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Published: Sat, 25 Mar 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Sat, 25 Mar 2017 07:42:04 -0400


First Amendment Victory Over Ban on Political Contributions from Medical Marijuana Businesses in Illinois

Fri, 24 Mar 2017 17:00:00 -0400

The state of Illinois enacted in 2013 a pretty blatantly unconstitutional law forbidding businesses engaged in (legal) medical marijuana sales or growing from contributing to political campaigns, in effect either directly or via a PAC (though only the latter was literally codified). But since candidates were also barred from accepting such contributions, the real legal effect was on direct contributions as well. Two Libertarian Party candidates, Claire Ball and Scott Schluter, sued over this, with the help of the Pillar of Law Institute and the Liberty Justice Center. I reported on the suit in the case of Ball v. Madigan back in June. This week, Ball and Schluter won a victory in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, eastern division, in a request for summary judgment for them and against Illinois. ("Madigan" is Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.) Quoting from the decision from Judge John Z. Lee, which considers the notion whether this law must face "strict scrutiny" as a possible First Amendment violation based on content, or the looser "intermediate scrutiny" applying to most campaign finance law: By singling out medical cannabis organizations, § 9-45 [the law being challenged] appears to reflect precisely...a content or viewpoint preference. Although Buckley and its progeny permit the government to regulate campaign contributions to some extent, surely the First Amendment does not give the government free rein to selectively impose contribution restrictions in a manner that discriminates based on content or viewpoint..... § 9-45 fails to pass constitutional muster even under Buckley's less rigorous intermediate standard. The Court therefore need not decide whether the statute would survive the more demanding standard of strict scrutiny, if that standard were to apply..... Since the only reasonable government purpose Judge Lee would accept, based on precedent, for these restrictions is "preventing quid pro quo corruption or its appearance," he finds Illinois failed to: point to any legislative findings raising concerns about corruption or the appearance of corruption in the medical cannabis industry. Nor do they point to any instances of actual corruption involving any medical cannabis cultivation center or dispensary. Rather, they rely solely upon Illinois's general history of political corruption scandals.... Still, the Judge is lenient on Illinois so far, writing that that thin evidence: nevertheless substantiate[s] Defendants' claim that the media and the public have perceived a risk of corruption relating to the medical cannabis pilot program. This is all the more true given that cannabis distribution and use were legally banned in Illinois until the passage of the Medical Cannabis Act. Although thin, such evidence is sufficient under governing law to establish an important government interest for purpose of this analysis. But that's not enough for Illinois to win: they must further demonstrate that § 9-45 is "closely drawn" to this important government interest. For the reasons that follow, they fall short of doing so..... Several features of § 9-45 render it plainly disproportional to the government's interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption or its appearance. First, § 9-45 is a disproportionate measure in that it imposes an outright ban on contributions, rather than a mere dollar limit on contribution amounts.... Defendants in this case have failed to explain why a flat prohibition is proportionate to the government's interest in avoiding the risk of actual or perceived corruption that arises when donors from the medical cannabis industry make monetary contributions to political campaigns. They assert that a wholesale ban is appropriate on the ground that medical cannabis cultivation centers and dispensaries "reap profits from the industry and require State licensure to operate" and therefore "pose the greatest risk of corruption." But this bald assertion is little more than conjecture; Defendants offer no support for their claim that medical cannabis cultivation cen[...]

American Psychiatric Association Says Ketamine Can Treat Depression, But Don't Expect the FDA to Approve It

Tue, 21 Mar 2017 17:02:00 -0400

(image) The anaesthetic ketamine has been a popular party drug for decades due to its ability to put users in a blissful mood. Earlier this month, the American Psychiatric Association released a consensus statement acknowledging that the drug might also be a breakthrough treatment for severe depression.

The statement authors write that seven studies--all placebo-controlled, double-blind, and randomized--provide evidence that ketamine therapy is a "rapid and robust, albeit transient" response to severe clinical depression. The treatment is effective within hours, while conventional antidepressants generally take weeks to work. The transient nature of the drug, meanwhile, suggest it works best with twice-weekly dosing.

Ketamine hasn't been approved for treating depression, but Yale psychiatrist Gerard Sanacora succinctly explained to NPR why the drug's off-label status hasn't deterred him:

Sanacora says other doctors sometimes ask him, "How can you be offering this to patients based on the limited amount of information that's out there and not knowing the potential long-term risk?"

Sanacora has a simple answer.

"If you have patients that are likely to seriously injure themselves or kill themselves within a short period of time, and they've tried the standard treatments, how do you not offer this treatment?"

It certainly seems that the long-term risks of ketamine therapy, regardless of how severe they may be, are preferable to the short-term risk of a successful suicide attempt.

The APA paper closes with the hunch that "economic factors make it unlikely that large-scale, pivotal phase 3 clinical trials of racemic ketamine will ever be completed," which means patients with treatment-resistant depression who'd like to give ketamine a shot will need an appointment at one of a handful of clinics offering ketamine treatment. Or, they can apply for enrollment in a philanthropic or federally funded ketamine study, of which there don't appear to be many.

