Julia Buxton is Associate Dean and Professor of Comparative Politics at the School of Public Policy, Central European University, Budapest. Follow her on Twitter: @BuxtonJulia
This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organisation with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights. The partnership coincides with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.
Major institutional and policy change is required and will ultimately be unavoidable. The treaty system and international drug control institutions stemming from the first international drug conference in 1909 have set us on an orientation within drug policy that does not reflect the dynamics of global drug markets or protect us from drug related harms. Control efforts and resources are skewed toward drugs such as cocaine and heroin, when synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine dominate markets. Enforcement is focused on countries of the global south, when the global north is the world’s key zone for the manufacture and export of illicit substances, and where the bulk of drug trade profits are realized.
Framed by history
From its initiation, the drug control system has responded to the perceived risk from narcotic plants grown in the global south. In 1909, the ‘great powers’ of the day met in Shanghai to discuss controls on opium, a freely traded commodity derived from opium poppy. The result was a seismic market shift, overturning centuries of colonial engagement in opium poppy cultivation in far flung empires of south Asia, and ending the popular use of opium for purposes of pain or pleasure.
The resulting 1912 International Opium Convention of The Hague was the first international drug treaty. It set the intellectual and institutional direction for the drug control system, strategies and approaches that operate today. To put it another way, today we respond to the complex, transnational challenges of HIV/AIDS, internet-based drug sales and international organized crime through a framework devised by imperial powers at a time when women could not vote or wear trousers, when nose size and skin color were seen to determine brain size and civility, and when addiction was understood as a problem of ‘godlessness’.
Over the course of a century, the treaty system has evolved through to the most recent 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, incorporating into the control system a diversity of plants, weeds, shrubs and chemicals deemed “evil” and harmful to the “health and welfare of mankind”. At no point has the United Nations, which administers and oversees the treaty system, reconsidered first principles – as set out in 1912 and institutionalized in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs – that it is desirable or even possible for states to prohibit access to a selected range of intoxicating substances.
Sovereign states remain locked into the goal of eliminating, or at least significantly curbing the production, distribution and use of drugs. They must cooperate on international control efforts and, in line with the 1961 Single Convention, they are required to treat participation in the drug trade as “punishable offenses when committed intentionally”, and as “serious offenses […] liable to adequate punishment particularly by imprisonment or other penalties of deprivation of liberty”.
A legacy of failure
These efforts to control human behavior and to terminate the supply of harmful substances cannot succeed, even if recurrently stepped up, militarized and coercively enforced. According to the latest figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 1 out of 20 people between the ages of 15 and 64 years used an illicit drug in 2013. This is despite punitive national policies to prevent consumption, including by depriving users of illegal drugs of their freedom, access to their children, employment and medical care, and even their right to life.
The use of cocaine, heroin, cannabis and amphetamines remains a ‘global habit’ in a borderless world, configured around a sophisticated, lucrative and innovative transnational market that supplies a diversity of ever cheaper drugs to an estimated 246 million people.
The 1961 Single Convention looked to eliminate opium use within 15 years, with a 25-year schedule for cocaine and cannabis. In 1998, the UN promoted a “drug-free world”, to be achieved within ten years, and a host of cultivating countries have, over the decades, committed to achieving zero-cultivation of narcotic drug crops. But just as demand reduction targets have never been met, neither have those relating to supply. At over 7,000 tons in 2014, opium production reached its highest level since the 1930s. There was an estimated 120,000 hectares under coca bush cultivation in 2013 (with potential for the manufacture of 662 to 902 tons of cocaine). Meanwhile, as stated in the UNODC’s “World Drug Report 2015”, advances “in cannabis plant cultivation techniques and the use of genetically selected strains have led to an increase in the number of cannabis harvests, as well as in the yield and potency of cannabis”.
As set out by Yury Fedotov, executive director of the UNODC, “we have to admit that, globally, the demand for drugs has not been substantially reduced and that some challenges exist in the implementation of the drug control system”. This acknowledgement has not led to any questioning of mission, or the plausibility of prohibiting access to certain drugs – even with evidence that nine out of ten users are not considered dependent or problematic. Neither has there been engagement with the reality that making certain substances illegal has made them more attractive to produce and supply. Criminalization has converted freely growing plants into billion dollar crops, high profit margins incentivize illicit supply, while the ‘success’ of drug seizures serves only to elevate prices. A utopian goal is being pursued through a strategy that makes it unachievable.
A northern bias
In policy and implementation, drug control remains overwhelmingly preoccupied with opium poppy and coca leaf. International counter-narcotics efforts and assistance – both military and development – have focused on ‘producer’ states such as Colombia, Bolivia and Peru (coca leaf), Mexico (opium poppy) and south Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Burma and Laos PDR (opium poppy). However, as successive UNODC World Drug Reports demonstrate, opioids and cocaine are not the most widely consumed drugs, or arguably the most dangerous.
Contemporary drug markets, measured in terms of seizures and reported use, are increasingly dominated by synthetic drugs: ‘Amphetamine Type Substances’ (ATS) such as methamphetamine and amphetamine, as well as Ecstasy (MDMA) and a raft of ‘New Psychoactive Substances’ (NPS) of which 450 were reported in 2014. The key manufacture and export zones for these drugs are not the global south, but west and east European countries and north America. Patterns of drug flows are the reverse of the dynamics envisioned in the treaty framework. The old delineation of consumer and producer states no longer exists, and the global north is now the key producer region, including for cannabis.
This raises the more difficult question of accounting for the inconsistent application of counter-narcotics efforts, and the gross inequalities in terms of costs and impacts. An estimated 164,000 people were killed during the counter-narcotics surge of 2007 to 2014 in Mexico, a death toll higher than Iraq and Afghanistan combined. But the thought of militarizing supply control in the Netherlands – a leading producer country – on the level experienced by Mexico, is unconscionable. Why are Colombia, Bolivia and Afghanistan acceptable theaters for violent weaponized counter-narcotic operations, and not Poland or Canada?
