Rosenthal Reports
Where the Democrats Stand on Marijuana Legalization:  From Bernie’s Weed for All to Bloomberg’s We Need More Science

With 22 states now permitting the medical use of cannabis, and 11 states plus Washington, D.C., also having made adult-use of recreational pot lawful, the movement to legalize marijuana nationwide has clearly reached a turning point. Additional states, including New York and New Jersey, will address the issue this year as the presidential campaign unfolds. While legalization has so far been a peripheral issue—along with the opioid epidemic, which has killed more than 400,000 Americans—the wide range of proposals from the current field of Democratic candidates reflects a growing polarization between radical strategies and the go-slow approach favored by the Rosenthal Center.

In the progressive lane, Senator Bernie Sanders pledges to sign an executive order on his first day in the oval office directing the attorney general to declassify marijuana as a Schedule One drug, clearing the way for Congress to pass a bill to legalize the drug at the federal level. Next would come decriminalization and the expungement of past convictions. Senator Elizabeth Warren also wants to legalize pot, but would do so by appointing people who support legalization to lead the FDA, Department of Justice and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and proceeding from there. 

Warren and Sanders are more concerned about social and economic justice than the health and well-being of those using the drug. To compensate certain communities that have been disproportionately harmed by harsh drug policies—such as those of color—the Vermont senator promises to use marijuana tax revenue for a $20 billion grant program for “entrepreneurs of color” to start their own pot businesses and growing operations, and $10 billion for victims of the war on drugs. Meanwhile, Warren would support women- and minority-owned cannabis businesses while reducing federal funding for law enforcement in non-legal states that fail to adequately address the issue of racial inequities in marijuana arrest rates. 

Among the moderates, Joe Biden has flip-flopped from being an ardent marijuana opponent to grudgingly supporting some sort of legalization. This follows both the party’s general drift in that direction and his disavowal of previous support for criminal justice bills with tough penalties for drug offenses.   Biden would now let states set their own policies on legalization while enabling more research to better understand the drug’s impact.

For his part, Mike Bloomberg has also “evolved” on legalization, from once calling it “the stupidest thing anyone has ever done,” to backing decriminalization for low-level offenders, expunging criminal records, and allowing legal states to remain so. Most importantly, Bloomberg is rightly concerned about the effect of pot on teenagers, stating during the South Carolina debate, “it’s just nonsensical to push ahead [with legalization] until we know the science.”

And what if President Trump gets re-elected? In 2016, he said legalization should be left up to the states. But now there are suggestions Trump might take a stronger anti-pot stance to counter the more liberal Democratic proposals, depending of course on whom his opposing candidate might be.

This leadership uncertainty among likely candidates comes as the pro-pot lobby is intensifying its efforts in many states at the same time parent and neighborhood groups are making clear their desire to keep pot out of their communities. The most reasonable approach therefore would be to seek consensus across party lines, acknowledging the reality that marijuana does in fact pose a risk to many individuals, especially young people. And as legalization invariably moves ahead—in one form or another—to protect children by, at the very least, implementing strict and regulations on how, where and to whom pot products are sold.

5th March 2020
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Rosenthal Reports

The United States of Marijuana—What to Expect in the Year Ahead

Illinois rang in the new year by legalizing the sale of recreational marijuana. Long lines formed at dispensaries, and government officials began counting all the increased tax revenue from first-day sales that topped $3.2 million. Unlike most of the other states to legalize marijuana, which did so via referendum, Illinois took legislative action. The victory, along with consumer demand and overwhelming popular support, signals the likelihood that more states will loosen their laws or fully legalize pot in 2020—that is, unless more reasonable voices prevail.

The debate in New York State, which centers less on the well-documented potential health hazards and more on how to divvy up the spoils, illustrates the tactics guiding marijuana legalization. After failing last year to pass legislation approving adult-use recreational marijuana, Governor Cuomo is winning over lawmakers by addressing hot-button issues. One is social and economic justice for communities disproportionately penalized by past drug laws. The other is a commitment to spend tax revenue on the “social good”—ironically, for drug treatment and prevention programs—as well as educating people about the risks posed by marijuana.

Let’s consider each of these arguments. Certain communities, such as those of color, have indeed been unduly hurt by harsh drug policies. But ensuring low-income and minority entrepreneurs get a share of the soon-to-boom pot market will not “repair the damages…from the war on drugs,” as Cuomo’s new “Weed Czar,” Norman Birenbaum, has claimed. Rather, it would likely bring more drugs and despair to those communities, whether they are inner city or in rural areas upstate. 

Recycling tax revenues from pot sales to treat drug addiction is also a flawed concept. While the lure of tax dollars animates support for legalization among government officials and politicians—including most of the Democratic presidential field—many states that legalized have so far failed to reap the expected tax windfall. Moreover, any additional revenues would no doubt be needed to pay for a host of increased costs—including drug treatment and law enforcement—related to a spike in cannabis use.

