Head Of Top Federal Drug Agency Says It's Time To Consider Decriminalization – Marijuana Moment

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The head of a top federal drug agency is criticizing the ongoing policy of criminalizing people for drug use and is suggesting that the government should instead consider a policy of decriminalization.
Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), penned an essay for the journal Health Affairs that’s titled “Addiction Should Be Treated, Not Penalized.” It lays out the case against incarcerating people over low-level drug offenses and looking at the issue as a public health matter.
While it stops short of explicitly endorsing decriminalization, Volkow says that the current system leads to disproportionate enforcement against communities of color and can actually increase the risk of overdose deaths.
“Drug use continues to be penalized, despite the fact that punishment does not ameliorate substance use disorders or related problems,” she said. “Imprisonment, whether for drug or other offenses, actually leads to much higher risk of drug overdose upon release.”
“We have known for decades that addiction is a medical condition—a treatable brain disorder—not a character flaw or a form of social deviance,” Volkow continued in the essay, which was first published by Health Affairs late last month and republished on NIDA’s website on Friday. “Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence supporting that position, drug addiction continues to be criminalized. The US must take a public health approach to drug addiction now, in the interest of both population well-being and health equity.”
In @Health_Affairs blog, Dr. Volkow makes the evidence-based case on how drug #criminalization disproportionately harms Black communities & exacerbates health disparities. A public health approach to #addiction is needed. https://t.co/6w1awINIRb pic.twitter.com/ty9GfrlWtg
— NIDAnews (@NIDAnews) April 27, 2021

The NIDA head pointed out how people of color have been “disproportionately harmed by decades of addressing drug use as a crime rather than as a matter of public health.” Citing disparities in how opioid criminalization has been enforced and laws punishing crack more harshly than powder cocaine, Volkow said these are examples of “racial discrimination that have long been associated with drug laws and their policing.”
What makes these admissions notable is the source from which they’re coming. While NIDA is known among advocates as a source of resistance to reforms such as ending marijuana prohibition, its director sides with them on the fundamental principle that substance misuse should not be criminalized.
“The damaging impacts of punishment for drug possession that disproportionately impact Black lives are wide ranging. Imprisonment leads to isolation, an exacerbating factor for drug misuse, addiction, and relapse,” the director said. “It also raises the risk of early death from a wide variety of causes.”
Volkow also said that beyond incarceration, merely being arrested for marijuana possession “can leave the individual with a criminal record that severely limits their future opportunities such as higher education and employment.” And that enforcement trend hurts black people more than white people despite comparable rates of consumption.
“This burden reinforces poverty by limiting upward mobility through impeded access to employment, housing, higher education, and eligibility to vote,” she said. “It also harms the health of the incarcerated, their non-incarcerated family members, and their communities.”
These statements ostensibly lend themselves to a harm reduction policy position in favor of decriminalization, but Volkow doesn’t specifically say that’s the route lawmakers should take. Instead, she says that research “is urgently needed to establish the effectiveness and impact of public health–based alternatives to criminalization, ranging from drug courts and other diversion programs to policies decriminalizing drug possession.”
To that end, NIDA is “redoubling its focus on vulnerabilities and progression of substance use and addiction in minority populations,” she said. “We are exploring research partnerships with state and local agencies and private health systems to develop ways to eliminate systemic barriers to addiction care.”
The agency is “also funding research on the effects of alternative models of regulating and decriminalizing drugs in parts of the world where such natural experiments are already occurring,” Volkow said, presumably referencing countries such as Portugal that have stopped criminalizing people over simple possession.
“People with substance use disorders need treatment, not punishment, and drug use disorders should be approached with a demand for high-quality care and with compassion for those affected,” she said. “With a will to achieve racial equity in delivering compassionate treatment and the ability to use science to guide us toward more equitable models of addressing addiction, I believe such a goal is achievable.”
While NIDA might not be widely considered a champion of progressive drug policy, its director has previously conceded that existing federal drug laws aren’t working.
In 2019, for example, she acknowledged that the Schedule I status of marijuana and other drugs makes it “very difficult” for researchers to study the benefits and risks of those substances.
“Indeed, the moment that a drug gets a Schedule I, which is done in order to protect the public so that they don’t get exposed to it, it makes research much harder,” Volkow said during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing. “This is because [researchers] actually have to through a registration process that is actually lengthy and cumbersome.”
She also discussed the potential benefits and risks of cannabis at a congressional hearing last year.
NIDA is also one of the main agencies behind a new development in federally sanctioned marijuana research. After requesting public input last year on a standard THC unit for cannabis studies, it announced last week that it had reached a determination to set the standard at five milligrams of THC per dosage.
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Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment’s Sacramento-based senior editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.
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A U.S. congressman wants answers from New Jersey regulators about why none of the 56 marijuana retailer licenses that state regulators have approved have gone to black business owners from communities most impacted by prohibition.
Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ) said in a press release last week that he’s “outraged to hear that Black-owned businesses have been shut out of the state’s cannabis marketplace,” noting that black people are significantly more likely to face arrests over marijuana despite comparable rates of use among different races.
“New Jersey has a chance to correct this inequality and allow people abused by the system to finally benefit from it with a fair distribution of cannabis business licenses,” he said. “Instead, we are seeing the same inequality with these licenses that we see in marijuana arrests.”
I am outraged to hear that none of the 56 NJ cannabis business licenses were awarded to a Black-owned business. These entrepreneurs have been shut out of New Jersey's cannabis market. NJ needs to end this injustice! pic.twitter.com/ITYIfyMYC3
— Rep. Donald Payne Jr (@RepDonaldPayne) January 28, 2022

