Oklahoma or Louisiana. In short, years and years of incarceration-focused drug wars have done nothing to control drug use. Tennessee ranks fifth in prison sentences for drug use, while New Jersey ranks 45th. Yet they both rank nearly the same (40th and 42nd) in rates of drug use. Pew even includes what is a nearly incomprehsible quartet of maps, entirely to highlight how impossible it is to determine any pattern between incarceration, arrests, drug use rates, and overdose death rates. Take a look (and perhaps scratch your head): Pew sent these findings last summer to President Donald Trump's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. Making more of the report available right now is useful, given that the president has been playing up punitive responses to drug trafficking (though at this point I'd argue "punitive" is a euphemism when talking about a man who fantasizes about executing dealers). Trump is nominating a man to the U.S. Sentencing Commission who is opposed to reducing mandatory minimum sentences and insists that incarcerating more people leads to less crime. That, Pew reports, is not what the evidence shows: The absence of any relationship between states' rates of drug imprisonment and drug problems suggests that expanding imprisonment is not likely to be an effective national drug control and prevention strategy. The state-level analysis reaffirms the findings of previous research demonstrating that imprisonment rates have scant association with the nature and extent of the harm arising from illicit drug use. For example, a 2014 National Research Council report found that mandatory minimum sentences for drug and other offenders "have few, if any, deterrent effects." The finding was based, in part, on decades of observation that when street-level drug dealers are apprehended and incarcerated they are quickly and easily replaced. On the other hand, reduced prison terms for certain federal drug offenders have not led to higher recidivism rates. In 2007, the Sentencing Commission retroactively cut the sentences of thousands of crack cocaine offenders, and a seven-year follow-up study found no increase in recidivism among offenders whose sentences were shortened compared with those whose were not. In 2010, Congress followed the commission's actions with a broader statutory decrease in penalties for crack cocaine offenders. The report notes that, in defiance of everything coming from Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Americans by wide margins oppose lengthy mandatory minimum sentences as a tool to fight drug use and believe imprisonment for nonviolent offenders should be scaled back. Pew has polls from Maryland, Utah, and—yes—Oklahoma and Louisiana to back this up. The report concludes: Putting more drug-law violators behind bars for longer periods of time has generated enormous costs for taxpayers, but it has not yiel[...]

The 2010s Have Been a Banner Decade for Unintended Consequences

Tue, 06 Mar 2018 11:35:00 -0500

The 2010s are proving to be a banner decade for unintended consequences in America's war on drugs. By now, readers are likely familiar with the policies that bolstered the markets for heroin and then illicit fentanyl: Law enforcement cracked down on doctors who prescribed large amount of painkillers, pharmacists were required to report opioid prescriptions to government databases, and regulators asked the pharmaceutical industry to make pills harder to manipulate. Unable to access snortable or injectable pills, users turned to the black market. As a result, prescription overdose deaths have declined in many states, but fentanyl- and heroin-related overdose deaths have skyrocketed. The New York Times reports that two other substances are also having a moment. "Overshadowed by the Opioid Crisis: A Comeback by Cocaine," reads a Times headline from Monday morning. "Meth, the Forgotten Killer, Is Back. And It's Everywhere," the Grey Lady declared in February. Neither drug really went away—only Quaaludes have ever done that—but they are cheaper and more plentiful than they have been in years, thanks to supply reduction policies enacted by the United States and its allies. The Times tells us, for example, that a study by RAND found that cocaine consumption fell 50 percent between 2006 and 2010. But in the past few years, the cocaine supply from Colombia has climbed to a record high in part because of a peace settlement that includes payments to farmers who stop growing coca. To be in a position to qualify for those payments in the future, many farmers started growing it. As a result...cocaine prices have fallen, leading to an increase in cocaine use in the United States and some European countries. The Economist says farmers in Colombia knew for years before the peace settlement was completed that the government would eventually pay them to stop growing coca, which is a very good reason to not grow anything else until the checks start coming in. Stateside, cocaine is cheap and, in many places, contaminated. Last week, Harm Reduction Ohio reported that cocaine samples across the state tested positive for illicit fentanyl and its analogs, meaning cocaine users with no opioid preference (or tolerance) are playing Russian roulette every time they put schnozz to mirror. People who intentionally mix heroin and cocaine, meanwhile, are increasingly likely to shoot those two plus fentanyl. The result is more dead cocaine users. Back in December, the pseudonymous blogger Jubal Harshaw emailed me with some data from the Centers for Disease Control showing that cocaine overdose deaths involving fentanyl had increased from 23 percent of cocaine deaths in 2015 to 40 percent in 2016. In Maryland, the number of opioid-cocaine deaths has increased dramatically: A large number of overdose deaths have always involved more than one drug. Classically deadly combinations include opioids plus alcohol and opioids plus benzodiazepines. Mainstream reporting seldom covers the crisis with that much nuance, but now's as good a time as any to split hairs, per a recent Vice dispatch: One CDC report found that nearly half of such ODs nationwide involved consumption of drug cocktails, and in New York City, the local health department has repeatedly reported that upwards of 90 percent of overdoses involved the interaction of multiple drugs. In Ohio, meanwhile, a study in 2015 found that the cause of death for 73 percent of overdose victims was linked to more than one drug—and nearly a quarter had four or more drugs listed. As for meth: The Times wants you to know that it's still around and still very bad. This sequence of paragraphs is particularly illuminating: Here in Oregon, meth-related deaths vastly outnumber those from heroin. At the United States border, agents are seizing 10 to 20 times the amounts they did a decade ago. Methamphetamine, experts say, has never been purer, cheaper or more lethal. Oregon took a hard line against meth in 2006, when it began requiring a doctor's prescription[...]

