Drugs

Breaking down the differences among CBD, marijuana and hemp: Which are legal?

Brandon McFadden, University of Delaware and Trey Malone, Michigan State University

New York recently became the 15th U.S. state to legalize cannabis for recreational use.

While 67% of U.S. adults support marijuana legalization, public knowledge about cannabis is low. A third of Americans think hemp and marijuana are the same thing, according to the National Institutes of Health, and many people still search Google to find out whether cannabidiol – a cannabis derivative known as CBD – will get them high, as marijuana does.

Hemp, marijuana and CBD are all related, but they differ in significant ways. Here's what you need to know about their legality, effects and potential health benefits.

Hemp, marijuana and cannabanoidals

Both hemp and marijuana belong to the same species, Cannabis sativa, and the two plants look somewhat similar. However, substantial variation can exist within a species. After all, great Danes and chihuahuas are both dogs, but they have obvious differences.

Tiny chihuahua sits next to a giant great dane

Great Danes and chihuahuas are distant cousins, like marijuana and hemp.

Pixy, CC BY

The defining difference between hemp and marijuana is their psychoactive component: tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Hemp has 0.3% or less THC, meaning hemp-derived products don't contain enough THC to create the “high" traditionally associated with marijuana.

CBD is a compound found in cannabis. There are hundreds of such compounds, which are termed “cannabinoids," because they interact with receptors involved in a variety of functions like appetite, anxiety, depression and pain sensation. THC is also a cannabinoid.

Clinical research indicates that CBD is effective at treating epilepsy. Anecdotal evidence suggests it can help with pain and even anxiety – though scientifically the jury is still out on that.

Marijuana, containing both CBD and more THC than hemp, has demonstrated therapeutic benefits for people with epilepsy, nausea, glaucoma and potentially even multiple sclerosis and opioid-dependency disorder.

However, medical research on marijuana is severely restricted by federal law.

The Drug Enforcement Agency categorizes cannabis as a Schedule 1 substance, meaning it handles cannabis as if there is no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Scientists don't know exactly how CBD works, nor how it interacts with other cannabinoids like THC to give marijuana its added therapeutic effects.

Retail CBD

CBD comes in food, tinctures and oils, just to name a few. Here are some commonly used terms used to describe CBD products in the store.

Wood shelf with various CBD products from the R+R Medicinals label on it

Full spectrum CBD products for sale, including tinctures, topical creams, edible gummies and pet products.

Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

While the terms “CBD tincture" and “CBD oil" are often used interchangeably, the two are actually different. Tinctures are made by soaking cannabis in alcohol, while oils are made by suspending CBD in a carrier oil, like olive or coconut oil.

“Pure" CBD, also called “CBD isolate," is called that because all other cannabinoids have been removed. So have terpenes and flavonoids, which give marijuana its strong aroma and earthy flavor.

“Broad spectrum" CBD typically contains at least three other cannabinoids, as well as some terpenes and flavonoids – but still no THC. “Full spectrum" CBD, also called “whole flower" CBD, is similar to broad spectrum but can contain up to 0.3% THC.

In states where recreational marijuana is legal, the list of cannabis-derived products greatly expands to include CBD with much higher THC content than 0.3%.

There is no standardized dosage of CBD. Some retailers may have enough knowledge to make a recommendation for first-timers. There are also online resources – like this dosage calculator.

Consumers concerned about content and the accuracy of CBD products, which are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, can look for certification from independent lab testing or by scanning a QR code on product packaging.

Note that CBD oil is different from hemp oil – which comes from pressing cannabis seeds, and may not contain CBD – and hempseed oil, which is a source of essential fatty acids and contains no CBD. It's a nutritional supplement, more like fish oil than CBD oil.

Legal status

Another big difference among hemp, marijuana and CBD is how the law treats them.

Though 15 states have now legalized recreational marijuana, it remains illegal federally in the United States. Technically, those in possession of marijuana in a legal weed state can still be punished under federal law, and traveling across state borders with cannabis is prohibited.

Hemp, on the other hand, was made legal to grow and sell in the United States in the 2018 Farm Bill.