This is a rather strange fate for a drug that the APA says has "generated much excitement and hope for patients with refractory mood disorders and the clinicians who treat them," but it's also an indictment of the Food and Drug Administration's regulatory process. Ketamine is off patent, which means no pharmaceutical company is going to spend several million dollars per phase to get approval for a drug formulation that any company could turn around and sell, no matter how many lives it might save.

Opioid Deaths: Another Drug War Failure

Mon, 20 Mar 2017 00:01:00 -0400

Illicit drug use is an old phenomenon, and Jeff Sessions has an old solution: take off the gloves. "We have too much of a tolerance for drug use," the attorney general complained to an audience of law enforcement officials Wednesday, promising more aggressive policing. "Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs is bad," he declared. "It will destroy your life." That claim will fall on a lot of deaf ears among the 100 million Americans who have used marijuana—most of whom found it did not destroy their lives and some of whom found it made their lives better. He is right, though, that tolerance is rampant. A Gallup Poll last year showed that 60 percent of Americans think pot should be legalized for recreational use—as eight states and the District of Columbia have done. Medical marijuana is allowed in 28 states and D.C. But in his prepared remarks, Sessions insisted cannabis is "only slightly less awful" than heroin. Oh, please. The nation is in the midst of an epidemic of overdose deaths involving heroin and other opioids. In 2015, 32,000 Americans died of such overdoses. Compare that with the number of people who died from ingesting an excess of marijuana: zero. Pot, in fact, appears to be saving lives. A 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that states allowing medical marijuana had 25 percent fewer deaths from prescription drug overdoses than states forbidding it. People often use opioids to relieve pain. But "individuals with chronic pain and their medical providers may be opting to treat pain entirely or in part with medical marijuana, in states where this is legal," said Johns Hopkins University professor Colleen Barry, the lead author. Sessions made a point of commenting on this unwelcome scientific data: "Give me a break." He paid lip service to "treatment and prevention," but don't expect much there. The Affordable Care Act, which the Trump administration and congressional Republicans have vowed to repeal, has been "the largest expansion of drug treatment in U.S. history," according to Stanford University psychiatry professor Keith Humphreys. If they have their way, we can expect the largest contraction of drug treatment in U.S. history. Promoting treatment goes against the approach long preferred by hard-line politicians. The most effective remedy for opioid addiction is medication-assisted treatment, or MAT, with drugs like methadone and buprenorphine. But if you'd like to stop shooting heroin, you may search in vain for help. The Drug Policy Alliance reports that "access to MAT is severely limited by extensive federal and state regulations and restrictions. A scant 12 percent of individuals with opioid dependence receive methadone, and only nine percent of substance abuse treatment facilities in the United States offer specialized treatment of opioid dependence with MAT." Among the people who could most benefit from this sort of treatment are prison inmates. But a DPA survey found no state correctional systems that provide it—even though a report last year from the surgeon general compared it to giving insulin to diabetics. Upon release, opioid-prone offenders are particularly susceptible to dying of an overdose, apparently because addicts' physical tolerance diminishes while they are locked up. Zealous drug warriors bridle at anything except prohibition and abstinence. Closing down "pill mills," where physicians allegedly overprescribe opioids, is a favorite option. Such lifesaving measures as facilitating access to sterile syringes and naloxone, which is used to reverse overdoses before they kill, are inherently suspect. The criminalization of opioid use often has fatal consequences, because it leaves addicts to obtain supplies from street dealers rather than pharmacists. The drugs they get may be surreptitiously laced with fentanyl or other synthetic opioids that are cheaper than prescription meds but much more potent—raising the overdose risk. Crackdowns have other unhealthy side effects. "When the police shut [...]

New Federal Sentencing Data Provides a Reminder That the War on Meth Is Alive and Awful

