Alternatives to Incarceration

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Colorado Legislature Passes Sentencing Reform

In the final week of Colorado's legislative sessions, while all the attention was focused on passing marijuana commerce regulations, the state legislature quietly passed a measure designed to reduce the number of drug offenders sent to prison and save the state money. Senate Bill 250 had passed the Senate in April, the House passed it with amendments last Friday, and the Senate concurred with the House version Monday.

The bill creates a separate sentencing system for drug offenders and allows people convicted of some felony drug charges to be sentenced to probation and community-based sentencing and see that felony charge changed to a misdemeanor conviction upon completion of probation.

It also creates an "exhaustion of remedies" requirement for some drug offenders. That means they must have already participated in several other forms of treatment and sentencing before being sentenced to prison.

Those and other reform provisions in the bill will save the state of Colorado $5 million a year, according to the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. Some 550 offenders a year will be able to avoid prison sentences for their drug offenses under the new law, according to a legislative analysis.

"It's been a long time coming," said Sen. Steve King (R), sponsor of the bill. "It starts to deal with addiction issues and getting them off drugs."

The governor is expected to sign the bill shortly.

Denver, CO
United States

Decriminalize Drug Possession, UK Experts Say

In a report six years in the making, the United Kingdom Drug Policy Commission, a non-governmental advisory body chaired by Dame Edith Runciman, has called for a reboot of British drug policy and for decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use.

The report, A Fresh Approach to Drugs, found that the UK is wasting much of the $4.8 billion a year it spends fighting illegal drugs, and that the annual cost to the country of hard drug use was about $20 billion. A smarter set of drug policies emphasizing prevention, diversion, and treatment would be a more effective use of public resources, the report found.

Some 42,000 people in the UK are convicted each year of drug possession offenses and another 160,000 given citations for marijuana possession. Arresting, citing, and jailing all those people "amounts to a lot of time and money for police, prosecution, and courts," the report said.

"To address these costs, there is evidence to suggest that the law on the possession of small amounts of controlled drugs, for personal use only, could be changed so that it is no longer a criminal offence. Criminal sanctions could be replaced with simple civil penalties, such as a fine, perhaps a referral to a drug awareness session run by a public health body, or if  there was a demonstrable need, to a drug treatment program. The evidence from other countries that have done this is that it would not necessarily lead to any significant increase in use, while providing opportunities to address some of the harms associated with existing drug laws," the report recommended.

"Given its relatively low level of harm, its wide usage, and international developments, the obvious drug to focus on as a first step is cannabis, which is already subject to lesser sanctions than previously with the use of cannabis warnings. If evaluations indicated that there were no substantial negative consequences, similar incremental measures could be considered, with caution and careful further evaluation, for other drugs," the report said.

But while the commission was ready to embrace decriminalization, it was not ready to go as far as legalizing drug sales.

"We do not believe that there is sufficient evidence at the moment to support the case for removing criminal penalties for the major production or supply offenses of most drugs," it said.

Still, policymakers might want to consider lowering the penalties for growing small numbers of marijuana plants to "undermine the commercialization of production, with the associated involvement of organized crime."

The report also called for a review of harsh sentences for drug offenses, a consistent framework for regulating all psychoactive substances -- from nicotine to heroin -- and for moving the policy prism through which drug policy is enacted from the criminal justice system to the public health system.

But the Home Office, which currently administers drug policy in Britain, wasn't having any of it. Things are going swimmingly already, a Home Office spokesperson said.

"While the government welcomes the UKDPC's contribution to the drugs debate, we remain confident that our ambitious approach to tackling drugs -- outlined in our drugs strategy -- is the right one," the spokesperson said. "Drug usage is at its lowest level since records began. Drug treatment completions are increasing and individuals are now significantly better placed to achieve recovery and live their lives free from drugs. "I want to take this opportunity to thank the UKDPC for its work in this area over the past six years."

United Kingdom

Drug Policy in the 2012 Elections II: The Parties and the Presidential Race [FEATURE]

As the 2012 election campaign enters its final weeks, all eyes are turning to the top of the ticket. While, according to the latest polls and electoral college projections, President Obama appears well-positioned to win reelection, the race is by no means a done deal, and there's a chance that marijuana policy could play a role -- especially in one key swing state, Colorado, where the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol is running a popular and well-funded campaign to pass Amendment 64.

President Obama (wikimedia.org)
But other than that, marijuana policy in particular and drug policy in general do not appear likely to be big issues, at least between Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney. That's because both candidates hold similar positions:

Both oppose marijuana legalization, which will also be on the ballot in Oregon, and Washington. Obama, while at least paying lip service to patient access to medical marijuana, which will be on the ballot in Arkansas, Massachusetts, and Montana, has presided over a Justice Department crackdown on medical marijuana distribution, while Romney appears irritated and uncomfortable even discussing the issue.

"With Obama, we've all been disappointed with the backtracking, although he also needs credit for the original Ogden memo and opening the gates to a wider proliferation of medical marijuana around the country," said Drug Policy Action head Ethan Nadelmann. "For the people most disappointed with that, the paradox is that Romney offers very little of promise."

