South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg released a comprehensive plan on Friday that calls for “decriminalizing all drug possession” in his first presidential term as a means to combat the opioid epidemic and treat addiction as a public health, rather than criminal justice, issue.
Decriminalization is just one action the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate said he’d pursue in order to reform the country’s mental health care system and bolster substance abuse treatment. His plan also includes proposals to reduce sentences for drug offenses other than possession, increase access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone and make it easier to implement syringe exchange programs.
America’s addiction and mental health care crisis has been building for decades—due to decades of neglect by political leaders in Washington. Today, I’m proposing a new approach that tackles this crisis with the urgency and care it deserves. pic.twitter.com/U8F9DXJPC2
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) August 23, 2019
Buttigieg’s “Healing and Belonging in America” plan emphasizes the need to divert people suffering from addiction away from prisons and into treatment. He said he’d accomplish that by expanding diversionary programs and evidence-based training “for drug courts, mental health courts, and other alternatives to incarceration for justice-involved persons.”
The goal of decriminalization and diversion is to reduce “the number of people incarcerated due to mental illness or substance use by 75 percent in the first term.”
Our country is in the midst of a mental health and addiction crisis, worsened by decades of stigma and political neglect. I’ll bring a new approach, rooted in commitment and community, to tackle this crisis with the urgency it deserves. https://t.co/spBoh5KH4X
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) August 23, 2019
Under his plan, sentencing reform for drug offenses other than possession would be applied retroactively and coupled with expungements for past convictions. Buttigieg pointed to research demonstrating that “incarceration for drug offenses has no effect on drug misuse, drug arrests, or overdose deaths” and instead “actually increases the rate of overdose deaths.”
“We cannot incarcerate ourselves out of this public health problem.”
“To ensure that people with a mental illness or substance use disorder can heal, we will decriminalize these conditions,” the proposal states. “When someone is undergoing a crisis or is caught using a drug, they should be treated by a health professional rather than punished in a jail cell.”
“All presidential candidates should join Pete Buttigieg in recognizing that the criminalization of people for their drug use is wrong and simply bad policy,” Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Action, said in a press release. “Possession of drugs for personal use is the single most arrested offense in the United States, eclipsing arrest rates for any other offense. With overdose numbers skyrocketing and entire communities, disproportionately black or brown, suffering from criminalization, it’s time for policymakers to shift gears. Taking an evidence-based, health-centered approach to address this crisis is not only true leadership – it’s common sense.”
The mayor also made harm reduction policies a key component of his strategy. He said take-home naloxone programs would be expanded to all 50 states by 2024 and that harm reduction services would be expanded “to reduce overdose deaths and the spread of infectious diseases related to needle sharing.”
The plan would make naloxone “broadly available in order to reverse overdoses” and remove “legislative and regulatory restrictions on the use of federal funds for syringe service programs.”
Buttigieg said the federal government should provide funding for state and local health departments to purchase the medication, make sure that it’s “available in public spaces and workplaces” similar to first aid kids and encourage “co-prescribing of naloxone with opioids, either by individual physicians or direct dispensing by pharmacists.”
Existing federal law makes it difficult to establish syringe exchange programs, in part because federal funds can’t be used to buy needles. The restrictions “hamper state and local responses, both because they limit resources and because they convey a negative message about the value of these programs, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that they can prevent transmission of HIV and hepatitis.”
In addition to lifting those barriers, the candidate said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “would also work with states to remove any criminal liability for those participating in” syringe exchange programs.
“Harm reduction programs are a critical part of any effective response to the opioid and injection drug use crisis. They minimize the negative impact of drug use without encouraging it, while reducing other side effects of drug use. In particular, this means access to syringe service programs for people who inject drugs, that link them to treatment, and provides access to sterile syringes. These programs help prevent transmission of HIV, viral hepatitis, and other infectious diseases associated with needle sharing, and reduce overdoses by deploying medication such as naloxone that help reverse the effects of opioids.”
