Guterres urges U.N. to follow Portugal’s lead on drugs

Eric Bridiers

In a joint statement on June 30, the United Nations and the World Health Organization called for “ending discrimination in health-care settings.” Among their suggestions was “reviewing and repealing punitive laws that have been proven to have negative health outcomes and that counter established public health evidence.”

Certain laws, they said, “have proven to be have negative outcomes” are ones that criminalize “drug use or possession for personal use.” In other words, the UN and WHO endorsed drug decriminalization.

As the UN General Assembly’s Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) last year reaffirmed support for prohibitionist policies, one might wonder whether the UN-WHO statement foreshadows a more reform-friendly mindset at the international organization.

Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia, which have suffered a disproportionate share of violence associated with the drug trade, advocated a more “humane solution” during that special session, as did several other nations. But countries like Indonesia and Singapore defended their harshly prohibitionist policies.

Since then, however, former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres has become Secretary General, taking office Jan. 1. Guterres was prime minister when Portugal decriminalized possession of all illicit drugs in 2001. Sixteen years later, average rates of drug consumption there are substantially lower than in any other country in the European Union. The Cato Institute, a leading U.S. libertarian think tank, has declared the policy “a resounding success.”

On June 26, Guterres called for honoring the commitments made during UNGASS to reduce drug trafficking, but he also pointed out Portugal’s experience. “I know from personal experience how an approach based on prevention and treatment can yield positive results,” he said in a statement. “Portugal now has one of the lowest death rates for drug use in Europe. Overall drug use rates have also fallen. I hope this experience will contribute to the discussion and encourage member states to continue exploring comprehensive and evidence-based solutions.”

This post was originally published at freedomleaf.com. Subscribe to Freedom Leaf magazine to read this editor’s Word on the Tree column.

Executive Shuffle: New DPA director in, MPP comms director out

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On Jan. 27, Ethan Nadelmann announced that he was stepping down as executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. The founder of one of the most influential drug policy advocacy groups in the nation, Nadelmann said he’d been thinking about “making this transition for almost two years.” He left the DPA on May 1.

The DPA announced July 18 that Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, who previously worked at Human Rights Watch for 13 years, would succeed him. Sánchez-Moreno, who grew up in Peru, is the first Latina to head a major drug-law-reform group.

“You see so many vast problems in this country that are strongly linked to the War on Drugs,” she told Alternet about her work at HRW. “From mass incarceration to large-scale deportations, a lot of it is people getting convicted of low-level drug offenses.”

At Human Rights Watch, where she worked on issues like criminal-justice reform, immigration, and the situation in Colombia, Sánchez-Moreno implored the organization to view punitive drug policies as an international human-rights issue, prompting it to call for global decriminalization. At the DPA, however, Sánchez-Moreno plans to concentrate more on domestic issues and policies.

“We’re excited to have found someone with such passion to reverse and remedy the destructive effects of the drug war, and with the knowledge, experience and persistence to do it,” DPA’s board president Ira Glasser stated about their newest leader.

Also in July, Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, announced he was leaving the organization to work as vice president of public relations and communications at VS Strategies, a Denver public-relations firm promoting marijuana legalization and the cannabis industry. Tvert, founder of SAFER, helped get Amendment 64 passed in Colorado in 2012, legalizing cultivation and sales of recreational marijuana. VS Strategies, helmed by Steve Fox, Brian Vicente and Christian Sederberg, also played a key role.

“I am thrilled to be formally reuniting with Mason to continue our work to reshape the image of cannabis and advance marijuana policy reform,” Fox told Colorado Politics. “To say that he’s a cannabis communications expert is frankly understating his value.”

This post was originally published at freedomleaf.com. Check out Freedom Leaf magazine for this editor’s Word on the Tree column.

New Hampshire joins the rest of New England in decriminalizing cannabis

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On July 18, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu signed a marijuana decriminalization billinto law. The move makes the Granite State the 22nd in the country to eliminate jail time as a punishment for cannabis possession. It’s also the last New England state to do so.

Once the law takes effect in September, possession of three-quarters of an ounce of cannabis flowers or five grams of hash will be subject to a $100 fine. Previously, such an offense was punishable with a fine of $2,000 and up to one year in prison.

Similar legislation passed the state House several times in the past, but it was the first time the Senate approved the measure. While the original House bill 640 decriminalized an ounce of marijuana, the Senate lowered the quantity.

