Phillip Smith

How Oregon is turning the page on America’s disastrous drug war

In a groundbreaking move, in 2020, Oregon voters approved the decriminalization of personal use amounts of all illicit drugs, with Measure 110 passing with a healthy 59 percent of the vote. That made Oregon the first state in the U.S. to make this dramatic break after decades of the war on drugs. Now, as other states are pondering a similar move and are looking for evidence to bolster their case for drug decriminalization, some of the initial results in Oregon are looking pretty impressive and promising.

Measure 110 promised not only thousands of fewer drug arrests but also a move away from a punitive system to a more compassionate one, with hundreds of millions of dollars for “greatly [expanded] access to evidence-informed drug treatment, peer support, housing, and harm reduction services, without raising taxes,” according to a November 2020 press release from the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). These services would be funded through “excess marijuana tax revenue” (more than $45 million) and savings accrued “from no longer arresting, incarcerating, and prosecuting people for drug possession,” said the press release. State analysts in June 2020 estimated the excess marijuana tax revenue alone would result in more than $100 million in funding for providing services in the first year, after the implementation of Measure 110—which went into effect in February 2021—and would further result in funding of up to $129 million by 2027.

The state analysts were, however, too cautious. On November 3—“the one-year anniversary of the passage of Measure 110”—the DPA, whose political action arm, Drug Policy Action, spearheaded the successful campaign to get the drug reform measure passed, and the Health Justice Recovery Alliance (HJRA), the DPA’s key implementation partner in the state—which is working to implement treatment, harm reduction, and support programs—announced that they had secured funding of $302 million “for services over the next two years.” That’s more than $150 million a year, the DPA press release announced, “including $30 million lawmakers agreed to release ahead of schedule in May of [2021].” It is also “five times more than what Oregon currently spends on non-Medicaid funding for addiction services,” according to HJRA.

On November 17, that funding got real, with the Measure 110 Oversight and Accountability Council announcing the opening of a grant proposal period to distribute $270 million of the funding to service providers, who will operate under the rubric of the new Behavioral Health Resource Networks (BHRNs). Grants will be going to groups working on a broad spectrum of substance-related concerns, including housing, peer support, and employment support, as well as harm reduction and drug treatment services.

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“Our vision is that by funding BHRNs, there will be a collaboration of networks that include culturally and linguistically specific and responsive, trauma-informed and gender affirming care that will meet the needs of anyone seeking services who have been negatively affected by substance use and the war on drugs,” said Oversight and Accountability Tri-Chair LaKeesha Dumas in a press release by the Oregon Health Authority announcing the grants.

That initial round of grants went to 70 organizations in 26 out of the state’s 36 counties, with these results cited in a DPA press release on November 3:

  • “33 harm reduction and addiction recovery service providers expanded access to treatment services for indigent, uninsured individuals.”
  • “52 organizations hired peer support specialists—a role that addiction medicine experts have long heralded as essential to one’s recovery journey.”
  • “32 service providers added recovery, supportive and transitional housing services.”
  • “30 organizations increased harm reduction services, which include life-saving interventions like overdose prevention; access to naloxone, methadone and buprenorphine; as well as drug education and outreach.”

“We were about to have to close our doors in Wasco County, which would have been devastating to the people that depend on us for support there, but thanks to Measure 110 passing, we were not only able to get the funding we needed to stay open, but also to expand the services and spectrum of care we were able to provide our clients,” said Monta Knudson, executive director of Bridges to Change, a nonprofit that offers peer recovery support, housing and treatment services in Oregon, in the November 3 DPA press release.

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“Addiction has touched us all somehow, some more personally and heartbreakingly than others,” said Tera Hurst, executive director of the Health Justice Recovery Alliance, in the DPA press release. “Too many of us have lost loved ones to addiction, or struggled with it ourselves. COVID-19 has made things much worse, decreasing access to care during a time when Oregonians need these services more than ever before. That’s why today, exactly one year after the Measure’s passage, we celebrate the great strides made when it comes to addressing Oregon’s addiction crisis, while recognizing that there’s still much work to be done. Our immediate focus is to ensure every Oregonian knows these critical harm reduction and recovery services are being invested in and expanded so that they will be available to anyone who wants and needs them, and that they can feel comfortable and safe accessing them.”

But while the huge expansion of treatment, harm reduction, and related social services is undeniably a good thing, drug decriminalization is ultimately about getting people out of the criminal justice system and ensuring that they are not sucked into it in the first place. It’s looking like Measure 110 is achieving that goal.

According to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, there were roughly between 9,000 and 10,000 drug arrests per year from 2012 to 2018, prior to the passage of Measure 110, and while it is too early to have precise numbers, thousands of Oregonians who would have been arrested for drug possession in 2021 have instead faced only their choice of a $100 fine or a health assessment. This doesn’t mean that there will be no arrests at all, though, because some felony drug possession arrests (possession of more than the specified personal use amounts) have been downgraded to still arrestable misdemeanors. There will, however, be thousands fewer people subjected to the tender mercies of the criminal justice system and all the negative consequences that brings.

Preliminary numbers reported by the Oregonian suggest that drug arrests in 2021 are occurring at a rate of about 200 a month, primarily for possessing more than a personal use quantity of a drug. If that rate holds throughout the year, we should see a dramatic reduction in overall arrests, down from 9,000 (in the latest-reported 2018 data from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission) to fewer than 2,500. And most of the people being arrested are now facing misdemeanors instead of felony charges.

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“A year ago, Oregonians voted yes on Measure 110 to remove criminal penalties for possession of drugs and expand access to health services. Now, because of this measure, there are thousands of people in Oregon that will never have to experience the devastating life-long barriers of having a drug arrest on their record, which disproportionately and unjustly affected Black and Indigenous people due to targeted policing,” said DPA Executive Director Kassandra Frederique in the press release. “Because of this measure, there is more than $300 million in funding that did not exist before being funneled into community organizations to provide adequate and culturally competent care that people desperately need. And while the devastation of 50 years of cruel and counterproductive policies can’t be erased overnight, by all metrics we hoped to achieve, and what voters asked for, we are going down the right path.”

Phillip Smith is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug policy journalist for more than two decades. He is the longtime writer and editor of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the nonprofit Stop the Drug War, and was the editor of AlterNet’s coverage of drug policy from 2015 to 2018. He was awarded the Drug Policy Alliance’s Edwin M. Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. The Drug Policy Alliance is a funder of Drug Reporter.

House votes to kill the racist crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity

Watching the gigantic logjam on Capitol Hill as Democrats attempt to pass both the infrastructure bill and a multitrillion-dollar social spending bill through Congress while Republicans do their best to obstruct it, observers could be forgiven for thinking that Congress has devolved into a do-nothing partisan circus. But while all eyes were on the internecine conflict among the Democrats, the House of Representatives actually just achieved something significant.

In an effort to undo one of the gravest examples of racially biased injustices resulting from the war on drugs, the House voted on September 28 to end "the federal sentencing disparity between drug offenses involving crack cocaine and powder cocaine." The Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act of 2021 (HR 1693), passed on a vote of 361-66, demonstrating bipartisan support, although all 66 "no" votes came from Republicans.

Amidst media hysterics about "crackheads" and "crack babies," with a distinctly racial tinge, and a "tough-on-crime approach" resulting from the political posturing around crack use in the early 1980s, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, cosponsored by then-Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) and signed into law by former President Ronald Reagan. Under that bill, people caught with as little as 5 grams of crack faced a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, while people would have to be caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine to be handed the same sentence for the crime.

While appearing race-neutral on the surface, this law was disproportionately wielded as a weapon against African Americans. According to a yearlong investigation by the Asbury Park Press and the USA Today Network that "examined hundreds of thousands of arrest records and federal drug convictions" across the U.S. for more than 30 years, "Most crack users were and still are white, according to federal surveys, but [B]lacks were sent to federal prison nearly seven times more often for crack offenses from 1991 to 2016." Between 1991 and 1995, in the depths of the drug war, Black people were 13 times more likely to be caught up in the criminal justice meat grinder over crack in comparison to "every white defendant locked behind bars" for the same crime. And even in 2020, the U.S. Sentencing Commission reported that "Black people made up 77 percent of all federal crack convictions."