Man wearing backpack looks at a row of hemp plants

A stand at the 2019 Southern Hemp Expo, in Tennessee.

Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

One would assume, then, that hemp-derived CBD should be federally legal in every state because the THC levels don't surpass 0.3%. But CBD occupies a legal gray area. Several states, such as Nebraska and Idaho, still essentially regulate CBD oil as a Schedule 1 substance akin to marijuana.

Our recent study found that Americans perceive hemp and CBD to be more like over-the-counter medication and THC to be more like a prescription drug. Still, the average person in the U.S. does not view hemp, CBD, THC or even marijuana in the same light as illicit substances like meth and cocaine – even though both are classified by the DEA as having a lower potential for abuse than marijuana.

The current federal prohibition of marijuana, in other words, does not align with the public's view – though state-based legalization shows that society is moving on without the blessing of politicians on Capitol Hill. U.S. recreational marijuana retail sales may reach US$8.7 billion in 2021, up from $6.7 billion in 2016.

As interest in other cannabinoids, like cannabigerol, or CBG – which some are touting as the new CBD – continues to grow, so too grows the need for further medical research into cannabis.

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Brandon McFadden, Assistant Professor of Applied Economics and Statistics, University of Delaware and Trey Malone, Assistant Professor and Extension Economist, Michigan State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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.

‘20 years ago in Montana meth was homemade': Senator scorched for 'waxing nostalgic' about illegal drugs

Senator Steve Daines Blames Decades-Old Illegal Drug Crisis on President Biden

Republican U.S. Senator Steve Daines' cause may have been just – denouncing illegal drugs crossing the border and especially the heightened potency of extremely dangerous meth made in Mexico, coming into his home state of Montana. But during a Friday press conference he sounded more like, as one person put it, "a Montana meth brand ambassador."

Senator Daines on Friday also put the blame for the decades-old crisis on President Joe Biden.

Meth is not only dangerously addictive, it is deadly and Daines' home state of Montana has been ravaged by the illegal drug that for decades has taken countless lives.

Which may be why so many on social media were perplexed about the Montana Senator's choice of words after denouncing "the flood of Mexican meth, Mexican heroin, Mexican fentanyl."

"20 years ago in Montana, meth was homemade – it was home grown," he said emphatically, nearly with pride. One person said it sounded like he was "waxing nostalgic."

"It had purity levels less than 30 percent," Daines continued. "Today, the meth that is getting into Montana is Mexican cartel."

Oddly, Daines gave the exact same speech to a local Billings, Montana newspaper Thursday, so this wasn't a flub. Daines or one of his aides actually wrote this, and he must have practiced it before delivering it in front of the cameras Friday, presumably thinking it sounded good.

But Daines also blamed the illegal drugs that have been crossing the border for decades on President Biden, who has been in office two months and six days, calling it the "#BidenBorderCrisis," which is just plain false.

In fact, here he is in 2019, before Biden was President, bragging about "bringing Vice President Mike Pence to Billings next Wednesday (6/12) for a firsthand look at Montana's devastating meth crisis."

Meanwhile, The Recount said the Montana Republican Senator was getting "a little nostalgic."

Another social media user commented that Daines "sounds more upset that the meth production has been outsourced than the issue of meth still being so prevalent."

Some expressed confusion about Daines' intentions:

Others just totally mocked him:

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.

New plan to legalize marijuana emerges in New York

In New York State — once home to the draconian Rockefeller drug laws — Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature have worked out an agreement for legalizing recreational marijuana for anyone who is 21 or older, Bloomberg News is reporting.

According to Bloomberg reporter Keshia Clukey, New York State "would impose special pot taxes and prepare to license dispensaries under an agreement reached by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders."

New York State Senate Finance Committee Chair Liz Krueger told Bloomberg, "It is my understanding that the three-way agreement has been reached and that bill drafting is in the process of finishing a bill that we all have said we support."