Moreover, the lack of high level violence in the drug markets of these northern producer countries signifies that illicit markets can be peaceful. From this perspective, it is the disruptive market interventions, weapons flows and training of paramilitary counter-narcotics units that are the drivers of violence in the global south, not the drug markets themselves. Similarly, in relation to northern interventions, how can it be the case that the EU and US fund cannabis eradication in the global south while legalizing or decriminalizing domestically?
The north’s deflection of its leading role in the drug trade is institutionalized in the treaty system and international drug control institutions. The result is that we have remarkably little information about the evolving threats to mankind’s ‘health and welfare’ posed by synthetics. As set out in the preface to the 2013 World Drug Report, ATS use “remains widespread globally, and appears to be increasing in most regions”, with crystalline methamphetamine “an imminent threat”. Yet while we have each hectare of coca and opium meticulously researched, there is a paucity of data and information on the manufacture of synthetic drugs, or their consumption. It was not until 2008 that the UNODC launched dedicated ATS analysis through the UNODC Global SMART Program(Synthetics Monitoring: Analyzes, Reporting and Trends), with the aim of generating, analyzing and reporting on the synthetic drug market, and improving global responses to the rise in ATS manufacture, trafficking and consumption.
Drug control is constantly re-legitimized by a moral narrative of protecting health, welfare and security. Yet by downplaying the role of European and North American countries in the drug trade, and the historical salience of synthetic markets by default, the system is creating public health risks, it cannot anticipate change in dynamic markets, and it has an insufficient evidence base for policy. Indicative of this is the acknowledgement in the 2016 World Drug Report that, “the sheer number, diversity and transient nature of NPS currently on the market partly explain why there are still only limited data available on the prevalence of use of many NPS. Those difficulties also explain why both the regulation of NPS and the capacity to address health problems related to NPS continue to be challenging.”
In 2012, the International Narcotic Control Board that monitors treaty enforcement, set out that, “dividing countries into the categories of “drug-producing”, “drug-consuming” or “transit countries” has long ceased to be realistic. To varying degrees, all countries are drug-producers and drug-consumers and have drugs transiting through them.” Despite institutional acknowledgement of market transformations, the new geopolitical realities of the drug trade are not reflected in enforcement activities, in the language of drug control institutions, or in the allocation of resources for research, education, treatment and rehabilitation. These remain concentrated on coca and opium poppy, cocaine and heroin.
From the local to the global level, we are, with some small exceptions, locked into arcane, counterproductive and illogical policies that violate fundamental rights and freedoms, spread disease, exacerbate violence, and which impede development – in the view of other UN agencies. The UNODC, which sits in an institutional silo, uses the benign term “unintended consequences” to refer to the wholly negative impact of counter-narcotics policies and how these are disproportionately borne along stratified racial, class and geographic lines. The myths, Victorian moralism and hypocrisy that frame international drug policy need to be confronted if we are to progress to rights-based interventions that genuinely reduce harm. In other words, drug policies which are fit for the twenty-first century.This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organization with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights. The partnership coincides with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.
This article is by Ann Fordham and Martin Jelsma, and is republished from openDemocracy. It is part a series of articles about this April's UNGASS. Further information appears below.
In April 2016, the UN will dedicate, for the third time in its history, a United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) to discuss global drug policy. The UNGASS has the potential to be a ground-breaking moment that could change the course of the international drug control system. However, political divisions and entrenched institutional dynamics have dampened hopes that it will go down in history as the beginning of the end of the war on drugs.
Conventional drug control wisdom has put forward the view that stopping the supply of drugs at the source would solve the 'world drug problem', but Latin American countries bear witness to the failure of this approach. Stirred into action by the futility of spending billions of dollars to fight an unwinnable and increasingly violent war on drugs, it is no surprise that political leaders from Latin America have been at the forefront of the drug policy debate. From their perspective, the high human cost in terms of violence, insecurity, mass incarceration and the exacerbation of the social and economic vulnerability of some of society’s most marginalised groups – can no longer be justified as necessary collateral damage in pursuit of eradicating drug markets.
A growing group of Latin American and Caribbean countries are calling for a real discussion on alternative policies. In the meantime, Uruguay has moved to create the world's first national legally regulated cannabis market for recreational use, and similar initiatives have happened in the US at the state level. This opening up of the long entrenched and seemingly immovable discussion on prohibitionist drug control principles is unprecedented and has implications for global policy.
In this context, the UNGASS in April represents a critical juncture, an opportunity for an honest evaluation of global drug policy and how to address the most pressing challenges going forward. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in recognition of this rare and important opportunity, has urged member states to use the 2016 UNGASS "to conduct a wide-ranging and open debate that considers all options."
The UNGASS preparations
The initial discussions to prepare for the UNGASS were fraught with disagreements over many procedural aspects. These included difficult negotiations over the extent to which the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna would lead the process; how to strike the right balance between the UN capitals of Vienna, Geneva and New York in the preparations; how to ensure meaningful involvement of all relevant UN agencies, academia and civil society; and – last but not least – how open the debate should be: should it be restricted to a discussion of how to improve the implementation of the 2009 Political Declaration and the achievement of its targets for 2019, or should the UNGASS be an opportunity to challenge the current global drug control strategy, possibly even questioning its foundation of the three UN drug conventions?
These difficult negotiations, which on the surface often appeared to be arguments over procedure, reflected the deep political divisions within the international drug policy debate. The much-revered 'Vienna Consensus' continues to weaken as the divide between some governments becomes increasingly irreconcilable. A growing number of countries now believe that the traditional repressive drug control approach, based on zero-tolerance, has not worked and has led to disastrous consequences for human rights, public health, citizen security and sustainable development, and as a result it has to be modernised.