After years of effort by an increasingly broad alliance of organizations for drug reform, racial justice and human rights, also including religious and civic groups, the passage of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act reduced the "disparity between offenses for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1," and the 2018 First Step Act, signed by former President Donald Trump, allowed people convicted before the 2010 law was passed to seek resentencing. But, as the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law pointed out in 2019, the First Step Act "marks progress for criminal justice reform, but it has some notable shortcomings. It will leave significant mandatory minimum sentences in place… [and] two of the bill's key sentencing provisions are not retroactive." This criticism also led to calls like that the First Step Act "not be the only step." But now, finally, an end to the disparity is in sight with the recent movement on the EQUAL Act.

Reform advocates praised the passage of the EQUAL Act in the House.

"After the murder of George Floyd, it was obvious that we as a country needed to work harder to stamp out racial discrimination in our justice system," Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), said in a statement after the vote. "Eliminating the crack-powder disparity, which has disproportionately and unfairly harmed Black families, was an obvious target. … [The September 28] huge bipartisan vote reflects the overwhelming public support for eliminating the crack disparity. We hope the Senate acts quickly to remove this 35-year-old mistake from the criminal code."

"For 35 years, the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, based on neither evidence nor science, has resulted in higher sentences that are disproportionately borne by Black families and communities. We applaud the House for passing the EQUAL Act, which will finally end that disparity, including for thousands of people still serving sentences under the unjust disparity who would now have the opportunity to petition courts for a reduced sentence," ACLU senior policy counsel Aamra Ahmad said in a statement.

"Congress should continue to work to end the war on drugs, including ending mandatory minimum sentences that disproportionately impact communities of color while failing to make us safer. Now that the House has taken this important action on the EQUAL Act, the Senate must quickly follow suit and finally end this racially unjust policy," she added.

The Senate version of the bill is S 79, which has been introduced by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and cosponsored by fellow Democrats Dick Durbin (IL) and Patrick Leahy (VT) and GOP Senators Rand Paul (KY), Rob Portman (OH), and Thomas Tillis (NC). After the vote, they prodded their Senate fellows to get moving.

"[On September 28], House Republicans and Democrats joined together in passing the EQUAL Act, legislation that will once and for all eliminate the unjust federal crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity," the bipartisan Senate sponsors said in a joint statement. "Enjoying broad support from faith groups, civil rights organizations, law enforcement, and people of all political backgrounds, this commonsense bill will help reform our criminal justice system so that it better lives up to the ideals of true justice and equality under the law. We applaud the House for its vote today and we urge our colleagues in the Senate to support this historic legislation."

The bill has the support of President Biden, who endorsed it in June, but faces uncertain prospects in the Senate. It will need at least 10 Republican votes to pass, and in this Senate, it is difficult to imagine 10 Republican senators voting for anything the Democrats support. Yet, the cause of criminal justice policy reform has made some strange bedfellows, and this Congress is a long way from over.

Phillip Smith is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug policy journalist for more than two decades. He is the longtime writer and editor of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the nonprofit Stop the Drug War, and was the editor of AlterNet's coverage of drug policy from 2015 to 2018. He was awarded the Drug Policy Alliance's Edwin M. Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

How the global drug war’s victims are fighting back

Despite significant advances made by governments around the world in humanizing drug control systems since the turn of the century, human rights abuses still seem to be taking place in the course of enforcing drug prohibitions in recent years and, in some cases, have only gotten worse.

The United States continues to imprison hundreds of thousands of people for drug offenses and imposes state surveillance (probation and parole) on millions more. The Mexican military rides roughshod over the rule of law, disappearing, torturing, and killing people with impunity as it wages war on (or sometimes works with) the infamous drug cartels. Russia and Southeast Asian countries, meanwhile, hold drug users in "treatment centers" that are little more than prison camps.

A July virtual event, which ran parallel to the United Nations High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, shined a harsh light on brutal human rights abuses by the Philippines and Indonesia in the name of the war on drugs and also highlighted one method of combating impunity for drug war crimes: by imposing sanctions.

The event, "SDG 16: The Global War on Drugs vs. Rule of Law and Human Rights," was organized by DRCNet Foundation (a sister organization of the Drug Reform Coordination Network/StoptheDrugWar.org), a U.S.-based nonprofit in consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council. The "SDG 16" refers to Sustainable Development Goal 16—Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions—of the UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Event organizer and DRCNet Foundation executive director David Borden opened the meeting with a discussion about the broad drug policy issues and challenges being witnessed on the global stage.

"Drug policy affects and is affected by many of these broad sustainable development goals," he said. "One of the very important issues is the shortfall in global AIDS funding, especially in the area of harm reduction programs. Another goal—Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions—is implicated in the Philippines, where President [Rodrigo] Duterte was elected in 2016 and initiated a mass killing campaign admitted by him—although sometimes denied by his defenders—in which the police acknowledged killing over 6,000 people in [anti-drug] operations [since 2016], almost all of whom resisted arrests, according to police reports. NGOs put the true number [of those who were] killed at over 30,000, with many executed by shadowy vigilantes."

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has proposed a formal investigation of human rights abuses in the Philippines drug war, but the court seems hampered by a chronic shortfall in funding, Borden pointed out.

"Former prosecutors have warned pointedly on multiple occasions of a mismatch between the court's mission and its budget," he said. "Recent activity at the conclusion of three different preliminary investigations shows that while the prosecutor in the Philippines moved forward, in both Nigeria and Ukraine, the office concluded there should be formal investigations, but did not [submit] investigation requests, leaving it [up to the] new prosecutors [to do so]. The hope is [that the ICC] will move as expeditiously as possible on the Philippines investigation, but resources will affect that, as will the [Philippine] government's current stance."

The government's current stance is perhaps best illustrated by President Duterte's remarks at his final State of the Nation address on July 26. In his speech, Duterte dared the ICC to "record his threats against those who 'destroy' the country with illegal drugs," the Rappler reported. "I never denied—and the ICC can record it—those who destroy my country, I will kill you," said Duterte. "And those who destroy the young people of my country, I will kill you, because I love my country." He added that pursuing anti-drug strategies through the criminal justice system "would take you months and years," and again told police to kill drug users and dealers.

At the virtual event, Philippines human rights attorney Justine Balane, secretary-general of Akbayan Youth, the youth wing of the progressive, democratic socialist Akbayan Citizens' Action Party, provided a blunt and chilling update on the Duterte government's bloody five-year-long drug war.

"The killings remain widespread, systematic, and ongoing," he said. "We've documented 186 deaths, equal to two a day for the first quarter of the year. Of those, 137 were connected to the Philippine National Police, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, or the armed forces, and 49 were committed by unidentified assailants."

The "unidentified assailants"—vigilante death squads of shadowy provenance—are responsible for the majority of killings since 2016.

"Of the 137 killed, 96 were small-time pushers, highlighting the fact that the drug war is also class warfare targeting small-time pushers or people just caught in the wrong place or wrong time," Balane said.

He also provided an update on the Duterte administration's response to ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda's June 14 decision concluding her preliminary examination of human rights abuses in the Philippine drug war with a request to the ICC to open a formal investigation into "the situation in the Philippines."

In a bid to fend off the ICC, in 2020, the Philippine Justice Department announced it had created a panel to study the killings carried out by agents of the state—police or military—but Balane was critical of these efforts.

"[In the second half of 2020], the Justice Department said it had finished the initial investigations, but no complaints or charges were filed," he said. "They said it was difficult to find witnesses [who were willing to testify about the killings], but [the victims'] families said they were not approached [by the review panel]."

The Justice Department is also undercutting the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, an independent constitutional office whose primary mission is to investigate human rights abuses, Balane pointed out.

"The Justice Department said the commission would be involved [in the investigation process by the panel], but the commission says [that the] Justice [Department] has yet to clarify its rules and their requests have been left unanswered," Balane said. "The commission is the constitutional body tasked to investigate abuses by the armed forces, and they are being excluded by the Justice Department review panel."

The Justice Department review is also barely scraping the surface of the carnage, Balane said, noting that while in May the Philippine National Police (PNP) announced they would be granting the review panel access to 61 investigations—which accounts for less than 1 percent of the killings that the government acknowledged were part of the official operations since 2016—the PNP has now decreased that number to 53.

