War on drugs, medical marijuana, and decriminalization


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War on Drugs

The Colorado state Senate advanced a bill last week that would make it easier for police to bring felony drug charges against users.

The bill, HB 1326, severely increases the penalties for possessing the synthetic opiate fentanyl, which is stronger than heroin and lethal in much smaller doses. Following lobbying from law enforcement, the senate amended the bill to provide that prosecutors do not need to prove that people knowingly possessed the drug in order to be charged with a felony.

The problem is that the most current version of the bill does not discriminate between possession of pure fentanyl and drug mixtures that contain fentanyl—and it is impossible to tell what drugs contain fentanyl. Everything from illegal drugs like heroin and methamphetamine to pills sold as Adderall, Xanax, or Percocet could contain the dangerous compound. For example, two Ohio State University students died just last week from counterfeit Adderall pills that contained fentanyl.

Furthermore, rehabs and drug treatment clinics in the state warn that their network is not ready to support the hundreds of drug treatment orders expected to result from the new criminal charges.

“We don’t have enough providers at any level,” said Rob Valuck, executive director of the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention.

“We don’t have enough primary care doctors doing this. We don’t have enough behavioral health professionals doing this. We don’t have enough addiction treatment centers and providers doing this. We don’t have enough school nurses doing this. We don’t have enough.”

Fentanyl test strips

Lawmakers in Kansas killed a bill that would decriminalize fentanyl test strips, preventing drug users from determining if their supply contains the dangerous substance. The test strips are small pieces of paper that can detect the presence of fentanyl in any drug batch, whether pill, powder, or injectable. The tool is also cheap, averaging around $1 a strip. States across the country are beginning to decriminalize the possession and sale of test strips in the hopes of saving lives.

The Kansas proposal, by state House Democrats, was bashed by Republicans as enabling drug abuse. “The best warning to figure out whether (the drug you are using) might have fentanyl in it is don’t buy the illegal drugs,” Sen. Kellie Warren, a Leawood Republican. It’s “just one step closer to providing free needles, clean needles and things like that.”

Democrats contend that harm reduction measures like fentanyl testing strips and needle exchanges are essential to saving lives:

“We have a policy that we know will save lives, there’s a mountain of evidence to show it,” said Rep. Jason Probst, D-Hutchinson, the legislator to introduce the policy originally. “And we have people who run their campaigns on the idea that they’re pro-life. And they just voted to kill people, and I think that they need to be held to account for that.”

Further reading:

  • “In its first detailed plan to slow the rise in drug overdose deaths, the Biden administration is emphasizing harm reduction,” NPR
  • “Alabama 1 of 6 states with no needle exchange, has nation’s highest opioid rate,” Al.com
  • National Harm Reduction Coalition

Medical marijuana

South Carolina Republicans last week torpedoed a restricted medical marijuana bill seven-years in the making.

Republican state Sen. Tom Davis (Beaufort, SC) worked for years to craft a bill that would pass the conservative legislature, attempting to provide the most valuable care to severely ill patients while keeping the approval of Republicans in the House and Senate.

People using medical marijuana could not smoke it, having instead to use use oils, salves, patches or vaporizers. Doctors would have to meet patients in person, checking for any history of substance abuse and creating a written treatment plan. Patients could get only two-week supplies at one time.

The proposal specifies the illnesses that could be treated, including cancer, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, sickle cell anemia and autism. The marijuana could be obtained only through special dispensaries run by a state-licensed pharmacist, physician assistant or clinical practice nurse.

The bill, SB 150, passed the state Senate in a 28-15 vote. But after languishing in the House for months, the South Carolina speaker pro tempore Tommy Pope (Clover, SC)—backed by unelected clerk of the House Charles Reid—ruled SB 150 out of order and in 5 minutes ended seven years of Davis’ work to provide effective treatment to the severely ill.

Meanwhile, voters in Austin, Texas, overwhelmingly approved a proposition to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession.


Last year, Oregon voters passed Measure 110 to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs and provide $265 million for drug treatment in the state. However, the system is beset with delays, frustrating clinic workers, advocates, and those seeking care.

At a meeting Friday morning, the community oversight council tasked with distributing the funds once again voted on an extended timeline for distribution. The grant award letters were initially supposed to go out to providers the second week of January but were delayed repeatedly while grant applications remain under review.

Small providers serving rural or minority populations are the hardest hit.

One of those providers is the Miracles Club of Portland, which offers addiction-related peer services and housing to the Black community. Its executive director, Julia Mines, told The Lund Report that if the group doesn’t receive the Measure 110 grant the nonprofit applied for by the end of June, it will lose a six-bedroom house it recently purchased as transitional housing for Black women.

[Tera Hurst, executive director of Health Justice Recovery Alliance] argues that if the money continues to sit unspent, there won’t be any small, community-based providers left. She said it’s as if the health authority is “creating a process that only benefits people with budgets that can withstand this.”

Meanwhile, advocates in Washington state are seeking to follow in Oregon’s footsteps—presumably without the bureaucratic slowdown—by collecting signatures for a decriminalization proposition for the November ballot.

Initiative 1922 would remove the penalties for possessing drugs of any kind in the state of Washington, including cocaine, heroin, and hallucinogenic mushrooms. It would also direct more than $140 million each year to outreach, treatment, and recovery services.

  • If you live in Washington State, you can help collect signatures for I-1922.