Tue, 14 Mar 2017 13:25:00 -0400

Federal judges continued to hand down fewer mandatory minimums for drug offenses in 2016, according to data released Monday by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The trend, which began with the launch of the Justice Department's Smart on Crime initiative in 2014, is a result of federal prosecutors bringing less onerous charges. Of the 19,787 federal drug sentences handed down in 2016, 55 percent were guideline sentences, rather than mandatory minimums. In fiscal year 2010, only 35 percent of more than 24,000 federal drug sentences were not mandatory minimums. The Smart on Crime initiative clearly had an impact. But it was small and will likely be short-lived. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is reportedly preparing a memo to federal prosecutors regarding drug charging. Sessions has blamed the increase in heroin use on the decline in the Bureau of Prisons population, so I'm guessing his forthcoming memo will instruct prosecutors to resume bringing the maximum charge in federal drug cases. That means more mandatory minimums. The USSC's data reveals another noteworthy trend: Federal methamphetamine offenders continue to see very little benefit from the last decade's worth of various criminal justice reforms: (Charts made using with data pulled from the 2009-2016 USSC sourcebooks) To summarize those charts: Federal drug sentences, both mandatory minimums and guidelines, are falling for every drug but meth. But you wouldn't know it from the national conversation we're currently having about drugs. It's useful to compare crack and meth in particular. Both have fancier siblings that tend to get less panicky coverage (powder cocaine and prescription amphetamines, respectively); both are used and sold largely by low-income people; and both--up until 2010--required incredibly small quantities to trigger their corresponding mandatory minimums. Starting in 1986, five grams of crack cocaine triggered the same federal five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence as five grams of pure methamphetamine or 50 grams of a mixture containing any amount of methamphetamine. With the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, the minimum quantity of crack cocaine necessary for a five-year mandatory minimum was raised to 28 grams; the minimum quantity for methamphetamine remains five grams. (Five grams, as my former colleagues at Families Against Mandatory Minimums like to point out, is the equivalent of five packets of sugar.) Why did we change the law for crack but not meth? Well, sentences for crack and powder cocaine had--still have, in fact--a gross disparity. An offender needed 500 grams of powder cocaine, which is sold by every race of offender, to trigger the same sentence as five grams of crack cocaine, which continues to be sold mostly by black offenders. Congress reduced that gap in 2010 to bring some racial justice to the federal criminal code. And that's good. I'll cheer for mercy by any means. But no legislator has campaigned for extending the same consideration to meth offenders, even though many of the people who sell meth do so to pay for their habits, and we are supposedly living in an era of treatment, not punishment. This is why I cringe a little when critics claim that legislators are responding to opioids more compassionately than they did to crack because opioids are a white drug and crack is a black drug. There is much truth to that observation, but let's not forget that meth--despite its rising popularity as a party drug among gay urbanites--remains a very white and rural drug, and we are taking pounds of flesh from the people who sell it. From the late 1990s through the late 2000s, every big media outlet probably ran at least one story decrying the meth epidemic. While you don't see as many of those reports now, I've yet to see outlets go the other way, with long, humanizing features challenging draconian sentences for non-violent meth dealers like Mandy Martinson and Melissa Trigg. I wonder why that is?[...]

Surprise: Government-Grown Pot Is Total Schwag, Not Suitable for Research

Sat, 11 Mar 2017 13:45:00 -0500

"It didn't resemble cannabis. It didn't smell like cannabis."

So says Sue Sisley, who is pissed, and with good reason. She didn't get ripped off by an illegal dealer or a legal dispensary. No, she got screwed by the federal government, which seems incapable of growing good-quality marijuana. Sisley is an Arizona-based primary-care doctor who was awarded a grant to study the use of pot to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in military veterans. It took Sisley and her colleagues two years to get the shipment from the "12-acre farm at the University of Mississippi, run by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)...[which] since 1968...has been the only facility licensed by the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] to produce the plant for clinical research."

Working with Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), Sisley and her colleagues tested the pot and found that it was contaminated with mold and not at the right potency for their research. Your tax dollars at work, growing schwag that doesn't even rise to the level of reggie.

From a PBS account of the story:

Rick Doblin, MAPS' director, says this recent episode "shows that NIDA is completely inadequate as a source of marijuana for drug development research."

"They're in no way capable of assuming the rights and responsibilities for handling a drug that we're hoping to be approved by the FDA as prescription medicine," he says.

Read more here.

Via Twitter feed of Mike Hewlett.

Watch "Transplant Denied: How Medical Marijuana Policy Kills Patients," a powerful Reason TV video from 2012. Not for the faint of heart.

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Jeff Sessions Wants to Bring Back 'Just Say No'

Tue, 07 Mar 2017 16:49:00 -0500

(image) Attorney General Jeff Sessions laid out a three-pronged approach to combatting illicit drug use today at the New Hampshire Youth Summit on Opioid Awareness.

"There are three main ways to fight back against this problem," Sessions said in his prepared remarks. "Prevention, criminal enforcement and treatment."

In contast with federal drug officials under Obama, Sessions doesn't seem too keen on treatment:

Treatment is also important, but treatment often comes too late. Individuals have already lost their jobs and flunked their tests. Then the struggle to defeat addiction can be a long process – and it can fail. Experts will tell you that recovery is not certain. For many, addiction can be a death sentence.

I have seen families spend all their savings and retirement money on treatment programs for their children—just to see these programs sometimes fail.

Ramped-up enforcement, however, is something he's much more enthusiastic about: "The President has issued an Executive Order to the Department of Justice to dismantle these organizations and gangs. We are going to get rid of them. Of that you can be sure."

Sessions also called for a revival of late 80s/early 90s anti-drug marketing, the most famous example of which is former First Lady Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign:

The most effective solution in the 1980s and early '90s—when, for example, we saw a significant decline in teen drug use—was the Prevention Campaign. People began to stop using drugs. Drug users were not cool. Crime fell dramatically, and addiction fell too.

