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Why Police Need to Get Behind Needle Exchanges

Tue, 02/13/2018 - 10:23
Although they are a proven harm reduction intervention, too many cops still see them as somehow enabling drug use.

WILMINGTON, N.C. — Until the opioid epidemic began seeping into nearly every city and town in the country, the idea of a Main Street storefront offering free needles, alcohol wipes and small metal cookers for heroin users was unthinkable in a conservative Southern city like this one.

But these days, most of the roughly 100,000 residents of this historic port on the Cape Fear River are painfully aware that their community has a serious drug problem. Syringes carpet sections of public walkways, drug users congregate in vacant lots, and an increasing number of residents are attending the funerals of friends and family members who have died of an opioid overdose.

As a result, many police officers here fully support syringe exchanges, places where drug users can go to dispose of used needles, pick up fresh ones, get health exams, and maybe find out about treatment options. They say they’re willing to overlook the fact that possessing drug paraphernalia, including syringes, is an arrestable offense.

But even in North Carolina, where the state Sheriffs’ Association helped a grassroots harm reduction organization enact the most liberal syringe exchange law in the country in 2016, many cops still insist that giving free supplies to heroin users simply enables their drug use.

“Police officers are just like the rest of the public,” said Capt. Lars Paul of the Fayetteville Police Department. “Until I got educated on harm reduction, I questioned why we were giving drug users all kinds of free supplies too. It was just a matter of taking the time to talk to folks and learn about the public health benefits of syringe exchanges.”

Kendra Williams, a recovering addict who works part-time for the Wilmington syringe exchange, said some cops in the drug unit there still don’t take the law seriously. “They’ll take away ID cards proving they’re syringe exchange clients and tell them it doesn’t mean anything. If they want to arrest you, they’ll find a way.” 

Shifting Attitudes

Last year, a poll in Ohio — among the nation’s hardest-hit states — found that half of adults in that state favor syringe exchange programs. Politicians are listening.

Nationwide, at least a dozen states legalized syringe exchanges in 2016 and 2017, said Daniel Raymond, policy director of the Harm Reduction Coalition, a New York-based national organization that advocates for syringe exchanges. And nearly all of the new laws were signed by Republican governors and approved by GOP-led legislatures, including in Ohio.

That’s not surprising, Raymond said. Many Republican leaders’ constituents — particularly middle-income white males — are among those who have suffered most in the opioid epidemic.

Even so, most of the lawmakers and governors who ultimately approved the laws resisted until they received endorsements from law enforcement groups, Raymond said. Otherwise, they would have risked appearing soft on crime.

A dozen states — Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Tennessee, Utah and Virginia — enacted laws in 2016 and 2017 that protect the employees and clients of syringe exchanges from existing state drug paraphernalia laws that otherwise could be used to prosecute them for possessing a syringe, according to Raymond.

Five more Republican-led states, Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa and Missouri, are considering similar legislation this year, he said.

An Old Idea

Syringe exchanges, also known as needle exchanges, first came into being in the late 1980s in places such as New York City and San Francisco and in liberal states such as Massachusetts, Minnesota and Washington. Once it became clear that the HIV/AIDS epidemic was spreading through needle sharing among injection drug users, public health officials took up the cause.

But until recently, syringe exchanges were nonexistent in rural towns and cities in the rest of the country, except for informal underground efforts organized by advocates.

In North Carolina, syringe exchanges now are cropping up in office parks, pawn shops, church basements, fire stations, hotel parking lots and treatment centers throughout the state, and the state health department is tracking their progress. So far, 26 syringe exchanges have opened, and the coalition is working to open more.

“Until the law was enacted, people were afraid they’d be arrested if they came to pick up supplies,” said Robert Childs, director of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition. “And we were afraid to advertise.”

North Carolina’s law made it simple for a syringe exchange to open its doors, he said. For underground groups already supplying drug users with sterile supplies, it simply meant registering with the state health department and providing a plan to ensure the privacy of clients. For new groups, it meant finding funding and a base of operations, even if it was a private vehicle in a parking lot.

A Rural Problem

Unlike the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and previous drug epidemics, which were spawned and largely defeated in urban areas, this opioid epidemic is ensnaring people who live in far-flung small cities and rural communities. In addition to mounting overdose deaths, these rural communities are experiencing unprecedented surges in hepatitis C infections and increasing threats of HIV/AIDS outbreaks.

Despite nearly 200 people testing positive for HIV in Scott County in 2015, Indiana’s then-Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, was reluctant to allow a syringe exchange, because of his moral opposition to drug use. But among those whom Pence sought for counsel, according to The New York Timeswas the local sheriff, who told him: “I believe the only thing we can do … is to get clean needles out there.” Pence declared a public health emergency and allowed a syringe exchange to open to curb further infections.

That exchange has since closed because of lack of support.

Even so, Pence’s emergency declaration marked a turning point for other Republican governors, said Gary Tennis, president and CEO of the National Association of Model State Drug Laws, a research group supported by the federal government. It made it easier for conservative politicians to support syringe exchanges.

But if states want to attack their long-term drug problem, Tennis said, it will be essential to nurture grassroots coalitions like North Carolina’s and build political will, particularly with law enforcement. Without that local support, standing up and maintaining syringe exchanges in affected communities will be impossible, he said.

According to Paul LaKosky, executive director of the North American Syringe Exchange Network, which helps fledgling groups launch syringe exchanges, that’s already starting to happen in dozens of places, including Native American tribal lands and small rural communities across the country.

Nationwide, LaKosky said, the list of syringe exchanges, both official and unofficial, has grown by about 15 percent a year for the past three years, with the fastest growth in Kentucky, North Carolina and Ohio.

“We’re seeing the greatest growth in rural areas, where there’s been an historic lack of access to health services of any kind,” LaKosky said. “The opioid epidemic is shining a light on those places.”

Variable Cooperation

West Virginia, which has by far the highest opioid overdose death rate in the country, has not yet enacted legislation to authorize syringe exchanges. But a proposed opioid response plan released by the state health department in January lists harm reduction, including syringe exchanges, as a top priority.

Even without statutory authorization, at least 10 West Virginia municipalities have started exchanges, including eight with affiliations to county health departments.

In Charleston, the state’s new director of the Office of Drug Control Policy, Dr. Michael Brumage, said the police department there fervently supports the city’s syringe exchange. But just a few miles outside of the city, he said, the attitude among police officers is very different.

Dr. Michael Kilkenny, who as Cabell-Huntington public health chief runs a syringe exchange an hour’s drive away in Huntington, said the lack of state authorization makes him nervous.

The city’s drug control director when the exchange opened in 2015, Jim Johnson, said he also worried whether the police department would continue to support it without a state law. “All you’d have to do was stick a policeman outside the office on Monday and you’d have to close the doors on Tuesday.”

In Philadelphia, which has also been hit hard by the epidemic, Scott Burris, director of Temple Law School’s Center for Public Health Law Research, said Kilkenny’s concerns are warranted. To be effective, he said, syringe exchange laws must affirm that distributing syringes is a legitimate public health function that should be funded with public money. At the same time, any new laws must remove syringes from the definition of illegal drug paraphernalia, so that anyone can possess one without fear of prosecution.

“Authorizing exchanges to distribute syringes still leaves drug users vulnerable to arrest, which means fewer will come,” he said. 


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A Doctor’s Tips for Marijuana Dosing So You Don’t Get Too High

Mon, 02/12/2018 - 12:07
Learning what works best for you is often a trial-and-error experience.

Marijuana dosing, what is the trick? Here’s a story that newcomers can understand.

Years ago I drank large amounts of coffee. This improved my ability to work long hours and to keep up with my studies and work. Over time I found that I needed increasing amounts for the same energetic buzz. I also noted with larger amounts I experienced some irritability and mild tremors.

At that point I knew that I needed to take a break from caffeine. Months later when I had my first cup, I had the same energy as if I had previously had four cups without tremors. This experience is typical of caffeine sensitization and shows that increasing dosages increases the risks of side effects.  This also allows us to reflect on self-dosing regimens.

We have to be cognizant of dosing when using medical marijuana. There are many factors that have to be considered when using this as a medication. Generally the patient learns what dosage works for them. But this can be a variable effect based upon many factors including sleep patterns, variability of symptoms of the disease process, mental state among others.

Absorption of the cannabis is also a factor. Certainly it is easier to titrate the cannabis for effect when smoked or vaporized due to the fact that it is quickly absorbed, but unfortunately the effects do not last as long as when eaten. Consuming cannabis by eating it, drinking it or as a tincture has a more lasting effect, but learning a correct dosage is more difficult due to the fact that the full effect may not be felt to 1-2 hours.

Another issue to consider is the effective dosage itself. We know that for certain diseases such as anxiety, a low dose of cannabis can alleviate the symptoms whereas a higher dose can actually worsen the symptoms. This is a case where less is more.

At times we can run into problems with desensitization or tachyphylaxis. Desensitization is caused by a high-intensity treatment or often repeated stimulus bringing on a diminished response. This is certainly what I experienced with caffeine. We see this in long-term users of cannabis very frequently. They notice that they need a much higher dosage to have the same effect physically and mentally. This requires termination of the treatment for a while to allow the body and receptors to reset back to normal.

Studies have shown that the body and receptors will reset after two days. This unfortunately means that the symptoms of the disease may recur or worsen while the body is resetting. During this period of time the patient has to either tolerate the worsening symptoms or use alternative medications or non-medical therapies to alleviate symptoms. When the cannabis is restarted, a lower dose can then be used for the same effect.

Tachyphylaxis is a rapid decrease of response to a drug after a single or series of small doses. We can see this in the use of some pharmaceuticals. We find that increasing the dose may restore the initial response.

At this time, I do not know of any scientific studies that have revealed tachyphylaxis in association with cannabis. But we are still in the infancy of pure medical knowledge of cannabis.

So now we are in a conundrum. If my dosage is not working, do I stop the drug to reset or increase the dosage looking for a better effect? At this point I would first look at the time period in which the drug has been used.

If it has been days or weeks since initiating the medication with less effect, I would increase the dosage to the desired effect. If my symptoms have been stable of months and then are returning, consideration should be made towards a weekend away from cannabis. But we also would have to consider other factors than the medication itself.

Could the disease process be worsening? Are there other factors involved such as concurrent diseases or stresses in life? This is a situation where I would encourage the person with the disease to reconnect with their health care provider.


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DOJ Appointments Being Blocked Until Sessions Changes Pot Stance

Mon, 02/12/2018 - 12:02
A Republican senator from Colorado is taking a major stand against Session for making marijuana a federal priority.

In protest of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to rescindan Obama-era policy that recommended federal prosecutors stay out of the affairs of states that have legalized marijuana, Colorado Republican Senator Cory Gardner is blocking appointments to the Department of Justice. 

“[Gardner] opposed the legalization of marijuana in 2012 but is not going to sit back and let Colorado’s rights be trampled on by the federal government,” Casey Contres, a Gardner spokesman, said in a statement according to The Denver Post

Gardner announced his intention on January 4, the same day that Sessions said that the federal government would “return to the rule of law” and enforce the federal prohibition of marijuana even in states that have legalized cannabis. Since Colorado has a legal marketplace for adult use, Gardner said that federal enforcement could threaten the state’s economy. 

Sessions’ stance “has trampled on the will of the voters,” Gardner tweeted at the time. 

“Before I voted to confirm Attorney General Sessions, he assured me that marijuana would not be a priority for this administration,” Gardner said in a statement on January 4. “In 2016, President Trump said marijuana legalization should be left up to the states and I agree.”

