The year in drugs: what’s next for Louisiana and the U.S.

The six biggest drug stories of 2016


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1. Marijuana legalization wins big. Pot legalization initiatives won in California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada, losing only in Arizona. These weren't the first states to legalize marijuana — Colorado and Washington led the way in 2012, with Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., following in 2014 — but in one fell swoop, states with a combined population of nearly 50 million people freed the weed. Add in the earlier states, and we're now talking about 67 million people, or more than one-fifth of the national population, who can use weed legally.

  The question is: Where does marijuana win next? We won't see state legalization initiatives until 2018 (and the conventional wisdom is to wait for the higher-turnout 2020 presidential election year). Most of the low-hanging fruit in terms of initiative states has been harvested, but activists in Michigan came close to qualifying for the ballot this year and are raring to go again. In the meantime, there are state legislatures. When AlterNet looked in the crystal ball recently, the best bets looked like Connecticut, Maryland, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Vermont.

2. Medical marijuana wins big. Medical marijuana is even more popular than legal weed, and it went four-for-four at the ballot box last November, adding Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota to the list of full-blown medical marijuana states. That makes 28 states — more than half the country — that allow medical marijuana, along with another dozen or so red states that have passed limited cannabidiol (CBD)-only medical marijuana laws as a sop to public opinion.

  It's worth noting that Montana is a special case. Voters there approved medical marijuana in 2004, only to see a Republican-dominated state legislature gut the program in 2011. The initiative approved by voters in 2016 reinstates that program, and shuttered dispensaries are set to reopen.

  The increasing acceptance of medical marijuana is going to make it that much harder for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) or President-elect Donald Trump's administration to balk at reclassifying marijuana away from Schedule I, which supposedly is reserved for dangerous substances with no medical uses. It also could — along with the growing number of states where pot is legal — provide the necessary impetus to change federal banking laws to allow pot businesses to behave like normal businesses.

3. Republicans take control in Washington. Trump's victory and looming Republican control of both houses of Congress have profound implications for drug policies, for everything from legal marijuana to funding for needle exchange programs to sentencing policies to border and foreign policy and beyond. Early Trump cabinet picks, such as U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, to lead the Justice Department, are ominous for progressive drug reform, but as with many other policy spheres, what Trump actually will do is a big unknown. It's probably safe to say that any harm-reduction programs requiring federal funding or approval are in danger, that any further sentencing reforms are unlikely and that any federal spending for mental health and substance abuse treatment will face an uphill battle. But the cops probably will get more money.

  The really big question mark is around pot policy. Trump has signaled he's OK with letting the states experiment, but Sessions is one of the most retrograde drug warriors in Washington. Time will tell, but in the mean- time, the marijuana industry is on tenterhooks and respect for the will of voters in pot-legal states and even medical marijuana states is an open question.

4. The opioid epidemic continues. As 2016 was ending, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that opioid overdose deaths had topped 33,000, and with 12,000 heroin overdoses, junk had overtaken gun violence as a leading cause of death.

  The crisis has provoked a variety of responses at both the state and the federal levels. Last month Congress approved $1 billion in opioid treatment and prevention programs. The overdose epidemic also has prompted the loosening of access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone and prodded ongoing efforts to embrace more harm-reduction approaches, such as places for supervised injections.

  On the other hand, prosecutors in states across the country have taken to filing murder charges against those who sell opioids (prescription or otherwise) to people who then die of overdoses, more intrusive and privacy-invading prescription monitoring programs have been established and the tightening of the screws on opioid prescriptions is leaving some chronic pain sufferers in the lurch, while leading others to seek opioids on the black market.

5. Obama commutes more than 1,000 drug war sentences. In a bid to undo some of the most egregious excesses of the drug war, President Barack Obama cut the sentences of and freed more than 1,000 people sentenced under the harsh laws of the 1980s — particularly the racially biased crack cocaine laws — who already have served more time than they would have if sentenced under current laws passed during the Obama administration. Obama has commuted more sentences in a single year than any president in history and more than the last 11 presidents combined.

  The commutations come under a program announced by former Attorney General Eric Holder, who encouraged drug war prisoners to apply for them. The bad news is that the clock will run out before Obama has a chance to deal with thousands of pending applications that are backlogged in the Office of the Pardon Attorney.

6. DEA gets a wake-up call when it tries to ban kratom. Derived from a Southeast Asian tree, kratom is a popular and unregulated alternative to opioids for relaxation and pain relief, as well as withdrawal from opioids. It has very low overdose potential compared to other opioids and has become a go-to drug for many.

  Perturbed by its rising popularity, the DEA moved last summer to use its emergency scheduling powers to ban kratom, but was hit with an unprecedented buzzsaw of opposition from kratom users, scientists, researchers and even Republican senators like Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who authored and encouraged his colleagues to sign a letter to the DEA asking the agency to postpone its planned scheduling.

  The DEA backed off — but didn't back down — announcing in October 2016 that it was shelving its ban plan for now and instead opening a period of public comment ending Dec. 1. Before it ended, the agency was inundated with submissions from people opposing the ban. Now, the DEA will factor in that input, as well as formal input from the Food and Drug Administration, before making its decision.

  The battle over kratom isn't over, and the DEA still could ban it in the end, but the whole episode demonstrates how much the ground has shifted under the agency. DEA doesn't just get its way anymore.

Smoked out: medical marijuana in Louisiana
Changing laws, Trump, and the future of Louisiana’s marijuana market

New Orleans and the opioid epidemic
A year of rising overdose deaths and policy changes


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