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Beto O’Rourke Calls For Drug Decriminalization And Safe Injection Sites In New Plan

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Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) unveiled a plan on Thursday that promotes a series of harm reduction policies, including decriminalizing drug possession, to tackle addiction and prevent overdoses. He also discussed aspects of the proposal with reform advocates at an event in Iowa.

The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate said that in order to address a rise in misuse of opioids, as well as other illicit drugs like benzodiazepines and methamphetamine, the country must move away from the criminalization model and embrace policies that treat addiction as a public health issue.

That means removing criminal penalties for drug possession and implementing harm reduction programs, he said.

Here are two of the main harm reduction proposals in the new plan: 

“Creating needle exchanges and supervised consumption sites where people can consume drugs they have obtained elsewhere in a controlled setting, under the supervision of trained staff, and with access to sterile injecting equipment.”

“Implementing innovative models for health care and interventions related to substance use disorder such as that used in Portugal, particularly mobile vans that travel to areas of high consumption to distribute medicines or needle exchanges, where individuals caught with drugs are sent to treatment instead of jail.”

Portugal decriminalized possession of all drugs in 2001, a policy widely viewed as a success that has had public health benefits.

Now, the concept is gaining popularity, with 55 percent of Americans in favor of decriminalization, according to a Gallup poll released earlier this month.

Another part of O’Rourke’s solution would involve reform at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Doctors at the VA should be allowed to “prescribe medicinal cannabis and non-opiates as a pain treatment medication alternative,” he said. The department should create “interdisciplinary pain management teams” at their facilities and also support “the compassionate use of medicinal cannabis as an effective remedy for many conditions.”

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, another Democratic presidential candidate, told Marijuana Moment on Wednesday that he also supports allowing VA doctors to prescribe cannabis to veterans.

“Beto will treat substance use disorder and opioid use disorder as the public health concerns they are,” his new plan states. “These are not criminal justice issues that warrant punishment. Beto understands that these are chronic brain diseases with the potential for both recovery and relapse.”

During an event at the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition office on Thursday, the candidate said he’d “decriminalize the possession and use of drugs in this country,” describing it as “fundamental, that we no longer pursue this as criminal justice problem.”

While most Democratic presidential candidates have embraced legalizing cannabis, both as a public health and criminal justice matter, broader drug decriminalization and harm reduction policies haven’t gotten as much attention.

Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) also support broad decriminalization, while entrepreneur Andrew Yang has floated decriminalizing opioids. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) are in favor of creating safe injection sites, but Sanders has said he’s “not there yet” on outright decriminalization.

O’Rourke and Yang discussed opioid decriminalization during a Democratic debate last week, but now the former congressman has explicitly called for removing criminal penalties for possession of all drugs.

Two U.S. cities—Denver and Oakland—enacted decriminalization policies with respect to psychedelics this year. And activists are working to build on those success through local and state reform efforts, including a campaign to get psilocybin mushrooms decriminalized statewide in California next year.

Interest in decriminalization isn’t limited to the U.S., however.

A UK House of Commons committee issued a report this week calling on the government to remove criminal penalties for drug possession. Scotland’s ruling party unanimously endorsed a resolution calling for drug decriminalization earlier this month, a Canadian House of Commons committee approved a report in June urging the government to lift criminal penalties for low-level possession and a top Mexican lawmaker said last week that the country should go even further by legalizing and regulating all drugs in order to combat cartel violence.

Asked about safe injection facilities, O’Rourke said on Thursday that people “who use drugs are human beings and deserve to be treated with respect.”

He also said he’d be willing to shift funding away from the Drug Enforcement Administration, stating that the “focus on the war on drugs going on 50 years in this country not only has deprived other federal agencies and departments… it’s also militarized our communities.”

O’Rourke released a separate plan last month that also called for marijuana legalization, in addition to expunging prior records and using tax revenue from cannabis sales to directly compensate individuals who have previously served time behind bars for marijuana offenses.

Presidential Candidate Pete Buttigieg Tours Marijuana Dispensary And Grow House

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Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Politics

Supreme Court Justices Discuss Marijuana Policy During Immigration Case Arguments

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A Supreme Court hearing on Tuesday concerning the fate of a program protecting immigrants brought to the U.S. as children featured a brief conversation about federal marijuana enforcement policy.

Justices questioned the difference between what President Trump’s administration did—issuing memos ordering the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to be wound down—and what the Obama administration did when his Justice Department told prosecutors not to pursue marijuana cases in states that legalized it.

During the discussion about prosecutorial discretion, Justice Samuel Alito asked if courts have jurisdiction to review or overturn instances where prosecutors make a policy change for a “certain category of drug cases,” by declining to pursue those that involved “lesser amounts of drugs.”