In the month since it took effect, Gardner’s vow to slow appointments has prevented 11 nominees from getting Senate hearings. Those include federal marshals and U.S. attorneys. 

“Senator Gardner does a real disservice to the nation as a whole and we urgently ask him to reconsider his rash and ill-advised obstructionism,” said Chuck Canterbury, president of the National Fraternal Order of Police. “Policy differences should be worked out by a dialogue and not turn into hostage situations.”

Gardner and Sessions met in January to discuss ending the standoff, but they could not reach a middle ground. 

“Our staff and DOJ staff continue to talk and meet to discuss a path forward which recognizes Colorado’s state’s rights and ensures law enforcement has the authority and tools needed to protect our communities,” Contres said. “These discussions continue to be necessary and we appreciate their willingness to have them.”

There are ways for the Senate to override Gardner’s blockage, but they take up a lot of procedural time, The Denver Post reported. 

Although the policy change from Sessions has not led to any federal raids of legal dispensaries, it could in theory. Since it is unlikely that federal marijuana law will change under the Trump administration, some people believe the best way forward would be to bar the Department of Justice from using federal funds to go after recreational operations in states that have legalized marijuana. A similar budget restriction is already in place regarding medical marijuana. 


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Trump and Sessions Are Playing Bad Cop-Bad Cop in the Drug War

Sun, 02/11/2018 - 14:12
Click here for reuse options! Bernie Sanders has a better idea.

The omens are not good. In a pair of speeches this week, the president and his attorney general made some very menacing comments about drug policy. While their last-century drug warrior rhetoric has not, for the most part, translated into regressive, repressive drug policy prescriptions—yet—it's probably not safe to assume that will continue to be the case.

At the same time, the Trump White House appears to be approaching key aspects of the country's opioid crisis, which contributed mightily to a record 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016, with a mixture of indifference and incompetence.

Trump wants to drastically slash the budget of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP, the drug czar's office), his White House opioid response is laughably led by pollster and counselor—not drug policy or addiction expert—Kellyanne Conway, and his budget proposals are for spending substantially less, not more money on treatment and prevention.

An Obama-era law that designated a billion dollars to help states fight opioids runs out of money this year, with no sign Trump intends to ask Congress to renew it, and Trump's 2018 budget request has a $400 million cut to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the lead federal agency for treatment.

Instead of proactive responses aimed at ameliorating the crisis, Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are falling back on drug war rhetoric that would have been at home in Nixon's 1970s or Reagan's 1980s.

Trump spent barely a minute talking about the opioid crisis in his State of the Union speech last week, and now he says he's focused on law enforcement, not treatment and prevention.

In a speech this week in Cincinnati, Trump said the opioid epidemic "has never been worse. People form blue-ribbon committees. They do everything they can. And frankly, I have a different take on it. My take is you have to get really, really tough; really, really mean with the drug pushers and drug dealers."

Attorney General Sessions, for his part, was on the same page this week. In a Tuesday night speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation for an event honoring Ronald Reagan's birthday, Sessions could have been channeling the Gipper himself, blaming the media, not enough drug war, and "permissive rhetoric" for problems with drug use.

"We don't think illegal drug use is recreation,'' he said. "Lax enforcement, permissive rhetoric, and the media have undermined the essential need to say no to drug use. Don't start. That's what President Trump said to us the other day in a meeting. What did Nancy Reagan say? Just say no."

Sessions reiterated his opposition to state-legal marijuana resorted to the discredited "gateway theory" to try to blame marijuana for the opioid epidemic.

"The DEA said that a huge percentage of heroin addictions starts with prescriptions. That may be an exaggerated number—they had it as high as 80 percent—we think a lot of this is starting with marijuana and other drugs," Sessions ventured.

"We are not going to pretend that there is not a law against marijuana. There is a federal law against marijuana," he said. "And we're not going to pretend that marijuana is good for you, either. I don't think it is."

Drug war rhetoric is one thing; actual policy shifts is another. So far, despite the tough talk, about the only concrete action aimed at driving us back to the failed drug war policies of the past is Sessions' move last May to reverse Obama-era policy of moving away from harsh mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases. Other than that, there's been a lot of sound and fury, but little in the way of actual policy proposals. Still, the remarks this week from the president and his chief law enforcement officer ought to be setting off alarm bells.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders has a better idea. The independent Vermont senator and 2016 Democratic presidential contender on Wednesday announced a petition calling on Congress to "end the failed war on drugs." "The criminal justice system is not the answer to drug abuse. Addiction is a health problem and we should start treating it that way," Sanders wrote. "While communities all across the country lack adequate resources for treatment or prevention, we are spending approximately $50 billion a year on the war on drugs. That's absurd. We need to get our priorities right."

Here is Sessions at the Heritage Foundation:

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Trump Wants to Get Mean With 'Drug Pushers'—But What About Big Pharma?

Fri, 02/09/2018 - 11:29
Leave it to the billionaire president to deflect blame from pharmaceutical giants profiting off addiction.

President Donald Trump has a new idea for how to combat America’s opioid crisis — one that requires us, unsurprisingly, to get “mean” and “tough.” Indeed, in a speech in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Feb. 5, Trump proposed harsher treatment of “drug pushers” and “drug dealers” as a means of fighting the opioid epidemic that killed more than 42,000 Americans in 2016.

Specifically, Trump said:

 Creating good jobs is also an important part of fighting the drug epidemic that has affected millions of Americans, bringing new hope to struggling communities.  And it’s gotten to a point where it’s never been worse.

People form blue ribbon committees, they do everything they can.  And, frankly, I have a different take on it.  My take is, you have to get really, really tough — really mean — with the drug pushers and the drug dealers.  We can do all the blue ribbon committees we want. We have to get a lot tougher than we are.  And we have to stop drugs from pouring across our border.

Trump using the opioid crisis as a way to gain support for the border wall is nothing new, but it’s a slap in the face to the victims and their families who have been hurt by the epidemic. The “drug pushers” and “drug dealers” are merely middlemen, small-time players, compared to the biggest dealers of all: pharmaceutical companies.

According to data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) prescription opioid sales nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2014; during this timespan, overdose deaths from prescription opioids increased as well. While opioid prescriptions should only be prescribed to cancer patients, or those with pain-related diagnosis, only an estimated one out of five fit the bill. Overdose deaths from opioid prescriptions were fives times higher in 2016 than they were in 1999, and overall, 40 percent of all U.S. opioid overdose deaths involved prescription drugs. The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that half of young people who inject heroin abused opioid prescriptions first; in other words, opioid prescriptions are often a gateway to heroin. In addition to an increase in opioid-prescription deaths, the number of opioids sold to pharmacies and hospitals nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2010, according to CDC data. Horrifyingly, large pharmaceutical companies profit off these deaths and addictions.

Yet Trump seems to believe the crisis is purely a result of Mexican drug dealers. Yes, heroin does travel across the border. According to additional CDC data, “increased availability, relatively low price (compared to prescription opioids), and high purity of heroin in the U.S. also have been identified as possible factors in the rising rate of heroin use.” According to data from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the amounts of heroin confiscated at the southwest border quadrupled from 2008 to 2013, but that's not what's driving 1,000 people a day to emergency rooms across the country for misusing opioid prescriptions.

Even though Trump declared the opioid crisis a "health emergency," his actions have spoken louder than words. Per Politico earlier this week, Kellyanne Conway is now in charge of dealing with opioids, and the White House is allegedly telling experts that they're not welcome on his committee to deal with the crisis.

Now, hope for combatting the crisis lies in state and civic policy —  as it looks like we can't count on the federal government for help.

Some cities like New York, and states like Missouri, are already taking matters into their own hands and suing the manufacturers and distributors of opioid prescription drugs. Big pharmaceutical companies involved in these various lawsuits include Purdue Pharma LP and Johnson & Johnson.

“More New Yorkers have died from opioid overdoses than car crashes and homicides combined in recent years. Big Pharma helped to fuel this epidemic by deceptively peddling these dangerous drugs and hooking millions of Americans in exchange for profit,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “It’s time for hold the companies accountable for what they’ve done to our City, and help save more lives.”

In regards to drug prices, Trump once said the "drug companies, frankly, are getting away with murder."

Indeed, President Trump, pharmaceutical giants are getting away with actual, non-metaphorical murder when it comes to peddling opioids.


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Trump Tells Netanyahu No Marijuana Exports, Israel Says Okay

Fri, 02/09/2018 - 11:21
A call from the president to the prime minister was all it took.




Israel has halted a plan to export medical marijuana at the request of US President Donald Trump, reports said. The plan would include relaxing Israel's strict criteria for exporting medical ...

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The U.S. Bombing Campaign Against 'Taliban Heroin Labs' Is Bad Drug War Theater

Fri, 02/09/2018 - 00:49
Click here for reuse options! Feel-good macho posturing in Afghanistan isn't likely to end well.

On the night of November 19, small-time Afghan opium trader Hajji Habibullah finished his day's business at the local opium bazaar in Musa Qala, in Helmand province, and headed home to his family. He never saw the sunrise.

Helmand province is a poppy-growing powerhouse that for years has been hotly contested terrain in the battle between Taliban insurgents and the Afghan government and NATO forces. Under new authority from the Trump White House allowing the U.S. military to "attack the enemy across the breadth and the depth of the battle space, and also functionally, to attack their financial networks, their revenue streams," U.S. and Afghan warplanes mounted bombing raids on "Taliban drug labs," targeting three districts in Helmand. That night, Musa Qala was target one in a dramatic escalation in U.S. Afghanistan policy.

In a press briefing two days later, Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, guided reporters through videos documenting the attacks, with bomb blasts destroying small structures as the general narrated strikes by U.S. B-52s and F-22 Raptors. The raid in Musa Qala destroyed "millions" in "opium cooking at the time of the strike," repeatedly emphasizing how careful the raids were to minimize "collateral" casualties.

But the first bombs to fall on Musa Qala didn't fall on a "Taliban narcotics production facility." They fell on Hajji Habibullah's house, killing him, his wife, his seven-year-old daughter and four sons aged between three and eight, as well as a visiting adult daughter and her year-old daughter. Only the son-in-law sleeping in a guest house on the property survived.

That's according to on-the-scene field research contained in a report released last month by the London School of Economics International Drug Policy Unit. The analysis, written by Dr. David Mansfield, who has been conducting research on rural economies and poppy cultivation in Afghanistan for the past two decades, is sharply critical of the Trump administration's aggressive new turn. Mansfield isn't the only one sounding alarms. Warnings that the policy is expensive and unlikely to achieve its objectives while having serious negative consequences are coming from other academic analysts, too, and even from the watchdog agency charged with overseeing the U.S. Afghan war.

Last month, in a Pentagon briefing, spokesmen claimed the campaign of airstrikes, which have continued after that first attack in November, was crippling the Taliban's ability to fund itself through the drug trade. Defense officials claimed the raids had destroyed $80 million worth of heroin, resulting in a $16 million loss for the Taliban, which makes money taxing the trade.

But Mansfield demolishes that claim:

At current prices for heroin, the losses USFOR-A refer to would amount to almost 73 metric tons of heroin, that’s nearly 3 metric tons of heroin in each lab destroyed.

With a conversion rate of between 9 and 13.5 kilograms of fresh opium per kilogram of heroin, this would require between 27,000 and 40,500 kilograms of fresh opium per lab. It would mean that the 25 labs destroyed were responsible for converting between 8 to 11 percent of the entire 2017 crop of 9,000 metric tons. There is little evidence from the nine buildings destroyed in [Musa Qala] to support such a claim.