Noting that a cannabis offense can lead to “a lifetime of harsh consequences,” including “denial of student financial aid, housing, employment and professional licenses,” HB 640 addresses “social and racial inequities in the New Hampshire criminal justice system.” The measure also aims to free up time and resources for police and courts to deal with more serious crimes.

“New Hampshire lawmakers should continue to follow their constituents’ lead on this issue,” New England political director for the Marijuana Police Project stated. “Every state in New England is either implementing or strongly considering legislation to regulate marijuana for adult use. It’s time for the legislature to develop a realistic marijuana prohibition exit strategy.”

To be clear, eight states have legalized marijuana via ballot initiatives. Another 14 states currently have decrim policies, which fall short of legalization (see below). On June 20, adult-use legalization failed in Vermont when Gov. Phil Scott vetoed legislation.

Elsewhere in the Northeast, on July 18, by a 4-1 vote, York, Pa.’s City Council decriminalized the possession and consumption of marijuana, joining four other municipalities in Pennsylvania (Lancaster, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and State College) that have passed decriminalization measures over the last three years. However, fines for violations vary widely in York.

In Virginia, the State Crime Commission is seeking public comment until August 25 regarding statewide decrim. The commission will present its findings in October.

Legal states: Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington

Decrim states: Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont

This post was originally published at freedomleaf.com. Check out Freedom Leaf magazine for this editor’s Word on the Tree column.

Behind RRNY, a campaign to legalize marijuana in New York

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Marijuana is still illegal in New York, but that did not stop more than 4,000 people from descending on the Javits Center in Manhattan for a cannabis-industry conference in June. Longtime activists in blazers decorated with weed leaves mingled among Wall Street types in crisp suits. But one man stood out among the well-heeled crowd.

Jerome Dewald, a 66-year-old investor, manned a booth for Restrict & Regulate New York (RRNY)—a campaign to legalize recreational marijuana in New York through a state constitutional convention. He was sporting his signature look—a bowtie, glasses and a straw fedora hat. On this day, he also donned a Billy Reid seersucker blazer with a lively pattern of blue chrysanthemums. Dewald worked the room to raise awareness for his efforts to use a little-known avenue for direct democracy to address the issue of cannabis reform.

Legalization has lagged on the East Coast partly due to the lack of direct democracy. The eight adult-use marijuana measures that have passed in the U.S. since 2012 were approved at the ballot box through voter-driven initiatives. No state has legalized recreational cannabis through the legislature yet, though Vermont came close this year.

New York state’s constitution requires a referendum on whether to hold a convention to rewrite it every 20 years. Other states in the region have similar provisions, including New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. The last convention held was called by the state legislature in 1967, but voters rejected its proposals — primarily one to let tax money be used to fund religious schools. Voters can also call for a convention. That last happened in 1938, when they approved amendments enabling the state to set up a social-welfare system and requiring public construction projects to pay a union-level “prevailing wage.” Voters rejected holding a convention in 1997.

New Yorkers will vote this November on whether to hold a convention in April 2019. Delegates would be elected next year, and voters would ratify or defeat proposed amendments in November 2019. Some ethics groups have supported holding a convention, saying it could be used to reform the state’s notoriously corrupt legislature. Labor unions have strongly opposed it, as they fear it would be used to eliminate the guarantee that public employees’ pensions must be paid in full.

Dewald, who hails from Muskegon, Mich., spent decades living as an expat in Moscow before he returned to the U.S. in 2015. He’d started trading cannabis stocks in the over-the-counter markets two years earlier, and decided he wanted to invest exclusively in the marijuana industry. He spent 2015 attending as many cannabis conferences as he could—14 by his count. The next year, he “plowed as much money as [he] was willing to plow” into the industry, about $1 million. When he learned about New York’s constitutional-convention process, he was initially skeptical, but he decided that it would be the best way to achieve legalization in the state.

“We are not going to get satisfactory results from the legislature or the governor in anything less than five years,” he tells Word on the Tree (WOTT). “First, we have to wait for [Governor Andrew] Cuomo to leave office, and then we’re going to have to navigate the legislature.”

If voters approve Con-Con (for constitutional convention), delegates would convene in 2019 to weigh in on a variety of issues.

Dewald’s Criminal Record

With a once-in-20-years avenue open to put the issue of marijuana legalization before New York voters, one might expect national advocacy organizations to support the campaign. But so far, no major group—the Drug Policy Alliance, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the Marijuana Policy Project, Students for a Drug Policy, Marijuana Majority—has taken a position on Dewald’s campaign, despite their support for other legalization measures around the country.