One harm reduction policy that didn’t make the cut in Buttigieg’s plan is safe injection sites, where people could use illicit drugs under the supervision of medical professionals who could reverse overdoses and recommend treatment options. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who are also running for the Democratic nomination, both proposed legalizing such facilities as part of criminal justice reform plans they released this month.
“Decades of failed mental health and addiction policy, coupled with mass incarceration that criminalized mental illness and drug use, have left us with a mental health and addiction care system so broken that today there are more people with serious mental illness in prisons than in treatment facilities,” Buttigieg said.
The candidate also made ending incarceration for drug possession—as well as legalizing marijuana—central principles of his previously released criminal justice reform plan, which he released last month.
But while the prior plan did not explicitly describe the move as “decriminalizing” drugs, even though advocates commonly use that word to refer to policies that remove the threat of being imprisoned for possession, the new document does use that terminology—signaling a shift in clarity as Buttigieg continues to develop his campaign messaging.
In other instances, he borrowed language from his criminal justice reform plan, specifically as it concerns how criminalizing drug use can increase rates of overdose, for his mental health proposal.
“Despite equal rates of use, Black Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for using marijuana,” the criminal justice plan states. “Research shows that incarceration for drug offenses has no effect on drug misuse, drug arrests, or overdose deaths. In fact, some studies show that incarceration actually increases the rate of overdose deaths.”
Buttigieg mentioned that, as with drug offenses, black people are also more likely to die from overdoses. And that’s due to “the current broken system that criminalizes mental illness and addiction” that was “built during the crack epidemic of the 1980s.”
This story was updated to include comment from the Drug Policy Action.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Gage Skidmore.
GOP Congressman Says Marijuana Shops Near Churches Is Evidence Of ‘Spiritual War’
A U.S. congressman said on Saturday that marijuana dispensaries operating on the same streets as churches is “evidence” of the “spiritual war our nation is entrenched in.”
Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) made the comment in a video statement that was presented at an “In God We Trust Rally” organized by the non-profit Truth & Liberty Coalition.
After giving a brief history lesson on the origin of the official U.S. motto and decrying socialism, Lamborn said it was necessary to acknowledge religious strife in the country.
“We need to look no further than our own streets to see evidence of this conflict,” the congressman said. “Marijuana dispensaries are on the same streets as thriving churches.”
Despite representing one of the first states to legalize cannabis, Lamborn has actively worked against the will of Colorado voters who approved the measure in 2012.
For example, he applauded then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions last year after he rescinded Obama-era guidance on federal marijuana enforcement priorities, stating that “legalizing marijuana has been bad for the state of Colorado” and Sessions was “upholding the law and recognizing the serious and proven harms associated with marijuana.”
Every other member of Congress from Colorado signed a bipartisan letter opposing the move.
More recently, Lamborn voted against a spending bill amendment that would prohibit the Justice Department from using funds to enforce prohibition in legal states.
The most that the congressman has said he’s willing to do in terms of cannabis reform is rescheduling the plant to facilitate research into its therapeutic potential. “I’m not sure I could support going beyond that,” he said.
During his video address over the weekend, which was highlighted by Right Wing Watch, Lamborn said evidence of a religious war also includes “abortion clinics” near “pregnancy centers” and legislators attempting to “impose radical gender theory on young students while parents in godly homes teach their children the virtue of marriage.”
“It is easy to despair in the face of ignorance and evil, but today we gather to declare where our trust lies. Our trust lies in god,” he said. “Colorado needs the grace of god more than ever.”
Photo courtesy of YouTube/Truth & Liberty Coalition.
Former White House Drug Czar Offers Marijuana Legalization Advice To Mexico
A former top White House drug official told Mexican officials last week that they will need “robust regulations” in place when the country implements a legal marijuana system.
Gil Kerlikowske, who served as the director of the the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Barack Obama, made the comments during a panel hosted by the Mexican Senate as part of a series of cannabis conversations lawmakers are holding as the country prepares to enact legalization.
He also acknowledged that state-level legalization in the U.S. has reduced the “appetite” for drugs that are trafficked illegally across the border.