Going on the tax rates levied on the [Musa Qala] labs, were the aerial campaign to have actually destroyed 73 metric tons of heroin, the loss in revenue to the Taliban would have been around $1.2 million, considerably less than the amount reported by USFOR-A.

Were the air attacks to have destroyed a series of houses rented out to cook opium in much smaller batches, as the case would appear to be in [Musa Qala], the loss in revenue to the Taliban would have been negligible. In fact, the 50 barrels of opium cooking at the time of the strike that [USFOR-A commander] General Nicholson referred to as being worth ‘millions of dollars’ would have been worth at most $190,750 if converted to heroin and no more than $2,863 to the Taliban.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, Brookings Institution senior fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and an expert on international and internal security threats who has done fieldwork and research in Afghanistan, was also skeptical.

"The Pentagon has made various claims about the size of the impact on Taliban finances, but that is all highly speculative," said Felbab-Brown. "The logic is that a certain amount of heroin is destroyed per target and that heroin is assigned that same value per unit price, but we can't assume that. It could be there was no processed heroin there at all, only opium. The only value might be that it eliminated one Taliban financier who happened to be present, or maybe disrupted one link in the trade, but we can't even assume that."

"By and large, the campaign will not make a significant dent in Taliban financing," argued Felbab-Brown. "They will have to be extremely lucky to destroy large portions of opium stockpiles that have been growing for years. And the Taliban has different local arrangements—sometimes they tax the labs, sometimes they're further downstream—so I don't expect any significant financial losses for them."

In its latest quarterly report, issued January 31, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a government watchdog agency, also took issue with the military's claims about the damage it was inflicting on Taliban finances—and questioned the cost-effectiveness of the campaign.

In a special section on the drug lab bombing campaign, SIGAR says that the methodology the military uses to assess the value of the labs it destroys leaves it "unclear whether the DOD figure is an accurate estimate of how much revenue is eliminated by air strikes on drug labs."

What is known, SIGAR reports, is how much it costs to fly the planes dropping the bombs:

According to the latest DOD financial management report, an F-22 costs between $35,294 and $36,799 per hour to operate; a B-52 between $32,569 and $34,341 per hour; and an F/A-18 between $9,798 and $16,173 per hour, depending on the model. By contrast, the labs being destroyed are cheap and easy to replace. Afghans told Reuters it would take three or four days to replace a lab in Afghanistan. According to UNODC, the morphine/heroin labs need only simple equipment such as a stove, iron barrel, and locally made pressing machines.

SIGAR was also cognizant of the potential political risks involved in dropping bombs in the middle of settlements: "One danger of a sustained air campaign is civilian casualties, which could erode support for the Afghan government and potentially increase support for the insurgency," the report noted.

That was the case in Musa Qala, where Mansfield noted that Helmand members of parliament had voiced objections and where a local informant angrily declared: "These are not Taliban. They killed women and children, NATO killed them."

In rural Afghanistan, where opium is the backbone of the economy, it isn't just the Taliban involved but peasant farmers and field-workers, traders and middlemen, local officials and warlords. That makes using military force to attack what is essentially a criminal problem especially problematic.

"That's one of the challenges of the campaign," said Felbab-Brown. "The military can go after 'Taliban-linked' targets, but what does that mean? In some cases the lab might belong to a trader, a local criminal actor, but in other cases, it will be operated by peasants. The tendency in the drug markets is to move away from very large labs and have many dispersed labs precisely to prevent significant disruption. These are mainly small labs operated by low-level peasants who have acquired the skills to do the processing," she added.

"There is a very significant risk of hitting a lot of very low-level people, while those with political connections get away with it," the Brookings scholar pointed out. "The risk is of pushing people into the hands of the Taliban and making them more dependent on the Taliban."

The Trump White House is pressing the "Taliban heroin lab" bombing campaign because things aren't going so well in Afghanistan, in terms of either counter-narcotics or counterinsurgency. Nearly 17 years after the U.S. first invaded to drive the Taliban from power, the insurgency is stronger than ever, with Taliban reportedly controlling more than a third of the population, rising civilian and military death tolls, and a U.S.-backed government in Kabul seemingly incapable of either fighting or governing effectively.

"Afghan government control or influence has declined and insurgent control or influence has increased overall since SIGAR began reporting control data in January 2016," the watchdog said in its report, while also noting that for the first time, the Pentagon prohibited it from publicizing the full district and land area under the control of the government and insurgent groups or reporting on the strength and capabilities of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.

Similarly, the war on drugs in Afghanistan isn't exactly being won, either. Since 2002, SIGAR reported, the U.S. has spent $8.7 billion on counter-narcotics efforts in the country, only to see it remain responsible for the great bulk of the world's opium production throughout the period. Last fall, just before the bombs began falling on the labs, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime reported in its Afghanistan Opium Survey 2017 that opium planting was at an all-time high, up 63% over 2016, with strong increases reported in almost all poppy-planting provinces.

For the Trump administration, going after opium and the Taliban seems like a natural, and going aggressive fits with Trump's militaristic bent, but all the sound and fury is unlikely to accomplish much.

"There is action for the sake of action because the White House and Sessions want to see action," said Felbab-Brown. "There is this domestic image being created about opiates, and various government officials and Republicans have been obliquely linking the U.S. opiate epidemic to global markets, but there is no evidence whatsoever that the U.S. market is in any significant way supplied by Afghanistan. Still, the Pentagon had to demonstrate that it was doing something, and the thing it can do most easily is bomb interdiction sites, those so-called heroin labs."

Although the country accounts for around 90% of the global opium supply, very little Afghan opium ends up as heroin consumed by American drug users. According to the DEA's annual 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment, only about 1% of heroin in the U.S. comes from Afghanistan. Instead, Mexico accounts for 80% and Colombia and Guatemala make up the remainder.

"There is far more pressure from Trump on actors in Afghanistan to demonstrate results and far less comprehension that demonstrating results for its own sake with significant negative side effects is counterproductive," said Felbab-Brown. "Obama had much more comprehension of the risks of things like eradication, and Trump is far more determined to revive doctrinaire old counter-narcotics approaches, many of which harken back to the drug dogma of the 1980s and 1990s."

But trying to suppress the Afghan opium economy is a loser's game for the foreseeable future, she argued.

"There are real limits on what interdiction or eradication can do. There is much greater insecurity than at any point since 2002-2003, there are fewer U.S. troops available for ground action, and that Afghans can't provide adequate security for U.S. personnel on ground interdiction, much less an air interdiction campaign that can demonstrate some numbers," she said. "There can never be a winning situation with respect to drugs unless and until conflict has ended and the state has a presence throughout the country," said Felbab-Brown. "It's extraordinarily difficult to replace a vast illicit economy, and in Afghanistan, where the opium trade accounts for 30% of GDP, it would be an enormous undertaking."

Effectively going after the opium economy would involve going after people other than the Taliban, she pointed out.

"We should think about interdiction in the same way we think about interdicting high-value targets," she said. "Use it to target those who pose the greatest threat to the Afghan state, and that's not just Taliban actors. There are Afghan politicians clamoring to bring down the government, and they have heroin assets. Interdiction shouldn't be seen just as a tool of limiting the Taliban, but as a broader stabilization tool. But that would require far greater authorization, which the U.S. military doesn't currently have—it can only go after Taliban financing."

The situation is unlikely to get better in the medium term, with the Taliban and other insurgent groups seemingly striking at will, the Afghan military seemingly unable to stop them, and the Afghan government focused on hotly contested presidential elections set for next year and oft-postponed parliamentary elections set for later this year.

"Things could become much worse," said Felbab-Brown, "and with any significant instability it will become that much more difficult to conduct counter-narcotics operations."

But that's where U.S. policy in Afghanistan appears to be heading.

"Trump and Sessions have the inclination and the desire for many of the same doctrinaire drug war policies both domestically and internationally," she said. "There is huge pressure from them on Colombia to ramp up coca eradication, and we could get in a situation where there will be huge pressure from the White House to conduct aerial spraying of opium poppies. That would be the last nail in the coffin of Afghan counterinsurgency." 

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Jeff Sessions Makes False Link Between Marijuana and the Opioid Crisis

Thu, 02/08/2018 - 19:07
Click here for reuse options! Some argue that marijuana may be a key part of the fight against opioid abuse.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions hates marijuana—that much is clear. He once said at a Senate hearing that the drug is a "very real danger" and that "good people don't smoke marijuana."

This week, Sessions doubled down on his dislike of marijuana with comments that not only contradict the available evidence but may undermine potentially life-saving public health efforts.

"We think a lot of this [opioid abuse] is starting with marijuana and other drugs, too," Sessions said at a Heritage Foundation event this week. He also seemed to downplay the DEA's estimation that about 80 percent of heroin abusers start with prescription drugs.

Sessions' belief that marijuana is feeding the opioid crisis flies in the face of evidence. 

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2014 found that the 10 states that legalized medical marijuana between 1999 and 2010 saw significantly fewer opioid deaths compared to states that completely outlaw pot. And in a report published just this week by the Rand Corporation, the 2014 findings were confirmed, though the new study found that the reduction in opioid deaths was the strongest in states that permitted medical marijuana dispensaries to open up.

Far from indicating that pot use may pave the way for opioid abuse and overdoses, these studies and others suggest the opposite—that marijuana may help people avoid the trap of opioid addiction.

Some even argue that marijuana could be a key part of the fight against opioid abuse. There are skeptics of this approach, and it's important to recognize we're unlikely to find a single panacea to wipe out the problem. But a knee-jerk response to marijuana is not helpful.

Sessions is peddling the tired canard that medical marijuana is a "gateway drug." He even recently endorsed Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" approach to drug addiction. But the gateway-drug concept has long been highly dubious

As of now, reliable studies suggest marijuana isn't making the opioid crisis worse and that it may even help to fight it.

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Opioid Crisis Hits Hardest in Areas Hit by Climate Stress, Declining Farm Incomes

Thu, 02/08/2018 - 12:55
The crisis is linked to several factors that rarely come up in conversations about drugs.

The overprescribing of opioid-based painkillers may be the main, but not sole, driver of the increased abuse of opioids in rural America.

Economists say that other factors, including declining farm income, extreme weather, and other natural disasters, may affect this crisis that is killing thousands of citizens and costing the country billions of dollars.

In a study of relationships among socioeconomic variables and opioid-related drug overdoses, researchers found several correlations that don’t often come up in the current conversation about the nation’s deaths of despair, which include opioid overdoses, says Stephan Goetz, professor of agricultural and regional economics at Penn State and director of the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development.

For example, a higher number of natural disasters experienced historically in a county is correlated with an increase in opioid overdoses, according to the researchers. They used presidentially declared disasters by county from FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) to determine the effect of natural disasters on opioid deaths. These disasters primarily include weather-related events, such as hurricanes, droughts, and floods.

If climatologists’ warnings are correct, a changing climate could produce more extreme weather patterns, which could then have an effect on opioid overdoses and deaths, says Goetz, who worked with Meri Davlasheridze, assistant professor in marine sciences at Texas A&M at Galveston.

Income also matters, according to the researchers. For each $10,000 reduction in net income per farm, opioid overdoses rose by 10 percent from a national average of 10.2 deaths per 100,000 people to 11.2 deaths per 100,000 people. Opioid-related deaths are also increasing in rural counties, they add.

