Legendary Cannabis Chemist Raphael Mechoulam Passes Away in Israel at 92
Chemist Raphael Mechoulam has passed away. He was 92.
Born in Bulgaria in 1930, Mechoulam spent his adult life in Israel. He’s best known for synthesizing THC and other cannabinoids and discovering the endocannabinoid system (ECS).
Mechoulam was the Albert Hofmann of cannabis. (Hofmann discovered LSD.) In fact, Drug Policy Alliance founder Ethan Nadelmann made the same comparision when asked to comment about Mechoulam. “I can’t help but think of Albert Hofmann when I think of Raphael Mechoulam,” he tells CelebStoner. “Both were giants of psychoactive drug reserach who pioneered, led and legitimized the study of remarkable but controversial substances over the course of their very long and productive lives.”
In a recent article in the Annual Review of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Mechoulam looked back at his life. After surviving World War II and the Holocaust (he father was placed in a concentration camp), he emigrated to Israel in 1949.
“In 1953 I was conscripted and spent about two years doing research in an Army medical research unit,” he wrote. “Most of my work was in chemistry, in collaboration with pharmacologists. A few years later, I moved to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where I continued my research for the next 55 years.”
Mechoulamn got in the ground floor of cannabis research: “My interest in natural products led me to read the literature on the chemistry and pharmacology of Cannabis. I was surprised to note that an active compound had apparently never been isolated in pure form and that its structure was only partially known. Even the structure of a major crystalline component, cannabidiol (CBD), which had been isolated more than two decades previously, was not fully elucidated. Their biological effects as pure or semipure compounds had barely been investigated.”
He explained how they acquired cannabis to study it: “The administrative head of my Institute knew a police officer, who was presumably the number two (or possibly the number three) in the Israeli Police hierarchy. He phoned and told him that a Dr. Raphael Mechoulam needed hashish for research and that he – meaning me – was completely reliable (though he barely knew me). I just went to Police headquarters, had a cup of coffee with the policeman in charge of the storage of illicit drugs and got 5 kg of confiscated hashish, presumably smuggled from Lebanon.”
his led to his discoveries of THC, CBD, cannabigerol (CBG), anandamide, 2-AG and eventually the ECS. “Although all the cannabinoids assayed were rather closely related chemically, only THC was active,” he noted. “Hence, except for CBD and THC, very little research was published on the other cannabinoid constituents for a few decades. However, over the last few years, interest in them has increased.”
In the mid-’80s, his colleague Allyn Howlett “reported the existence of a cannabinoid receptor, known today as CB1.” They further concluded that THC and anandamide “represent the chemical basis of a new biochemical/physiological network: the endocannabinoid system. This system, as seen today, in addition to the two endocannabinoids, also covers the enzymes needed to synthesize and hydrolyze the endocannabinoids as well as two receptors: CB1 and CB2. The endocannabinoid system is of central importance in the animal body and represents an important modulatory network in the brain.”
Mechoulam: “I had a cup of coffee with the policeman in charge of the storage of illicit drugs and got 5 kg of confiscated hashish, presumably smuggled from Lebanon.”
That was huge news. In his “finals thoughts,” Mechoulam speculated: “The endocannabinoid system is a latecomer to our knowledge in chemistry, pharmacology and physiology. Its involvement in biological processes is enormously wide, but most of the endogenous anandamide-like compounds and 2-AG-like compounds have yet to be investigated for their activity.
“I want to stress that in the endocannabinoid area, as well as in other areas, close collaboration between scientists working in medicinal chemistry and pharmacology is a wonderful and fruitful pathway to the discovery of novel biological traits. It has been a pleasure to work with my colleagues in Israel and abroad. I have learned a lot from them. And I hope to learn more.
Story from – Celebstoner.com
Liberal government launches review of Cannabis Act — a year late
The review will look at impact on Indigenous people, youth and home cultivation
“Through this useful, inclusive and evidence-driven review, we will strengthen the act so that it meets the needs of all Canadians while continuing to displace the illicit market. I look forward to receiving the panel’s findings,” Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said.
The Liberals lifted a century-long prohibition on the use and sale of recreational cannabis in October 2018, with a commitment to review the law three years after it came into force. That review is nearly a year overdue.
According to the Cannabis Act, the review must focus on the law’s impact on Indigenous people, on cultivating cannabis in a housing complex and on the health and consumption patterns of young people.
“Young people are at increased risk of experiencing harms from cannabis such as mental health problems, including dependence and disorders related to anxiety and depression,” said Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett.
“While a lot of progress has been made on the implementation of the Cannabis Act and its dual objectives of protecting public health and maintaining public safety, we need to assess the work that has been done and learn how and where to adjust to meet these goals.”
The review mandate has been expanded to include an examination of the social and environmental effects of the Cannabis Act, the impact of legalization and regulation of medical cannabis and the impact on racialized communities and women.
Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, co-chair of the all-party cannabis caucus, said the need to get these additional areas included in the review explains in part why the government missed the three-year timeline.
“Getting the scope of the review right was much more important than the timeline,” he said. “If we’d followed the legislation to a ‘T’ — both in relation to the three-year timeline, but also the considerations that are set out in the legislation — we would have missed a major opportunity to get this right.”
Expert panel to be named soon
The federal government said the Cannabis Act was brought in to displace the illegal market and to protect the health of Canadians.
Progress toward both of those goals will also be examined by the review, which will be conducted by an independent panel of experts.
Morris Rosenberg, the former deputy minister of justice, will chair the expert panel. The other panel members have not yet been named.
l will hear from the public, government, Indigenous groups, youth, cannabis industry representatives and medical cannabis users. The panel will also hear from experts in public health, substance abuse, law enforcement and health care.
“I look forward to working with the panel and to providing evidence-based advice to ministers to strengthen this particularly important piece of legislation and advance public policy in this area in Canada,” Rosenberg said Thursday.
Children and edibles
Bennett and Duclos were asked about reports that an increasing number of children have been admitted to hospital because of exposure to cannabis products, and whether the review would look at the impact on young children.
“We’ve done well in terms of the public education campaign but I think since the advent of edibles that we need to do more,” Bennett said. “Families need to ensure that it’s in a safe place where children can’t access it.”
Erskine-Smith said there are always risks to public health when it comes to alcohol, cannabis and other substances but they can be mitigated with harm reduction.
“The public health approach has to be about reducing harms and taking a broader look … to say, ‘How can we best regulate activities to reduce harms?’ And edibles are good example of that,” he said.
Duclos said that since legalization, 70 per cent of Canada’s cannabis market has moved from the illegal economy to legal and regulated sources of supply.
Erskine-Smith said displacing the illicit marketplace for cannabis has to be a central goal of any cannabis legalization legislation and a core component of the federal government’s agenda overall.
“We are going to displace the illicit marketplace. It’s only a matter of time and you are going to, over the next three years, five years and 10 years, see those numbers shift,” he said. “The legal marketplace will be where Canadians continue to turn.”
He said that in order to ensure that happens, the federal government must continue to provide Canadians with a safe, affordable, reliable supply.
Story from CBC
B.C. gets approval for legal possession of small amounts of street drugs as deaths soar
Personal possession of up to 2.5 grams to be legal for three years beginning Jan. 31, 2023
Jane Skrypnek – May. 31, 2022
Health Canada has approved B.C.’s request to decriminalize small possessions of illicit drugs, although at a lower threshold than the province sought.
Beginning on Jan. 31, 2023, British Columbians 18 and older will be legally allowed to carry up to 2.5 grams of street drugs on them, which can include opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine or MDMA. Health Canada says the drugs must be for personal use only, and the program will be reviewed in three years.
It says adults found in possession of 2.5 grams or less won’t be arrested or charged and won’t have their drugs seized. Anyone producing or importing or exporting drugs and anyone carrying them for the purposes of trafficking will continue to face legal repercussions, though.
Health Canada says the months leading up to Jan. 31 will be used by B.C. to train law enforcement and health authorities, educate the public on the change, and work with First Nations and Indigenous leaders to ensure safe implementation.
It says it and a third party evaluator will be regularly monitoring the exemption throughout the three years and making any adjustments necessary.
The approval comes shortly after the six year anniversary of B.C. declaring a public health emergency around the opioid crisis. Since April 2016, close to 10,000 people have died to toxic drug overdoses.
Advocates have long pushed for decriminalization as one avenue for reducing the number of deaths. They argue criminalizing drug possession doesn’t stop people from using them, but rather drives them to use alone and turn to more dangerous methods of accessing them. Criminalizing drugs also increases stigma against people who use them and worsens their relationship with law enforcement, advocates say.
In B.C.’s request to Health Canada, it asked for a 4.5-gram carry threshold, which some advocates said was still unrealistically low. When they heard Health Canada was considering a 2.5-gram threshold instead back in April, several said the amount was laughable for many users.
“That’s something I would eat for breakfast,” people told Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users member Brittany Graham at the time.
It says decriminalization requests by Vancouver and Toronto are still pending, and declined to provide any kind of decision timeline.
Story from – The Abbotsford News
Master P Says People Shouldn’t Be Locked Up For Marijuana Offenses
NO ONE SHOULD BE IN JAIL FOR MARIJUANA
… Weed Like Them Freed!!!
May 19, 2022 – TMZ
Epstein-Barr Virus Found to Trigger Multiple Sclerosis
The research could mark a turning point in the fight against MS
By Lydia Denworth –
A connection between the human herpesvirus Epstein-Barr and multiple sclerosis (MS) has long been suspected but has been difficult to prove. Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is the primary cause of mononucleosis and is so common that 95 percent of adults carry it. Unlike Epstein-Barr, MS, a devastating demyelinating disease of the central nervous system, is relatively rare. It affects 2.8 million people worldwide. But people who contract infectious mononucleosis are at slightly increased risk of developing MS. In the disease, inflammation damages the myelin sheath that insulates nerve cells, ultimately disrupting signals to and from the brain and causing a variety of symptoms, from numbness and pain to paralysis.
