As Drug War Chronicle publishes its last issue of the year -- we will be on vacation next week -- it is time to look back at 2006. Both here at home and abroad, the year saw significant progress on various fronts, from marijuana law reform to harm reduction advances to the rollback of repressive drug laws in Europe and Latin America. Below -- in no particular order -- is our necessarily somewhat arbitrary list of the ten most significant victories and advances for the cause of drug law reform. (We also publish a top ten most significant defeats for drug law reform in 2006 below.)
Marijuana possession stays legal in Alaska. A 1975 Alaska Supreme Court case gave Alaskans the right to possess up to a quarter-pound of marijuana in the privacy of their homes, but in 1991, voters recriminalized possession. A series of court cases this decade reestablished the right to possess marijuana, provoking Gov. Frank Murkowski to spend two years in an ultimately successful battle to get the legislature to re-recriminalize it. But in July, an Alaska Superior Court threw out the new law's provision banning pot possession at home. The court did reduce the amount to one ounce, and the state Supreme Court has yet to weigh in, but given its past rulings, there is little reason to think it will reverse itself.
Local initiatives making marijuana the lowest law enforcement priority win across the board. In the November elections, lowest priority initiatives swept to victory in Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Santa Monica, California, as well as Missoula County, Montana, and Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Earlier this year, West Hollywood adopted a similar ordinance, and last month, San Francisco did the same thing. Look for more initiatives like these next year and in 2008.
Rhode Island becomes the 11th state to approve medical marijuana and the third to do so via the legislative process. In January, legislators overrode a veto by Gov. Donald Carcieri (R) to make the bill law. The bill had passed both houses in 2005, only to be vetoed by Carcieri. The state Senate voted to override in June of 2005, but the House did not act until January.
The Higher Education Act (HEA) drug provision is partially rolled back. In the face of rising opposition to the provision, which bars students with drug convictions -- no matter how trivial -- from receiving federal financial assistance for specified periods, its author, leading congressional drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder, staged a tactical retreat. To blunt the movement for full repeal, led by the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform, Souder amended his own provision so that it now applies only to students who are enrolled and receiving federal financial aid at the time they commit their offenses. Passage of the amended drug provision in February marks one of the only major rollbacks of drug war legislation in years.
New Jersey passes a needle exchange bill. After a 13-year struggle and a rising toll from injection-related HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C infections, the New Jersey legislature last week passed legislation that would establish pilot needle exchange programs in up to six municipalities. Gov. Jon Corzine (D) signed it into law this week. With Delaware and Massachusetts also passing needle access bills this year, every state in the union now either has at least some needle exchange programs operating or allows injection drug users to obtain clean needles without a prescription.
The US Supreme Court upholds the right of American adherents of the Brazil-based church the Union of the Vegetable (UDV) to use a psychedelic tea (ayahuasca) containing a controlled substance in religious ceremonies. Using the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a unanimous court held that the government must show a "compelling government interest" in restricting religious freedom and use "the least restrictive means" of furthering that interest. The February ruling may pave the way for marijuana spiritualists to seek similar redress.
The Vancouver safe injection site, Insite wins a new, if limited, lease on life. The pilot project site, the only one of its kind in North America, was up for renewal after its initial three-year run, and the Conservative government of Prime Minister Steven Harper was ideologically opposed to continuing it, but thanks to a well-orchestrated campaign to show community and global support, the Harper government granted a one-year extension of the program. Some observers have suggested the limited extension should make the "worst of" list instead of the "best of," but keeping the site long enough to survive the demise of the Conservative government (probably this year) has to rank as a victory. So does the publication of research results demonstrating that the site saves lives, reduces overdoses and illness, and gets people into treatment without leading to increased crime or drug use.
The election of Evo Morales brings coca peace to Bolivia. When coca-growers union leader Morales was elected president in the fall of 2004, the country's coca farmers finally had a friend in high office. While previous years had seen tension and violence between cocaleros and the government's repressive apparatus, Morales has worked with the growers to seek voluntary limits on production and, with financial assistance from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, begun a program of research on the uses of coca and the construction of factories to turn it into tea or flour. All is not quiet -- there have been deadly clashes with growers in Las Yungas in recent months -- but the situation is greatly improved from previous years.
Brazil stops imprisoning drug users. Under a new drug law signed by President Luis Inacio "Lula" Da Silva in August, drug users and possessors will not be arrested and jailed, but cited and offered rehabilitation and community service. While the new "treatment not jail" law keeps drug users under the therapeutic thumb of the state, it also keeps them out of prison.
Italy reverses tough marijuana laws. Before its defeat this spring, the government of then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi toughened up Italy's previously relatively sensible drug laws, making people possessing more than five grams of marijuana subject to punishment as drug dealers. The new, left-leaning government of Premier Romano Prodi took and last month raised the limit for marijuana possession without penalty from five grams to an ounce. The Prodi government has also approved the use of marijuana derivatives for pain relief.