Krueger also told Bloomberg that according to the agreement Cuomo has reached with the New York Legislature, recreational marijuana sold in New York State would be subject to a 13% sales tax — with 9% of that revenue going to the state government and the other 4% going to local governments. And New York lawmakers, according to Kreuger, may vote on marijuana legalization as early as next week.

The announcement of marijuana legalization in New York State comes at a time when Cuomo is facing allegations of sexual harassment and some Democratic politicians are calling for his resignation. The governor, however, has contested some of the allegations and said that he has no plans to resign.

New York State's reported legalization of recreational marijuana is a major departure from the infamous Rockefeller drug laws, which were passed under the late Gov. Nelson Rockefeller during the 1970s. Rockefeller had a reputation for being a moderate Republican, and the term "Rockefeller Republican" came to symbolize northeastern GOP moderates who weren't as far to the right as the Goldwater conservatives and libertarians associated with Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Yet the Rockefeller drug laws imposed severe penalties for selling drugs — including marijuana — and have been blamed for mass incarceration in New York State.

Under the Rockefeller laws, simple possession of larger quantities of marijuana was treated like trafficking. Now, marijuana-related activities that could have resulted in prison sentences of 25 or 30 years in the past will be legal in New York State.

Early on Wednesday at a press briefing, Cuomo told reporters that he was within "inches" of an agreement on marijuana legalization with New York lawmakers, but that the details were still being worked out.

Cuomo told reporters, "I believe New York is the progressive capital of the nation — not just because we say it is, but because we perform that way. And legalizing cannabis is this year's priority to be the progressive capital of the nation. We won't be the first, but our program will be the best."

Live: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo Holds Coronavirus Briefing | NBC News youtu.be

'Misguided': Experts decry Biden push for Colombia to restart glyphosate spraying program

After a six-year halt, Colombia plans to restart the toxic aerial spraying of glyphosate on coca crops as early as next month—drawing "most welcome" support from U.S. President Joe Biden and sharp criticism from 150 regional experts who wrote to Biden, "your administration is implicitly endorsing former President Trump's damaging legacy in Colombia."

On March 2nd, the Biden administration welcomed Colombia's decision to restart its aerial coca eradication program in Biden's first annual 2021 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report: "The government of Colombia has committed to re-starting its aerial coca eradication program, which would be a most welcome development."

Colombia halted the controversial spraying program in 2015. In 2018, Colombia's then-new President Ivan Duque vowed to resume the program but has yet to restart the aerial spraying

The country faced increasing pressure from the United States to restart the program. "You're going to have to spray," former US President Donald Trump told Duque at the White House during a March 2, 2020 meeting.


Aerial fumigation had been a central component of Plan Colombia, the 2005 multi-billion dollar U.S. program to finance the Colombian government war on coca cultivation and their war on FARC, which was Colombia's largest rebel group before being disbanded in 2017.

But in 2015, the Colombian Supreme Court ruled that the spraying must end if the spraying of glyphosate was creating health problems. Also, in 2015, the World Health Organization found that glyphosate—also known as "Roundup"—was harmful to the environment and health, potentially causing cancer.

In 2014, ending aerial fumigation was central to peace negotiations with FARC, with the Colombian government agreeing with FARC negotiators that it would transition away from aerial spraying. The Colombian government was also facing significant pressure from the rural poor, who were organizing national protests against aerial fumigation and other forms of forced eradication. "National level protests blocking access roads and inhibiting movement were a major hindrance to manual eradication's ability to operate in major coca-growing regions, and also bedeviled aerial eradication operations," the US State Department reported in 2014.

VICE News is reporting:

More than 150 experts on drugs, security, and environmental policy in the region have written an open letter to Biden, saying Duque's spraying campaign is "misguided" and Biden's decision "could not have come at a worse time."

"The recently announced decision sends an unfortunate message to the Colombian people that your administration is not committed to abandoning the ineffective and damaging war on drugs internationally, even as your administration takes bold steps to mitigate its multiple impacts on Black, Indigenous, and people of color in the United States," says the letter, spearheaded by the Center for Studies on Security and Drugs at the Bogotá-based Los Andes University.