Will Hawaiians Who Use Medical Pot Lose Their Right to Own a Gun?

Thu, 01 Mar 2018 12:00:00 -0500

Hawaii is one of 29 states that allow medical use of marijuana. It's also the only state that requires registration of all firearms. If you are familiar with the criteria that bar people from owning guns under federal law, you can probably surmise what the conjunction of these two facts means for patients who use cannabis as a medicine, which Hawaii allows them to do only if they register with the state.

"Your medical marijuana use disqualifies you from ownership of firearms and ammunition," Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard said in a November 13 letter received by about 30 people on Oahu. "If you currently own or have any firearms, you have 30 days upon receipt of this letter to voluntarily surrender your firearms, permit, and ammunition to the Honolulu Police Department (HPD) or otherwise transfer ownership."

Hawaii legalized medical marijuana in 2000. It's not clear what prompted the letters now, but the opening of the state's first dispensary last August may have had something to do with it. Ballard cited a state law that says "no person who is…prohibited from possessing firearms or ammunition under federal law shall own, possess, or control any firearm or ammunition." Federal law forbids possession of firearms by any "unlawful user" of a controlled substance and, unlike Hawaii law, does not recognize any legitimate reason for consuming cannabis.

In 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which includes Hawaii, upheld a ban on gun sales to people with medical marijuana cards, even if they do not consume cannabis. The appeals court reasoned that possessing such a card is a good if imperfect indicator of illegal drug use, which it said is associated with violence, "impaired mental states," and "negative interactions with law enforcement officers." The court concluded that there is a "reasonable fit" between the ban and a substantial government objective, which means it passes "intermediate scrutiny" and is therefore consistent with the constitutional right to keep and bear arms.

Disarming medical marijuana patients nevertheless proved controversial in Hawaii, where local criticism led Ballard to backpedal in December. Although the HPD will continue to reject gun permit applications from patients on the state's registry, she said, for the time being it will not try to take firearms away from those who already own them.

"This is a new area of concern for cities across the country, and we in Honolulu want to develop a policy that's legally sound and serves our community," the police chief said in a press release. "Formulating the policy will take time, but we want to do it right."

