The Trump administration quietly made a major concession to drug policy reform groups earlier this year, newly revealed letters between the Department of Justice and U.S. senators show.
In the correspondence, officials clarified that a federal law—which is aimed at punishing people who operate events that knowingly allow or facilitate illicit drug use—doesn’t actually prevent venue owners from providing certain harm reduction services for drug consumers at their events. Contrary to fears long expressed by activists, making free water and drug safety education materials available won’t be used as evidence of violating the law, the Justice Department said.
The clarification came in response to a request from Deirdre Goldsmith, whose daughter Shelley died from a heatstroke after taking MDMA at a dance concert in 2013.
Goldsmith has since become an advocate for harm reduction reform measures that could prevent similar incidents, and in November 2017, she wrote to Attorney General Jeff Sessions through her state’s two U.S. senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both Democrats, requesting clarification about provisions of the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation (IDAP) Act of 2003.
The law’s predecessor was called the Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy (RAVE) Act, which, as the name suggests, targeted rave culture and ecstasy use. That version didn’t pass though, so a slightly more nuanced version, the IDAP Act, was introduced and passed in 2003. It was written by then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE).
Goldsmith wanted to know if common sense harm reduction policies violated the law. She said she’s heard from venue operators who were reluctant to provide services such as distributing public health information on-site at their events out of fear of federal prosecution.
“My journey since Shelly’s passing has led me to work to protect our young people from the many risks associated with incidental, illicit recreational drug use,” Goldsmith wrote.
“With your help, by clarifying exactly what is permitted by the Department of Justice under this law, we can give venue owners the assurance they need to implement measures to reduce the risk of harm to attendees’ due to unsafe settings.”
In January, a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official replied, writing that the agency’s review of the law “did not identify any provision of the Act that would discourage law abiding venue owners from instituting safety measures for its patrons, including the provision of water.”
Good, but questions remained. Goldsmith said in a follow up letter that she appreciated the agency’s clarification and listed three other harm reduction measures that could mitigate “dire situations” at events like the one her daughter had attended. Would providing “cool down spaces,” distributing public health information on-site or expanding the number of trained medical personnel at these events put venue operators at risk of prosecution?
“Because some venues feel that they are not allowed to provide these common-sense safeguards because they fear prosecution, they continue to be, in my opinion, high-risk and dangerous settings in terms of public safety,” she wrote.
Again, the DEA responded. The agency didn’t weigh in on each specific measure she described, but it did note that it “shares Ms. Goldsmith’s concern that venue owners not be discouraged from providing appropriate safety measures at entertainment venues.”
The law is designed to penalize venue operators who “knowingly opened or maintained a place for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing, or using a controlled substance,” the DEA explained. “A variety of indicators may help to demonstrate that an offender had the requisite knowledge.”
“Moreover, dissemination of accurate public health information that outlines both the illegality and dangers of drug use may discourage prohibited conduct.”
That said, “[e]very investigation has its own unique set of facts and circumstances,” the DEA wrote. The agency recommended that venue owners contact the U.S. attorney’s office in their respective jurisdiction for further clarification.
“I’m very encouraged about [the DOJ’s letters], especially because it’s Trump’s Department of Justice,” Emanuel Sferios, founder of the harm reduction group DanceSafe, told Marijuana Moment. “I think they wrote it very clearly to let us, and promoters know that they would not be prosecuting club owners and festival promoters who provided these two services specifically: free water and drug information.”
Goldsmith publicly announced the DOJ clarification in a post on the Amend the RAVE Act website earlier this month.
“These are giant steps forward!” she wrote. “It means that the Department of Justice for the first time explicitly recognizes that providing free water and drug educational materials does not violate the RAVE Act. This is huge!”
Still, there’s work to be done, Sferios said. Advocates would like to the Justice Department to specifically exempt all “harm reduction services” at these events from the law, but the term itself has been stigmatized on Capitol Hill.