“Our results confirm that economic factors, including income especially and unemployment, as well as population density—or rurality—are important,” says Goetz. “As we are controlling for economic factors, population density appears to play an independent role in accounting for the disparate death rates.”

Scope of the crisis

Goetz adds that it is important to use caution when interpreting this data.

“We are giving each county the same weight in our statistical analysis and the farming population is not that big—it’s about one or two percent of the US population,” says Goetz. “But, there could be a spillover effect—if the farm income declines, the rest of the rural economy suffers.”

Estimates indicate that opioid-related drug overdoses cost the country $432 billion in 2015, according to the researchers, who presented their findings at a recent meeting of the Allied Social Sciences Association annual meeting in Philadelphia.

3 harmful myths about the opioid epidemic

“To give some sense of this, the opioid crisis is a problem that is orders of magnitude larger than the costs associated with weather-related disasters in 2017,” says Goetz. “This is a far-reaching problem—and it cuts across social, economic, and political lines.”

Signs of hope

There are some glimmers of hope in the research, Goetz says. For example, overdoses among younger people seem to be declining, Goetz says. The highest rates of overdose are among people in the 45- to 64-year-old range.

Because the self-employed have lower rates of overdose, the researchers suggest that self-employment also seems to be a deterrent against the opioid crisis.

“Sometimes we think of the self-employed, or entrepreneurs as more stressed and as people who might be looking for an escape from those pressures, but that doesn’t appear to be the case in opioid use,” says Goetz.

The researchers theorize that one reason this wave of opioid deaths may be higher in rural counties is because of the low number of mental-health treatment facilities in those areas and, perhaps, the stigma attached to seeking help in those facilities.

Why rural women miss out on mental health care

“There are far fewer mental-health treatment facilities, so if you have a problem, you might not know where to go for help,” Goetz says. “We’re thinking that one of the things we need to investigate in the future is whether awareness is the problem or is there a stigma? These are all important issues to consider and they could be addressed through educational or other programs.”

The United States Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture supported this work.

Source: Penn State


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Bernard Noble Finally Granted Parole After Being Sentenced to 13 Years for Possessing Two Joints

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 14:24
Click here for reuse options! It is time that all prisoners of the war on drugs are returned home to be reunited with their families.

Bernard Noble, who was sentenced to 13 years for possessing two marijuana joints, was granted parole yesterday after serving more than 8 years in a Louisiana prison. His case drew national attention and outrage, at a time when states are legalizing marijuana and individuals are making big bucks with the business of marijuana.

Bernard was riding his bike up a one way street the wrong way when police stopped him. They found two marijuana joints in his possession and threw the book at him because of two prior low-level drug law violations.

The Drug Policy Alliance filed a friend of the court brief in the Louisiana Supreme Court in 2014, calling for judicial relief, but the appeal was denied. Then, in 2015, the Board of Pardons and Parole rejected Noble’s petition for clemency because he had not served 10 or more years in prison.  (Louisiana state law requires prisoners to have been in custody of the Department of Corrections for a minimum of 10 years before they’ll consider an inmate’s application for clemency.)

Bernard’s sentence is a prime example of the draconian nature of the marijuana laws in many states across the country and one in which Attorney General Jeff Sessions advocates for. Sessions has been very vocal about turning back the hand of time in America’s war on drugs.

In stark contrast to Louisiana, many states have legalized and decriminalized possession of marijuana for personal use. According to a new DPA report, total marijuana arrests in legal marijuana states have plummeted --  saving hundreds of millions of dollars and sparing thousands of people from being branded with a lifelong criminal record.

To be sentenced under unjust laws to a tremendous amount of time is unconscionable.  I know this because I served 12 years of a 15-to-life sentence behind bars for a non-violent drug crime. In 1997, after serving 12 years I was granted executive clemency by New York Governor George Pataki.

Noble has never been convicted of anything more serious than possession of drugs for personal use, but because of the draconian nature of Louisiana’s drug laws Bernard was forced to leave his home and his seven children behind. It almost feels unreal that a case like his could happen despite the tremendous recent strides in marijuana law reform.  But there are still over 500,000 people getting arrested in the U.S. every year just for getting caught with a small amount of marijuana.

It is time that all prisoners of the war on drugs are returned home to be reunited with their families, in the name of justice.

This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog.


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7 Reasons To Smoke Marijuana Every Day

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 11:54
As if you needed more than one. 1. It Can Give You A Healthier Liver

That is, if you’re addicted to alcohol. A recent study found that alcoholics who smoked weed everyday had healthier livers.

According to BGR:

A peer-reviewed paper accepted for publication in Liver International journal looked at inpatient discharge data for 320,000 adult patients with a history of alcohol abuse. When comparing the data, researchers found that the 10% of alcoholics who also used weed exhibited a lower rate of liver disease of any kind. Alcoholics who were habitual users exhibited an even lower incidence of liver disease than occasional users, strongly suggesting that yes, weed can help prevent liver damage from drinking.

2. It Can Help Your Brain

The chemical compounds inherent in cannabis, THC and CBD, help protect our brains. This is particularly true in relation to brain injury.

But, according to The Fresh Toast‘s Trey Reckling:

It’s not just about traumatic brain injury. The reputable Salk Institute has contributed to a growing body of research that shows that low doses of THC reduce the plaque forming proteins associated with Alzheimer’s Disease. It effectively reduces inflammation and helps prevent neural cell death, preserving the brain’s ability to be “plastic.”

In addition to holding promise for people suffering from traumatic brain injury and early onset dementia, this function of cannabis is also of great interest to people with post traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. Cannabis is believed to be effective for people with PTSD because neuroplasticity helps their brain to ‘forget’ the trauma more than before and allows the brain to rewire connections of learned fear, reducing hyper vigilancenightmares and night terrors.

3. It Can Treat Migraines

A study from the University of Colorado, published in the January issue of Parmacotherapy, showed that the frequency of migraines in patients who used cannabis dropped from 10.4 per month to 4.6—a number that’s both statistically and clinically significant.

According to TFT‘s Richard Faulk, “Secondary findings showed that different cannabis delivery routes had different strengths: Smoked marijuana, which hits the bloodstream almost instantly, was best for treating acute migraines. On the other hand, edibles, which take much longer to metabolize, helped prevent headaches.”

4. It Can Aid In Weight Loss 

Cannabis helps the body regulate insulin production more efficiently. The TFT‘s cannabis editor, Al Olson, credits marijuana with helping him shed 50 pounds in 2016.

Says Olson:

Essentially what may be happening is this: Marijuana will generally promote appetite and binge eating when first using marijuana. Eventually, it has the opposite effect and the cannabinoid receptors in your brain become desensitized or trained.

He says while marijuana assists in weight loss, it’s not going to help you lose weight on its own. “You seriously need to adopt a healthier lifestyle and be mindful of what you are putting in your body.”

5. Weed Helps Promote Creativity

People credit smoking weed with getting their creative juices flowing, and it’s not just talk. According to TFT’s Al Olson, the link between marijuana and creativity is legit. He points to a 2010 study that showed THC’s ability to increase “hyper-priming.”

Put simply, hyper-priming is what occurs when your brain makes a connection between two items that are seemingly unrelated. When under the influence of THC, most people are capable of making these connections faster than those not under the influence. In other words, cannabis produces psychotomimetic symptoms, which leads to connecting disparate concepts, the type of divergent thinking that is considered primary to creative thinking.

6. It Will Help You Sleep

Marijuana has been proven time and again as a sleep aid. But how does it work, exactly? As TFT‘s Al Olson reports, as more and more states move to legalize cannabis, more of us are looking at the herb as an alternative to pharmaceuticals. Studies have shown that cannabis can improve the duration and quality of sleep. A 1973 study suggests that THC reduces the amount of time it takes those with insomnia to fall asleep. Another study found that those that regularly used THC fell asleep faster.

7. Lighting Up Can Lower Your Risk Of Diabetes

study from SUNY Buffalo, shows that adult marijuana users in the US consume on average more soda, more alcohol—particularly beer—more salt, pork, cheese, and salty snacks, and they eat less fruit than nonusers. And yet, they are skinnier.

Says TFT‘s Richard Faulk:

For those of us who try to lead a healthy lifestyle, eat well, and limit the amount of substances we abuse, the cruel fact seems to be that habitual marijuana users take in more calories and yet are less inclined toward obesity and diabetes. Of course, this was not a controlled study, so the pot might be a deceptive correlation. Maybe some overlooked factor is actually key—like maybe all the cannabis users also do yoga or bike to work or have tapeworms.


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Citing Infamous Big Tobacco Hearing, Sanders Wants Drug CEOs to Testify on Opioid Crisis

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 11:45
Demanding an investigation by lawmakers, Sanders notes that the epidemic has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is calling for pharmaceutical industry executives to testify in the Senate and for lawmakers to investigate the role manufacturers and distributors have played in fueling the national opioid crisis.

"This epidemic has not only cost us hundreds of thousands of lives, but has also cost federal, state, and local governments hundreds of billions of dollars for healthcare, law enforcement, and reduced productivity," Sanders wrote in a letter(pdf) to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, on Monday.

While President Donald Trump continues to fail on his promise to seriously prioritize the issue of opioid addiction, the letter declares, "It is time for the United States Congress to investigate this crisis, to learn what the drug companies knew about these products, and to hold them accountable in helping communities all over this country address this deadly and expensive crisis," emphasizing the HELP Committee "should be at the forefront of investigating all the causes that led to this epidemic."

More than 63,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2016 alone, and the majorityof those deaths were tied to opioid use, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (and recent research has shown the official count may be far lower than the actual death toll). While the HELP Committee has held multiple hearings in response to the crisis—with another scheduled for Thursday—none have addressed the culpability of prescription drug companies, particularly with regard to marketing practices and communicating risks to doctors.

"This crisis did not happen in a vacuum. Thanks to the work of many investigative journalists, we know that pharmaceutical companies lied about the addictive impacts of the drugs. In other words, they knew how dangerous these products were, but refused to tell doctors and patients," the letter continues, pointing to a series of damning reports that have been published in recent years. "The public needs to know whether or not the industry's marketing practices were complicit in creating this crisis."

Sanders' letter recounts when tobacco industry executives testified in front of a House subcommittee in 1994, highlighting that during the hearing, lawmakers "had the courage to demand" that those testifying "tell the American people what they knew and when they knew that tobacco was a major health hazard, and had killed millions of people." Noting that those hearings "led to real change," the senator demands lawmakers "summon that courage again" to bring Big Pharma executives to the Senate.

While more than 100 states and municipalities have filed lawsuits and received settlements from opioid producers and distributors, which the letter acknowledges, the senator emphasizes that it's "not nearly enough" to cover the costs of crisis, declaring "the states cannot do it alone."

The letter also notes that Sanders plans to "introduce legislation to hold these companies accountable for the destruction they have caused," which he says would "prohibit illegal marketing and distribution practices with respect to opioids" and require drug companies to "reimburse the economic impact of their products."

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License


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6 States That Could Pass Marijuana Initiatives This Year

Tue, 02/06/2018 - 16:17
Click here for reuse options! If marijuana initiatives can make the ballot, they are likely to win.

While marijuana reform efforts continue at an excruciatingly slow pace in state legislatures (Vermont became the first state to free the weed at the statehouse just last month), the initiative and referendum process continues to serve as a direct popular vote alternative to the crapshoot that is trying to get a pot bill through two houses and signed by a governor.