“The silence from our industry is deafening,” Dewald sighs. “Not one policy group in our industry has come out in favor of a New York State constitutional convention as a pathway for legalization in New York.”

There’s a reason for that. In 2005, Dewald was convicted of fraud and larceny charges in Michigan for his role in two political-action committees he’d run in the 2000 presidential election—one raising money for Democrat Albert Gore, one for Republican George W. Bush. After state appeals courts upheld his conviction, he filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court, arguing that because his PACs were raising money for a federal election, he could only be charged under federal law, not state law. A federal district court ruled in Dewald’s favor, but the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals overruled it in 2014, reinstating his conviction in a two-to-one decision.

When Dewald reached out to NORML in March to ascertain its level of support for a campaign like RRNY, Keith Stroup, the organization’s founder and legal counsel, raised the issue of his felony convictions. Stroup forwarded the query to David Holland, Empire State NORML’s executive and legal director, and NORML Legal Committee member Joe Bondy.

“I need to know if you are the individual who was convicted of fraud involving two PACs,” Stroup asked in his email reply to Dewald. “The facts of that case seem suspiciously similar to the current project you have started.”

“I responded to him the same day pointing out that [the case] is clearly disclosed on my LinkedIn profile for anyone to read, plus it comes up at the top of any Google search about me,” Dewald says. In addition, he sent Stroup, Holland and Bondy transcripts of his trial and reports from the Federal Election Commission general counsel about the case.

After reviewing the transcripts, Holland sent Dewald a letter saying that he and Bondy had reviewed the information and decided an educational and fundraising alliance with Empire State NORML would not be possible.

“We took no position with regard to the validity of the charges or conviction.” Holland wrote. “They played no part in our determination on behalf of NORML. What did impact our review was the appearance of impropriety and conflicts of interest… with which NORML cannot be affiliated.”

Dewald defends himself, saying: “The whole thing seems very weird to me at this point. Why would Stroup use this 20-year-old conviction as a distraction from the real issue, which is the Con-Con and whether it is a viable process for us? I may be flawed, but no one else is standing up. The clock is marching forward as our troops sleep.”

Limited Support for Dewald and RRNY

Dewald assembled what he called a “group of 18 influentials” who wanted to pursue legalization through a constitutional convention as an option in New York. After NORML raised the issue of his past conviction, he sent an email to the group.

“I go into crisis management mode so that we could at least get something out that tells my side of the story,” says Dewald, who livestreamed an interview about his conviction to address questions surrounding it. The video is on his Facebook page and on YouTube:

When WOTT attempted to contact Dewald’s “influentials,” several people confirmed their involvement and support for the effort. But others in the group were surprised to hear of their supposed support for RRNY. In a follow-up conversation, Dewald clarified that the group of 18 weren’t necessarily supporters, but had different levels of involvement.

“I’m aware of the RRNY campaign, but was not aware I am listed as a supporter,” Kassandra Frederique, the DPA’s New York state director, replied in an email to WOTT. “I play more of an observer role.”

Jeffrey Friedland, CEO of the INTIVA cannabinoid-products company and one of the campaign’s financial backers, says Dewald was “absolutely” up front with him about his past conviction. “I’m used to dealing with people with a checkered past,” he explains.

“I think the cause is very worthy,” says Steve Gormley, founder and managing partner of Seventh Point, a private-equity firm specializing in cannabis-industry investments, but adds that he would reconsider his future involvement due to Dewald’s criminal history.

One of the 18, who asked to remain anonymous, says he has nothing to do with the campaign. Four others, some of who asked not to be named, said they only had informal roles or that they really weren’t involved beyond a few conversations. Others did not return requests for comment.

RRNY’s former treasurer Matt Karnes, founder of GreenWave Advisors, resigned immediately after learning of Dewald’s conviction. “I like to give people the benefit of the doubt,” he states. But Karnes felt blindsided by the disclosure. “I think [RRNY] is a worthwhile endeavor, but he should’ve told me this before he asked me to be the treasurer.”

According to Dewald, Leslie Bocskor, president of Electrum Partners, a cannabis-industry consulting firm, has contributed funding to the campaign. Pamela Johnston, senior vice president of strategy and special projects at Electrum, is also backing the RRNY campaign, and has been involved in its messaging strategy and communications. Dewald is “on the right side of history in regards to cannabis policy and regulation,” she told WOTT in an email.

Dewald Continues to Lead RRNY Despite Questions

On June 15, RRNY announced that it had raised $600,000 for its 9B ballot issue political action committee.