The official’s participation is particularly noteworthy given that he previously said that the word “legalization” was not even in his vocabulary, nor in Obama’s. But according to translated reports of his speech, Kerlikowske, who also served as commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, now seems decidedly familiar with the concept and offered detailed advice for Mexican lawmakers as they prepare to legalize.
“Tax collection is important because income is used for health and to enforce the law,” he said. “In other words, the marijuana consumer is paying the regulation in taxes, so this is a dynamic and emerging market.”
“I think that frankly, although the taxation can be prohibitive for some people and for some producers, I would say that you still have to have a very robust regulation,” the former drug czar added.
A punto de comenzar la última conferencia del ciclo ‘Rumbo a la regulación del cannabis’, organizado por las comisiones de Justicia, Salud, Estudios Legislativos, Segunda, y Seguridad Pública del @senadomexicano. 🌱 pic.twitter.com/RJxmkieurN
— Cáñamo México (@canamo_mexico) September 13, 2019
Kerlikowske stressed that measures must be taken to ensure that young people don’t have access to marijuana and that policymakers should “do everything possible to eliminate the black market.”
“I believe that governments want to do things slowly—particularly because there is still research being carried out about marijuana and use and the problems it causes in brain formation or decision-making,” he said, adding that alcohol and cannabis shouldn’t be viewed as “benign” products.
He also said that regulating marijuana should involve enforcing labeling and packaging standards so that consumers are fully informed and that steps should be taken to prevent smoking in public.
Sobre permitir fumar cannabis en lugares públicos, Gil Kerlikowske dice que es un tema que se necesita resolver en EU, ya que en lugares como en Seattle el olor es particularmente fuerte. ❔💨❔
— Cáñamo México (@canamo_mexico) September 13, 2019
The event was the last in a five-part “Heading for the Regulation of Cannabis” series that the Senate put together as the chamber’s ruling MORENA party readies legislation to legalize marijuana.
After deeming the prohibition of cannabis possession and cultivation for personal use unconstitutional last year, Mexico’s Supreme Court set a deadline of October 2019 for lawmakers to codify marijuana legalization policy.
Earlier this month, Sen. Julio Menchaca Salazar of the MORENA party filed a bill that would provide for a legal cannabis market for adults by amending federal drug laws.
While legalization is imminent in Mexico, however, Kerlikowske said that he does not believe that the U.S. will legalize within the next two years, stating that the “problem is that medicinal cannabis products have not passed all the tests of the [Food and Drug Administration].”
No creo que en los próximos dos años el Congreso de EU legalice a nivel federal el uso de la marihuana medicinal🌱🔬🧪. El problema es que los productos cannábicos medicinales no han pasados todas las pruebas de la @US_FDA como los demás medicamentos: Gil Kerlikowske 🇺🇸
— Cáñamo México (@canamo_mexico) September 13, 2019
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Three Federal Agencies Take Public Comments On Cannabis Topics
Three federal agencies—the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)—are now accepting comments from the public on cannabis-related topics such as hemp pesticides and the legal classification of marijuana globally.
In a notice published in the Federal Register last month, FDA said that it is seeking input on potential changes to the status of marijuana under international treaties.
EPA invited comments on applications for pesticides to be used on hemp, which comes months after the crop was federally legalized.
Meanwhile, people have the chance to share their perspective on a proposal DEA released last week that calls for the cultivation of more than three million grams of cannabis for research purposes next year. That 3.2 million gram quota would be 30 percent higher than this year’s. At the same time, DEA said its quota for prescription painkillers such as fentanyl and oxycodone would be decreased next year by more than 50 percent.
The comment period opened last week, and 25 people have weighed in at this point. Submissions received so far are primarily focused on DEA’s proposed reduction opioid production, with several chronic pain patients arguing that they will be negatively impacted. People can send comments on the cannabis and other drug quotas through October 15.
FDA initially made its request for input on cannabis’s global treaty status in March, but it was closed because an expected United Nations (UN) vote on a proposal to remove marijuana from the most strictly regulated category was postponed.