"By backing fumigation, your administration is implicitly endorsing former President Trump's damaging legacy in Colombia," the letter says. "It was your predecessor who, shortly after taking office, intensified demands on our country to resume spraying with glyphosate, which has been shown to pose significant health and environmental risks to affected populations."

The experts point to how aerial spraying with glyphosate can cause serious health problems, such as cancer, miscarriages, and respiratory illness, and environmental destruction—biodiversity loss, soil damage, and contamination of water sources.

The aerial fumigation program using glyphosate in Colombia continued throughout the US presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

VICE quoted José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch: "Many peasants grow coca because it is their only profitable crop, given weak local food markets, inadequate roads, and lack of formal land titles," he said. "Sustainable progress in reducing coca production can only be achieved by ensuring that farmers have a profitable alternative. And there's no amount of glyphosate that can achieve that."


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.

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.

The Justice Department sues Walmart — accuses it of illegally dispensing opioids

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

More than two years after the federal government was preparing to indict Walmart on charges of illegally dispensing opioids, the U.S. Department of Justice is finally taking action. But it's seeking a financial penalty, not the criminal sanction prosecutors had pushed for.

On Tuesday, the Department of Justice brought a civil suit against Walmart in U.S. District Court in Delaware, accusing the retailing behemoth of illegally dispensing and distributing opioids, helping to fuel a health crisis that has led to the deaths of around half a million Americans since 1999.

The government accuses the company, which operates one of the biggest pharmacy chains in the country, of knowingly filling thousands of invalid opioid prescriptions, failing to alert the government to dangerous or excessive prescriptions, and pushing pharmacists to work faster and look the other way in order to boost corporate profits.

By law, pharmacists are prohibited from filling prescriptions they know are not for legitimate medical needs. “Walmart was well aware of these rules, but made little effort to ensure that it complied with them," the government said in its suit.

Walmart applied “enormous pressure" on pharmacists to fill prescriptions as fast as they could, while preventing them from halting prescriptions they knew came from bad doctors, the government said. When Walmart pharmacists warned headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, about doctors who operated “known pill mills," did “not practice real medicine" and had “horrendous prescribing practices," headquarters ignored their pleas, the lawsuit asserts.

Walmart denounced the suit. “The Justice Department's investigation is tainted by historical ethics violations, and this lawsuit invents a legal theory that unlawfully forces pharmacists to come between patients and their doctors, and is riddled with factual inaccuracies and cherry-picked documents taken out of context," the company said in a statement. In October, aware that a government suit was likely, Walmart took the highly unusual step of preemptively suing the Justice Department. The company argued that it did nothing wrong and, there, too, accused the government of acting unethically. According to Walmart, the federal prosecutors used the threat of a criminal case to try to negotiate higher civil penalties. (Prosecutors deny that claim.)

The case against Walmart originated in the summer of 2016, with an investigation of two Texas doctors, Howard Diamond and Randall Wade, who were prescribing opioids on a vast scale. Federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of Texas eventually brought cases against the pair, accusing them of contributing to multiple deaths. The doctors were subsequently convicted of illegal distribution of opioids, with Wade sentenced to 10 years in prison and Diamond to 20 years. That case uncovered evidence that led prosecutors to investigate Walmart itself.

In 2018, Joe Brown, the Trump-appointed U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Texas, sought to criminally indict the company over its opioid practices, as detailed in a ProPublica story in March. During this period, as Walmart tried to fend off a criminal case, its lawyers expressed willingness to discuss a civil settlement. The company “stands ready to engage in a principled and reasoned dialogue concerning any potential conduct of its employees that merits a civil penalty," Jones Day partner Karen Hewitt wrote in August 2018 to the head of the criminal division of the Justice Department.

The Texas prosecutors were unswayed by Walmart's arguments. Joined by the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Brown's team traveled to Justice Department headquarters in Washington to make an impassioned plea to bring the criminal case.

But Trump appointees at the highest levels of the department — including the deputy attorneys general at different times, Rod Rosenstein and Jeffrey Rosen — stymied the attempt, dictating that Walmart could not be indicted. (Rosen recently was named acting attorney general.) When prosecutors sought to criminally prosecute a Walmart manager, top officials in the Trump Justice Department prevented that, too.