Some countries calling for an open and inclusive debate at the UNGASS questioned whether this could be truly achieved with a process led by the Vienna-based drug control apparatus, given that the CND, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) have all gained quite a conservative reputation over the decades. Conducting all the preparations in Vienna led to a further problem for inclusivity, given that at least 70 member states do not have permanent representation there and would therefore struggle to fully participate in the process. The point of convening an UNGASS, is that by definition all UN member states and the whole UN system should be included on a equal basis, but limiting the political negotiations on the outcomes exclusively to Vienna, means that in practice the countries and UN agencies not represented in Vienna have much less influence on the process.
In the end, the hard fought-over resolution on the procedures decided that the UNGASS "will have an inclusive preparatory process that includes extensive substantive consultations, allowing organs, entities and specialized agencies of the United Nations system, relevant international and regional organizations, civil society and other relevant stakeholders to fully contribute to the process", while the CND "as the central policymaking body within the United Nations system dealing with drug-related matters, shall lead this process", inviting the president of the General Assembly to "support, guide and stay involved in the process".
UN special sessions are rare and crucial moments in UN-level policy making and are designed to ensure a coherent UN system-wide response to global problems of major concern to the international community. This has so far been less than optimal in discussions on global drug policy. After initial slow engagement from other key UN agencies, significant contributions have now been made from UNDP, UNAIDS and the WHO. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has also submitted a comprehensive reportthat outlines the most pertinent human rights violations in relation to drug control policies, while the Human Rights Council held a high level panel in September 2015 on the topic of "the impact of the world drug problem on the enjoyment of human rights".
A Civil Society Task Force (CSTF) was convened to ensure the participation of civil society in the process. The CSTF has representatives from every region of the world, as well as representatives of the key affected populations such as people who use drugs and subsistence farmers growing drug-linked crops among others. Initially, formal recognition of the CSTF was challenging – civil society has always had to fight for visibility and access at the CND but over the last year there has been increasing support for this initiative from governments. A major victory for the CSTF was explicit support from the president of the General Assembly, who presided over an Informal Interactive Stakeholder Dialogue in New York on the 10 February 2016 organised with the CSTF in support of the preparatory process. The calls for progressive policiesbased in principles of harm reduction, of public health and of human rights from global civil society were deafening at the event.
Shifting regional priorities
In terms of regional perspectives, as noted above, the impetus for pushing for another UNGASS on drugs followed growing calls for reform from across Latin America at the highest political level. In fact, the previous UNGASS meetings in 1990 and 1998 had been convened in response to similar calls from Colombia and Mexico. Around them, a group of like-minded countries is gradually shaping up around certain positions, including Ecuador, Uruguay and Costa Rica and supported by Brazil and Bolivia on some issues. Caribbean countries have long been largely absent from the debate, not least because discussions have been limited to the CND in Vienna, where few Caribbean countries are represented – although Jamaica has recently joined the chorus of dissent and the discussion on several other islands has intensified.
In terms of European, particularly European Union (EU), engagement, this has been markedly different from Latin America and reflects the fact that Europe has managed to avoid the sharpest edges of a repressive approach to drug control. European countries have not experienced to the same extent, the high human cost in terms of violence, insecurity, and mass incarceration experienced in Latin America. Of course the context is different, but in addition, many European governments have been pragmatic, have prioritised health care, harm reduction and human rights protection. While in Europe there are some serious issues regarding the criminalisation of people who use drugs and disproportionate sentences for minor drug offences, most European countries have managed to keep a certain distance from the escalation of the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s in the US, Latin America and Asia. At the international level, the leadership that EU governments have shown in this regard has been critical in shifting the drug policy narrative towards public health, harm reduction and human rights principles.
On issues where common positions can be found, the EU can have a strong impact on the global debate. For example, a united EU promoted the principle of proper sequencing with respect to ensuring that subsistence farmers have sufficient access to alternative livelihoods before being forced to abandon their drug-linked crops. The EU has also demonstrated unity and commitment on harm reduction and the removal of death penalty for drug offences, although a global consensus on these issues is not yet in sight.
Unfortunately, there are also crucial areas where a strong European voice has been absent, and the EU has failed to understand or acknowledge the sense of urgency and relevance of this UNGASS. This is clearly the case with regard to the shift in priority that Latin American countries are seeking, to move away from arresting small-time dealers and chasing drug shipments towards reducing drug-related violence, organised crime and corruption instead. In a sense, this is a plea for a harm reduction policy on the supply side: the drugs market will not be “eliminated or significantly reduced” by 2019, and it is time to forget the hollow illusion of a drug-free world.
Instead, government policy could be more sophisticated and focus on mitigating the most harmful aspects of the drug trade through reducing the levels of illicit drug market-related violence, crime, insecurity and corruption. This thinking mirrors similar priority shifts that have previously taken place in Europe under the harm reduction banner, with governments taking a pragmatic approach to reduce the harms associated with drug consumption without necessarily seeking to stop the use of drugs. These harm reduction policies and programmes have significantly reduced drug-related harm such as overdose deaths, and HIV and hepatitis C prevalence among people who inject drugs.
Cannabis policy and UN treaties
Another example is the lack of EU engagement in the debate about global cannabis policy developments, the result of the absence of a common EU position on cannabis and huge national policy variations. Demonstrating an ostrich-like denial regarding cannabis policy developments in the Americas but also at local levels within the EU, the EU common position for the UNGASS underscores the need to “maintain a strong and unequivocal commitment to the UN conventions” and that there is “sufficient scope and flexibility within the provisions of the UN Conventions to accommodate a wide range of approaches to drug policy”. In addition, the issue of drug control is a low political priority as the EU currently has it hands full with the refugee crisis and existential threats around the euro and the future of European integration.