Last month, FDA said it was reopening the comment period until September 30, in anticipation that the UN will make a decision on the possible changes in the coming months. So far, a total of about 3,000 comments have been received, including those posted since August 29. The vast majority voice support for legalization, with many sharing personal anecdotes about the plant’s therapeutic benefits.
“Please lift the ban and prohibition of marijuana. Marijuana isn’t ruining the lives of countless Americans… America’s drug laws are doing that all by themselves via mass incarceration,” Zach Fowler wrote.
“I am 30 years old and suffer from a progressive neurologically condition that leaves me in constant debilitating pain along with a host of other symptoms. Without cannabis, I could not function enough to work for even care for my children,” Amanda Wood-Devore said. “Cannabis calms my pain, eases corresponding anxiety, and helps my constant nausea and vomiting.”
Alex Rol said that the “current marijuana laws are more destructive than protective.”
“We have seen extensive reports that cannabis can be used for medical purposes and many find its effects increase the ease of life,” he said. “While I understand the concern of those less familiar with cannabis on its legalization it simply isn’t right to incarcerate people for possession of a generally harmless substance.”
“I agree with the [World Health Organization] that cannabis should be removed from the Schedule 1 classification,” Michael Ochipa wrote, referring to a recommendation WHO released in February urging the rescheduling of marijuana and descheduling of CBD.
“Most of the research to date indicates that cannabis has a very positive risk/reward profile,” he wrote. “Side effects are lower, and medicinal benefits are greater than many over the counter drugs. It can also be grown easily at home making it more economical.”
Though it’s not clear how much stock FDA will put into personal stories of individuals who’ve benefited from marijuana in shaping the Trump administration’s position on scheduling changes, the volume of comments and consistency of support for legalization is significant. While there has been a focus on the medical potential of cannabis, several others emphasized the consequences of prohibition, particularly for communities of color.
If the United Nations does decide to adopt WHO’s recommendations, it wouldn’t mean that member nations would be free to legalize marijuana without technically violating the treaties. However, even under its current strict status, Canada and Uruguay have moved forward with legalization models, with Mexico expected to follow suit as early as next month.
Over at EPA, there hasn’t been quite as much interest from the public in submitting comments on pesticides applications for hemp. The agency announced last month that it was accepting input on 10 existing applications and said it hoped “this transparent and public process will bring hemp farmers and researchers increased regulatory clarity in time for next growing season.”
EPA said it’s not required to take public comment on the applications but is doing so “because of the potential significant interest from the public in these initial applications and in furtherance of being completely transparent about these applications.”
There may be significant interest from the public on hemp legalization generally, particularly among stakeholders who are eagerly awaiting federal regulations to unlock the crop’s potential, but that isn’t being reflected on the Federal Register notice page yet when it comes to pesticides. Only five people have commented on the proposal.
One person noted that the 10 pesticides under review contain almost the same ingredients and said “it really limits the ability of producers to manage pests and diseases.”
“I highly recommend expanding the list of compounds available to producers to increase the ability to suppress pests and diseases,” the anonymous commenter wrote. “There are many more bio-pesticides on the market that are safe for humans that specifically target agricultural pests.”
Another individual who said he and his partner are making a transition from growing cannabis in California to hemp in North Carolina wrote in support of the proposed pesticides.
“We have used the products under discussion with great effectiveness, especially the biological controls,” the person said. “Because hemp can be so susceptible to mold, fungus, and pests, it is imperative to have these tools to ensure a healthy and plentiful product.”
Finally, there was one comment in opposition to allowing any pesticides on hemp because, they wrote, “IT WILL JUST TURN IT IN TO POISON.”
EPA’s public comment closes on September 23. The agency did not say when decisions would be made about the applications, but it did state that it planned to give hemp farmers approval to use the tools before the 2020 planting season.
The fact that three separate federal agencies are now accepting comments on separate cannabis issues is another sign that the public has more opportunity than ever before to influence the government’s position on marijuana policy.
Photo courtesy of Nicholas C. Morton.