Congress Has Failed (Yet Again) to Close the Martin Shkreli Loophole

Thu, 15 Feb 2018 15:20:00 -0500

Prescription drug companies sometimes use a legal loophole called "restricted distribution" to undermine their generic competitors. The CREATES Act, sponsored by a transpartisan group of senators, would have curtailed the practice, but last week Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) excluded the bill from the budget agreement. As a result, Americans will continue to pay more than they should for certain prescription drugs. Many Americans are at least vaguely familiar with restricted distribution, thanks to the most infamous pharmaceutical executive to take advantage of it, Martin Shkreli. Shkreli, you may remember, jacked up the price of a drug called Daraprim, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in the 1950s and has been used for decades as a treatment for parasites that infect people with compromised immune systems. The patent for Daraprim expired more than 40 years ago, but it's still the only FDA-approved version of pyrimethamine currently on the market in the U.S., which means it has no generic competitor. (The FDA approved a slightly different formulation of pyrimethamine as a malaria treatment in 1981, but it has since been discontinued.) For a long time, American patients didn't really need a generic version of Daraprim, because it cost around $13.50 per 25 milligram pill and is taken for a short period of time. For immunocompromised adult patients who have the toxoplasmosis parasite, the FDA recommends taking 50 to 75 milligrams of Daraprim a day for up to three weeks, followed by half that dosage for an additional four to five weeks. So at the high end, an adult course of Daraprim therapy for a U.S. patient used to cost around $1,350 total. While that might not seem cheap, it was a drop in the bucket compared to the cost after Turing Pharmaceuticals, Shkreli's company, bought the rights to Daraprim and jacked the price up to $750 per pill in 2015. That move increased the cost of one course of treatment to around $75,000. At that point you might have expected another company to jump in and start offering a generic version of the drug. But Shkreli used a regulatory loophole to keep that from happening. You see, when a generic manufacturer wants to create a cheap version of a branded drug, it has to buy thousands of doses from the manufacturer in order to run comparison tests. Generic manufacturers use the results of these tests to prove to the FDA that their version is identical to the branded drug that the agency has already approved. More often than not, the company that holds the marketing and distribution rights to a branded drug will sell those comparison doses to the generic manufacturer without being obstructionist, because that's the trade-off for receiving a 20-year monopoly by way of a drug patent: The branded manufacturer gets to charge whatever they want for years and years without facing competition, and in exchange for that government-backed monopoly, it's supposed to sell equivalency samples to generic companies. But what if the company is run by an unscrupulous asshole like Martin Shkreli? Then it might opt to put the drug into what's called "restricted distribution," which means no distributor anywhere can sell comparison samples to a generic manufacturer. The FDA originally created the concept of restricted distribution to limit the availability of drugs that might be dangerous. Methadone, for instance, was first approved in the 1940s as a painkiller. In the 1970s, the FDA restricted its availability because regulators didn't want the opioid used for anything other than the treatment of opioid dependence. Even today, methadone can be dispensed only in highly regulated settings and only for one approved reason. In 2007, Congress empowered the FDA to create an entire system of safety controls beyond restricted distribution, and the agency now requires the manufacturers of certain substances to develop Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategies (REMS) to prevent misuse a[...]

To Placate Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Blocks Medical Marijuana Exports

Mon, 12 Feb 2018 14:00:00 -0500

Last week Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blocked plans to allow the export of medical marijuana, citing objections from Donald Trump. "I spoke with Trump," Netanyahu reportedly told members of his cabinet, "and he told me about his general opposition to the legalization of cannabis, and I'm not sure Israel should be the export pioneer." This development, which was originally reported by Hadashot news, is doubly puzzling. Trump has repeatedly expressed support for medical marijuana, and in any case Israeli exports to countries other than the United States would not implicate U.S. law. Trump has said he opposes legalizing marijuana for recreational use, although he also has said the decision should be left to the states. On medical use he has gone further, saying patients who can benefit from marijuana should be able to obtain it. "I think medical marijuana, 100 percent," he said at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference. "I think medical should happen, right?" he said at a rally latter that year. "Don't we agree? I mean I think so…I know people that are very, very sick, and for whatever reason, the marijuana really helps them." He reiterated that position at a 2016 rally: "Medical I agree with. Medical I like...Medical is OK." After Trump took office, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer indicated that he still supported medical use of marijuana. "The president understands the pain and suffering that many people go through who are facing especially terminal diseases and the comfort that some of these drugs, including medical marijuana, can bring to them," Spicer said at a February 2017 press briefing, noting that Congress had passed a spending rider aimed at protecting state-licensed medical marijuana suppliers. "There is a big difference between that and recreational marijuana." If so, why would Trump urge Netanyahu to nix exports of medical marijuana, which has been legal in Israel for more than a decade? According to Hadashot, Netanyahu "ordered the freeze after receiving a call about the issue of exporting marijuana from Trump." That does not sound like something Trump would do on his own initiative, so maybe Attorney General Jeff Sessions or another pot prohibitionist in the administration suggested it. Shipping cannabis to the U.S., even for patients in the 29 states that allow medical use, would violate federal law, which does not recognize any legitimate use for marijuana. But medical marijuana is legal in several other countries, and Canada already exports it. The Israeli government estimates that exports could generate about $1 billion a year. "Israel can become an exporter of medical cannabis with an income worth 4 billion (!) shekels a year," Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked tweeted last Thursday after visiting a cannabis farm in northern Israel. "We must not miss the train. Today we are the locomotive; if we hesitate, we will become the cars." Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, who accompanied Shaked on the trip, agreed, saying, "There is a potential here for billions of dollars that Israel will gain and the world will gain." Shaked said she will try to change Netanyahu's mind. "I am sure that when we sit with the prime minister and we lay out for him all the details," she said, "the correct decision will be taken."[...]

