New York state cannabis regulators and Gov. Kathy Hochul on Thursday released new proposed regulations designed to give business owners with prior cannabis convictions a first crack at the Empire State's incoming adult-use market.
The state's so-called Seeding Opportunity Initiative is a multipronged effort to fulfill one of the promises of New York's adult-use legalization law, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, or MRTA, to ensure participation opportunities for those most affected by prohibition.
"New York State is making history, launching a first-of-its-kind approach to the cannabis industry that takes a major step forward in righting the wrongs of the past," Hochul said in a statement. "The regulations advanced by the Cannabis Control Board today will prioritize local farmers and entrepreneurs, creating jobs and opportunity for communities that have been left out and left behind."
At its monthly public meeting Thursday, the CCB announced the release of draft regulations that would allow those with a pre-legalization cannabis-related offense, or a family member or spouse of someone with such an offense, to apply for a conditional retailer license. Applicants must also have had a 10% interest in a New York-based business that had a net profit for two years, according to the draft rules, which will undergo a period of public comment.
The agency said that it aims to begin processing applications for this first round of licenses this summer and distribute them by autumn, with an eye to beginning the first regulated adult-use marijuana sales by the end of the year.
New York state Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, a sponsor of the MRTA said Thursday that her bill "was designed not only to end the failed war on drugs in New York, but specifically to take positive action to help rebuild those communities that were most harmed by prohibition."
"Offering the first retail licenses to people who have been convicted of marijuana-related offenses is a big step in the right direction, and will set the marketplace on a path where social equity applicants can compete successfully," she added.
The board also announced that it would begin receiving applications on March 15 from licensed New York hemp farmers to begin growing cannabis to ensure that product will be ready for stores to sell. The application portal for farmers will remain open until the end of June.
Chris Alexander, the executive director of the New York Office of Cannabis Management, said in a statement, "With the Seeding Opportunity Initiative, we are now on the path to doing what no state has done before: Put our farmers and equity entrepreneurs, not big, out-of-state businesses, at the forefront of the launch of our adult-use cannabis market."
Under the MRTA, New York is aiming for half its adult-use cannabis businesses to be owned by minorities, women and others disproportionately affected by prohibition. Hochul pledged as part of her State of the State proposal to commit $200 million in public and private funds to support social equity applicants seeking to build their recreational pot businesses.
The fund will be administered in partnership with the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York, a public benefit corporation that helps build out not-for-profit entities in the state. The Office of Cannabis Management said in January it expects $50 million of the money to come from fees and taxes and the remaining $150 million from private investors
Reuben McDaniel III, a member of the Cannabis Control Board and president and CEO of the Dormitory Authority, said in a statement that the agencies would continue to work with the state legislature to "develop the funding mechanism" that will support the fund.
"Our work to create the new cannabis industry in New York is structured to develop successful entrepreneurs in black and brown communities across New York, expand access to capital for those who have been denied, and establish a cannabis industry that leads the nation in health and safety, and in equity, as well," he said.
Iowa Again Loses Legal Fight To Save 'Ag Gag' Law
An Iowa federal judge on Monday ruled that a state law aimed at preventing animal rights activists from filming farming practices violates the First Amendment's free speech protections.
The law, which forbids the use of "deception" to either gain access to an agricultural facility or gain employment at one, runs afoul of the Constitution because it discriminates against a particular viewpoint as opposed to targeting a general subject matter, Chief U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose said in an order granting the Animal Legal Defense Fund's motion for summary judgment.
Judge Rose, of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, asked the animal welfare group and its co-plaintiffs to tell her exactly what they want the scope of an injunction she might issue to be.
Iowa's Republican governor, Kimberly Reynolds, signed what the plaintiffs call the "ag gag" bill into law in 2019. The law replaces an earlier version that was found in previous litigation also to violate the First Amendment, although the Eighth Circuit partially restored it. But the latest version didn't cure the defects of the first, Judge Rose said.
The judge rejected the state's argument that the plaintiffs, in their lawsuit challenging the new version of the law, cherry-picked comments from Iowa legislators and ignored others that would have shown that the law was more about the need to "protect private property and biosecurity at agricultural facilities."
The law "does not prohibit all deceptive trespassers, it only imposes liability based on the 'intent' of the trespasser," Judge Rose said. "A trespasser intending no harm, or intending to 'laud' a facility, is not punished. But a trespasser intending 'to cause physical or economic harm' can be punished. In other words, the statute considers the viewpoint of the trespasser when deciding whether to criminalize the conduct in question through its intent requirement."