While New Jersey’s medical cannabis program has been in effect for more than a decade, the adult-use market has yet to come online as regulators work on implementing a 2020 voter-approved reform referendum.
Gov. Phil Murphy (D) “promised that the state’s cannabis industry would right the wrongs of the past as it concerns social justice,” Payne said. “Now, New Jersey needs to uphold this promise.”
The statement from the congressman’s office comes as African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey is also sounding the alarm about the current lack of diversity in the state’s marijuana industry.
Following the vote to legalize recreational cannabis in the state, the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC) saw a flood of hundreds of applications to start marijuana businesses. Advocates had hoped that the promise of the reform—to help correct the harms of criminalization that have disproportionately impacted communities of color—would be proactively met.
“Based on conversations I’ve had, with stakeholders, out of the 56 licenses awarded to date, none has been awarded to a Black-owned business. People need to know what’s going on,” African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey President John Harmon said in a press release.
“Many Black-owned businesses have been trying to get into the cannabis industry since 2012 when cannabis for medicinal purposes became legal in New Jersey,” he said. “No Black-owned business received a license back then, and none has received a license since the legalization of cannabis for recreational use thus far.”
“The CRC needs to expedite its review and award of the licenses submitted. Minimally, the CRC must immediately score and notify applicants of their conditional status. If necessary, additional resources must be allocated to the license review process so that applicants cease to be adversely impacted financially by an unjustifiably protracted process.”
Payne said that he joins the commerce organization in “their outrage that this inequality continues to plague our state, our society, and our country.”
New Jersey isn’t the only state that has faced pushback from not efficiently meeting equity goals as legal cannabis markets launch.
Illinois, for one, has faced criticism from advocates and lawsuits from marijuana business applicants who feel officials haven’t done enough to ensure diversity among business owners in the industry.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signed a bill last year that’s meant to build upon the state’s legalization law by creating more cannabis business licensing opportunities to help people from disproportionately impacted communities enter into the marijuana industry. Regulators have since held a series of lotteries to award additional dispensary licenses, but losing companies have since filed legal challenges to the process.
Meanwhile, New York has been taken steps to ensure that equity is built into its adult-use marijuana program that was signed into law last year.
For example, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) announced this month that her administration is creating a $200 million public-private fund to specifically help promote social equity in the state’s burgeoning marijuana market.
Colorado officials recently announced that the state has achieved a “wildly important goal” of increasing diversity in the legal marijuana industry—but the data shows there’s still a way to go before cannabis business ownership is on par with the state’s population demographics.
Nearly 17 percent of the state’s cannabis businesses are now minority-owned as of January 1, the Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED) reported. Colorado had set a goal of at least 16.8 percent minority ownership in the cannabis sector by June 30, 2022, and that’s already been narrowly exceeded by the beginning of the year.
Climate Workforce Would Be Protected From Marijuana Employment Testing Under New Congressional Bill