To prove that infection with Epstein-Barr causes MS, however, a research study would have to show that people would not develop the disease if they were not first infected with the virus. A randomized trial to test such a hypothesis by purposely infecting thousands of people would of course be unethical.
Instead researchers at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School turned to what they call “an experiment of nature.” They used two decades of blood samples from more than 10 million young adults on active duty in the U.S. military (the samples were taken for routine HIV testing). About 5 percent of those individuals (several hundred thousand people) were negative for Epstein-Barr when they started military service, and 955 eventually developed MS. The researchers were able to compare the outcomes of those who were subsequently infected and those who were not. The results, published on September 13 in Science, show that the risk of multiple sclerosis increased 32-fold after infection with Epstein-Barr but not after infection with other viruses. “These findings cannot be explained by any known risk factor for MS and suggest EBV as the leading cause of MS,” the researchers wrote.
In an accompanying commentary, immunologists William H. Robinson and Lawrence Steinman, both at Stanford University, wrote, “These findings provide compelling data that implicate EBV as the trigger for the development of MS.” Epidemiologist Alberto Ascherio, senior author of the new study, says, “The bottom line is almost: if you’re not infected with EBV, you don’t get MS. It’s rare to get such black-and-white results.”
Virologist Jeffrey I. Cohen, who heads the Laboratory of Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health and was not involved in the research, is cautious about claiming “cause.” He argues that it still must be shown that preventing Epstein-Barr prevents MS but agrees the results are dramatic. “When the original studies were done with cigarette smoking and lung cancer, they found a 25-fold risk factor for people who smoked more than 25 cigarettes a day,” Cohen says. “This is even higher.”
Much of the world’s population, especially in developing countries, is infected with Epstein-Barr very early in life without much ill effect, although the virus can lead to several rare cancers. Everyone else is infected in adolescence and young adulthood, when Epstein-Barr usually leads to infectious mononucleosis, also called “kissing disease” because it is transmitted via saliva. After infection, Epstein-Barr lives on in some B cells of the immune system and the antibodies developed to fight it remain in the blood.
In the new study, which is a much larger expansion of a 2010 investigation, the researchers analyzed up to three blood samples for each individual with MS: the first taken when most of the military personnel were under the age of 20, the last taken years later, before the onset of the disease, and one in between. The team was looking for seroconversion, or the appearance of antibodies in the blood as evidence of infection. Each person with MS was also matched with two randomly selected controls without MS, who were of the same age, sex, race or ethnicity, and branch of the military. Out of the 955 cases of MS, they were able to assemble appropriate samples for 801 individuals with the disease and 1,566 controls. Thirty-five of the people who developed MS and 107 controls tested negative for EBV initially. Only one of the 801 people with MS had not been infected with Epstein-Barr before the disease’s onset. The risk of developing MS was 32 times greater for those who seroconverted by the third sample, compared with those who did not. As for the one case of MS in someone who remained negative for Epstein-Barr, it is possible that person was infected after the sample was taken, but it is also true that, in diseases that are clinically defined by their symptoms, such as MS, it is highly unlikely that 100 percent of cases derive from the same cause, even if most do, Ascherio says.
“The numbers are just so striking,” says Stephen Hauser, director of the University of California, San Francisco, Weill Institute for Neurosciences, who was not involved with the study. “It’s really a uniform seroconversion before the onset of MS that is really far more significant than in the control population.”
But to be sure Epstein-Barr was the culprit, Ascherio and his colleagues also measured antibodies against cytomegalovirus, another herpesvirus, and found no difference in levels in those who developed MS and those who did not. Using a subset of 30 MS cases and 30 controls, they conducted a scan to detect antibody responses to most of the viruses that infect humans. Again, there was no difference. And to rule out the possibility that infection with Epstein-Barr preceded MS and not the other way around, the team also measured levels of a protein that is elevated in serum when neurons are injured or die and that therefore serves as a marker of the beginning of the pathological process before clinical symptoms appear. The protein levels only rose after Epstein-Barr infection.
One major question remains, however: How does the virus lead to the disease? That is unknown and “elusive,” Robinson and Steinman wrote in their commentary. They proposed several possibilities, such as inducing an autoimmune reaction.
Even if Epstein-Barr is the triggering event for MS, infection alone is insufficient for an actual diagnosis. Epstein-Barr, it appears, has to combine with a genetic predisposition and possibly environmental factors, such as smoking and vitamin D deficiency, to increase risk. Understanding the underlying mechanism will be important, the experts say. But meanwhile “this is the best epidemiologic lead we have in terms of the cause of MS,” Hauser says.
Historically, we have thought of MS as an autoimmune disease of unknown etiology. “Now we should start thinking of MS as a complication of infection with the Epstein-Barr virus,” Ascherio says. “This should open a new chapter in trying to find a way to treat and prevent the disease.”
Antivirals that target EBV in infected B cells are one possibility. One of the more exciting developments in MS in recent years was the success of B-cell-depletion therapies. In earlier work, Hauser and his colleagues found that the tissue damage in MS is primarily directed by B cells, which attack the myelin sheath protecting nerves. The therapies now approved for use are monoclonal antibodies that kill those B cells, thereby easing inflammation. They are not a cure but are highly effective against MS relapses, reducing the development of new lesions measured by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain by an astounding 99 percent. They are also the only therapies shown to be effective against primary progressive MS, a previously untreatable form of the disease. “One might be able to refine these therapies that are working well and maybe just target the EBV-infected B cells,” says immunologist Christian Münz of the University of Zurich, who was also not involved in the new Science study.
Others are already working on vaccines that could prevent infection with Epstein-Barr. Moderna, which created an mRNA vaccine against COVID-19, launched a phase 1 trial of an mRNA vaccine for Epstein-Barr earlier this month. And NIAID’s Cohen expects to begin a phase 1 trial of another Epstein-Barr vaccine by the end of February. If these researchers succeed, such vaccines might dramatically reduce the incidence of mononucleosis and some cancers. And now it is conceivable that they could do the same for MS.
Story from Scientific American
New Hope for TGN Suffers
Video on CTV Website
Octopuses Rolling on MDMA Reveal Unexpected Link to Humans
“They just embraced with multiple arms.”
Inverse- Sarah Sloat
When the California two-spot octopus isn’t attempting to bring more eight-legged cephalopods into this world, it prefers to be alone. Known to scientists as Octopus bimaculoides, the alien-like invertebrate spends most of its time hiding or searching for food, asocial males avoiding asocial females until their biological clocks say it’s time to partner up. That is, until they are on MDMA. In a groundbreaking study, researchers described how octopuses on the drug act similarly to a socially anxious human on MDMA: They open up.
Gül Dölen, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University and the co-author of the 2018 Current Biology paper. She tells Inverse that when octopuses are on MDMA, it’s like watching “an eight-armed hug.”
“They were very loose,” Dölen says. “They just embraced with multiple arms.”
While MDMA is known to trigger prosocial behavior in mice and humans, it has never been witnessed in invertebrates, animals that have no backbone. Vertebrates and invertebrates have wildly divergent bodies and brain structures, and for a long time scientists didn’t think the latter had the capacity to be social. They only recently realized invertebrates deserved a second look.
Because of improvements in molecular genetic analysis, Dölen explains, we’re beginning to understand the ways in which both groups evolved from a common ancestor. The findings of the study add evidence to the idea that social behaviors have a long evolutionary history — going back much farther than we ever believed. The electrifying results could significantly impact what we know about the evolution of brains and why MDMA-assisted therapy seems to be such a useful tool in treating post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.
“After the MDMA, it was like an eight-armed hug.”
An octopus differs from a human in ways far beyond the obvious. A heap of no bones and 33,000 genes, octopuses are believed to be Earth’s first intelligent beings. They are utterly different from all other animals, with a central brain that surrounds the esophagus and two-thirds of their neurons in their arms. They’re separated from humans by more than 500 million years of evolution. But despite the differences between octopuses and humans, Dölen and her colleague Eric Edsinger, Ph.D., a research fellow at the University of Chicago’s Marine Biological Laboratory, choose to focus on a single crucial similarity. The brain of the California two-spot octopus contains a serotonin transporter that enables the binding of MDMA — much like human brains.
This means that serotonin — believed to help regulate mood, social behavior, sleep, and sexual desire — is an ancient neurotransmitter that’s shared across vertebrate and invertebrate species. Dölen and Edsinger hypothesized this before the octopuses were ever bathed in MDMA.
“We needed to check the genome to make sure that the genes that encode the serotonin transporter, which is the protein that MDMA binds to, was still a binding site in octopuses even despite the fact that so much evolutionary time had passed,” Dölen explains.
“We performed phylogenetic tree mapping and found that, even though their whole serotonin transporter gene is only 50 to 60 percent similar to humans, the gene was still conserved. That told us that MDMA would have a place to go in the octopus brain and suggested it could encode sociality as it does in a human brain.”
That’s a revolutionary suggestion because scientists only very recently began to accept that invertebrates are even capable of being social. After all, without MDMA, California two-spot octopuses prefer to be loners. In a 2017 study in the Journal of Experimental Biology, researchers from Queen Mary University of of London wrote the possibility that invertebrates could have emotions has “traditionally been dismissed by many as emotions are frequently defined with reference to human subjective experience, and invertebrates are often not considered to have the neural requirements for such sophisticated abilities.”
But recent studies, illustrating a shift in thinking, have shown that invertebrates like sea slugs, bees, and crabs all display various cognitive, behavioral, and phsyiological phenomena that suggest internal states reminiscent of emotions.
This is why the fact that octopuses can bind serotonin is so important. Serotonin is a key mitigator of the emotional aspects of human behavior and sociality. That octopuses, one of the most advanced invertebrates, have a similar pathway geared toward social behavior despite the fact that their brains are organized very differently suggests that sociality is spread across the animal kingdom.
“There have been studies showing that serotonin is important for social behaviors for both invertebrates and vertebrates, and this really confirms to me that it’s true that serotonin is conserved across hundreds of millions of years of evolution,” says Dölen.
