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Oregon Votes to Decriminalize Hard Drugs, Five Other States Legalize Marijuana

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  • Voters in Oregon have passed a measure that decriminalizes, but does not legalize, the possession of small amounts of hard drugs.
  • Instead of arrests or prison time, the measure shifts the focus to $100 fines and addiction treatment, with taxes from marijuana sales now helping to fund treatment programs and facilities.
  • Oregon has also legalized psychedelic mushrooms, while the District of Columbia has decriminalized them. 
  • New Jersey, Montana, and Arizona have all voted to legalize recreational marijuana. Mississippi voted to legalize medical marijuana while South Dakota voted to legalize both forms.

Oregon Decriminalizes All Hard Drugs

Oregon has become the first state in the country to decriminalize all drugs, following overwhelming support from voters on a ballot initiative known as Measure 110.

The passing of the measure does not mean hard drugs are now legal in Oregon. Instead, it means that if an individual in Oregon is caught with a small amount of a drug in their possession — for example, heroin, cocaine, meth, oxycontin, etc. — they will face much less severe consequences than arrests and prison time. 

The measure will institute fines of $100 for each violation — similar to low-level traffic violations. Very notably, it will also shift focus to helping people receive addiction treatment. For instance, in addition to that $100 fine, people found in possession of hard drugs will be screened for drug addiction.

The measure also makes it so that tax from marijuana sales, which have been legal in the state since 2015, will help fund addiction treatment programs and facilities.

“This is the most significant reform in our nation’s failed drug policies in a generation,” said Kassandra Frederique, the executive director of Drug Policy Alliance, which spent more than $4 million backing Measure 110. 

What the Oregon initiative represents is the ability to prioritize giving our loved ones the help, the resources that they need, and shunning criminalization. It removes the barriers to treatment and harm reduction and other health services.”

Opponents argued that even if this measure does not legalize hard drugs, decriminalization still normalizes drugs that can lead to deadly addiction. Still, advocates have argued that placing an emphasis on treatment — as opposed to punishment through the legal system — will lead to more effective addiction recovery. 

While people in possession of small amounts of hard drugs won’t face misdemeanors, people with larger amounts could. In fact, if officials deem that a person is in possession of what they consider a commercial amount of a drug, that person could still face felony charges. 

Other Drug Measures Pass Across the U.S. 

Among other drug-related measures that passed, Oregon legalized psilocybin mushrooms, also known as psychedelic mushrooms or shrooms.

The District of Columbia also voted to decriminalize them. Both campaigns focused on pushing psychedelic mushrooms as treatments for medical issues such as depression, trauma, and anxiety.

Meanwhile, New Jersey, Arizona, Montana, and South Dakota all legalized recreational marijuana. In the South, Mississippi legalized a medical marijuana program that must be up and running by August 2021. South Dakota legalized both recreational and medical marijuana.

As of now, 15 states and D.C. have legalized marijuana for recreational use.

Both measures in Arizona and Montana were coupled with a clause that allows people who were previously convicted of marijuana crimes in the state — including felonies for possession — to be able to seek to have those convictions expunged by the courts. 

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (AZ Central) (The New York Times)

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NY Gov. Cuomo Aides Reportedly Altered Nursing Home Death Toll Data

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  • Aides to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) altered a July report from the state’s Department of Health to cover up the extent of COVID-related deaths in nursing homes, according to Thursday reports from The New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
  • Last month, Cuomo admitted that his administration withheld death toll data in order to prevent a possible federal misconduct investigation. 
  • However, the new reports claim Cuomo’s staffers attempted to conceal the true numbers earlier than previously known by directly altering the DOH’s report to exclude nursing home residents who died in outside facilities.  
  • The DOH then used the incomplete number to claim New York had lower nursing home deaths than other states that included out-of-facility deaths when in reality their figures were much higher than everywhere else in the country.

New York Nursing Home Scandal Escalates

Advisers to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) allegedly re-wrote a report from health officials to conceal the number of COVID-related deaths in the state’s nursing homes, according to new reports published by The New York Times and Wall Street Journal Thursday.

Both Democrats and Republicans accused the Cuomo administration of intentionally withholding the full toll last month after his top aide, Melissa DeRosa, apologized to state legislators for refusing to provide data they requested in August. DeRosa explained that they had sidelined the request in order to prevent a possible misconduct investigation that stemmed from a similar inquiry by the Department of Justice.

Legislators and the DOJ had asked for the data after the state’s Health Department published a report in July detailing the impact of a controversial nursing home policy Cuomo had enacted at the beginning of the pandemic in March.

The policy, which Cuomo later rescinded in May, prohibited nursing homes from refusing to re-admit residents or admit new residents from hospitals solely on the basis that they had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

The directive was aimed at keeping hospital admittance low and mirrored similar actions other states had taken at the time, but many nursing home operators and legislators claimed the move had encouraged the spread of the virus amongst one of the most vulnerable populations.

The Health Department’s July report, however, found the policy was not to blame. Additionally, the agency also said the 6,432 nursing home residents that had died was lower than figures in other northeastern states when measured as a percentage of the population.

