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Buttigieg Pledges To Decriminalize Possession Of All Drugs In First Term As President

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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.

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.”

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.”

Elizabeth Warren’s Criminal Justice Plan Involves Legalizing Marijuana And Safe Injection Sites

This story was updated to include comment from the Drug Policy Action.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Gage Skidmore.

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.

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Federal Judge Gives Arkansas Marijuana Legalization Activists A Boost With Signature Gathering Ruling

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Activists behind a marijuana legalization initiative in Arkansas are seeing glimmers of hope that they will be able to qualify for the November ballot despite serious setbacks caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

A federal judge ruled on Monday that the secretary of state must accept signatures that were not collected in-person or notarized, as has been required by existing policy, because of excessive burdens that imposes on campaigns amid the health crisis. Legalization advocates say the temporary injunction, which comes before a final ruling, gives them confidence their measure can qualify ahead of a July 3 deadline to submit signatures.

Now people can download, print and mail in signed petitions—significantly bolstering the chances the legal cannabis campaign can make up for the petitioning deficit created by stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements enacted due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

In the April lawsuit that brought about the federal injunction (which was not filed by legalization activists but by another initiative campaign), plaintiffs also made the case that full-scale electronic signature gathering should be permitted. U.S. District Judge P. K. Holmes empathized with that request in his order, noting that in many scenarios outside the ballot process, officials have recognized the validity of digitally signed documents—including in legal proceedings he oversees.

“It is not that electronic signatures cannot similarly be determined to be genuine. In fact, electronic signatures are commonplace and accepted for all manner of official business, and not only by the State, but by this Court,” he said. “Counsel for Plaintiffs and the Secretary of State electronically signed the briefing on this very motion, and the Court has electronically signed this opinion and the order.”

However, the judge said there must be a balance that takes into account the state’s interest in ensuring the validity of signatures and so he’s doubtful the final ruling will provide for digital signatures.

In any case, the court’s temporary injunction bodes well for the marijuana reform campaign, Arkansans for Cannabis Reform, which says it was on the path to qualifying before in-person signature gathering was suspended. Melissa Fults, executive director of the group, told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview on Wednesday that she’s confident the new policies will help the initiative get placed before voters.

“I am still confident. We’re going to give a hard push these next four-and-a-half weeks—hoping and praying that we get signatures and get them turned in and get on the ballot,” she said. “And I think it’ll pass once it gets on the ballot.”

Arkansas voters approved a medical cannabis ballot measure in 2016.

As the state begins the process of reopening, Fults said the campaign will also be engaging in limited in-person collection with enhanced safety mechanisms in place, as well as “drive by” gathering for people to sign the initiative from their vehicles.

In order to make the ballot, the group needs to submit about 90,000 valid signatures from registered voters by July 3. Fults said they’ve collected roughly 20,000 so far, and so these last five weeks will prove critical.

Under the proposal, adults 21 and older would be able to purchase and possess up to four ounces of cannabis flower and grow up to six plants and six seedings.

A minimum of one dispensary must be licensed per county, and there must be at least 30 shops per congressional district.

Tax revenue from marijuana sales would first go toward implementation. After that, 60 percent would be used to fund public pre-K and after school programs and 40 percent would fund the operations of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Another campaign that was working to put cannabis legalization on the state’s ballot told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette on Tuesday that it is ending its effort for the year and will shift its focus to 2022. An Arkansas True Grass spokesperson said “we weren’t able to do any of our spring events” because of the virus, leaving them without an opportunity to qualify.

Here’s a status update on other drug policy reform efforts throughout the country: 

Activists in Montana and Nebraska have resumed signature gathering with new safety measures in place for campaigns to legalize adult-use marijuana and medical cannabis, respectively.

In Arizona, the organizers of a legalization effort asked the state Supreme Court to instruct the secretary of state to allow people to sign cannabis petitions digitally using an existing electronic system that is currently reserved for individual candidates seeking public office. That request was denied but in March the campaign expressed optimism that they had amassed enough signatures to qualify anyway.