This became clear when she observed how octopuses acted after they were bathed in MDMA. Individual octopuses were put into the middle zone of a glass aquarium that was divided into three. From the middle zone, the subject octopus had the option to move into the zone on either side of it. On one side, there was another octopus in a cage, and on the other, there was a “novel toy object” (a Stormtrooper figurine). Sociality was measured by the number of seconds the subject octopus spent on the side with the caged octopus compared to the Stormtrooper side. Five octopuses were used in the control experiment, and four were used during the MDMA trial.
Watching the individual control octopuses — those that hadn’t been bathed in MDMA — during 30-minute test sessions, the researchers found that all of the octopuses spent more time with the Stormtrooper when the social chamber contained a male. When the social chamber contained a female, both male and female octopuses tentatively explored that area.
They would “push against the wall and sort of delicately touch the container that had the octopus in it,” says Dölen.
But when these octopuses were on MDMA, they were not delicate with their movements toward the caged individuals. After being placed in a bath with MDMA for 10 minutes, and then washed with saline for 20 minutes,, and they re-entered the three-zone aquarium. This time around, they spent significantly more time with the other octopus, whether it was male or female, and the eight-armed hugging commenced.
“This paper is welcomed, as the behavioral neuroscience of cephalopods is very understudied,” Dalhousie University invertebrate behavioral physiologist Shelley Adamo, Ph.D., who was not involved with the current paper, tells Inverse. Adamo also studies the interactions between behavior and physiology in invertebrate model systems. “We know little about how their brains work. This paper breaks new ground by examining the underlying molecular basis of at least one neurotransmitter system.”
But she also cautions that it’s too early to jump to conclusions because the paper’s evidence that “the octopus were engaging in ‘social’ behaviors is not especially strong.” There could be alternative explanations for all that friendliness. Maybe the drug altered their foraging behavior and the target octopus “smelled” like food (cephalopods are occasionally cannibalistic). Maybe the MDMA changed their typical hunting behavior, and being hungry could explain why both male and female octopuses were interested in the target.
“As with most interesting papers, it raises a number of questions: What would two octopus do if they were both on MDMA and they could contact one another?” Adamo asks. “The small sample size — a necessary evil for most studies on cephalopods — means that the data is not as robust as it could be.”
Dölen has two hypotheses to explain what happened. Qualitatively, it looks like octopuses on MDMA, much like humans, could just like touching in general,, and the octopus in the cage “is the most interesting object that an octopus would want to touch.” Or it could be that the drug really does make them social. The latter, she believes, is the most robust hypothesis: MDMA affects human interest in social touch as well, and that seems to be preserved in octopuses as well.
“What this says to me is that in the brain of an octopus, the neural circuits and transmitters that are required for social behavior must exist,, and they are just suppressed most of the time,” says Dölen. “Octopuses appear to suspend their asociality during important mating periods through a suppression mechanism in their brain.”
The MDMA used in the study was provided by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the nonprofit organization that funds the FDA-approved Phase 3 clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in patients with severe PTSD. This research, Dölen says, has intrigued MAPS founder Rick Doblin, and with good reason. It suggests that perhaps the best way to gain insight into MDMA’s mechanisms and therapeutic importance isn’t by taking an fMRI picture of the brain and examining the regions it activates, which has been standard practice in MDMA research. From Dölen’s point of view, the fact that octopuses don’t have the the same brain regions as humans but still carry the genes that enable MDMA binding means that molecular and cellular information is going to be more useful than anatomical data.
“Octopuses don’t have the same parts of the brain that we think are important for social behavior, a region called the nucleus accumbens,” says Dölen.
“What we’re arguing is that the brain regions don’t matter. What matters is that they have the molecules, the neurotransmitters, and some configuration of neurons. They have the serotonin transporter,, and that’s enough.”
Sarah Sloat is a writer based in Brooklyn. She has previously written for The New Republic, Pacific Standard, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. She likes cheese especially when paired with a full-bodied joke.
Story from – getpocket.com
Could magic mushrooms be the next marijuana?
With active legislation in 7 states, including NY, to allow the therapeutic use of the psychedelic drug, psilocybin could become the next mainstream medicinal high
Tyler Wetherall – December 15, 2021
New mothers are doing it to relieve postpartum depression. Tech CEOs are partaking to enhance productivity. Artists seek a creative boost, and chronic pain sufferers want relief. Microdosing — taking very small doses of psychedelic drugs, such as LSD or psilocybin mushrooms — has entered the cultural consciousness as the panacea of the moment.
The trend — which is also illegal — is part of a new dawning awareness of psychedelics, in particular psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms. Several cities and states, including New York, this year have introduced legislation to decriminalize the compound or allow its medicinal use.
Is the ‘War on Drugs’ over? Canada is seeing a ‘shift’ in its approach to drugs, experts say
By Rachel Gilmore – Gobal News – December 8, 2021
Walking around the downtown core of any major Canadian city, it’s not unusual to see weed dispensaries nestled between restaurants and cafes. It would’ve been a pipe dream just a decade ago.
Since making marijuana legal, the Canadian government has continued to inch toward a softer drug policy.
The federal government introduced legislation Tuesday to repeal mandatory minimum penalties for drug offences, and Health Canada decided last year to allow some palliative patients to use psilocybin — the chemical compound in magic mushrooms — to relieve end-of-life suffering. Toronto and Vancouver have also called for the decriminalization of the possession of small amounts of drugs.
Taking all this together, experts say it’s clear we’re starting to “see a shift” in Canada’s stance on drugs.
“I see an acknowledgment that the war on drugs has been a failure,” said Dr. Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor in the department of sociology at the University of Toronto.
“I see a shift in the acknowledgment that many substances that are currently illegal — and people don’t have access to — can be used as medicines. And I see a shift just generally with respect to our openness and the use of drugs for pleasure.”
In a submission to Health Canada last month, British Columbia detailed its intention to decriminalize the personal possession of up to 4.5 grams of illicit drugs such as heroin, crack and powder cocaine, fentanyl, and methamphetamine. Vancouver has also made a similar submission of its own. And just one week ago, Toronto’s top doctor said she’d like to see the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs decriminalized in the city — and she’s got support from the local police chief.
The changes come as the country finds itself in the grips of an opioid crisis that worsened amid the pandemic. Between April 2020 to March 2021, a total of 6,946 apparent opioid overdoses were reported across the country — an 88-per cent jump from the same time period prior to the pandemic.
B.C. reported the highest-ever number of drug deaths in the first seven months of 2021: 1,204, surpassing last year’s record by 28 per cent. Drug toxicity is now the province’s leading cause of death for those aged 19-39, according to the B.C. Coroners Service.
In Ontario, opioid-related deaths rose by more than 75 per cent after COVID-19 hit in 2020, compared with the year before, a report by Ontario Drug Policy Research Network showed.
These figures point to one thing: “What we’re doing isn’t working,” according to Dr. Leslie Buckley, an addictions psychiatrist and the chief of addictions at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
“We’re trending up on all substances. Opioid deaths, crystal meth — we’re seeing so much of that — alcohol and cannabis are both on the way up.”
Canada’s history with drug laws
Drugs have only been illegal in Canada for a little over 100 years, according to the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. Views began to shift in society in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the coalition’s website explains, mainly due to the “influence of Protestantism,” a growing unease in the medical community when it came to “unregulated medicine,” and a growing anti-opium sentiment.
In 1971, then-U.S. president Richard Nixon kicked off the so-called war on drugs, declaring in a historic speech that the United States government planned to treat drug addiction as a “public enemy No. 1” that had to be defeated with a “new all out-offensive.”
Canada followed suit with a harsher approach to drugs in 1987, when then prime minster Brian Mulroney brought about Canada’s first five-year National Drug Strategy.
“The war on drugs has not only been ineffective but in many ways amplified some of the problems around substance use that it is presumably meant to address, by criminalizing users,” said Andrew Hathaway, a professor of sociology at the University of Guelph.
“If you recognize the drug problems are a matter of addiction, are a matter of dependence, things that are typically framed within a public health or a medical framework — it really makes no sense to keep up the war on drugs measures.”
Increasingly, policymakers seem to be in agreement with Hathaway.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has so far rejected wholesale decriminalization of simple drug possession and consumption. However, his government has taken some steps that treat drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal one.
In 2018, the Liberal government legalized marijuana. Also in 2018, the government made changes to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, allowing health care providers to prescribe, sell or provide methadone without having to apply for an exemption with Health Canada.
The Liberal government is now trying to scrap mandatory minimums for drug offences, too, and is increasingly being lobbied by companies touting the medicinal benefits of magic mushrooms.
“I’m never averse to a positive suggestion or solution, and I’m always willing to assess that,” Justice Minister David Lametti added when pressed about the decriminalizing small-scale possession of drugs on Tuesday.
The new mandatory minimum bill would help “divert” people facing those kinds of charges away from the criminal justice system into “more appropriate forums to address those problems,” he said.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole also showed a slightly softer stance on drugs earlier this year, expressing his concerns about heavy-handed sentences for drug offences.
“It’s not appropriate to have very serious penalties for Canadians who have problems with drugs,” O’Toole said at a news conference in January, according to The Toronto Star.
Still, he does not agree with experts calling for the decriminalization of small-scale possession of drugs.
“We’ve seen horrible cases with opioids and other (drugs). Maybe it’s time for the government to put in place a plan for the well-being of Canadians, on the drugs and on mental health,” O’Toole said.
“It’s not the time right now to legalize all drugs.”
Trudeau’s government has indicated any intention to legalize all drugs. The only proposals to date have dealt with the decriminalization of small-scale possession.
When asked for an updated statement on Tuesday, the Conservatives provided Global News with a statement from their justice critic, Rob Moore.
“Canada’s Conservatives believe those struggling with addiction should get the help they need to recover,” the statement read.
Overall, the policy changes and softening stances show that there’s a sea change happening with respect to Canada’s approach to drugs, according to Owusu-Bempah.
“I think we’re seeing some fairly large —I’d almost say momentous — shifts with respect to our view on what are currently a variety of illegal substances,” he said.