"The domestic review by [the] Justice [Department] appears influenced by Duterte himself," said Balane. "This erodes the credibility of the drug war review by the Justice Department, which is the government's defense for their calls against international human rights mechanisms."

The bottom line, according to Balane, is that "the killings continue, they are still systematic, and they are still widespread."

In Indonesia—where, like Duterte in the Philippines, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) also declared a war on drugs in 2016—it is not only extrajudicial killings that are the issue but also the increasing willingness of the government to resort to the death penalty for drug offenses.

"Extrajudicial killings [as a result of] the drug war are happening in Indonesia," said Iftitah Sari, a researcher with the Indonesian Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, who cited 99 extrajudicial killings that took place in 2017 and 68 that happened in 2018, with a big jump to 287 from June 2019 through June 2020. She also mentioned another 390 violent drug law enforcement "incidents" that took place from July 2020 through May 2021, of which an estimated 40 percent are killings.

"The problem of extrajudicial killings [in Indonesia] is broader than [just] the war on drugs; we [also] have the problem of police brutality," Sari said. "Police have a very broad authority and a lack of accountability. There is no effective oversight mechanism, and there are no developments on this issue because we have no mechanisms to hold [the] police accountable."

Indonesia is also using its courts to kill people. Since 2015, Sari reported, 18 people—15 of them foreigners—have been executed for drug offenses.

"In addition to extrajudicial killings, there is a tendency to use harsher punishment, capital punishment, with the number of death penalties rising since 2016," she said.

Statistics Sari presented bore that out. Death penalty cases jumped from 22 in 2016 to 99 in 2019 and 149 in 2020, according to the figures she provided during the virtual event.

Not only are the courts increasingly handing down death sentences for drug offenses, but defendants are also often faced with human rights abuses within the legal system, Sari said.

"Violations of the right to a fair trial are very common in drug-related death penalty cases," she said. "There are violations of the right to be free from torture, not [to] be arbitrarily arrested and detained, and of the right to counsel. There are also rights violations during trials, including the lack of the right to cross-examination, the right to non-self-incrimination, trial without undue delay, and denial of an interpreter."

With authoritarian governments such as those in Indonesia and the Philippines providing cover for such human rights abuses in the name of the war on drugs, impunity is a key problem. During the virtual event's panel discussion, Scott Johnston, of the U.S.-based nonprofit Human Rights First, discussed one possible way of making human rights abusers pay a price: imposing sanctions, especially under the Global Magnitsky Act.

That U.S. law, originally enacted in 2012 to target Russian officials deemed responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky in a Russian prison, was expanded in 2016 to punish human rights violators around the globe by freezing their assets and denying them visas to enter the United States.

"In an era [when]… rising human rights abuses and also rising impunity for committing those abuses [are]… a hallmark of what's happening around the world, we see countries adopting these types of targeted human rights mechanisms [imposing sanctions] at a rate that would have been shocking even five or six years ago," said Johnston. "Targeted sanctions [like the Global Magnitsky Act] are those aimed against specific individual actors and entities, as opposed to countrywide embargos," he explained.

The Global Magnitsky program is one such mechanism specifically targeted at human rights abuses and corruption, and the United States has imposed it against some 319 perpetrators of human rights abuses or corruption, Johnston said. (The most recent sanctions imposed under the act include Cuban officials involved in repressing recent protests in Cuba, corrupt Bulgarian officials, and corrupt Guatemalan officials.)

"We've seen a continued emphasis on using these tools in the transition to the Biden administration, with 73 cases [of sanctions having been reported] since Biden took office," he noted.

And it is increasingly not just the United States.

"The U.S. was the first country to use this mechanism, but it is spreading," Johnston said. "Canada, Norway, the United Kingdom, [and] the European Union all have these mechanisms, and Australia, Japan, and New Zealand are all considering them. This is a significant pivot toward increasing multilateral use of these mechanisms."

While getting governments to impose targeted sanctions is not a sure thing, the voices of global civil society can make a difference, Johnston said.

"These are wholly discretionary and [it]… can be difficult to [ensure that they are]… imposed in practice," he said. "To give the U.S. government credit, we have seen them really listen to NGOs, and about 35 percent of all sanctions have a basis in complaints [nonprofits]… facilitated from civil society groups around the world."

And while such sanctions can be politicized, the United States has imposed them on allied countries, such as members of the Saudi government involved in the killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi and in cases of honor killings in Pakistan, Johnston noted.

"But we still have never seen them used in the context of the Philippines and Indonesia."

Maybe it is time.

Phillip Smith is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug policy journalist for more than two decades. He is the longtime writer and editor of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the nonprofit Stop the Drug War, and was the editor of AlterNet's coverage of drug policy from 2015 to 2018. He was awarded the Drug Policy Alliance's Edwin M. Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

A federal court rethinks the practice of punishing drug use as murder

A woman who bought heroin with her sister and a friend, who suffered a fatal overdose on the drug later that night, is not a murderer, according to the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. That was the June 1 ruling in USA v. Semler, a case that may not set binding precedent, but does send a signal to the prosecutors and the judiciary that the federal courts do not want to see a federal law aimed at so-called drug kingpins applied to mere drug users.

As described in the decision, the case began when two heroin-addicted Philadelphia women, Emma Semler and her old drug rehab buddy Jennifer Werstler, went to score heroin together at Werstler's request. They were joined by Semler's sister Sarah, who drove them to the West Philadelphia locale where they bought their heroin. It is unclear who actually purchased and then shared the heroin. The trio then shot up in the restroom of a nearby KFC restaurant. Werstler began to show signs of overdosing, and the Semler sisters "attempted to revive Werstler by splashing cold water on her, then left the bathroom and called their mother for a ride home. They did not call 911 or alert anyone to Werstler's condition."

Werstler was later discovered by a KFC employee, who called 911, but EMTs arrived too late to save her and she was pronounced dead. Her official cause of death was "an adverse reaction to heroin."

Semler was then indicted by a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania with "distribution of heroin resulting in death," punishable by a 20-year mandatory minimum prison sentence, and as an added bonus, also charged with doing so within 1,000 feet of a playground, as well as aiding and abetting on both counts. She was found guilty at trial and sentenced to 21 years in prison.

She appealed, arguing that friends sharing jointly procured drugs did not qualify as drug distribution and that the district court had erred in refusing to allow a jury instruction to that effect, as well as erring in failing to instruct the jury that there had to be a "proximate cause" for it to convict.

Scott Burris, JD, is a professor of both law and public health at Temple University and directs Temple's Center for Public Health Law Research. He is also Semler's appellate counsel and coauthor of an amicus curiae brief supporting Semler, which nicely laid out the issues at play.

"This case presents the Court with an opportunity to determine the proper scope of the Drug Distribution Resulting in Death (DDRD) sentencing enhancement provision," the abstract explains. "The provision, its parent statute, and the totality of modern federal law and policy to stem the overdose crisis are intended to target major drug traffickers. Research suggests that DDRD prosecutions routinely pervert this intent, indiscriminately deploying DDRD and similar provisions to target end consumers of illicit drugs affected by addiction. Rather than deterring drug trafficking, such prosecutions deter help-seeking during overdose events and interfere with overdose prevention measures. This cuts at cross purposes to overdose crisis response, leading to more, not fewer deaths."

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, vacating Semler's conviction and sending her case back for retrial using proper legal instructions for jurors. "We hold that the definition of 'distribute' under the Controlled Substances Act does not cover individuals who jointly and simultaneously acquire possession of a small amount of a controlled substance solely for their personal use," wrote Judge Jane Richards Roth.

It was a victory, if not a complete exoneration, for Emma Semler and any other drug user federal prosecutors in the 3rd Circuit might have been thinking about charging under that statute, one that hopefully also serves as a distant early warning signal for states that have passed drug-induced homicide laws, as well as state-level prosecutors who are zealously embracing them to convict low-level drug users as murderers.

The Health in Justice Action Lab at Northeastern University School of Law reported that the number of states with such laws jumped from 15 to 25 from 2009 to 2019, while the number of drug-induced homicide prosecutions hovered at near zero from the 1970s until the early 2000s. Then, as overdose deaths jumped, so did prosecutions, rising to 100 a year by 2011 before skyrocketing to nearly 700 a year by 2018.