She said this violates the U.S. Supreme Court's 1992 holding in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, which established that certain categories of unprotected speech may be regulated, but only under specific conditions, and that regulation that discriminates against particular viewpoints is not permissible.
The judge said the government can certainly protect an individual's private property rights, including their "right to exclude."
"However, the intent element of [the law] does not concern the same legally cognizable harm caused by trespass recognized by the Eighth Circuit," Judge Rose said. "The state of Iowa may not single out individuals for special punishment based on their critical viewpoint of agricultural practices, which they have sought to do" with the law.
Ashlee Kieler, a spokeswoman for Iowa Attorney General Thomas Miller, on Tuesday said his office was reviewing the ruling and determining its next steps.
Stephen Wells, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, praised the ruling on Tuesday.
"It is incomprehensible that Iowa legislators continue to waste Iowans' taxpayer dollars to pass and defend unconstitutional laws that suppress free speech simply to protect their own financial interests," Wells said in a statement. "We hope this ruling sends a clear message that the Iowa legislature should cease its efforts to pass unconstitutional 'ag gag' laws."
The Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the other animal welfare groups are represented by Matthew Stuart of the Law Office of Matthew Strugar, Rita Bettis Austen of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa Foundation, Cristina Stella of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Alan Chen and Justin Marceau of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and David S. Muraskin of Public Justice PC.
Iowa is represented by Attorney General Thomas J. Miller, Jeffrey S. Thompson and Jacob J. Larson of the Iowa Attorney General's Office.
The case is Animal Legal Defense Fund et al. v. Kimberly K. Reynolds et al., number 4:19-cv-00124 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa.
Uneven access to healthcare and effective drug treatment has put African Americans at higher risk of dying from opioid abuse than whites, reports the Wall Street Journal.
The proliferation of fentanyl, along with added hazards for drug users due to the pandemic, has hit Black communities especially hard, resulting in a rate of drug deaths among Black people through 2020 that eclipsed the rate in the white population for the first time since 1999.
There were more than 15,200 overdoses among Black people in 2020, more than double the number from four years earlier, according to data published by UCLA researchers.
The toll represents nearly 37 drug overdose deaths per 100,000 Black people that year, trailing only the death rate in the significantly smaller American Indian or Alaska Native population.
The findings demonstrate the need to close gaps in access to treatment and harm-reduction services, which are meant to make drug use less risky, among other steps, and the researchers said ending routine incarceration of drug users could help prevent fatal overdoses among people after they leave prison.
Illicit Fentanyl, made by Mexican cartels and smuggled into the U.S., was a major driver when drug overdose deaths jumped roughly 30 percent to about 92,000 in 2020. There were an estimated 104,288 overdose deaths in the 12-month period running through September, 2021.
The ex-nurse had already been investigated by Oregon authorities over allegations of sexual misconduct.
A former nurse at Oregon’s single women’s prison has been indicted for sexually assaulting a dozen women while they were incarcerated, according to a Department of Justice indictment unsealed Monday.
The nurse, Tony Daniel Klein, is facing 21 counts of “depriving the victims of their constitutional right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment by sexually assaulting them.” In the indictment, Klein stands accused of sexually assaulting the women on multiple occasions in 2016 and 2017.
He’s also facing four counts of perjury, in connection to a 2019 deposition for a lawsuit that accused Klein of sexual misconduct.
Klein has turned himself in to the FBI and pleaded not guilty to all of the counts, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported Monday. If he’s convicted, Klein could spend the rest of his life in prison.
These accusations didn’t come out of nowhere: Oregon police, the Oregon Department of Corrections, Oregon’s nursing board, and the Washington County District Attorney’s Office have all investigated allegations of sexual misconduct made against Klein, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. In 2020, Oregon paid out $1.7 million to settle civil lawsuits brought by 10 women who said the state failed to keep them safe from Klein. No one admitted fault in the settlement.
The U.S. incarceration system is rife with sexual assault. In 2018, prison officials recorded nearly 28,000 allegations of sexual victimization in adult correctional facilities, according to a survey released by the Department of Justice in June 2021. There were almost 6,000 allegations of “staff sexual misconduct” and roughly 4,600 allegations of “staff sexual harassment” in such facilities in 2018.Women, in particular, report being victims of sexual violence while behind bars. Between 2009 and 2011, women made up just about 13 percent of people held in local jails, according to another Justice Department report. However, they accounted for 67 percent of the victims of staff-on-inmate sexual victimization, and 27 percent of the victims of inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization, that same report found. Women in jail also report experiencing staggering amounts of violence in their life: 86 percent say they’ve experienced sexual violence at some point in their lifetime, the Vera Institute of Justice reported in 2016.