Addiction as a public health issue
The pervasiveness of drugs and addictions issue in our society is “not a problem that we can arrest our way out of,” Hathaway said.
“That’s been widely recognized for decades. It’s just it takes time for it to seep into the public consciousness.”
Humans have consumed drugs for thousands of years. The first evidence of opium use in Europe dates back to 5,700 BCE, according to The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture.
“People are using drugs now, and people will continue to use drugs,” Owusu-Bempah said.
There were over 70,000 drug offences committed in 2019, according to Statistics Canada’s data on police-reported crime. Just shy of 25 per cent of those arrests were related to cannabis, and 20 per cent were cocaine-related. There were also over 10,000 arrests made for the possession of methamphetamine.
Accordingly to Buckley, people begin using drugs for a variety of reasons. Issues like anxiety and trauma are “huge risk factors” when it comes to addiction — and it can impact anyone, from “any walk of life.”
That’s why something called “primary prevention,” which refers to an intervention that takes place before someone actually develops an addiction, is so important, Buckley said.
“We need some new, innovative ways to think upstream instead of just thinking about where we’re at right now, and really help young people make sure that they know the harms that they’re facing with substances today,” Buckley said.
Beyond addressing the root cause of addictions, shifting away from a punitive approach could also help usher in a more equitable society, according to Owusu-Bempah. That’s because the existing, more punitive approach toward addictions tends to disproportionately impact people of colour, he said.
“The racialized nature of policing and the fact that the police target Black and Indigenous people for stop and search activities means that those people are more likely to be caught in possession of drugs, even though rates of use are relatively similar,” Owusu-Bempah said.
According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, Black people in Toronto represent 37.6 per cent of those involved in cannabis possession charges — despite representing just 8.8 per cent of the city’s population. White people are underrepresented, it also found.
When it comes to the possession of what the OHRC called “other” illegal drugs, Black people represent 28.5 per cent of those charged, despite making up a much smaller portion of the city’s population. They are three times more likely to be charged that a white person.
These arrests don’t just affect the individual, he said, but their families, too.
“Our drug laws have had intergenerational impacts in Black and Indigenous communities,” Owusu-Bempah explained.
Experts have advised a multitude of ways forward. Owusu-Bempah highlighted the importance of decriminalizing drugs and regulating their contents so that people consuming drugs are less likely to overdose. Buckley noted that we need more accessible treatment, more harm reduction, and more supervised consumption sites. Hathaway suggested funding social programs would help support those struggling with addictions — and the root causes for those addictions.
But all this, Hathaway said, would require governments “to move away from something that has been so firmly entrenched within our criminal justice system for such a long time.”
“The law is really just a codification of morality,” Hathaway said.
That means, though, that “to shift away from that version of the law means it inevitably will require a shift in ideology as well.”
— with files from The Canadian Press
Story from Global News
Illegal, untested CBD products are everywhere and could be putting you at risk
Thriving black market full of misleading health claims, potentially contaminated products
Steven D’Souza, Tyana Grundig, Greg Sadler – CBC News – Oct 22, 2021
The claim from the sales person to the undercover Marketplace crew seemed straightforward enough: a CBD-infused balm will “100 per cent” help with back pain and “in 15 minutes it will feel like relief.” But not only is that promise a complete exaggeration, both that claim and the product are illegal.
A CBC Marketplace investigation has found hundreds of illegal CBD products for sale in a thriving Canadian black market. Going undercover, we found products are easily available and salespeople are willing to make extravagant and illicit health claims.
- Watch Marketplace tonight at 8 p.m. (8:30 in NT) on CBC-TV and CBC Gem.
While Canadians look to CBD, or cannabidiol, for its promise as a health remedy, Marketplace has found there’s no control over what goes into the illegal black market products — and no way to test them.
- Have questions about this story? We’re answering as many as we can in the comments.
Unlike in the U.S., CBD is a controlled substance in Canada; it is considered among drugs the government thinks can be addictive or potentially abused. These include illegal street drugs and prescription medication. CBD was lumped in with THC when cannabis was legalized in Canada in 2018.
That means, like other cannabis products, only government-licensed retailers are allowed to sell CBD products and there are strict rules and regulations around who is allowed to grow, process and distribute CBD products.
For example, in Ontario, authorized CBD products can only be legally purchased online at the Ontario Cannabis Store, from authorized licensed dispensaries or with a medical note from authorized stores such as Shoppers Drug Mart. In British Columbia, BC Cannabis Store is the only legal place to buy CBD online.
It is also illegal to make any health or cosmetic claims about CBD products in Canada. To make a health claim, the product requires approval as a prescription drug under the Food and Drugs Act. No CBD products in Canada have that approval.
That didn’t stop a salesperson at Calyx Wellness, another unlicensed CBD store in Toronto, from making bold claims about CBD: “From what I’ve heard, it depends on your situation, but it’ll help with anything,” she told the undercover Marketplace crew.
‘We’ve got very little evidence’
CBD is one of many compounds found in the cannabis plant, but unlike the more well-known THC it doesn’t get you high. While some preliminary research suggests therapeutic uses for CBD — primarily for anxiety, insomnia and pain — experts say more research is needed.
Take that CBD-infused balm from Sensitiva on Queen Street West in Toronto, for example. Jason Busse, the associate director of McMaster University’s Michael G. DeGroote Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research, says CBD doesn’t dissolve in water and most topicals, he says, are unlikely to penetrate the skin. While a minority of individuals will find some benefit, Busse says, “We’ve got very little evidence as to whether these topical preparations work and whether CBD in isolation works.”
The lack of strong scientific evidence around CBD hasn’t stopped the black market from offering everything from tinctures, oils, creams and chocolate to shampoo, face masks and personal lubricants, with claims CBD can help with everything from writer’s cramp to “halting the duplication of cancerous cells.”
At Sensitiva, the salesperson pitched us on the benefits of topical CBD products: “CBD helps with inflammation in your body and that can be something topical like skin rashes, psoriasis, acne, wrinkles, sun damage, etc., which is why most of our products are topical.”
“Right now there’s an opportunity to sell this product and sell a lot of it, and because we don’t have a lot of evidence [to back up health claims], marketing fills that gap,” said Busse.
An exploding market
The popularity of CBD, or cannabidiol, has exploded in recent years, riding a wave of anecdotes and celebrity endorsements, with everyone from Kim Kardashian to Martha Stewart promoting its benefits. Early research has found that while CBD may interact with other drugs, it does not have any addictive properties or major side effects, according to the World Health Organization.
In the U.S., legislation around CBD was relaxed with the 2018 Farm Bill, removing CBD derived from hemp (CBD with less than .3 per cent THC) from the Controlled Substances list. Sales of CBD in the U.S. grew to US$ 4.7 billion in 2020.
Experts say because of widespread availability in the U.S., Canadians may not realize that the CBD products that have sprung up at their local farmer’s market, CBD boutique store, unlicensed websites or even pet stores are all illegal.
“It’s a Wild West, it’s buyer beware. There’s hundreds of these websites making all kinds of claims from A to Z,” Busse said. “And it’s left to the consumer to somehow sort all this out.”
What’s in black market CBD?
CBD products sold on the black market don’t undergo the same rigorous standards of testing that licensed CBD products go through.
While some of the black market sites Marketplace examined did provide test results, it wasn’t clear if all lots or batches were tested, and some sites provided results that were years out of date.
Busse says because CBD is regulated as a controlled substance, which puts it in the same legal category as drugs like fentanyl, he and other researchers have run into the same legal hurdles as the CBC in their attempts to test black market CBD products.
“These products can be acquired by anyone in Canada with an internet connection and a credit card,” Busse said. “But you can’t actually test what all these people are using, which seems very counterintuitive.”
U.S. tests find half of CBD products contain undisclosed THC
Testing may be tricky in Canada, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regularly tests CBD products. Busse says that removing CBD as a controlled substance in the U.S. has made it easier for U.S. researchers to study, evaluate and to test the products on the market.
The FDA has found many products do not contain the CBD they claimed, and up to 50 per cent of products the agency tested contained undisclosed THC.
Unexpected THC can cause sedation, anxiety or even paranoia. That’s what happened to a New Brunswick woman in 2019 after she unknowingly purchased an unlicensed CBD product to help with her anxiety.
“We have a real problem in terms of what people think they’re buying and in many cases what they actually get,” Busse said, noting CBD products are not cheap and can cost up to hundreds of dollars.
The missing science around CBD
As popular demand outpaces medical research on CBD, the lack of study is both a worry and frustration for doctors like Hance Clarke.
Clarke, who is director of Pain Services at Toronto General Hospital, is also running an observational study on how cannabis, including CBD products, can help with chronic pain, sleep, anxiety and depression.
Clarke estimates about one in every three individuals get some benefit from CBD treatments, but he says it is no “utopia” and more research is needed. He says doctors need more clinical trials and proven data to confidently discuss CBD with their patients. He agrees with Busse that the legal hurdles placed by Health Canada around testing and research need to be removed.
“Show me that it works better than a placebo,” Clarke said. “Until we can get some of that data, which we are handcuffed right now to get, that’s when we can actually be certain what we’re doing.”
CBD metabolizes in the liver, and both Clarke and Busse want to see more research done on how CBD can interact with medications like blood thinners, antidepressants, opioids and benzodiazepines, as well as anti-seizure and chemotherapy drugs.
CBD for pets is also illegal
Pet owners treating their animals is another big growth area for CBD, and another example of consumers often crossing into illicit territory and maybe not realizing it.
In Canada, any CBD products marketed for pets are illegal and veterinarians are prevented from prescribing it.
So when palliative care veterinarian Dr. Sarah Silcox was called to help Robyn Golding find an end-of-life treatment for Golding’s dog, Georgia, Silcox could only offer “guidance” and dosage help. Silcox recommended Golding try CBD, and suggested human CBD from a legal dispensary on the nine-year-old Shiloh Shepherd.
The results, Golding says, are more than her family ever dreamed. Six months after complications from surgery left Georgia in chronic pain and unable to use her hind legs, Georgia is now hobbling around happily, a new lease on life that Golding says is thanks to CBD.