The FDA Is Still Trying to Ban Kratom, a Potential Solution to the Opioid Epidemic

Mon, 12 Feb 2018 11:10:00 -0500

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration announced that the herbal supplement kratom possesses the properties of an opioid, thus escalating the government's effort to slow usage of this alternative pain reliever. Due to the substance's similar chemical structure to traditional opioids, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb suggested using kratom to treat withdrawals poses a public safety risk: We have been especially concerned about the use of kratom to treat opioid withdrawal symptoms, as there is no reliable evidence to support the use of kratom as a treatment for opioid use disorder and significant safety issues exist. The FDA stands ready to evaluate evidence that could demonstrate a medicinal purpose for kratom. However, to date, we have received no such submissions and are not aware of any evidence that would meet the agency's standard for approval. While kratom is currently legal under federal law, this announcement follows the FDA's decision to block the importation of kratom products. In 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration tried to place kratom in the same class of illegal substances as heroin, but a public outcry—and even some Congressional support for kratom—stopped that motion. Now that the FDA has conducted further medical analysis of kratom, the drug is more likely to be added to the "schedule" of restricted drugs. The FDA states that the number of deaths associated with kratom use has increased to a total of 44, up from a total of 36 since the FDA's November 2017 report. While the report suggests these cases "underscore the serious and sometimes deadly risks of using kratom," it is clear that the FDA is reaching. In the majority of deaths that FDA attributes to kratom, subjects ingested multiple substances with known risks, including alcohol. The presence of multiple drugs makes it difficult to determine the role any one of them played. The FDA cites one case where a 22-year-old man consumed a kratom mixture he ordered online along with an "unknown tablet." This consumption "was followed by an incident, during which the patient fell from a window of the first floor before going to bed" without receiving medical treatment. He was found dead the next morning, and the medical examiner determined that he choked on his vomit while he slept. The man had a history of mental illness, and a prescription drug history that included pipamperone (an antipsychotic used for treating schizophrenia), fluoxetine (an SSRI used to treat anxiety, OCD and depression), queiapine (another antipsychotic), olanzapine (another antipsychotic), etizolam (a benzodiazepine analog), pregabalin (a nerve pain medication often used to treat seizures), lorazepam (a benzodiazepine) and triazolam (a benzodiazepine used to treat severe insomnia that can also cause psychotic episodes). Oh, and he also used kratom. The FDA report does not discuss the extent to which these drugs may have contributed to the man's mental state, instead summarizing his demise with this line: "The patient was found dead in his bed on the morning following the consumption of an herbal mixture." Another kratom user in the FDA's report died from deep vein thrombosis—a type of blood clot the medical examiner says may have been related to the man suffering from obesity. While there is some research suggesting a correlation between DVT and intravenous opioid use in women, kratom is taken orally and the subject in this report was male. Deep vein thrombosis can also be hereditary, and the man had a long history of medical problems. As with all the incidents in the FDA's report, these two deaths are associated with kratom only because kratom was found in each man's system. While there is no question that kratom is a drug, the FDA is grasping for a reason to ban this substance. The total number of deaths associated with kratom is dwarfed by those attributed to common over the counter and non-opioid prescri[...]

San Francisco to Open Safe Drug Injection Sites by Summer

Tue, 06 Feb 2018 15:50:00 -0500

(image) San Francisco may end up being the first city in the United States to open injection sites where drug addicts can shoot up safely.

Several other major cities are considering proposals. Seattle has been planning injection sites but has had to fight off a ballot initiative to try to stop them. San Francisco is now moving forward with plans to open two sites by July.

Barbara Garcia, director of the city's Department of Public Health, told the San Francisco Chronicle that facilities' operators would be selected from the small group of nonprofits that already operate needle exchange programs in San Francisco. The facilities will be funded from private sources, though Garcia declined to say where specifically the money will come from.

The private operations should ease some heartburn among people who don't like the drug war but aren't fond of the notion of using public dollars to subsidize drug use.

The reason the sites will be privately funded, Garcia explained, is to avoid any potential liability for the City of San Francisco, since the sites will be operating in defiance of state and federal law. San Francisco is already in the Department of Justice's crosshairs because of its status as a sanctuary city for illegal immigrants.

San Francisco has an estimated 22,000 intravenous drug users, and they often shoot up in public. City officials think 85 percent of those drug users would use an injection facility if they could. They also think this could potentially save the city $3.5 million in medical costs, given that it will be overseen by professionals and will hopefully reduce the need to call emergency responders.

Some lawmakers and prosecutors complain that allowing for drug injection facilities "normalizes" heroin use. But that ship has long sailed. Studies have shown that in practice, safe injection sites reduce overdoses and help marginalized users find access to health care, and that they do not lead to more drug use, drug trafficking, or crime. Other Western countries have opened such facilities; as overdose deaths climb, it's time America tried this option too.

Showtime Documentary Highlights Drug War’s Futility

Fri, 02 Feb 2018 15:00:00 -0500

(image) The Trade. Showtime. Friday, February 2, 9 p.m.