In a 2017-2018 survey of women incarcerated at the prison where Klein worked, 66 women responded to questions about their histories of trauma. Approximately 75 percent said they had been sexually abused as children or teenagers, while about 55 percent said they’d been sexually abused as adults.
Corrections Department Director Colette S. Peters said that the indictment against Klein “shows that the voices of women in custody are heard and taken seriously.”
“DOC has zero tolerance for sexual violence against the people in our care and allegations will not be swept under the rug or ignored regardless of whether the person accused is no longer employed by our Department,” she said in a statement reported by NBC News. “Now the federal criminal justice system can rightly deal with these serious allegations.”
A new national survey conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law found that one in five U.S. local election officials say they are somewhat or very unlikely to stay in their jobs through the 2024 contest, citing concerns about threats and political pressure fueled by baseless allegations of voter fraud in the last presidential race, reports Reuters.
More than 900 threatening and hostile messages have been sent to election administrators and staff in 17 states, almost all alluding to former President Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election.
About one in six election officials reported in the poll that they have been threatened personally, and more than half those cases were not reported to law enforcement. Nearly a third of the respondents said they feel their local government could do more to support them; more than 75 percent said the federal government should do more to support them; and more than three-fourths say social media companies have not done enough to stop the spread of false election information.
Among the 20 percent of officials who said they are “somewhat unlikely” or “very unlikely” to remain in their posts through the next presidential election, about a third said a key factor in their decision is that “too many political leaders are attacking a system that they know is fair and honest.”
An Idaho bill that would have criminalized a parent’s decision to allow their transgender child to receive gender-affirming medical treatment has died at the hands of the state Senate’s Republican conference after a national outcry.
In a statement late Tuesday, Idaho Senate Republicans said they oppose gender reassignment surgery for minors but that the bill interferes with a parent’s right to make medical decisions for their own children.
“We believe in parents’ rights and that the best decisions regarding medical treatment options for children are made by parents, with the benefit of their physician’s advice and expertise,” the senators said in a statement.
Idaho became the second state hoping to criminalize transgender procedures after its House of Representatives passed a bill that would criminalize gender-affirming medical procedures for transgender youth, including vasectomy, hysterectomy, mastectomy, puberty-blocking medication and supraphysiological doses of testosterone or estrogen, and make it a felony punishable by life imprisonment for anyone who helps a child travel across state lines to gender-affirming healthcare, reports The Guardian.
A law passed by Texas legislators has been temporarily blocked by an Austin court after a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and Lambda Legal on behalf of the parents of a transgender teenager who was being investigated for abuse by the Department of Family and Protective Services.
Meanwhile, the Davis Vanguard reports that a bipartisan group of 93 criminal justice leaders from around the nation filed an amicus brief in the 353rd District Court of Texas in Jane Doe v. Greg Abbott, supporting efforts to block the State of Texas’s own recent efforts, which many consider the catalyst for the attempted passage of similar bills like those in Idaho and Florida, to prosecute parents who seek gender-affirming care for their transgender children. The signatories argue that Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s directive to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) will result in grave harm to already vulnerable young people.
Idaho’s house of representatives has passed a bill that would criminalize gender-affirming medical procedures for transgender youth, including vasectomy, hysterectomy,
State representative Bruce Skaug, the Idaho bill’s lead sponsor, said that the bill was “about protecting children,” comparing gender-affirming treatments to minors drinking alcohol and getting tattoos.
Civil rights and LGBTQ+ advocacy campaigns condemned the proposed bill. “Bills like HB 675 are being pushed across the country by well-funded, national, anti-trans groups to mobilize their political base,” Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said.
“These bills do nothing to invest and protect Idaho youth and families and Idahoans deserve better.”
According to a 2019 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost 2 percent of high school students identified as trans, and 35 percent had attempted suicide in the previous year. The bill will now move on to the state’s Republican-controlled senate. If approved, the Republican governor, Brad Little, could either sign it into law or veto it.
The bipartisan movement to overhaul criminal justice has stalled in many state legislatures as politicians take cover from an increasingly polarized political climate, speakers told a recent panel.
“Advocates seeking to reimagine the criminal legal system find themselves in a defensive mode, as they try to protect recent gains―we’re really in a very partisan moment,” said Rebecca Brown, director of policy for the Innocence Project.