Lawmakers requested to see the data behind the report, and suspicions arose when the Cuomo administration refused to provide the information, launching a nearly six-month battle.

State Attorney General Report 

Then at the end of January, New York Attorney General Letitia James (D)  published a report claiming the administration had undercounted the nursing home deaths by the thousands, and that Cuomo’s March directive may have been responsible for higher deaths.

The Health Department’s report, James said, had left out residents who had died of COVID in outside facilities such as hospitals, but still claimed New York’s tolls were lower than other states that had counted residents who died in other places.

Shortly after James’ report, the department publicized more than 3,800 unreported deaths of nursing home residents who had died of COVID-19 in hospitals.

Cuomo refused to address the controversy for weeks, only speaking out after DeRosa’s comments leaked. During a press conference on Feb. 15, he took responsibility for not fulfilling the request for data sooner, but insisted that the nursing home deaths had always been reported correctly and transparently, arguing the difference was just a matter of “categorization.”

What the New Reports Reveal

Both Cuomo and DeRosa have maintained that they withheld the data from legislators out of concern that the Trump administration would politicize the DOJ inquiry.

However, the new reports from The Times and WSJ allege that Cuomo and his aides had actually started hiding the true numbers months earlier and directly altered the Health Department’s July report.

According to a draft of the Health Department’s July report seen by the outlets and at least half a dozen people with direct knowledge, the initial version of the report contained a chart that put the nursing home death toll at 9,250 — 50% higher than the figure that was later included in the final version.

The chart also compared the full total including residents who died in hospitals to the same totals in other states, revealing that New York’s deaths far surpassed that of all others. At the time, the state with the next-highest nursing home deaths was New Jersey with 6,150.

According to The Times, the report was rewritten by three of Cuomo’s top staffers to remove the encompassing figures, including DeRosa. None of the officials had any public health expertise. The move reportedly set off a battle with health officials working on the report and further exacerbated the already tense relationship between Cuomo and his Health Department, which eventually prompted nine top officials to leave in February.  

The governor’s office responded to the reporters in a statement Thursday night from Special Counsel Beth Garvey, who said the out-of-facility data was omitted because the Health Department “could not confirm it had been adequately verified.” 

Gary Holmes, a spokesman for the Health Department, also told reporters the agency “was comfortable with the final report and believes fully in its conclusion that the primary driver that introduced Covid into the nursing homes was brought in by staff.”

The new allegations, however, come as Cuomo is already facing mounting political pressure and calls to resign over the nursing home scandal as well as recent accusations of sexual misconduct by three women, including two former employees.

After the third woman came forward, Cuomo apologized on Wednesday for the “pain” he caused, but rejected calls for his resignation. The FBI has opened an inquiry into the nursing home scandal, and the sexual harassment allegations will soon be investigated by state Attorney General James’ office.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Wall Street Journal) (The Guardian)

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House Passes Landmark Elections Bill To Expand Voting Rights

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  • House Democrats passed the For the People Act on Wednesday, a broad voting rights bill that aims to enhance voting rights.
  • Among other measures, the legislation would mandate automatic voter registration, expand early and mail-in voting, restore voting rights to former felons, and impose new disclosure requirements for campaign donations and political advertising.
  • Democrats say the act is necessary to ensure American’s right to vote, especially as state legislatures have proposed dozens of bills that would roll back voting access and consolidate GOP power.
  • Republicans have argued that states, not the federal government, should decide how elections are run and claimed the new bill would lead to fraud that helps liberal candidates. 

House Approves For the People Act

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a sweeping elections bill Wednesday that aims to significantly expand federal voting rights all over the country.

The bill, called the For the People Act, was proposed by Democrats and passed 220 to 210 almost entirely along party lines. According to reports, if signed into law, it would be the most comprehensive enhancement of federal protections since the 1960s.

The bill contains a wide variety of provisions, but the most significant fall into two broader categories: creating uniform standards for voting and increasing financial transparency.

Regarding the voting rights standards, among other things, the bill would:

  • Weaken restrictive state voter ID laws.
  • Mandate that state governments use existing records to automatically register voters.
  • Guarantee no-excuse mail voting and at least 15 days of early voting for all federal elections.
  • Make it harder to purge voter rolls.
  • Restore voting rights to former felons.
  • End partisan gerrymandering by requiring states to appoint independent commissions to draw congressional districts.

As for what the bill aims to do regarding expanding transparency, it would:

  • Impose new disclosure requirements for “dark money” donations used to finance campaigns.
  • Create a public financing option for congressional campaigns.
  • Require presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns.
  • Require tech platforms to disclose political advertising information.

Arguments For And Against

Democrats have argued that this legislation is essential to protecting and ensuring the right to vote. 

The task, they say, is especially important now because Republican-controlled state legislatures have proposed dozens of bills that would roll back voting access as a reaction to former President Donald Trump’s loss and efforts to undermine the election. Many Republicans have used Trump’s false claims about voter fraud to promote their legislation.