An attorney representing the so-called “Dreamers,” Theodore Olson, said he didn’t think it would be.

But Olson said the comparison wasn’t valid because the DACA program “invited [Dreamers] into the program, provided other statutes which have not been challenged by the government, provided benefits that were associated with that decision, and individuals relied upon that for five years.”

In other words, while the Justice Department has historically issued guidance and allowed for prosecutorial discretion for issues such as drug crimes, DACA rises to a different standard, in part because of the benefits it provided to hundreds of thousands of eligible immigrants.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Trump appointee, sought clarification about the “limiting principle” that the attorney was using to distinguish DACA from other prosecutorial discretion decisions.

Olson said it’s “a composite of principles” and a “categorical determination involving a substantial number of people.”

“Let me just stop you there, though, because if it’s categorical and a large number of people, I can think of a lot of prosecutorial decisions involving drug cases, the treatment of marijuana in our society today under federal law—perhaps it would be cocaine, five kilograms,” Gorsuch said in the exchange, which was first noted by Politico. “Whatever is in the attorney general memo affects lots of people on a categorical basis every day.”

The justice appeared to cite the Obama-era Cole memo as an example. That guidance, which was rescinded by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in early 2018, advised prosecutors to use enforcement discretion and not target state-legal cannabis programs despite ongoing federal prohibition.

“There’s an entire industry in a lot of states involving marijuana that would argue they’re relying on memos issued by the attorney general that we will not enforce marijuana laws, for example,” Gorsuch said.

“I think that is completely different,” Olson contended. “They are not invited to participate into a program, to reveal the business that they’re in, to come forward, to take advantage of benefits.”

Gorsuch countered that cannabis businesses “have a lot of economic interests at stake” and would argue that “billions of dollars are at stake [and] we’ve relied on the attorney general’s guidance memos.”

Groups Push Congress To Let D.C. Legalize Marijuana Sales

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Groups Push Congress To Let D.C. Legalize Marijuana Sales

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More than a dozen advocacy organizations sent a letter to House and Senate leadership on Wednesday, urging them to allow Washington, D.C. to implement a regulated marijuana market.

While D.C. voters approved an initiative legalizing low-level possession and home cultivation of cannabis in 2014, congressional lawmakers have attached riders to spending legislation each year since that have blocked officials in the nation’s capital from using local tax dollars to enact a retail sales component.

“It is critical that Congress support D.C.’s right to home rule and the ability to spend local tax dollars as they deem fit, especially in regard to the regulation and taxation of marijuana,” the groups—including Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), ACLU of D.C., NORML and Competitive Enterprise Institute—wrote.

In its latest spending bill for Fiscal Year 2020, the House Appropriations Committee stripped the rider from the chamber’s version of the legislation, and Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), who has sponsored the measure in years past, didn’t attempt to reinsert it. That bill passed the House in June.

But in the Senate version, the rider remained intact, meaning that it will come down to negotiators on a bicameral conference committee to decide which version is sent to President Trump’s desk.

“Current law has interfered with the District’s efforts to regulate marijuana, which has impacted public safety,” the reform groups’ letter states. “Without the ability to regulate marijuana sales, the grey market for marijuana flourishes despite the need and want of the District leadership and residents alike to establish a regulatory model.”

“Such a model would free up law enforcement resources to focus on reducing violent crime,” it continues. “It would also allow legitimate entrepreneurs to start businesses, create jobs and spur economic development.”

The National Cannabis Industry Association, Sentencing Project, Northwestern University School of Law, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, R Street Institute and Law Enforcement Action Partnership, among other organizations, also signed the letter.

“Under these conditions—where marijuana is essentially decriminalized, but there is no legal access for adult use—D.C. has been left with a complicated grey market that is both unsafe and a far cry from the racial and economic justice promises of the Initiative 71 campaign,” Queen Adesuyi, DPA’s policy manager for national affairs, said in a press release.

“It’s time that Congress get its hands off of D.C. and allow D.C. Council, Mayor Muriel Bowser, and other relevant D.C. stakeholders to deliver on the promises of equity and justice for those disproportionately impacted by racially-biased enforcement of marijuana laws,” she said.

Bowser, who is a champion of D.C. statehood and cannabis reform, announced in May that she was sending a bill to the District Council that would provide for the retail sale of marijuana in the city. She’s repeatedly implored lawmakers to remove the rider preventing the local government from fully following through on the will of voters.

“Keep your #HandsOffDC and #RemoveTheRider preventing us from establishing a safe & equitable cannabis regime for adult use,” she wrote in October, linking to a petition. “Together, with Congresswoman [Eleanor Holmes Norton], we fight for the rights of 702,000 disenfranchised DC residents.”

