Phillip Smith

From psychedelics to asset forfeiture reforms: Here are the top 10 drug policy stories of 2020

A pandemic, civil unrest, national elections—2020 has been a year of tumult that couldn't be done with soon enough. But when it comes to drug policy, it wasn't all bad; in fact, it was a pretty good year, with several drug reform initiatives getting approved. Here's a roundup of the biggest drug policy stories of 2020.

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

1. How the Pandemic Is Affecting Drug Use and Drug Policy

Just as it has infiltrated every aspect of American life, the effect of the coronavirus pandemic has been felt in the world of drugs and drug policy. Social distancing requirements early in the pandemic—when many drug reform initiative campaigns were in the midst of signature-gathering drives—proved particularly lethal to marijuana legalization efforts in the heartland as initiative campaigns in Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Oklahoma all succumbed. It also helped end a Washington state drug decriminalization campaign, with organizers there opting instead to go the legislative route.

Amidst the layoffs, shutdowns, and social distancing imposed due to the pandemic, drug use jumped. In July, the specialty laboratory Millennium Health reported that its analysis of more than half a million urine drug test results found large increases in the use of four illicit drugs during the coronavirus pandemic. Since March, when the pandemic was declared "a national emergency," the lab found a 32 percent increase for non-prescribed fentanyl, a 20 percent increase for methamphetamine, a 10 percent increase for cocaine, and a 12.5 percent increase for heroin. In September, another study by Millennium Health and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services "found that drug test positivity rates for cocaine, fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine have increased nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic." The study was based "on urine drug test results from 150,000 patients between Nov. 14 and July 10," said a Times of San Diego article. The pandemic almost certainly also has had an impact on fatal drug overdoses (see below).

One of the most striking impacts of the pandemic has been on policing. Early on, big cities began to forgo drug arrests and prosecutions as a discretionary luxury they could no longer afford as they struggled with the coronavirus. In Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago, police or prosecutors announced they would not arrest or would not prosecute small-time drug possession cases. In March, prosecutors from more than 30 cities, including Baltimore, New York, San Francisco, and St. Louis, signed on to an open letter urging local governments to make a change in the face of COVID-19. They called for police to "[a]dopt cite and release policies for offenses which pose no immediate physical threat to the community, including simple possession of controlled substances." They also called for the release of people being held solely because they can't come up with cash bail and for reducing jail and prison populations "to promote the health and safety of staff, those incarcerated, and visitors." These were not intended as permanent moves, but perhaps politicians, police and prosecutors will take the opportunity to break their addiction to punishing drug users and sellers by going cold turkey amidst the pandemic.

Advocates for marijuana legalization folded the pandemic into their arguments for ending federal marijuana prohibition. More than 30 state attorneys general cited the pandemic in calling for Congress to pass the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which would allow state-legal marijuana businesses to gain access to banking and financial services. The House Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act coronavirus relief bill, passed in May, included a handful of criminal justice and drug policy reforms, mostly aimed at reducing the prison population during the pandemic, but also included language in support of allowing marijuana businesses to have access to the banking system.

COVID-19 was also cited as making it even more imperative to pass the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act (H.R. 3884). Over the summer, as the pandemic simmered, a coalition of justice and drug reform groups, collectively known as Marijuana Justice Coalition, called on Congress to pass the bill, arguing that legalization was especially urgent in the context of the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests over police brutality. Given the current situation, "marijuana reform as a modest first step at chipping away at the war on drugs is more relevant and more pressing than ever before," the coalition wrote in a letter to Congress, according to Marijuana Moment. That was followed by an even broader assemblage of 125 religious, human rights, and drug reform groups calling for passage of the bill. "[T]he circumstances of 2020 have made the failed War on Drugs even more untenable and amplified the voices of those demanding transformation in our criminal legal system. In the face of the evolving COVID-19 pandemic and a growing national dialogue on unjust law enforcement practices, marijuana reform as a modest first step at chipping away at the War on Drugs is more relevant and more pressing than ever before. The MORE Act remains the most effective and equitable way forward," the groups said. The MORE Act passed in December.

2. The Uprising Against Police Violence and Racism Leads Efforts to End Unjust No-Knock Warrants

It all started with the release of a video of George Floyd dying under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer over an alleged minuscule offense in May, but as people took to the streets all over the country, the name Breonna Taylor also loomed large. The 26-year-old Black EMT was gunned down by Louisville police in a misbegotten "no-knock" drug raid (it might be more accurate to call them "home invasion raids") in March, and her killing not only powered months of street demonstrations in her hometown, but it also engendered howls of outrage and promises of reform from politicians around the land. And it brought heightened scrutiny to business as usual in the war on drugs.

As the streets overflowed with protesters in May, nearly four dozen members of Congress called for an independent investigation of the raid, calling Taylor's death "an unspeakable tragedy that requires immediate answers and accountability," according to a letter sent by the members of Congress. That was followed by a bevy of bills in Congress, including the Justice in Policing Act, which would ban no-knock warrants in federal drug cases. House Democrats pushed the bill through in three weeks in June. Republicans in the Senate responded with Senator Tim Scott's Justice Act, which wouldn't ban no-knock raids, but would increase federal reporting requirements for no-knock raids and use of force. But the GOP bill never moved in Senator Mitch McConnell's Senate. As with so many measures passed by the House, McConnell's domain was where a congressional response to the crisis went to die.

But some states and localities actually enacted laws or ordinances aimed at reining in no-knocks. The Louisville metro council banned no-knock search warrants by unanimously passing "Breonna's Law" in June. Other cities, including Indianapolis, Memphis, Minneapolis, San Antonio, and Santa Fe, moved to either restrict or ban no-knocks. And while several states saw efforts to join Oregon and Florida as the only two states that banned no-knock warrants before Taylor's death, the only state where recent efforts have come to fruition so far is in Virginia, where Governor Ralph Northam (D) signed into law House Bill 5099, which bars police from breaking into a home or business to conduct a raid without first announcing their presence.

3. In a Historic Move, the House Votes to End Federal Marijuana Prohibition

Breaking almost entirely along party lines, the House voted to approve the MORE Act on December 4. The MORE Act would effectively end federal pot prohibition by removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act's list of scheduled substances and eliminating federal criminal penalties for its possession, cultivation and sale. The bill would not affect state laws that criminalize marijuana, but it would end the conflict between states that have already legalized marijuana and federal law.

The bill also includes strong social equity provisions, including the creation of a fund to support programs and services for communities devastated by the war on drugs, a provision for expungement of past federal marijuana offenses, and a provision that bars the federal government from discriminating against people for marijuana use. The latter would protect immigrants from being deported for past marijuana convictions and would ensure that earned benefits are not denied to marijuana users. The historic vote marks the first time either chamber of Congress has voted for legalization. But there was virtually no chance that the Republican-led Senate would have taken up—let alone approved—the measure in the remaining days of the last session, meaning this is a battle that will continue in the next Congress.

4. Psychedelic Drug Law Reform Wins

Denver made history in May 2019 by becoming the first city in the United States to effectively decriminalize a psychedelic drug—psilocybin-bearing magic mushrooms—and as a psychedelic reform movement spread across the land, 2020 saw other important advances. As the year went on, three more cities—Ann Arbor, Oakland, and Santa Cruz—passed similar ordinances, and on Election Day, voters in Oregon approved the groundbreaking Measure 109, the Oregon Psilocybin Services Act, with 56 percent of the vote. It will create a program to allow the administration of psilocybin products, such as magic mushrooms, to adults 21 and over, for therapeutic purposes. People will be allowed to buy, possess, and consume psilocybin at a psilocybin services center, but only after undergoing a preparation session and under the supervision of a psilocybin service facilitator.