In a 2019 Utah Law Review article, Northeastern University law professor and faculty director of the Health in Justice Action Lab Leo Beletsky found while the laws are ostensibly aimed at drug dealers, "half of those charged with drug-induced homicide were not, in fact, 'dealers' in the traditional sense, but friends and partners to the deceased." He also found that in cases that involved a traditional "drug dealer," half of those prosecuted were Black or Brown people who sold drugs to white people—a fact he noted does not fit the demographics of the United States or of drug dealers.

"In view of that context," he wrote, "these findings suggest that drug-induced homicide charges are being selectively and disproportionately deployed to target people of color. This disparate application can further reinforce already dire racial disparities, particularly in the enforcement of drug laws and the length of sentencing for drug-related crimes."

And, as the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) pointed out in its 2017 report, "An Overdose Death Is Not Murder: Why Drug-Induced Homicide Laws Are Counterproductive and Inhumane," those laws don't work to reduce overdoses: "Prosecutors and legislators who champion renewed drug-induced homicide enforcement couch the use of this punitive measure, either naively or disingenuously, as necessary to curb increasing rates of drug overdose deaths. But there is not a shred of evidence that these laws are effective at reducing overdose fatalities. In fact, death tolls continue to climb across the country, even in the states and counties most aggressively prosecuting drug-induced homicide cases."

"The Semler case is one more example of how the Drug War has warped our legal system and led to mass incarceration," DPA senior staff attorney Grey Gardner told Drug Reporter in an email exchange. "Prosecutors twisted the law to criminalize this young woman and subject her to a more than 20-year sentence after several friends bought drugs to use together and one suffered a tragic fatal overdose. Urging the jury to convict one of them of drug distribution when each of these users were suffering from substance use disorder and using together was not only overreaching, it highlights the arbitrary nature of our drug laws."

It is also counterproductive, he added: "This prosecution and those like it do nothing to make people safer, but instead put people in greater danger. By elevating the threat of prosecution, they make it less likely that people close to an overdose victim will call for help. Thankfully, in this case the Court of Appeals rejected the prosecution's overbroad definition of distribution, but what's clear is that we need an entirely new approach," Gardner continued. "Instead of the failed War on Drugs, we need to stop turning to the criminal legal system and spending billions on these ineffective policing strategies. Instead we need better approaches—such as investments in drug checking, overdose prevention centers, and expanded access to naloxone—to protect those who are experiencing addiction and are at the greatest risk."

"The court seemed sympathetic to the view that criminal law is not the best way to get at substance use disorder and the behavior of people coping with it," Burris told Drug Reporter in an email exchange.

The appeals court labeled its decision as non-precedential, meaning it is not binding on federal district courts in its region, but it still may have a broader impact in the federal courts, Burris said.

"I think her lawyers are going to ask the court to reconsider that," he said. "It is at least what we call 'persuasive authority' in that its reasoning may be adopted voluntarily by other courts."

As for impact on state and local prosecutions, not so much, he added.

"It has no impact other than as persuasive authority," Burris said. "The state attorney general and local district attorneys pursuing these cases seem to think they are sensible and just, and they are hard to shake."

"The overdose crisis is just one symptom of the fundamental disease of inequality and inequity in our country," was Burris's bottom line. "Getting at that root cause requires a sea change in policy such that government at all levels—and the people who elect the government—commit to ensuring the basics of decent life to everyone: good work, good housing, good education, good transportation, and a place of respect in the community. In this the 'deaths of despair' idea seems to me to get the problem just right. Of course, short of that, there are many things to do: stop criminalizing drug use; create safe injection sites everywhere they are needed; eliminate regulations that make methadone and buprenorphine harder to get than the drugs whose use they are meant to reduce."

Phillip Smith is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug policy journalist for more than two decades. He is the longtime writer and editor of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the nonprofit Stop the Drug War, and was the editor of AlterNet's coverage of drug policy from 2015 to 2018. He was awarded the Drug Policy Alliance's Edwin M. Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. The Drug Policy Alliance is a funder of Drug Reporter.

The surprising environmental costs of marijuana

Your cannabis consumption has a carbon footprint, and when everybody's cannabis consumption is added up, that carbon footprint gets mighty big. The resulting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that impact climate change the most are from consuming indoor cultivated marijuana, which is grown under lights indoors with extensive heating, air conditioning and other electrical equipment. Marijuana that is grown outdoors or in greenhouses or hoop houses doesn't require this kind of setup and has a substantially lesser impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

It would appear that the ethical thing for marijuana consumers to do when it comes to addressing climate change is to consume outdoor, sun-grown marijuana. But that is just for starters. Environmentally conscious consumers can get really serious and demand marijuana that is sun-grown, organic, and produced in a sustainable and regenerative fashion.

But before getting to solutions, let us first come to grips with the scope of the problem. Given that much of the marijuana grown in the United States goes into the black market, no one is quite sure just how much weed we produce. But a 2019 study from industry analysts New Frontier Data, "The U.S. Cannabis Cultivation Report," estimated that the "[t]otal legal and illicit output is forecasted to grow to" almost 35 million pounds by 2025. California alone accounted for more than 12 million pounds of illegal exports in 2019, according to the report. A 2012 article, which appeared in the international peer-reviewed journal Energy Policy, states that "[o]fficial estimates of total U.S. Cannabis production varied between 10,000 and 24,000 metric ton[s] per year as of 2001," while a more recent (2010) "study estimated national production at far higher levels (69,000 metric ton[s])."

That is a lot of weed, and how we grow it has an impact on the environment. The article in Energy Policy also found that marijuana cultivation accounts for at least 1 percent of all the electricity consumed in the country, at a cost of $6 billion a year—it is important to note here that outdoor grows can be done with virtually no electricity. This kind of energy consumption due to indoor marijuana cultivation across the U.S. translates into GHG emissions equivalent to that by 3 million cars, the article estimated.

According to an article in Cannabis Business Times, "the 2018 Cannabis Energy Report from New Frontier Data found that indoor cultivation in the U.S. produces 2.6 million tons of carbon dioxide or one pound of carbon emissions for each gram of harvested flower. The same report found that growing indoors uses 18 times more electricity and produces nearly 25 times more carbon than outdoor farms."

Meanwhile, in March, researchers at Colorado State University published an article in the journal Nature Sustainability that showed how shifting grows from indoors to greenhouse and outdoor cultivation "can drastically reduce GHG emissions" by the cannabis industry. According to the article, the move from growing cannabis indoors to "outdoor cultivation practices" would reduce the Colorado cannabis industry's greenhouse gas emissions by 96 percent (a switch to greenhouse cultivation would cut GHG emissions by 42 percent). A switch to outdoor cultivation in Colorado "would see a reduction of more than 1.3 percent in the state's [total] annual GHG emissions," stated the article.

The industry is headed in the direction of increasing outdoor cultivation of marijuana, but at an achingly slow pace.

That 2019 New Frontier Data study found that only 44 percent of marijuana cultivation operations were outdoor grows. A Cannabis Business Times 2020 State of the Industry Report had similar numbers. It found that 42 percent of survey respondents grow cannabis outdoors, 41 percent grow in greenhouses, and 60 percent grow indoors (the total exceeds 100 percent because many operators rely on two or even all three methods of cultivation).

The good news, according to Cannabis Business Times, is that the number of indoor operations has been declining steadily over the past five years, from 80 percent in 2016 to 60 percent in 2020, while greenhouse grows increased by 7 percent from 2016 to 2020 and outdoor grows increased by 5 percent during the same period.

Dale Gieringer, the longtime head of the nonprofit California NORML, has been following the evolution of marijuana growing for decades, back to the 1980s, when raids on northern California pot growers helped prompt the move toward indoor cultivation. It was just easier to hide the crop from the cops by growing it indoors, but that required artificial lights and all the other inputs to grow an indoor crop.

"Indoor [cultivation] never made any sense to us, any more than indoor wheat or any other indoor agricultural crop," Gieringer told Drug Reporter. "That's the whole beauty of marijuana: Unlike pharmaceutical drugs, you can make it with pure sunlight; it's very carbon neutral and energy efficient when you do it that way."

Nowadays, said Gieringer, it is not the need to hide from law enforcement but rather the need to comply with stringent regulatory requirements that induces growers to go under the lights.