While it is illegal to test black market CBD products in Canada, Marketplace did find one group of veterinary researchers in Saskatchewan and Ontario who tested a small sample of illicit Canadian CBD products marketed for pets. The study found the CBD levels were often mislabelled; some of the CBD potencies were either “dramatically lower than the stated cannabinoid content, or simply undetectable.” One CBD pet product had almost no CBD but high levels of undisclosed THC. Contaminants and pesticides were also found.
Silcox, who is also president of the Canadian Association of Veterinary Cannabinoid Medicine, says undisclosed THC is a big concern as animals can end up in the emergency room with adverse effects from THC ingestion and intoxication.
Silcox said she would like to see pet products containing CBD regulated by Health Canada. She also wants vets to have the power to authorize CBD to pet owners.
- Click here for Health Canada’s full response, tips on how to buy legal CBD, and more on our investigation.
The two unlicensed CBD stores Marketplace visited with hidden cameras, Calyx Wellness and Sensitiva, did not respond to CBC’s request for comment.
Health Canada says it is reviewing how Canadians use cannabis. The agency held public consultations in 2019, and in November 2020 launched the Science Advisory Committee for Health Products Containing Cannabis. A review of the current legislation is also in the works, but a report isn’t expected until about 2023.
Health Canada did not say whether or not it will be declassifying CBD as a controlled substance.
“If we can get there,” Busse said, “I think we can start to provide evidence that can fill these very large gaps that currently exist out there, and push back where needed on some of the overly aggressive marketing claims that are being made.”
- If you have tips on this or any other story, please email the Marketplace team at [email protected]
Story From CBC Website
Analysis: Marijuana Legalization Opponents’ Fears Have Not Come to Fruition in Canada
NORML – August 17,2021
Concerns that legalizing marijuana for those ages 18 and older in Canada would lead to adverse public health consequences have not come to fruition, according to an analysis published in the Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.
The analysis finds that there has been “no marked increase in cannabis youth by use” in the three-year period following legalization. Authors further highlight the positive societal impact of reducing marijuana-related arrests among adults and young people following the policy change. Regulating marijuana has also led to more targeted public health messaging, authors suggest.
They conclude: “In the lead up to legalization, professional associations … suggested that legalization posed a threat to public health, advocated for the legal age for cannabis use to be set at a minimum age of 21 or 25, or that Canada should not legalize at all because it would place youth at greater risk of harm. With such categorical fears now shown to be largely unfounded, this should provide the basis to move forward on more nuanced grounds. … [O]n the balance, cannabis legalization – especially when considering the severe adverse social impacts of criminalization, and especially for youth – continues to offer the potential to better protect and achieve consequential net benefits to public health and welfare of cannabis users and society at large.”
Commenting on the data, NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri said: “From a public health standpoint, regulation and education are preferable strategies to criminalization. Overall, adult-use legalization is working largely as voters and politicians envisioned, which is why an increasing number of jurisdictions are shifting their policies in this direction.”
Separate assessments of Canada’s legalization policy have no uptick in the percentage of motor vehicle accidents attributable to marijuana and no changes in either cannabis use or access among higher-risk youth. Additional data published in April in the journal Health Reports finds that Canadians are rapidly shifting from the illicit market to the legal market – with an estimated 70 percent of cannabis consumers now reporting obtaining the plant from legal sources.
Analyses of state-level adult-use regulation laws in the United States have similarly failed to find significant upticks in either youth use or access that could be attributable to legalization. Other studies have reported no association between legalization laws and any increases in either drug treatment admissions, violent crime, or overdose deaths.
Full text of the study, “Youth cannabis use and legalization in Canada – Reconsidering the fears, myths, and facts three years in,” appears in the Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Additional information is available from the NORML fact-sheet, ‘Marijuana regulation: Impact on Health, Safety, and Economy.’
Story from – NORML
Senate Leader Unveils Long-Awaited Marijuana Descheduling Plan
NORML- July 14, 2021
Washington, DC: United States Senate Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), along with Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) unveiled draft legislation repealing the federal prohibition of marijuana at a press conference on Wednesday.
The draft legislation, titled the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, makes numerous changes to federal marijuana laws while providing deference to states’ cannabis policies.
Upon introducing the legislation, Sen. Schumer said: “This is monumental because at long last we are taking steps in the Senate to right the wrongs of the failed war on drugs. … I will use my clout as Majority Leader to make this [legislation] a priority in the Senate. … It makes eminent sense to legalize marijuana.”
NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri said: “The days of federal prohibition are numbered. These actions by Senate Majority Leader Schumer and Senators Booker and Wyden reflect the fact that the supermajority of Americans is demanding that Congress take action to end the cruel and senseless policy of federal prohibition. It is time for legislators to comport federal law with the laws of the growing number of states that have legalized the plant, and it is time for lawmakers to facilitate a federal structure that allows for cannabis commerce so that responsible consumers can obtain high-quality, low-cost cannabis grown right here in America without fear of arrest and incarceration.”
NORML Political Director Justin Strekal added: “Our main priority is to ensure that Americans who choose to responsibly consume cannabis are no longer discriminated against under the law. “With one in eight Americans choosing to consume on a semi-regular basis, including nearly one in four veterans, we must end the practice of arresting over 500,000 Americans every year and denying countless others employment, housing, and other civic rights if we are truly to be the ‘Land of the Free’. The federal government can take great strides toward rectifying this situation by advancing the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act through the legislative process.”
Specifically, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act directs the US Attorney General to remove marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act — thereby allowing states to either maintain or establish their own cannabis regulatory policies free from undue federal interference. Under this scheme, state governments – if they choose to do so – can continue to impose criminal penalties for marijuana possession offenses. However, states would not be permitted to prohibit the interstate commerce of legal cannabis products transported through their borders.
The proposal also mandates for the expungement of the records of anyone convicted of a federal, non-violent marijuana offense. The expungements must take place within one year of the law’s enactment.
The Act also forbids federal officials from taking discriminatory actions against those who legally use cannabis. It prohibits “individuals from being denied any federal public benefit … on the basis of [the] use or possession of cannabis.” It also, for the first time, permits physicians associated with the US Department of Veterans Affairs to make recommendations to their patients to access medical cannabis.
The proposal transfers primary agency jurisdiction over cannabis regulation from the US Drug Enforcement Administration to the Food and Drug Administration and to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau in manner similar to the ways in which these agencies already oversee alcohol and tobacco products. A federal excise tax of 10 percent would be imposed within the first year of the law’s enactment. Medical cannabis access programs, which are operational in the majority of US states, would not be disrupted under this federal plan.
Pending language in the US House of Representatives, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act of 2021, similarly removes (deschedules) cannabis from the CSA and facilitates the expungement of past federal marijuana-related crimes. House lawmakers passed a previous version of the MORE Act in December by a vote of 228 to 164, marking the first time that a chamber of Congress ever advanced legislation to end the federal prohibition of cannabis. Senate lawmakers, however, failed to take up the bill.
Senators are seeking feedback on the draft legislation through September 1. Public comments may be provided to [email protected]. In an interview with the publication Politico in April, Sen. Schumer pledged that he would hold a floor vote on the bill “sooner or later” this term. The Senate has never held a floor vote on legislation pertaining to descheduling cannabis.
Story From NORML
After crime plummeted in 2020, Baltimore will stop drug, sex prosecutions
State’s Attorney Mosby stopped non-violent prosecutions for the coronavirus, but then violent crime dropped 20 percent.
So on Friday, Mosby made her temporary steps permanent. She announced Baltimore City will continue to decline prosecution of all drug possession, prostitution, minor traffic and misdemeanor cases, and will partner with a local behavioral health service to aggressively reach out to drug users, sex workers and people in psychiatric crisis to direct them into treatment rather than the back of a patrol car.
“The era of ‘tough on crime’ prosecutors is over in Baltimore,” Mosby said. “We have to rebuild the community’s trust in the criminal justice system and that’s what we will do, so we can focus on violent crime.” In a city that still struggles with a high homicide rate and gun violence, even with the decline in crime, she said the policy shift will enable more prosecutors to be assigned to homicides and other major cases instead of misdemeanor court.
The pandemic accelerated an effort already underway by liberal prosecutors across the country to reduce or eliminate the prosecution of minor crimes. Not long after the coronavirus hit, prosecutors in Seattle and Brooklyn announced they would not pursue low-level offenses that don’t jeopardize public safety. In Washington state last month, the Supreme Court ruled that the state’s drug possession law was unconstitutional because it didn’t account for the defendant’s intent. King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg said he already wasn’t pursuing such cases “because we did no good for people struggling with substance abuse disorder.”
But a number of legal experts said they had not seen an effort like Mosby’s in which behavioral health services were actively brought into the mix from the outset of cases. Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott (D) issued a statement Friday lauding Mosby for “working with partners to stem violence in Baltimore and ensure residents have the adequate support services they deserve.”
But Sean Kennedy, a visiting fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute who studies and has written about Baltimore crime and arrest data, said forgoing the prosecutions of low-level crimes is a mistake in a city he called the “murder capital of America.”
Mosby said her policy decision is unrelated to a federal investigation of her and her husband’s personal and campaign finances. The initial changes in prosecution policy occurred a year ago, and their success caused her to make them permanent, she said.
The decision not to prosecute drug and nonviolent misdemeanor crimes meant a huge paradigm shift for police, Commissioner Michael Harrison said in an interview. Officers who made drug arrests saw prosecutors dismissing the charges at the jail, and so the arrests mainly stopped. Mosby said there were 80 percent fewer arrests for drug possession in Baltimore in the past year.
“The officers told me they did not agree with that paradigm shift,” Harrison said. He said he had to “socialize” both officers and citizens to this new approach. Harrison expected crime to rise. “It did not,” the chief said. “It continued to go down through 2020. As a practitioner, as an academic, I can say there’s a correlation between the fact that we stopped making these arrests and crime did not go up,” though he cautioned that the coronavirus could have had some impact. Mosby noted that the virus did not keep crime from rising in nearly every other big U.S. city last year. Even with its progress, Baltimore had 335 homicides in 2020 and killings are up in the first months of this year.