And on the East Coast, Washington, D.C., voters approved Initiative 81, the Entheogenic Plant and Fungi Policy Act of 2020, with 76 percent of the vote. The measure will have police treat natural plant medicines (entheogens) as their lowest law enforcement priority. The measure also asks the city's top prosecutor and its U.S. attorney not to prosecute such cases. This string of psychedelic reform victories has generated momentum that is likely to result in more pushes in more places in 2021 and beyond. Since Election Day, activists in San Francisco and Washington state have announced plans for decriminalization, New Jersey State Senator Teresa Ruiz (D) has filed a bill to downgrade the offense of magic mushroom possession, and California State Senator Scott Wiener (D) has announced he plans to file a bill that would decriminalize the possession of psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelics.

5. Oregon Decriminalizes Drugs

With the passage by voters of Measure 110, the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act, Oregon broke new ground by becoming the first state to decriminalize the possession of personal use amounts of all drugs, including cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. The quantities decriminalized are up to 1 gram of heroin, up to 1 gram or five pills of MDMA, up to 2 grams of methamphetamine, up to 40 units of LSD, up to 12 grams of psilocybin, up to 40 units of methadone, up to 40 pills of oxycodone, and up to 2 grams of cocaine. That's thousands of drug arrests that now will not occur in Oregon—and Oregon can set an example for other states to follow.

6. Red State or Blue State, Voters Choose Legal Marijuana When Given the Chance

The November election saw marijuana legalization on the ballot in four states and medical marijuana on the ballot in two states. They all won. Evenly-divided Arizona saw Proposition 207: The Smart and Safe Arizona Act cruising to victory with 60 percent of the vote, while in blue New Jersey, Public Question 1 garnered a resounding 67 percent of the vote. But the really surprising results were in two red states: In Montana, Constitutional Initiative 118 and its companion Initiative 190 won with 58 percent and 57 percent of the vote, respectively, while in South Dakota, Constitutional Amendment A won with 54 percent of the vote. Both those states are red states, with Trump taking 57 percent of the vote in Montana and 62 percent in South Dakota. It was the same story with medical marijuana, as Mississippi approved Initiative 65 with 74 percent of the vote, while South Dakota's Measure 26 won with 70 percent of the vote. Marijuana for adult use is now legal in 15 states and medical marijuana is now legal in 35 (plus D.C.).

7. Progressive Prosecutors Win

The November 3 elections didn't just end the reign of Donald Trump and bring drug reform victories at the state level; they also ushered in a new crop of progressive prosecutors who will have the ability to affect the conduct of the war on drugs at the local level. Led by George Gascón, who was elected prosecutor of the nation's most populous county, Los Angeles County, and running on progressive platforms that included confronting police misconduct, ramping down the war on drugs, and shrinking prison populations, progressives won prosecutor races in Detroit (Oakland County), Orlando (Orange and Osceola counties), and two large Colorado districts long held by Republicans. Progressives didn't win everywhere they ran, but the shift from "law and order" district attorneys toward progressives that began with Kim Foxx in Chicago and Larry Krasner in Philadelphia really gathered momentum in 2020.

8. A Tough Year for Safe Injection Sites

Safe injection sites (also called supervised injection facilities or supervised consumption services) are a proven harm reduction intervention with 120 in operation in 10 countries around the world, but no legal ones are operating in the United States. It looked like that would change in 2020, but it didn't. A proposed site in Philadelphia got the final go-ahead from a federal judge in February, but the local U.S. attorney then tried to block the facility's opening, with a hearing on the earlier stay held in October and the decision from the bench still pending. Things were also looking good in San Francisco after the board of supervisors okayed a pilot program in June, but the state-level bill that would have allowed the city to proceed, Assembly Bill 362, died in the Senate after passing the Assembly. A similar fate befell a Massachusetts safe injection site bill, House Bill 4723, which managed to win a committee vote but then stalled. Maybe there will be gains for this harm reduction method in 2021.

9. Asset Forfeiture Reforms

Asset forfeiture, especially civil asset forfeiture (without a criminal conviction), is increasingly unpopular, with 35 states and the District of Columbia approving reforms between 2014 and 2019. A September poll by YouGov found that only 26 percent support allowing police to seize cash or property from someone without a criminal conviction. According to a Forbes article, "59 percent of Americans oppose 'allowing law enforcement agencies to use forfeited property or its proceeds for their own use.' … Opposition to equitable sharing [a federal program that allows state and local police to evade state laws against civil asset forfeiture] was even higher, with 70 percent against the program."

Here are some reasons why: In March, in Georgia, the department of revenue got caught spending millions of dollars in seized cash on "engraved firearms, pricey gym equipment, clothing, personal items, even $130 sunglasses." That same month, in Michigan, Macomb County prosecutor Eric Smith was hit with a slew of criminal charges for allegedly taking funds seized from drug and other suspects for his own personal use, including "a personal security system for his house, country club parties, campaign expenses and to buy flowers and make-up for his secretaries." In July, in Chicago, the city agreed to a $5 million payout to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by two people whose vehicle was seized after a passenger was arrested for marijuana possession. The settlement will apply to hundreds of other cases where drivers had their vehicles impounded as part of drug cases. Also in Michigan, the Wayne County Sheriff's office faces a similar lawsuit for seizing thousands of cars and other property belonging to residents without criminal convictions.

Such abuses helped New Jersey become the 16th asset forfeiture reform state when Governor Phil Murphy (D) signed into law a bill mandating comprehensive disclosure and transparency requirements for the system of civil asset forfeiture in January. Unfortunately, the few remaining non-reform states are tough nuts to crack, as we saw with reform bills killed in Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. But, at least Tyson Timbs, the Indiana man whose seized Land Rover resulted in a 2019 Supreme Court decision scaling back civil asset forfeiture, finally got his Land Rover back—six years after it was seized over a drug bust.

10. America Keeps ODing

Amidst all the death in the pandemic, the ongoing epidemic of drug overdose deaths got short shrift in 2020, but Americans are continuing to die by the tens of thousands. In July, the CDC reported preliminary data showing that after declining for the first time in decades in 2018, fatal ODs rose by 4.6 percent in 2019. There's a lag in data for 2020, but initial reports suggested bad news ahead. As mentioned earlier, specialty laboratory Millennium Health reported in its July analysis of more than half a million urine drug tests that they found large increases in the use of fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine during the pandemic. Also in July, the Washington Post reported that fatal ODs have jumped and keep jumping during the pandemic. The Post's data showed overdose deaths up "18 percent in March, 29 percent in April and 42 percent in May." The Post pointed to "continued isolation, economic devastation and disruptions to the drug trade" as contributing factors. And in December, fears of rising overdose deaths got some confirmation, with the CDC reporting that in the 12-month period ending in May 2020, overdose deaths hit an all-time high of 81,000.

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.

Here are 10 ways the world of drug policy changed in the year of the pandemic

A pandemic, civil unrest, national elections—2020 has been a year of tumult that couldn't be done with soon enough. But when it comes to drug policy, it wasn't all bad; in fact, it was a pretty good year, with several drug reform initiatives getting approved. Here's a roundup of the biggest drug policy stories of 2020.

1. How the Pandemic Is Affecting Drug Use and Drug Policy

Just as it has infiltrated every aspect of American life, the effect of the coronavirus pandemic has been felt in the world of drugs and drug policy. Social distancing requirements early in the pandemic—when many drug reform initiative campaigns were in the midst of signature-gathering drives—proved particularly lethal to marijuana legalization efforts in the heartland as initiative campaigns in Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Oklahoma all succumbed. It also helped end a Washington state drug decriminalization campaign, with organizers there opting instead to go the legislative route.

