A Rhode Island Senate panel last week heard initial testimony on legislation that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs and replace them with a $100 fine. The bill is one of a handful of drug reform measures now working their way through the state legislature alongside separate proposals to legalize marijuana that have been filed by the governor and top lawmakers.
“The goal of this bill is to remove criminal charges from narcotic and opioid possession and in place have civil violations, drug counseling programs and community service,” sponsor Sen. Tiara Mack (D), told the Senate Judiciary Committee, which heard testimony but took no action on the bill. “When we decriminalize, we find that people are more likely to come out of the shadows and seek help.”
Mack’s bill, S. 604, was one of two measures the panel heard Thursday that would reduce the state’s current felony charge for simple drug possession. A competing measure, S. 188, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (D) and backed by state Attorney General Peter Neronha (D), would make possession of small amounts of controlled substances a misdemeanor.
“I honestly do not believe in incrementalism. I think we need sweeping changes right now.”
Rhode Island lawmakers are separately considering the establishment of safe consumption sites in an effort to stem an onslaught of overdose deaths that has only gotten worse during the pandemic. The state Senate last month passed legislation that would legalize what the bill calls “harm reduction centers,” defined as “community based resource[s] for health screening, disease prevention and recovery assistance where persons may safely consume pre-obtained controlled substances.”
If the House passes a companion bill and the governor signs the legislation, Rhode Island would be the first U.S. state to legalize the sites, which advocates say could prevent overdose deaths and destigmatize substance use disorders.
Mack introduced her drug decriminalization bill on the same day Gov. Dan McKee (D) unveiled a plan to legalize marijuana for adult use through his 2022 budget proposal. Legislative leaders have also introduced their own measure to legalize and regulate commercial cannabis. Both plans to end cannabis prohibition are set to be heard alongside a number of medical marijuana bills Thursday afternoon in a joint meeting of the Senate Finance and Judiciary committees.
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“Decades of empirical evidence from around the world has shown that reducing and eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession does not increase rates of drug use or crime, but it also has a drastic effect in reducing addiction, overdose and HIV/AIDS,” Mack told the Senate panel in support of her decriminalization bill. “Today, as overdose deaths skyrocket all over the U.S., people are in need of drug treatment. They might avoid this treatment because of the criminalization associated with their drug use.”
“Criminalizing drugs often hurts families and communities,” she added. “A criminal record will prevent job security housing and opportunities for a lifetime, often across multiple generations.”
In an interview with Marijuana Moment, Mack said the decriminalization proposal is part of her goal as a first-time legislator during a pandemic of starting conversations around the need for holistic, people-focused policies. “We know that drug use…is not an isolated problem,” she said, noting that substance misuse disorders and overdose deaths often correlate with inadequate access to housing, affordable healthcare or other basic needs.
“One of the things I really wanted to focus on was the Black and brown communities in particular when it comes to the criminalization and the war on drugs,” Mack said. “It’s part of my people-centered policy—making sure I’m looking at the people involved and real solutions, and not just ways to enact crime and further punishment.”
While she acknowledged that she’s “had some conversations” with Senate Majority Leader McCaffrey about his competing defelonization proposal and “this is one of the topics that I’ve been texting him about,” she said the pandemic has made it difficult to discuss the issue fully. “I see my colleagues once a week.”
Asked whether she’d support the more modest proposal, Mack replied: “I honestly do not believe in incrementalism.”
“I think we need sweeping changes right now,” she continued. “It’s really easy to stop at the first step and turn around, or stop at the first step and feel like we’ve accomplished something.”
As for the proposal to legalize safe consumption sites in the state, “I’m in full support of that bill,” Mack said.
In comments both to the Senate panel and Marijuana Moment, Mack explained that she was inspired by the global movement to reframe drug disorders as a health issue rather than a criminal problem, pointing to examples such as Portugal and more recently Oregon, which eliminated criminal penalties for drug possession and instead focused on treating drug use disorders.
In both jurisdictions, decriminalization coincided with substantial investment in outreach, treatment and recovery services. Mack said in Rhode Island, those programs could be expanded through tax revenue from legal marijuana or by a tax on the top 1 percent of people in terms of income.
As for cannabis legalization, Mack urged colleagues to emphasize social justice, particularly for Black and brown people, who’ve been subject to overcriminalization and discrimination under existing drug laws. “We can put a pretty bow and say we’re going to reserve X amount of licenses for these people, but if we’re only doing it for show and we’re not doing it to right the wrongs that have been done in these communities…then we’re not doing our due diligence,” she said.
Gov. McKee and leaders in the Senate are pushing competing versions of legislation to legalize marijuana, which differ on taxes, social equity provisions and how the new markets would be regulated. Both are notably different, however, from the plan put forward by former Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) prior to her leaving office to join the Biden administration, which would have created the country’s first system of state-run cannabis stores.