In all the billions of words and electronic images expended in telling the story of the war on drugs, perhaps nothing sums it up quite so concisely as a scene in Showtime's new documentary series The Trade. As a bedraggled mother is dragged off following her arrest on heroin charges, a cop kneels to speak to her crying children. "It's okay," he comforts them. "We're the good guys." After more than a century of this senseless, futile war, you still can't identify the players without a scorecard.

Producer-director Matthew Heineman, in his second go-round with the war on drugs (his 2015 film Cartel Land was nominated for the Oscar in documentaries), has given us an unnervingly close-up study of the conflict. Given an astonishing level of access to both Mexican drug lords and American junkies, he's intercut their stories with a narrative about an Ohio police narcotics squad, which though far more ordinary, is still revealing.

The result is a maddening and depressing account of cruelty and stupidity on every side. In the southwestern Mexico state of Guerrero, the country's top-producing poppy state, Don Miguel's heroin business is booming so much that he throws a giant Christmas party for the kids in his town, complete with toys and pizza.

But his body count is rising exponentially, too, as he settles difficulties (real or imagined) with rivals in distinctly un-lawyerly ways—a part of the job, Don Miguel is quick to add, that he doesn't enjoy: "It's no fun doing dirty work." Judging from the terrifyingly animalistic howls of townfolk who've found loved ones among roadside stacks of Don Miguel's tortured, headless victims, it's not much fun on the receiving end, either.

A couple of thousand miles to the northeast in Atlanta, we meet some of the consumers of Don Miguel's product. Skylar, a 30-ish junkie whose days are devoted to shooting a prodigious amount of dope and ripping off his parents, is—after going through seven overdoses and the shootings of a bunch of his friends—as fatigued as Don Miguel. "The last seven years have been like a frickin' roller coaster," he allows, saying he's ready to quit. His mother, who's heard it all before, is willing to help, but skeptical. "Skylar would walk over my dead body to get his drug," she declares with weary certainty.

And in Columbus, Ohio, narcotics cops are relentlessly pursuing their mission to get drugs off the street with the same single-minded zeal of the American military officer in Vietnam who famously observed that sometimes you've got to destroy a village in order to save it. "Chilling" isn't nearly a sufficient word for what it feels like to listen as they map out a flash-bang grenade attack on a suspected drug house, even though they know several small children are inside.

The raid, amazingly, ends without disaster, only because a couple of addled junkies—"dealers" in the sense only that they sell small amounts of dope to support their own habits—have better judgment than the cops and surrender without a fuss. "I am making a difference," brags one of the cops. "We are getting drug dealers off the street. At least this way we can say we are trying." So are Special Olympics softball players who get ribbons for hitting the ball even though they ran to third base instead of first. That analogy is dead-on, in more ways than one.

Renewed War on Marijuana Spurs Congress to Defend Federalism

Fri, 02 Feb 2018 12:45:00 -0500

Those who advocate a safe, regulated and legal climate for marijuana sales and use were unquestionably alarmed by the elevation of anti-marijuana crusader Jeff Sessions to attorney general. Public opinion polls show strong and growing nationwide support for legalization. In California, medical marijuana has been legal for 21 years and remains about as controversial as any other form of prescription medication. During a Senate hearing in 2016, Sessions, then a Republican senator from Alabama, said, "We need grown-ups in charge in Washington to say marijuana is not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized, it ought not to be minimized, that it's in fact a very real danger." His follow-up comment—that government officials need to send the message "that good people don't smoke marijuana"—has often been quoted as Sessions, now the U.S. attorney general, attempts to put his views into action. Most significantly, Sessions revoked the Obama-era Cole Memorandum—a 2013 missive penned by former Deputy Attorney General James Cole that provided guidance for federal prosecutors in light of state legalization laws. The nonbinding memo provided some assurance that the feds wouldn't crack down on states if their laws met a few standards, such as preventing distribution to minors and keeping revenues from funding drug cartels. But a funny thing happened on the way back to a 1980s "War on Drugs" approach to marijuana this time around: Congress got its hackles up. Marijuana businesses complained loudly, of course. But "Capitol Hill screamed just as loudly," reported Politico. "And it wasn't just the Democratic members of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus. It was Republican senators, too." Congress has been dealing with the issue in a temporary and inadequate way since 2001. That's when a representative from New York first introduced a bill to stop the Justice Department from using funds to prevent states from legalizing medicinal marijuana. Ultimately, the similar Rohrabacher-Farr amendment—now known as Rohrabacher-Blumenauer, following the retirement of Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.)—became law in 2014. It halted the Justice Department from trying to prevent 33 states and the District of Columbia from implementing laws that "authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana." Because it is attached to spending bills, the measure needs to be reauthorized every year. This year's reauthorization became a flashpoint in budget negotiations before the short-lived federal government shutdown. Congress approved the amendment, but the protections only last until Feb. 8—the deadline for the next budget vote to avoid another shutdown. Indeed, real threats often lead to more substantive solutions. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, the California Republican who co-authored the amendment, hopes its passage will buy time to come up with a permanent fix. He has introduced H.R. 975, which he tells Leafly "would be putting into law the idea that the states will be the ones that will make the decision" and would make clear to "everybody, not just the Department of Justice, but everybody, like the banking regulators and other regulators," that they must treat cannabis like "any other commodity throughout the states that have designated it that way." The legislation has one sentence: "Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the provisions of this subchapter related to marihuana shall not apply to any person acting in compliance with State laws relating to the production, possession, distribution, dispensation, administration, or delivery of marihuana." Archaic spelling aside, the bill offers protections to the eight states plus the District of Columbia that have legalized marijuana for recreation and the 29 states that allow it as medicine. Marijuana advocates have debated a variety of[...]