“We’re seeing these dynamics play out in statehouse after statehouse.”
Brown blamed the surge in violent crime combined with divisive political rhetoric for the chill in support for criminal justice reform.
Citing one example, Brown said a law passed in Virginia last year making police disciplinary files publicly available “has a good chance of being repealed” after an election that brought to power a legislature dominated by tough-on-crime Republicans.
But Brown, a former policy analyst for the New York City Mayor’s Office, added that the dampening of enthusiasm for reform this year didn’t diminish the “amazing” achievements in states around the nation over the past two years.
She was echoed by legislators appearing at the panel organized by the 17th annual Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America.
“We knew 2022 was going to be a difficult year to pass any reforms or to reimagine public safety,” said Robert Peters, chair of the Public Safety Committee in the Illinois Senate.
“[So] we spent all of last year basically running 100 miles an hour to get whatever we can get done to create the type of change that we needed, and in Illinois the last 16 months were absolutely historic for criminal justice reform.”
Sen. Peters pointed to passage of the revised Illinois Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today (SAFE-T) Act, an omnibus bill which included measures to end cash bail, reform sentencing guidelines and make it illegal for police to lie in order to extract confessions from juveniles.
Similarly, Tenisha Yancey, now serves on the judiciary committee of the Michigan state legislature, says her state’s passage of a major criminal justice overhaul, was a product of bipartisan agreement.
The package of 20 reform bills overhauled every aspect of the state’s criminal justice system, according to an assessment by the Pew Public Safety Performance Project.
It included measures to reduce or eliminate the use of jail for many non-violent offenses, including retail fraud or driving without a license, or driving on a suspended license. It also curbed the implementation of jail for “technical” violations of probation, and made it easier to expunge criminal records.
The point of the reforms, said Yancey, was to move the system towards implementing incarceration as a rehabilitative rather than a punitive strategy that criminalized behavior that posed no threat to public safety.
“The measures we passed helped Michigan families stay together,” she said, arguing that imprisoning people for low-level minor offenses meant they would their jobs and their ability to provide for their family.
The measures also eliminated a major driver of racial bias in Michigan, she said.
“Driving without a valid driver’s license was the most common charge in at jail admission for Black residents in our state,” she said.
The speakers said the list of similar achievements across the country represented an encouraging hedge against the backlash by hardliners.
Four states—California, Maine, Virginia and Maryland—passed legislation requiring that criminal justice bills in the future contain a “racial impact” statement to ensure that they did not aggravate racial inequities or bias.
Connecticut, New York and Washington State expanded voting rights for returning citizens.
Eight states―Alaska, Connecticut, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Utah―adopted legislation to remove youth charged as adults from jails and prisons to comply with the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. Kentucky lawmakers passed a law to end the automatic transfer of youth into adult court.
And in one of the most significant pieces of legislation, New Mexico in April became the first state to abolish qualified immunity for all government employees. (Colorado passed a similar bill the year before which just applied to law enforcement.)
The New Mexico Civil Rights Act was heatedly opposed by police agencies and county and municipal governments across the state, but support from a broad coalition spanning ideological barriers―from the ACLU to the Koch brothers―helped put the bill over the finish line, recalled Brian Egolf, New Mexico’s Speaker of the House in the Democrat-controlled legislature.
“Municipal governments were going to be bankrupted and that city parks are going to be seized and sold off to pay judgments,” he said. “Our retort to that: just train your officers properly and don’t violate the rights of your citizens that you represent and you won’t have to worry about it.”
The legislation contained some key compromises to help it pass―damages were capped at $2 million, and individual officers would not be sued—but the measure offers a potential model for similar attempts in other states, in a more congenial future political environment, said Egolf.
“In fact, some of the conservatives who didn’t like it are now realizing that they can use our Civil Rights Act to protect rights that are important in their communities, such as religious liberty,” Egolf said.
According to Brown, the experience of New Mexico and other states in navigating the tough partisan environment offered some reason for optimism.
“it’s hard to really unpack everything that’s happening, but states are different laboratories for change—there’s no one size fits all for criminal justice,” she said.
“Utah just passed two incredibly progressive innocence reforms in a Republican controlled legislature. So I think it’s going to be case by case.”
Sixteen Michigan and Ohio-area defendants, including 12 physicians, have been sentenced to prison for a $250 million health care fraud scheme that included the exploitation of patients suffering from addiction and the illegal distribution of over 6.6 million doses of medically unnecessary opioids. The scheme, perpetrated through a multi-state network of pain clinics from 2007 to 2018, involved doctors refusing to provide patients with opioids unless they agreed to unnecessary back injections.