“I have purposely set up this PAC… to be open, transparent and so that financial decisions are approved by two others in management,” Dewald states. “I don’t operate the checkbook.”

Dewald says RRNY’s new treasurer, Will Powers, has complete control over the finances. Powers did not return multiple requests for comment.

Still, many are questioning if Dewald is the right man to lead the campaign. “We don’t want the credibility of the movement collapsing under the weight of his background,” notes Gormley.

“If somebody else wants to stand up and do this because I’m a bad character, I’d be delighted to turn this thing over to someone else,” Dewald says in response to his critics. “We have just four and a half months. If someone else wants the baton, I will be happy to pass it to them racing toward the finish line. But [I’m] not standing on the sidelines.”

Allen St. Pierre, board member at NORML and vice president of advocacy and communications at Freedom Leaf, offers a modicum of support for Dewald. “An imperfect effort led by an imperfect person is better than no effort at all,” he comments.

If a constitutional convention were to be convened and a sensible marijuana legalization measure put forth, Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, says: “We’ll certainly support that and do everything we can to pass it. That said, it seems to me that taking the huge amount of resources required for such an effort and instead putting them into convincing New York legislators to join the growing number of other states that are legalizing marijuana would have a greater likelihood of succeeding, as obviously challenging as it would be.”

Other advocates echoed the sentiment.

“Empire State NORML raises funds for a variety of advocacy measures, not a single issue like [RRNY] does, so our missions are different,” said Holland. “While I support Con-Con, at this time NORML will not take a position that supports Jerome Dewald and his organization.”

This post has been updated to include additional quotes from Tom Angell and David Holland, and a copy-edit.

Legal cannabis sales underway in Uruguay

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It’s official: As of July 1, marijuana became available for purchase in Uruguay pharmacies. The South American country made international headlines in 2012 when then-president José Mujica announced plans to legalize cannabis. The following year, Uruguay became the first nation in the world to fully legalize the adult-use of marijuana when lawmakers gave final approval to the bill.

Since then, the pot pioneer has struggled to implement the measure. Adults are allowed to grow up to six cannabis plants at home and can join cannabis co-ops that can grow up to 99 plants a year. But cannabis sales in pharmacies were originally set to begin by the end of 2014.

At the time, Mujica told the AFP that sales of the drug would be delayed. “If we want to get this right we are going to have to do it slowly,” he said, explaining that legal weed could end up in the black market if the government rushed to implement the law. Mujica’s successor Tabaré Vázquez delayed cannabis sales even further when he took office in 2015.

But soon, Uruguayans will finally be able to buy government-produced cannabis from pharmacies. In a bid to keep prices low, the marijuana market will be a government monopoly. At about $1.30 a gram, it costs “less than half the price on the black market,” one consumer told the AFP.

But don’t expect Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, to become the next Amsterdam. Only citizens and those with permanent residency permits are allowed to buy cannabis over the counter. Users must register with the government and are restricted to just 10 grams per week.

“It’s like a police file they’re building of planters and consumers,” a Uruguayan cannabis activist told The Guardian. “Why should there be a registry of marijuana consumers and not one of alcohol consumers?”

The country has also taken a stand on the international stage. Facing pressure from the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime, Uruguay has stood fast in its view that drug use should be treated as a public health issue rather than a criminal issue.

In fact, the country is in open violation of international drug treaties. But so far, no one has taken any sort of action against Uruguay for due to its legalization stance. Canada may soon join Uruguay, though it’s unclear how the Trudeau government plans to deal with the conflict with international law.

This post was originally published at freedomleaf.com. Check out Freedom Leaf magazine for this editor’s Word on the Tree column.

Vermont passed a bill to legalize recreational marijuana

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Update, June 21: After the governor reached a compromise with legislative leaders, the Senate approved the bill. But the compromise failed in the House. “Despite the setback for 2017, Vermont’s legislature operates on a biennium, and advocates expect that progress achieved this year will be built upon when lawmakers reconvene in January,” reported MassRoots.

On Wednesday, Vermont could’ve become the first state in the U.S. to legalize marijuana through the legislature. But Republican governor Phil Scott vetoed the legislation, which was the first of its kind to be passed by a state legislature. While that version of the bill is dead, Scott suggested changes could be made to the bill in a special session this summer. Otherwise, lawmakers could revisit the issue with a new bill at the start of the next session in January.

Among the governor’s desired changes? Stricter penalties for those caught selling the drug to minors and some sort of impairment limit for stoned driving. The problem with the latter request is that there’s no scientific consensus on THC testing for impairment. While many organizations — from universities to tech startups — are working on developing a marijuana breathalyzer, no such technology currently exists.