Amidst the layoffs, shutdowns, and social distancing imposed due to the pandemic, drug use jumped. In July, the specialty laboratory Millennium Health reported that its analysis of more than half a million urine drug test results found large increases in the use of four illicit drugs during the coronavirus pandemic. Since March, when the pandemic was declared "a national emergency," the lab found a 32 percent increase for non-prescribed fentanyl, a 20 percent increase for methamphetamine, a 10 percent increase for cocaine, and a 12.5 percent increase for heroin. In September, another study by Millennium Health and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services "found that drug test positivity rates for cocaine, fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine have increased nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic." The study was based "on urine drug test results from 150,000 patients between Nov. 14 and July 10," said a Times of San Diego article. The pandemic almost certainly also has had an impact on fatal drug overdoses (see below).

One of the most striking impacts of the pandemic has been on policing. Early on, big cities began to forgo drug arrests and prosecutions as a discretionary luxury they could no longer afford as they struggled with the coronavirus. In Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago, police or prosecutors announced they would not arrest or would not prosecute small-time drug possession cases. In March, prosecutors from more than 30 cities, including Baltimore, New York, San Francisco, and St. Louis, signed on to an open letter urging local governments to make a change in the face of COVID-19. They called for police to "[a]dopt cite and release policies for offenses which pose no immediate physical threat to the community, including simple possession of controlled substances." They also called for the release of people being held solely because they can't come up with cash bail and for reducing jail and prison populations "to promote the health and safety of staff, those incarcerated, and visitors." These were not intended as permanent moves, but perhaps politicians, police and prosecutors will take the opportunity to break their addiction to punishing drug users and sellers by going cold turkey amidst the pandemic.

Advocates for marijuana legalization folded the pandemic into their arguments for ending federal marijuana prohibition. More than 30 state attorneys general cited the pandemic in calling for Congress to pass the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which would allow state-legal marijuana businesses to gain access to banking and financial services. The House Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act coronavirus relief bill, passed in May, included a handful of criminal justice and drug policy reforms, mostly aimed at reducing the prison population during the pandemic, but also included language in support of allowing marijuana businesses to have access to the banking system.

COVID-19 was also cited as making it even more imperative to pass the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act (H.R. 3884). Over the summer, as the pandemic simmered, a coalition of justice and drug reform groups, collectively known as Marijuana Justice Coalition, called on Congress to pass the bill, arguing that legalization was especially urgent in the context of the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests over police brutality. Given the current situation, "marijuana reform as a modest first step at chipping away at the war on drugs is more relevant and more pressing than ever before," the coalition wrote in a letter to Congress, according to Marijuana Moment. That was followed by an even broader assemblage of 125 religious, human rights, and drug reform groups calling for passage of the bill. "[T]he circumstances of 2020 have made the failed War on Drugs even more untenable and amplified the voices of those demanding transformation in our criminal legal system. In the face of the evolving COVID-19 pandemic and a growing national dialogue on unjust law enforcement practices, marijuana reform as a modest first step at chipping away at the War on Drugs is more relevant and more pressing than ever before. The MORE Act remains the most effective and equitable way forward," the groups said. The MORE Act passed in December.

2. The Uprising Against Police Violence and Racism Leads Efforts to End Unjust No-Knock Warrants

It all started with the release of a video of George Floyd dying under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer over an alleged minuscule offense in May, but as people took to the streets all over the country, the name Breonna Taylor also loomed large. The 26-year-old Black EMT was gunned down by Louisville police in a misbegotten "no-knock" drug raid (it might be more accurate to call them "home invasion raids") in March, and her killing not only powered months of street demonstrations in her hometown, but it also engendered howls of outrage and promises of reform from politicians around the land. And it brought heightened scrutiny to business as usual in the war on drugs.

As the streets overflowed with protesters in May, nearly four dozen members of Congress called for an independent investigation of the raid, calling Taylor's death "an unspeakable tragedy that requires immediate answers and accountability," according to a letter sent by the members of Congress. That was followed by a bevy of bills in Congress, including the Justice in Policing Act, which would ban no-knock warrants in federal drug cases. House Democrats pushed the bill through in three weeks in June. Republicans in the Senate responded with Senator Tim Scott's Justice Act, which wouldn't ban no-knock raids, but would increase federal reporting requirements for no-knock raids and use of force. But the GOP bill never moved in Senator Mitch McConnell's Senate. As with so many measures passed by the House, McConnell's domain was where a congressional response to the crisis went to die.

But some states and localities actually enacted laws or ordinances aimed at reining in no-knocks. The Louisville metro council banned no-knock search warrants by unanimously passing "Breonna's Law" in June. Other cities, including Indianapolis, Memphis, Minneapolis, San Antonio, and Santa Fe, moved to either restrict or ban no-knocks. And while several states saw efforts to join Oregon and Florida as the only two states that banned no-knock warrants before Taylor's death, the only state where recent efforts have come to fruition so far is in Virginia, where Governor Ralph Northam (D) signed into law House Bill 5099, which bars police from breaking into a home or business to conduct a raid without first announcing their presence.

3. In a Historic Move, the House Votes to End Federal Marijuana Prohibition

Breaking almost entirely along party lines, the House voted to approve the MORE Act on December 4. The MORE Act would effectively end federal pot prohibition by removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act's list of scheduled substances and eliminating federal criminal penalties for its possession, cultivation and sale. The bill would not affect state laws that criminalize marijuana, but it would end the conflict between states that have already legalized marijuana and federal law.

The bill also includes strong social equity provisions, including the creation of a fund to support programs and services for communities devastated by the war on drugs, a provision for expungement of past federal marijuana offenses, and a provision that bars the federal government from discriminating against people for marijuana use. The latter would protect immigrants from being deported for past marijuana convictions and would ensure that earned benefits are not denied to marijuana users. The historic vote marks the first time either chamber of Congress has voted for legalization. But there was virtually no chance that the Republican-led Senate would have taken up—let alone approved—the measure in the remaining days of the last session, meaning this is a battle that will continue in the next Congress.

4. Psychedelic Drug Law Reform Wins

Denver made history in May 2019 by becoming the first city in the United States to effectively decriminalize a psychedelic drug—psilocybin-bearing magic mushrooms—and as a psychedelic reform movement spread across the land, 2020 saw other important advances. As the year went on, three more cities—Ann Arbor, Oakland, and Santa Cruz—passed similar ordinances, and on Election Day, voters in Oregon approved the groundbreaking Measure 109, the Oregon Psilocybin Services Act, with 56 percent of the vote. It will create a program to allow the administration of psilocybin products, such as magic mushrooms, to adults 21 and over, for therapeutic purposes. People will be allowed to buy, possess, and consume psilocybin at a psilocybin services center, but only after undergoing a preparation session and under the supervision of a psilocybin service facilitator.

And on the East Coast, Washington, D.C., voters approved Initiative 81, the Entheogenic Plant and Fungi Policy Act of 2020, with 76 percent of the vote. The measure will have police treat natural plant medicines (entheogens) as their lowest law enforcement priority. The measure also asks the city's top prosecutor and its U.S. attorney not to prosecute such cases. This string of psychedelic reform victories has generated momentum that is likely to result in more pushes in more places in 2021 and beyond. Since Election Day, activists in San Francisco and Washington state have announced plans for decriminalization, New Jersey State Senator Teresa Ruiz (D) has filed a bill to downgrade the offense of magic mushroom possession, and California State Senator Scott Wiener (D) has announced he plans to file a bill that would decriminalize the possession of psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelics.

5. Oregon Decriminalizes Drugs

With the passage by voters of Measure 110, the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act, Oregon broke new ground by becoming the first state to decriminalize the possession of personal use amounts of all drugs, including cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. The quantities decriminalized are up to 1 gram of heroin, up to 1 gram or five pills of MDMA, up to 2 grams of methamphetamine, up to 40 units of LSD, up to 12 grams of psilocybin, up to 40 units of methadone, up to 40 pills of oxycodone, and up to 2 grams of cocaine. That's thousands of drug arrests that now will not occur in Oregon—and Oregon can set an example for other states to follow.