According to the Department of Justice, the evidence established that the clinics were pill mills frequented by patients suffering from addiction, as well as drug dealers, who sought to obtain high-dosage prescription drugs like oxycodone from doctors who agreed to work only a few hours a week to “stay under the radar” of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), yet were among the highest prescribers of oxycodone in the State of Michigan. In some instances, patients experienced more pain from the shots than from the pain they had purportedly come to have treated, and that some patients developed adverse conditions, including open holes in their back. The proceeds of the fraud, over $16 million of which was forfeited by the United States from the defendants, were used to fuel lavish lifestyles, the DOJ said.
16 Defendants, Including 12 Physicians, Sentenced to Prison for Distributing 6.6 Million Opioid Pills and Submitting $250 Million in False Billings
Sixteen Michigan and Ohio-area defendants, including 12 physicians, have been sentenced to prison for a $250 million health care fraud scheme that included the exploitation of patients suffering from addiction and the illegal distribution of over 6.6 million doses of medically unnecessary opioids. Five physicians were convicted in two separate trials, while 18 other defendants pleaded guilty. Seven defendants await sentencing.
“It is unconscionable that doctors and health care professionals would violate their oath to do no harm and exploit vulnerable patients struggling with addiction,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.
“These are not just crimes of greed, these are crimes that make this country’s opioid crisis even worse – and that is why the department will continue to relentlessly pursue these cases.”
“Patients look to physicians and medical professionals for their expertise and knowledge, trusting that they will do what is best to take care of them,” said Assistant Director Luis Quesada of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division. “In this circumstance, these medical professionals provided prescription drugs to those with no medical need. It is unacceptable that in this nation’s current opioid crisis, physicians and medical professionals are exploiting the well-being of their patients for profit. Thanks to the diligent work of the FBI and our law enforcement partners, we are able to navigate the important sphere of healthcare fraud and to continue our mission of bringing those who operate these criminal schemes to justice.”
“Health care professionals who exploit opioid addiction for financial gain do so at the risk of endangering their patients and undermining critical public health efforts to address the opioid epidemic,” said Special Agent in Charge Mario Pinto of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Inspector General (HHS-OIG). “We will continue working with our law enforcement partners to ensure that bad actors are held accountable for such egregious disregard for patient safety and well-being.”
“IRS-CI is committed to working with its law enforcement partners to help fight the opioid crisis and to prevent unscrupulous heath care professionals from using taxpayer funded programs as their own piggybanks,” said Special Agent in Charge Sarah Kull of the IRS Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI), Detroit Field Office.
According to court documents and evidence presented at trial, the scheme involved doctors refusing to provide patients with opioids unless they agreed to unnecessary back injections. Perpetrated through a multi-state network of pain clinics from 2007 to 2018, the evidence established that the clinics were pill mills frequented by patients suffering from addiction, as well as drug dealers, who sought to obtain high-dosage prescription drugs like oxycodone. The doctors working at the clinics agreed to work only a few hours a week to “stay under the radar” of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), yet were among the highest prescribers of oxycodone in the State of Michigan.
To obtain prescriptions, the evidence showed that the patients had to submit to expensive, unnecessary and sometimes painful back injections, known as facet joint injections. The injections were selected because they were among the highest reimbursing procedures, rather than based on medical need. Trial testimony established that, in some instances, patients experienced more pain from the shots than from the pain they had purportedly come to have treated, and that some patients developed adverse conditions, including open holes in their backs. Patients largely acquiesced to these unnecessary procedures because of their addiction or desire to obtain pills to be resold on the street by drug dealers. Evidence further established that the defendant physicians repeatedly performed these unnecessary injections on patients over several years and were paid more for facet joint injections than any other medical clinic in the United States.
The evidence further established that the proceeds of the fraud were used to fuel lavish lifestyles. Francisco Patino, a doctor and part-owner of the clinics, bought jewelry, cars and vacations, as well as paid Ultimate Fighting Championship and other mixed martial arts fighters to promote his specialized diet program. Mashiyat Rashid, Patino’s business partner and part-owner of the clinics, purchased private jet flights, courtside tickets to the NBA Finals and expensive real estate. Other physicians involved in the scheme purchased luxury cars, gold bars, and indoor basketball courts and swimming pools. Over $16 million in fraud proceeds was forfeited by the United States from the defendants.