McKee gave initial insights into his perspective on the reform in January, saying that “it’s time that [legalization] happens” and that he’s “more leaning towards an entrepreneurial strategy there to let that roll that way.”
Late last year, the Senate Finance Committee began preliminary consideration of legalization in preparation for the 2021 session, with lawmakers generally accepting the reform as an inevitability. “I certainly do think we’ll act on the issue, whether it’s more private or more state,” Sen. Ryan Pearson (D) said at the time.
The growing momentum in Rhode Island also comes as lawmakers in neighboring Connecticut are also moving toward legalizing marijuana this year as Gov. Ned Lamont (D) pushes a competing reform. Advocates have been critical of several provisions, particularly around social equity and home cultivation.
Nearby states have also seen drug decriminalization bills introduced this legislative session, including one this month in Vermont. That bill would reduce penalties to a $50 fine or a referral to a health screening. “We continue to treat drug abusers as criminals when they should just be patients,” one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Logan Nicoll (D), told Marijuana Moment.
In New Jersey, meanwhile, Gov. Phil Murphy said last week that he’s “open-minded” on decriminalizing all drugs.
Virginia Has Sealed 64,000 Marijuana Distribution Charges Since Legalization Took Effect This Summer
“These aren’t just numbers and there are families attached.”
By Ned Oliver, Virginia Mercury
Virginia has sealed records documenting more than 64,000 misdemeanor marijuana distribution charges since the state legalized the drug in July.
The figure came out Thursday during a meeting of the legislature’s Cannabis Oversight Commission.
Officials said the records were scrubbed from the state’s criminal record database, which is used by employers like school boards, state agencies and local governments to screen employees.
The state had already sealed 333,000 records detailing charges of simple possession last year after the state reduced the offense to a civil infraction on par with a traffic offense, said Shawn G. Talmadge, the Deputy Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security.
Lawmakers directed the state to expand that effort when they voted to broadly legalize recreational use of marijuana earlier this year.
The legislature also agreed to a broader expungement reform that will automatically seal other misdemeanor charges, including underage possession of alcohol, use of a fake ID, petit larceny, trespassing and disorderly conduct. Talmadge said those charges will remain in the system until the state finishes updating the software it uses to track criminal records.
“As of right now, the process is proceeding,” he said.
The Virginia Joint Commission on Cannabis Oversight is meeting now. You can find the agenda and links to livestream and to provide public comment at https://t.co/f1wsPn7SV7
— Jennifer McClellan (@JennMcClellanVA) October 14, 2021
Members of the oversight commission also heard from two advocates who urged them to move fast to address people currently imprisoned for marijuana offenses—a category of people the legalization legislation passed this year did not address.
Chelsea Higgs Wise, the leader of the advocacy group Marijuana Justice, and Gracie Burger, with the Last Prisoner Project, said Department of Corrections data suggests there are currently 10 people being held solely on serious marijuana charges.
They said it remains unknown how many more are being held because of marijuana related probation violations.
“These aren’t just numbers and there are families attached,” Burger said.
DEA Proposes Dramatic Increase In Marijuana And Psychedelic Production In 2022, Calling For 6,300 Percent More MDMA Alone
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is proposing a dramatic increase in the legal production of marijuana and psychedelics like psilocybin, LSD, MDMA and DMT to be used in research next year.
In a notice scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Monday, the agency said there’s been a “significant increase in the use of schedule I hallucinogenic controlled substances for research and clinical trial purposes,” and it wants authorized manufacturers to meet that growing demand.
DEA had already massively upped its proposed 2021 quota for cannabis and psilocybin last month, but now it’s calling for significantly larger quantities of research-grade marijuana and a broader array of psychedelics to be manufactured in 2022.
It wants to double the amount of marijuana extracts, psilocybin and psilocyn, quadruple mescaline and quintuple DMT. What especially stands out in the notice is MDMA. The agency is proposing an enormous 6,300 percent boost in the production of that drug—from just 50 grams in 2021 to 3,200 grams in the coming year—as research into its therapeutic potential continues to expand.
LSD would see a 1,150 percent increase, up to 500 grams of the potent psychedelic.
Marijuana itself would get a 60 percent boost under DEA’s proposal, up to 3.2 million grams in 2022 from the 2 million grams last year.
Here’s a visualization of the proposed quota increase from 2021 to 2022 for marijuana and cannabis extracts:
For all other THC, psilocybin, psilocyn and MDMA:
And for other psychedelic substances like LSD, mescaline and DMT:
DEA said in the Federal Register notice that it has been receiving and approving additional applications to “grow, synthesize, extract, and manufacture dosage forms containing specific schedule I hallucinogenic substances for clinical trial purposes” to achieve these ambitious quotas.