At least six states have a serious shot at legalizing either recreational marijuana or medical marijuana via the initiative process this year. In one state, a medical marijuana initiative has already qualified for the ballot; in another, plentiful signatures have been handed in for a legalization initiative; and in three others, signature gathering campaigns are well underway. In the last state, a legalization initiative hasn't been officially filed yet, but already has serious financial backing.

By the time we get past election day, we should be looking at a legalization victory in at least one more state and medical marijuana victories damned near anywhere an initiative manages to get on the ballot. In the last election cycle, marijuana reform initiatives won in eight out of nine contests.

Here are the 2018 contenders.

1. Michigan: Marijuana Legalization

The Michigan Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol has already completed a petition campaign and handed in more than 365,000 raw signatures in November for its legalization initiative. It hasn't officially qualified for the ballot yet, but it only needs 250,000 valid voter signatures to do so, meaning it has a rather substantial cushion. If the measure makes the ballot, it should win. There is the little matter of actually campaigning to pass the initiative, which should require one or two million dollars for TV ad buys and other get-out-the-vote efforts, but with the Marijuana Policy Project on board and some deep-pocketed local interests as well, the money should be there. The voters already are there: Polling has shown majority support for legalization for several years now, always trending up, and most recently hitting 58% in a May Marketing Resource Group poll.

2. Missouri: Medical Marijuana

New Approach Missouri's Right to Medical Marijuana initiative would legalize the use of medical marijuana for specified medical conditions and create a system of taxed and regulated medical marijuana cultivation, distribution, and sales. The campaign is well into its signature-gathering phase and reported this week that it already has 175,000 raw signatures. It only needs 160,000 verified valid voter signatures, but has set a goal of 280,000 raw signatures to provide a comfortable cushion. Signature gathering doesn't end until May 6. There is no recent state polling on the issue, but medical marijuana typically polls above 80% nationally.

3. New Mexico: Marijuana Legalization

The Land of Enchantment has a unique path to a popular vote on marijuana legalization: A measure before the legislature, Senate Joint Resolution 4, would, if approved, take the issue directly to the voters in November. New Mexicans would vote on a constitutional amendment to legalize weed, and if they approved it, the legislature would meet next year to promulgate rules and regulations. The measure passed one Senate committee on Friday, but still faces another Senate committee vote, a Senate floor vote, and action in the House, and the clock is ticking. Supporters have only about two weeks to move this bill before the session ends. If it can get before the voters, it could win: A poll last week had support at 61%.

4. Ohio: Marijuana Legalization

Responsible Ohio tried to legalize marijuana in 2015 via a "pay to play" initiative that would have created a growers' oligopoly limited to cash-heavy early supporters who financed the entire campaign. Ohio voters didn't buy that, so some of the players are back again with what they're calling the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Amendment. It hasn't been officially filed yet, but would reportedly have a "free market" approach to a system of taxed and regulated cultivation, distribution, and sales, and it would allow for personal cultivation. Organizers say they have $3 million already for signature gathering and campaigning. They will need 305,592 valid voter signatures and they have a goal of July 4 for getting them. There's no recent polling. 

5. Oklahoma: Medical Marijuana

The Oklahoma medical marijuana initiative, State Question 788, has already qualified for the ballot and will go before the voters during the June 26 primary election. The initiative legalizes the use, cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana to qualified patients. A January Sooner poll had support at 62%, a fairly low level of support for medical marijuana, which typically polls above 80% nationwide. But this is Oklahoma.

6. Utah: Medical Marijuana

The Utah Medical Cannabis Act would allow patients with certain qualifying conditions to use medical marijuana. It limits the numbers of dispensaries and growers, and patients could only grow their own if they reside more than 100 miles from the nearest dispensary. Patients could not smoke their medicine, but they could vaporize it. The Utah Patients Coalition is currently in the midst of its signature-gathering campaign. It needs 113,000 verified voter signatures by April 15, and it has the money in the bank, including $100,000 from the Marijuana Policy Project, to get it done. A series of polls last year had support levels ranging from 69% to 78%.  


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Sessions' War on Pot Could Speed Up Legalization Nationwide

Tue, 02/06/2018 - 14:44
The attorney general may have made a strategic error in going after weed.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently clarified how the Trump administration intends to treat states that have legalized pot, which remains illegal on the federal level.

The Obama administration eventually took a relatively hands-off approach to this enforcement conundrum. But Sessions instructed all United States attorneys to treat cannabis-related activities like any suspected crime, instead of making them a low priority if they comply with state laws.

This bureaucratic salvo is stirring fears that the Trump administration could be on the verge of a crackdown that could potentially jeopardize the nation’s growing number of legally operating pot businesses. However, based on my research and what I’ve learned while teaching the first U.S. college course on the marijuana business at the University of Denver, I see no reason for supporters of legalization to panic.

In fact, I believe that Sessions may have actually accelerated the process toward federal marijuana legalization.

Obama’s approach

First, a little history.

California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996. Alaska, Oregon and other states soon followed.

Since the federal government considers pot to be a Class 1 controlled substance and makes using and selling marijuana for any reason a crime, this put the authorities in an awkward position. Key members of the Clinton administration responded with harsh rhetoric. General Barry McCaffrey, the drug czar, said at the time, “We should ask ourselves whether we really want Cheech and Chong logic to guide our thinking about medicine.” Raids and high-profile indictments followed.

President George W. Bush’s administration also expressed hostility toward medical marijuana, making its growing number of raids on legal dispensaries come as no great surprise. In 2005, as his second term began, the Supreme Court ruled that federal powers trumped states’ rights in this regard.

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama suggested that he might not interfere with the power of what was by then about a dozen states to allow medicinal marijuana sales and use. In 2009, his deputy attorney general, David Ogden, released a memo that furthered this impression. It said that small-scale operators in states where medical marijuana was legal were a low enforcement priority

But Obama’s administration executed dozens of dispensary raids anyway, disappointing legalization proponents

During Obama’s second term, the number of states that had legalized medical marijuana climbed past the 20 mark. A handful, starting with Colorado and Washington, also legalized recreational weed. Meanwhile, support for legal pot continued to build in general

Four years after the Ogden memo, James Cole, another deputy attorney general, issued a more comprehensive memo. It directed all U.S. attorneys to treat marijuana businesses operating “in clear and unambiguous compliance” with state marijuana laws as a low enforcement priority

While still somewhat ambiguous and falling short of support for full federal legalization, Cole’s guidance made cannabis businesses in states that had legalized the product feel less vulnerable

Rather than fight for more protection against federal raids, marijuana entrepreneurs and social activists at that point instead generally chose to focus on compliance within state laws and continuing to increase public support

The strategy seemed to pay off with additional states legalizing pot for medical and recreational purposes. While full legalization remained an appealing long-term goal for many Americans, the status quo during Obama’s second term seemed quite workable for states with legal markets. And it took away the impetus to push for more rapid federal change

Trump takes over

As soon as President Donald Trump named Sessions as his pick for attorney general, the Alabama Republican’s long-held anti-pot views triggered speculation that the federal government would crack down in states where it was legal

Instead, Sessions waited almost a full year to make a move. Meanwhile, legal cannabis businesses continued to generate tax revenue and create jobs. California launched its recreational marijuana market, the world’s largest. And more and more Americans were exposed to the industry in their home states or while traveling

Indeed, a Pew Research Center poll conducted in October found that 61 percent of Americans supported legalization – up from 57 percent a year earlier and nearly double the backing for legal pot in 2000. For the first time, Gallup polling determined, a majority of Republicans support legalization

Even when Sessions finally acted, he took a relatively mild step. Rather than launching a more severe crackdown, such as immediately raiding marijuana businesses, he merely rescinded Cole’s guidance

Bigger coalition

The way state lawmakers, attorneys general, industry participants and other stakeholders reacted to even this small gesture demonstrated something that Sessions seems to have failed to consider – that the coalition in support of marijuana legalization had grown considerably

State lawmakers in California, Colorado, Massachusetts and other states, and even some of the Republicans in Congress, objected. A group of 54 House and Senate Democrats sent Trump a letter urging him to reverse course

“This action has the potential to unravel efforts to build sensible drug policies that encourage economic development as we are finally moving away from antiquated practices that have hurt disadvantaged communities,” they wrote

State attorneys general, who do not report to Sessions, such as those serving in Colorado, Washington, Pennsylvania and Michigan, have shown no interest in modifying their current practices

And 19 of them urged Congress to change banking laws so that marijuana businesses in their states would no longer have to rely solely on cash to handle billions of dollars in legal pot transactions. That way, they wrote, their revenue could be fully tracked, aiding taxation and limiting criminal activity that targets cash-intensive businesses.

Jerred Kiloh, owner of the Higher Path medical marijuana dispensary, getting ready to pay his monthly tax payment in cash in Los Angeles. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

All in all, the fierce reaction across the political spectrum reaction shows two things: Sessions’ memo is an empty threat and pot’s days as an illegal drug are numbered

To be sure, the Sessions memo does seem to have scared away some investors who were considering new pot investments. But by adding to the air of uncertainty around marijuana businesses, Sessions seems have only strengthened the resolve of pro-legalization forces

I believe it will ultimately bring about federal legalization sooner rather than later

Paul Seaborn, Assistant Professor, Department of Management, Daniels College of Business, University of Denver

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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This Valentine's Day, Ask Moms How to Love

Tue, 02/06/2018 - 14:40
Click here for reuse options! It may just teach you something about justice.

At this moment in history, when we are undergoing a re-examination of what male leadership has looked like, it is fitting to examine how many of our policies have reflected not just the identity but also the values traditionally associated with male leadership. This country has pursued paternalistic and punitive policies in many realms, but particularly in our criminal justice system. If we are looking for a way to demonstrate how to lead with more, shall we say, maternal instincts, let's demand a smart, simple, practical change: decriminalize drugs and instead employ a whole different kind of intervention—the kind a mother would use if her child was in trouble. This would be nothing short of redefining how we love our people in this country. Oh, and by the way, it also would save money and lives. 

We know what this looks like in our homes. If my daughter came to me with drastically reduced grades on a report card, I would not reflexively send her to her room, keep her away from her family, friends and her learning environment, and punish her. I might instead ask her what has been going on: is she having trouble concentrating on or understanding the material; are other students being mean to her; is she sitting in the back and can't see the board? My husband and I might work with her on a plan to marshal resources needed to address any problems. Maybe extra help at school, a hearing aid, whatever we think would be best for her once we understand what is going on. We'd hug her a lot and tell her she will feel better.

This is part of how you love your child when she is having a problem. I am like every other mom: I sometimes do and sometimes don't show up for my children in the ways they need, but I always try. I am fortunate that my ideal day at least would have the best intentions and that I can offer my children resources. But on our worst day I hope none of us as a caregiver would abdicate on the care and lavish on the punishment the way our criminal justice system does. Just look at how our system has purported to love our collective children in various levels of crisis.

I have seen it second-hand, through the experiences of mothers who have lost children to the criminal justice system or even to death because their children were in some capacity involved with drugs. In my decades of work toward ending drug prohibition, I met and now know and care about many of these women. They have had their children taken away, and have been divorced from control over or even involvement in medical decisions about care, all because of societal failures to deal appropriately with substance use. Instead of making widely available drug treatment, job training, and other services to people who need a gentle nudge—the kind some moms are good at—to help keep our young people on track, our criminal justice practices tear families apart at their most vulnerable moments and wrench away whatever stability they have established. The usurpation of mothers' roles (I use mothers but intend to include fathers and all women and all allies to this style of governance) permeates our justice system and all of our governing systems. In all of these areas we have failed our children, and as moms, we have the mandate to end this as surely as we must continue to band together to change workplace behavior toward women. 