That’s “crazy,” he said, “because harm reduction is the preferred approach to dealing with drug use around the developed world.”
Read the letters between Goldsmith and the Justice Department below:
Photo courtesy of Patrick Savalle.
Mormon Church Faces Potential Lawsuit Over Medical Marijuana Opposition
One week after Utah voters approved a medical marijuana ballot initiative, a lawyer representing patients and advocates has formally notified the Mormon church to preserve records ahead of a potential lawsuit concerning its alleged attempts to undermine the measure.
It’s no secret that the church opposed the medical cannabis initiative, which ultimately passed by roughly 52-46 percent, with some ballots still left to be counted. Though the organization said it supports medical cannabis reform, it vehemently resisted Proposition 2 and implored church members to vote against it.
Advocates and opponents reached a tentative compromise last month ahead of Election Day to have the Utah state legislature pass legislation during a special session ensuring access to medical marijuana. But not all legalization proponents felt encouraged by the deal, and the new legal notice to the church signals continued battles over exactly how the state’s patients will access legal cannabis.
Several Utah lawmakers, the Utah Patients Coalition and the Utah Medical Association were also named in the notice and asked to maintain records.
The church has “a long history of dominating and interfering with the government of the State of Utah, often dictating to state and municipal legislators what legislative measures or policies they are to support or oppose,” attorney Rocky Anderson, a former mayor of Salt Lake City, wrote in the notice, which was shared with Marijuana Moment.
“That dominance and interference is prohibited by the Utah Constitution.”
Whether or not there will be a lawsuit remains unclear, as Anderson wrote that it was up to the claimants who reached out to him to determine if that was the best course of action. Advocacy groups TRUCE and the Epilepsy Association of Utah, along with several patients, are listed as claimants in the document.
Brian Stoll, a reform advocate who has served as a spokesperson for TRUCE and is also a member of the church, told Marijuana Moment that he does expect a lawsuit to go forward.
“Speaking as myself, not TRUCE, I do believe that they have every intention of going forward with the lawsuit if only to get lawmakers under oath discussing the domination of the political process in Utah of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on record,” he said. “There have been many stories over the years about their undue influence, including some accounts published by lawmakers detailing how intimately involved they are in legislation regarding certain topics.”
“As you know, I’m an active member of The Church, and that will remain true. However, after having worked with the Utah legislature for the better part of three years where I saw this happen, and seeing all their work to thwart Prop 2 including having the ability to call a special session, I feel that it’s unethical and not right for them to have such an influence.”
If there is a lawsuit, the church is being implored to preserve a wide range of records, both physical and electronic. Anderson alleges that the church forced the special session “to radically undermine and alter the new law,” which he claims amounts to a constitutional violation.
“Vastly altering the law mandated by the people is contrary not only to the popular will, but contrary to the intention expressed in the Utah Constitution that the people can, through an initiative, directly exercise their constitutionally guaranteed legislative power,” he wrote.
In a statement provided to Marijuana Moment, a spokesperson for the Mormon church said “we have worked, from the outset, with medical professionals, law enforcement, educators and many other groups and prominent community leaders to seek the best for the people of Utah, to provide relief from human pain and suffering, especially where children are concerned.”
“Broad community engagement was the reason a workable, beneficial and safer medical cannabis program was put together at the direction of state leadership. We stand behind and look forward to the safe, responsible and compassionate solution that will be considered by the state legislature,” the spokesperson said.
Read the full notice below.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to include comments from reform advocate and Mormon church member Brian Stoll, as well as a statement from the church.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.
Colorado Governor Touts Marijuana Legalization’s Benefits
After the 2012 election, which saw Colorado become the first state to legalize marijuana, Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) said he probably would have reversed the vote if he had a magic wand.
But with the perspective of a few years post-legalization, today he says he’d put that wand “back in the drawer.”
“I’m not quite there to say this is a great success, but the old system was awful,” Hickenlooper said at a forum hosted by the Economic Club of Chicago on Wednesday.