6. Red State or Blue State, Voters Choose Legal Marijuana When Given the Chance

The November election saw marijuana legalization on the ballot in four states and medical marijuana on the ballot in two states. They all won. Evenly-divided Arizona saw Proposition 207: The Smart and Safe Arizona Act cruising to victory with 60 percent of the vote, while in blue New Jersey, Public Question 1 garnered a resounding 67 percent of the vote. But the really surprising results were in two red states: In Montana, Constitutional Initiative 118 and its companion Initiative 190 won with 58 percent and 57 percent of the vote, respectively, while in South Dakota, Constitutional Amendment A won with 54 percent of the vote. Both those states are red states, with Trump taking 57 percent of the vote in Montana and 62 percent in South Dakota. It was the same story with medical marijuana, as Mississippi approved Initiative 65 with 74 percent of the vote, while South Dakota's Measure 26 won with 70 percent of the vote. Marijuana for adult use is now legal in 15 states and medical marijuana is now legal in 35 (plus D.C.).

7. Progressive Prosecutors Win

The November 3 elections didn't just end the reign of Donald Trump and bring drug reform victories at the state level; they also ushered in a new crop of progressive prosecutors who will have the ability to affect the conduct of the war on drugs at the local level. Led by George Gascón, who was elected prosecutor of the nation's most populous county, Los Angeles County, and running on progressive platforms that included confronting police misconduct, ramping down the war on drugs, and shrinking prison populations, progressives won prosecutor races in Detroit (Oakland County), Orlando (Orange and Osceola counties), and two large Colorado districts long held by Republicans. Progressives didn't win everywhere they ran, but the shift from "law and order" district attorneys toward progressives that began with Kim Foxx in Chicago and Larry Krasner in Philadelphia really gathered momentum in 2020.

8. A Tough Year for Safe Injection Sites

Safe injection sites (also called supervised injection facilities or supervised consumption services) are a proven harm reduction intervention with 120 in operation in 10 countries around the world, but no legal ones are operating in the United States. It looked like that would change in 2020, but it didn't. A proposed site in Philadelphia got the final go-ahead from a federal judge in February, but the local U.S. attorney then tried to block the facility's opening, with a hearing on the earlier stay held in October and the decision from the bench still pending. Things were also looking good in San Francisco after the board of supervisors okayed a pilot program in June, but the state-level bill that would have allowed the city to proceed, Assembly Bill 362, died in the Senate after passing the Assembly. A similar fate befell a Massachusetts safe injection site bill, House Bill 4723, which managed to win a committee vote but then stalled. Maybe there will be gains for this harm reduction method in 2021.

9. Asset Forfeiture Reforms

Asset forfeiture, especially civil asset forfeiture (without a criminal conviction), is increasingly unpopular, with 35 states and the District of Columbia approving reforms between 2014 and 2019. A September poll by YouGov found that only 26 percent support allowing police to seize cash or property from someone without a criminal conviction. According to a Forbes article, "59 percent of Americans oppose 'allowing law enforcement agencies to use forfeited property or its proceeds for their own use.' … Opposition to equitable sharing [a federal program that allows state and local police to evade state laws against civil asset forfeiture] was even higher, with 70 percent against the program."

Here are some reasons why: In March, in Georgia, the department of revenue got caught spending millions of dollars in seized cash on "engraved firearms, pricey gym equipment, clothing, personal items, even $130 sunglasses." That same month, in Michigan, Macomb County prosecutor Eric Smith was hit with a slew of criminal charges for allegedly taking funds seized from drug and other suspects for his own personal use, including "a personal security system for his house, country club parties, campaign expenses and to buy flowers and make-up for his secretaries." In July, in Chicago, the city agreed to a $5 million payout to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by two people whose vehicle was seized after a passenger was arrested for marijuana possession. The settlement will apply to hundreds of other cases where drivers had their vehicles impounded as part of drug cases. Also in Michigan, the Wayne County Sheriff's office faces a similar lawsuit for seizing thousands of cars and other property belonging to residents without criminal convictions.

Such abuses helped New Jersey become the 16th asset forfeiture reform state when Governor Phil Murphy (D) signed into law a bill mandating comprehensive disclosure and transparency requirements for the system of civil asset forfeiture in January. Unfortunately, the few remaining non-reform states are tough nuts to crack, as we saw with reform bills killed in Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. But, at least Tyson Timbs, the Indiana man whose seized Land Rover resulted in a 2019 Supreme Court decision scaling back civil asset forfeiture, finally got his Land Rover back—six years after it was seized over a drug bust.

10. America Keeps ODing

Amidst all the death in the pandemic, the ongoing epidemic of drug overdose deaths got short shrift in 2020, but Americans are continuing to die by the tens of thousands. In July, the CDC reported preliminary data showing that after declining for the first time in decades in 2018, fatal ODs rose by 4.6 percent in 2019. There's a lag in data for 2020, but initial reports suggested bad news ahead. As mentioned earlier, specialty laboratory Millennium Health reported in its July analysis of more than half a million urine drug tests that they found large increases in the use of fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine during the pandemic. Also in July, the Washington Post reported that fatal ODs have jumped and keep jumping during the pandemic. The Post's data showed overdose deaths up "18 percent in March, 29 percent in April and 42 percent in May." The Post pointed to "continued isolation, economic devastation and disruptions to the drug trade" as contributing factors. And in December, fears of rising overdose deaths got some confirmation, with the CDC reporting that in the 12-month period ending in May 2020, overdose deaths hit an all-time high of 81,000.

House votes to end federal marijuana prohibition

Breaking almost entirely along party lines, the House on December 4 voted to approve the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act of 2019 (H.R. 3884). The vote was 228 to 164, with only a handful of Republicans voting "aye" and a handful of Democrats voting "nay."

The MORE Act would effectively end federal pot prohibition by removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act's list of scheduled substances and eliminating federal criminal penalties for the possession, cultivation, and sale of marijuana. The bill would not affect state laws that criminalize marijuana, but it would end the conflict between states that have already legalized marijuana and federal law.

The bill also includes strong social equity provisions, including the creation of a fund to support programs and services for communities devastated by the war on drugs, a provision for expungement of past federal marijuana offenses, and a provision that bars the federal government from discriminating against people for marijuana use, which would protect immigrants from being deported for past marijuana convictions and would ensure that earned benefits are not denied to marijuana users.

The historic vote marks the first time either chamber of Congress has voted to end marijuana prohibition. But there is virtually no chance that the Republican-led Senate will take up—let alone approve—the measure in the remaining days of this session, meaning this is a battle that will continue in the next Congress.

Still, marijuana law reform advocates were quick to celebrate the victory.

"Today's [December 4] vote marks a historic victory for the marijuana policy reform movement. It indicates that federal lawmakers are finally listening to the overwhelming majority of Americans who are in favor of ending prohibition and comes at a critical time as this important measure addresses two key challenges we currently face," Marijuana Policy Project executive director Steven Hawkins said in a statement, moments after the voting ended.

"Serious criminal justice reform cannot begin in our country without ending the war on cannabis," Hawkins continued. "The MORE Act would set federal marijuana policy on a path toward correcting an unfair system and help restore justice to those who have been victimized by prohibition. This legislation would also help address our country's fiscal and economic challenges by empowering states to implement programs that can stimulate economic growth and generate new tax revenue at a time when both are desperately needed. We call on the Senate to listen to the American people and pass the MORE Act without delay."

"This is HUGE!" said a blog post by Erik Altieri, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), while speaking about the vote on December 4. "This is an historic day for marijuana policy in the United States. This vote marks the first time in 50 years that a chamber of Congress has ever revisited the classification of cannabis as a federally controlled and prohibited substance, and it marks the first time in 24 years—when California became the first state [to] defy the federal government on the issue of marijuana prohibition—that Congress has sought to close the widening chasm between state and federal marijuana policies."