“DEA supports regulated research with schedule I controlled substances, as evidenced by increases proposed for 2022 as compared with aggregate production quotas for these substances in 2021,” the agency said, adding that it working “diligently” to process and approve marijuana manufacturers applications in particular, as there’s currently only one farm at the University of Mississippi that’s permitted to cultivate the plant for research.
“Based on the increase in research and clinical trial applications, DEA has proposed increases in 3,4- Methylenedioxyamphetamine (MDA), 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), 5-Methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine, Dimethyltryptamine, Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), Marihuana, Marihuana Extract, Mescaline, Psilocybin, Psilocyn, and All Other Tetrahydrocannabinols to support manufacturing activities related to the increased level of research and clinical trials with these schedule I controlled substances.”
Here are the exact numbers for the proposed 2021 and 2022 quotas:
|All other tetrahydrocannabinol||1,000||2,000|
A 30-day public comment period will be open after the notice is formally published on Monday.
It’s difficult to overstate just how significant the proposed 2022 increases are, but it’s certainly true that scientific and public interest in marijuana and psychedelics has rapidly increased, with early clinical trials signaling that such substances show significant therapeutic potential.
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow told Marijuana Moment in a recent interview that she was encouraged by DEA’s previous proposed increase in drug production quota. She also said that studies demonstrating the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics could be leading more people to experiment with substances like psilocybin.
Advocates and experts remain frustrated that these plants and fungi remain in the strictest federal drug category in the first place, especially considering the existing research that shows their medical value for certain conditions.
A federal appeals court in August dismissed a petition to require the DEA to reevaluate cannabis’s scheduling under the Controlled Substances Act. However, one judge did say in a concurring opinion that the agency may soon be forced to consider a policy change anyway based on a misinterpretation of the therapeutic value of marijuana.
Separately, the Washington State attorney general’s office and lawyers representing cancer patients recently urged a federal appeals panel to push for a DEA policy change to allow people in end-of-life care to access psilocybin under state and federal right-to-try laws.
Image element courtesy of Kristie Gianopulos.
Supreme Court Won’t Hear Case On Legalizing Safe Drug Consumption Sites, But Activists Are Undeterred
The U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) has rejected a request to hear a case on the legality of establishing safe injection sites where people can use illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment.
The justices announced on Tuesday that they decided against taking up the case raised by the nonprofit Safehouse, despite the pleas of attorneys general from 10 states and D.C. who recently filed amici briefs urging the court’s involvement.
Representatives from 14 cities and counties, as well as the mayor of Philadelphia, which is at the center of the current case, also filed briefs in support of the case in recent days.
Safehouse was set to launch a safe consumption site in Philadelphia before being blocked by a legal challenge from the Trump administration. It filed a petition with the nation’s highest court in August to hear the case.
But while the Supreme Court declined to take action—and the Biden administration passed up its voluntary opportunity to weigh in at this stage, which may well have influenced the justices’ decision—activists say the battle will continue at a lower federal court level, where the administration will have to file briefs revealing its position on the issue.
Disappointed but not surprised U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear our case. We’re pursuing our claims in federal court. As that litigation proceeds, Biden administration will have to take a position, which it avoided by waiving its right to respond to our Supreme Court petition.
— Safehouse (@SafehousePhilly) October 13, 2021
“We were disappointed that the government chose not to respond to our petition,” Safehouse Vice President Ronda Goldfein told Filter. “They said, ‘We’re going to waive our right to respond,’ [and] the Supreme Court declined to review our case. Ordinarily that sounds like the end of the road—but in our case we are still pursuing our claims in a different venue.”
That venue will be the the federal district court in Philadelphia, where activists plan to submit multiple arguments related to religious freedom and interstate commerce protections. The Biden administration will be compelled to file a response in that court by November 5.
“If they don’t respond, they lose,” Goldfein said.
A coalition of 80 current and former prosecutors and law enforcement officials—including one who is President Joe Biden’s pick for U.S. attorney of Massachusetts—previously filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to take up Safehouse’s safe injection case.
Fair and Justice Prosecution, the group that coordinated the amicus brief, also organized a tour of Portugal for 20 top prosecutors in 2019 so they could learn about the successful implementation of the country’s drug decriminalization law.
If the Supreme Court were to have taken the case and rule in favor of Safehouse, it could have emboldened advocates and lawmakers across the country to pursue the harm reduction policy.
The governor of Rhode Island signed a bill in July to establish a safe consumption site pilot program where people could test and use currently illicit drugs in a medically supervised environment. It became the first state in the country to legalize the harm reduction centers. It’s not clear whether the Department of Justice will seek to intervene to prevent the opening of such facilities in that state.
Massachusetts lawmakers advanced similar legislation last year, but it was not ultimately enacted.
A similar harm reduction bill in California, sponsored by Sen. Scott Wiener (D), was approved in the state Senate in April, but further action has been delayed until 2022.