The National Institute for Drug Abuse reported this past December—as in, three months ago—that past-year use of illicit drugs among eighth, 10th, and 12th graders "continu[es] to decline to the lowest level in the history of the survey." Meanwhile, buckets of studies have shown that Just Say No-era anti-drug programming doesn't work.

GOP Rep. Thomas Garrett Intros Bill To End Federal Pot Prohibition

Wed, 01 Mar 2017 12:45:00 -0500

Rep. Thomas Garrett is a freshman Republican congressman who represents Virginia's 5th district. But being a newbie from a socially conservative area isn't stopping him from going big and bold right out of the chute: He has just introduced a bill called the "Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2017." From his office: If passed, this bill would take marijuana off the federal controlled substances list—joining other industries such as alcohol and tobacco. Originally introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders in 2015, this bill fulfills a responsibility to create a level playing field across the country.... "This step allows states to determine appropriate medicinal use and allows for industrial hemp growth, something that will provide a major economic boost to agricultural development in Southside Virginia. In the coming weeks, I anticipate introducing legislation aimed at growing the hemp industry in Virginia, something that is long overdue." More here. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) is the Democratic co-sponsor in the House. Sanders' Senate legislation died when it was introduced a couple of years ago but now fully eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational pot. Back in 2011, Reps. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Barney Frank (D-Mass.) introduced legislation to remove federal controls on marijuana, so the idea isn't new (though it's long overdue). But in the face of growing indications that the Trump administration, especially Attorney General Jeff Sessions, are bent on waging a new war on pot, Garrett's move is encouraging. The federal government's classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act has always been stupid. A Schedule I drug is one that supposedly has no accepted medical use, a high potential for abuse, and cannot be used safely even under a doctor's supervision. Under federal law, pot is more restricted than cocaine, methamphetmanie, morphine, and PCP. That makes no sense. Lest we forget, pot is the lynchpin of the war on drugs since it is the only "illicit" drug (to use government jargon) that people use widely and regularly. Marijuana-related arrests comprised more than 40 percent of drug arrests in a given year, with over 700,000 people arrested in 2014 on pot-related charges, with the vast majority being for simple possession. So even as most jurisdictions have decriminalized and de-emphasized marijuana enforcement, it remains a major way by which law enforcement interacts with citizens. You get rid of pot laws, you get rid of a lot of over-policing. At various points during his campaign for president, Donald Trump signaled a hands-off approach to states that had legalized medical or recreational pot. That makes perfect sense coming from a Republican, as the party is constantly invoking states as "laboratories of democracy." Recent surveys show that even though only 35 percent of Republicans favor legalization, 55 percent oppose federal law enforcement interfering in states that have legalized weed. And yet as Reason's Jacob Sullum has noted, Jeff Sessions, a former senator from Alabama who regularly called for devolving power from Washington to statehouses, always makes an exception for pot. In last night's address, President Trump confounded traditional party lines by, for example, calling for paid family leave and expanded funding for child care. While the Democrats typically have been just as bad as Republicans on the drug war, if Trump embraced federalism in this case, he would even further blur traditional lines between liberal and conservative. Here's hoping on this issue—as opposed to, say, boondoggle transportation "stimulus" projects or tax-funded family leave plans—he comes out as the first president to turn marijuana policy over to the states, where it has always belonged. Related: "3 Reasons To Legalize Pot Now!" src="" allow[...]

Jeff Sessions Can't Handle the Truth About Marijuana

Wed, 01 Mar 2017 07:00:00 -0500

Last week White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer suggested that marijuana legalization contributes to opioid abuse. "When you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country," he said, "the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people" by allowing recreational use of marijuana. As critics such as NORML's Paul Armentano and Washington Post drug policy blogger Christopher Ingraham pointed out, Spicer had things backward: The evidence suggests that loosening marijuana prohibition results in less consumption of opioids. No way, says Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who seems to be planning a crackdown on state-licensed marijuana businesses. During a speech to the National Association of Attorneys General yesterday, Sessions mocked the notion that "marijuana is a cure for opiate abuse": Give me a break. This is the kind of argument that has been made out there. It's just almost a desperate attempt to defend the harmlessness of marijuana or even its benefits. I doubt that's true. Maybe science will prove I'm wrong. But at this point in time, you and I have a responsibility to use our best judgment, that which we've learned over a period of years, and speak truth as best we can. While the evidence that marijuana works as a treatment for opioid abuse is inconclusive, several studies have found an association between medical marijuana laws and reductions in opioid prescriptions, opioid-related deaths, and fatally injured drivers testing positive for opioids. These results make sense to the extent that marijuana can be substituted for narcotics as a way of relieving physical or emotional pain, a switch than can be expected to reduce serious side effects because marijuana is safer. Although Sessions claims he is open to refutation by science, he clearly has not bothered to look at the research. Such incuriosity is consistent with the former Alabama senator's history as a diehard drug warrior who knows lots of things that aren't so. Consider his outrage a few years ago when President Obama publicly conceded that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol. Although there is plenty of evidence to support that conclusion, it did not jibe with Sessions' anti-pot prejudices, so he could not accept it: I have to tell you, I'm heartbroken to see what the president said just a few days ago. It's stunning to me. I find it beyond comprehension….This is just difficult for me to conceive how the president of the United States could make such a statement as that....Did the president conduct any medical or scientific survey before he waltzed into The New Yorker and opined contrary to the positions of attorneys general and presidents universally prior to that? Sessions tried to rebut Obama's statement about the relative hazards of marijuana and alcohol by declaring that "Lady Gaga says she's addicted to [marijuana] and it is not harmless." Putting aside the merits of treating Lady Gaga as an expert on the effects of marijuana, or of extrapolating from this sample of one to the experiences of cannabis consumers generally, Sessions did not seem to understand that Substance A can be less dangerous than Substance B without being harmless. To say that marijuana is less hazardous than alcohol by several important measures (including impairment of driving ability, the risk of a fatal overdose, and the long-term damage caused by heavy use) is not the same as saying that marijuana is 100 percent safe. Either Sessions does not grasp that basic point, or he is so determined to justify marijuana prohibition that he deliberately obscures it. Is this what he means by "speak[ing] truth as best we can"? Sessions claims supporters of legalization are "desperate" to "defend the harmlessness of marijuana." But it's Sessions who is grasping at straws to defend a policy built on a mountain of lies.[...]