A game-changing difference between this UNGASS and the preceding ones is the fact that the position of the US has fundamentally changed. No longer among the hardliners, the US has acknowledged, both at the UN but also more recently domestically, that the over-reliance on incarceration has failed. In August 2013, US Attorney General Eric Holder admitted that mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences were ‘draconian’ and that too many Americans had been imprisoned for too long for no good law enforcement justification. He made it clear that the status quo was unsustainable and damaging. In 2015, President Obama began a process to commute the sentences of around 6,000 federal drug offenders. In early 2016 the congressional task force created to examine overcrowding in the federal prison system, recommended the repeal of federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences. Different legislative initiatives have been tabled, including the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would cut many mandatory minimums for drug offences in half.
The domino effect of cannabis regulation at state level makes the US less sure-footed of condemning other countries for not stringently adhering to a zero-tolerance approach. Cannabis regulation for recreational use is outside of the scope of the current UN treaty framework for drugs, creating a significant problem for the US since it undermines its credibility to continue defending the conventions as they stand. The big question is whether this will lead to the US accepting more flexibility in policy areas that have been explored elsewhere. These include initiatives such as decriminalisation, drug consumption rooms or the regulation of coca in Bolivia, all policy options that the US currently opposes.
UNGASS outcomes: change of course
The past several years have seen significant changes in the global drug policy landscape representing a trend towards more humane and proportional responses based on health, human rights and development principles. To some extent, the UNGASS will acknowledge those advances and thereby consolidate the significant change of course that is happening in various regions of the world. Perhaps the most significant advance will be on the issue of access to controlled medicines – an area that has long been de-prioritised in favour of a focus on repressive, law enforcement-led approaches to reduce the illicit drug trade. Most drugs included in the schedules of the UN conventions also have important medical purposes, and several appear on the WHO “List of Essential Medicines”. However, the availability of opiate painkillers like morphine for example, has been dramatically low in most developing countries due to overly strict regulations reflecting over-riding concerns about diversion and addiction rather than a need to ensure access to pain relief.
Unfortunately, other areas of progress remain stilted. Russia, alongside several Asian and Middle Eastern countries, has played hardball in the negotiations, effectively putting the brakes on the shifting discourse. The negotiations are driven by consensus, making it unlikely that contested policies in the field of harm reduction, or reforms like decriminalisation, despite being widely accepted and propounded by all relevant UN agencies, will be explicitly recommended in the UNGASS outcome document. Likewise, a clear condemnation of the death penalty for drug offences is probably going to be blocked by a small group of countries. The prophecy that allowing the CND to take full control over the UNGASS preparations would undermine progress towards a more system-wide coherent UN drugs policy seems to be being borne out. Negotiations about the UNGASS outcomes have taken place mostly in ‘informal’ sessions in Vienna, dominated by a minority of member states and from which civil society is excluded from participating or even observing.
For the General Assembly, an obvious priority for this UNGASS would be how to align UN drug policy with the recently adopted new global framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but negotiations in Vienna carry on as if they are negotiating another CND resolution. Submissions from other member states, UN agencies and civil society calling for a recognition of the failure of repressive responses and highlighting the need to connect the drugs issue with the agreed UN priorities for the future of the planet have so far not been reflected in successive drafts of the UNGASS outcome document. The general tone of these drafts is very much ‘business-as-usual’.
At present, few countries are willing to openly acknowledge the existence of structural deficiencies with regard to UN system-wide coherence, the institutional architecture and the legal treaty framework. No easy solutions are available for reforming the foundations of the global control system and consensus will be hard to find, but a continued denial of the reality of the on-going policy trends and the resulting tensions with the treaty system will not make them disappear. In fact, to do so will hinder the much-needed evolution of the UN drug control system and its ability to adapt to the realities of today. Towards this end, it could be helpful if the UNGASS outcome leads to the convening of an advisory group or an expert panel to think through different scenarios for the future evolution of the system, especially in the lead up to the next important moment in 2019 when member states will have to agree a new global action plan on drugs, hopefully more in line with the broader set of UN priority goals for the next decade.
Although it is clear that the so-called ‘Vienna consensus’ has been breaking apart for some time and there is a growing desire to find viable policy alternatives to repression and punishment, there are still powerful countries and entrenched bureaucracies that are staunchly opposed to any kind of reform. The divisions between member states but also between UN agencies on this issue have become too visible to ignore and the UNGASS is a perfect opportunity for an honest assessment of the performance of the international drug control system and the options for a change of course.
Given the high human cost of the damaging approaches pursued to date, many people around the world have high hopes that governments will not squander this opportunity. And yet, to what extent the UNGASS can really live up to these hopes remains to be seen. The latest dynamics in Vienna do not bode well, as bureaucratic machinations, political complacency and exclusion seem to rule the process. The lack of vision, inclusivity and commitment to finding new solutions to many of the challenges that remain must be strongly condemned, especially given the urgency expressed by those countries that called for this moment in the first place.
This article was written by Ann Fordham of the International Drug Policy Consortium and Martin Jelsma of the Transnational Institute. It is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organisation with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights. The partnership coincides with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.
Thank you. My name is David Borden, and I'm the executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org. We support the calls that have been made for harm reduction and the decriminalization of users, and for people-centered approaches. But it's important to remember that the harm we seek to reduce is not only from drugs, but also from drug policies.
Criminalizing the drug trade drives users into an underground where drugs' quality and potency are uncertain. The high price of street drugs causes life destabilization for addicted users, often in ways beyond the effects of the drugs themselves. The criminalized environment encourages high-risk behaviors such as the sharing of syringes, or resorting to prostitution or becoming homeless because of the financial cost. Illicit drug profits fund transnational criminal organizations, as well as low-level street crime that fuels poverty, social instability and violence.
And so along with pursuing these necessary objectives for drug policy that many of us have talked about – human rights, development, health and security – in fact in order to pursue them more effectively, we urge that this UNGASS consider alternatives to criminalizing the drug trade, and the changes to the drug conventions that can codify such alternatives as legitimate. We likewise urge that the UNGASS consider how nations' obligations under the drug control conventions vs. human rights treaties should be balanced, in cases when those obligations conflict.