Starting Today, San Francisco Is Erasing Everybody's Misdemeanor Pot Convictions

Wed, 31 Jan 2018 16:05:00 -0500

(image) San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón announced today that his office will proactively expunge and seal the records of misdemeanor marijuana offenders, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. The office will also resentence offenders who received a felony pot conviction.

Proposition 64, the 2016 referendum item that legalized recreational marijuana in California, allows pot offenders to petition for resentencing if their crime would have received a different penalty, or no penalty at all, under the new law.

Rather than wait for petitions, Gascón's office is searching for eligible cases.

"The district attorney said his office will dismiss and seal more than 3,000 misdemeanor marijuana convictions in San Francisco dating back to 1975," reports the Chronicle's Evan Sernoffsky. His office will also likely resentence "thousands of felony marijuana cases."

A member of the California Assembly has introduced a bill that would make all Prop. 64–related expungements and resentencings automatic.

Retroactivity is a powerful tool for righting drug war wrongs, but prosecutors are often opposed to the practice. In Colorado, another state that has legalized marijuana, Assistant Attorney General Kevin McReynolds has reportedly declared that there's "nothing irrational about holding someone accountable for a crime under the law in effect at the time." If voters had wanted legalization to apply retroactively, he said during a 2016 hearing on retroactivity, "all they had to do was say so."

At the federal level, the United States Sentencing Commission voted in 2014 to let tens of thousands of federal prisoners apply for retroactive sentence reductions after the commission changed the guidelines for drug trafficking.

But Congress failed to extend retroactivity to federal crack cocaine prisoners convicted before the Fair Sentencing Act passed in 2010. The new law substantially increased the amount of crack required to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence, and the failure to make it retroactive has left thousands of prisoners serving sentences that Congress has deemed excessive.

Addicts Use Imodium to Help With Detox. That's a Terrible Reason for the FDA to Make It Harder to Get.

Wed, 31 Jan 2018 14:00:00 -0500

Over-the-counter medicine frees Americans to treat minor health issues without first consulting an expert. For no ailment is this freedom more of a godsend than a pesky case of the runs. You can grab a box of Imodium A-D (or the store brand of the active ingredient, loperamide), walk to the checkout counter, and pay, all without breathing a word about your messy butt to anyone. But now the opioid crisis has driven regulators into absurd fits of caution. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wants to make loperamide less accessible because opioid addicts might abuse it. And some in the health industry argue that you should have to ask a pharmacist and present a government-issued ID to buy the drug, as is currently the case with pseudoephedrine. In a statement published Tuesday, the FDA announced that it "continues to receive reports of serious heart problems and deaths with much higher than the recommended doses of loperamide, primarily among people who are intentionally misusing or abusing the product." In response to these reports, the agency wants loperamide manufacturers to limit the number of doses per package to a few days' worth and to make the pills available only in blister packs rather than bottles. Loperamide is a very, very mild opioid, and like all opioids, it slows down the muscles that send poop through your pipes. But unlike most other opioids, it's doesn't affect other parts of the body unless you take a shit-ton. The maximum therapeutic dose is 16 milligrams in the course of a day; people using it either to get high or to chase away withdrawal symptoms will take more than 100 mg. Doses that high can (but don't often) cause "adverse cardiac events." That's just a mild inconvenience, you might object, if the changes will protect people's hearts. But this week's FDA notice does not say how many people have died or been seriously injured from loperamide overdoses, how many adverse events might be avoided by changing to blister packs, or how much retooling loperamide production facilities will cost manufacturers (and ultimately consumers). These are not small asks. The answer to the first question tells us whether the second two are even worth considering; the second question helps us understand whether the imposition implied by the third is reasonable. Since the FDA isn't being forthcoming, how might we determine how many people are abusing loperamide? A good start would be to look at toxicology and mortality data. Here's the research I found on loperamide abuse published in the last two years: According to a 2016 study of loperamide-related deaths in North Carolina, published in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology, the North Carolina Office of the Chief Medical Examiner found above-therapeutic levels of loperamide in 21 deceased persons between 2012 and 2016; the drug is said to have played some role in 19 of those cases. In only one case—that of a 21-year-old male who had a history of overdoses—was loperamide the only drug present. A review of New York Poison Control data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Health and Human Services uncovers 22 cases of intentional loperamide abuse between 2008 and 2016; 15 of the patients had a history of opioid abuse. The average daily dose was 358 mg, and the full range was 34 mg (twice the daily recommended maximum) to 1,200 mg (75 times the maximum). The report does not disclose any fatal overdoses. The same study looked at the National Poison Database System and found 179 cases of intentional loperamide abuse from 2008 to 2016. The average loperamide dose across those cases was 196 mg, ranging from 2 mg to 1,200 mg. The paper includes clinical outcomes for 132 of those cases: 66 patients suffered "life-threatening symptoms or residual disability"; four[...]