"All those security precautions the government puts [in place] to protect us have driven a lot of people indoors," he said while speaking with Drug Reporter. "One of the weird things that happened in California was that authorities got real skittish about outdoor growing in a lot of places, and so, early on, we had these towns out in the desert that opened up huge indoor grow facilities that have to be air-conditioned. None of that makes any sense to me; it's just the way things have been regulated."

One group that encourages not just outdoor cultivation but outdoor cultivation with the best practices is Sun+Earth Certified, the leading nonprofit certification for regenerative organic cannabis.

Sun+Earth Certified was founded in 2019 on Earth Day "by cannabis industry leaders, experts and advocates with a common commitment to regenerative organic agriculture, farmer and farm-worker protections, and community engagement," according to an article in Cannabis Business Times.

To earn the Sun+Earth seal, marijuana farms must not only be organic (no chemical fertilizers or toxic pesticides), but also use sustainable methods that regenerate the soil, such as using cover crops, composting, reduced soil tillage, and planting the crop alongside food crops. All of these practices suck carbon out of the atmosphere.

"The multi-billion dollar cannabis industry has an important obligation to shift away from high levels of energy consumption and chemical-intensive farming practices, and Sun+Earth has the blueprint for how to do that," said Sun+Earth Executive Director Andrew Black during an Earth Day virtual press conference on April 23, marking the organization's two-year anniversary.

"In two years, we've grown to 33 cannabis farms and hope to finish the year with 60 total certifications," said Black. "This shows demand at both the farmer and consumer level for high-bar certifications for regenerative sustainable cannabis production."

The group is striving to set the gold standard for more-than-organic marijuana production.

"Our certification is tougher than normal USDA organic farming requirements," Black said during the virtual press conference. "Farmers must build soil fertility using natural resources from the farm itself to create living, bio-rich soil. And there are written contracts to protect farm labor and… to engage with and uplift the local community. Those aren't part of any other organic standard."

Sun+Earth certified farmers are a world away from industrial cannabis production practices indoors and under lights.

"I credit the [cannabis] plant with bringing me into the consciousness of being in a living system on a living planet," said Tina Gordon of Moon Made Farms, a Sun+Earth certified grower in Southern Humboldt County, who also participated in the press conference. "We do less than half an acre [of marijuana cultivation], in the ground, in full air [and] under the sun. The plants are exposed to the elements. You think about how the plants are grown and how they react to the natural environment, and you ask yourself: What does the land around us offer? What is the responsible way to live? You have to do this in the best possible way with the best possible practices, not just for the plant, but for the people and the community. That's why Sun+Earth resonates so deeply for me. We can care for and heal the planet and ourselves with cannabis."

As Gordon and fellow Sun+Earth certified grower Chrystal Ortiz, founder of High Water Farm, demonstrate, best practices mean adapting to the land, not trying to bend it to one's will.

"We're in an oak grove, and we chip the oak for mulching," Gordon said during the virtual press conference. "We mulch on top of where the plants grow and also beside them, and the mycelium starts eating the wood, and we flip that back into the soil, so it's soil-building. The mycelium is also breaking down a thick layer of leaves, making humus; this is how trees grow. We start with what feeds these native plants and then we start tuning in on the essentials. We use rainwater from the top of the property, and of course, we utilize the sun. When this [cannabis] plant goes indoors, the opportunity to understand how and where this plant is grown is lost."

Ortiz's High Water Farm occupies a different growing environment, and that makes for a different growing method.

"What is unique about farming here is that it is way different than Tina's [experience] of mulching and mycelium. I'm working [with] a beautiful, silty canvas in the Eel River watershed that fills with water every winter, a zen canvas that is rebuilt every year. Farming in the silt is different from forest cultivation. I'm learning new ancient traditions," Ortiz, who is a second-generation grower, said during the virtual press conference.

"We do dry farming with a cover crop, and we till the cover crop, run sheep that eat the cover, till the sheep poop and [compost the] cover crop into the ground, and then we plant our plants directly into the ground," she elaborated. "There is no water or fertilizer added whatsoever for the entire cycle. We just look at the ancient redwoods with their wide shallow root systems; they figured it out, and we follow the same process. We have wide plant spacing, the sunshine hitting this native soil and the evaporation of the water table. It's a very unique, faithful way to grow. When the plant gets the strength and resilience it needs, we're off to the races for another beautiful season."

Sun+Earth fills only a tiny niche in the massive marijuana economy, but it is a niche that is growing and one that can help begin to shift practices in the industry.

"We're trying to build a truly green cannabis economy, and that means educating at the dispensary level about why Sun+Earth cannabis is important and how consumers can support farmers by buying their products," said Black during the virtual press conference. "If we want to keep these farms on the land, they have to be supported in the marketplace.

"Right now, the expansion of Sun+Earth is happening organically," Black said. "We're creating demand in California, where we have an active campaign to promote Sun+Earth at point of sale. And we're trying to create campaigns that attract more of a national audience. For instance, last fall, we had a fundraising campaign where Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps created a cannabis-scented soap made from hemp extract from a Sun+Earth certified farm in Oregon."

Those campaigns are getting the word out beyond California, Black added, pointing to four farms in Oregon, two in Washington, a hemp farm in Wisconsin, and an urban medical marijuana grow in Detroit that have shown interest in the work being done by his organization.

"We're working on expanding to the Eastern Seaboard, too, maybe soon in Massachusetts, where local ordinances allow for outdoor grows. In some jurisdictions, they don't allow outdoor production, which is crazy."

What's really crazy, though, is contributing to the global climate crisis by smoking indoor-grown, high carbon footprint weed. As the example of Sun+Earth shows, conscious consumers can make a difference by supporting conscientious producers.

Phillip Smith is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug policy journalist for more than two decades. He is the longtime writer and editor of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the nonprofit Stop the Drug War, and was the editor of AlterNet's coverage of drug policy from 2015 to 2018. He was awarded the Drug Policy Alliance's Edwin M. Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Biden takes a step in the right direction on drug policy — but sends worrying signals too

On April 1, the Biden administration gave us the first big hint of what its drug policy will look like with the release of the congressionally mandated "Statement of Drug Policy Priorities for Year One." The result is a definite mixed bag, with the statement not only focusing on a heavy dose of drug prevention, treatment, and recovery—along with an acknowledgment of harm reduction—and a nod in the direction of racially sensitive criminal justice reform, but also a reflexive reliance on prohibitionist drug war policies both at home and abroad.

And there is no mention of the most widely used illicit drug by far: marijuana. The words "marijuana" or "cannabis" do not appear anywhere in the main statement. That's perhaps not so surprising, given that in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle on April 5, Vice President Kamala Harris said the administration was "too busy" dealing with the coronavirus pandemic to make good on its campaign pledges relating to marijuana reform.

What is on the administration's mind is "the overdose and addiction crisis." Citing ever-increasing drug overdose deaths, the statement says "addressing the overdose and addiction epidemic is an urgent priority for his [Biden's] administration." But the solution is not to imprison drug users, with the statement noting that "President Biden has also said that people should not be incarcerated for drug use but should be offered treatment instead." This might come across as a seemingly humane approach, but it is actually based on an errant presumption that all or most drug users are addicts and need treatment when, depending on the drug, only between 5 percent and 15 percent of drug users fit that dependent or problematic drug user description.

Here are the Biden administration's drug policy priorities, all of which are dealt with in detail in the statement:

  • Expanding access to evidence-based treatment;
  • Advancing racial equity issues in our approach to drug policy;
  • Enhancing evidence-based harm reduction efforts;
  • Supporting evidence-based prevention efforts to reduce youth substance use;
  • Reducing the supply of illicit substances;
  • Advancing recovery-ready workplaces and expanding the addiction workforce; and
  • Expanding access to recovery support services.

Prioritizing treatment, prevention, and recovery is bound to be music to the ears of advocacy groups such as Faces and Voices of Recovery (FAVOR), whose own federal policy and advocacy priorities, while focusing on specific legislation, lean in the same direction. But the group also advocates for harm reduction practices the administration omits, particularly supervised consumption sites. FAVOR took note of the administration's statement without making a comment regarding it.