Some advocates, however, are optimistic that the legislation still has a good chance of being amended and approved by the governor.

“While the news today is disappointing, it likely just amounts to a short delay. The governor’s comments make clear that legalization of marijuana in Vermont is only a matter of time — and some small tweaks to the bill,” Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, said in a statement. “I’m very hopeful that lawmakers will make the changes he’s asking for, and that next month the state will become the first in history to end cannabis prohibition by an act of the legislature.”

Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said he was “disappointed” by the decision, but “encouraged” by the governor’s willingness to work with the legislature during a special summer session.

“Despite the veto, this is a huge leap forward,” said Simon in a statement. “Lawmakers have an opportunity to address the governor’s concerns and pass a revised bill this summer, and we are excited about its prospects.”

Our report on the legislation originally published on May 10 continues below:

The Vermont legislature became the first in the nation to approve a recreational marijuana legalization bill in May. Lawmakers passed a measure that would allow adults to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and grow their own cannabis plants at home. The home-grow provision is limited to two mature plants or four immature plants.

The legislation still awaits a decision from Vermont governor Phil Scott before becoming law.

No other state legislature has passed legislation to legalize marijuana. Currently, eight states and Washington D.C. have legalized adult-use — but all legalization measures were voter-passed ballot initiatives. Maine and Massachusetts became the first Northeastern states to pass adult-use laws last November. Like most other states in the region, Vermont does not have a ballot initiative process. The lack of ballot initiatives in Northeastern states has contributed to a lack of progress on cannabis policy reform in the region.

“Vermont lawmakers made history today,” Matt Simon, a political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement. “The Legislature has taken a crucial step toward ending the failed policy of marijuana prohibition. There is no rational reason to continue punishing adults for consuming a substance that is safer than alcohol.”

It’s unclear whether Scott will sign the bill. Unlike his predecessor Peter Shumlin (who was a vocal supporter of legalization), Scott has expressed reservations with legalizing marijuana.

“I didn’t say, ‘Never.’ I said, ‘Not now,'” said Scott at a press conference in February. “I still believe we should be focused on economic issues.”

Members of his administration, however, have had harsher words on the topic. “We oppose this bill,” state police major Glenn Hall told the House Judiciary Committee in February. “We speak with one voice… That’s what the governor stands for also,” added public safety commissioner Tom Anderson.

Scott could sign or veto the bill. If he did neither, the bill would become law without his signature.

“The voters and the Legislature are behind it, and we hope the governor will be, too,” said Simon.

The legislation passed the House in a 79 to 66 vote, though its path to approval has been dubious this session. The House and Senate previously passed competing legalization measures: the House opting for non-commercial legalization (similar to D.C.), and the Senate adopting a tax-and-regulate framework.

For a time, a looked like the disagreement between the two chambers would kill legalization efforts for the year. But a compromise between the two proposals emerged, and the adjournment of the legislative session was delayed, allowing the House to cast their votes on Wednesday.

Now, all eyes are on the governor to see whether the state will become the first in the nation to legalize adult-use through the legislature.

“I don’t believe this is a priority for Vermont,” Scott told the Burlington Free Press. “I believe that what we should be doing is trying to find ways to protect those on our highways, deliver a level of impairment that is consistent throughout the Northeast, as well as to address the edibles for our kids, before we move forward with legalization. Having said that, I’m going to review the bill as it’s passed.”

Why Western medicine needs to reconsider ‘recreational’ drugs

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What can doctors do to ease emotional pain? The physicians of ancient and medieval times found many plants and plant-derived substances (ie, drugs) that soothed mental as well as physical ills. Rarely did they draw a line between the psychological and physiological benefits of their remedies. Modern medicine has confirmed the overlap of bodily and mental maladies through painstaking research, and yet treatment for psychological problems lags far behind a cascade of stunning advances in the treatment of physical ills – advances that have doubled the human lifespan and improved our quality of life immeasurably.

It’s not that medical science has completely ignored psychological problems. In the Unites States, anxious housewives of the 1950s and ’60s were plied with Valium and Librium (‘mother’s little helpers’). For those with more serious disturbances, powerful antidepressants and antipsychotics were developed. But these medicines had significant side-effects: emotional flatness, somnolence, and physical limitations. Currently, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac and Zoloft have evolved as a silver bullet for the treatment of depression and anxiety. SSRIs are the drugs most frequently prescribed for Americans aged 18 to 44, at a rate four times greater than 25 years ago, while their use has doubled in the United Kingdom over the past decade. We’ve staked a great deal on these chemicals.