The physicians sentenced by the court include:
Other defendants sentenced by the court include:
The following defendants are scheduled to be sentenced on future dates:
The FBI, HHS-OIG and IRS-CI investigated the case.
Assistant Chief Jacob Foster of the National Rapid Response Strike Force and Trial Attorneys Thomas Tynan, Steven Scott, Kathleen Cooperstein and Shankar Ramamurthy of the Justice Department’s Fraud Section prosecuted the case.
The Fraud Section leads the Criminal Division’s efforts to combat health care fraud through the Health Care Fraud Strike Force Program. Since March 2007, this Program, comprised of 15 strike forces operating in 24 federal districts, has charged more than 4,200 defendants who collectively have billed the Medicare program for more than $19 billion. In addition, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, working in conjunction with the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services, are taking steps to hold providers accountable for their involvement in health care fraud schemes. More information can be found at https://www.justice.gov/criminal-fraud/health-care-fraud-unit.
A new white paper published in collaboration with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office (DAO) found that diversion programs, which offer a middle-ground alternative that keeps the person from formally entering the criminal justice system, can produce a net narrowing effect in the criminal justice system, reducing its overall scope by increasing expungement rates and lowering reconviction rates, reports Phys.org.
Philadelphia’s Accelerated Misdemeanor Program (AMP) requires a defendant to do 12-18 hours of community service and to pay court fees within 10 weeks of accepting the terms, expunging the case records of those who complete the program. The research, involving an analysis of more than 4,100 misdemeanor cases opened between June 2009 and September 2011 for people aged 18 to 27, showed that AMP increased diversion rates by 22 percent, reduced cases sentenced to jail or probation by 8 percent, and dropped five-year conviction rates by 8 percent. Though AMP did reduce the case-dismissal rate by 13 percent, it also upped the rate of expungement—meaning a wholesale deletion of the criminal record—by 18 percent.
While fresh seafood hasn't traditionally been included in hunger relief programs, advocates say the lean protein is a smart choice that supports local economies.
While delivering food boxes this summer to tribal communities in Oregon’s Columbia River watershed, Bobby Rodrigo was moved by the challenges he saw. Tribal members were living in campers and RVs with no electricity and a single hose for running water. Meant to be temporary, these “in-lieu fishing communities” were created in the 1950s when the federal government-built dams that forced tribal members to leave their ancestral fishing grounds.
It was like “being in a homeless shelter, without the infrastructure,” said Rodrigo, who is part Mohawk, a member of the Native American Committee of the American Bar Association, and legal and operations director for We Do Better Relief.
Rodrigo was handing out food boxes as part of a pandemic relief effort led by a new Pacific Northwest coalition called The Wave. Efforts started earlier that day at an event in Cascade Locks, Oregon, in collaboration with the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission and other groups, before moving out to the in-lieu fishing communities. The event focused on tribal members but was open to the public.
Rodrigo brought 850 pounds of fresh-frozen Alaskan lingcod, a type of groundfish, to provide alongside U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farmers to Families Food Boxes provided by the Oregon Food Bank. The Wave also provided a food truck, KOi Fusion, that served 400 free teriyaki fish rice bowls, cooked with more of the lingcod.
A partnership with the community-supported fishery (CSF) Alaskans Own, the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust, and the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, the Wave’s fish donation program involves a slew of Northwest food security groups, tribal organizations, chefs, food trucks, and seafood groups. The groups received funding from a nonprofit accelerator group, Multiplier, to purchase 130,000 pounds of fish from small boat, Alaskan fishermen to provide to food-insecure communities in Washington and Oregon.
While the program focuses on rural, and/or predominantly Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), communities, it’s recently pivoted to feeding firefighters and evacuees as deadly wildfires sweep Oregon. Getting seafood—or, truly, any fresh and healthy food—to communities like those in-lieu settlements in Oregon and Washington poses additional challenges, but those are precisely what these partners aim to solve.
The partnership is one of six U.S. fish donation programs funded by Multiplier through its Catch Together program, which supports community-based fishermen. At its core, Catch Together’s grant program aims to provide fishermen a living wage to help feed food insecure families a highly nutritious, lean protein—locally caught seafood—that is rarely, if ever, included in food relief efforts.
“My real hope is that we can start seeing fishermen as part of the food system again.”
But the fishermen groups it supports, from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico to Alaska, view the program as a bigger opportunity to reconnect local fishermen with their communities, at a time when many feel disconnected by global markets that whisk their catch from the dock to far-flung corners of the world. And they seek to leverage the grant funds to overcome barriers that have made it difficult to integrate their sustainably harvested catch into local and regional food systems.