Most Republicans Oppose Federal Interference With Marijuana Legalization

Fri, 24 Feb 2017 08:00:00 -0500

Yesterday afternoon, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer suggested that the Justice Department under newly installed Attorney General Jeff Sessions will be more inclined to enforce the federal ban on marijuana in states that have legalized the drug for recreational use. A large majority of Americans, including most Republicans, think that's a bad idea, according to poll numbers released the same day as Spicer's comments. Answering a question from an Arkansas reporter wondering how the DOJ will respond to that state's new medical marijuana law, Spicer said "there's two distinct issues here: medical marijuana and recreational marijuana." He reiterated President Trump's support for laws that allow patients to use marijuana for symptom relief, which 28 states have enacted. Spicer also noted that Congress has repeatedly approved a spending rider that restrains the DOJ from taking action against medical marijuana suppliers in those states. But he said "there is a big difference between that and recreational marijuana," which eight states have legalized, and predicted there will be "greater enforcement" of the federal ban in those states under Sessions, saying "they are going to continue to enforce the laws on the books with respect to recreational marijuana." While Spicer emphasized the difference between medical and recreational marijuana, he overlooked a more important distinction: between opposing state laws that allow recreational use of marijuana and supporting federal intervention aimed at overriding them. That distinction is clear in the latest Quinnipiac University poll, which finds that 71 percent of Americans "oppose the government enforcing federal laws against marijuana in states that have already legalized medical or recreational marijuana." By comparison, 59 percent think marijuana "should be made legal in the United States." That means many Americans who oppose legalization nevertheless think states should be free to adopt that policy. A disproportionate number of those people are members of Trump's party: While only 35 percent of Republicans in the Quinnipiac poll supported marijuana legalization, 55 percent opposed federal interference with it. A CBS News poll conducted last April found even stronger Republican opposition to the sort of meddling Spicer predicted. Asked if "laws regarding whether the use of marijuana is legal" should be "determined by the federal government" or "left to each individual state government to decide," 70 percent of Republicans said the latter, compared to 55 percent of Democrats (who as usual were more likely to favor legalization). These results make sense to the extent that conservatives take seriously their avowed commitment to federalism, which Trump also claims to support. At the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump said he favored medical marijuana but had concerns about broader legalization, a decision he nevertheless said should be left to the states. "If they vote for it, they vote for it," he said. Trump confirmed that position at a 2015 rally in Nevada: "In terms of marijuana and legalization, I think that should be a state issue, state by state." Sessions, a former Alabama senator, also pays lip service to federalism. After the death of William Rehnquist in 2005, Sessions gave a floor speech in which he praised the chief justice for recognizing the limits of federal power: He understood that the Federal Government, through the Commerce Clause, has broad power, but there are limits to the reach of the Commerce Clause. It does not cover every single matter the United States Senate may desire to legislate on, to the extent that the federal government controls even simple, discreet actions within a State. He reestablished a respect for state law and state sovereignty through a number of his federalism opinions. In 2013 Sessions cosponsor[...]