That was illustrated by GOP vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan's brief flirtation with medical marijuana. Last Friday, Ryan said medical marijuana was a states' rights issue. The comments came in Colorado, where the issue is hot.

"My personal positions on this issue have been let the states decide what to do with these things," he said in an interview with a local TV reporter. "This is something that is not a high priority of ours as to whether or not we go down the road on this issue. What I've always believed is the states should decideI personally don't agree with it, but this is something Coloradans have to decide for themselves."

But Ryan, who has a previous voting record opposing states rights to medical marijuana, did half a backtrack the next day, when one of his spokesmen explained that Ryan "agrees with Mitt Romney that marijuana should never be legalized."

Obama as president has supported increased drug war funding to Mexico and Central America, and Romney as candidate supports it as well. But his views are malleable. When running for the nomination in 2008, Romney suggested that spending on interdiction was a waste, and the money would be better spent on prevention here at home. Again, that is not so different from the Obama position which, rhetorically if not budgetarily, emphasizes treatment and prevention over interdiction and law enforcement.

The relative quiet around drug policy in the two campaigns is reflected in the Democratic platform and the Republican platform. There are only a handful of mentions of drugs or drug policy in the Democratic platform -- and the word "marijuana" doesn't appear at all -- all of them having to do with either combating international organized crime or touting the Obama administration's baby steps toward a slightly more progressive drug policy.

One of those progressive measures was overturning the federal ban on needle exchange funding, but the platform makes no mention or that or of the words "harm reduction." It does urge "supporting local prison-to-work programs and other initiatives to reduce recidivism, making citizens safer and saving the taxpayers money" and says the Democrats "will continue to fight inequalities in our criminal justice system," pointing to the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act as "reducing racial disparities in sentencing for drug crimes." The act actually addresses only crack cocaine sentencing.

While emphasizing their tough on crime positions, the Republican platform also takes some baby steps toward a more progressive drug policy. It calls for rehabilitation of prisoners and for drug courts, supporting state efforts to divert drug offenders to treatment, and it criticizes the federalization of criminal offenses. But the single most dramatic change in the Republican platform is that has eliminated what was in previous platforms an entire section on the war on drugs.

Just as with the candidates, the platforms give drug policy little time or space. In an election driven by the economy and the fires burning in the Middle East, the issue is going to get short shrift, especially when there is little daylight between the candidates on the platforms on the issue.

There are alternatives to the bipartisan drug policy consensus, but they remain on the margins. At least three third party candidates, Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party, Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson, and Green Party nominee Jill Stein, are calling for an end to the drug war and marijuana legalization, but they are all but shut out of presidential debates and media interest.

Mitt Romney (mittromney.com)
Since there is little substantive difference in the drug policy positions of the two front-runners and since their positions on marijuana legalization put them at odds with half the country -- 50% now support legalization, according to the most recent Gallup poll -- neither candidate has much incentive to open his mouth on the issue. And they may be able to get away with it.

"Can the campaigns get away with not talking about marijuana?" Drug Policy Action head Ethan Nadelmann asked rhetorically. "That depends. First, will the question get popped at one of the debates? I don't know how to influence that. The second possibility will be if the candidates are obliged to answer a question somewhere, but I don't know how much they're taking questions -- their handlers are trying to keep them on message. The third possibility is that they will say something at private events, but who knows what gets said there?" he mused.

"They are certainly going to try not to talk about it," said Morgan Fox, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "Given Romney's anger at a reporter for bringing up the issue and Obama's reluctance to address questions about marijuana policy in public forums, one can expect them to continue this behavior until forced to answer questions by the media or the public."

That leaves voters for whom marijuana reform is an important issue hanging out to dry.

"Unless one of the candidates sees an opportunity for a large boost in support by changing his position on marijuana policy, voters will be forced to choose between either third party candidates or the major party option that they think will do the least amount of damage to reform efforts going forward," said Fox. "If we consider Obama's behavior so far and Romney's staunch anti-marijuana statements (as well as the fact that he has never used it) it becomes a really difficult choice for voters."

Nadelmann begged to differ on that point.

"Romney has been more hostile on this issue than McCain or Bush or any Democratic candidates since Bush the Elder," he said. "He is visibly uncomfortable and even hostile regarding even the most modest drug policy reforms. Romney said if you want to legalize marijuana, you should vote for the other guy. That's very telling, with over 50% of independents and even more than 30% of Republicans supporting marijuana legalization. Why would Romney say that? The Obama campaign would have a hard time running with this, but someone else could."

Still, the lack of space between the major party candidates on the issue may leave an opening for Anderson or Johnson or Stein, Fox said.

"These candidates are the only ones offering real solutions to the quagmire of marijuana prohibition, or even taking definitive stances on the issue. The more they continue to draw public attention to marijuana reform while the major players stay silent, the more we can expect voters to pay attention to them and take them seriously," he predicted. "We can also expect their vocal support for reform to draw the attention of the major candidates and possibly elicit some sort of positive response from one or both of them. Whether that response will be sincere or simply lip-service to prevent third-party candidates from siphoning votes in key elections remains to be seen. However, even the latter would be a sign that the message is getting out and that politicians are at least starting to realize where the public stands on marijuana."