Separate Oregon campaigns to decriminalize drug possession while significantly expanding substance misuse treatment and to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes recently submitted more than enough raw signatures to qualify for ballot access, though they must still be verified.

Activists in Washington State are continuing to work on a drug decriminalization and treatment measure.

Washington, D.C. activists behind a psychedelics decriminalization campaign are more confident that they will be able to make the ballot after the District Council voted in favor of a series of changes to signature gathering protocol.

A federal judge recently ordered Ohio officials to accept electronic signature submissions to place local marijuana decriminalization measures on the ballot—a decision that could potentially have positive implications for a statewide legalization campaign in the works.

California activists had hoped to get a measure to legalize psilocybin on the state’s November ballot, but the campaign stalled out amid the coronavirus pandemic.

A California campaign seeking to amend the state’s cannabis law asked for a digital petitioning option, but state officials haven’t signed on.

A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.

North Dakota activists said they plan to continue campaign activities for a marijuana legalization initiative, but it’s more likely that they will seek qualification for the 2022 ballot.

Idaho medical cannabis activists announced that they are suspending their ballot campaign, though they are still “focusing on distributing petitions through online download at IdahoCann.co and encouraging every volunteer who has downloaded a petition to get them turned in to their county clerk’s office by mail, regardless of how many signatures they have collected.”

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.

The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.

And in Mississippi, activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.

Read the federal judge’s order on Arkansas signature gathering below: 

20-5070 Miller Et Al v. Thu… by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Scientists And Veterans File Lawsuit Challenging DEA’s Marijuana Rescheduling Denials

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Scientists And Veterans File Lawsuit Challenging DEA’s Marijuana Rescheduling Denials

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The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is facing yet another marijuana-related lawsuit—and this time, researchers and veterans are challenging the agency’s denial of prior cannabis rescheduling requests.

The Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI) filed suit last week in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, asking for a review of DEA’s scheduling determinations in 2020, 2016 and 1992. In all cases, the agency denied the petitions, citing statutory obligations to maintain the status of cannabis as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act.

Petitioners are taking exception to the basis of those denials, raising questions about DEA’s reliance on scheduling standards that they feel are arbitrary and misinterpret federal law. In particular, they are seeking reviews of the agency’s claims that marijuana must be strictly scheduled because, the government has claimed, it has no currently accepted medical value and has not been proven to be safe.

They also argue that another statutory policy DEA says necessitates marijuana being strictly controlled is unconstitutional.

“The reason we’re filing this is because, ultimately, the research has been impeded,” Matt Zorn, an attorney representing SRI in the case, told Marijuana Moment. “We’re trying to get the administration to remove those roadblocks.”

In terms of valid therapeutic value, the agency has said there are five criteria that a substance must meet, including the reproducibility of the drug, the existence of controlled studies establishing safety and efficacy and “whether the drug is not accepted by qualified experts.”

Lawyers representing SRI argued in a filing that the test “has no basis in the statute, is contrary to the statutory text, structure, history, and purpose, departs from the original understanding of the statute and rests on flawed and outdated case law.”

Further, they said DEA’s determination that there’s a “lack of accepted safety for use of marijuana under medical supervision” is wrong because it “misconstrues the statute and is arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to law because the agency has improperly imported a clinical efficacy requirement.”

In its past denials of rescheduling petitions, the agency has asserted that marijuana can only be placed in either Schedule I or II. But the attorneys said the statute justifying that determination is “an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority” that “violates core separation of powers principles” by granting the attorney general authority to schedule drugs on his or her discretion based on an interpretation of international treaty obligations.

“[T]he statute outsources regulatory power to create domestic criminal law to international organizations and subordinates domestic law to treaty obligations, conventions, and protocols,” the suit states. “Then, it entrusts the Attorney General, a member of the executive branch, to execute non-self-executing international treaty obligations, providing him no intelligible principle, instructions, standards, or criteria whatsoever against which to measure what ‘he deems most appropriate.’ This is unconstitutional.”