Legislators Who Supported Criminal Justice Reform Now Sponsoring Tougher Heroin Bills

Sat, 18 Feb 2017 10:00:00 -0500

This year, legislation has been introduced in at least 29 states that would increase penalties for heroin and fentanyl-related offenses, or allow for individuals to be held criminally liable or charged with murder/manslaughter when a person they supplied with heroin overdoses and dies. The most disheartening aspect of this new sweep of proposed legislation is some of the state legislators who filed these bills have, in previous years, been sponsors of major sentencing reform legislation that has been enacted in their states, while others have voted for it. Many of the criminal justice reforms that have been passed at the state level over the past few years have shortened sentences for those convicted of nonviolent offenses, or have diverted low-level offenders from prison and into rehabilitative treatment or other alternatives to incarceration. The new bills show how easy it is for legislators who appeared to have accepted the notion that relaxed sentences result in smarter crime policy to fall into old punitive, tough-on-crime habits. In Kentucky, a bill was filed that would significantly increase penalties for individuals who sell any amount of heroin/fentanyl, an offense that would now be considered trafficking. This week, the bill passed the Senate unanimously. The legislation will undo some of the reforms that were passed in 2011 as a part of a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill that received support from a partnership between The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Federal Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Senate bill sponsor, Sen. John Schickel (R-Boone) voted for that comprehensive sentencing reform legislation, as did Kentucky's Senate President, Robert Stivers (R-Manchester). Speaking on the proposed legislation, Stivers said that this new bill would probably cost "in the tens of millions of dollars" but that "it is worthwhile to send a message—it's time for this to stop at whatever level for whatever drug it may be." In 2015, Alabama enacted legislation aimed at reducing prison overcrowding, requiring low-level, nonviolent drug and property offenders be diverted from prison into alternative programs. This "Justice Reinvestment" legislation was put forward as a result of a partnership between the legislature and The Pew Center on the States and the U.S. Department of Justice. This year, however, the same Alabama legislators that sponsored the comprehensive reform bill are in full freak-out mode when it comes to heroin. A bill filed this year by Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) would create mandatory minimum sentences for "trafficking in fentanyl," which includes possession of a small amount of this drug or any mixture (which could include heroin). Astoundingly, the bill creates a mandatory minimum sentence of life without the possibility of parole for trafficking in just 28 grams. "Even if it did increase the numbers on incarceration, that's okay, because this is something we need to crack down on," Ward told the Alabama Media Group. In Idaho, Rep. John Gannon, a Democrat who voted for a criminal justice reform bill that was passed in 2011 as a part of a Justice Reinvestment initiative, sponsored a bill that would charge individuals who sell heroin to someone who dies from overdose with second degree murder—a mandatory minimum 10-year prison sentence in the state. Other states are introducing similar bills to allow for murder or manslaughter charges for those who sell or give heroin to someone who later dies from an overdose, while others have steadily increased the number of prosecutions for these individuals, as noted in a post last year. In Connecticut, a state that has seen its prison population at its lowest point in decades and that has enacted many positive reforms in recent years, three bills have been introduced that would increase penalties for individuals wh[...]

Marijuana Gets Its Own Congressional Caucus

Fri, 17 Feb 2017 16:45:00 -0500

(image) As more and more Americans grow comfortable with exempting marijuana from the drug war, we've seen massive shifts in state regulations toward decriminalization and legal use (medicinal and recreational).

Federal laws and regulations still lag terribly behind, leaving Americans in an area of uncertainty in enforcement, particularly as we change administrations. President Donald Trump has stated that he thinks marijuana regulation is a state issue, but he has also been acting like a pretty major drug warrior as part of his border control push. His Attorney General Jeff Sessions has a lengthy history as a supporter of tough drug laws as well.

Now four members of the House of Representatives, two from each party, have come together to form a Congressional Cannabis Caucus. From the left, we've got Reps. Jared Polis (Colo.) and Earl Blumenauer (Ore.). From the right, we've got Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (Calif.) and Don Young (Alaska). Note that all four come from states where voters have legalized recreational marijuana use.

The four had a short press conference on Thursday to preview their agenda. Fundamentally, they want federal regulation to catch up with what the states are doing. They explained they want to do everything from making sure medical marijuana research is permitted and that veterans get access to allowing marijuana businesses that are operating legally under state laws to use the banking system and not have to operate cash-only. And of course, there's the ultimate goal of getting marijuana removed from Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substance Act, an absurd federal classification that the drug has no medical use.

The four representatives all have a history of attempting to legislatively loosen cannabis laws. As more and more Americans agree, maybe some more of those 431 other members of Congress will join the caucus as well.

Watch their press conference below:

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Neil Gorsuch Sympathizes With Drug Dealers