As with the failure to even mention marijuana, the Biden administration's failure to include supervised consumption sites in its embrace of harm reduction—it is wholeheartedly behind needle exchanges, for example—is another indication that the administration is in no hurry to rush down a progressive drug reform path. And the prioritizing of supply reduction by the Biden administration implies continued drug war in Latin America (while working "with key partners… like Mexico and Colombia") and at home, via support of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program and "multi-jurisdictional task forces and other law enforcement efforts to disrupt and dismantle transnational drug trafficking and money laundering organizations." Prohibition is a hard drug to kick.

Still, naming advancing racial equity issues as a key priority is evidence that the Biden administration is serious about getting at some of the most perverse and corrosive outcomes of the war on drugs and is in line with its broader push for racial justice, as exemplified by Executive Order 13985, "Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government," issued on Biden's first day in office. And it is in this context that criminal justice system reform gets prioritized, although somewhat vaguely, with the promise of the creation of an "interagency working group to agree on specific policy priorities for criminal justice reform."

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), meanwhile, has some specific policy priorities for criminal justice reform, too, and they go far beyond where the administration is at. In its 2021 Roadmap for the new administration released in February, the group calls for federal marijuana legalization, drug decriminalization, and a slew of other criminal justice and policing reforms including ending mandatory minimum sentencing and the deportation of non-citizens for drug possession to barring no-knock police raids, ending the transfer of military surplus equipment for counternarcotics law enforcement, and dismantling the Drug Enforcement Administration. And the federal government should get out of the way of supervised consumption sites, or in DPA's politically attuned language, "overdose prevention centers."

"We're glad the administration is taking important steps to address the overdose crisis—by increasing access and funding to harm reduction services and reducing barriers to life-saving medications—especially as people are dying at an alarming rate. We also appreciate their commitment to studying how to advance racial equity in our drug policies and best implement innovative practices on the ground. But it's clearly not enough. We need action," DPA's Office of National Affairs director Maritza Perez said in a press release while responding to the administration's statement. "Black, Latinx and Indigenous people continue to lose their lives at the hands of law enforcement in the name of the drug war, and yet, the Administration has chosen to prioritize increased funding for law enforcement. We need supervised consumption sites, not more money for police."

"And while we commend the Administration for taking steps to reduce employment discrimination, unless we address the biggest barrier for people trying to get a job—past drug convictions and arrests—we will still be left with significant inequities and racial disparities in the workplace," Perez continued. "It's time we get serious about saving lives and repairing the damage that has been caused by the drug war, particularly on Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities. We can start by passing federal marijuana reform and ending the criminalization of people for drugs in all forms."

Young drug reformers also had a few bones to pick with the administration's priorities. In their own statement in response to that by the administration, Students for Sensible Drug Policy applauded priorities like more access to treatment and more research on racial equity. But the group complained that the administration priorities "fail to provide adequate support to Young People Who Use Drugs (YPWUD) in this country"—especially those who use drugs non-problematically.

"[T]here are no steps being taken to support YPWUD that do not want to and will not stop using drugs," SSDP said. "Young people have feared and faced the consequences of punitive drug policies and shouldered the burden of caring for their peers who use drugs for far too long. Young leaders calling for drug policy reform recognize that simply using drugs is not problematic and that we can support the safe and prosperous futures of People Who Use Drugs (PWUD) without forcing them to stop as a pre-condition for compassion, care, and opportunity."

Although only time will tell, for drug reformers, the policies of the Biden administration are looking like a step in the right direction, but only a step. Its policy prescriptions still seem like they are limited by a vision of drug use rooted in the last century. Perhaps the administration can be pressured and prodded to plot a more progressive drug policy path.

Phillip Smith is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug policy journalist for more than two decades. He is the longtime writer and editor of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the nonprofit Stop the Drug War, and was the editor of AlterNet's coverage of drug policy from 2015 to 2018. He was awarded the Drug Policy Alliance's Edwin M. Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. The Drug Policy Alliance is a funder of Drug Reporter.

Another win for marijuana: New Mexico embraces legalization

On March 31, New Mexico became the second state in as many days to see lawmakers approve marijuana legalization. New York had signed legislation to legalize adult-use recreational marijuana one day earlier. The legislators in Santa Fe, New Mexico, approved the Cannabis Regulation Act (House Bill 2) and the Expungement of Certain Criminal Records (Senate Bill 2).

Both states have Democratic governors who are supportive of their states' marijuana legalization, with New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo signing the bill into law on March 31. New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, who called a special session precisely to get legalization passed, made her intentions clear earlier in March, saying, "We're going to get cannabis because I am not going to wait another year," according to a video clip by the Paper.

She was even more clear after the bills finally passed. "This is a significant victory for New Mexico," she said in a post-vote statement on March 31. "Workers will benefit from the opportunity to build careers in this new economy. Entrepreneurs will benefit from the opportunity to create lucrative new enterprises. The state and local governments will benefit from the additional revenue. Consumers will benefit from the standardization and regulation that comes with a bona fide industry. And those who have been harmed by this country's failed war on drugs, disproportionately communities of color, will benefit from our state's smart, fair and equitable new approach to past low-level convictions."

Once Lujan Grisham signs the bills, New Mexico will become the 17th state to legalize marijuana and the fourth to do so via the legislative process, after Vermont, Illinois, and New York. Virginia is expected to join this group soon—the legislature has already passed a legalization bill, but Governor Ralph Northam (D) has proposed an amendment to the bill that will speed up the implementation of legalization from 2024 to July 1, 2021. The General Assembly will take up the amendment in a one-day session to consider vetoes and amendments on April 7 and is expected to approve it soon after.

"This year is proving to be nothing short of monumental for the cannabis policy reform movement. State legislatures across the nation are recognizing the urgent need to end cannabis prohibition and are rising to the challenge," Steve Hawkins, executive director at the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement after the vote.

In New Mexico, House Bill 2 allows people 21 and over to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and grow up to six mature plants at home. It also sets up a plan for taxed and regulated sales to begin next year, with a maximum of 20 percent tax. And the bill includes measures aimed at easing entry into the industry for those disproportionately impacted by pot prohibition. While the bill was stripped of some provisions that would have helped ameliorate the impact of the war on drugs on the most affected communities, it does provide an entrée to the industry via low-cost licenses for small producers, and it will also allow some people with drug convictions to gain entry to the legal industry.

Senate Bill 2 provides for the automatic expungement of past marijuana possession convictions. It also provides for a review of the sentences of about 100 state prisoners currently doing time for marijuana-related crimes.

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) has had a New Mexico office since 2000 and has been plugging into a wide range of drug reform issues, including marijuana legalization ever since. It lauded the long-sought-after victory.

"New Mexicans are finally able to exhale. After many years of hard work, another whirlwind legislative session, and input from stakeholders throughout the state, social justice-centered cannabis legalization is on its way to the Governor's desk, where she has already agreed to sign," DPA senior director for Resident States and New Mexico Emily Kaltenbach said in a statement after the vote.

The Land of Enchantment is about to get a bit more enchanting.

Phillip Smith is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug policy journalist for more than two decades. He is the longtime writer and editor of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the nonprofit Stop the Drug War, and was the editor of AlterNet's coverage of drug policy from 2015 to 2018. He was awarded the Drug Policy Alliance's Edwin M. Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. The Drug Policy Alliance is a funder of Drug Reporter.

'This is a historic day': Legal marijuana arrives in New York

On March 31, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) signed legislation that would immediately legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana for persons 21 and older and set the stage for a taxed and regulated legal marijuana market in New York State.

In a tweet posted soon after signing the legislation, Cuomo said, "This is a historic day. I thank the Leader and Speaker and the tireless advocacy of so many."

One day earlier, hours of debate in the New York State Senate ended with a 40-23 vote to approve the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (Senate Bill 854-A). The House followed up hours later, approving the bill with a 100-49 vote.

An embattled Governor Andrew Cuomo had reached an agreement with legislative leaders on the bill over the weekend.

Late on March 30, Cuomo said he was looking forward to signing the bill. "New York has a storied history of being the progressive capital of the nation, and this important legislation will once again carry on that legacy," he was quoting saying, according to PIX11.

New York has become the 16th state to legalize marijuana and the third to do so through the legislative process. It is also the second most populous state to do so after California. And, along with legalization in New Jersey earlier this year, the Empire State's decision to end its war on marijuana will undoubtedly add pressure on remaining neighboring pot prohibition states to get on the bandwagon.