"The criminalization of marijuana is a cornerstone of the racist war on drugs. Even after a decade of reform victories, one person was arrested nearly every minute last year for simply possessing marijuana," said Maritza Perez, director of the office of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), in a press release issued by the group. "Today the House took the most powerful step forward to address that shameful legacy. But the MORE Act as passed is imperfect, and we will continue to demand more until our communities have the world they deserve."

DPA is particularly irked by the insertion of language during the legislative process that limits expungement and resentencing provisions for people with nonviolent marijuana offenses and language that blocks people with marijuana felony convictions from "fully participating in the industry at the federal level." The group said in its press release that it would work with Congress next session "to remove these additions and pass a bill that fully aligns with our principles."

"Getting to this point definitely gives us hope, but the fight is far from over. We will continue to build support for an even stronger, and more inclusive bill in the next session," Queen Adesuyi, policy manager for DPA's office of national affairs, said in the press release. "We are grateful that members of Congress have rightly come to the realization that the drug war has exacerbated the racial injustices in this country and ending marijuana prohibition is a concrete tangible action they can take to benefit our communities now."

Not everyone was happy, though. America's leading anti-pot activist, Dr. Kevin Sabet, president and co-founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), lashed out at the vote and the House leadership in a post about the passage of the bill on SAM's website calling it a "useless show vote."

"The pot industry has won a post-season exhibition game, but they're treating it like Game 7 of the World Series," Sabet said in a statement. "The bill is a smokescreen for Altria Phillip [sic] Morris and their Big Tobacco gang of investors. As we have seen in state after state, marijuana commercialization does not lead to any tangible benefit for disadvantaged communities and social equity programs continue to be manipulated. Legalization simply results in rich, overwhelmingly white men getting richer while using predatory marketing tactics to expand substance abuse in the communities that were somehow supposed to benefit. Big Pot doesn't care about social justice or equity, its only concern is profit."

But while Sabet goes on about a "Big Pot" boogeyman, he neglects to mention who actually supports the bill: the American people. In the latest Gallup poll, released in November, 68 percent of American adults said they wanted legal marijuana. They may have to wait for the next Congress to get it done at the federal level, but the passage of the MORE Act is in line with what the public wants, even if prohibitionists don't wish to acknowledge this.

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 United Nations just held a historic vote on marijuana

In a historic vote on December 2, the 53 member states of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) voted to remove cannabis from Schedule IV of the United Nations' drug classification system during a meeting in Vienna. The CND is a United Nations body charged with supervising the application of the international drug control treaties that form the legal backbone for global drug prohibition.

According to a press release issued by the nonprofit For Alternative Approaches to Addiction (FAAAT) Think and Do Tank, "The vote followed an independent scientific assessment undertaken by some of our world's leading experts, convened by WHO in 2017-2018." The World Health Organization (WHO) is charged under the UN drug conventions with assessing the harms and benefits of substances and making scheduling recommendations. In January 2019, the WHO's Expert Committee on Drug Dependence formally recommended that cannabis be removed from Schedule IV and that CBD cannabis preparations containing less than 0.2 percent THC, such as tinctures and extracts, be removed from the schedules altogether.

Some organizations like the Transnational Institute (TNI), the Washington Office on Latin America, and the Global Drug Policy Observatory gave WHO's recommendations mixed reviews. According to a policy briefing issued by these organizations in March 2019, there is a "very questionable rationale for keeping cannabis in Schedule I." These organizations, however, also applauded WHO's "obvious recommendations deserving support." The removal of cannabis from Schedule IV, in particular, would signify the UN's recognition that cannabis really does have therapeutic uses.

As explained in an October briefing paper by the International Drug Policy Consortium and TNI, cannabis, up till now, was "included in the most restrictive sections—Schedule I and IV…" under the international drug treaties. The paper further explains that Schedule I includes "[s]ubstances that are highly addictive and liable to abuse or easily convertible into those (e.g. opium, heroin, cocaine, coca leaf)," while Schedule IV includes Schedule I drugs with "'particularly dangerous properties' and little or no therapeutic value (e.g. heroin, carfentanil)."

The vote on December 2 removing cannabis from Schedule IV means the global anti-drug bureaucracy now recognizes the therapeutic value of cannabis and no longer considers it "particularly liable to abuse and to produce ill-effects," like other substances that are included in both the schedules.

With medical marijuana legal in several countries in one form or another, the ever-increasing mountain of evidence supporting the therapeutic uses of cannabis, not to mention outright legalization in 15 American states, Canada and Uruguay—with Mexico about to come on board—this decision by the CND is long past due, but nonetheless welcome.

"With this decision, the UN closes a 60-year denial of what has been documented being among the most ancient medicinal plant[s] humankind domesticated," said independent researcher Kenzi Riboulet-Zemouli, who has monitored the CND process for years, in a press release issued by FAAAT.

It will be 60 years in March 2021 since cannabis was placed in Schedule IV of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs without ever having been subject to any scientific assessment.

"As a medical patient myself I know how necessary this change in international law is, to help reduce the suffering of millions of people and how it adds a much needed pain treatment with promise in mitigating reliance on opiates at a key moment in history," said the FAAAT press release, quoting Michael Krawitz, executive director of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access (USA), one of the global civil society groups that have been pushing for reform in the UN.

While the CND accepted the WHO's recommendation to remove cannabis from Schedule IV, it failed to advance some other recommendations, including rejecting a recommendation on medical CBD. That means CBD remains unscheduled, outside treaty controls, and is liable to national bans. The failure to adopt more progressive WHO recommendations was "disappointing and represents a lost opportunity to make the treaty best fit to purpose," the press release further stated.

But this is the United Nations, and change comes at a glacial pace and even then, only incrementally. Still, this vote is a long-overdue step in the right direction.

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 the past two decades. He is the longtime author of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the non-profit StopTheDrugWar.org, and has been the editor of AlterNet's Drug Reporter since 2015. 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.

Drug reforms won a stunning victory in the 2020 election

In the days between Election Day and the announcement of Joe Biden as the projected winner of the presidential race, even as national election results remained muddy, one thing was crystal clear: the American public is ready for drug reforms. Drug reform initiatives went nine for nine on Election Day. From voters approving marijuana legalization initiatives in two of the reddest of the red states—South Dakota and Montana—to the first voter-approved psychedelic liberalization initiatives in Oregon and Washington, D.C., and a groundbreaking drug decriminalization initiative also in Oregon, we can see the erosion of drug prohibition happening right before our eyes.

Perhaps the most striking victory of all is Oregon's Measure 110, the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act, which will decriminalize the possession of personal use amounts of all drugs and use revenues from legal marijuana sales to help fund expanded drug treatment. People caught with drugs can either pay a $100 fine or complete a health assessment. The distribution of such drugs would remain criminalized.

The notion of not arresting people just for having or using "hard" drugs is a radical one in the United States, but increasingly common in the rest of the world. At least 29 countries have embraced some form of drug decriminalization, and even the U.S. has seen marijuana possession decriminalized in a number of states as a stepping-stone toward legalization. But this has not been the case when it comes to cocaine or heroin or meth or LSD. November 3, however, marked the turning point when more than 58 percent of Oregon voters said let's try something new.

"Today's victory is a landmark declaration that the time has come to stop criminalizing people for drug use," Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement on election night. "Measure 110 is arguably the biggest blow to the war on drugs to date. It shifts the focus where it belongs—on people and public health—and removes one of the most common justifications for law enforcement to harass, arrest, prosecute, incarcerate, and deport people. As we saw with the domino effect of marijuana legalization, we expect this victory to inspire other states to enact their own drug decriminalization policies that prioritize health over punishment."

The Drug Policy Alliance and its political and lobbying arm, the Drug Policy Action Network, spearheaded the Measure 110 campaign, just as they backed Oregon's successful 2014 marijuana legalization initiative.