“All of these different organizations and fishermen, they’re really getting excited about . . . how do we get a little bit closer to the people we’re feeding, and how do we support our communities,” said Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, one of the grantees. “My real hope is that we can start seeing fishermen as part of the food system again.”
Shoring Up Fishing Communities
Prices paid fishermen have plummeted everywhere during the pandemic as restaurants have closed or scaled back services. Bristol Bay sockeye salmon, for example, is selling for half the price fishermen were paid in 2019, according to Elizabeth Herendeen of Alaskans Own.
The Catch Together funding allows the groups to buy sustainably harvested fish and pay fishermen a stable price to keep them fishing at a time when one in eight households don’t have enough food to eat. In some cases, as with the lingcod fishermen in Alaska, the grant funds have tipped the balance: Without that funding, the fishermen wouldn’t have been able to go out fishing.
Catch Together encourages its grantees to use its funding as seed money to help them achieve longer term goals to shore up their resiliency—such as by creating a sustainable value-added product, like a fish cake or fish soup, that they can eventually market or get the USDA to purchase for one of its national food assistance programs.
“Our hope is that they’re able to use our grants to create a runway to a sustainable product, or think through how they can serve underserved parts of the community,” Paul Parker, Catch Together’s managing partner and president, told Civil Eats.
Describing Catch Together as a “hub in the middle,” Parker said it’s “uplifting to watch all the different fishing communities come up with ideas about how to serve this need, and then building the programming and cross-pollinating to one another.”
Figuring out the food donation piece can be challenging, however. First the groups need to select the species and harvest the fish, which isn’t always easy. Then they need to turn the fish into a product that’s readily usable by food assistance programs, which can also be tricky: Some programs don’t want seafood because their clients aren’t accustomed to eating it. Last, they need to work out the logistics of the distribution.
“Most of the organizations of fishermen we’re working with have deep experience in one or two of those areas, but not all three,” said Parker.
That’s why Alaskans Own and the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust, which received a grant to harvest lingcod and sablefish, teamed up with the Wave, said Herendeen. “We knew the Wave had the structure in place to help move the fish to families in need.”
Reaching In-Lieu Fishing Communities
The Wave program aims to feed more than 600,000 people in rural and BIPOC communities through early November with a combination of hot meals and fresh-frozen fillets, and it piggybacks off the efforts of other food relief organizations. That means “things change on the daily,” notes Keri Johns, a manager at The Wave.
It’s currently providing fresh frozen fish to Community Charity kitchens, which is preparing hot meals for firefighters and wildfire evacuees, among other activities. delivered to the locations by Bobby's organization We Do Better Relief. In-lieu fishing communities remain a priority, however, and it has adapted to their needs by following the tribal fishermen as they move up river with the salmon harvest, providing hot meals from a food truck, via Food Fleet, and also providing a one-pot stew bag with the fish that their families can easily cook.
Johns said that the Wave’s immediate focus areas are supporting tribal fishermen with hot meals during their busy salmon harvest and getting technical needs sorted out for kids for online schooling. But over the longer term, “we’re looking to make a food system that works for the little guy and the health of our nation,” she explained. “How people look at seafood, how fish gets distributed, and where it goes is part of what needs to change. It’s a great protein source.”
Nailing that approach could go a long way to helping feed communities that have been doubly disadvantaged—first by generations of neglect and underinvestment driven by systemic racism, then again by the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19.
A Range of Efforts
Like the Wave, most Catch Together grant recipients are donating fish in frozen, vacuum-packaged, individual servings and/or collaborating with food assistance programs to produce hot meals. Many are also including recipe cards and information about the fish and the people who caught it.
The Maine Coast Fishermen’s Alliance, for example, received funding to purchase 80,000 pounds of hake, a groundfish species, and pay a processor to fillet and package the fish for distribution through Good Shepherd Food Bank and potentially through Maine schools.
In other parts of the country, the Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United, is purchasing up to 20,000 pounds of shrimp, and paying a processor to prepare it for distribution through the Mississippi hunger relief organization Extra Table.
The Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust received funding for two initiatives, both of which focus on feeding BIPOC communities: the Wave partnership and a program to purchase salmon from Bristol Bay fishermen. Alaskans Own (a project of the Trust) and Northline Seafoods will bring 45,000 pounds of Bristol Bay sockeye salmon to Alaska Native villages experiencing record-low salmon returns this year, according to Herendeen.