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In another setback from Virginia psychedelics activists, a key Senate committee on Monday defeated a bill that would have decriminalized psilocybin and psilocyn in the Commonwealth.
Advocates were hopeful that the measure would pass in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which first held a hearing on the proposal earlier this month where bipartisan lawmakers voiced support and the sponsor agreed to file an amendment that would put a focus on the therapeutic application of the psychedelic.
Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D), did offer an amendment to her bill saying that psilocybin decriminalization would only apply to people who’ve consulted with a doctor, nurse, counselor or social worker—as opposed to broadly decriminalizing for people 21 and older as originally drafted. But that evidently did not earn enough support, and the members agree to pass it by indefinitely by a 8-6 vote, with one absence.
“Numerous studies have shown that psilocybin is an effective treatment for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and addiction,” Hashmi told Marijuana Moment after the vote. “I am extremely disappointed that we continue to criminalize plant medicine, and I plan to bring this bill back next year so that we can offer an additional source of treatment for suffering Virginians.”
Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment (R) had previously signaled support for the bill, and so activists were somewhat taken aback when he voted against it at Monday’s hearing.
“Decriminalize Nature is disappointed in how this played out,” Mark Miller, co-founder of Decriminalize Nature Virginia and a licensed professional counselor, told Marijuana Moment. “We represent veterans who are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and to assist them in healing from the experiences that they had overseas or wherever.”
“We owe it to our veterans and our first responders to support them any way we can, which includes medicines that have been found, beyond a shadow of a doubt, in research to be able to assist,” he said.
Miller said that the organization will continue to work to educate legislators and advance local decriminalization measures across the state in the interim before the legislature acts.

Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,000 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.


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There was a similar House bill from Del. Dawn Adams to decriminalize a wider array of psychedelics that was also amended to focus on the medical use of the substances, but members of a subcommittee approved a motion to carry the measure over until 2023 to further tweak it and build support.
Given that the House is newly controlled by Republicans, that measure’s prospects seemed somewhat slimmer than than more dialed-back Senate proposal.
Misinformation seemed to be a theme in both the House and Senate committees. Members raised concerns about whether the proposal would lead to magic mushrooms dispensaries or increased impaired driving, even though the bill would neither facilitate retail sales nor permit unlawful activity like driving under the influence.
Neither bill as drafted or amended would have legalized psychedelics for medical or recreational use; rather it would have made possession of the entheogens punishable by a $100 fine, instead of a Class 5 felony as it’s currently designated.
Any dollars collected from psychedelics possession violations would have gone to the state’s Drug Offender Assessment and Treatment Fund, which supports substance misuse treatment programs and drug courts.
At a recent virtual event organized by the reform group Decriminalize Nature Virginia, the sponsors of both bills participated as hosts, sharing their perspectives about the growing body of research indicating that psychedelics could be powerful tools to combat conditions like treatment-resistant depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Even if the legislature had approved either piece of legislation, it would likely have faced resistance from the state’s new Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, who has expressed concerns about implementing a commercial marijuana market in line with what the Democratic legislature and outgoing governor approved last year.
These psychedelics reform proposals are some of the latest to be introduced in state legislatures this session as the decriminalization movement spreads.
In Oregon, where voters approved a historic 2020 initiative to legalize therapeutic psilocybin program, as well as another to broadly decriminalize currently illicit drugs, lawmakers introduced a bill last week meant to promote equity into the program.
Two Republican Oklahoma lawmakers recently filed bills meant to promote research into the therapeutic potential of psilocybin, and one of the measures would further decriminalize low-level possession of the psychedelic.
A GOP Utah lawmaker also introduced a bill this month that would set up a task force to study and make recommendations on the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs and possible regulations for their lawful use.
In Kansas, A lawmaker also recently filed a bill to legalize the low-level possession and cultivation of psilocybin mushrooms.
A Republican Missouri lawmaker introduced a bill this month to give residents with serious illnesses legal access to a range of psychedelic drugs like psilocybin, ibogaine and LSD  through an expanded version of the state’s existing right-to-try law.
California Sen. Scott Wiener (D) told Marijuana Moment in a recent interview that his bill to legalize psychedelics possession stands a 50/50 chance of reaching the governor’s desk this year. It already cleared the full Senate and two Assembly committees during the first half of the two-year session.
In Michigan, a pair of state senators introduced a bill in September to legalize the possession, cultivation and delivery of various plant- and fungi-derived psychedelics like psilocybin and mescaline.
Washington State lawmakers also introduced legislation this month that would legalize what the bill calls “supported psilocybin experiences” by adults 21 and older.
In Vermont, a broad coalition of lawmakers representing nearly a third of the House introduced a bill to decriminalize drug possession.
New Hampshire lawmakers filed measures to decriminalize psilocybin and all drugs.
Last year, the governor of Connecticut signed legislation that includes language requiring the state to carry out a study into the therapeutic potential of psilocybin mushrooms.
At the congressional level, bipartisan lawmakers sent a letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) this month, urging that the agency allow terminally ill patients to use psilocybin as an investigational treatment without the fear of federal prosecution.
Climate Workforce Would Be Protected From Marijuana Employment Testing Under New Congressional Bill