Harrison enthusiastically supported Mosby’s move to sign an agreement with Baltimore Crisis Response Inc., a private nonprofit group that provides services to people with mental health and substance use disorders. With the police, BCRI will launch a 911 alternative dispatch where calls for behavioral health issues are routed to BCRI, which can send a two-person mobile crisis team to a scene or immediately refer people to services. The state’s attorney’s office is also collaborating with three Baltimore groups that offer a variety of services to sex workers.
The head of the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police union did not return messages seeking comment.
Edgar K. Wiggins, executive director of BCRI, said that his agency taking a more immediate role in public response “gives us a conduit into a population that, honestly, we’ve not always had access to, and they haven’t had access to us.” He said mobile response teams will have a mental health professional and a registered nurse because “these folks often haven’t managed their health.” Immediate referrals for sex workers can be effective because “more often than not they have problems with substance use disorder and addictions. We want to divert people from involvement in the criminal justice system, which is not going to be helpful for their chronic problems.”
Mosby asked public health researchers at Johns Hopkins University to examine the effect of her March 2020 policy shifts on public calls for police service and on rearrests of those who had charges dropped or warrants quashed. The number of 911 calls for drug or intoxication situations dropped from 131 per day before the pandemic to 88 per day in the eight months between March and December last year. Calls for prostitution or sex work dropped from six per day to three per day, the Johns Hopkins researchers found. The number of 911 calls for violent crimes did not drop significantly in the same period.
They also found that of 1,431 people who had charges or warrants dismissed at the outset, only five were rearrested. Though studies of recidivism typically look at three years to review data on repeat offenders, the fact that only five reentered the system in eight months is “pretty unbelievable,” said Susan G. Sherman, a behavioral health professor at Johns Hopkins who specializes in helping marginalized populations. “In a world where drug decriminalization is happening around the country, the impact on the community is important,” Sherman said, and Mosby “really values having an understanding of these impacts.”
Mosby noted that 13 percent of the American population is Black, but 35 percent of those incarcerated for drug violations are Black. “As a prosecutor, our mission is justice over convictions,” Mosby said. “You have to understand the importance of rectifying the wrongs of the past.”
Millicent Wagner understands that. She said she spent years as a drug addict and prostitute on the streets of Baltimore before going sober and reuniting with her family more than two years ago. But she still had an outstanding prostitution warrant from 2018. Last fall, she reached out to Mosby’s office after hearing of the new policy, and records show it quickly dismissed her case.
Trying to resolve her warrant the old way — surrendering at the jail, possibly going into custody, waiting 30 days for a hearing — “would have devastated my child. It would have hurt him the most. It would hurt me, too. Just having to be back in the Baltimore city jail, all those things I’ve been staying away from.” Instead of being back in the system, she is getting a state identification card that she wouldn’t apply for with an outstanding warrant, plus a Social Security card, and then a job.
“I think this could help a lot of people in my situation that have turned themselves around,” Wagner said. “It’s hard.”
Story from The Washington Post
New York lawmakers agree to legalize recreational marijuana
The agreement reached Saturday would expand the state’s existing medical marijuana program and set up a a licensing and taxation system for recreational sales. Lawmakers are expected to vote on the bill Tuesday, the earliest they could consider it. Legislative leaders hope to vote on the budget Wednesday to meet the deadline of having a budget in place by April 1.
It has taken years for the state’s lawmakers to come to a consensus on how to legalize recreational marijuana in New York. Democrats, who now wield a veto-proof majority in the state Legislature, have made passing it a priority this year, and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration has estimated legalization could eventually bring the state about $350 million annually.
“My goal in carrying this legislation has always been to end the racially disparate enforcement of marijuana prohibition that has taken such a toll on communities of color across our state, and to use the economic windfall of legalization to help heal and repair those same communities,” Sen. Liz Krueger, Senate sponsor of the bill and chair of the Senate’s finance committee, said.
The legislation would allow recreational marijuana sales to adults over the age of 21, and set up a licensing process for the delivery of cannabis products to customers. Individual New Yorkers could grow up to three mature and three immature plants for personal consumption, and local governments could opt out of retail sales.
The legislation would take effect immediately if passed, though sales wouldn’t start until New York sets up rules and a proposed cannabis board. Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes estimated Friday it could take 18 months to two years for sales to start.
Adam Goers, a vice president of Columbia Care, a New York medical marijuana provider that’s interested in getting into the recreational market, said New York’s proposed system would “ensure newcomers have a crack at the marketplace” alongside the state’s existing medical marijuana providers.
“There’s a big pie in which a lot of different folks are going to be able to be a part of it,” Goers said.
New York would set a 9% sales tax on cannabis, plus an additional 4% tax split between the county and local government. It would also impose an additional tax based on the level of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, ranging from 0.5 cents per milligram for flower to 3 cents per milligram for edibles.
New York would eliminate penalties for possession of less than three ounces of cannabis, and automatically expunge records of people with past convictions for marijuana-related offenses that would no longer be criminalized. That’s a step beyond a 2019 law that expunged many past convictions for marijuana possession and reduced the penalty for possessing small amounts.
And New York would provide loans, grants and incubator programs to encourage participation in the cannabis industry by people from minority communities, as well as small farmers, women and disabled veterans.
Proponents have said the move could create thousands of jobs and begin to address the racial injustice of a decades-long drug war that disproportionately targeted minority and poor communities.
“Police, prosecutors, child services and ICE have used criminalization as a weapon against them, and the impact this bill will have on the lives of our oversurveiled clients cannot be overstated,” Alice Fontier, managing director of Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, said in a statement Saturday.
Some other states that have legalized recreational marijuana have struggled to address the inequities that the drug wars have wrought.
Three years after Massachusetts voters passed a ballot initiative making recreational cannabis legal in the state, Black entrepreneurs complained in 2019 that all but two of Massachusetts’ 184 marijuana business licenses had been issued to white operators.
California voters legalized recreational marijuana sales in 2016 as well and invited people to petition to have old marijuana convictions expunged or reduced. But relatively few people took advantage of the provision initially.
Criminal justice reform advocates said New York’s bill avoids that problem by setting up a process for marijuana convictions to be automatically expunged.
“We are very happy that the bill includes automatic expungement. It’s integral to addressing past harms,” said Emma Goodman, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society.
Melissa Moore, the Drug Policy Alliance’s director for New York state, said the bill “really puts a nail in the coffin of the drug war that’s been so devastating to communities across New York, and puts in place comprehensive policies that are really grounded in community reinvestment.”
At least 14 other states already allow residents to buy marijuana for recreational and not just medical use. Cuomo has pointed to growing acceptance of legalization in the Northeast, including in Massachusetts, Maine and most recently, New Jersey.
New York does not have a statewide referendum process as California and Massachusetts do, so only the Legislature has the power to legalize recreational marijuana, as it did with same-sex marriage in 2011.
Past efforts to legalize recreational use have been hurt by a lack of support from suburban Democrats, disagreements over how to distribute marijuana sales tax revenue and questions over how to address drivers suspected of driving high.
It also has run into opposition from law enforcement, school and community advocates, who warn legalization would further strain a health care system already overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic and send mixed messages to young people.
“We are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and with the serious crisis of youth vaping and the continuing opioid epidemic, this harmful legislation is counterintuitive,” said an open letter signed by the Medical Society of the State of NY, New York State Parent Teacher Association, New York Sheriff’s Association and several other organizations March 11.
New York officials plan to launch an education and prevention campaign aimed at reducing the risk of cannabis among school-aged children, and schools could get grants for anti-vaping and drug prevention and awareness programs.
And the state will also launch a study due by Dec. 31, 2022, that examines the extent that cannabis impairs driving, and whether it depends on factors like time and metabolism.
The bill also sets aside revenues to cover the costs of everything from regulating marijuana, to substance abuse prevention.
State police could also get funding to hire and train more so-called “drug recognition experts.”
But there’s no evidence that drug recognition experts can tell whether someone is high or not, according to R. Lorraine Collins, a psychologist and professor of community health and health behavior at the University at Buffalo. Collins was appointed to Cuomo’s 2018 working group tasked with drafting cannabis regulations.
“I think it’s very important that we approach that challenge using science and research and not wishes or unsubstantiated claims,” Collins said.
Collins pointed to a 2020 report from the American Civil Liberties Union that found that Blacks are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession compared to Whites, based on FBI statistics.
“Every New Yorker should be concerned about how these laws will be implemented or how those ways of examining drivers will be implemented in different communities,” Collins said. “It’s not likely to be equal.”
The bill allows cities, towns and villages to opt out of allowing adult-use cannabis retail dispensaries or on-site consumption licenses by passing a local law by Dec. 31, 2021 or nine months after the effective date of the legislation. They cannot opt out of legalization.
Peltz and Matthews reported from New York City. – Story from AP News
Liberals introduce new bill to relax penalties for drug offences
Legislation also includes measures to reduce incarceration of Indigenous, Black Canadians
The federal government has introduced a new bill to repeal mandatory minimum penalties for certain drug offences — penalties the Liberals say have disproportionately harmed Indigenous and Black offenders and those struggling with addictions.
Attorney General David Lametti introduced Bill C-22 in the House of Commons this morning and will hold a news conference at 12:30 p.m. ET to provide more details. CBC News will carry it live.
His office says the bill also will require police and prosecutors to consider alternatives to laying charges in simple possession cases, such as diversion to addiction treatment programs. It will give the courts leeway to use conditional sentence orders in cases where an individual isn’t a public safety threat.
“Serious criminals deserve to be seriously punished and kept away from our communities. But too many lower-risk and first-time offenders, including a disproportionate number of Indigenous peoples and Black Canadians, are being sent to prison and locked up for too long because of policies which are proven not to deter crime or help keep our communities safe,” said Lametti’s spokesperson Rachel Rappaport.