Democrats have said these bills are a very transparent attempt by Republicans to consolidate their power because they know they benefit from lower voter turnout, and thus their strategy to win more races is just simply to make voting harder. As a result, Democrats have said the For the People Act is key to combatting these bills

“Everything is at stake,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) said Wednesday. “We must win this race, this fight.”

Republicans, for their part, have argued that states, not the federal government, should make changes to how elections are run, and that the legislation would lead to fraud that benefits Democrats. 

“House Democrats do not get to take their razor-thin majority — which voters just shrunk — and use it to steamroll states and localities to try and prevent themselves from losing even more seats next time,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in response to the bill’s passage.

However, many have disputed that claim by noting that there is no evidence of widespread fraud that helped Democrats in the last election. By contrast, there are years of evidence that Republicans do benefit from making it harder for people to vote and gerrymandering districts, a fact that McConnell himself seemed to acknowledge by implying that Democrats win more when voting rights are expanded.

Despite Republican objections, recent polls have found that most Americans support having more voter protections. According to a January survey by Data for Progress, 67% of Americans back the For the People Act, including a majority of Republicans.

Still, the legislation is all but doomed in the Senate, which struck down an almost identical version passed by the House in 2019. While Democrats technically have a majority now, the current 50-50 split will require a minimum of 10 Republicans to join forces with all 50 Democrats to avoid the 60-vote legislative filibuster.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Washington Post) (The Associated Press)

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Texas Governor Will Reopen State “100%” and End Mask Mandate Against Expert Advice

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  • Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Tuesday that he was opening the state “100%” and ending the mask mandate starting March 10, against health guidance from federal officials.
  • Abbott justified his decision by noting that nearly 6 million Texans have been vaccinated and hospitalizations are down in the state.
  • Experts, however, pointed out that less than 2 million of the state’s 29 million residents are fully inoculated, and the CDC currently ranks Texas 48th for vaccination rates out of all 50 states.
  • On Tuesday alone, governors in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Michigan as well as local leaders in Chicago and San Francisco also announced plans to ease COVID-19 restrictions.

Abbott Announces Major COVID Policy Changes

Starting March 10, Texas will no longer have a state-wide mask mandate or any coronavirus-related restrictions on businesses and facilities, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) announced Tuesday.

The move represents the most expansive reopening of any state and makes Texas the largest state to lift its public masking requirement. However, it also goes entirely against the recommendation of the nation’s top experts.

During a press conference Monday, Rochelle Walensky, the director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned leaders against rolling back restrictions. She cited the fact that the recent nation-wide decline in cases has been stalling and that there has been community spread of the new variants  — three of which have been found in Texas, saying:

“With these new statistics, I am really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from COVID-19,” she said.

“Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained. These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress,” she continued.

“Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of covid-19 in our communities, not when we are so close.” 

Conditions in Texas

While cases have been declining in Texas, like most of the country, there is still a lot of data that makes Abbott’s decision especially concerning.

According to The New York Times tracker, Texas still ranks within the top ten states with the highest weekly cases per capita, reporting a weekly average of just over 7,200. Texas also has more hot-spot counties than any other state, according to Business Insider’s analysis of the Times data, which found that 10 counties have reported more than 100 cases per 100,000 residents on average over the last week. 

Notably, that number could be skewed because of the massive drop in the testing due to a recent storm that left millions without power and clean water. In fact, experts have warned that Texas could see more COVID cases in the fallout of the storm because people were forced to shelter together.

Abbott, however, did not focus on any of that in his announcement. Instead, he cited other metrics, noting that nearly 5.7 Texans have been vaccinated. He also pointed to declines in hospitalizations.

But both of these justifications are misleading. While it is true that Texas has vaccinated close to 6 million people, according to the CDC, less than 2 million out of 29 million state residents have received both doses needed to be considered fully inoculated. 

Beyond that, the CDC’s latest vaccination report ranks Texas 48th in vaccination rates out of all 50 states. Part of that is tied to the lag the state faced because of the storm, but experts still say this just proves that the state needs to be focus on catching up and vaccinating more people instead of rolling back restrictions.

To that point, public health officials have also pushed back against Abbott’s use of declining hospitalization rates as a rationale for his reopening plans. They warned that current hospitalization declines are already slowing and could reverse, and that will only get worse with reopenings.

Other States Reopen

Texas, however, is not the only state that has rolled back restrictions lately, or even just in the past 24 hours.

On Tuesday alone, the governors of Louisiana and Michigan as well as the mayors of Chicago and San Francisco all announced that they would be easing some restrictions on businesses and/or the capacity at which they operate.

Right after Abbott’s announcement, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) made a nearly identical one with an even shorter timeline. In a tweet, he said that starting Wednesday, he would lift all county mask mandates and allow businesses to “operate at full capacity without any state-imposed rules.”

The recent easing of restrictions is part of a broader trend — and not just in states that have Republican governors or large conservative populations.

While California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) slammed Abbott’s move as “absolutely reckless,” he has also been widely condemned by leaders in his state for recently rolling back numerous restrictions.

Over the last few weeks, the Democratic governors of Virginia, North Carolina, and New York have all also lifted or otherwise modified regulations to make them less restrictive. 

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Dallas Morning News) (Business Insider)

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