Another area of interest for cannabis reform advocates as it concerns the appropriations process centers on the possible expansion of a rider shielding state marijuana laws from federal interference. Since 2014, Congress has enacted such a policy that only covers medical cannabis policies, but this year the House approved a version that would cover adult-use marijuana programs as well. However, the Senate bill contains only the current medical-focused language, meaning that it will be up to conference committee negotiators to decide.

While the current continuing resolution providing funds for federal agencies is set to expire on November 21, lawmakers are discussing another stopgap funding measure that would push the deadline to December 20.

Read the full letter on the D.C. marijuana rider below:

National DC Rider Letter Final by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

More Than 500 People Have Commented On USDA Hemp Rules So Far

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Marijuana Prohibition Is Delaying Federal Response To Vaping Crisis, CDC Says

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Marijuana’s ongoing illegal status under federal law is delaying health officials’ response to the rise in vaping-related lung injuries and deaths, a top official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Wednesday.

During a hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) mentioned that her state is the only one in the country that hasn’t experienced reports of lung injuries due to vaping, adding that Alaska has a voter-approved legal cannabis market.

“In our state, retail marijuana is commercialized, it’s tested by our state laboratories,” the senator said. “Is the CDC providing any information to state regulatory bodies—whether it’s Alaska or other states that have legalized—on testing these products for these compounds that are our concern?”

She followed up to ask if there are “any barriers preventing federal officials from working with our state marijuana labs on this topic.”

CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat replied that the agency is in touch with state health departments, many of which are involved in regulating the cannabis industry, and that they provide guidance. However, because marijuana remains a federally controlled substance, she said there “are some challenges with shipment of specimens [for testing] because of the scheduling of drugs.”

“I think it’s just delaying it, I don’t think it’s stopping it,” she added.

Watch the marijuana exchange at 1:54:22 into the video below:

But as numerous lawmakers stressed throughout the hearing, there’s no room for delays, as more than 2,000 Americans have experienced lung injuries from vaping and almost 40 have died. CDC recently announced that an analysis of lung fluid samples from 29 patients in 10 states turned up evidence indicating that adulterated vape cartridges containing vitamin E acetate may be the cause.

Schuchat emphasized during a separate House hearing last month that while most vaping cases seem connected to THC-containing products, the vast majority have been obtained from illicit sources that wouldn’t be subject to the same testing standards as those enforced in regulated state markets.

She made similar remarks earlier this month during an appearance on C-SPAN and suggested that federal regulation of THC products could mitigate vaping injuries.

Still, there was a case in Oregon where a man who purchased vaping products from a licensed dispensary later fell ill and died—though officials said it’s not clear whether there’s a direct link at this point. In any case, the CDC official’s point about delays due to shipping complications arising from prohibition raises concerns at a time when data is urgently needed.

Also during the Senate hearing, Mitch Zeller, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Tobacco Products, was asked by Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) whether the agency has “jurisdiction over THC products and, if so, what is the authority?”

“I think on a case-by-case basis, when it comes down to the facts, if we were to take an action because of the presence of THC, it would be because the investigation has continued—because we’re going after the supply chain here,” Zeller said.  “How did these products get onto the market in the first place?”

The official noted that as a regulatory agency, FDA is not in the business of going after individuals for personal possession or use of THC products; rather they have “investigators on the ground to try to get at how did they get into the chain of distribution and commerce in the first place.”

“If we can identify the responsible party—because with THC we’re talking about an illicit compound so it’s not like someone is going to step forward and say, ‘yeah I did it’—If we can find the responsible party, if we can do the product analysis that shows that the THC is present, with or without these oils that seem to be making it worse, then in theory we could use authorities that we have under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act,” he said.

“We could act, depending upon the facts, under Food and Drug authorities,” he said.

The comment was quickly applauded by prohibitionist group Smart Approaches To Marijuana, which has argued that recent vaping issues represent an example of why cannabis legalization efforts should be halted.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) shared a different perspective, siding with reform advocates who say that calls to prohibit vaping products in response to the crisis are misguided because that policy change could exacerbate the problem by bolstering illicit sales and leaving consumers less protected against contaminated products.

“It seems to be primarily deaths and horrific medical problems from vaping illegal products,” the senator said. “What we’re going to do in response to that is make more vaping illegal. It seems kind of counterintuitive. It seems if you make more things illegal, maybe you get more people vaping illegal products and you have more problems.”

More Than 500 People Have Commented On USDA Hemp Rules So Far

Photo courtesy of Senate HELP Committee.

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