Mon, 06 Feb 2017 07:30:00 -0500

In his 2006 book about assisted suicide, Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch takes issue with the "libertarian principle" that requires legalization of the practice. The same principle, Gorsuch argues, would also require the government to allow "any act of consensual homicide," including "sadomasochist killings, mass suicide pacts...duels, and the sale of one's life (not to mention the use of now illicit drugs, prostitution, or the sale of one's organs)." That's right: If the government lets people kill themselves, it might also have to let them smoke pot. Despite the horror of taboo intoxicants suggested by that passage, Gorsuch does not seem to be blinded by pharmacological phobia when he hears drug cases. Two opinions he wrote in 2015—one involving mens rea, the other the Fifth Amendment's ban on compelled self-incrimination—demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of drug policy issues and suggest Gorsuch is less eager than some judges to facilitate enforcement of prohibition by compromising civil liberties. In U.S. v. Makkar, a 2015 case involving Oklahoma convenience store owners arrested for selling "incense" containing a synthetic cannabinoid, Gorsuch noted that the merchants, Iqbal Makkar and Gaurav Sehgal, seemed to be concerned about complying with the law: When questions surfaced about the incense they carried on their shelves, the men spoke with state law enforcement officers, offered to have the officers test the incense to determine its legality, and offered as well to stop selling the product until the results came in. But this cooperation with state authorities apparently won the men little admiration from federal investigators: soon enough they found themselves under indictment and convicted for violating the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act (Analogue Act), conspiracy, and money laundering. Writing for a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, Gorsuch agreed with Makkar and Sehgal that they had been improperly convicted under the Analogue Act, "a curious animal" that is meant to criminalize production and distribution of psychoactive substances that are not explicitly prohibited by the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). To be covered by the Analogue Act, according to the Supreme Court's interpretation, a substance must be substantially similar in chemical structure and effect to a drug listed in Schedule I or II of the CSA. To convict a supplier of violating the Analogue Act, the government must prove he knew the drug had these features or knew the drug was banned by that law or by the CSA. Gorsuch noted in passing that the Supreme Court's construction of the Analogue Act may not adequately address "vagueness concerns," since "it's an open question...what exactly it means for chemicals to have a 'substantially similar' chemical structure—or effect." In any case, he said, prosecutors failed to prove that Makkar and Sehgal met the law's men rea requirements. "The government didn't attempt to show that Mr. Makkar or Mr. Sehgal knew the incense they sold was unlawful under the CSA or Analogue Act," he writes. No did it try to show the defendants knew the incense contained a substance with a chemical structure similar to that of a Schedule I or II drug. "As far as we can tell," Gorsuch said, "at trial the government introduced no evidence suggesting that the defendants knew anything about the chemical structure of the incense they sold." Instead prosecutors convinced the trial judge to approve "an instruction permitting the jury to infer that the defendants knew the incense they sold had a substantially similar chemical structure to JWH–18 [a synthetic cannabinoid] from the fact they knew the incense had a substantially similar effect to marijuana." That inference[...]

Texas Sought Banned Death Penalty Drugs From Overseas Party Dealers

Fri, 27 Jan 2017 12:06:00 -0500

The state of Texas—hell bent on procuring banned drugs to be used in lethal injection executions—nearly completed a deal with five party drug dealers in India before the men were arrested. According to an absolutely bonkers report in Buzzfeed, Indian court documents reveal Provizer Pharma—the company equally owned by five Indian men in their twentires—was selling "psychotropic drugs and opioids illegally to people in the US and Europe," but also had a deal in principle with Texas' Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to sell the agency sodium thiopental, a drug used in lethal injections. The TDCJ wrote in a statement, "The agency has not engaged in any transaction with this company," which would technically be true, because the five men from Provinzer Pharma were arrested by India's Narcotics Control Bureau while picking up returned packages loaded with illegal drugs at a FedEx store in Surat before Provinzer's sale of sodium thiopental to the state of Texas could be completed. But per a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) report obtained by Buzzfeed, the TDCJ tipped off the DEA of the planned purchase, and even named Provinzer Pharma as the vendor. Buzzfeed adds, "It's unclear how the Texas Department of Criminal Justice found this small company in India that made the rounds on Internet message boards for teens and 20-somethings looking to buy drugs without a prescription," but an American named Chris Harris ended up replacing Provinzer Pharma as Texas' drug supplier. Harris has made sales of death penalty drugs to four states—earning over $100,000—but each time the drugs have been detained by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). As we've reported at Reason, death penalty states have had a hell of a time in recent years trying to get their hands on drugs used in executions, partially due to a European Union (EU) ban on the sale of such drugs to state governments that allow capital punishment, but also due to public backlash over the many executions which were botched because of drugs of questionable provenance and quality. The final status of the FDA-impounded shipments of sodium thiopental from India is still unsettled. The U.S.'s lone manufacturer of the drug stopped producing it because of its use in executions, and for a time, the Obama administration's FDA allowed states to import the drug, but the agency was eventually ordered by a federal court that it had "a mandatory obligation" to keep the "the misbranded and unapproved drug, thiopental" out of the U.S. That ruling came down in 2012, and has served as the FDA's go-to reasoning for refusing to release the detained shipments of drugs paid for by certain states' dollars. Earlier this month, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice filed suit against the FDA, demanding the release of the drugs. Ars Technica reports Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton accused the FDA of "gross incompetence or willful obstruction" in refusing to make a final decision on the fate of the impounded drugs. Paxton's main argument is that the state has a "responsibility to carry out its law enforcement duties"—which includes executions—and thus should be granted a "law enforcement exemption" and be permitted to import sodium thiopental. President Donald Trump might be the most enthusiastic proponent of capital punishment ever to inhabit the White House. It's one of the few policy positions on which he has never wavered, having taken a full-page ad in four major New York newspapers back in 1989 demanding "BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY", as well as writing in his 1997 book Trump: The Art of the Comeback, "I believe in an eye for an eye." In 2010, Trump said the punishment for WikiLeaks' publishing of classified documents provided by Chelsea Manning should be[...]