Rather than sinking into bitterness, mothers I know are building momentum for a movement to restore sanity to our overly harsh, wasteful and ineffective drug laws. It stands to reason: mothers were the driving force behind the repeal of alcohol Prohibition, and they will be the backbone of the necessary repeal of modern-day prohibitions that cause more problems than they solve. Some reforms mothers can also champion now are access to medication-assisted treatment, distribution of life-saving Naloxone, and creation of safe injection facilities—sensible harm-reduction measures to make our current prohibition regime less damaging to our communities and our children.

Because we need so desperately to change our drug policies, I have been a member of the Moms United to End the War on Drugs campaign of A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing) since its inception a decade ago. Moms United's mission is to end the violence, mass incarceration, and overdose deaths that are a result of current punitive and discriminatory drug policies. It is important to me as a mother that my children grow up in a country that rejects these ineffective and damaging drug war policies.

So as our public debate looks at the behavior of men in power toward women in the workplace, let's not forget how that paternalistic instinct has informed policies like the war on drugs, and led us down a path of moral bankruptcy. Instead, let's look to moms for credible policies. Moms United has crafted a good set of principles to start with. But in the name of love, let's really commit this Valentine's Day to rethinking the punitive policies we have embraced. Yes, we discipline our children; but we also encourage them, teach them and expose them to positive influences. Even when they falter or misbehave, we offer them love and positive reinforcement for better choices. We hug them even if they have disappointed us. We all need a big hug these days.


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Green Rush Blues -- California Cannabis After Legalization, Part II: Black Markets Matter

Tue, 02/06/2018 - 01:11
A substantial portion of the state's pot crop goes to illicit markets, and that hasn't changed with legalization.

Old Kai is an Emerald Triangle-based distribution business licensed by Mendocino County to transport cannabis from the farms and brands it works with to the main marketplaces in cities to the south. The company took all the steps required by the state and county to make their business compliant with the new laws and regulations, and they were excited to provide product to Bay Area dispensaries in anticipation of the January 1st roll-out of legal sales.

But in late December 2017, just eight days before adult use commerce would begin, an Old Kai delivery truck was pulled over on Highway 101 in Mendocino County by the California Highway Patrol, which called in the Mendocino Major Crimes Task Force as backup. Old Kai’s drivers were arrested and cited and nearly 2,000 pounds of cannabis were impounded as evidence.

Technically, Old Kai was not yet in compliance with the new regulations, because the new regulations did not go into effect until January 1st. And if Old Kai had followed the old guidelines pertaining to Proposition 215, California’s loosely regulated medical marijuana provision, the company would not have been compliant with the new policy for adult use.

Why did the California Highway Patrol and Mendocino County cops even bother to arrest an employee of a licensed cannabis distribution company when legal adult sales were imminent? Hadn’t these law enforcement officials heard that marijuana prohibition in Mendocino County, and California at large, was supposed to be over?

The Old Kai bust was not an anomaly. Rather, it was one of several shakedown operations mounted against licensed cannabis companies in the Emerald Triangle prior to the start of legal sales for recreational use.

Drug raids involving seizures and forfeitures have long been a cash cow for police, and a spate of arrests in Mendocino County followed a similar pattern during the waning days of prohibition: money and product are confiscated, never to be returned, and the district attorney’s office discreetly indicates that a six-figure sum will make the problem go away.

Now that marijuana is officially legal for grown-ups to purchase in California, will the cops back off? Not necessarily. State and local law enforcement could be very busy for a while targeting cannabis cultivators and businesses operating outside the regulated market.

The Road to Legalization

Although cannabis has been a mainstay of California’s unofficial economy for decades, the road to legalization has not been easy. Efforts to legalize marijuana at the state level began in the early 1970s and grew into a grassroots social movement, especially in San Francisco, the following decade during the worst days of the AIDS epidemic.

The passage of Proposition 215 in 1996 legalized the therapeutic use of cannabis, and a disparate network of cultivation collectives cautiously emerged in Northern California to provide medical marijuana to certified patients who could now legally possess it under state law. The first storefronts sprang up in San Francisco and Los Angeles and spread to a few other cities during the Clinton-Bush II years.

The federal government, working in tandem with state and local law enforcement, responded by threatening doctors, raiding gardens and dispensaries, and prosecuting suppliers.  According to the Drug Policy Alliance, between 2006 and 2015 there were nearly half a million marijuana-related arrests in California, mostly for possession. State legislators, meanwhile, declined to regulate California’s nascent cannabis industry, which prospered, despite all, in a confusing legal limbo.

A pro-cannabis cultural shift in the United States was already well underway when President Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009. Several TV reality shows featuring “marijuana millionaires” captivated a national audience in the throes of the worst economic downturn the nation had experienced since the Great Depression.

When Colorado and Washington voted to legalize recreational cannabis for adults in 2012, the Obama administration issued a memo outlining a look-the-other-way policy with respect to state marijuana laws. The four-page memo, written by Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, basically asserted that marijuana businesses would not be subject to federal prosecution as long as they complied with state law.

Marijuana fever took hold in America, and the Green Rush went into overdrive. Growers, investors, scam artists, get-rich-quick schemers, and patients seeking relief began flocking to California and other Western states where a legal cannabis industry had taken root.

But the Cole Memo also asserted that each state, as a condition of avoiding federal interference, was required to originate its own cannabis supply and prevent it from leaving its borders. This has resulted in sky-high prices in Washington, “emergency shortages” in Nevada (which initiated recreational sales in 2017), and corrupt, pay-to-play medical marijuana legislation in Midwestern and East Coast states like Ohio and Florida.

Proponents of drug policy reform argued that a regulated adult market would generate significant tax revenues in states that legalized marijuana. They were right. From windfall taxes to job creation and increased tourism, the economic impact of legal cannabis commerce has exceeded expectations in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon.

Legislators in other states began to warm up to the industry. Several influential politicians in California endorsed Proposition 64, the successful 2016 ballot measure that allows adults to possess small amounts of cannabis and to cultivate as many as six plants for personal use. Prop 64 included anti-monopoly language that prohibited large-scale mega-grows for five years, while giving local jurisdictions considerable latitude to tax and regulate cannabis commerce, including onsite consumption at dispensaries and social clubs.1

Game Changer

In a surprise move, shortly before the new law was due to go into effect, the anti-monopoly provision was scrapped by state officials who had merged the medical marijuana program and adult use regulations into one system. Certain industry lobbyists got what they wanted, but this is not what California residents voted for.

There were no public hearings about the 11th hour reversal, which removed the cap on the number of cultivation licenses a single company could own. The rule-change directly contradicted an environmental impact report issued by the Department of Food and Agriculture a few weeks earlier.

Small and medium-sized cannabis growers felt betrayed, fearing a corporate takeover of the world’s largest legal marijuana market. The California Growers Association, which represents some Emerald Triangle growers, filed suit against the California Department of Food Agriculture hoping to overturn the rule that permits cannabis farms of near-unlimited size.

With a population approaching 40 million residents, the Golden State is an economic behemoth in both the cannabis industry and the nation at large. The staggering amount of money to be made has raised the stakes for farmers in the Emerald Triangle, the epicenter of domestic cannabis production, which produces much more marijuana than California residents can consume. Most of the marijuana grown in Northern California is smuggled across state lines and sold on the black market throughout the United States.

Caught between a voracious national consumer demand and recalcitrant federal law, the cannabis industry in California faces a precarious future. The same election that legalized cannabis for adult use in the Golden State also put Donald Trump in the White House and Jeff Sessions, an anti-marijuana ideologue, in charge of the Justice Department.

California’s Green Rush got a lot more complicated on January 4, 2018, when Attorney General Sessions announced he was rescinding the Obama-era Cole Memo, which had provided a measure of protection for cannabis cultivators and producers. The Attorney General’s drug war saber-rattling was a direct response to the legalization of marijuana for personal use and the advent of commercial sales in California.

Feeling the Byrne

There are no reliable numbers on exactly how much cannabis is being grown in California, but recent estimates have put the total between $30 and $40 billion a year, with only about $5 billion worth consumed in state. The rest supplies an insatiable black market from sea to shining sea, despite ongoing law enforcement efforts to eradicate as many marijuana plants as possible.

Marijuana eradication efforts in the Emerald Triangle have been funded for over 25 years via the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program. This federal block grant program promotes collaboration between the DEA and local police agencies, which have raided numerous marijuana grow-ops and destroyed tens of thousands of illegal plants.

State law enforcement officials split the Byrne Grant funds 60/40 with local jurisdictions and have broad discretion on how the money is actually spent. The program has been criticized for financially incentivizing local law enforcement to focus on non-violent drug offenders in lieu of more serious problems like rape, murder and other violent crimes.

After nearly three decades, the Byrne Grant program has actually done very little to stem the supply or demand for illegal drugs, especially cannabis. And money for eradication shows no signs of drying up – even though marijuana commerce is now legal and licensed in California.

In 2017, the Department of Justice disclosed it would award 56 local grants that year worth about $17.7 million each, for a total of $174.4 million, through the JAG program. One of these grants has funded the County of Mendocino Marijuana Eradication Team (COMMET), which continues to participate in federal and state efforts to destroy unlicensed grow-ops – not just in Mendocino, but throughout the state.

Mendocino County officials set aside an additional $60,000 in asset forfeiture money (seized from drug suspects) to pair with $70,000 from JAG to underwrite COMMET in 2018. And COMMET is just one of several agencies participating in anti-marijuana busts and shakedowns throughout the state, despite legalization.

Costly Failure

Historically, the Byrne Grant program sponsored the efforts of the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), a law enforcement operation that used helicopters and paramilitary units to identify and eliminate marijuana grows in the sparsely populated hills and mountains of the Emerald Triangle. In recent years, COMMET and other eradication efforts have begun to focus on the massive illegal gardens being cut into the California hills, targeting polluters and other black market cultivators.

But state agencies won’t be able to fully protect the forests and water supply if marijuana remains a Schedule I Controlled Substance on a federal level. And that’s where it remains – despite all the science showing that it should never have been scheduled in the first place.

As long as there is an illegal demand for cannabis, there will also be an illegal supply made artificially more valuable by the prohibition meant to prevent it. And because it is federally illegal, cannabis is valuable enough to grow illegally in the middle of remote forests, the ecosystem be damned.

In 2016, the DEA spent $4.3 million in California to eliminate marijuana plants, $200,000 in Oregon, and $760,000 in Washington.

“That’s a huge cost when evidence has shown that these eradication efforts have not significantly reduced the total amount of illegal marijuana making its way to the market,” said Diane Goldstein, a former police officer. “We have to ask if local marijuana eradication is the best way for the federal government to spend its money.”

Goldstein, now retired, was the first female lieutenant at the Redondo Beach Police Department in Los Angeles County. During her career as a peace officer, Goldstein participated in raids to uproot illegal marijuana gardens on public lands. She witnessed firsthand the toll the drug war was taking in her community. After she retired from the force, Goldstein became a spokeswoman for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), formerly known as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which describes itself as “a nonprofit group of police, judges, and other law enforcement professionals who advance drug policy and criminal justice solutions that improve public safety.”

Goldstein says that California needs to lower barriers to entry for small businesses and pull back on taxes in order to bring the good actors into compliance and stabilize local economies. If not, the black market will flourish and anti-marijuana law enforcement operations will continue.