Under the bill, people 21 and over will be able to possess up to 3 ounces and grow up to six plants, three of them mature. Past marijuana possession convictions will be automatically expunged. But legal sales will not commence until a state committee sets up rules and regulations for the nascent industry.

Keen recognition of racial injustice in the prosecution of the war on drugs guided legislators as they crafted their vision of progressive marijuana law reform. As a leading bill supporter, State Senator Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) enumerated in a statement after the legislation took final form the main features of the bill, which has a strong set of social equity provisions, including:

  • "Dedicating 40 percent of revenue to reinvestment in communities disproportionately impacted by the drug war, with 40 percent to schools and public education, and 20 percent to drug treatment, prevention and education"
  • "Equity programs providing loans, grants, and incubator programs to ensure broad opportunities for participation in the new legal industry by people from disproportionately impacted communities as well as by small farmers"
  • "A goal of 50 percent of licenses going to equity applicants"

Krueger, who, along with other legislative leaders and a broad-based coalition of activists, has been trying to get legalization passed since 2013, said she was pleased with the passage of the bill, in a statement after the vote.

"Today is an historic day for New Yorkers," she said in her statement. "I could not be more proud to cast my vote to end the failed policies of marijuana prohibition in our state, and begin the process of building a fair and inclusive legal market for adult-use cannabis. It has been a long road to get here, but it will be worth the wait. The bill we have held out for will create a nation-leading model for legalization. New York's program will not just talk the talk on racial justice, it will walk the walk."

In her statement, Krueger gave shout-outs to Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo) and to activist groups such as the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), both of whom have been working on the issue for years.

"I am proud to have fought so long for this legislation and to finally see it pass," said Peoples-Stokes. "We are providing marijuana justice by ensuring investment into the lives and communities of those who suffered for generations as a result of mass incarceration. The results will be transformative for people across New York State—it will create economic and research opportunities, jobs across a wide variety of sectors, and a safe and reliable product."

"This day is certainly a long time coming," DPA executive director Kassandra Frederique said in a statement after the March 30 vote. "When we started working toward marijuana reform 11 years ago, we knew we had our work cut out for us. Because of the sheer extent of harm that had been inflicted on Black and Brown communities over the years, any marijuana reform that was brought forth had to be equally comprehensive to begin repairing the damage. And I can confidently say, the result… is something truly reimaginitive. We went from New York City being the marijuana arrest capital of the country to today New York State coming through as a beacon of hope, showing the rest of the country what comprehensive marijuana reform—centered in equity, justice and reinvestment—looks like."

A new day is dawning in New York.

Phillip Smith is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug policy journalist for more than two decades. He is the longtime writer and editor of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the nonprofit Stop the Drug War, and was the editor of AlterNet's coverage of drug policy from 2015 to 2018. He was awarded the Drug Policy Alliance's Edwin M. Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. The Drug Policy Alliance is a funder of Drug Reporter.

Why Canada is pulling the plug on its war on drugs

On February 18, Canada's governing Liberal Party finally moved to enact long-promised reforms in its criminal justice system by introducing a sweeping new bill that "would require police and prosecutors to consider alternative measures for cases of simple possession of drugs," other than making arrests. The legislation would also end all mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and some "gun-related crimes," and open the way for conditional (probationary) sentences for a variety of offenses. But is it enough?

The government's move comes as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces mounting pressure for reform on two fronts. First, Canada is facing an unprecedented drug overdose crisis, with the province of British Columbia hit especially hard. According to a recent report on "unintentional illicit drug toxicity deaths" by the provincial Coroners Service, British Columbia saw a whopping 1,724 drug overdose deaths in 2020, up by a startling 74 percent from 2019.

The province has always been on the cutting edge of drug reform in Canada, and spurred by the crisis, British Columbia formally asked the federal government in early February for an exemption to the country's drug laws to allow it to decriminalize the possession of personal use amounts of illicit drugs. That request is still being considered by Ottawa.

But the pressure for drug decriminalization isn't just coming from British Columbia; it's coming from inside the criminal justice system. In July 2020, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police's president, chief constable Adam Palmer, called for drug decriminalization, recommending that "Canada's enforcement-based approach for possession be replaced with a health-care approach that diverts people from the criminal justice system." The following month, the federal prosecution service issued "a new directive permitting prosecution only in the most serious cases."

And public opinion supports decriminalization. An Angus Reid Institute poll released after the government announced the new bill found that seven out of 10 Canadians felt the country's opioid crisis had worsened in 2020, and 59 percent supported the decriminalization of all illegal drugs.

Second, just as the massive protests in the summer of 2020 in the United States channeled and amplified long-standing demands for racial and social justice, so have they echoed north of the border. Canada has its own not-so-noble history of racism and discrimination, and the number of Black and Indigenous people swept up in the country's criminal justice system demonstrates that the legacy of the past continues to this day, as reported on Vice.

Indigenous people make up 5 percent of the Canadian population but accounted for more than 30 percent of all federal prisoners by 2020. Similarly, Black people account for about 3 percent of the population of the country but made up more than 7 percent of prisoners in the country's federal correctional services in 2019. As the justice ministry noted in a 2018 report, after Conservatives passed tough anti-crime measures early this century, Black and Indigenous people were disproportionately targeted for mandatory minimum sentencing in the decade ending in 2017. And as the Office of the Correctional Investigator reported, Black inmates are more likely to be sent to maximum-security prisons, have force used against them, and be denied parole.

As the government rolled out the bill, C-22, "An Act to amend the Criminal Code and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act," Justice Minister David Lametti made it clear that not just public health but also racial justice was a priority.

In a mandate letter, Trudeau had asked Lametti to "address systemic inequities in the criminal justice system." In a press conference on February 18, Lametti said that the system "did not make the justice system more effective or more fair. Its singular accomplishment has been to incarcerate too many Indigenous people, too many Black people and too many marginalized Canadians."

The bill envisions reforms in policing, prosecuting, and sentencing drug offenders and sets out principles for dealing with drug offenses, including that "problematic substance use should be addressed primarily as a health and social issue." It further adds that state actors should recognize human rights and harm reduction imperatives, and criminal sanctions are stigmatizing and "not consistent with established public health evidence."

Under these principles, when encountering people using or possessing drugs, a peace officer would be granted the discretion to "consider whether it would be preferable… to take no further action, to warn the individual or, with the consent of the individual, to refer the individual to a program or to an agency or other service provider in the community that may assist the individual."

Similarly, the bill mandates prosecutors open drug possession cases only when a warning, referral, or alternative measures are "not appropriate, and a prosecution is appropriate in the circumstances." And it gives judges much broader discretion to order probationary sentences instead of confinement.

The bill looks as if it were designed to cut off an influx of inmates to the Canadian prison system at every level of the system. Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who has represented Toronto's Beaches-East York district since 2015, and is a longtime proponent of full drug decriminalization, says that is exactly what it is supposed to do.

He filed private member's bills this session for decriminalization (C-235) and for an evidence-based diversion model (C-236) to reduce drug arrests and prosecutions. It is the latter bill that the government has now largely adopted as C-22.

"I favor drug decriminalization because the war on drugs is an absolute failure that harms the people we want to help," he told Drug Reporter. "Our opioid crisis has taken more than 16,000 lives since 2016, and there is systemic racism in the criminal justice system, including around drug charges."

But if the Trudeau government wasn't ready to take the big step of decriminalization, Erskine-Smith's bills offered an out.

"My goal was to call for full decriminalization with a second bill to show the government if they weren't inclined to favor decriminalization, here's an alternative that would get us closer to the goal and would be more politically feasible. This bill [C-22] seriously restricts the discretion of police and prosecutors to proceed, according to a set of principles that will ensure a stronger focus on human rights and harm reduction," he said. "It doesn't go as far as I want it to go, but it is unquestionably a step forward. It will be virtually impossible for the state to move forward with drug possession charges and prosecutions."

Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and author of Vancouver's groundbreaking Four Pillars drug strategy in the 1990s, has a more jaundiced view of both the Liberals and C-22.

"The things that are in this bill are all things the Liberals promised when they were elected in 2015, and if they had done this then it would have been seen as a good move, getting rid of egregious stuff the [Stephen] Harper government had implemented," he told Drug Reporter. "But now, the discussion has moved so far that even police chiefs are calling for decriminalization. It's too little, too late."