The Justice Department then dragged out civil settlement negotiations. The delays prompted Josh Russ, the head of the civil division in the Eastern District of Texas who had urged bringing a civil suit years ago, to resign in protest. “Corporations cannot poison Americans with impunity. Good sense dictates stern and swift action when Americans die," Russ wrote in his resignation letter in October 2019.

This week's suit largely echoes the allegations that the Eastern District of Texas had made in seeking a criminal case. Legal officials can in some circumstances pursue the same allegations either criminally or civilly, with a higher burden of proof for prosecutors and stiffer potential penalties for defendants when it comes to criminal cases.

In the new suit, prosecutors said Walmart pharmacists routinely filled prescriptions from known “pill mill" doctors. Sometimes those doctors explicitly told their patients to go to Walmart pharmacies, the complaint alleges. Walmart filled prescriptions from doctors even when its pharmacists knew that other pharmacies had stopped filling prescriptions from those doctors.

The suit also details that Walmart's compliance unit based out of its headquarters collected “voluminous" information that its pharmacists were regularly being served invalid prescriptions, but “for years withheld that information" from its pharmacists.

In fact, the compliance department often sent the opposite message. When a regional manager received a list of troubling prescriptions from headquarters, he asked, “Does your team pull out any insights from these we need to highlight?"

In an email cited in the suit, which was first reported by ProPublica, a director of Health and Wellness Practice Compliance at Walmart, responded, “Driving sales and patient awareness is a far better use of our Market Directors and Market manager's time."

Walmart headquarters regularly put pressure on pharmacists to work faster. Managers pushed pharmacists because “shorter wait times keep patients in store," that this was a “battle of seconds" and that “wait times are our Achilles heel!" according to the suit. Pharmacists said the pressure and Walmart's thin staffing “doesn't allow time for individual evaluation of prescriptions," the suit says.

In May, two months after ProPublica published its story, Brown, the U.S. attorney who had pushed for criminal prosecution of Walmart, left his job abruptly. His resignation letter cited the need to “win the fight against opioid abuse in order to save our country" and added that “players both big and small must meet equal justice under the law." Brown did not return a call seeking comment.

Oregon just decriminalized all drugs – here’s why voters passed this groundbreaking reform

Scott Akins, Oregon State University and Clayton Mosher, Washington State University

Oregon became the first state in the United States to decriminalize the possession of all drugs on Nov. 3, 2020.

Measure 110, a ballot initiative funded by the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group backed in part by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, passed with more than 58% of the vote. Possessing heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and other drugs for personal use is no longer a criminal offense in Oregon.

Those drugs are still against the law, as is selling them. But possession is now a civil – not criminal – violation that may result in a fine or court-ordered therapy, not jail. Marijuana, which Oregon legalized in 2014, remains fully legal.

Oregon's move is radical for the United States, but several European countries have decriminalized drugs to some extent. There are three main arguments for this major drug policy reform.

#1. Drug prohibition has failed

In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared drugs to be “public enemy number one" and launched a “war on drugs" that continues today.

The ostensible rationale for harshly punishing drug users is to deter drug use. But decades of research – including our own on marijuana and drugs generally – has found the deterrent effect of strict criminal punishment to be small, if it exists at all. This is especially true among young people, who are the majority of drug users.

This is partly due to the nature of addiction, and also because there are simply limits to how much punishment can deter crime. As a result, the U.S. has both the world's highest incarceration rate and among the highest rates of illegal drug use. Roughly 1 in 5 incarcerated people in the United States is in for a drug offense.

Criminologists find that other consequences of problematic drug use – such as harm to health, reduced quality of life and strained personal relationships – are more effective deterrents than criminal sanctions.

Because criminalizing drugs does not really prevent drug use, decriminalizing does not really increase it. Portugal, which decriminalized the personal possession of all drugs in 2001 in response to high illicit drug use, has much lower rates of drug use than the European average. Use of cocaine among young adults age 15 to 34, for example, is 0.3% in Portugal, compared to 2.1% across the EU. Amphetamine and MDMA consumption is likewise lower in Portugal.