“There is no amount of money the federal government can give marijuana eradication task forces that is going to solve this problem,” Goldstein concludes.

The Cup Runneth Over

The Emerald Cup is one of the biggest cultural events of the year for the Northern California cannabis scene. The annual December gathering features big-name musicians, thousands of vending booths for all things hemp and cannabis, educational panels and workshops, and a prestigious competition with awards for the best products in a variety of categories. The contest drew over 600 product entrees in 2017.

From a marketing perspective, winning a highly coveted prize for best THC concentrate, CBD-rich flower, gourmet edible or topical salve at the Emerald Cup can make a huge difference for a cannabis brand. But there’s a good possibility that fewer contestants will participate in the next Emerald Cup, as many farmers and producers are opting out of the legal market.

Organized by Tim Blake, a former smuggler-turned-black market grower-turned legal entrepreneur, the Emerald Cup didn’t start out as a high-profile event. Disguised as a birthday party, the first Cup was held in 2003 at a community center in Humboldt County,

“Back then, the first place winners wouldn’t even pick up their awards,” Blake recalled. “People came in masks and there were only a couple dozen entries. Everyone was afraid they would be busted, but they weren’t.”

Blake bought property in southern Humboldt and installed a medical marijuana dispensary on the premises, called Area 101, which included meditative gardens, a 1500-pound statue of Ganesh (the Hindu elephant god), and other “religious deities.” Area 101 hosted the Emerald Cup until it outgrew the space a few years ago. Today, the Cup has become so large, attracting more than 25,000 weekend visitors, that it sells out the entire Sonoma County Fairgrounds, its current venue.

Writing on the Wall

In many ways the evolution of the Emerald Cup reflects the changes that have transpired in recent years as the underground cannabis community has evolved into an above-ground, multibillion dollar industry.
Not everyone is happy about the transition. At last year’s Cup, anxiety and disdain for the new regulations were palpable among many of the vendors. “Black Markets Matter” signs appeared conspicuously at several vending booths.

The message was unmistakable: Legalization won’t work unless growers and producers who wish to be compliant have an easier path – which means California legislators must reform the overly burdensome tax code and other policies that favor well-heeled investors over long-time veterans of the cannabis scene.

Blake saw the writing on the wall. For several years, he and others had been preparing for legalization. Blake rolled the success of the Emerald Cup brand into a popular line of hash products, a cannabis nursery, garden center, and manufacturing and farming company that markets top-shelf rosin and popular, pre-loaded vaporizer cartridges.

Despite the anticipated cultural and economic shift within the cannabis community, Blake still felt it was important to support the passage of Proposition 64. “I supported Prop 64 in 2016 because I felt like as long as people were still going to prison and patients can’t get their medicine, we have to put an end to this,” he said.

But as small farmers and boutique producers struggle to keep their businesses profitable while coming into compliance, Blake sees falling prices on the cannabis commodity market as a threat to the old way of life up north.

“Among my friends and family there is going to be more hardship and bankruptcy,” he predicted.

Even though it had been evident for some time that prohibition’s days were numbered, few expected profit margins to shrink so quickly as California approached legalization. Blake says a “perfect storm” of factors, including legalization in other states, has shrunk the transition window and left a lot of growers in a state of panic about what’s to come.


Part 1.  Eco-Crisis: Will Cannabis Legalization Save California’s Forests?

Part 3.  Growing Pains: Can Sustainable Farmers Survive Legalization?​



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Why Legalizing Marijuana Makes Sense for New York

Mon, 02/05/2018 - 14:25
It has the potential to generate billions of dollars in all types of tax revenue.

Ending marijuana prohibition and taxing and regulating marijuana for adult use in New York is smart for our communities, for racial justice, and for our state's economy. As the co-sponsor of the bill that would legalize the production, distribution, and use of marijuana for adults over the age of 21 in New York, I have spent a great deal of time studying the outcomes of legalizing marijuana in the eight states and Washington, D.C. that have regulated marijuana markets. In his budget address last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for a study of the implications of legalizing marijuana in New York; I think he will be interested in learning from the successful experiences of other states, as I have.

Each of these states has approached legalization differently and has distinct regulatory structures. Yet each state taxes and regulates marijuana in a manner similar to alcoholic beverages, with age limits, licensing requirements, quality controls, and other regulatory restrictions that are effective.

New York benefits from the experiences of other states that have already implemented this new regulatory approach to marijuana policy. New York policy makers can feel assured knowing that the sky did not fall in states like Washington, Colorado, Oregon, and Alaska that have legalized the adult use of marijuana.

Evidence shows that marijuana legalization is working so far. States are saving money in court costs and protecting the public by redirecting law enforcement resources. Previously static economies have experienced a boom benefitting a variety of industries that has generated millions in tax revenue and created new jobs. Some states have also adopted policies that will help repair social and economic harms of damaged communities caused by prohibition and the failed war on drugs.

Available research shows marijuana legalization has a positive effect on public health and safety. Nationally, and in states that have legalized marijuana, youth marijuana use has remained stable or declined. In part, this is because the regulated marijuana market has made it possible for states to create age restrictions and other barriers to access for young people that could not exist under prohibition. In fact, statewide surveys of junior high to high school age students living in states with a recreational market have shown no significant increase in marijuana use among young people. Lifetime use has remained stable, as well as recent use.

New York is facing an unprecedented opioid overdose crisis. Legal access to marijuana is also associated with reductions in some of the most troubling harms associated with opioid use, including opioid overdose deaths and untreated opioid use disorders. In states with medical marijuana access, overdose death rates are almost 25 percent lower than in states with no legal access to marijuana, and the reductions in overdose death rates strengthened over time.

Road safety has not been negatively impacted in states with existing regulated marijuana markets. DUI arrests for driving under the influence (of alcohol and other drugs) have declined in Colorado and Washington, the first two states to establish legally regulated adult use marijuana markets. In addition, data shows there is no correlation between marijuana legalization and crash rates. In both states, crash rates have remained similar to those in comparable states that have not legalized marijuana.

Experiences in states with regulated marijuana markets also indicate that creating a system to tax and regulate marijuana for adult use would be a sound economic investment for New York. Colorado has now collected more than $500 million in taxes and fees from legal marijuana since retail sales began in 2014, with increased revenue projected for this year. Between January 2016 and March 2017, state and local governments in Washington and Oregon were able to collect over $80 million and $75 million, respectively, in tax revenue. There are more people in New York than all of these states combined, therefore New York would likely generate even larger revenues than these three states. For example, illicit marijuana sales in New York are estimated at $3 billion, and an official study by the NYC Comptroller in 2013 estimated potential tax revenue for a legal marijuana market in NYC alone would be more than $400 million, acknowledging that the actual revenue could be much higher.

The marijuana industry is also creating jobs. The legal marijuana industry currently employs approximately 200,000 full and part-time workers across the country. This number will only continue to grow as more states legalize marijuana and replace their unregulated markets with new legal markets--while many other industries like manufacturing continue to lose jobs.

The economic growth experienced as a result of legalization has also spread beyond the marijuana industry into related sectors including legal services, financial services, tourism, real estate, construction, and security. Additionally, legalization has provided an indirect boost to states' coffers through enforcement and criminal justice savings, income tax revenues from newly created jobs, and retail tax revenues from increased consumer spending by the newly employed.

All of this suggests that legalization could serve as a better option for reducing unemployment than continuing to rely on shrinking industries. However, state marijuana laws must create avenues for participation by Black and Latino people and low-income people in order to avoid establishing new barriers to employment for the persons and communities most harmed by marijuana prohibition. Such measures, which are included in the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, will help New York begin to repair its legacy of racially disparate marijuana enforcement.

Nationally, legalization presents a unique and much-needed racial equity and economic justice opportunity, while reinvesting in communities most damaged by this country's failed war on drugs. For New York — the marijuana arrest capital of the world — legalization offers a chance to assume an active role in repairing the harms of the drug war, particularly for the state's most vulnerable communities. The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) — the legislation I co-sponsor with Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, for ending prohibition in New York — directs marijuana tax revenue to education and job training in communities most harmed by the drug war, as well as drug prevention and health services for New Yorkers.

There is no reason why New York, a global economic powerhouse, should not be able to provide its residents with the same opportunities that are being afforded to individuals in states that are generating millions of dollars in revenue from legalization. New York State has the potential to generate billions of dollars in all types of tax revenues from the legalization of marijuana.

This piece first appeared in the Albany Times Union

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Green Rush Blues: California Cannabis After Legalization

Sun, 02/04/2018 - 23:56
Who will gain and who will lose under the new regime? A three-part series.

The huge underground cannabis economy was woven into the commercial fabric of California long before the 2016 passage of Proposition 64, which legalized marijuana for adult use. Transforming a shadowy, multibillion-dollar industry into a heavily taxed and regulated structure presents unique and enormous challenges. Who will gain and who will lose under the new regime? Will the expected financial dividend from legalization be broadly distributed throughout the Golden State? California’s cannabis regulations are supposed to accomplish two key objectives: Curtail illicit sales and rein in extensive harm to the natural environment caused by black market growers. But the way legalization is being implemented could have the opposite effect. Steep taxes, higher operating costs, and an insatiable out-of-state demand for California cannabis all but ensure that the black market will survive – if not thrive – in the near term and ecological abuse will continue, as Angela Bacca reports in this special, three-part series.



California’s North Coast, unlike the densely populated semi-arid deserts of the south, is both wet and green. Its lush rainforests contain some of the world’s oldest and tallest trees and are home to rare and unique species. But folks who live in this area have struggled to survive in a hardscrabble, boom and bust economy characterized by commodity extraction and production. Logging trees became the region’s first big business, and today what is left of them are Northern California’s biggest tourist attraction.

In the tiny community of Leggett, tourists drive through a seven-foot wide hole cut into the bottom of a nearly 300-foot redwood tree. Sometimes the visitors bypass the main road, Highway 101, to admire the towering trees as they drive along The Avenue of the Giants, which winds through an ancient, majestic redwood forest.

In the autumn, anyone driving up Highway 101 can also catch a whiff of the region’s most famous export – marijuana.

Cannabis cultivation has never been a well-kept secret in the Emerald Triangle, America’s marijuana breadbasket, which includes Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity Counties. For hundreds of miles – from San Francisco to the Oregon border – billboards advertise events like the yearly Emerald Cup, a Northern California harvest festival that showcases the best of the region’s growers and artisanal product-makers.

The few small towns that line the highway typically only have one main street, but many prominently placed cannabis-themed businesses. During harvest season, trimming shears go on sale at grocery store checkouts. Every year, young marijuana migrants (aka “trimmigrants”) come from far and wide and are seen hitch-hiking up Highway 101 looking for work, hoping to process the harvest.

The first wave of marijuana farmers who settled in the region in the late 1960s and early 1970s identified with the back-to-the-land movement. Imbued with countercultural idealism, many of the original growers were environmentalists who eschewed the extractive capitalist practices that over-logged and overfished the Pacific forests and North Coast.

Some homesteaders found that growing a modest cannabis crop afforded the means to fight for wilderness protection and engage in other forms of ecological activism. “Farming with attitude,” as one Emerald Triangle resident described under-the-radar cannabis cultivation, spawned small, sustainable, community-oriented businesses that continue to endow the region with its unique character.

Death by a Thousand Cuts

But today’s cultivation scene is more complicated and less altruistic. The green ethos that prevailed in the early days has given way to a different set of players, including Wall Street-backed corporations with deep pockets and black market growers who exploit state laws and pollute the dense forests that provide cover for their illicit operations. These Green Rush interlopers are causing irreversible damage to the state’s water supply and precious natural resources.