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A coalition of more than two dozen congressional Democrats have filed bill on promoting workplace investment to combat climate change, and they want to boost the workforce nationwide by protecting people in legal marijuana states from being penalized due to federal drug testing policies.
The Climate Resilience Workforce Act, which is being led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), is a wide-ranging bill that would provide grants to support climate resilience jobs, fund existing workforce development programs and create a White House Office of Climate Resilience to facilitate climate protection work.
But another keystone of the legislation is to remove barriers to workforce entry, in part by removing federal drug testing restrictions.
For those employed in a state that has legalized marijuana, they could not be denied job training opportunities made available under the bill or denied work in climate resilience “on the basis of a federally mandated drug test that is more stringent than any drug test that is in place in the locality or State, or used by the union of such employee,” the text of the bill says.
If a state or locality does permit for testing THC metabolites despite having legalization on the books, it seems those workers or job training applications could still be subject to the more stringent federal guidelines. But for those in states like New York, which enacted rules banning such cannabis testing for most workers, they would be protected.
“The innovative Climate Resilience Workforce Act responds to the worsening climate crisis at the scale necessary by investing in a skilled workforce that is capable of not only responding to but preparing for the destructive impacts of climate change,” Jayapal, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in a press release. “As we create millions of good-paying, union jobs and center the very communities who are disproportionately impacted, we are finally building back better, greener, and stronger.”
Thirty other members of Congress have signed on as co-sponsors of the legislation. They include Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), Cori Bush (D-MO), Mondaire Jones (D-NY) Barbara Lee (D-CA), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI).
“This new bill keenly recognizes that many states, including those that are most at risk to the harms of climate change, are lightyears ahead of the federal government when it comes to worker protections and rational policy when it comes to drug testing for trace metabolic elements,” Justin Strekal, a cannabis policy veteran who recently founded Useful Strategies after leaving his job as NORML’s lobbyist, told Marijuana Moment. “As long as the Reagan-Era Executive Order to require testing remains in place, this type of congressional action is essential to moving policy in the right direction.”
Drug testing and workplace issues related to marijuana has become a hot topic as more states move to end criminalization. The conversation has reached everywhere from private industry to Congress.
For example, Amazon said last year that it was ending drug testing for cannabis, and it later said that policy will be retroactive, meaning former workers and applicants who were punished for testing positive for THC will have their employment eligibility restored. The company has also expressed support for two federal legalization bills.
Lawmakers in the Senate and House have both included language in recent appropriations reports urging a review of employment policies for federal agencies with respect to personal use of cannabis. The House version passed in July, and the Senate Democrats’ report was also released last year.
The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) recently issued a memo to federal agencies that says admitting to past marijuana use should not automatically disqualify people from being employed in the federal government.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration came under criticism last year after it was reported that it had fired or otherwise punished dozens of staffers who admitted to prior marijuana use. That came after the White House instituted a policy of granting waivers to some staff who’ve used cannabis.
Press Secretary Jen Psaki subsequently said that nobody in the White House was fired for “marijuana usage from years ago,” nor has anyone been terminated “due to casual or infrequent use during the prior 12 months.” However, she’s consistently declined to speak to the extent to which staff have been suspended or placed in a remote work program because they were honest about their history with marijuana on a federal form that’s part of the background check process.
A key U.S. House committee approved a large-scale defense bill last year that included report language voicing concern about racial disparities in military drug testing practices and ordering the Pentagon to conduct a review of the issue.
Read the text o f the marijuana testing section in the new climate bill below: 
“SEC. 503. DRUG TESTING BARRIERS.
Any person employed in a climate resilience sector who is, in the course of such employment, present in a State wherein recreational use of marihuana (as such term is defined in the Controlled Substances Act) is lawful may not be disqualified from participation in any job training program under this Act or terminated from any covered employment on the basis of a federally mandated drug test that is more stringent than any drug test that is in place in the locality or State, or used by the union of such employee.”
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