Marijuana legalization initiatives were swept to victory everywhere they were on the ballot—not just in Arizona and New Jersey but also in deeply conservative states like Montana and South Dakota. This means the number of states that have freed the weed jumped from 11 to 15.

"From the Badlands to the Jersey Shore, and from the Grand Canyon to Big Sky Country, Americans across the country have embraced the idea that marijuana legalization is the policy decision that best serves the interests of public health, public safety, and, most importantly, justice," Matthew Schweich, deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project and one of the leaders of the Montana and South Dakota campaigns, said in a November 4 press release.

In Arizona, the marijuana legalization initiative, Proposition 207: The Smart and Safe Arizona Act, cruised to victory on election night after receiving 60 percent of the vote. It will legalize possession and consumption of marijuana for people 21 and over and allow for home grows of up to six plants. The state will regulate a legal marijuana market with a 16 percent tax on marijuana sales.

"Arizona voters have spoken, and they are ready for marijuana legalization," Steve Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a press release on election night. "According to the latest Gallup poll, 66 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization, and this victory further reinforces that stance," Hawkins added. "We are poised for major marijuana reform federally. Regardless of who controls the White House, the House, or the Senate, Americans are ready for legal marijuana."

In Montana, Constitutional Initiative 118 and Initiative 190 won with 58 percent and 57 percent votes, respectively. I-190 is a statutory initiative that would legalize possession and use of limited amounts of marijuana for adults over the age of 21 while regulating its cultivation, transportation and sale and levying a 20 percent tax on it. CI-118 is a constitutional initiative that would allow I-190 to set the minimum age at 21, the same as the age for alcohol consumption in the state.

In New Jersey, Public Question 1 is a legislatively referred constitutional amendment that legalizes possession and use of marijuana for people 21 and over and allows for a system of regulated marijuana commerce with retail pot sales subject to the state sales tax of 6.625 percent. It leaves questions such as possession limits and whether to allow home grows up to the legislature and state regulators. It won with a resounding 67 percent of the vote.

In South Dakota, Constitutional Amendment A won 54 percent of the vote in a state where more than 60 percent voted for Donald Trump. The measure will legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by people 21 and over and allow for the home cultivation of up to three plants in jurisdictions with no licensed retail marijuana outlets. It also envisions a legal marijuana market with a sales tax of 15 percent and requires the state legislature to pass laws providing for medical marijuana and hemp by next spring.

"This historic set of victories will place even greater pressure on Congress to address the glaring and untenable conflicts between state and federal laws when it comes to cannabis legalization," said Hawkins. "With the passage of these initiatives, one-third of the population now lives in jurisdictions that have legalized cannabis for adult use, and 70 percent of all states have embraced cannabis for medical use."

Medical marijuana initiatives, meanwhile, have been approved by two deep-red states, Mississippi and South Dakota. Mississippi's Initiative 65 overcame a watered-down legislative alternative to win with 74 percent of the vote, while South Dakota's Measure 26 won with 70 percent. That brings the number of states with access to medical marijuana to 35 (plus D.C.).

And then there's the psychedelic front. On the East Coast, Washington, D.C., voters approved Initiative 81, the Entheogenic Plant and Fungus Policy Act of 2020, with 76 percent of the vote. The measure will have police treat natural plant medicines (entheogens) as their lowest law enforcement priority. The measure also asks the city's top prosecutor and its U.S. attorney not to prosecute such cases.

"Initiative 81's success was driven by grassroots support from D.C. voters. We are thrilled that D.C. residents voted to support common sense drug policy reforms that help end part of the war on drugs while ensuring that D.C. residents benefiting from plant and fungi medicines are not police targets," Decriminalize Nature D.C. chairwoman Melissa Lavasani said in a press release.

And on the West Coast, Oregon voters didn't just decriminalize drugs, they also passed Measure 109, the Psilocybin Services Act, with 56 percent of the vote. It will create a program to allow the administration of psilocybin products, such as magic mushrooms, to adults 21 and over for therapeutic purposes in supervised settings. People will be allowed to buy, possess, and consume psilocybin at a psilocybin services center, but only after undergoing a preparation session and under the supervision of a psilocybin service facilitator.

Altogether, November 3 proved to be a stellar night for drug reform at the ballot box. Marijuana legalization continues its inexorable advance across the land, and new fronts are now open for psychedelics and broader drug decriminalization. A few more bricks fell from the wall of drug prohibition on Election Day.

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 the past two decades. He is the longtime author of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the non-profit StopTheDrugWar.org, and has been the editor of AlterNet's Drug Reporter since 2015. 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 psychedelic revolution iis coming to the ballot box

The psychedelic renaissance that has been emerging in recent years will finally get a chance to be ratified by voters on November 3. On one side of the country, Oregon will be voting on an initiative to legalize the strictly regulated therapeutic use of psilocybin, while on the other side of the country, Washington, D.C., will be voting on an initiative that essentially (but not formally) decriminalizes a whole range of plant or fungi-based psychoactive substances, from ayahuasca to peyote and magic mushrooms.

These measures build on nascent efforts to get city governments to ease access to psychedelics, moves that have so far seen success in Denver, which in 2019 made possession of psilocybin mushrooms the lowest law enforcement priority, and Oakland, Santa Cruz, and Ann Arbor, which have followed this year. Most—but not all—of this activity is taking place under the rubric of Decriminalize Nature (DN), which states that its mission is "to improve human health and well-being by decriminalizing and expanding access to entheogenic plants and fungi through political and community organizing, education and advocacy."

The Oregon initiative, Measure 109, however, isn't part of this effort. Also known as the Psilocybin Services Act, it would create a program to allow the administration of psilocybin products, such as magic mushrooms, to adults 21 and over for therapeutic purposes. People would be allowed to buy, possess, and consume psilocybin at a psilocybin service center, but only after undergoing a preparation session and under the supervision of a psilocybin service facilitator.

The measure would direct the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) to develop a program and create regulations for it within two years. The OHA, while acting on the recommendations of an Oregon Psilocybin Advisory Board, would also be responsible for determining who could be licensed as a facilitator and what qualifications and training they would need, as well as creating a code of professional conduct for facilitators. And the OHA would also set dosage standards and come up with rules for labeling and packaging.

The measure also bars the establishment of psilocybin service centers inside residential areas within city or town limits and gives local governments the ability to ban them in unincorporated areas within their jurisdictions.

The initiative is the brainchild of Portland psychotherapists Tom and Sheri Eckert, who formed the Oregon Psilocybin Society in 2016 and are the co-chief petitioners for the measure. Unlike the broader psychedelic reform movement, their goal is strictly limited to therapeutic ends.

"We see psilocybin therapy as an end in itself. We see the measure as a template and we plan to help organize the new profession and spread the template in the years to come," Tom Eckert said in an email interview.

"A growing body of research suggests that 'psilocybin'—a natural compound found in many species of mushrooms—can, as part of therapy, help relieve a variety of mental health issues, including depression, existential anxiety, addictions, and the lingering effects of trauma," Eckert explained. "Psilocybin therapy demonstrates an excellent safety record and often achieves lasting results after just one or two psilocybin sessions."

While the campaign has an impressive list of endorsers, including Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), the state Democratic Party, four state senators, and a raft of state and national social justice, civil rights, and drug reform groups, it is also catching flak from some in the DN movement.

In a Facebook post, DN Portland lambasted Measure 109: "This initiative would create one more medical model which serves the privileged members in society and makes it harder for the most vulnerable people to heal. The cost and hard-to-access system being created by M109 would make it very difficult for lower income people, indigenous communities, immigrants, undocumented people, people who cannot afford an ID, and non-English speaking populations to gain entry into the closed and privileged system being created by this measure. We are concerned about the implications of an elite group of beneficiaries putting a free medicine that grows naturally out of the ground behind a paywall," Zave Forster from DN Portland said.