“Think of this as death by a thousand cuts,” said Stormer Feiler, a senior environmental scientist with the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Feiler, who works in the Water Board’s cannabis regulatory program as an enforcement specialist, is referring to the plots of private and public forest lands that are “cut” into marijuana grow sites. “Cuts” are made by chopping down old growth trees and diverting water out of local streams. Often the growers that occupy the cuts spread dangerous fertilizers and pesticides, poisoning the habitats of the region’s endangered species.

Many of the cuts are carved into steep mountain slopes, causing erosion and mudslides that can choke off streams. Each cut into the forest has its own impact, but the sheer magnitude of cuts made in the last 20 years – since medical marijuana became legal in California – is overwhelming state officials.

Feiler has lived in Mendocino County for 40 years. He worked as a millworker when the region’s main product was timber. Feiler saw firsthand the damage caused by overfishing and over-logging the region, which led to the decline of both industries and high unemployment. The end of timber clear-cutting in the 1990s happened to coincide with the advent of legal medical cannabis in California.

“The timber infrastructure had collapsed, and those jobs were disappearing. There were a lot of displaced workers who turned to marijuana cultivation,” Feiler recounted. “Cannabis farming was a viable economic alternative if you were willing to take the risk.”

Boom and Bust

The North Coast economy has always been characterized by “boom and bust” industries that capitalized on the region’s finite natural resources. The discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1848 triggered a stampede of 300,000 people to California and a fast-track to American statehood in 1850. But tales of California’s newly minted Gold Rush millionaires obscured the fact that most prospectors who panned the streams and worked the mines didn’t make it rich.

What’s more, the long-term cost of the Gold Rush would be felt long after the mineral wealth was extracted. Today, the Golden State is still footing the bill to clean up an estimated 20,000 toxic abandoned gold mines littered throughout California’s landscape.

Humboldt County environmental scientist Dr. Mourad Gabriel says the region should learn from the mistakes made during the 19th century Gold Rush. He warns that future generations will end up paying dearly to clean up the ecological damage already inflicted by legions of marijuana growers who are operating by stealth in the North Coast’s forests.

Once rushing rivers and the streams that fed them are running dry as more marijuana growers divert water to irrigate their cash crop. The fish that live in these waterways become trapped in stagnant pools where they starve, fail to spawn and die. Most egregiously, dangerous pesticides and rodenticides are deployed around grow sites to keep mammalian predators from chewing on cannabis roots and stalks.

These pesticides not only end up in cannabis consumed by humans – they are also poisoning the food chain and destroying rare habitats. Pesticides have caused the decline of the Northern Spotted Owl and the mass die-off of the Pacific Fisher, an endangered weasel species. Gabriel refers to the Fisher as the “canary in the cannabis field” that rang alarm bells among scientists and led to discovery of the massive scope of the problem.

In 2004, Gabriel and wife Dr. Greta Wengert co-founded the Humboldt-based Integral Ecology Resource Center (IERC), a non-profit “dedicated to the research and conservation of wildlife and their ecosystems.” Five years later they turned their attention to the plummeting Pacific Fisher population. Their research determined that the mysterious die-off was due to internal hemorrhaging from widespread pesticide exposure.

More recently they found carbofuran, a highly toxic pesticide, at cannabis grow sites. Small doses of carbofuran can kill large animals and humans. Gabriel warns that these chemicals could end up in crucial waterways that supply the state’s major cities. “What amount of carbofuran in the water supply is acceptable in San Francisco?” he asks.

Gabriel’s efforts to educate the public about damage to North Coast ecosystems caused by the Green Rush infuriated some growers. In 2014, one of his family dogs was found dead from poisoning in his yard.

Satellite Imagery

Undaunted, Gabriel maintains it is imperative for future generations that science prevail in assessing the impacts of all the “cuts” on the land so that adequate remediation efforts can be pursued. The problem, he cautions, is already much larger and costlier than most people realize. Site-by-site cleanup is expensive – and beyond the resources of the various non-governmental organizations, law enforcement, researchers, scientists and state agencies that are tasked with the job.

“We are talking about possibly up to 100,000 or half a million parcels or more in California,” Gabriel said. “What we stand to lose is these natural resources [everyone is] dependent on.”

Gabriel’s estimates are based on aerial imagery. He refers to a 2017 Humboldt County Cannabis Environmental Impact Report. Using satellite imagery to identify the cuts made to private and public lands for marijuana cultivation, the county estimates that there are around 15,000 cultivation sites in Humboldt alone, a jurisdiction with just 135,000 residents.

Of these grow sites, about 2,300 have taken steps to come into compliance with the new regulations. That leaves about 85 percent of Humboldt’s cannabis farmers who are choosing not to operate in accordance with state regulations or county ordinance. Growers who did not meet the December 31 deadline will not be able to secure a license in Humboldt County until at least 2020.

Gabriel emphasizes that his concerns are not rooted in any sort of “Reefer Madness.” He has been invited to visit several small sustainable private grows and, as a Humboldt resident, he knows many in his community rely on cultivation to make ends meet.

“I look at it this way – just like logging, or any other industry that is going to [alter] these pristine and continuous landscapes, there needs to be a specific cap. There needs to be something that is going to put a regulated oversight on what occurs,” Gabriel asserted. “The long-term path to a solution is to get people enrolled and in compliance with the program’s requirements.”

Water Woes

Water is one of the most pressing issues in the Golden State. In recent years, drought-stricken Californiahas struggled to provide water for a growing number of citizens and thirsty industries. There is always a huge demand for water in the Central Valley, where large agribusiness operations produce most of the nation’s fruit, nut and vegetable crops.

California’s current water woes are exacerbated by the marijuana-driven Green Rush. Water diversion to irrigate cannabis grow-ops on both private and public lands is a major concern of the California Water Boards and the Department of Fish and Wildlife. These agencies have collaborated on developing a pilot program for water management and oversight of legal cannabis farms in response to emergency conditions caused by a ten-year drought, extensive water diversion, and reckless pollution by pesticides and other poisons.1

The Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), unlike the regional Water Boards, has a law enforcement division. This division created a Marijuana Enforcement Team that works with other local and state agencies to root out trespass growers who are damaging the national forests and threatening water resources.

In 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislationexpanding the Marijuana Enforcement Team’s power to levy fines on violators of the state Fish and Game Code 12025 involving “controlled substance cultivation” on private property.

Cannabis growers can incur hefty fines because of DFW infractions.

Representatives of the DFW and the state’s regional Water Boards assert their goal is not to shut down businesses that communities rely on, but to protect the state’s natural resources from the negative environmental impact of unregulated cannabis grow-ops. Although these agencies are stretched thin, they are working with farmers to bring them into compliance with state agricultural law pertaining to water and land use.

For example, the North Coast Regional Water Board launched a pilot program in 2015 to regulate water usage by legal cannabis cultivators who are compliant with state and local ordinances. The program is widely viewed as a success in Humboldt and Mendocino Counties, where it was first implemented.

In Nevada County, however, cannabis farmers who enrolled in the Water Board program or who sought county permits have been subject to enforcement action visits from the Nevada County sheriff. The punitive targeting of several growers who tried to bring their businesses into compliance sent a discouraging message to those who were unsure about emerging from the shadows of the black market.

A Sticky Situation

Local officials in the Emerald Triangle recognize that the region’s economy depends on cannabis and they understand the importance of enrolling farmers in a legal, regulated system. The hope is that legalization will help rein in ecological damage from black market grow-ops in Northern California and other parts of the state.

But the new regulations could have the opposite effect if large numbers of growers decide the legal route is still too risky and not worth the expense and hassle.

Kristin Nevedal, a Humboldt-based community activist, fears that the deck is stacked against multigenerational family farmers who practice integrated pest management, companion planting, and other sustainable, outdoor cultivation methods, which actually contribute to ecological restoration.

“Humboldt County is renowned internationally,” says Nevedal. “We were known for redwood trees – well we cut most of those down. We still have them, sure, but as an industry that’s done. Fishing was boom and bust, as well. The mainstay here, for generations, has been cannabis.”

But the legalization of marijuana is threatening to upend the Emerald Triangle’s idiosyncratic economy. “We are in a sticky situation moving into a commoditized marketplace,” says Nevedal. “It’s not about quality, it’s about price.”

She wonders whether sustainable farmers and artisanal product-makers throughout the region will be able to maintain their unique identity with corporate money looming ever larger in California’s immense cannabis industry.

These concerns prompted Nevedal and several colleagues to establish the International Cannabis Farmers Association (ICFA), a non-profit “group of farmers, scientists and stakeholders working together to promote the unique quality and ecological superiority of sun grown Cannabis products while preserving the heritage of traditional farming communities.”

Nevedal, the ICFA board chairwoman, is also co-founder of the Emerald Growers Association, a former director of the Patient Focused Certification Program at Americans for Safe Access, and a current board member of the California Cannabis Industry Association. She is particularly concerned about the economic impact of legalization on the North Coast, as well as the environmental effects of how the state is regulating cannabis.

The Sunlight Tax

A major problem, according to Nevedal, is that the current tax structure incentivizes large-scale, indoor cultivation, which is far from “green.”

This became evident when the ICFA collected and evaluated data about the profit incentive and potential environmental impacts of different types of indoor and outdoor grow licenses issued by the state. They started by researching the energy draw of different types of medium-sized (Type 3 license) cannabis gardens and they linked this information to the amount that can be harvested and price-per-pound – both of which are determined by lighting source.

Under the new tax-and-regulate rules, small farmers using the sun as a lighting source stand to lose the most. The IFCA estimates that an indoor garden, unconstrained by changing seasons, can produce six harvests or more a year, but will expend 1,995,840 kilowatt hours of energy, which is the equivalent of adding 298 houses to the electrical grid. A “mixed-light” garden in a greenhouse or another structure that utilizes the sun, supplemental lighting and light deprivation techniques, expends 554,400 kilowatt hours of energy, or about the same as adding 82 houses a year to the grid.

Compared to energy-intensive indoor grow facilities, sun-grown cannabis has a low carbon footprint. An outdoor cannabis garden can produce two harvests a year at most (depending on climate and latitude) with minimal energy expenditure. 

Here’s the catch: Under the new regulations, taxes do not adjust for cultivation type – but wholesale prices do.

The IFCA used recent market prices to estimate the cost of a sun-grown pound at $800, mixed-light at $1,000, and indoor at $1,400. Factoring in the high state and local cultivation taxes (for Humboldt County), farmers with the smallest license levels who grow outdoors – despite being more sustainable – will pay about 21 percent of their gross receipts in taxes, compared to a rate of about 17 percent for indoor larger scale growers. And that’s in addition to being taxed by weight at the same rate as an indoor grower.

As it stands, the state’s regulatory scheme could push small sustainable farmers out of the market entirely.


Part 2. Black Markets Matter

Part 3. Growing Pains: Can Sustainable Farmers Survive Legalization?

Angela Bacca is a Portland, Oregon-based freelance journalist with a MBA and 10 years experience in cannabis media. She specializes in coverage of cannabis in conservative states, science, medicine, politics, business, culture and media.


1 - According to an internal strategizing document for 2014, prepared as a collaboration between the California Water Boards and California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the agency was approached by Bill Connelly of the Butte County Board of Supervisors in 2013. Connelly was concerned about the increasing emergency conditions being caused by the drought and, more specifically, water diversion and pollution from cannabis farms.


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