Some mandatory minimum penalties would be repealed
The bill would make changes to both the Criminal Code and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
If passed, it would repeal more than a dozen mandatory minimum penalties on the books — including penalties for all drug offences in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, certain offences involving the use or possession of firearms and one tobacco-related offence.
Mandatory minimum penalties would remain in place for serious offences, including murder, child sexual abuse, firearm trafficking, importing and exporting restricted or prohibited firearms and firearm offences linked to organized crime, according to government documents prepared before a technical briefing on the new bill.
Government officials speaking on background during the briefing said repealing the mandatory minimum penalties will allow judges to consider sanctions other than imprisonment in some cases.
The government said the percentage of Indigenous offenders federally incarcerated for an offence with a mandatory-minimum penalty has almost doubled in over 10 years and that 39 per cent of all Black and 20 per cent of all Indigenous offenders in federal institutions were admitted for an offence with mandatory minimum penalty.
Opposition has shown support
Thursday’s announcement marks a significant shift in the federal government’s approach to illicit drug possession — away from incarceration and toward addictions treatment for non-violent offenders.
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has ruled out decriminalizing simple possession of illicit drug, something the New Democratic Party and the Greens have advocated.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh gave C-22 a mixed review.
“While there are positive steps in this bill, it’s very disappointing not to see them take the opportunity to right a historic wrong by failing to include expungements and by failing to actually decriminalize drugs,” he said in a statement.
“Today, the Liberals could have made a huge difference by erasing criminal records for simple marijuana possession.”
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, meanwhile, has said he is open to less severe penalties.
“We must provide assistance to Canadians who have drug addiction and health problems,” he said at a press briefing last month.
When asked why the government isn’t repealing simple possession, Lametti said it remains on the table.
“What I’m focusing on today is the sentencing element within the criminal justice system,” he said.
“Obviously I will continue to work with my colleagues around the cabinet table to look at other approaches, following best evidence, as we move forward.”
The legislation would require police and Crown prosecutors to consider diverting individuals to available alternative measures and to prosecute “only where not appropriate to deal with individual using warning or referral to alternative measures,” said the documents.
The legislation effectively standardizes a directive issued this summer by the Director of Public Prosecutions of Canada. In August, federal prosecutors were instructed to pursue only the most serious offences of possession of hard drugs.
That directive has been applied unevenly across the country, however — particularly in Quebec and New Brunswick, where some of these charges are handled by provincial prosecutors.
Drug treatment courts already exist in several Canadian cities, including Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver.
Lametti said the goal is to have diversion on the table even before someone is arrested.
“We would like to see diversion as a possibility at any point in the system … an off-ramp in multiple points in the system,” he said.
“So it might be first contact with a police officer, where the police officer in better understanding a person in front of them says, ‘I think the best place to go is not the police station, I think the best place is to go is community justice centre.'”
The justice minister said more funding is likely needed to support those kinds of treatment centres.
Article from – CBC
Opioid deaths highlight need to decriminalize hard-drug possession, police chiefs say
Smoke up! NBA won’t test players for weed, could help take the game … higher
Donovan Dooley – December 3, 2020
The NBA will not test its players for marijuana during the 2020-21 season, sources tell Ben Dowsett.
The league did not test the players in its reboot of the 2019-20 season in the Orlando Bubble and according to Dowsett’s sources, the decision to continue not testing these athletes was predicated mostly on COVID-19 precautions. Yet, it seems that we are inching closer to the league permanently getting rid of marijuana testing.
The drug is already legal in nine of the states and districts that the NBA plays in and has been proven to provide healing effects for the body as well as helping with anxiety.
Many athletes have advocated for the use of marijuana during the season as they try to recover from injuries sustained on the job.
Former NBA players Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson admitted to smoking that green while in the league.
If the NBA decides to stop testing for the drug it could set a precedent for other sports leagues and companies to follow suit. The change could potentially improve the lives of many of its players.
The ramifications of the NBA’s decision could also help to reverse negative stereotypes created during the war on drugs that adversely and disproportionately affected young men of color. After a summer where the NBA was at the forefront of racial justice, this decision to stop marijuana testing could be crucial in repairing the detrimental impact that coincides with punishing people for this drug.
The movement for nationwide legalization of weed is already growing exponentially.
The NBA will tip off the 2020-21 season on Dec. 22 without the presence of a bubble and will look to push through the impact of COVID-19.
Story from Deadspin
From pot to shrooms: What’s next for decriminalization?
Jane Stevenson – August 16, 2020
Are shrooms the new cannabis in Canada?
In the U.S., the Washington D.C. Board of Elections is allowing an initiative to decriminalize psychedelic plants, including “magic mushrooms,” to appear on November’s ballot, after supporters gathered more than 25,000 signatures, according to the Washington Post.
If approved, the U.S. capital would join Denver, Oakland, Calif., and Santa Cruz, Calif., which have decriminalized psychedelics.
But, not so fast, says Canada’s federal government.
Yes, earlier this month, Health Minister Patty Hajdu allowed four incurable Canadian cancer patients to undergo therapy which used psilocybin — the psychedelic ingredient in magic mushrooms — to ease their distress.
But that doesn’t mean magic mushrooms, and other psychedelics, currently banned and only allowed in clinical trials or research in Canada, are on the fast track to decriminalization or legalization.
“The Government of Canada is not proposing to decriminalize psilocybin or other controlled substances at this time, “ said Public Health Agency of Canada spokesman Tammy Jarbeau.
“In 2019, Health Canada authorized psilocybin for use in a clinical trial for patients with treatment-resistant depression.”
Still, CNN reported that the Canadian government’s decision marks the first time since 1974 a legal exemption cleared the way for patients in this country to use psychedelic treatment.
Local cannabis advocate Lisa Campbell believes medicinal mushrooms are following the path of medicinal marijuana in Canada with recreational mushroom use still years away.
“There are so many companies that are pivoting from cannabis to psychedelics, we’re going to see a lot of research to not only decriminalize but legalize psychedelics, at first for medical use, but it could push them to recreational use, as cannabis has done,” said Campbell, the Toronto-based CEO of Mercari Agency Ltd., a cannabis sales and marketing company.
“A lot of universities are finally more open to psychedelic research. It’s finally becoming mainstream,” she added. “It’s really fascinating that this is being done in Canada. For many years, people have been preparing for this paradigm shift in drug policy so the fact that we’re finally here in 2020 is really progressive and inspiring to be at the forefront of this movement.”
Campbell said a Toronto clinic recently opened to treat those suffering from drug-resistant depression and anxiety with ketamine. While abused as a party drug, ketamine is primarily utilized in veterinary surgery.
She also said there are also mushroom dispensaries popping up online.
“In Vancouver, there’s almost de facto decriminalization,” said Campbell. “It’s much more progressive there.
“It has been for years,” she added. “They had the medical cannabis dispensary movement that started in Vancouver on the West Coast. It’s so interesting to see how the same trends that we saw with cannabis, with the medical (use), are happening as well with mushrooms.”
CNN reported New York University Langone Health researchers published a study this year in which 29 patients suffering from cancer-related anxiety and depression were given a single dose of psilocybin with psychotherapy. According to the findings, and 60% to 80% showed improvement.
Story from The Toronto Sun
Police Chiefs Group Calls for Canada to Decriminalize Drug Possession
Canada Should Legalize All Recreational Drugs
The social harms of prosecuting drug users far outweigh any public health benefits from prohibition
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah is a professor in the department of sociology at U of T Mississauga. Read a different view of drug legalization by Robert Mann, a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
Why are most recreational drugs illegal? If the rationale for the war on drugs is to decrease drug use, it hasn’t worked. It hasn’t stopped the production or importation of drugs. Quite the opposite: there are billions of dollars to be made from the illegal drug trade. This often comes with serious violence – sometimes in Canada, but more often in Mexico 1 and other source countries in South America and Central America.
The United States, in particular, has been waging a war on drugs for several decades, 2 and it’s still one of the world’s largest consumers of cocaine. 3 This should tell us that we’re not going to reduce drug use through the enforcement of laws.
Some people use drugs because they enjoy doing so. Many Canadians already consume a number of drugs each week: alcohol, caffeine and nicotine are the most common. People also use harder drugs recreationally, and of course, some of these people develop substance use and abuse problems. But arresting and incarcerating them is not going to help them deal with the issues that are leading them to use or abuse harder drugs in the first place. This is why a public health approach to all drugs, where we’re striving for harm reduction rather than elimination of use, makes the most sense.
For most of human history, drugs haven’t been illegal. It’s only in the last 110 years that we’ve had drug prohibition in Canada. Even so, my neighbours in downtown Toronto often express surprise that cannabis was legalized just recently. Many think it’s been legal, or at least decriminalized, for some time. They think this because of what they look like and where they live: they don’t have to worry about being arrested.
The unequal enforcement of drug laws has profoundly harmed the individuals that are targeted, their families and their communities
As a criminologist, I’m particularly interested in how Black males perceive and experience the police. And you can’t do research around race and policing without focusing on drugs. The war on drugs drives many of the inequalities we see in our justice system.
We know that Canadians use drugs at similar rates across racial groups. 4 But in practice, drug laws are used to intrude into the lives of certain segments of the population. In Toronto and in many other cities, the unequal enforcement of drug laws 5 has profoundly harmed the individuals that are targeted, their families and their communities. A higher proportion of members of these communities have criminal records for drug possession that impede their ability to finish their education, to gain meaningful employment, to find housing and to travel.
It’s this profound injustice that has led me to believe that the social harms caused by drug prohibition far outweigh the potential health harms of legalizing and regulating access to drugs.
One of the imbalances in how drug laws are applied that we’ve seen with cannabis comes with the exercise of police discretion. Because some police officers viewed cannabis possession as a relatively minor crime, they’d confiscate the drug without making an arrest. But that’s not true of everyone the police have caught. The data show that positive police discretion has not been exercised when it comes to racialized people. 6 The difference is in who gets stopped and searched, who’s found in possession and who ends up being arrested and convicted. Black and Indigenous people in Canada are disproportionately arrested for cannabis possession. 7
We’ve spent billions of dollars to prosecute people for the possession of small amounts of drugs. 8 We’re doing our whole country a disservice. We’re locking away people’s talents and potential because we criminalize drug use.