"The greatest danger of M109 is that it would create a special class of permit-holders who would be motivated to lobby to prevent progressive measures such as those passed in Denver, Oakland, Santa Cruz and Ann Arbor, which are designed to enable access to the most vulnerable people by enabling them to grow, gather, gift, and share their own entheogenic plants and fungi," the group further argued.

When asked how the campaign responds to critiques like that from Decriminalize Nature Portland, Eckert was terse and blunt: "We don't," he said.

(It should be noted that at the same time Oregonians are voting on the psilocybin initiative, they are also voting on Measure 110, which would decriminalize the personal possession and use of small amounts of all drugs. If Measure 110 wins, then everybody will be able to use and possess all psychedelics for whatever purpose they desire, free from the threat of criminal prosecution.)

Instead, the Measure 109 campaign is relying on a big budget, support from medical figures, and a lack of organized opposition to find a path to victory. The campaign has raised $4.5 million, with more than $3.3 million of that coming from the New Approach PAC, which supports marijuana and drug reform efforts around the country.

One of the major donors to New Approach PAC is David Bronner of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps. "We are extremely appreciative of the support extended by the whole Bronner family," Eckert said. "David is intimately involved as part of our executive committee and is a great friend. Dr. Bronner's is a towering example of a conscious company and [is a] steward of the Earth."

Will Measure 109 win in November? The only known poll on the issue, from DHM Research in January 2019, had it in a dead heat, with 47 percent in favor and 46 percent opposed to the initiative. Eckert said the campaign has done internal polling but didn't reveal any results. "What I can tell you is that it's close," he said. "Back in 2015, when we first took aim at 2020, this was basically 'mission impossible.' Now we have a real and historic opportunity and we're excited to finish the job."

Back on the East Coast, residents of the nation's capital will be voting on Initiative 81, or the Entheogenic Plant and Fungi Policy Act of 2020. That measure would have police treat the non-commercial cultivation, distribution, possession, and use of natural plant medicines (entheogens) as their lowest law enforcement priority. The measure also asks the city's top prosecutor and its U.S. attorney to not prosecute such cases.

It looks likely to win. The measure has been endorsed by the D.C. Democratic Party, and according to a September FM3 Research poll, after reading the ballot language, 60 percent of likely voters supported it. That figure jumped to 64 percent when respondents were given a plain-language explanation of the measure.

The initiative is also well-financed, with the New Approach PAC kicking in more than half a million dollars. There are no registered opposition campaign committees.

For Initiative 81's chief petitioner and Decriminalize Nature D.C. spokesperson Melissa Lavasani, the measure is an outgrowth of her own personal story.

"How I got here was that I healed myself from postpartum depression with psychedelics," she said. "I had no mental health issues like that before, nor did I have any experience with psychedelics. I had an image of psychedelics shaped by propaganda. But then I listened to [podcast host] Joe Rogan when he had [mushroom maestro] Paul Stamets on. My husband grew up in the South and he said it was common to pick mushrooms and eat them, and he said the podcast made a lot of sense. So we decided to give it a try," she related.

"I was insistent on not taking pharmaceutical antidepressants because I saw one friend take his life [after he overdosed] on them and saw others have their personalities changed. I was a career woman and [was] growing my family. I had a lot to lose, but I tried microdosing, and within a few days I was shocked at how quickly it worked. I was interacting differently with people and the change was so profound," Lavasani continued.

"At the same time, I was watching the Denver magic mushroom campaign—and Oakland and Santa Cruz quickly followed—and got inspired. My husband worked for a city council member, and D.C. was at the forefront of marijuana reform, so why not be a leader on psychedelic reform?

"I never thought I would be doing this, but this issue is extremely important. How many people in my demographic are on medications? When you [look] into the research, you see these therapies are extremely effective, so I asked why aren't we acting on this. Our health care system doesn't address these serious mental health issues."

Lavasani acknowledged that passage of the measure would chip only a few flakes from the façade of drug prohibition, but said you have to start somewhere.

"Our measure is a very small step, it's just asking for the Metro police to make it the lowest law enforcement priority so that someone cultivating psilocybin or other substances at home is provided a layer of protection knowing [that] the police won't come after them. I lived in fear and secrecy because I was in possession of a controlled substance. I don't want others to have to do that," she said.

"We are limited in the District because of congressional oversight," Lavasani explained. "We've been talking to allies in Congress while campaigning, and if we win, and the Democrats take the majority in the Senate, we can get restrictive riders removed, and then we can take it further.

"This campaign is a good start, but there's a lot more work to do," she said. "We're okay with it being the first step. When we start talking about psychedelics, the first thing the Black community thinks of is PCP [Phencyclidine]. We have to undo a lot of that, so we're out in the community talking to people about plant medicines and talking about what kind of infrastructure we need to stay safe."

The measure's endorsement by the D.C. Democratic Party showed how attitudes are changing, and quickly, Lavasani said.

"This was a safe yes for the D.C. Democrats," she noted. "They learned a lesson from cannabis reform—when it happened it happened very quickly. Police reform is on the top of everyone's list right now, and this is the only thing on the ballot that touches on that. The majority of the party understood that the small step we're taking is a positive step toward ending the war on drugs. It's a no-brainer—we all know why it exists and it's time for us to make a change."

For David Bronner, both the Oregon and the D.C. initiatives are part of a broader push for psychedelic liberation—and not just natural plant psychedelics.

"In my book, it's strategic because LSD has the most baggage and is the end game, but it's my favorite psychedelic," said Bronner. "Plant medicines that you can grow naturally resonate with voters, and key stakeholders in the DN movement definitely favor natural plant medicines versus synthetic psychedelics. I'm a fan of all of them and have experienced the incredible healing and spiritual power of both. It's important to note that the incredible clinical research with synthetic psilocybin at Johns Hopkins [Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research] for end of life, anxiety, depression, and addiction [lends support to] the DN movement," he added.

And this year's psychedelic initiatives are just the beginning, Bronner said.

"Our hope in future election cycles is to combine broad-based treatment not jail and decriminalization (Measure 110 in Oregon) with the Decriminalize Nature ethos where the cutoffs for plant medicines are much higher or eliminated, and that also has a therapeutic psychedelic program like Measure 109 in Oregon, basically combining all three approaches into single statewide ballot measures in Washington and maybe Colorado in 2022," Bronner added.

But first, the movement needs to rack up a couple of victories this November 3.

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 the past two decades. He is the longtime author of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the non-profit StopTheDrugWar.org, and has been the editor of AlterNet's Drug Reporter since 2015. 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.

Legal marijuana is on the ballot in Big Sky Country

Come November 3, Big Sky Country could be among the latest places to free the weed. As is the case in Arizona, New Jersey, and South Dakota, marijuana legalization is on the ballot in Montana in 2020.

In Montana, though, people will be voting on not one but two complementary initiatives. While I-190 would legalize marijuana, CI-118 would amend the state constitution to allow for the age of majority—set at 18—to be raised for purchasing, consuming, or possessing marijuana as it is for alcohol.

I-190 would legalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by adults 21 and over and allow for the home cultivation of up to four plants and four seedlings. It would also designate the state department of revenue to regulate marijuana commerce, from cultivation to retail sales. The initiative sets a retail tax of 20 percent on marijuana and marijuana-infused products for non-medical use.

And that's become a selling point for legalization: It can help fund state spending with the budget stressed by the coronavirus pandemic. A September report from the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research found that tax revenues from legal marijuana sales would generate between $43 million and $52 million a year in the first four years after legalization.

"Following in the footsteps of eleven other states, Montana voters have the opportunity to legalize recreational marijuana for people over the age of 21 by passing both CI-118 and I-190," said an op-ed by the Public Lands Coalition, which wants to see revenues from marijuana support projects like Habitat Montana, which works to "increase access to landlocked public lands." The op-ed continued: "The Montana effort to legalize marijuana differs from other states, though. Roughly 50 percent of the revenue generated from recreational marijuana sales would support state public lands by funding efforts like Habitat Montana. These funds are critical in order to maintain abundant wildlife populations and ensure our outdoor economy continues to thrive."