We also support a proposal offered by several nations for an UN Expert Advisory Group to assess the tensions in the international drug control regime and present options for moving forward.
Check back on our web site for information later today, and see last week's feature story on the House approving this and several other amendments that rein in DEA power.
As noted in that article, the language and arguably the fact of it being an appropriation matter (as opposed to just legalizing medical marijuana) leaves the field open for prosecutors to make arguments about how the amendment should be interpreted, and to do raids and continue prosecutions in the meanwhile. So it's not the solution to all of the problems that medical marijuana patients and their providers face, much less for marijuana policy in general. But it's a good step, and politically means the world for our efforts and their future prospects.
According to numbers from the New York Post, the state has already brought in $3 million from the selection process by charging 300 perspective dispensary owners $10,000 a pop to file their bid to attain one of the five permits being distributed in the state.
These permits would allow their holder to open four dispensaries, and 20 dispensaries in total would be allowed to open in a state with a population of 19.75 million. The idea of one dispensary per 1 million residents does not really float with any goals for there to be ease of access, but with how limited the conditions list is, it shouldn't be much of an issue as dispensing kicks off in 2016. However, patients upstate are worried about the travel times that would be required to access their medicine.
Lightly processed flowers, as in trimmed, dried, and cured, will not be available to New York patients. This is due to the ban on smoking medical cannabis -- only oils, edibles, and vapable products will be for sale.
Not everyone in New York is happy with how the state's regulations turned out. State Assembly Leader Richard Gottfried told a Drug Policy Alliance event, "Last June, we were about to pass in both houses and the Governor calls me and Diane Savino down to his office and says 'This is how we've got to change it.' Maybe we should have told him to stuff it and passed it how it was and had him veto it, but we decided to bargain with him. We got a lot of really bad changes into the legislation and when they came out with the regulations they were even worse."
Hopefully after the kinks are worked out in the distribution process, New York's medical cannabis program will redevelop into something a bit more inclusive. Right now, lots of folks will be left out of the loop when it comes to using cannabis as effective medicine.
Please call your member of Congress this afternoon to ask for a YES vote on the McClintock-Polis amendment. Our system will look up who your representative is, based on your address, and will provide the phone number. Here are a few points you can make, if you get into discussion with the staff:
- The McClintock-Polis Amendment will only apply in states that have adopted marijuana law reforms.
- Today people who are acting in compliance with their states' marijuana laws remain at risk of federal prosecution -- a large and growing number of ordinary businesspersons and citizens.
- The amendment doesn't require states to legalize marijuana, nor will it impact on any state's ability to enforce their own marijuana laws
- There is substantial support across a range of the political spectrum for allowing states to set their own marijuana policies, including legalization -- even from people who themselves don't support legalization in their own states.
Visit http://capwiz.com/drcnet/callalert/index.tt?alertid=66234626 to take action now!
The main provision that was added to gain the Committee's support would block minors from smoking or vaporizing marijuana despite a doctor's recommendation. While the debate did stir the standard, "We don't want people to think it's okay for kids to smoke weed" argument, it also gave opportunities for the new rhetoric being heard in state capitols around medical marijuana a chance to shine. Rep. Dan Carter made an excellent case for not restricting a doctors ability to treat a patient telling the Connecticut Post:
"I do believe there's a clear need with respect to younger patients," Carter said. "In a way, I think we're putting the political part of it above the health part of it. I think there should be freedom for those practitioners who are going to prescribe this to utilize any delivery system they need to do. Clearly there are benefits, certain times, to inhale certain products. If we shut it down and say you can't smoke it or you can't vaporize it, I think in a way that retards... some of the studies we need to do."
The provision has a chance of being removed with time, more so with folks like Dan Carter already on the right side of the fence. With the way things are going, I don't expect a 16 year old smoking a joint on the way to chemo to rip at the moral fabric of society much longer.
The bill will also allow hospitals and hospices to administer cannabis to their patients. This will be a major factor in improving the quality of life for folks forced to live under medical supervision. Also it would request a group of pediatricians be formed for the purpose of adding more ailments to the 11 already approved for use in the state.
In general the bill represents a step forward, with a bit of a pothole that will be filled in time. Time is also the keyword in getting it passed, as lawmakers have until midnight on June 3rd to vote on the bill.
(Welcome back to our one-time intern Jimi Devine, who has graciously volunteered his time to support our blog.)
Today the Louisiana legislature' House Health and Welfare Committee will hear a medical marijuana bill brought forward by Republican State Senator Fred Mills, a man who formerly served as head of the Louisiana Board of Pharmacy. Mills spent the last year working with law enforcement to make it past a committee and organizations that had held it back in the past.
According to Northeast Louisiana media outlet The News Star, major revisions have been made with support from the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, they include:
- Prescribed marijuana would be taken in a form other than smoking it, perhaps in a pill.
- The state Agriculture Department would be in charge of growing marijuana to be used for medical purposes.
- Dispensing pharmacies -- ten, at this point -- would be required to meet certain conditions.
- The bill would "sunset," or be reviewed on Jan. 1, 2020, giving lawmakers pause to determine if the changes to state law were beneficial. If the bill proves ineffective, the law could be corrected or ended.
- The Louisiana Board of Pharmacy would adopt rules about dispensing medical marijuana.
This session the bill made it through the Senate Health and Welfare Committee that halted its progress in 2014, and then passed the full senate with two thirds in support. On when he takes it before the house Mills noted, "I'm hoping for a repeat performance from the Senate."
While the bill is very restrictive, but it would reinforce national trends on the medical use of marijuana in Louisiana. Hopefully leading to a more inclusive law in the future.