Yet a large number of well-controlled studies, and the meta-analytic research that puts them in perspective, find that SSRIs (compared with placebos) have little or no benefit for people with mild to moderate levels of depression. Their utility for severe depression is still subject to debate, with many studies showing little or no improvement, and a definitive impact on anxiety disorders has not been demonstrated. Nor are SSRIs free of serious side effects, including sexual dysfunction, rapid weight gain and, most troubling, suicidal ideation, especially in younger patients. SSRIs have not lived up to their promise.

The question is whether there are drugs that can relieve emotional or psychological problems effectively and reliably, without debilitating side effects. Historically, humans have relied on a panoply of drugs to remedy emotional concerns. Our Victorian-era ancestors used opiates (eg, laudanum) to minimize anxiety, melancholia and sleep problems. Opiates are still acknowledged as the most effective defense against pain – and also anxiety, in limited circumstances (eg, routine colonoscopy). The indigenous people of South America have long bolstered their physical and mental endurance with coca leaves; and early 20th-century Europeans (such as Sigmund Freud) used its derivative, cocaine, to sharpen their wits. Self-actualization, presumably an overall boon to mental health, has been enhanced with natural psychedelics (eg, peyote, ayahuasca) throughout the Americas for at least 1,000 years. And the youth of more recent times (re)discovered the value of cannabis in extending their aesthetic, social, even intellectual horizons.

But these drugs are almost universally banned. To use them as correctives for psychological concerns is anathema to Western medicine, and to society at large. They’re for getting high, not for getting well, and their use is met with repudiation and punishment.

The accepted narrative is that drugs used for ‘recreational’ purposes are dangerous: their most serious consequence (if they don’t kill you first) being addiction. According to the American Medical Association, the National Institutes of Health, and other authorities, brain changes caused by the recurrent use of illegal drugs become hard-wired and permanent. Addicts are rendered dysfunctional in relationships, blind to accepted realities, and incapable of controlling impulses – reason enough to withhold recreational drugs, not only from prescribing doctors but from researchers who might study them further.

The argument sounds straightforward. But addiction is no simple matter. For one thing, the brain changes associated with addiction are observed whenever people repeatedly pursue highly attractive goals, in sports, religion, business, politics, romantic love – even shopping! Second, addiction is neither automatic nor chronic. No more than 10 per cent of those taking opioids for pain get addicted (it’s less than 1 per cent for those with no history of dependent drug use). And of those who do get addicted, about half quit within four to five years, and almost everyone quits eventually. Cocaine addicts stop, on average, four years after their first snort. Those smoking cannabis daily quit, on average, six years after starting. Contrary to popular opinion, most people identified as drug dependent do recover, and most do so without any formal treatment.

But let’s look more closely at society’s response to the problem of addiction. Doctors readily prescribe analgesics (both opioid and non-opioid), methylphenidate (Ritalin), tranquilisers and antidepressants, even though all are known to be addictive. SSRIs (eg Zoloft) and anxiolytics (eg Xanax) are hell to get off because of withdrawal symptoms. So addiction is considered an acceptable risk in medicine. In society at large, addiction is not sufficiently problematic to attempt banning alcohol or tobacco, even though the average duration of alcohol dependence is 16 years, and only half of those dependent on tobacco quit in 30 years. (You’re far better off addicted to cocaine or pot.)

Perhaps the most startling revelation from addiction studies is that addiction isn’t about drugs. Many people develop all-consuming relationships with activities, identities, and even people. Gambling is considered a more serious social problem than substance use in much of the UK and Australia. Sex addiction, compulsive internet use, gaming addiction and various eating disorders are common responses to the frustration, loneliness and existential malaise suffered in contemporary life. Addiction is part of being human. However, when it comes to drug use, addiction is vilified, and those defined as addicts are stigmatized, excluded or incarcerated.

Once we bypass the myths about addiction, our capacity for medicating emotional problems looks remarkably different. There are obvious places to start. Psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms is neither toxic (in any dose) nor addictive. For those with obsessive-compulsive disorder, psilocybin is shown to reduce symptoms significantly. Studies have catalogued the relief of end-of-life anxieties, alcoholism and depression with psilocybin. But doctors cannot prescribe it.