"Our research has always shown that a majority of Montanans support legalization, and now voters will have the opportunity to enact that policy, which will create jobs and generate new revenue for our state," said Pepper Petersen, a spokesperson for New Approach Montana, which is organizing the campaign for the initiatives. "It also means that law enforcement will stop wasting time and resources arresting adults for personal marijuana possession, and instead focus on real crime."

There is no recent polling to back up Petersen's claims, but a pair of older polls suggest he could be onto something. A February University of Montana Big Sky poll had recreational marijuana legalization winning 54 percent against 37 percent who were not in favor of this. That was up from a March 2019 Big Sky poll that had support at 51 percent.

That's not an especially comfortable lead for a ballot initiative, since organized opposition later in the campaign can eat away at support. And in September, organized opposition emerged in the form of Wrong for Montana. Led by Billings businessman Stephen Zabawa, a persistent foe of marijuana reforms, the group is also supported by the Montana Family Foundation and the Montana Contractors Association.

Zabawa said he had launched a billboard and digital media campaign against the two marijuana legalization measures. "Our message will be well-received, it'll be shared, and it'll be taken from family to family," he said. "I believe that, at the end of the day, the legalization issue will go away in the state of Montana."

Wrong for Montana has reported about $78,000 in donations and has already spent $61,000, leaving a paltry $17,000 to campaign with. New Approach Montana, on the other hand, has raised nearly $7 million in total and still has around $1.6 million in cash to play with. It has spent $2.3 million of this money on a late campaign TV ad blitz for October and November.

The campaign's coffers were filled largely by the national New Approach PAC, which supports various drug reform efforts around the country and has kicked in nearly $2 million, and the North Fund, which has donated $4.7 million. A somewhat mysterious entity whose funders remain unknown, the North Fund has also donated big bucks to a campaign for D.C. statehood and an effort to expand Medicaid in Missouri.

All that money and all those TV ads should help New Approach Montana get over the finish line come November 3. But it will be nail-biting time until all the votes are counted.

Will New Jersey be the next state to legalize marijuana?

New Jersey looks set to be the next state to legalize marijuana. It's on the ballot come Election Day on November 3, the polls are looking good, and while it's not the only state with marijuana legalization on the ballot, the others—Arizona, Montana, and South Dakota—are all out West, and the Garden State should beat them by a few hours.

The New Jersey legalization initiative, Public Question 1, would amend the state constitution to legalize the recreational use of marijuana and its cultivation, processing, and retail sale by a person who is at least 21 years old. It also designates the existing Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC), which currently handles medical marijuana, to regulate all legal marijuana commerce. Retail marijuana sales would be subject to the state sales tax of 6.625 percent, but any other state sales taxes would be prohibited. The initiative authorizes the legislature to let local governments add a 2 percent local sales tax.

It also leaves it up to the legislature and the CRC to address unresolved issues. Those include whether and how home cultivation would be allowed, how much weed people could possess, and detailed retail regulations.

If the measure passes, New Jersey will not only be the first to legalize marijuana this Election Day, it will also be the first mid-Atlantic state to do so, and the first to legalize it via a legislatively initiated voter referendum. Of the 11 states (and the District of Columbia) that have so far legalized marijuana, nine did it through citizen-based ballot initiatives, while in the other two, Illinois and Vermont, legislatures passed legalization bills.

But even though Governor Phil Murphy (D) campaigned on marijuana legalization in 2017 and vowed to get it passed in 100 days, legislative infighting, opposition within the Legislative Black Caucus, and bickering over revenues blocked the legislature from ever getting it done. As a last resort, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D) and marijuana reform champion Senator Nick Scutari (D) filed the resolution giving the voters the final decision. It passed with overwhelming Democratic support over strong Republican opposition in December 2019.

And the polls have consistently shown it winning this November. An April poll by Monmouth University of registered voters had the measure winning 64 percent of the votes, while a July Brach Eichler Cannabis Poll shows that 67.6 percent of likely voters showed strong support or somewhat support for legalization via the ballot. An August Brach Eichler Cannabis Poll had support at 66 percent, a barely noticeable decline, and still a number to warm the hearts of legalization supporters.

That latter poll also had a large majority (74 percent) saying the state should make sure that "minorities have fair and equal access to this business opportunity," while another large majority, 71 percent, wanted tax revenues to be used for drug awareness and education. More than half (55 percent) wanted to see higher marijuana taxes.

"The Brach Eichler Cannabis Poll shows that as we get closer to the November election, public awareness and support for the legalization of adult cannabis use is steady or growing," John D. Fanburg, co-chair of the Cannabis Law Practice at Brach Eichler, said in a press release accompanying the poll. "Additionally, we can see that voters are recognizing the importance of addressing the social justice impact of disproportional enforcement and arrests against New Jersey's minority population."

For Ken Wolski, RN, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana—New Jersey (CMM-NJ), supporting the initiative is a no-brainer. Wolski and CMM-NJ are part of a broader coalition, NJ CAN 2020, that is working with HeadCount's Cannabis Voter Project to end marijuana prohibition in the Garden State. Other coalition members include the ACLU-New Jersey, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, the Latino Action Network, the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, and the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association.

"Legalizing marijuana is the best way to get the right medicine to most people," Wolski told Drug Reporter in an email exchange. "Legalization will make it much easier for adults to take advantage of the tremendous therapeutic potential of cannabis. No longer will adults need a specific diagnosis and multiple visits to physicians to obtain cannabis. Adults in New Jersey will be able to purchase cannabis over the counter like they purchase aspirin now. NJ currently has some of the most expensive medical cannabis in the country, but increased competition will bring down those prices. Home [cultivation] should also come into play. Easily available marijuana will improve public health," he said.

Wolski is counseling reefer radicals who don't think the measure goes far enough to think again. There will be opportunities to further shape what legalization looks like down the road, he said.

"Unfortunately, some marijuana reform advocates oppose the amendment because it does not address their specific concerns about guaranteeing home cultivation, ensuring that ex-felons can participate in the new legal industry, ensuring reparations for individuals and communities harmed by the war on marijuana, etc.," Wolski explained.

"To those who say the question does not go far enough, I point out that the CRC must follow the regulatory process, which ensures input from the people of the state," Wolski continued. "The CRC will hold public hearings before they draft the regulations, then there will be a public comment period before they adopt the regulations. This will be the time to make opinions about home grow, social equity, affordable licenses, etc., known. The entire process will be transparent. If some of our demands are not met in the first go-round, we can immediately file to amend the regulations. The very first step is to give whole-hearted support for the ballot question, without which, there will be no reform of marijuana laws in New Jersey for the foreseeable future."

And he will be fighting for home cultivation, he said.

"We anticipate arguments in civil and criminal courts that the amendment does, in fact, allow home cultivation," Wolski explained. "We plan to work with the CRC in the development of regulations to ensure that home cultivation is part of [legalizing] cannabis in New Jersey. At the same time, we will continue to work with legislators for a bill to specifically allow New Jersey medical marijuana program patients and caregivers to grow a limited supply of cannabis for their medical needs."

But first, the measure needs to win.

"If the ballot question fails, the war on marijuana will be business as usual, and we will be that much further away from home cultivation, legalization, expungement, social justice, etc.," Wolski warned. "The first step is [a] victory in November that we can build on. We encourage New Jersey residents to join us in our efforts to pass this ballot question."

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 the past two decades. He is the longtime author of the Drug War Chronicle, the online publication of the non-profit StopTheDrugWar.org, and has been the editor of AlterNet's Drug Reporter since 2015. 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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