The Office of National Drug Control Policy Is on the Chopping Block Again. Here's Why That's Not a Bad Thing.

Fri, 19 Jan 2018 17:00:00 -0500

President Donald Trump is poised yet again to slash the budget of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), Politico reports. The plan reportedly involves moving the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) grant to the Department of Justice (DOJ), and moving the Drug Free Communities grant to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). That reshuffling makes sense (even if the programs themselves don't) as the DEA has 600 agents working on HIDTA and HHS reviews applications for Drug Free Communities. Some ONDCP staff would remain in place to consult the White House, which seems redundant in light of the "expertise" provided by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Kellyanne Conway. (Conway was recently promoted from talking head to leader of the White House Opioid Crisis Team, or whatever it's officially called.) Yet for some reason, all the reporting I've seen on this story suggests that allowing specialized agencies to absorb the ONDCP's programs would lead to some sort of national drug abuse crisis, which we've thus far averted thanks to the ONDCP's effectiveness and vigilance. None of these articles have mentioned the myriad ways in which the ONDCP has been downright harmful. The office has supported civil asset forfeiture, played games with the data it collects, denied that marijuana has medical uses, funded treatment programs that don't work, encouraged the expansion of workplace drug testing, and held up 1980s agitprop as a model for drug education—and that's just during the Obama administration. Those issues aside, let's look at the objections raised in the Politico piece: Kevin Sabet, a prominent anti-marijuana activist and former ONDCP staffer, told Politico that moving the grants out of the ONDCP "reduces the prominence of these programs and puts them in the bowels of agencies that have different priorities." I can't disprove the prominence claim any more than ONDCP preservationists can do the opposite, but the priorities claim is spurious. The Department of Justice—particularly under Sessions—is clearly dedicated to prosecuting drug crimes and has always needed the help of state and local law enforcement to do so. HHS, meanwhile, is clearly committed to encouraging and funding drug treatment at the state and local levels. Sabet also claims that the association with ONDCP "elevates the importance of these programs. It makes them more visible on the state and local level because it's not just another program from DOJ or HHS. It's a program that has the White House's signature on it." Call me a cynic, but I have a hard time believing that grant applicants will stop asking for federal money just because the money doesn't come with a White House seal. Former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (a board member of Sabet's anti-marijuana group, Project SAM) says moving the grants "guts the two main purposes of ONDCP" and "really undermines the mission." This is the only Kennedy quote in the piece; we never hear an argument for his position. David Kelley, who works with HIDTA, says moving it into DOJ would mean "state law enforcement voices would be lost." I'm very curious to learn what his concern here is, beyond the likelihood that a change in the coalitional power balance will diminish the heft of local cops (who have used HIDTA powers to settle personal vendettas). I have no idea why this is supposed to be bad. My reading of Kelley's claim is that his people run a fiefdom and they'd prefer to keep running it. The ONDCP is not completely useless. The annual budget request it submits provides the simplest breakdown of where federal drug money goes. (Spoiler alert: We always spend more on enforcement than treatment or prevention.) And Drug Czar Michael Botticelli was a tireless advo[...]