Current treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder involves reliving the traumatic event and re-experiencing the fear it elicited. But ecstasy (MDMA) reduces the amygdala’s response to threat, thereby minimising the impact of reliving the experience. Ketamine, a well-known ‘party drug’ has been shown to relieve depression with one administration, reliably and safely (though for a limited time), yet research on its clinical efficacy is grindingly slow because of legal hurdles.

Instead of worrying so much about addiction, which tends to correct itself when life becomes tolerable, maybe we should worry more about the sources of emotional suffering. Depression not only hurts, it kills. Anxiety drives people to intractable isolation and fertilises stress-linked diseases. Yet the idea of prescribing opioids, cocaine, ketamine, ecstasy and other illegal drugs to help people feel ‘better’ is, currently, heretical. Are we concerned that people might feel too good? We’d rather stick to antidepressants of minimal therapeutic impact, not because they guard against addiction – they don’t – but because of a puritanical aversion to supplying unearned happiness and, along with it, a deep-seated belief that people who suffer emotionally should just get over it.

Addiction is a side issue. Emotional suffering is the real problem, and it’s complicated. In today’s world, the pressure to meet the expectations of success lead to anxiety, a sense of failure, guilt and depression. Inequality leaves people feeling inferior, envious and sometimes desperate. Depression and anxiety are umbrella terms that obscure enormous diversity in the causes and consequences of emotional pain.

If we’re going to treat psychological suffering as effectively as we treat pneumonia and broken bones, we’d better think outside the box of antidepressants that stupefy, and anxiolytics that dull the senses. We might start by exploring the options that human nature gravitates toward when left unfettered: drugs that help different individuals feel good in different ways. Stripped of stigma or the prospect of arrest, moved out of clandestine labs and back alleys, and prescribed with sensitivity and compassion, these drugs can do a lot of good.

By Marc Lewis and Shaun Shelly

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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Cities in conservative states lead cannabis policy reform

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On Apr. 4, voters in Kansas City, Mo. approved a measure to decriminalize possession of marijuana. The new law institutes a maximum $25 fine and eliminates jail time for being caught with less than 35 grams of pot. Previously, those who got in trouble for small possession could’ve been on the hook for a $500 fine and 180 days in jail.

Some local lawmakers criticized the initiative, which made the ballot thanks to a campaign by NORML KC. “This does not solve anything,” city councilwoman Alissia Canada told the Kansas City Star. “It just creates more problems for people who don’t have any money and are already overburdened by the criminal justice system.”

Until this vote, defendants charged with low-level cannabis crimes were eligible for representation from Legal Aid lawyers. Without the possibility of jail time, defendants would no longer be eligible and would have to hire their own attorneys.

Last year, nearly 70 percent of defendants in possession cases were African American, according to an analysis of court data by the Star. Only about 30 percent of the city’s 450,000 residents are African-American. Legal Aid represented nearly 60 percent of defendants in possession cases.

NORML KC Executive Director Jamie Kacz described the measure as a “baby step,” and said the organization was working on assembling a network of attorneys for those who are now ineligible for Legal Aid representation.

Meanwhile, on Mar. 1, new Harris Country, Tex. district attorney Kim Ogg instituted a policy to decriminalize possession of less than four ounces of marijuana. “We’ve spent in excess of $250 million, over a quarter-billion dollars, prosecuting a crime that has produced no tangible evidence of improved public safety,” Ogg explained, much to the dismay of some state officials. Harris Country includes Houston; with 4.1 million residents, it’s the state’s largest county.

By Mar. 17, 178 individuals agreed to take a drug education class rather than go to jail on possession offenses. Ogg’s office is also leading the nation when it comes to exonerating defendants who are wrongly convicted of drug offenses.

Elsewhere, conservative state officials have been actively going after city-level decriminalization measures. Both Nashville and Memphis, Tenn. passed city-level decriminalization ordinances last fall. Though the laws leave much to be desired, the state House recently approved a bill that seeks to nullify those city-level laws.

This post was originally published at freedomleaf.com. Check out Freedom Leaf magazine for this editor’s Word on the Tree column.

Johnathan Namauleg would still be alive if not for prohibition

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An investigation into Hawaii’s practice of sending prisoners to the mainland by Vice and the Nation Institute contains the heartbreaking story of a young man who would probably still be alive today if not for cannabis prohibition.

Johnathan Namauleg first got into trouble with the law after he lit a hut on fire at the local canoe club in Maui, Hawaii. (Nobody was hurt.) Eighteen-years-old at the time, Namauleg read at the first-grade level. He was diagnosed with ADHD and borderline intellectual functioning. His cognitive disability prompted the judge to reduce his charge and give him five years of probation for third-degree arson, instead of the possibility of a 10-year sentence for second-degree arson.