2. Decriminalization puts money to better use

Arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning people for drug-related crimes is expensive.

The Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that all government drug prohibition-related expenditures were US$47.8 billion nationally in 2016. Oregon spent about $375 million on drug prohibition in that year.

Oregon will now divert some the money previously used on drug enforcement to pay for about a dozen new drug prevention and treatment centers statewide, which has been found to be a significantly more cost-effective strategy. Some tax revenue from recreational marijuana sales, which exceeded $100 million in 2019, will also go to addiction and recovery services.

Oregon spent about $470 million on substance abuse treatment between 2017 and 2019.

Not everyone who uses drugs needs treatment. Decriminalization makes help accessible to those who do need it – and keeps both those users and recreational users out of jail.

3. The drug war targets people of color

Another aim of decriminalization is to mitigate the significant racial and ethnic disparities associated with drug enforcement.

Illegal drug use is roughly comparable across race in the U.S. But people of color are significantly more likely to be searched, arrested and imprisoned for a drug-related offense. Drug crimes can incur long prison sentences.

Discretion in drug enforcement and sentencing means prohibition is among the leading causes of incarceration of people of color in the United States – an injustice many Americans on both sides of the aisle increasingly recognize.

Freed up from policing drug use, departments may redirect their resources toward crime prevention and solving violent crimes like homicide and robbery, which are time-consuming to investigate. That could help restore some trust between law enforcement and Oregon's communities of color.

Risks of decriminalization

One common concern among Oregonians who voted against decriminalization was that lessening criminal penalties would endanger children.

“I think it sends a really bad message to them, and influences their perception of the risks," James O'Rourke, a defense attorney who helped organize the opposition to measure 110, told Oregon Public Broadcasting in October.

But U.S. states that legalized marijuana haven't seen adolescent use rise significantly. In fact, marijuana consumption among teens – though not among college-aged Americans – actually declined in some states with legal marijuana. This may be because legal, regulated marijuana is more difficult for minors to get than black-market drugs.

Research also shows that for some people, particularly the young, banning a behavior makes it more alluring. So defining drugs as a health concern rather than a crime could actually make them less appealing to young Oregonians.

Another worry about decriminalization is that it will attract people looking to use drugs.

So-called “drug tourism" hasn't really been a problem for Portugal, but it happened in Switzerland after officials in the 1980s and 1990s began officially “ignoring" heroin in Zurich's Platzspitz Park. People came from across the country to inject heroin in public, leaving discarded needles on the ground.

The local government shut down Platzspitz Park. But rather than chase off or arrest those who frequented it, it began offering methadone and prescription heroin to help people with opioid use disorder. Public injection, HIV rates and overdoses – which had all become a problem in Zurich – plummeted.

Certain parts of Oregon already have higher rates of public drug consumption, namely Portland and Eugene. Because public drug use is still illegal in Oregon, however, we don't expect a Platzspitz Park-style open drug scene to emerge. These places should benefit from the expansion of methadone programs and other medication-assisted treatment, which is endorsed by the American Medical Association.

If neighboring Washington state decriminalizes drugs, which it is considering, the chances of drug tourism would drop further.

[The Conversation's science, health and technology editors pick their favorite stories. Weekly on Wednesdays.]

Upside – and downside

There are risks with any major policy change. The question is whether the new policy results in a net benefit.

In Portugal, full decriminalization has proven more humane and effective than criminalization. Because drug users don't worry about facing criminal charges, those who need help are more likely to seek it – and get it.

Portugal's overdose death rate is five times lower than the EU average – which is itself far lower than the United States'. HIV infection rates among injection drug users also dropped massively since 2001.

These policies show that problem drug use is a public health challenge to be managed, not a war that can be won.The Conversation

Scott Akins, Professor, Sociology Department, Oregon State University and Clayton Mosher, Professor, Sociology Department, Washington State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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