3 Lessons from Prohibition, Which Started Today in 1919

Tue, 16 Jan 2018 10:30:00 -0500

On January 16, 1919, the 18th Amendment became law when five state legislatures (North Carolina, Utah, Nebraska, Missouri, and Wyoming) passed it. In the end, 46 of 48 states passed it, with only Connecticut and Rhode Island voting it down. The text of the amendment set into motion what became known as Prohibition: Section 1. After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited. Section 2. The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress. Here we are, almost 100 years later and marijuana legalization is proceeding apace, despite the efforts of the current attorney general. What lessons might we draw from Prohibition, which was repealed in 1933 with the passage of the 21st Amendment? They are many, for sure, but here are three quick takeaways worth pondering: The government gets what the government wants. Booze was already pretty much banned before the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act (which was the law implementing Prohibition). The Wartime Prohibition Act of 1918, which banned making and selling drinks with a kick higher than 1.28 percent alcohol by volume, had been sold as a national-security measure to save grain needed to feed troops during World War I, went into effect on November 18, 1918. Note the date, by the way, which was a week after World War I ended, suggesting a slightly different lesson: The government isn't always honest about its aims. Prohibition was politically popular enough to pass a constitutional amendment. As with a lot of the rhetoric surrounding today's war on drugs, Prohibition fed off fears of foreigners, especially Catholics from southern and central Europe who had been flooding U.S. cities for decades. That beer and wine were closely associated with German Americans, relatives of our enemy in World War I, made it easier to paint drinking culture in general as un-American. Prohibition was enforced very differently, depending on who you were and where you lived. One of the great insights of Harvard historian Lisa McGirr's excellent The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State (2015) is to show that despite being the law of the land, Prohibition took vastly different forms. The state government of New York, for instance, told the feds that it didn't have the manpower to police bootlegging and speakeasies. If Washington wanted to enforce the law, they were going to have to do it themselves (as McGirr documents, Prohibition massively goosed federal law enforcement efforts, including incarceration on a mass scale; she argues convincingly that Prohibition helped create many aspects of modern federal governance). But in other areas, such as North Carolina and Virginia, Prohibition was strictly enforced at the state and local level, especially when the malefactors were immigrants, women, and blacks. If that sounds a lot like the drug war, well, it should. "The war on alcohol and the war on drugs were symbiotic campaigns," she told me in a Reason TV interview. "Those two campaigns emerged together, [and] they had the same shared...logic. Many of the same individuals were involved in both campaigns." The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was e[...]

U.S. Attorney Warns Oregon About Recreational Marijuana Boom

Fri, 12 Jan 2018 13:45:00 -0500

A guest commentary in The Oregonian today should concern marijuana growers in the Beaver State. A U.S. attorney is hinting he may unleash some sort of action against Oregon's pot industry. Billy J. Williams, the U.S. attorney for Oregon, is concerned about the amount of marijuana being shipped out of the state. Police have seized more than a ton of pot in outbound parcels for 2017 and more than $1 million in cash. Oregon, he concludes, has an "overproduction" problem. He then claims that "overproduction creates a powerful profit incentive." This gets the economics backwards: Producing too much of something drives its market value downward. What he means is that the excess production of marijuana is pushing producers to find someplace else to sell it, i.e., in states where recreational use is still illegal. But that's a demand problem, isn't it? Williams complains about black and gray markets that are entirely a consequence of the government insisting on criminalizing a product that Americans want to buy and consume. Williams also blames Congress for marijuana's persistence as a federally forbidden drug under the Controlled Substance Act, even though the Drug Enforcement Agency has the authority to reschedule it administratively. Williams doesn't appear to be threatening an immediate crackdown, and casual pot users are probably under no threat of federal prosecution. But he doesn't like the way Oregon is handling legalization, and he's doing the sort of fearmongering that officials tend to do when they're preparing to act: We also know that even recreational marijuana permitted under state law carries ill-effects on public health and safety, as Colorado's experience shows. Since 2013, marijuana-related traffic deaths have doubled in Colorado. Marijuana-related emergency and hospital admissions have increased 35 percent. And youth marijuana use is up 12 percent, 55 percent higher than the national average. We must do everything in our power to avoid similar trends here in Oregon. Funny, he notices those trends but fails to mention that Colorado has also seen a decline in opioid-related deaths since the state legalized marijuana, a contrast to the overdose crisis that the Justice Department is allegedly very concerned about. Medical marijuana use in New Mexico is also associated with reduced use of opioids. Perhaps Williams should consider the lives potentially being saved by all that pot being exported to other states? While he's at it, maybe he should read Reason's Jacob Sullum explain that marijuana-related traffic deaths in Colorado have not in fact doubled and that marijuana use among teens in Colorado is actually going down, not up. Williams adds: In the coming days, I will send invitations to federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement, public health organizations, Oregon marijuana interests and concerned citizen groups to attend a summit to address and remedy these and other concerns. This summit and the state's response will inform our federal enforcement strategy. How we move forward will depend in large measure on how the state responds to the gaps we have identified. Until then it would be an inappropriate abdication of my duties to issue any blanket proclamations on our marijuana enforcement strategy in light of federal law. The logical conclusion here is that Williams is attempting to feel out whether there will be a big local backlash if he does crack down on marijuana. He wants to hear people complain that there isn't enough policing going on.[...]