Stephen Zyskiewicz, who filed the handwritten 2020 rescheduling petition that is central to the new suit’s claims, is not a party to the case. Instead, several military veterans, as well as SRI and its principal investigator Sue Sisley, are the plaintiffs.

“Marijuana’s schedule I status and DEA’s determinations hinder SRI’s clinical research—the very clinical research that DEA requires under its unlawful interpretation of 21 U.S.C. § 812(b)(1)(B) to consider removing marijuana from schedule I—in several key respects,” the lawsuit states. For example, the scheduling status has meant that “SRI has had to delay FDA-approved clinical trials to investigate the safety and efficacy of smoked marijuana in treating breakthrough pain in terminal cancer patients.”

This isn’t SRI’s first time taking the feds to court over their marijuana decisions. The institute, which is among several dozen applicants to become a federally authorized manufacturer of cannabis for research purposes, successfully forced DEA to issue an update on the status of their application processing and then got the Justice Department to hand over a “secret” memo that DEA allegedly used to justify a delay in deciding on those proposals.

“What has been animating all of these lawsuits is that we can’t get the research done,” Zorn said. “The ideal result is that we stop filing lawsuits and the administration decides it wants to support cannabis research. But until that happens, we’ll be in the courts.”

Meanwhile, a public comment period recently ended for proposed rules that DEA published as part of its attempt to expand the number of authorized cannabis manufacturers. Many advocates made the case that marijuana research should not be the purview of DEA at all and should instead be handled by a federal health agency.

DEA could also find itself being challenged over its marijuana scheduling decisions in the U.S. Supreme Court in a separate case. After an appeals court dismissed a lawsuit because the plaintiffs said they wouldn’t push for rescheduling through administrative channels, attorneys in the case said they will soon request that the nation’s highest court take it up.

Read the new lawsuit challenging DEA’s marijuana rescheduling denials below: 

SRI Suit DEA by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

Former Attorney General, Lawmakers And Police Leaders Call For Federal Marijuana Legalization Waivers

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USDA Approves Hemp Plans For U.S. Virgin Islands And Four Indian Tribes

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced on Wednesday that it has approved hemp regulatory plans from a U.S. territory and four additional Indian tribes.

The U.S. Virgin Islands is the first territory to have its proposal accepted. USDA also signed off on plans from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Chippewa Cree Tribe, Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians and Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians.

That brings the total number of approved plans across states, territories and tribes to 47.

USDA has been signing off on hemp plans on a rolling basis since the crop and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill. Earlier this month, Massachusetts joined the list of states where proposed regulations for hemp have been approved.

The department said in a new notice that it “continues to receive and review hemp production plans from states and Indian tribes.”

While the agency released an interim final rule for a domestic hemp production program last year, industry stakeholders and lawmakers have expressed concerns about certain policies it views as excessively restrictive.

USDA announced in February that it will temporarily lift two provisions that the industry viewed as problematic. Those policies primarily concern testing and disposal requirements. The department declined to revise the THC limit, however, arguing that it’s a statutory matter that can’t be dealt with administratively.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said on several occasions that the Drug Enforcement Administration influenced certain rules, adding that the narcotics agency wasn’t pleased with the overall legalization of hemp.

Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is still in the process of developing regulations for CBD. It sent an update on its progress to Congress in March, explaining that the agency is actively exploring pathways to allow for the marketing of the cannabis compound as a dietary supplement and is developing enforcement discretion guidance.

An FDA public comment period was reopened indefinitely for individuals to submit feedback on CBD regulations.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, hemp industry associations pushed for farmers to be able to access to certain COVID-19 relief loans—a request that Congress granted in the most recent round of coronavirus legislation.

However, USDA said last week that hemp farmers are specifically ineligible for its Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. While the department initially said it would not reevaluate the crop’s eligibility based on new evidence, it removed that language shortly after Marijuana Moment reported on the exclusion.

Hemp farmers approved to produce the crop do stand to benefit from other federal loan programs, however. The department recently released guidelines for processing loans for the industry.

Louisiana Senate And House Both Approve Significant Medical Marijuana Expansion

Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.

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