Even the limited support he gave the bill was filled with caveats.

"Overall, though, it is a good thing, it is incremental progress; getting rid of the mandatory minimums is probably the most powerful aspect in terms of criminal law," MacPherson conceded. "But the bill was supposed to deal with the disproportionate impact of drug law enforcement on people of color, and it won't do it. There will be more probationary sentences and more alternatives to imprisonment, but arrests and prosecutions will be 'at the discretion of,' and Black and Indigenous people will now be caught up in kinder, gentler diversion programs."

Still, the passage of C-22 would be a step in the right direction, MacPherson said.

"It is preparing the ground for the next step, full decriminalization, which I think is now inevitable. The harms of criminalization in Canada are now so evident to everyone that the question now is not whether to but how to," he said. "We saw this with cannabis—at a certain point, the change in the discourse was palpable. We're now at that point with drug decriminalization."

Longtime Vancouver drug user activist Ann Livingston, co-founder of the pioneering Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and currently the executive project coordinator for the British Columbia and Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors, had an even more critical view, scoffing at more police discretion and expanded probationary sentences.

"I'm glad to see the mandatory minimums gone, but the Liberals want more police, and we say don't do us any more favors," she told Drug Reporter. "And the police have always had discretion to not make drug arrests; they just never exercise it. And probation—many of the people in jail are there for probation violations, even administrative ones, like missing appointments."

For Livingston, the cutting edge is now no longer criminal justice reforms or even decriminalization but creating a safe supply of currently illegal drugs. Limited opioid maintenance programs, including heroin, are available in the city, but they aren't enough, she said.

"Here in British Columbia, we had 900 COVID deaths last year and 1,700 overdose deaths. What we need is a safe drug supply," she argued. "We have to have clear demands, and what we are demanding is a pure, safe supply of heroin, cocaine, and crystal meth. This is a crisis; this is the time to do this drug law stuff right. And to get serious. The feds tell us they place no barriers on heroin prescribing, but then they fight about who is going to pay for it."

If Justin Trudeau and the Liberals think passing C-22 is going to quiet the clamor for more fundamental change in Canadian drug policies, they should probably think again.

Phillip Smith is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug policy journalist for more than two decades. He is the longtime writer and editor of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the nonprofit Stop the Drug War, and was the editor of AlterNet's coverage of drug policy from 2015 to 2018. He was awarded the Drug Policy Alliance's Edwin M. Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

These 5 states are the most well-placed to legalize marijuana in 2021

In 2020, the number of states that ended pot prohibition reached 15 (and the District of Columbia), as voters in four states—Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota—legalized marijuana through the initiative process. Since 2021 is not an election year, any states that attempt to legalize marijuana this year will have to go through the much more cumbersome legislative process, but at least a handful of them are poised to do so.

It is no coincidence that the early progress toward state-level legalization has been led by states that allow for voter initiatives. State legislatures badly trail public opinion on the issue, and beyond that, the legislative process itself is messy, beset with horse-trading, and progress of a bill is beholden to key legislative gatekeepers—the committee chairs and majority leaders. And because crafting legislation is a complex process, getting a legalization bill through both chambers and signed by a governor generally takes not one, but two to three or even more years.

Legalization bills are likely to appear in nearly every state that has not already freed the weed and are expected to be an uphill struggle in 2021 for most of them.

But the five states listed below have already been grappling with marijuana reform for years, have governors who are backing legalization, and will only be emboldened by the Democrats' majorities in the U.S. House and Senate (which could pass federal legalization in 2021) to push these bills forward. If all goes well, by the end of 2021, the number of legal marijuana states could reach 20.

Here are the five best prospects for 2021.

Connecticut

Marijuana legalization has been fermenting in the legislature for several years now, but in November 2020, Democrats added to their legislative majorities, increasing the odds that the issue will finally move forward in 2021. Governor Ned Lamont (D) reiterated his call for legalization in his State of the State address, saying, "I am working with our neighboring states and look forward to working with our tribal partners on a path forward to modernize gaming in our state, as well as the legislature on legalization of marijuana. Sports betting, internet gaming, and legalized marijuana are happening all around us. Let's not surrender these opportunities to out-of-state markets or even worse, underground markets." And House Speaker Matthew Ritter (D) is vowing to take the issue to the voters if the legislature doesn't act. "I think it'll be a very, very close vote in the House," he said at a press conference in November 2020. "But if we do not have the votes—and I'm not raising the white flag—I want to be very clear: We will put something on the board to put to the voters of the state of Connecticut to amend the state constitution to legalize marijuana."

New Mexico

The Land of Enchantment saw a marijuana legalization bill get through one Senate committee in 2020 only to be killed in another. But with the support of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), who formed a working group on marijuana legalization in 2019, and the ousting of some anti-reform legislators in the November 2020 elections, 2021 could be the year it gets over the finish line. In May 2020, while updating New Mexico residents on the state's response to COVID-19, Lujan Grisham had argued that if the state had legalized recreational marijuana in "this year's [2020] regular session as she'd unsuccessfully urged them to do," it could have helped reduce revenue shortfalls because of the coronavirus. And in December 2020, Lujan Grisham emailed constituents and took a jab at the inaction by lawmakers to ensure legislative legalization of marijuana: "Unfortunately, the Legislature couldn't come to an agreement, even though the economic impact would have created thousands of new jobs and sustainable state revenue sources to invest in New Mexico's future," she wrote. The Senate had been the biggest obstacle to moving a legalization bill, but now the Democratic senators who voted with Republicans to kill the bill in 2020 are out. The state's 60-day "short session" is likely to see several legalization bills, and New Mexico could be the first out of the gate this year.

New York

Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) has been calling for marijuana legalization for years, but measures in the legislature have always stalled because of disputes over taxes and social equity provisions and because of pure legislative power plays. Now, like Connecticut, the Empire State is feeling the pressure of neighboring states—New Jersey—that have already legalized marijuana as well as increased budgetary pressure because of the pandemic, and Cuomo is reiterating the call. In a recent video briefing, Cuomo again proposed the legalization of recreational use of marijuana, according to an article in the New York Times. "I think this should have been passed years ago," he said. "This is a year where we do need the funding and a lot of New Yorkers are struggling. This year will give us the momentum to get it over the goal line." Democrats now have a supermajority in both chambers, which makes it easier to pass legislation, despite Republican objections, and makes it easier for the legislature to override any veto of a legalization bill by Cuomo over provisions he may not like. A legalization bill, SB 854, has already been filed in the Senate. They have been working on this since 2013, and this will be the fifth time the bill has been introduced. For New York, the fifth time may be the charm.

Rhode Island

Governor Gina Raimondo (D) and legislative leaders are all on board with moving forward on legalization, although the governor wants a state-run model and some legislators favor a private model. "The time has come to legalize adult cannabis use," Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (D) said in November 2020. "We have studied this issue extensively, and we can incorporate the practices we've learned from other states." McCaffrey and Senator Joshua Miller (D), who spearheaded past efforts to get legalization passed, have been tasked by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D) with coming up with workable legislation this session. And the House is on board, too, with new Speaker Joseph Shekarchi (D) saying he is "'absolutely' open to the idea of cannabis legalization and that his chamber is 'very close'" to having enough votes to pass it. There are a couple of complicating factors for Rhode Island now, though: The division over state versus private sales and the fact that Raimondo will likely be leaving office soon after being nominated as commerce secretary in the new Biden administration.

Virginia

A legalization bill, SB 1406, has not only been filed, but has already won a committee vote, and Governor Ralph Northam (D) has said he supports marijuana legalization. "Legalizing marijuana will happen in Virginia," he said in November 2020. At the time, Northam laid out the principles the bill will address—social, racial, and economic equity, public health, protections for youth, upholding the state Clean Air Act, and data collection—and said it could take up to two years, but growing public and political support and financial pressures related to the pandemic could well speed up that timeline.

Phillip Smith is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a drug policy journalist for more than two decades. He is the longtime writer and editor of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the nonprofit Stop the Drug War, and was the editor of AlterNet's coverage of drug policy from 2015 to 2018. He was awarded the Drug Policy Alliance's Edwin M. Brecher Award for Excellence in Media in 2013.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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