Consider a society in which all drugs are legal; a society in which people can buy a small quantity through a government-approved pharmacy at fair prices and know exactly what they’re getting (unlike on the black market). If they wished, people could take the drug under the supervision of a health-care professional at an injection site or similar facility, greatly reducing the risk of overdose. Under these conditions, the black market for drugs – and much of the associated violence, social harm and health risks – could be virtually eliminated. Opponents cite fears that drug use would soar. But the evidence from Portugal, the only jurisdiction in the world that has decriminalized all drugs, indicates the opposite: problematic use would actually decline, 9 as would the negative consequences associated with criminalization.
Governments could use a percentage of sales revenues for research and services around addictions and mental health. At the local level, the city could use police arrest data to identify neighbourhoods that have been overpoliced with respect to drugs, and direct a portion of the tax revenue to the most criminalized communities. City councillors and members of the public could engage in discussions about how best to use these funds to meet the needs of each jurisdiction. The money might be directed to after-school programs, skills training or community health centres.
Of course, I have concerns about how drug legalization would be implemented. In Canada, one is legally permitted to possess 30 grams of cannabis. The limit for cocaine, opioids and other drugs would have to be set low, recognizing that you can overdose on these drugs in a way that you can’t with cannabis.
There could be no drug advertising, and sales would have to occur through tightly regulated government outlets. There would be strict penalties for selling drugs to underage youth and against using and driving – just as there are now for alcohol.
It’s important that we don’t lose sight of the many health harms associated with drug use. But we need to be honest about the reasons people use them – and the potential benefits. We’re seeing that psilocybin, the psychoactive component of mushrooms, and MDMA may have potential for people with PTSD and a range of other mental health issues.
We also must be honest about the substantial social burden associated with criminalizing drug use. Criminalization has utterly failed to stop individuals from using. We’ve spent enormous amounts of money and devastated countless lives – often from racialized communities – enforcing laws that don’t work. Legalization is a sensible alternative.
ALBANY – Shortly before efforts to legalize marijuana failed in the State Senate last June, the measure’s sponsor made a dire prediction: The issue would be dead in 2020.
State Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, believed then that lawmakers would fear taking on such a controversial issue in an election year.
“I’ve changed my mind,’’ Krueger said last week.
The author of the Senate bill, Krueger believes election-year politics are no longer the threat she thought they’d be. Now, she and other lawmakers believe the plan has a better chance of getting approved in the coming months than at any point in 2019.
On Tuesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will present his 2020 state budget plan, a document in which he will also lay out his latest proposal for permitting the cultivation, distribution, sale and use of marijuana in New York.
Much of its contents are expected to mirror plans from last year, and there will still be much tussling over some of specifics. Among the top: how will the state spend the roughly $300 million in projected annual marijuana tax revenue.
There is already rising confidence among marijuana legalization supporters that this is their year, though a broad range of health, law enforcement and other opponents are now engaging to defeat the push again.
A visit to the Berkshires
Last year, legalization had support in the Democratic-run Assembly. But it stalled in the Senate in June over concerns raised by suburban New York City Democrats on Long Island and Westchester County.
Some were firmly opposed and some, such as freshman State Sen. Peter Harckham, wanted efforts to slow down.
Harckham, a Westchester County Democrat who represents parts of three suburban New York counties, last summer visited two communities in western Massachusetts, home to some of the commonwealth’s newest government-regulated stores that sell cannabis products from buds to gummy bears. Harckham talked to operators, to health care and law enforcement officials and to people in public schools. He saw the parking lots filled with cars – most license plates were from New York State, which has seen thousands of people cross state lines to buy marijuana.
Since that visit, Harckham has done more research, and his views have morphed. In an interview last week, he said he’s no longer in the slow-things-down side of the debate. He came away from Massachusetts, where voters legalized marijuana in 2016, with a key observation: “The sky is not falling,” he said.
On marijuana legalization this year in Albany, Harckham said: “I’m certainly in a better place.’’ He added: “The reality is you can buy marijuana anywhere in the state, in any high school. The private market has won, so we should be regulating this and getting the tax revenue.”
Harckham’s support is significant because he is the chairman of the Senate’s alcoholism and substance abuse committee. He said Krueger has heavily amended her marijuana bill to secure backing from him and other senators; he said one change would give a “tremendous shot in the arm” to woefully underfunded substance abuse education, prevention and treatment programs by dedicating 25% of marijuana tax proceeds to such efforts.
Not all opponents or those sitting on the fence in the Senate have seen their concerns assuaged, making legalization still not a done deal for 2020.
Sen. Monica Martinez, a Democrat, represents the far eastern end of Long Island. A former educator, she has heard concerns about legalization from school officials, students and parents. If it came for a vote today, she would vote no, in part, because of what she witnesses as the drug’s effect on teens.
“I just think it’s a little bit hypocritical that we’re trying to fight an opioid epidemic but at the same time trying to legalize a drug,” she said of marijuana. Instead, if New York wants to legalize it, officials should hold a statewide referendum, as they did in 2013 for casino gambling.
“It’s an issue that should be in the hands of our voters,” the Suffolk County lawmaker said.
2020 versus 2019
Only two years after dismissing legalization efforts and calling marijuana a “gateway drug,” Cuomo jumped on the legalization bandwagon in 2019. He proposed a massive and complex regulatory and taxing scheme, guiding everything from the licensing of marijuana farms to rules for new smoking lounges.
But the effort faced organized opposition, led by law enforcement and health groups, the state PTA and a number of moderate lawmakers; especially nervous were new or relatively new Democratic senators from districts previously held by Republican senators.
In the end, two things killed the 2019 effort: a split within the Senate Democratic conference and an uneasiness by legalization proponents, including Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, over Cuomo’s refusal to guarantee that a large portion of the drug’s tax revenues would be steered to low-income communities hit hardest by decades of marijuana arrests.
“I’ve been most concerned about that,” Peoples-Stokes said last week. The sponsor of marijuana legalization in the Assembly, Peoples-Stokes recently met with Cuomo advisers to explain “in detail” why the revenue component she wants is so crucial. “I think they get it,” she said of the Cuomo administration. Whether that means Cuomo will embrace it in his budget plan won’t be known until Tuesday.
Cuomo’s office declined comment in advance of the budget release on Tuesday.
‘Momentum is there’
Krueger believes a key thing is playing out in 2020. “The governor is clearly much more interested this year than he was last year,” she said.
Last June, Krueger criticized Cuomo for not getting involved in efforts to convince fence-sitting Senate Democrats to back legalization. Cuomo has since met with neighboring governors to seek a consensus on legalization laws for the region. Today, he is “much more comfortable” with legalization, said Krueger, who is the influential chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee.
But would Cuomo jump in this year to move reluctant Democrats? “Yes, my gut tells me he will,” Krueger said.
One way is if he jams the policy matter into the state’s budget. If shoved into budget bills, political cover is created for those who might not support legalization but can’t afford to vote no for a budget that contains everything from public school financing to popular health programs.
What’s driving the legalization optimism in Albany? Part of it is public opinion polling. Part of it is the decriminalization law passed last year when legalization failed. Part of it is the widespread market for CBD products, which are produced from hemp plants but don’t contain the ingredients to get people high. And part of it is legalization efforts that have occurred elsewhere, like Massachusetts.
“The momentum is there and it’s pretty fast and furious,” Krueger said of 2020 legalization. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester County Democrat, recently said she believes legalization is “inevitable,” though she added more work is needed.
Foes ramping up for fight
Opponents are not sitting by. Several groups involved in last year’s battle held a conference call Tuesday to discuss strategy, and there is talk of a renewed focus on health concerns and problems – such as driving while high arrests and accidents – seen in some states that have legalized the drug.
Critics also wonder why the state is looking to ban flavored vaping products for adults at the same time it wants to legalize marijuana. And they note the dangers of marijuana were brought out in full display by the rash of lung-related illnesses and deaths across the nation among people who used THC-containing e-cigarettes, obtained in the vast majority of cases through what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls “informal” sources, such as drug dealers or friends. Fifty-seven deaths have been attributed to the outbreak.
“I don’t understand why they would want to move forward with legalization,” said Kyle Belokopitsky, executive director of the New York State PTA, of the vaping crisis that emerged nationwide over the summer.
There is a “disconnect” between state public health efforts to crack down on vaping and tobacco products while at the same time legalizing marijuana, critics say. Moreover, it’s an election year, and Albany already is facing sticky fights over everything from tax hikes for the wealthy to to whether to change a controversial new cash bail law.
“I would agree they are excited,” said Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan, a Suffolk County Republican, of Democrats’ push for marijuana this year. “But they are wrong.”
The state went too far last year, he believes, in decriminalizing possession of marijuana, making it a violation and not a crime to possess up to 2 ounces of the drug. “This is a massive, sweeping change that’s not being properly paid attention to,” Flanagan said of the legalization push.
Backers ‘cautiously optimistic’
Marijuana proponents say the issue has been studied and debated and that legalization will bring thousands of jobs – in the form of retail, agriculture and other sectors – as well as $300 million in annual tax revenue to New York once implemented.
Moreover, these backers believe the vaping crisis that hit states beginning last summer proves their point: that legalization will bring safer marijuana products, regulated by the state, to the marketplace and not be spiked with any range of fillers and other unknown ingredients.
“Consumers need to know what they’re getting,” said Melissa Moore, deputy director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s New York office.
Moore said conversations with lawmakers and Cuomo advisers continued after 2019 session’s end last June.
Proponents also know an Albany truism: Seldom do major policy ideas get approved in one year. For-profit companies that produce and distribute medical marijuana products in New York, which is already legal, are better coordinated in 2020 to lobby with pro-legalization groups in Albany, advocates say.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Moore said of legalization this session.
Those split on the issue could agree on one thing for the coming months in Albany. “It’s going to be a fight,” said Belokopitsky, the PTA leader.
Story from The Buffalo News