What’s more, “the things that we most feared—a spike in teenage consumption, a spike in overall consumption, people driving while high—we haven’t seen them,” he said.
“We had a little increase in teenage consumption, but then it went down. We do think that some of the teenage consumers are using it a little more frequently than they were five years ago before legalization. We have in many ways seen no demographic where there’s an increase in consumption, with one exception: senior citizens. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.”
Hickenlooper, who’s been floated as a potential 2020 presidential candidate, described the challenges his administration faced when Colorado voters approved an adult-use legalization measure. Elected officials and advisors were opposed to it, he said, and plus, “it’s no fun to be in conflict with federal law.”
But he pushed forward with implementation, recruiting the “smartest people” he could find to figure out the best approach to regulation and taxation. And Illinois, which recently elected pro-legalization J.B. Pritzker for governor, will likely be better off if they pursue reform because they can learn from the successes and failures of Colorado’s system, Hickenlooper said.
“Ultimately, I haven’t come to a final conclusion yet, but I think it’s looking like this is going to be—for all of the flaws and challenges we have—a better system than what we had. You guys are going to benefit, I think, having let us make a bunch of the mistakes and deal with it, I think you’re going to be able to have a much better system if indeed that is the direction that the state wants to go.”
Asked what advice he’d give to Pritzker if Illinois does elect to fully legalize cannabis, Hickenlooper offered three tips: 1) don’t overtax marijuana, or else the illicit marketplace will persist, 2) get data from law enforcement on the presence of cannabis metabolites in the blood after highway fatalities to establish “good baselines” for comparison and 3) set limits on THC concentrations in edibles.
“What they’re selling now, they tell me it’s 10-to-12 times more intense than what allegedly I smoked in high school,” Hickenlooper said, pausing before conceding, “I smoked pot in high school and I inhaled, but it was a fraction of the intensity of what these kids are getting now.”
Photo courtesy of YouTube/Economic Club of Chicago.
The DEA Just Got Scolded Over Its Marijuana Eradication Program
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) got a slap on the wrist from a federal watchdog agency over its management of a multi-million dollar marijuana eradication program.
In a report released on Wednesday, the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) said the DEA had failed to adequately collect documentation from state and local law enforcement partners that received funds through the federal program. And that lapse could prevent the agency from being able to accurately assess “program performance.”
What’s more, the DEA “has not clearly documented all of its program goals or developed performance measures to assess progress toward those goals,” according to the report.
In other words, the agency expends about $17 million in funds to partners across the U.S. each year to help them get rid of illegal cannabis grows. That includes fully legal states like California, where enforcement efforts are generally limited to public lands—namely national forests. But due to inadequate record keeping, the DEA doesn’t really know if that money is serving its purpose.
To fix the problems, the GAO issued four recommendations:
1. The DEA Administrator should develop and implement a plan with specific actions and time frames to ensure that regional contractors are implementing DEA’s requirement for collecting documentation supporting participating agencies’ Domestic Cannabis Eradication And Suppression Program (DCE/SP) program expenditures in the intended manner.
2. The DEA Administrator should clarify DCE/SP guidance on the eradication and suppression activities that participating agencies are required to report, and communicate it to participating agencies and DEA officials responsible for implementing DCE/SP.
3. The DEA Administrator should clearly document all DCE/SP program goals.
4. The DEA Administrator should develop DCE/SP performance measures with baselines, targets, and linkage to program goals.
The DEA was able to review a draft of the GAO report ahead of its release and, in an October 17 letter, a Justice Department official said the agency concurred with all four of the recommendations and would take steps to address them.
You can listen to a podcast about the GAO report here:
Just because it’s the DEA’s program doesn’t mean it’s the only agency dropping the ball on marijuana eradication efforts. In April, a report from the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that agents weren’t adequately cleaning up public lands after cannabis busts, which can pose threats to humans, animals and the environment.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.