Israel Moves Toward Decriminalizing Marijuana Use

Fri, 27 Jan 2017 06:30:00 -0500

Yestersday Israel's public security minister, Gilad Erdan, announced a plan to decriminalize possession of marijuana, making public use a civil offense punishable by fines and eliminating penalties for private use. "We want to educate our youth that using drugs is damaging," Erdan said. "On the other hand, the police do not have the right tools to deal with the damage caused by using drugs. For example, police do not know how to deal with people who drive under the influence of drugs. This is why we must have a broad and conclusive policy change." Under the plan, which needs cabinet approval, adults caught smoking pot in public would be subject to a fine of 1,000 shekels ($263), which would be doubled for a second offense. A third offense would result in sanctions such as drug treatment and suspension of driving privileges, while a fourth offense would bring criminal charges. For cannabis users younger than 18, a first offense would result in a referral to treatment, a second in admission to a rehabilitation center, and a third in prosecution. But for adults, "home use and possession of marijuana would carry no punishment," The Times of Israel reports. Possession of up to 15 grams (half an ounce) is currently punishable by up to three years in prison, although the consequences are usually much less severe. Under attorney general's directives issued in 1985 and 2003, people caught with small amounts of marijuana are not supposed to be arrested for a first offense. Police have discretion as to whether charges should be brought for subsequent offenses. Police data released this week show that arrests for marijuana possession fell 30 percent between 2010 and 2015, from 4,967 to 3,425. Erdan's plan, which is based on recommendations from an advisory panel he appointed to study the issue, moves in the direction that Yohanan Danino, then Israel's police chief, suggested in 2015. "More and more citizens are demanding marijuana use be permitted," Danino said. "I think the time has come for the Israel police, together with the state, to re-examine their stance on cannabis. I think we must sit and study what's happening around the world." Last year Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said her ministry was studying decriminalization of drug possession. A bill that would have decriminalized possession of up to 15 grams of marijuana failed last summer, largely because of opposition from Erdan and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman. At the time Erdan warned that punishing second offenses with fines was "a form of legalization" that would lead to more stoned driving. But it sounds like his proposal actually goes further than the bill he opposed. According to The Times of Israel, that bill applied only to cannabis consumers 21 or older (as opposed to 18 or older under Erdan's plan) and prescribed fines for private possession (which would be subject to no penalty under Erdan's plan) as well as a higher fine for public possession (1,500 shekels vs. 1,000 under Erdan's plan). While recreational marijuana use remains illegal in Israel, medical use is allowed for patients with prescriptions. The government recently announced $2.1 million in funding for a medical marijuana research program overseen by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Health.[...]

In-State Medical Marijuana Cultivation May Be on Georgia's Horizon

Wed, 25 Jan 2017 15:20:00 -0500

(image) A new Georgia bill calls for a statewide vote on legalizing the production and sale of medicinal marijuana, according to the Associated Press. The bill, H.R. 36, would set up a referendum for the November 2018 midterm election and give voters the opportunity to allow cultivation in the state. The proposal was introduced by Rep. Allen Peake (R–Macon) on January 12.

Peake also authored the 2015 bill that allowed limited access to low-THC cannabidiol (CBD) oil to treat severe cases of eight medical conditions, including seizure disorders and cancer. However, that bill only provides protection from prosecution for authorized possession. It does not legalize the cultivation or sale of marijuana, even for medicinal purposes.

"There are still logistical and financial hardships even for the folks that are properly registered with the state," Peake informed The Atlanta Journal-Constitution back in 2016.

Currently, the only way for Georgians to legally obtain CBD oil is to purchase it from out of state or order it from a reputable producer online, but individuals risk breaking federal law by crossing state borders with the stuff. Peake has even put himself at risk to ensure his constituents have access to medical marijuana, according to McClatchyDC. "He won't say exactly how he broke the law to help them," Rob Hotakainen reported, "only that he has been in possession of cannabis oil and given it to registered families. And he won't say where he got the oil, either."

Twenty-seven states plus the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana in some form, and eight states currently allow for cultivation with varying degrees of regulation. H.R. 36 could add Georgia to that list—if lawmakers approve putting the measure on the ballot.

"It's clear we're going to have a hard time passing a cultivation bill (in the state Legislature) for the next two years," Peake said, according to the Macon Telegraph. "So why not put it in front of the voters, where every poll shows there's clear evidence that voters support this?"

An Atlanta-Journal Constitution poll found that 71 percent of Georgians support establishing an in-state cultivation program, while a 2016 Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans now favor legalizing marijuana use. Florida was the first Southern state to legalize medical pot. Thanks to Peake, Georgia may be next.