The sentencing reform bills look to reduce the penalties associated with a marijuana conviction in the state. Currently a third marijuana possession conviction could lead to a baffling 20 year sentence.
According to NOLA.com, the bill authored by New Orleans State Senator J.P. Morrell,
"reduces the maximum penalty for possession from 20 years in prison to eight, raises the threshold for a felony-level possession charge and adds a second-chance provision for first-time offenders."
Penalties would still be much more severe than their counterparts in other states, but first time offenders would have one opportunity to expunge their record after two years without a conviction. The bill would also reclassify a second offense from a felony to misdemeanor for quantities between fourteen grams and two and a half pounds.
The bill is projected to save Louisiana $17 million over the first five years. This would cover the $900,000 a year in wasteful spending on corrections highlighted by the Office of State Inspector General with $13 million to spare.
NOLA.com columnist Jarvis DaBerry noted,
"Such a bill does two important things. First, it establishes that a person with a small amount of weed isn't a real threat to the public. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the bill would keep such a conviction from haunting a person forever."
The second bill authored by Rep. Austin Badon would push major reforms, but is not as big a shift as the one presented by Morrell. Badon' bill would see those committing a third offense jailed five years, as opposed to the two year sentence in Morell' bill. It also does not include the possibility of conviction being expunged for first time offenders.
UPDATE: On Thursday Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said he would sign the bills if passed by the house and senate. In regards to the sentencing bill he told the Shreveport Times,
"We've said all along we're fine with the idea of providing rehabilitation and treatment for nonviolent drug offenders. I think this bill does that. That's good for those offenders, that is good for taxpayers. So again, that's another one of those bills that if it got to our desk we'd sign that."
While Louisiana debates the direction of their sentencing procedures, I'll leave you with another quote from Jarvis DeBerry on the subject:
"Here's a prediction: Sooner or later, we're going to look back at what Louisiana has doing to folks caught with marijuana, and we're going to be just as shocked those sentences had our officials' blessing."
Although this amendment stops short of legalizing medical marijuana federally, every positive vote that Congress takes brings us closer to the day when they'll be ready to finally get the federal government out of the way of patients and their doctors, and it will help veterans who use VA facilities in the meanwhile. And that's why we hope you'll step up today and help.
If you are a US voter, please call your US Representative today to voice your support for the Veterans Equal Access Amendment to H.R. 2029, the FY 2015 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act. Thank you for taking a stand! Click here for information on the Veterans Equal Access Amendment, click here to read the current VA policy, and click here for information on H.R. 2209.
Earlier this year we noted here that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives had enacted two pro-medical marijuana amendments. One of them, the long-fought for Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment, bars the US Dept. of Justice (parent agency of the DEA) from using taxpayer funds from interfering with state medical marijuana laws. The other allows banks to accept deposits from marijuana businesses in states where it is legal (any type of state legality, not just medical).
What will this mean on the ground? It should mean that DEA and other branches of the Dept. of Justice can no longer threaten medical marijuana providers (or more theoretically, patients) with arrest or prosecution, and that landlords should no longer face the threat of asset forfeiture for property being rented to medical marijuana businesses. But the precise language, which focuses on states' implementating medical marijuana systems, could be argued as applying more narrowly, giving reassurance to state officials about their participation but not going further. Another concern is that a prosecutor could argue, for example, that a given marijuana business is not operating in strict accordance with a state's law. Our perspective in the movement is that that determination should be up to state authorities, not federal, but that's not necessarily the perspective of federal law enforcement. Those are some reasons why it remains to be seen just how thoroughly and reliably the protections that the new law provides will turn out to be, and these questions are being debated right now.
Where there's the most pessimism is about whether the new law will halt medical marijuana prosecutions that are already underway, but we'll see. In the past the administration has allowed such prosecutions to continue, but the administration's stance on marijuana policy, criminal justice in general, and their willingness to take concrete actions, has markedly increased during the last two years, so perhaps there is hope.
The CRomnibus also includes language barring the District of Columbia from enacting marijuana reform legislation. On its face that would seem to block Initiative 71 from going into effect, the measure passed by nearly 70% of voters that legalizes possession and home growing of marijuana in the District. But that also isn't clear. Advocates have pointed out that the language doesn't explicitly block Initiative 71, which normally is the action that Congress is required to take if it doesn't want DC legislation to go forward. Because DC has already enacted the measure, and because it only removes penalties and doesn't have a regulatory component (which DC initiatives can't have), that will hopefully mean that the law can change in January after the Congressional review period expires, assuming Congress doesn't take another vote to explicitly block it. One question may be whether transmitting the measure to Congress, as the process requires, would count as an expenditure of funds as defined in the language (though I haven't seen anyone else bring that up yet). According to several Democratic representatives including minority leader Nancy Pelosi, Congress's legislative intent was to allow the initiative to become law, but only to block a bill advanced by a committee of the DC City Council last month to establish a regulatory and taxation system with marijuana stores in the District.
Along with that gray lining, it should be noted that the banking issue, which as far as I can tell is unaddressed by the CRomnibus, is a really huge problem for the marijuana industry. Some consider it an even bigger problem than prosecutions. An attempt by the administration in February to establish safe harbor procedures for banks to take marijuana money has elicited only extremely slight movement on the part of banks, who mostly want to see clarity in federal statutes, not just a policy. So there is a pressing need to pass that second of the House's pro-medical marijuana amendments too.
Still, we have seen an amazing and historic victory this weekend. Whatever the legislation does or doesn't achieve in concrete help for medical marijuana defendants, businesses and patients right now, it clearly eases the way for further legislative progress on the issue. Mostly I think it will depend on whether the new Congress is able to do business at all. If they can, I will not be surprised to see even the Republican-controlled House and Senate to pass banking. And I expect to see bills to fully move medical marijuana into the realm of legality to see substantially increased support from both sides of the aisle.
King County Sheriff John Urquhart has recorded a message letting Oregon voters know that legalization in Washington State has seen wasteful arrests decrease, DUIs decrease, taxes going to schools and police, and drug prevention programs getting funding. Watch this video about it from the Yes on 91 campaign:
Phil reviewed Dean's book last night.
I was also on Dean's radio show last week talking about my two new papers; check out the audio or transcript of the interview, which also featured Judge James P. Gray.
In a historic vote this afternoon, the US House has approved an amendment to the Treasury Department appropriations bill barring the agency from spending any money to punish financial institutions that provide services to marijuana businesses where it is legal.
This is the second time in less than two months that the House has voted to roll back marijuana law enforcement. In May, the House passed an amendment prohibiting the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from undermining state medical marijuana laws and passed two amendments prohibiting the DEA from interfering with state hemp laws.
“Congress is yet again rejecting the failed war on marijuana,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “They have read the poll numbers and are doing both what is right and what is politically smart.”
The GOP-dominated House Appropriations Committee stuck a thumb in the eye of democratic governance in the nations capital this morning. The committee voted to prevent the District of Columbia from implementing marijuana decriminalization approved by the District government.
The amendment could also threaten the District's medical marijuana program.
Speaking of the District's medical marijuana program, this vote today brings back some bad memories. DC voters overwhelmingly approved medical marijuana in 1998, but, thanks to a measure similar to today's amendment, Congress blocked it for nearly a decade. It wasn't until 2009, with Democrats in control of the House, that the block was lifted.
The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) says it and other advocates will seek a floor vote to strip this amendment from the appropriations bill. It would seem to go against the spirit of a House that less than a month ago voted to prevent the Justice Department from enforcing federal marijuana laws against patients and providers in compliance with state medical marijuana laws.
Here's what MPP director of federal policies Dan Riffle had to say:
“The District of Columbia wisely decided to use stop wasting its own resources enforcing ineffective and racially biased laws and to allow those with serious illnesses whose doctors recommend it to use medical marijuana. Unfortunately, unlike every state in America that gets to determine its own laws, Washington, D.C. laws are reviewed by Congress where Washington, DC residents have no voting representatives," he said.
“Marijuana is significantly less harmful than alcohol, and polls clearly show most Americans want to see it treated that way. We’ll do everything we can to restore democracy in D.C. and ensure this regressive amendment is rejected when it is considered by the full House. Mr. Harris’s antiquated, unscientific views on marijuana should be his constituents’ problem, not the District of Columbia’s,” he vowed.
Cut that funding!
The vote could come as soon as tonight or tomorrow, MPP says.
While the House vote was historic, it will be only a symbolic victory unless the Senate also joins in. Passage of the DEA defunding by the Congress (and the presumed signature of the bill by the president) would, on the other hand, have real world consequences--for the better.
Stay tuned for what could be a very well-deserved slap in the face for the DEA. Even if the measure fails in the Senate, it should provide a heads-up to the agency that there is growing dissatisfaction with it on the Hill. But we don't want to settle for that; we want the DEA handcuffed when it comes to medical marijuana.
The Boston Globe is reporting today that the DEA has been visiting Massachusetts doctors involved with yet-to-open medical marijuana dispensaries and giving them an ultimatum: Cut your ties with the dispensary or lose your DEA-issued license to prescribe drugs.
That could have an impact on the opening of some dispensaries, and that could have an impact on Massachusetts patients, who've already been waiting nearly a year-and-a-half for them to open since voters approved medical marijuana there in November 2012.
The DEA's actions to screw around with medical marijuana in Massachusetts come even as, in a historic vote, the House just a week ago voted to bar the DEA from interfering with medical marijuana in states where it is legal. Stories like this one from the Globe are only going to add pressure for the Senate to go along.
The DEA doesn't get it. It has already lost this war. It's time for the agency to get out of the way, or better yet, go the way of the dinosaurs. But while the DEA and the prohibition regime it enforces may be dying dinosaurs, those final twitches of the tail still have the power to inflict injury. Better to put the beast out its misery.
There were three several other votes, though, that are important to know about. One of them, which passed, is a mean-spirited amendment to block the clemency initiative that Pres. Obama and AG Holder are taking. If it becomes law it will seek to prevent the administration from transferring staff temporarily to increase the Pardon Attorney Office's capacity. There was another good amendment that passed, though, by Rep. Steve Cohen, which shifts $5 millions of DEA funding, to spend it instead on grants to state and local police agencies to help them reduce the backlog in rape testing kits. Cohen sponsored another amendment that didn't get passed, which have shifted three times as much money from the DEA to the Legal Services Corporation.
We have info, including how every member of Congress voted, online here. There's a zipcode lookup form you can use, a the top of the page, to identify your own US Representatives and how they voted.
Update: There were more relevant votes than I'd realized when I wrote this. One of them had to do with hemp. We'll add them as able.
Late Thursday night, the House of Representatives told the DEA to butt out of medical marijuana states by approving a budget amendment barring the use of taxpayer funds to do so.
Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority is liking what he's seeing:
"This historic vote shows just how quickly marijuana reform has become a mainstream issue," he said. "The last time a similar amendment came up it didn't come very close to passing but, since then, more states have passed medical marijuana laws and a couple have even legalized marijuana for all adults. More states are on this way later this year and in 2016, and it's clear that more politicians are beginning to realize that the American people want the federal government to stop standing in the way. If any political observers weren't aware that the end of the war on marijuana is nearing, they just found out."
It ain't a done deal just yet, though. If the Senate version of the bill doesn't contain similar language, it will be up to the House leadership to fight for the amendment (or not) in conference committee.
Still, this is historic. I like it when we make history like this. And it seems to be happening more often these days.
Angell also makes another astute point. While we can grumble about the spate of what I call "limited CBD medical marijuana bills," and how they are so extremely restrictive, they have also spread the medical marijuana meme to places where it hadn't thrived before, like the Deep South. And that could be paying off in congressional votes like this one.
"This year's huge vote increase can largely be attributed to the fact that lawmakers only recently began hearing the moving stories of the many children whose severe seizures are only relieved by marijuana. Being able to list these CBD states in the amendment text meant that more members of Congress that represent these states voted yes than otherwise would have. Counting these states, 60 percent of the U.S. population lives in a place where state law disagrees with federal law."
It's a done deal. A UPS truck delivered more than 250 pounds of hemp seed to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture this afternoon. It took a lawsuit and a lot of political pressure on DEA head Michele Leonhart, but the agency has backed away from its initial refusal to allow the seeds to be imported.
That prompted an intense and angry reaction from state officials, who promptly sued the DEA, the Justice Department, and Customs in federal court, and from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who just happens to be from Kentucky. It's not clear exactly what went down, but after two Wednesday meetings, the DEA started singing a different tune.
One meeting brought together lawyers for the federal government and the state of Kentucky before a federal judge; the other was face-to-face between McConnell and Leonhart. By the end of the day Wednesday, the DEA had backed down.
The DEA just ain't getting no respect these days. Leonhart was recently chastised by her boss, Attorney General Eric Holder, over her remarks before Congress dissing the administration's moves to reduce the reliance on mandatory minimum sentencing, the Drug Policy Alliance is calling for her head, and drug expert Mark Kleiman is suggesting maybe it's time to disband the agency. Couldn't happen to a more deserving set of folks.
Good Golly, Miss Mary Jane! I've been watching marijuana legalization marches for a long time and I've never seen a crowd like this.
Now, maybe they're exaggerating. Maybe it was only 100,000. But this is humongous. I can recall seeing 70,000 turn out in Rome one year, and crowds in the tens of thousands sometimes in European capitals and major Canadian cities.
But just look at that mass of humanity in Buenos Aires! That's sending a very strong signal to the Argentine government that it needs to quit dilly-dallying and get down to freeing the weed.
And it wasn't just Buenos Aires. Organizers reported marches in numerous Argentine cities, with more than 15,000 showing up in Cordoba, 11,000 in Rosario, 7,000 in Mendoza, 2,500 in La Plata, 300 on the slopes at Bariloche, and even 200 way down Patagonia way in Comodoro Rivadavia.
The Argentine may be suffering from some legalization envy -- situated just on the other side of the Rio de la Plata estuary is Uruguay, where the government is formally announcing its legalization regulations this week. Whatever the reasons, congratulations to the Argentines, and may we all be inspired by their example.
Uruguay will formally unveil the regulations for its legal marijuana commerce next week, although the broad outlines are already known. The stuff will be genetically tracked from seed to sale and beyond, it'll see for less than a buck a gram, and registered consumers will only be able to buy 40 grams a month.
In that interview, Mujica, a former leftist guerrilla who spent years in prison during the time of military dictatorship in the 1970s, made clear that he's no hipster.
"We don't go along with the idea that marijuana is benign, poetic and surrounded by virtues. No addiction is good," he said. "We aren't going to promote smoke fests, bohemianism, all this stuff they try to pass off as innocuous when it isn't. They'll label us elderly reactionaries. But this isn't a policy that seeks to expand marijuana consumption. What it aims to do is keep it all within reason, and not allow it to become an illness."
Well, with all due respect, Mr. Mujica, you sound like an elderly reactionary. This is a guy who has never smoked pot, and it shows. Referring to marijuana use as an addiction puts him in the company of mad scientists like NIDA head Dr. Nora Volkow and the professional prohibitionists of Project SAM, and spouting platitudes like "no addiction is good" manages to conflate being physically addicted to things like heroin and prescription opiates to habitually puffing a pot pipe or having a cup of coffee first thing every morning.
Mujica also took some gratuitous pot shots at Colorado's legalization regime and at medical marijuana in the US. Uruguay's system will be superior to Colorado's, he said, because Colorado doesn't track pot after it is purchased.
The AP quoted Mujica as saying "it's a complete fiction what they do in Colorado," which seems to be his way of claiming that legalization there is out of control because it doesn't track individual purchasers. Well, I find it kind of creepy to think the government is keeping track of my consumption habits (like with, say, a prescription monitoring database—oops, never mind), and I have to wonder why Mujica isn't pushing for something similar for alcohol purchases in his country.
And, Mujica said, the medical marijuana laws in US states are based on "hypocrisy" because they allow people with "fake illnesses" to obtain marijuana. Well, he has something of a point there, but only to a degree. California is by far the most wide open medical marijuana state, and people do take advantage of the loosely-written law to obtain and use medical marijuana without fear of arrest.
California can remedy that by recognizing reality and just getting on with legalization, as it will almost certainly do in 2016. But the other medical marijuana states are much more restrictive, and, perversely, the more public support grows for medical marijuana, the tighter the restrictions seem to be.
So, why is Mujica being such a grumpy old man about marijuana legalization? After all, he's the guy who pushed it through in Uruguay. I think there are a couple of things going on.
First, he's a square. He's a straight, old leftist, a former revolutionary, with no experience with marijuana and no connections to the cannabis culture. He really sees this as a public health and public security problem, not as a step toward human liberation. In that sense, he's your grandpa.
But he's also moving forward with legalization in the face of strong public opposition to it in Uruguay. In a poll last week, nearly two-thirds remained opposed to the new law, although 51% said it was better to give it a chance than to kill it at birth. I suspect many of Mujica's comments were made with that domestic audience in mind. In that sense, he's a smart politician.
And grumpy old man he may be; he's still the guy who is leading the first country to break with global pot prohibition. Adelante, companero.
Watch Attorney General Eric Holder's video speech about it, posted this morning.
Phil is driving home from Denver at this time, but will be doing a feature story on this, as well as on marijuana legalization in Colorado (he visited on 4/20), later this week.