In addition, this false argument provides cover for the government’s current failure to adequately fund drug treatment. With the opioid epidemic still raging, and meth and cocaine use on the rise, there is no time to wait for tax money from weed sales to ensure treatment is available for people struggling with substance abuse. 

Still, there is some hope for a more sensible approach that focuses on regulation. Birenbaum, himself, has said as much, noting marijuana-related products should not be “marketed or distributed to the most vulnerable members of our community, particularly children.” Cuomo also indicated that new legislation would, as before, include an opt-out clause for counties that don’t want pot stores.

While marijuana possession should be decriminalized, there must be a regulatory structure in place to control how, where and to whom products are sold. In addition, the FDA needs to crack down on vaping devices that contain marijuana, as well as fraudulent claims for the marijuana derivative CBD. Ideally, imposing a national moratorium on further legalization would provide sufficient time to study its impact so far. But given the current political climate and powerful pot lobby, that is unlikely to happen.

5th February 2020
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Rosenthal Reports
The Year in Review: 2019

The year began with a glimmer of hope for some progress combating the opioid epidemic, arguably our nation’s worst public health crisis. Thousands of lawsuits against the opioid industry were set to go to court with potentially large financial settlements ultimately being used to expand drug programs. There were also a number of innovative initiatives, launched by cities and states that were starting to reduce overdose deaths.

But as 2019 came to a close, the overall picture remains grim: Overdose fatalities nationally are expected to reach a near-record level, and settlement talks for the massive opioid litigation have stalled. This year has also seen an outbreak of mysterious vaping-related illnesses, which appear to be linked to marijuana use in illicit e-cigarettes and other vaping devices. In addition, the vaping crisis brought to light widespread teen nicotine use spurred by easier access to these products and their relentless promotion by the intertwined tobacco and vaping industries.

Despite these setbacks, I remain cautiously optimistic our efforts to address these issues—through the Center’s social media platforms, new podcasts and videos, publications and public outreach—will find broader support, and resonate with politicians and policymakers.

A Wall Street Journal editorial in December, for example, called for a pause in marijuana legalization in order to better ascertain the medical and social risks associated with increased use of the drug. This echoes our proposal, published in an Op-Ed in The Hill, for a two-year moratorium on further legalization—a stance that provoked a strong response from both sides of the marijuana debate.

It was also encouraging that, even as pot legalization seemed unstoppable, New York and New Jersey backed away from such legislation. At the same time, a growing number of communities in states with legal weed have protected their neighborhoods by exercising their right to opt out of sanctioning commercial pot shops. This came on the heels of numerous studies highlighting the dangers of increased marijuana use, especially for young people, and the vaping illness epidemic that has so far killed 54 and hospitalized more than 2,500.

Less encouraging is the Government response to the vaping crisis. Although some cities and states have imposed strict regulations on the flavored e-cigarettes that are so popular with teenagers, the Trump administration caved to industry demands and is likely to modify an initial sweeping countywide ban—leaving the measure weakened as more individuals become sick and die. We continue to press for strong leadership to contain e-cigarette use and teen vaping.

Leadership has likewise been lacking when it comes to opioids. With nearly 70,000 Americans expected to die in 2019 from drug overdose—mostly opioid-related—it is troubling that the crisis has received little attention from the Democratic presidential candidates—not to mention President Trump himself. The Rosenthal Center believes the opioid epidemic must be a policy priority; our proposal for $100 billion in government funding over the next decade is a suitable starting point if we hope to reduce overdose deaths and bolster addiction-treatment services.

Adequate support is more critical than ever because we cannot wait for a possible windfall from the opioid litigation. A substantial settlement, with ironclad guarantees the money will be directed exclusively to addiction services, would be appropriate. But efforts to reach a settlement with the companies that flooded the market with 76 billion prescription-painkiller pills between 2006 and 2012 have bogged down in conflict and infighting while the epidemic rages virtually unabated.

As always, the Rosenthal Center is concerned with the care of adolescents and other vulnerable individuals struggling with addiction. The reason for this was made quite clear to me when I visited young people at the Outreach facility on Long Island. What those teens, ages 14 to 17, told us about their experiences vaping the powerful marijuana component THC—often starting in middle school—is hard evidence the nation is facing a new and formidable drug problem that threatens to ensnare the next generation.

We have the knowledge, resources and determination to confront and overcome these challenges. Looking ahead to 2020, the Rosenthal Center will continue to advocate policies to help those seeking treatment to rebuild their lives without drugs. To achieve success, strong leadership is required at every level of government—city, state and federal—as well as the participation of the private sector to establish a comprehensive nationwide anti-drug effort.

7th January 2020
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