And the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fishermen Shareholders Alliance is running a pilot program involving 40 fishermen in Tampa Bay that it hopes to eventually expand throughout the Gulf States. Grouper, red snapper, and up to 10 other species harvested by the fishermen will be filleted, flash-frozen, and packed for distribution through two Tampa Bay food banks.
Donated fish will be run through the group’s Gulf Wild program, a seafood traceability system that applies a unique QR code that people can scan on their smart phone to see the path the fish took to get to into their hands—from the boat, to the fish house, to the processor, to the charitable group—as well information on the fisherman who caught it.
Fishermen participating in the program will also help distribute the fish they harvest at events coordinated by food banks.
Mississippi fishermen took this approach at an event in June. The Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United (MCFU) collected 1,500 pounds of king mackerel left over from a Biloxi fishing tournament and teamed up with the hunger relief organization Extra Table to clean, fillet and distribute the fish. “Everybody pitched in . . . and made it happen,” said Ryan Bradley, MCFU’s executive director. “It was really good to see the fish go to people who needed it.”
Creating a Value-Added Product
The Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance is the only grantee thus far to create a value-added product, a fish chowder made with locally caught haddock. The alliance will eventually introduce the chowder to retail outlets under the brand name Small Boats, Big Taste. Sales will go toward sustaining the program after the philanthropic support ends.
The group is purchasing 100,000 pounds of haddock from its members and paying a Boston fish processor to fillet the fish, and a Massachusetts food producer to produce the chowder, using milk and cream sourced from New England dairy farms.
Already, the group made its first donation of frozen chowder to Massachusetts’ four food banks. Created from about 33,000 pounds of fish, the donation included more than 18,000 containers, each with three six-ounce servings.
The alliance hopes the Small Boats, Big Taste brand will gain recognition, like Newman’s Own, for both its quality and social mission. If they succeed and grow, other kinds of chowders, including quahog or oyster stew, could be added to the line.
Creating such a value-added product is an effective way to sustain efforts to bring local seafood into regional food systems, and make it more accessible to distressed communities over the longer term, Tyson Rasor, the fisheries and food systems program manager at the environmental and food systems nonprofit Ecotrust, told Civil Eats.
“We’re learning that this is more than just moving food around; this is about approaching human health in a more holistic way.”
Seafood products such as fish cakes, fishermen’s pies, or soups are generally more affordable than fillets because they’re cut with other, less expensive foods and the seafood portion is smaller, said Rasor. They’re also easier for institutions like schools or hospitals to handle than frozen fish fillets, and people are also “leaning into ready-to-go foods.”
Ecotrust, a member of the Wave coalition, is currently working with the Oregon State University Food Innovation Center and Health Care Without Harm to create seafood products that large institutions could purchase to bring in healthy, nutrient-dense fish in a way that’s tasty and attractive.
Opportunities for Systemic Change
Many of the fishermen’s’ groups have an eye toward USDA programs to sustain their donation efforts. The Cape Cod Fishermen’s Alliance, for example, is seeking to get the USDA to buy its chowder for programs providing food assistance to schools, food banks, and other institutions.
With the USDA recently committing to purchase $30 million of Gulf shrimp for its food assistance programs, Bradley of Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United similarly hopes to leverage the Catch Together effort to get into that program. He’s also eyeing a state program, Genuine Mississippi, that promotes food produced in the state.
Other groups, including the Wave, are seeking out private philanthropy to continue and/or expand their efforts, based on the needs they’re seeing on the ground.
“We’re learning that this is more than just moving food around; this is about approaching human health in a more holistic way and using food as the starting point when we’re delivering Alaska seafood to tribal communities,” said Herendeen. “We’re looking at how we can bring in other partners and other resources to support these families in a bigger way.”
Wave executive director Justin Zeulner says the coalition’s approach to Catch Together is “a bit of an FDR model. We’re doing pandemic relief, and that’s important right now. It’s equally important that we’re looking at these opportunities for systems change.”
Zeulner envisions the food donation systems that the Wave is helping to create turning into a future revenue model for communities. He envisions cultural institutions stepping up and purchasing the local foods that are now being bought with grant funds, and selling them to their customers and employees.
“We’re paying culinary leaders to put food boxes together,” Zeulner says. Perhaps in the future, he adds, “we can work with a tribal leader and pay people to put boxes together. [Then,] when the pandemic is over, they’re set up to actually sell.
“Think about it: tribal, BIPOC, small-boat harvested seafood and local grains that we can offer via the Wave Coalition to the general public [could] create a whole new economic opportunity,” he says.