Before his legal troubles, Namauleg had used cannabis to treat his ADHD. Pharmaceuticals made him nauseous and marijuana relieved his symptoms without the side effects. “He loved to smoke weed,” Namauleg’s mother Arlene told Vice. “And when he was high, he became just like when he drank his medication. His mind stopped moving so fast. He could focus.”

But his probation required him to submit to random drug tests. Namauleg was doing well — graduating high school, snagging his first job, and talking about going to college. But he started smoking pot again. Though his mother understood that the drug helped his ADHD symptoms, the legal system did not. After missing a drug test, a judge revoked his probation due to his “drug problem” and sentenced him to five years behind bars. From Vice:

“I sat him down to try and make him understand how bad it would be if he breaks his probation. He didn’t say anything, just like, ‘OK, yeah.’ Still, every time he came home high.” Arlene had been taking him to the weekly appointments with his probation officer, but now he wasn’t around when the time came to leave. “I didn’t know what else to do,” she says. “I tried my best, but I couldn’t stop him or lock him in the house. He was an adult.”

Namauleg is one of many inmates in Hawaii who get sent to prisons on the mainland, a practice that burdens families of inmates who must spend thousands of dollars to see their loved ones. Many states have contracts with private-prison companies to manage overcrowding. The Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Ariz. (where Namauleg lost his life) is managed by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) through a state contract. About 7,200 prisoners are housed this way, reports The Marshall Project, and as the Vice/Nation story shows, oversight into these facilities is sorely lacking.

The beginnings of of the Hawaii-CCA relationship can partly be traced back to the state’s methamphetamine epidemic that doubled the prison population over a decade. Despite the well-documented toll that criminalizing drug use produces, Hawaii started sending prisoners to the mainland.

Perhaps if weed were legal, Namauleg wouldn’t have ended up back behind bars. It’s also fair to argue that he may still be alive if he had not been housed in a private prison. A 2016 review of private prisons contracted with the Federal Bureau of Prisons found that they have “more safety and security incidents per capita” than facilities managed by the government. The review led to a Justice Department memo announcing the phase-out of private prisons. Last month, attorney general Jeff Sessions rescinded the memo.

Namauleg died after being placed in a cell with an inmate who was in prison for murder and had other well-documented homicidal tendencies. His cellmate has been charged with first-degree murder in his death.

Sessions says 'we need to crack down' on drugs

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In a speech to state attorneys general, Jeff Sessions continued his criticisms of cannabis legalization this morning. The remarks come on the heels of his first press briefing, where he had some harsh words for the policy.

“We need to crack down more effectively” on drugs, he said.

“My best view is we don’t need to be legalizing marijuana,” said Sessions at a meeting for the National Association of Attorneys General. “I’m not sure we’re going to be a better, healthier nation if we have marijuana being sold at every corner grocery store.” (Editor’s note: marijuana is not being sold at grocery stores in states that have legalized it.)

Sessions also cast doubt on the claim that access to legal cannabis can help mitigate the opioid crisis.

“Marijuana is a cure for opiate abuse? Give me a break,” said Sessions with a smile. “It’s just almost a desperate attempt to defend the harmlessness of marijuana or even its benefits. I doubt that’s true. Maybe science will prove I’m wrong.”

Here’s the thing: science has already proven him wrong. Besides scientific evidence that shows medical cannabis can help treat opioid use disorders, various studies have shown that the availability of medical marijuana is associated with decreased rates of opioid abuse. While this does not amount to proving that “marijuana is a cure,” the available scientific evidence does show that it is a promising avenue to tackling the problem.

In 2014, researchers from Johns Hopkins found a significant association between state-legal medical cannabis and a decrease in opioid overdose rates.

“In absolute terms, states with a medical marijuana law had about 1,700 fewer opioid painkiller overdose deaths in 2010 than would be expected based on trends before the laws were passed,” said lead author Marcus Bachhuber in a statement announcing the results.

Last year, an analysis of Medicare data found that “the use of prescription drugs for which marijuana could serve as a clinical alternative fell significantly, once a medical marijuana law was implemented.”

“This administration should respect science,” said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, in a statement about the attorney general’s comments. “At the very least, [it] needs to uphold the president’s repeated campaign pledges to respect state cannabis laws.”

“If the attorney general really cares about public health and safety, he’ll stop relying on ‘alternative facts’ to prop up an outdated ‘Reefer Madness’ view of marijuana.”

At least one state attorney general plans to push back: