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Growing Demands for UN Drug Policy Reform [FEATURE]

The United Nations' Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) has wrapped up the High-Level Segment portion of its annual meeting in Vienna. The session revealed schisms among countries about future steps on global drug control even as the global drug bureaucrats gave signs of softening in some policy areas, especially around emphasizing public health as opposed to criminalization.

An indication of relaxation came when a key working group of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced the release of groundbreaking recommendations discouraging criminal sanctions for drug use. The Scientific Consultation Working Group on Drug Policy, Health and Human Rights of the UNODC -- which includes Nora Volkow, head of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) -- released the recommendations as the session got underway. The working group recommendations say 'criminal sanctions are not beneficial' in addressing the spectrum of drug use and misuse.

Getting down to business at the CND in Vienna (unodc.org)
The meeting ended with a formal joint ministerial statement agreed to at the last minute after months of contentious wrangling, but one where countries failed to agree on a common approach and where certain fractious issues -- such as the use of the death penalty for drug offenses or even the mention of the term "harm reduction" -- were omitted entirely.

Countries critical of the global drug policy status quo, particularly from Europe and Latin America, were joined by an ever-stronger civil society presence at the CND. The message of reform grows ever louder and presages an especially contentious next step, the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs, set for 2016.

It's not just change in the halls of the UN drug bureaucracies, but changes on the ground that are helping to drive the debate. Uruguay and two US state, Colorado and Washington, have legalized marijuana in apparent contravention of the global drug treaties, and Latin American countries in particular have for several years now expressed growing dismay at the drug war status quo.

Uruguay's decision to legalize marijuana commerce was "not a solution to dealing with the world's drug problem," UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) head Yuri Fedotov said just days ago, and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) called the Uruguayan government "pirates" for going up against the UN drug conventions. But the UN drug bureaucrats were singing a slightly softer tune last week in Vienna.

Taking in the discussions in Vienna (idpc.net)
"My impression from the debates so far is that the prevailing mood is to say no to dismantling the provisions of the conventions, but yes to returning to the original spirit of the conventions: protection of health, welfare, and safety of people," Fedotov said in anodyne remarks at the release of the ministerial statement.

"The provisions of the conventions indeed are flexible, human rights based, and founded on the protection of health. I would like particularly to stress the need of strengthening the public health in a comprehensive, balanced, scientific evidence-based approach, that is very important, and fully consistent with human rights standards," Fedotov continued. "There is also a growing need for every country to move away from compulsory treatments and punitive measures and towards embracing these approaches, including protection against HIV/AIDS, as envisaged by the Conventions."

The ministerial statement itself, a compromise document, for the most part blandly supported the existing international drug control regime, although it, too, signaled a shift toward a more public health-oriented approach, and it obliquely referenced ongoing dissent by noting "the ongoing discussions in some regions on how to address the world drug problem, in light of the current situation and policies, and emphasize the importance of a broad, transparent, inclusive and scientific evidence-based discussion among Member States, with inputs from other relevant stakeholders, as appropriate, in multilateral settings, on the most effective ways to counter the world drug problem consistent with the three international drug control conventions…"

But behind the smooth language of the official statements, there was real anger and dismay at the toll of more than a half-century of global drug prohibition.

"People have been sacrificed in our actions to tackle the drug problem," Colombian Justice Minister Gomez Mendez told delegates. "We call for more effective ways to achieve the objectives stated in international agreements. Alternatives are needed. Drug policies cannot travel at the speed of a telegraph while drug problems develop at the speed of broadband Internet."

ENCOD's Coffee Sniffer Brigade reenacted prohibitions of yore, to the bemusement of CND security. (encod.org)
"We should not be driven by ideologies and wishful thinking. We unfortunately know today that the idea of a drug-free world based on the belief that, if we eradicate supply, we will reduce demand, is not achievable. We should look to and evaluate alternative regimes appearing in North and South America and in Europe rather than just be silent about it", said the Czech Republic delegate, echoing the calls for drug policy reform made by not only Colombia, but also Guatemala, Ecuador, Mexico and Uruguay.

"Since 1961, due to a rigid and narrow interpretation of the UN drug conventions, there has been one single means to control the use of cannabis -- criminalization has been imposed, "said Diego Canepa, representative of the delegation of Uruguay. "We have don't have a magic recipe, but we are trying to find a way out and snatch the market away from traffickers. We have a responsibility to represent our citizens, and not to take the challenge and act accordingly would be an unforgivable error."

The Mexican delegation said that health policies should be encouraged instead of the criminalization of drug use and that a thorough review of the international drug strategies is required. The delegation of Guatemala highlighted that "the revision of the UN drug conventions is needed and that the Latin American hemispheric debate is ongoing."

"The failure of present drug policies has generated questions from governments, policy-makers, intellectuals and civil society organizations from across the region," said the Ecuadorian delegation. "Many voices are calling for a change in paradigm in the understanding and approach to the drug phenomenon."

Even the US delegation was sounding eerily reformist. Acting Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) head Michael Botticelli called for continuing down "the path of criminal justice reform" and cited recent Obama administration moves to minimize mandatory minimum drug sentences.

But the call for reform came most loudly in the person of Eliot Ross, representing the International Network of People Who Use Drugs, who noted that human rights law and drug control law continued to be inconsistent, and called for a comprehensive overhaul of the treaties and amnesty for drug prisoners.

Changing the global drug control system for the better is agonizingly slow work -- it's been 16 years since hundreds of global intellectuals signed an open letter in The New York Times calling on the last UNGASS on Drugs to begin to adopt fundamental reforms. But, under the weight of rising pressure, the creaky machine is starting to move.

"We derive hope from the fact that, contrary to earlier CND meetings, there are now countries openly condemning prohibition as the basic answer to drug problems," said ENCOD (the European NGO Council for Just and Effective Drug Policies). "More than ever, not just governmental but UNODC officials see the writing on the wall. Instead of insisting on the need to create 'a drug free world', they refer to the need to protect people and societies from the damages of drugs and drug trafficking. We continue to urge governments to put these words into action and steadily direct their policy towards legal regulation as the only way to reduce harms and increase public safety. We hope for and expect major change at the 2016 UNODC meetings in New York. Prohibitionary drug laws are the problem. Removing them is the solution."

In a theatrical jab at prohibitions gone by, ENCOD activists reprised the strange saga of the Coffee Sniffer Brigade, a group of disabled soldiers who had to enforce the ban on coffee roasting and brewing that was imposed by the Prussian King Frederick the Great in the second half of the 18th Century. Delegates reacted first with reservation, then with support, the activists reported.

"The remaking of the system is happening before our eyes. For decades governments used the United Nations to push a one-size-fits-all approach," said Joanne Csete, deputy director of the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program. "The dissent we're seeing today is the deconstruction of the international drug war."

"This is the beginning of a serious re-think on drug control," said Ann Fordham, executive director of the International Drug Policy Consortium. "Billions of dollars have been wasted, millions of people have been criminalized, thousands of lives have been lost and the drug cartels carry on getting richer. Given this reality, the charade of a global consensus on drugs is now unacceptable, and some governments have found the courage to speak out."

Chronicle AM -- March 17, 2014

Alaska state agencies complain that legalization will cost money (and they want some of it), Vermont cops complain the governor is soft on pot, federal prosecutors complain about reforming mandatory minimums, and more. Let's get to it:

What will keep this Rasta smiling? Jamaican ganja farmers have some ideas. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

California Cannabis Hemp Initiative Dead for 2014. The number of active marijuana legalization initiatives in California has dropped to one after the California Cannabis Hemp Initiative failed to qualify for the ballot by its signature-gathering deadline. That leaves only the Marijuana Control, Legalization & Revenue Act, which, barring a miracle, isn't going to make the ballot, either. It needs 504,000 valid voter signatures by April 18, but only has 10,000. The big money is waiting for 2016 in California.

FBI Refuses to Do Washington State Marijuana Industry Background Checks. The FBI is refusing to do criminal history background checks on people applying for legal marijuana licenses in Washington state, even though it has done such checks in Colorado. The agency has balked for the past year at requests from state officials, and refused to tell the Associated Press why. The state has issued three licenses so far; for those, they relied on background checks by the Washington State Patrol, which would catch in-state criminal convictions, but might miss out-of-state ones.

Alaska Agencies Claim Legalization Will Cost Millions. In a new report, Alaska state agencies said that if the marijuana legalization initiative passes there, it will cost the state between $3.7 million and $7 million to implement and enforce the new law. Included in that figure are law enforcement requests for "at least three additional Alaska State Trooper positions to target the illegal diversion and exportation of marijuana lawfully cultivated in Alaska" and nearly $1.5 million for a media campaign to warn of stoned driving and training for troopers to recognize when a driver is high. The report doesn't address increased tax revenues from legalization.

Vermont Cops Accuse Governor of Being Soft on Pot. The Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police, Vermont Sheriffs Association and the Vermont Police Association said in a press release Friday that they are united against efforts for marijuana legalization and that, while they have previously expressed concern about Gov. Peter Shumlin's (D) "tolerance of marijuana," their concerns had been ignored. They also called marijuana "a gateway drug."

Washington Legislature Approves Sale of Hash and Hash Oil. The state legislature has approved a bill that would legalize the sale of hashish and hash oil at state-licensed marijuana retail outlets.House Bill 2304 now goes to the desk of Gov. Jay Inslee (D).

Medical Marijuana

HHS Gives Go-Ahead for MAPS PTSD Research Study. The federal Department of Health and Human Services granted permission Thursday for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) to purchase research-grade marijuana from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) for its planned study of marijuana for symptoms of PTSD. MAPS notes that this is the first time in the 22 years it has been trying to start marijuana drug research that it has actually won permission to purchase marijuana from NIDA. It's not quite a done deal yet, though; the DEA still as to approve. MAPS said it was "optimistic" DEA would do so.

Florida Poll Shows Strong Support for Initiative. A University of North Florida poll released Monday has the state's medical marijuana amendment initiative well-positioned to win in November. The initiative has already qualified for the ballot. The poll had 74% of registered voters planning to vote for it. Because it is a constitutional amendment, it will need 60% approval to pass.

Iowa Poll Has Support for Medical Marijuana at 81%. In a new Quinnipiac Poll, 81% of Iowa voters said they would support "allowing adults in Iowa to legally use marijuana for medical purposes if their doctor prescribes it." Even among Republicans, 68% agreed. That's in sharp contrast to a recent Iowa Poll that had only 59% supporting "legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes."

Michigan Chamber of Commerce Wants No Jobless Benefits for Fired Medical Marijuana Users. Michigan's leading business group is urging the state appeals court to rule out jobless benefits for people who are fired for using medical marijuana. The move comes as the court weighs the cases of people who sought benefits after being fired for using medical marijuana. Lower court judges have ruled in favor of the workers, who argued that they shouldn't be denied benefits after losing their jobs for using marijuana legally under state law.

Arkansas Medical Marijuana Initiative Has 15% of Necessary Signatures. A signature-gathering campaign to put medical marijuana on the November ballot has collected about 15% of the signatures needed to qualify, Arkansans for Compassionate Care said on Thursday. The initiative is one of two gathering signatures this year. It has until July 7 to hand in 62,000 qualified signatures, and has about 10,000 so far.

Nevada Board of Health Approves Dispensary Regulations. The Board of Health gave its approval Friday to rules to regulate new dispensaries. The next and final step is approval by a legislative commission on March 28. A 2013 law allowing dispensaries goes into effect April 1. But even then, there will be a 45-day notice announcing the date applications will be accepted. Once the application period opens, there will only be a 10-day window for accepting them. After the application period closes, the state must make a decision on each application within 90 days of receiving it. And then dispensaries have to grow their supply. Maybe by year's end…

Drug Policy

House Passes Bill to Force President to Enforce Federal Drug Laws. The Republican-controlled US House last week passed the Enforce the Law Act (House Resolution 4138), which would allow Congress to sue the president for failing to execute federal laws. While the bill is a broad attack on the Obama administration, one key supporter, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), singled out the "selective non-enforcement" of part of the Controlled Substance Act in medical marijuana and legal marijuana states as a major concern. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said the bill was "dead on arrival" in the Senate.

Law Enforcement

Nevada County Settles Up in Interstate-80 Cash Seizure Cases. Humboldt County, Nevada, where sheriff's deputies developed a habit of stopping travelers on I-80 and seizing their cash through threats of arrest or impoundment even though no drugs were found, has settled a lawsuit over the practice. Two men from whom thousands of dollars were taken sued and have won their money back and attorneys' fees. The county District Attorney's Office also said Friday it had launched an internal review of the county's "forfeiture program," but that it had seen no evidence of illegal stops or other wrongdoing on the part of Sheriff Ed Kilgore or his deputies. The lawsuits claimed the cash seizures were part of a pattern of stopping drivers for speeding as a pretext for drug busts in violation of the Constitution.

Illinois Bill to Ban Kratom Filed. Rep. Dennis Reboletti (R-Elmhurst) has filed a bill to outlaw kratom, a Southeast Asian herb with psychoactive properties. The plant is not banned federally, although the DEA has it on its list of "drugs of concern." Indiana is the only state so far to have criminalized it, designating its active ingredients as controlled substances. The Illinois bill is House Bill 5526.

Sentencing

Some Federal Prosecutors Oppose Eliminating Mandatory Minimums. Attorney General Holder's move to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for most drug offenders is running into flak from some prosecutors, The Washington Post reported Thursday. They complained that "tough sentencing policies provide a critical tool to dismantle drug networks by getting cooperation from lower-level defendants and building cases that move up the criminal chain of command." The prosecutors spoke out at a hearing of the US Sentencing Commission where Holder endorsed changing federal sentencing guidelines to reduce drug sentences in most cases.

International

NGOs to Address Inter-American Human Rights Commission on Drug Policy and Human Rights. For the first time, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission has granted an audience to hemispheric civil society groups to address the impact of the war on drugs on human rights in the Americas. The audience will take place in Washington, DC, on March 25. Click on the link to see the impressive list of organizations that will participate.

Jamaican Rastas Want Legal Marijuana Monopoly. The newly formed Westmoreland Hemp and Ganja Farmers Association said licenses to grow and sell marijuana upon legalization should be limited to Rastafarians and other poor people, who have been victimized for decades for cultivating the herb. "We will not stand by and watch anybody outside of Rastafari and grassroots people take over this product. And we make no apology," association President Ras Iyah V declared during his address at the launch of the organisation at the MXIII Lawn in Negril on Sunday night. "We are saying this loud and clear to the Government, we are saying it to society, and we are saying it to the international community. Otherwise, we will take to the streets and turn Jamaica upside down -- and we make no apology. Because we not going take baton lick and brutality and all of a sudden now when the legalization aspect come, a some rich people come tek it ova -- people who used to scoff and scorn at the very mention of the herb name ganja," he added. "The WHGFA's objectives are to make sure that those who have paid the price -- who have been going to jail, going to prison, getting the baton licks, who have been planting the herb and it get cut down by police and soldiers, and yet have been persistent with this product -- that the rights of these individuals are protected."

Mexico Moves to Rein In Anti-Cartel Vigilantes. Leery of having created a Frankenstein monster, Mexican authorities moved last week to put anti-cartel vigilante groups on notice that their illegal tactics will no longer be tolerated. Locals who saw the vigilantes as saviors from cartel extortion and threats now complain of similar behavior from the vigilantes, and the government says it now no longer needs them. Several vigilante leaders have been arrested on murder and other charges.

Chronicle AM -- March 14, 2014

No legalization for Maryland this year, the ASA national conference is coming soon, Utah (!) passes a package of policing reform bills, welfare drug testing goes down in flames in Indiana, the Swiss ponder cannabis clubs, and more. Let's get to it:

A bill before Utah's governor would begin to rein in SWAT in the Beehive State. Only Maryland has done something similar.
Marijuana Policy

Michigan Activists Plan Slew of Local Reform Initiatives. Marijuana reform activists are planning "a tsunami move in November 2014," with plans to put initiatives aimed at legalizing or decriminalizing possession, use or transfer of small amounts of marijuana on private property by persons 21 or older on the local ballot in at least eight towns and cities, and perhaps a dozen more. The Safe Michigan Coalition, the folks behind successful initiatives in Lansing, Ferndale, and Jackson last year, are also behind this effort.

NORML PAC Endorses Tommy Wells for DC Mayor. NORML PAC, the campaign and lobbying arm of NORML, announced today that it is endorsing Councilman Tommy Wells for mayor of Washington, DC. "Councilman Wells is a passionate crusader for the cause of marijuana law reform," stated NORML PAC manager Erik Altieri, "Wells showed his skill and acumen for the issue when he championed the District's marijuana decriminalization measure, which was overwhelmingly approved by the DC City Council just this month. The District of Columbia would greatly benefit from having his compassion, knowledge, and strong leadership in the mayor's office. Under a Tommy Wells administration, DC will continue to roll back its failed prohibition on marijuana and move towards a system of legalization and regulation."

Maryland Legalization Bill Dies, But Decriminalization Bill Still Lives. A bill that would have legalized marijuana in Maryland, House Bill 880 from Rep. Curt Anderson (D-Baltimore), died for lack of support in committee yesterday, but a decriminalization bill, Senate Bill 364, filed by Sen. Robert Zirkin (D-Montgomery) passed the Senate and is now before the House Judiciary Committee.

Colorado Appeals Court Rules Some Marijuana Convictions Can Be Thrown Out. Some people convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana can ask for those convictions to be thrown out under the law that legalized recreational marijuana in Colorado, the state's second-highest court ruled Thursday. The Colorado Court of Appeals said people whose cases were under appeal when Amendment 64 on recreational marijuana took effect in December 2012 are eligible to have their convictions reversed. The case is Colorado v. Brandi Jessica Russell.

Medical Marijuana

ASA National Conference in Washington, DC, April 5-7. The country's leading medical marijuana advocacy group, Americans for Safe Access (ASA), formally announced today its second annual Unity Conference, "Navigating Medical Cannabis in the Mainstream," to be held in Washington, DC on April 5-7, 2014. The conference will highlight medical and legal experts, policymakers, and a wide array of workshops and panels focusing on scientific research, strategic planning, and skills building. Click on the links for more details.

Washington Medical Marijuana Regulation Bill Dies. A legislative effort to roll Washington's medical marijuana program into its I-502 legal marijuana system has died at the last minute after House Republicans tried to use it to divert a share of marijuana tax revenue to cities and counties. Senate Bill 5887 sponsor Sen. Ann Rivers (R-La Center) said the bill was doomed by "immovable positions" even after a last-minute push by the governor. The bill would have required existing dispensaries to either get legal under I-502 or close, would have ended collective gardens, and would have reduced the amount of marijuana patients could possess and the number of plants they could grow.

Utah CBD Medical Marijuana Bill Passes Legislature. A bill that would allow children with epilepsy to use CBD cannabis oil has passed the legislature and now heads for the governor's desk. House Bill 105 won final approval in the House Thursday.

Drug Testing

Pre-Job Offer Drug Tests Violate ADA, Federal Court Rules. Pre-offer drug tests to determine the use of both legal and illegal drugs violates the Americans with Disabilities Act's (ADA) prohibition on pre-offer medical inquiries, a federal court in Pennsylvania ruled last week. The ADA contains an exception for tests solely "to determine the illegal use of drugs," but the court held that the urine drug screens qualified as medical exams because they tested not just for drugs but also for other medical purposes. The case is EEOC v. Grane Healthcare Co. and Ebensburg Care Center, LLC, d/b/a Cambria Care Center.

Indiana Welfare Drug Testing Bill Dies on Ties Vote in Senate. A bill to drug test welfare recipients suspected of using drugs died last night on a dramatic tie vote in the Senate. Senate Bill 1351 had already passed the House by a margin of 81-17, but Senate opponent said the measure unfairly targeted poor people and that other states that have adopted such programs have found they were not cost effective.

Law Enforcement

Utah Legislature Passes Policing Reform Bills. Three bills to impose some controls on law enforcement have been sent to the governor's desk in Utah. House Bill 70 originally would have limited the use of "dynamic entry" search warrants to situations involving violent crime, but was watered down. It still, however, imposes some restrictions on such searches. Senate Bill 185 would require police agencies with SWAT teams to report on why and how often they are used. Only Maryland has approved a similar law. And House Bill 185 requires police to obtain a warrant before searching the contents of a cell phone, including bulk data collection through technologies like Stingray.

Drugged Driving

Drugged Driving Bill Passes Vermont House. A bill that makes it easier for police to charge drivers with drugged driving passed the House Thursday. House Bill 501 changes existing law to use the same definition of "under the influence"of drugs as has been established for alcohol. Under current law, drugged driving can only be proven if someone drives unsafely, but the proposed law would change that to enable a conviction "when the person is under the influence of any other drug or under the combined influence of alcohol and any other drug." The state Supreme Court has held that any drug presence constitutes "under the influence." The bill now heads to the Senate.

International

Swiss Cities Consider Backing Cannabis Clubs. Municipal governments in at least five Swiss cities are considering plans to allow "cannabis clubs" or user associations. Local governments in Basel, Bern, Geneva, Lausanne, and Zurich are contemplating the move, with Geneva taking the lead. A working group will present a final proposal to authorities in June, but the move would require changes in federal law.

British Deaths From New Synthetics "Inflated," Former Drug Advisors Say. The National Program on Substance Abuse Deaths (NSPAD) reported 68 deaths in 2012 from the use of "legal highs" or new synthetic drugs, but two former government drug advisors say that figure includes many deaths from substances that "are already illegal, not new, and/or not psychoactive." Professor David Nutt and Dr. Les King of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs said only 11 of the 68 deaths actually occurred with new synthetics. "What is certain is that if the current government review of legal highs is to be taken seriously and lead to health improvements then there must be a proper definition of terms and improved data collection," they said. "Moreover the data must be properly and independently audited so the effects of any change in the law can be properly evaluated."

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Chronicle AM -- March 13, 2014

Attorney General Holder endorses federal drug sentencing reductions, CBD medical marijuana bills move in the South, a New Hampshire decriminalization bill advances, Zohydro may get some competition, and the UN is generating plenty of news, and more. Let's get to it:

Attorney General Eric Holder endorses federal drug sentence reductions. (usdoj.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Marylanders Rally for Legalization. Nearly 100 supporters of sweeping changes in Maryland's marijuana laws rallied in Annapolis Thursday before planned legislative hearings on bills to legalize -- or at least decriminalize -- possession of the drug. The House Judiciary Committee is hearing a series of marijuana reform bills this afternoon, including a legalization bill (House Bill 880) from Rep. Curt Anderson (D-Baltimore).

Maryland Poll Has Slim Majority for Legalization. As the legislature considers marijuana reform bills, a new Goucher Poll has support for legalization at 50.1%, with 39.4% opposed. The poll also had a whopping 89.6% in favor of medical marijuana.

New Hampshire Decriminalization Bill Passes House. The House approved a decriminalization bill by a veto-proof margin Wednesday. House Bill 1625, sponsored by Rep. Adam Schroadter (R-Newmarket) and a bipartisan group of seven cosponsors including Sen. Jeff Woodburn (D-Dalton), would make possession of up to one ounce of marijuana punishable by a civil fine of up to $100. It would also make cultivation of up to six plants a Class A misdemeanor instead of a felony. Currently, possession of any amount of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $2,000. Now, it's on to the state Senate.

Medical Marijuana

Kentucky Senate Approves CBD Medical Marijuana Bill. The Senate passed a bill allowing doctors to prescribe and patients to use CBD cannabis oil for medical reasons Wednesday. The bill passed with no opposition. Senate Bill 124 now goes to the House.

Georgia Senate Committee Approves CBD Medical Marijuana Bill. The Senate Health and Human Services Committee unanimously approved House Bill 885, which would allow patients to use CBD-based cannabis oils. It also amended the bill to allow parents to bring the oil into the state without facing penalties. The bill has already passed the House and now awaits a Senate floor vote.

South Carolina Senate Panel Approves CBD Medical Marijuana Bill. A subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Medical Affairs approved a bill allowing people suffering from epilepsy to use CBD cannabis oil Wednesday. Senate Bill 1035 still needs to pass the full committee. Similar legislation is moving in the House.

Hemp

Tennessee Hemp Bill Wins House Committee Vote. A bill that would allow the cultivation of hemp for research purposes passed the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Wednesday. House Bill 2445 now heads for the House Finance Ways and Means Committee.

Drug Testing

Mississippi Food Stamp Drug Testing Bill Heads to Governor. A bill that would require applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to undergo drug testing if there is a suspicion they are using drugs passed the Senate Wednesday and now goes to the desk of Gov. Phil Bryant (R), who has made it a keystone of his legislative agenda. House Bill 49 passed the Senate after debate in which supporters couched the program as an additional benefit that could help somebody struggling with addiction, while opponents said it was unfairly singling out the poor.

ASAM White Paper Calls for Vastly Expanded Drug Testing. The American Society for Addiction Medicine (ASAM) has published a white paper by former NIDA director and present day drug testing consultant Robert Dupont calling drug testing "underutilized" and arguing it should be expanded to be include people of all ages in virtually all aspects of daily life. The totalitarian vision is ably critiqued by NORML drug testing expert Paul Armentano (click the title link), as well as by progressive talk radio host Thom Hartman, who countered Dupont with an op-ed entitled "It's Time to End All Drug Testing." Both Armentano's and Hartman's critiques are worth the read.

Prescription Opioids

Oxycontin Maker Offers Alternative to Zohydro. Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of Oxycontin, says it has completed testing of an abuse-resistant version of the painkiller hydrocodone, a surprise development that could derail sales of the recently launched Zohydro, a similar medication that has been criticized for lacking such safeguards. Purdue Pharma says it plans to submit its extended-release hydrocodone drug to the Food and Drug Administration later this year. Shares of rival Zogenix Inc. plunged more than 20% after the announcement, which appears to jeopardize sales of the company's just-launched drug Zohydro. Zogenix began shipping Zohydro to pharmacies last week.

Sentencing

Attorney General Holder Endorses Proposal to Cut Federal Sentences. US Attorney General Eric Holder today endorsed a proposal from the US Sentencing Commission to reduce the sentences of people convicted of federal drug trafficking offenses by about a year, from an average of 62 to months to an average of 51 months. "This overreliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable," Holder said. "It comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate."

International

Listen to the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs Sessions. You can do it by clicking on the UNODC's webcast page at the link above. Also, Oregon activist Doug McVay has uploaded audio of the second part of today's plenary session here. There will be more updates on McVay's weekly Drug War Facts podcast.

UNODC Panel Says Criminalizing Drug Use "Not Beneficial". Today, a key working group of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced the release of groundbreaking recommendations discouraging criminal sanctions for drug use. The Scientific Consultation Working Group on Drug Policy, Health and Human Rights of the UNODC -- which includes Nora Volkow, head of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) -- is releasing the recommendations at the High-Level Segment of the 57th UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs. The working group recommendations say "criminal sanctions are not beneficial" in addressing the spectrum of drug use and misuse.

UNODC Sees "Serious Setbacks" in Fight Against Drugs. Addressing the opening session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNOC) head Yury Fedotov said the global fight against drugs had suffered "serious setbacks," including record opium crops in Afghanistan, violence linked to drug trafficking in Central America, and weak West African states succumbing to the blandishments of traffickers. While he said legalization was no solution, he did add that: "A public health response to the drug use problem should consider alternatives to penalization and incarceration of people with use disorders."

Caricom Creates Commission to Study Marijuana Legalization. The leaders of the Caricom Caribbean trade bloc announced today that they are creating a commission to study the impact of legalizing marijuana. The move came at the end of a two-day summit where members discussed a preliminary report on decriminalization. The commission is charged with presenting its report in early July for a Caricom summit in Antigua.

Iran Executed More Than 300 People for Drugs Last Year, Report Says. A report from the nonprofit group International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran released Wednesday says Iran executed 331 people on drug-related charges last year. The drug executions accounted for almost half of all executions in the Islamic Republic, the report found. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime sponsors anti-drug programs in Iran, and is under increasing pressure from European donor countries to put in place measures to stop its support from contributing to the death penalty.

Dire Prospects for Afghanistan Drug War, Analysis Finds. A new analysis from Alex Pollard-Lipkis of Foreign Policy in Focus finds that "if costly drug war strategies in Afghanistan have been unsuccessful even with a strong US military presence, they won't stand a chance after the US withdraws." The analysis critiques contemporary US approaches and peeks into the post-US future. Click on the title link to read the whole thing.

Say What? UNODC Panel Says Criminalizing Drug Use "Not Beneficial"

Yep, you read that right. The global anti-drug bureaucracy doesn't think it's a good idea to criminalize drug use.

As the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) notes:

Today, a key working group of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced the release of groundbreaking recommendations discouraging criminal sanctions for drug use. The Scientific Consultation Working Group on Drug Policy, Health and Human Rights of the UNODC – which includes Nora Volkow, head of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) – is releasing the recommendations at the High-Level Segment of the 57th UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs. The working group recommendations say “criminal sanctions are not beneficial” in addressing the spectrum of drug use and misuse.

DPA was happy to hear it:

"There is simply no good basis in science, health or ethics for bringing someone into the criminal justice system solely for drug possession," said DPA executive director Ethan Nadelmann. "Hopefully the UN’s recommendations will help accelerate the global trend toward ending the criminalization of drug use and possession.  That certainly would make an enormous difference in the United States."

And so are we. While decriminalizing drug use does not remove all the harms associated with drug prohibition (especially since it would still leave a huge black market in drug production and sales), it would be a huge step toward recognizing the humanity of drug users. In the US alone, it would also save about 1.5 million each year from being saddled with arrest records.

Location: 
Vienna
Austria

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

More prison guards gone bad, another Philadelphia cop gets in trouble, a Kentucky narc has problems, and a DC-area cop gets her hand slapped. Let's get to it:

In Tyler, Texas, a Smith County jail guard was arrested Friday on charges he was smuggling contraband to inmates. Detention Officer Keenon Daniels Olison, Jr., 24, went down after authorities received a tip and placed him under surveillance. He got caught with marijuana and tobacco, and is charged with multiple counts related to possessing a controlled substance in a detention facility with intent to deliver the controlled substance to an inmate and with delivery of contraband to inmates.

In Philadelphia, a Philadelphia police officer was arrested Friday and suspended with intent to dismiss after allegedly lying in court testimony about two drug arrests. Officer Steven Lupo, a six-year veteran, is accused of perjuring himself in one case by claiming he smelled burning marijuana, and in the second case by also claiming he smelled marijuana, then requested a search warrant. But surveillance video showed it didn't go down like that. He faces charges of perjury, false swearing, making false reports, and obstruction.

In Lexington, Kentucky, a former Franklin County sheriff's deputy was arrested Monday on charges he stole from the sheriff's office and people he raided and sold anabolic steroids. Matt Brown is accused of stealing more than $26,000 in cash and goods, most of during drug busts. He is charged with theft from a program that receives federal funds by misappropriation of drug money and seized property while he was a narcotics detective. He's also charged with three counts of trafficking in steroids. He out on his own recognizance while awaiting trial.

In Washington, DC, a former Prince Georges County, Maryland, police officer was sentenced Monday to four months house arrest and 26 months of probation for illegally sharing information about secret federal wiretaps used in a drug investigation. Vanessa Edwards-Hamm, 38, had pleaded guilty in December to alerting several people that law enforcement was monitoring the phone calls of people suspected of drug trafficking in DC after having been indicted last year along with more than a dozen other people in a ring accused of providing heroin, pain pills, cocaine, and other drugs.

In Fayetteville, West Virginia, a former federal prison guard was sentenced Monday to one-to-15 years in prisons for smuggling drugs into the Federal Correctional Institute Beckley. He had pleaded guilty in January to one count of delivery of a controlled substance.

Chronicle AM -- March 12, 2014

Medical marijuana is keeping state legislators busy, Maine's governor has a 20th Century approach to drug problems, New Mexico's governor cuts funds to a diversion program, Indonesia shifts its stance on drug users, and more. Let's get to it:

Responding to new synthetic drugs by banning them is still a favored response in state legislatures. (wikimedia.org)
Medical Marijuana

DEA, LAPD Raid Dispensaries. DEA agents assisted by LAPD officers raided and closed several Los Angeles dispensaries Tuesday. They hit the Black Rose dispensary in Fairfax, Downtown Medical Caregivers off Main Street, Washington and Western Medical Group in Harvard Heights, Herbman in Exposition Park and two homes in Beverly Hills. The same person allegedly owns all four dispensaries.

Vermont Senate Passes Medical Marijuana Expansion Bill. A bill that lifts the 1,000-patient cap on the state's dispensaries and authorizes two more dispensaries passed the Senate with little debate Tuesday. Senate Bill 247 now heads to the House.

Revised Alabama CBD Medical Marijuana Bill Passes Senate. A CBD medical marijuana bill revised by its sponsors so that the University of Alabama-Birmingham would conduct a research study passed the Senate on a unanimous vote Tuesday night. Senate Bill 174 now moves to the House.

Utah CBD Medical Marijuana Bill Passes Senate. A bill that would allow compassionate use of non-intoxicating cannabis oil by Utahns with untreatable epilepsy passed the Senate Tuesday by a wide margin, despite reservations some senators have about the oil's safety and long term benefits. House Bill 105 now goes back to the House, which had already passed it, but now must sign off on changes in the Senate version.

Michigan Medical Marijuana Bills Get Hearing. Two bills that would legalize the manufacture and sale of medical marijuana-infused products such as brownies and oils and permit communities to allow and regulate marijuana dispensaries got a hearing in the Senate Government Operations Committee hearing Tuesday, but no vote. Committee chair and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) is not expected to schedule another hearing for at least a couple of weeks. The bills are House Bill 5104 and House Bill 4271.

California Bill to Tighten Location Restrictions on Dispensaries Killed in Committee. A bill that would have widened "dispensary free" zone around schools from 600 feet to 1,000 feet has been blocked in the Assembly Public Safety Committee, Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway (R-Tulare) said Tuesday. Conway is the author of the bill in question, Assembly Bill 1588.

American Herbal Pharmacopoeia Releases Study on Marijuana and Epilepsy. The medical research group American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP) issued a new scientific review Tuesday, Cannabis in the Treatment of Epilepsy, which compiles much of the leading and historical research on epilepsy and cannabis (medical marijuana) for use by scientists, physicians, patients, and parents, as well as those producing and manufacturing it for treatment. Patient advocacy group Americans for Safe Access (ASA) will host a Google Hangout today, March 12th at 8:00pm EDT, featuring AHP director Roy Upton, ASA scientific advisory board member Dr. Sunil Aggarwal and others.

Law Enforcement

Maine Governor Wants More Drug War. Confronted by increasing levels of opiate drug use, Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) responded Tuesday by proposing to beef up drug war spending. The conservative governor wants to add 22 new state positions including 14 new Maine Drug Enforcement agents, four new prosecutors for the Office of the Maine Attorney General as well as four new district court judges to bolster the state's four drug courts in Lewiston, Presque Isle, Bangor and Portland. He also criticized methadone, saying the drug should be provided in a clinical setting only. He said he intended to focus equally on the addiction side of the drug equation but did not offer any details.

New Mexico Governor Vetoes Funding for Drug Diversion Pilot Program. Gov. Susana Martinez (R) vetoed spending $140,000 for a Santa Fe program to divert some drug offenders to treatment Tuesday. The city's pre-booking diversion program, otherwise known as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), will begin late this month. If successful, this model could become a model for other New Mexico communities, saving both the criminal justice and health systems tens of millions of dollars each year.

Salvia Divinorum

Rhode Island Bill to Ban Salvia, Jimson Weed Has Hearing Today. A bill that would ban the use of salvia divinorum and Jimson weed was scheduled for committee action today. House Bill 7191, sponsored by Rep. Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence), gets a vote before the House Judiciary Committee. It's not clear what prompted the bill.

New Synthetic Drugs

Minnesota Synthetic Drug Ban Bill Wins House Committee Vote. A bill that would give the state pharmacy board the authority to use its emergency powers to classify new synthetic drugs as banned substances is advancing in the House. House File 2446, introduced by Rep. Erik Simonson (D-Duluth) passed the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee Tuesday with few questions and a unanimous vote.

International

LEAHN Releases Frankfurt Principles on Drug Law Enforcement. The Law Enforcement and HIV Network (LEAHN) has released the Frankfurt Principles on Drug Law Enforcement, developed at the International Conference on Drug Policy and Policing last November in Frankfurt. The principles are designed to make law enforcement an effective partner in a harm reduction approach to drug use and related illness.

TDPF Releases Report on Dutch Coffee Shop Policy. Prompted by "misreports and misunderstandings that have led many to believe the Netherlands is retreating from its pragmatic policy of allowing cannabis to be sold via 'coffee shop,'" the British Transform Drug Policy Foundation has released a new report to set things straight. The report is Cannabis policy in the Netherlands: Moving forward, not backwards.

Ghana Anti-Drug Head Calls for Marijuana Legalization Debate. The executive secretary of the Narcotics Control Board (NACOB), Akrasi Sarpong, has called for a national debate on legalization of marijuana in the country. "Ordinary people can say don't legalize it but that will be vocalizing the ostrich hiding its head in the sand, because there is a virtual legalization on the ground," Sarpong said. Many people believe "what you are fighting is not crime," he added. "Reports say cannabis is the number one problem in Africa so what are we therefore saying. People laugh at these things, because, they are growing them in their homes," he said.

Peru Ponders Restarting Drug Plane Shootdown Program.Peru suspended its law allowing its Air Force to shoot down suspected drug planes in April 2001, when the Peruvian Air Force, accompanied by a CIA support plane, mistakenly shot down an aircraft carrying American missionaries, killing Veronica Bowers and her infant daughter. Now, Congressman Carlos Turbino, a retired general, has filed a bill to reinstate the program. It is currently before the congressional defense committee, even though it is opposed as unnecessary by the government of President Ollanta Humala.

New Indonesian Drug Law Emphasizes Rehabilitation Instead of Punishment of Drug Users. Indonesian ministers this week signed a memorandum of understanding that they say will declare drug users "victims" instead of criminals, to be treated at rehabilitation centers instead of sentencing to prison. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has gone on the record supporting a softer touch for addicts, but early efforts to push for more rehabilitation centers have met with resistance from judges who are loathe to appear weak on drugs and lawmakers who often use the early release of traffickers as opportunities to grandstand against the president. Drug user make up 42% of all Indonesian prisoners.

Marijuana Reform Rally Set for Glasgow Next Month. A mass marijuana rally called by the Glasgow Cannabis Social Club is set for the city center next month, and it's already causing grumbling. "People will be extremely annoyed at the high-profile celebration of something that's illegal," grumped Conservative MSP John Lamont. "It is disappointing that such a carnival in homage to an illegal substance is being facilitated in this way," he added. The old fogies want the police to shut it down, but the police have said they will stop it only if lawbreaking takes place. The celebration is due to take place at Glasgow Green on Sunday April 20. So far, more than 200 people have signed up via Facebook to attend.

Chronicle AM -- March 11, 2014

The District of Columbia could legalize marijuana at the ballot box this year, Dr. Sanjay Gupta doubles down on his support for medical marijuana with a new CNN special tonight, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting this week in Vienna is attracting a lot of attention, and more. Let's get to it:

CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta "doubles down" on his support for medical marijuana. (via Share Bear on Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

DC Legalization Initiative Cleared for Signature-Gathering. The District of Columbia Board of Elections announced this morning that it had approved a marijuana legalization initiative for signature-gathering. That means voters in the nation's capital could vote to free the weed in November. Now, the DC Cannabis Campaign must gather some 25,000 signatures to qualify for the November ballot. But first, the Board of Elections must finalize the language for the measure. It has 20 days to do so.

Colorado Takes in $2 Million in Marijuana Taxes in First Month of Legalization. The state of Colorado collected $2.01 million in retail marijuana sales and excise taxes in January, the first month of legal sales, the Department of Revenue reported Monday.

Missouri Legalization Bill Gets Committee Hearing. A bill to legalize marijuana in the Show-Me State got a hearing in the House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee Monday. House Bill 1659, sponsored by Rep. Chris Kelly (D-Columbia), got a mixed reception in the hearing, with GOP lawmakers expressing skepticism. The committee took no vote and offered no timetable for further action.

Louisiana Marijuana Reform Advocates Rally on Capitol Steps in Baton Rouge. Although there is no legalization bill filed in Louisiana, legalization advocates rallied at the state capitol Monday to get their voices heard. The event was organized by Legalize Louisiana, which seeks to "decriminalize, legalize, and regulate marijuana" in the Bayou State. Although there is no legalization bill this year, there are bills to decriminalize and to allow for medical marijuana.

Legalization Would Be a "Terrible Mistake," Says NYPD Commissioner. NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton said Tuesday it would be a 'terrible mistake' to legalize marijuana and predicted problems for states that go that course. But he did say he supported medical marijuana.

Medical Marijuana

Dr. Sanjay Gupta Doubles Down for Medical Marijuana; Special Airs Tonight. CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who first saw the light on medical marijuana a few months ago, has reiterated his support for the herb's medicinal uses and will air a new special on the topic, Weed 2: Cannabis Madness: Dr. Sanjay Gupta Reports," at 10 p.m. ET on tonight.

In New Crackdown, Los Angeles Shutters A Hundred Dispensaries. More than 100 dispensaries have shut down since Los Angeles started enforcing new rules restricting them, City Atty. Mike Feuer announced Monday. In addition to the rules prompting scores of closures, Feuer said city lawyers had successfully fended off a host of legal challenges. In one closely watched case, they prevented a dispensary from opening in Mar Vista, securing a permanent injunction before it could set up shop.

Minnesota Medical Marijuana Bill Stalled By Cops. A key lawmaker said Tuesday she doesn't see a path forward for legalizing medical marijuana after talks with law enforcement hit a standstill. Rep. Carly Melin (DFL-Hibbing) said she had conceded to virtually all demands from law enforcement over the weekend but was still unable to get their support for her bill, House File 1818. Melin said she had no choice but to postpone a House committee hearing that would have been lawmakers' second look at the issue. "Law enforcement won't support any bill that would result in helping any patients," Melin said in an interview with The Associated Press. "The governor has to get involved."

Drug Testing

Georgia Food Stamp Drug Test Bill Passes Senate Committee. A bill that would require food stamp recipients suspected of drug use to pass a drug test to receive benefits narrowly passed out of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee Monday. House Bill 772, sponsored by Rep. Greg Morris (R-Vidalia) has already passed the House. It's not clear if it now goes to another committee or to a Senate floor vote.

Prescription Opioids

West Virginia Senator Manchin Joins Call to Overturn FDA Approval of Zohydro. US Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has joined the call for the FDA to overturn its recent approval of Zohydro, a single-ingredient hydrocodone drug approved for people suffering from chronic pain. It is the first ever single-ingredient drug to be approved by the FDA. Manchion joins Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and a number of legislators, prosecutors, and medical groups seeking to reverse the decision. But the FDA and the drug's manufacturer say the drug is needed to treat chronic pain.

Drug Use

RAND Corporation Report Reviews Past Decade's Drug Use. A new report from the RAND Corporation, What America's Drug Users Spend on Illegal Drugs: 2000-2010, pegs spending on illicit drugs at $100 billion a year. It also notes that from 2000 to 2010, the amount people spent on cocaine dropped by half from $55 billion to $28 billion, reflecting dramatic decreases in the availability of cocaine after 2006: from approximately 300 pure metric tons in 2000 to about 150 pure metric tons in 2010.

International

UN Drugs Meeting Opens after Historic Reforms Shatter Consensus on Drug Control System. The UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) opens its annual meeting this week after a year of historic reforms. This year’s meeting—which is taking place Vienna from March 13-21—is expected to be unusually contentious after a monumental 2013-2014. Unprecedented reforms have shaken the foundations of global drugs policy and set the stage for an explosive international debate. For live updates, check out the CND Blog.

Report Finds UN Stuck in Denial Over Marijuana Regulation. A new report from the Transnational Institute and the Global Drug Policy Observatory has been released in the run-up to the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting this week. The report, The Rise and Decline of Cannabis Prohibition: the History of Cannabis in the UN drug control system and options for reform, unveils the long and little-known history of cannabis regulation from the late 19th century when it was widely used for medical, ceremonial and social purposes to the post-WWII period when US pressure and a potent mix of moralistic rhetoric and unreliable scientific data succeeded in categorising cannabis as a drug with 'particularly dangerous properties' on a par with heroin in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. It also brings the history up-to-date with more recent developments as an increasing number of countries have shown discomfort with the treaty regime's strictures through 'soft defections', such as turning a blind eye, decriminalization, coffee shops, cannabis social clubs and generous medical marijuana schemes. These have stretched the legal flexibility of the conventions to sometimes questionable limits. The report outlines specific options for reform and assesses their potential for success. These options include: WHO review and modification of cannabis scheduling; state parties amending the treaties; modifying the conventions 'inter se', e.g. between specific states only; or denunciation of the treaty and re-accession with a reservation (carried out recently by Bolivia in order to defend indigenous rights and the use of coca leaf in its natural form).

ENCOD Calls for UN to End the Drug War. The European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD) will use the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs this week to call on the UN to end the war on drugs. A delegation of five Encod members will join the debate inside the UN: Urki Goñi, chairman of Cannabis Social Club Urjogaberdea in the Basque Country, Spain, Doug Fine, author of 'Hemp Bound' and 'Too High To Fail: Cannabis & the New Green Economic Revolution', Dionisio Nuñez, Bolivian ex-minister of coca affairs, Janko Belin, Encod chairman and Joep Oomen, Encod coordinator. On Friday March 14 one of them will deliver a speech to the plenary meeting. ENCOD will also be reporting nightly from the sessions later this week on the ENCOD web site.

Legalization Won't Solve World's Drug Problem, UN Drug Chief Says.Yuri Fedotov, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, told reporters Monday that while it is up to member states to decide "what needs to be done," legalization ain't it. "As the head of UNODC, I have to say that legalization is not a solution to the (world's) drug problem," Fedotov said. "It is very hard to say that this law (adopted by Uruguay's parliament) is fully in line with legal provisions of the drug control conventions," he added.

UN Drug Chief Praises Iran Drug Fight Despite Executions. Yuri Fedotov, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said Monday that Iran's anti-drug efforts were "very impressive" and that Iran "takes a very active role to fight against illicit drugs" even though human rights and harm reduction groups have criticized its frequent resort to the death penalty for drug offenders. Still, he added that UNODC opposes the death penalty and that he planned to raise the issue with Iranian leaders during the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting in Vienna this week.

Responding to Holder on Heroin, Reformers Call for a Health Direction [FEATURE]

US Attorney General Eric Holder had heroin on his mind Monday, using his weekly video message and an accompanying press release to draw attention to rising heroin overdose deaths and vowing to combat the problem with a combination of law enforcement, treatment, prevention, and harm reduction measures. Drug reformers generally responded positively, but called on the Obama administration to seek comprehensive, science- and health-based solutions instead of engaging in more drug war.

Attorney General Holder takes on heroin (usdoj.gov)
"Addiction to heroin and other opiates -- including certain prescription pain-killers -- is impacting the lives of Americans in every state, in every region, and from every background and walk of life -- and all too often, with deadly results. Between 2006 and 2010, heroin overdose deaths increased by 45%," Holder said. "Scientific studies, federal, state and local investigations, addiction treatment providers, and victims reveal that the cycle of heroin abuse commonly begins with prescription opiate abuse. The transition to -- and increase in -- heroin abuse is a sad but not unpredictable symptom of the significant increase in prescription drug abuse we've seen over the past decade."

What Holder didn't mention is that the rise in prescription pain pill misuse is tied to a massive increase in prescribing opioids for pain in the past decade. A study published last fall found that between 2000 and 2010, the amount of opioids prescribed for non-cancer pain had nearly doubled, and that during the same period, the percentage of people complaining of pain who received prescriptions for opioids jumped from 11% to nearly 20%. But reining in prescriptions generally isn't the answer either.

But at the same time, a 2011 Institute of Medicine report found that while "opioid prescriptions for chronic non-cancer pain [in the US] have increased sharply… 29% of primary care physicians and 16% of pain specialists report they prescribe opioids less often than they think appropriate because of concerns about regulatory repercussions."

As the IOM report noted, having more opioid prescriptions doesn't necessarily mean that "patients who really need opioids [are] able to get them." Opioid misuse and under-use of opioids for pain treatment when they are needed are problems that coexist in society. Pain pill crackdowns have also been found to result in increased use of street heroin, as a Washington Post article last week reports -- two additional reasons advocates prefer public health approaches to heroin more than law enforcement -- and why great care should be taken with the law enforcement measures.

"It's clear that opiate addiction is an urgent -- and growing -- public health crisis. And that's why Justice Department officials, including the DEA, and other key federal, state, and local leaders, are fighting back aggressively," Holder continued. "Confronting this crisis will require a combination of enforcement and treatment. The Justice Department is committed to both."

Holder pointed to DEA efforts to prevent diversion of pharmaceutical pain-relievers to non-medical users, mentioning investigations of doctors, pharmacists, and distributors.

"With DEA as our lead agency, we have adopted a strategy to attack all levels of the supply chain to prevent pharmaceutical controlled substances from getting into the hands of non-medical users," Holder said.

Cooking heroin (wikimedia.org)
Holder also pointed out that DEA had opened some 4,500 heroin investigations since 2011 and promising more to come.

But, as Holder noted, "enforcement alone won't solve the problem," so the administration is working with civil society and law enforcement "to increase our support for education, prevention, and treatment."

And although he didn't use the words "harm reduction," Holder is also calling for some harm reduction measures. He urged law enforcement and medical first responders to carry the overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan) and signaled support for "911 Good Samaritan" laws, which grant immunity from criminal prosecution to those seeking medical help for someone experiencing an overdose.

Holder got restrained plaudits from drug reformers for his small steps toward harm reduction measures, but they called for a more comprehensive approach.

"Preventing fatal overdose requires a comprehensive solution," said Meghan Ralston, harm reduction manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. "While naloxone is an absolutely critical component, we need a scientific, health-based approach to truly address the roots of the problem. This includes improving access to effective, non-coercive drug treatment for everyone who wants it, as well as improving access to medication-assisted treatments such as methadone and buprenorphine."

Naloxone (Narcan) can reverse opiate overdoses (wikimedia.org)
Ralston also added that just making naloxone available to cops and EMTs wasn't good enough. Friends and family members, not "first responders," are most often the people who encounter others in the throes of life-threatening overdoses.

"While we applaud Attorney General Holder's clear support for expanding access to naloxone, particularly among law enforcement and 'first responders,' we urge him to clarify that he supports naloxone access for anyone who may be the first person to discover an opiate overdose in progress," she said.

But Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group of law enforcement officials opposed to the war on drugs, applauded the move, which could help soften reflexive law enforcement opposition to carrying the overdose antidote, an attitude reflected in the the International Association of Chiefs of Police's opposition to all harm reduction measures.

"Police may not be the first to embrace change, but we are slowly evolving," said Lieutenant Commander Diane Goldstein (Ret.). "We cannot arrest our way out of a public health problem, and it's clear that the Attorney General is beginning to understand that and to embrace the role of harm reduction in reducing death, disease and addiction in our communities. We still have a long way to go, but this is a good sign."

The idea is "a no-brainer," according to executive director Major Neill Franklin (Ret.). "It is simply immoral not to support something proven to save lives for political reasons," Franklin added. "Yes, police send a message when they choose not to carry naloxone. But that message is not 'don't do drugs,' it's 'if you make the wrong decisions in your life, we don't care about you.' That offends me both as a former cop and as a human being."

The nuanced pushback to Holder's law enforcement/prevention/treatment/hint of harm reduction approach is good as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. Decriminalizing and destigmatizing now illicit drug use, as has been the case in Portugal, is an obvious next step, and removing the question of drugs from the purview of the criminal justice system altogether would be even better. Still, that a sitting attorney general is calling for treatment and harm reduction as well as law enforcement is a good thing, and for reformers to be calling him on not going far enough is a good thing, too.

"The New Jim Crow" Author Michelle Alexander Talks Race and Drug War [FEATURE]

On Thursday, Michelle Alexander, author of the best-selling and galvanizing The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness sat down with poet/activist Asha Bandele of the Drug Policy Alliance to discuss the book's impact and where we go from here.

Michelle Alexander (wikimedia.org)
The New Jim Crow has been a phenomenon. Spending nearly 80 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, it brought to the forefront a national conversation about why the United States had become the world's largest incarcerator, with 2.2 million in prison or jail and 7.7 million under control of the criminal justice system, and African American boys and men -- and now women -- making up a disproportionate number of those imprisoned. Alexander identified failed drug war policies as the primary driver of those numbers, and called for a greater challenge to them by key civil rights leaders.

It's now been nearly four years since The New Jim Crow first appeared. Some things have changed -- federal sentencing reforms, marijuana legalization in two states -- but many others haven't. Alexander and Bandele discuss what has changed, what hasn't, and what needs to, raising serious questions about the path we've been down and providing suggestions about new directions.

Audio of the conversation is online here, and a transcript follows here:

Asha Bandele: The US has 5% of the world's population, but has 25% of the world's incarcerated population, and the biggest policy cause is the failed drug war. How has the landscape changed in the last four years since The New Jim Crow came out?

Michelle Alexander: The landscape absolutely has changed in profound ways. When writing this book, I was feeling incredibly frustrated by the failure of many civil rights organizations and leaders to make the war on drugs a critical priority in their organization and also by the failure of many of my progressive friends and allies to awaken to the magnitude of the harm caused by the war on drugs and mass incarceration. At the same time, not so long ago, I didn't understand the horror of the drug war myself, I failed to connect the dots and understand the ways these systems of racial and social control are born and reborn.

But over last few years, I couldn't be more pleased with reception. Many people warned me that civil rights organizations could be defensive or angered by criticisms in the book, but they've done nothing but respond with enthusiasm and some real self-reflection.

There is absolutely an awakening taking place. It's important to understand that this didn't start with my book -- Angela Davis coined the term "prison industrial complex" years ago; Mumia Abu-Jamal was writing from prison about mass incarceration and our racialized prison state. Many, many advocates have been doing this work and connecting the dots for far longer than I have. I wanted to lend more credibility and support for the work that so many have been doing for some, but that has been marginalized.

I am optimistic, but at the same time, I see real reasons for concern. There are important victories in legalizing marijuana in Colorado and Washington, in Holder speaking out against mandatory minimums and felon disenfranchisement, in politicians across the country raising concerns about the size of the prison state for the first time in 40 years, but much of the dialog is still driven by fiscal concerns rather than genuine concern for the people and communities most impacted, the families destroyed. We haven't yet really had the kind of conversation we must have as a nation if we are going to do more than tinker with the machine and break our habit of creating mass incarceration in America.

Asha Bandele: Obama has his My Brother's Keeper initiative directed at black boys falling behind. A lot of this is driven by having families and communities disrupted by the drug war. Obama nodded at the structural racism that dismembers communities, but he said it was a moral failing. He's addressed race the least of any modern American president. Your thoughts?

Michelle Alexander: I'm glad that Obama is shining a spotlight on the real crisis facing black communities today, in particular black boys and young men, and he's right to draw attention to it and elevate it, but I worry that the initiative is based more in rhetoric than in a meaningful commitment to addressing the structures and institutions that have created these conditions in our communities. There is a commitment to studying the problem and identifying programs that work to keep black kids in school and out of jail, and there is an aspect that seeks to engage foundations and corporations, but there is nothing in the initiative that offers any kind of policy change from the government or any government funding of any kind to support these desperately needed programs.

There is an implicit assumption that we just need to find what works to lift people up by their bootstraps, without acknowledging that we're waging a war on these communities we claim to be so concerned about. The initiative itself reflects this common narrative that suggests the reasons why there are so many poor people of color trapped at the bottom -- bad schools, poverty, broken homes. And if we encourage people to stay in school and get and stay married, then the whole problem of mass incarceration will no longer be of any real concern.

But I've come to believe we have it backwards. These communities are poor and have failing schools and broken homes not because of their personal failings, but because we've declared war on them, spent billions building prisons while allowing schools to fail, targeted children in these communities, stopping, searching, frisking them -- and the first arrest is typically for some nonviolent minor drug offense, which occurs with equal frequency in middle class white neighborhoods but typically goes ignored. We saddle them with criminal records, jail them, then release them to a parallel universe where they are discriminated against for the rest of their lives, locked into permanent second-class status.

We've done this in the communities most in need our support and economic investment. Rather than providing meaningful support to these families and communities where the jobs have gone overseas and they are struggling to move from an industrial-based economy to a global one, we have declared war on them. We have stood back and said "What is wrong with them?" The more pressing question is "What is wrong with us?"

Asha Bandele: During the Great Depression, FDR had the New Deal, but now it seem like there is no social commitment at the highest levels of government. And we see things like Eric Holder and Rand Paul standing together to end mandatory minimums. Is this an unholy alliance?

Michelle Alexander: We have to be very clear that so much of the progress being made on drug policy reflects the fact that we are at a time when politicians are highly motivated to downsize prisons because we can't afford the massive prison state without raising taxes on the predominantly white middle class. This is the first time in 40 years we've been willing to have a serious conversation about prison downsizing.

But I'm deeply concerned about us doing the right things for the wrong reasons. This movement to end mass incarceration and the war on drugs is about breaking the habit of forming caste-like systems and creating a new ethic of care and concern for each of us, this idea that each of us has basic human rights. That is the ultimate goal of this movement. The real issue that lies at the core of every caste system ever created is the devaluing of human beings.

If we're going to do this just to save some cash, we haven't woken up to the magnitude of the harm. If we are not willing to have a searching conversation about how we got to this place, how we are able to lock up millions of people, we will find ourselves either still having a slightly downsized mass incarceration system or some new system of racial control because we will have not learned the core lesson our racial history is trying to teach us. We have to learn to care for them, the Other, the ghetto dwellers we demonize.

Temporary, fleeting political alliances with politicians who may have no real interest in communities of color is problematic. We need to stay focused on doing the right things for the right reasons, and not count as victories battles won when the real lessons have not been learned.

Asha Bandele: Portugal decriminalized all drugs and drug use has remained flat, overdoses been cut by a third, HIV cut by two-thirds. What can we learn from taking a public health approach and its fundamental rejection of stigma?

Michelle Alexander: Portugal is an excellent example of how it is possible to reduce addiction and abuse and drug related crime in a non-punitive manner without filling prisons and jails. Supposedly, we criminalize drugs because we are so concerned about the harm they cause people, but we wind up inflicting far more pain and suffering than the substances themselves. What are we doing really when we criminalize drugs is not criminalizing substances, but people.

I support a wholesale shift to a public health model for dealing with drug addiction and abuse. How would we treat people abusing if we really cared about them? Would we put them in a cage, saddle them with criminal records that will force them into legal discrimination the rest of their lives? I support the decriminalization of all drugs for personal use. If you possess a substance, we should help you get education and support, not demonize, shame, and punish you for the rest of your life.

I'm thrilled that Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana and DC has decriminalized it -- these are critically important steps in shifting from a purely punitive approach. But there are warning flags. I flick on the news, and I see images of people using marijuana and trying to run legitimate businesses, and they're almost all white. When we thought of them as black or brown, we had a purely punitive approach. Also, it seems like its exclusively white men being interviewed as wanting to start marijuana businesses and make a lot of money selling marijuana.

I have to say the image doesn't sit right. Here are white men poised to run big marijuana businesses after 40 years of impoverished black kids getting prison time for doing the same thing. As we talk about legalization, we have to also be willing to talk about reparations for the war on drugs, as in how do we repair the harm caused.

With regard to Iraq, Colin Powell said "If you break it, you own it," but we haven't learned that basic lesson from our own racial history. We set the slaves free with nothing, and after Reconstruction, a new caste system arose, Jim Crow. A movement arose and we stopped Jim Crow, but we got no reparations after the waging of a brutal war on poor communities of color that decimated families and fanned the violence it was supposed to address.

Do we simply say "We're done now, let's move on" and white men can make money? This time, we have to get it right; we have to tell the whole truth, we have to repair the harm done. It's not enough to just stop. Enormous harm had been done; we have to repair those communities.

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