The one place where marijuana policy discussion may be unavoidable and where marijuana policy positions could influence the statewide electoral outcome is Colorado. Marijuana is a big issue in the state, not only because Amendment 64 is on the ballot, but also because of the ongoing war of attrition waged against dispensaries there by the DEA and the US Attorney. (The Colorado Patient Voters Project tracks federal activity against medical marijuana in the state, as does our own Medical Marijuana Update series, accessible with other relevant reporting in our medical marijuana archive section.)

Gary Johnson (garyjohnson2012.com)
And it's a tight race where one third party candidate in particular, Gary Johnson, is making a strong run and exploiting his popular legalization position on marijuana. While the Real Clear Politics average of Colorado polls has Obama up 48.7% to Romney's 45.3%, the race tightens up when Johnson is included in the polls.

"I think Colorado is key," said Nadelmann. "It has the initiative and it's a swing state, and there is the possibility that Gary Johnson or the Green candidate could make a difference. The polling has been split, and the question with Gary Johnson is whether he draws more from Obama or Romney."

One recent poll may hold a clue. Among the polls included in the Real Clear Politics average is a new Public Policy Polling survey, which had Obama beating Romney 49% to 46%. But when the pollsters added Johnson to the mix, he got 5%, taking three points away from Obama, but only two from Romney, and leaving Obama with only a two-point lead, 46% to 44%.

This year's election results from Colorado could mark a historic point for the marijuana reform movement, and not just because of Amendment 64, said Fox.

"This is a state where we are really going to see the power of this issue as it relates to elections," he said. "This is possibly the first time that marijuana policy could affect the outcome of a presidential election. That just goes to show how far reformers have come in just a few short years. As public opinion in support of ending prohibition continues to grow, the paradigm is going to shift from politicians avoiding the issue at all cost or being knee-jerk reactionaries who want to appear 'tough on crime' to candidates addressing marijuana policy in a rational manner as a way to build support."

We'll see in a few weeks how this all shakes out, but before then, we'll be taking an in-depth look at pot politics in Colorado in the context of Amendment 64. Stay tuned.

Please read our last week's feature, overviewing the various state ballot initiatives: Drug Policy in the 2012 Elections I: The Initiatives.

(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.)

The GOP Platform on Crime and Drugs

With Republican delegates now gone home after their national convention in Tampa, this is as good a time as any to examine their official position on crime and drugs. The 2012 GOP Platform lays it out, and reformers may find a few things to be pleasantly surprised about, at least if elected Republicans actually adhere to their party's official positions.

What may be most significant is what isn't in the platform: Four years ago, the GOP platform had a whole section devoted to the war on drugs. That has vanished this time around.

But reformers still won't find too much to make them smile. In the platform section titled "Justice for All: Safe Neighborhoods and Prison Reform," after the boilerplate language about how "strong families and caring communities supported by excellent law enforcement" are the most effective forces in reducing crime, the Republicans get to it:

"Our national experience over the last several decades has shown that citizen vigilance, tough but fair prosecutors, meaningful sentences, protection of victims’ rights, and limits on judicial discretion can preserve public safety by keeping criminals off the streets," the platform reads. "Liberals do not understand this simple axiom: Criminals behind bars cannot harm the general public. To that end, we support mandatory prison sentencing for gang crimes, violent or sexual offenses against children, repeat drug dealers, rape, robbery and murder... We oppose parole for dangerous or repeat felons…"

But even the GOP, and, more broadly, conservatives are coming to understand that being "tough on crime" is not enough, as evidenced by the formation of the conservative Smart on Crime Coalition, some of whose positions appear to have been incorporated into the platform:

"While getting criminals off the street is essential, more attention must be paid to the process of restoring those individuals to the community. Prisons should do more than punish; they should attempt to rehabilitate and institute proven prisoner reentry systems to reduce recidivism and future victimization," the platform states.

It goes on to endorse state and local initiatives, such as "accountability courts," or the drug court model, and calls for government to work with faith-based institutions to try to divert first-time, nonviolent offenders -- although it doesn't say it wants to divert them from the criminal justice system, just from "criminal careers." The platform does, however, call for supporting state and local initiatives "trying new approaches to curbing drug abuse and diverting first-time offenders to rehabilitation."

The platform of the party of small government and states' rights also laments that federal law enforcement has "been strained by two unfortunate expansions: the over-criminalization of behavior and the over-federalization of offenses," noting that the number of federal offenses has increased by almost 50% since the 1980s.

"Federal criminal law should focus on acts by federal employees or acts committed on federal property -- and leave the rest to the states," the platform says. Then Congress should withdraw from federal departments and agencies the power to criminalize behavior, a practice which, according to the Congressional Research Service, has created 'tens of thousands' of criminal offenses... In the same way, Congress should reconsider the extent to which it has federalized offenses traditionally handled on the state or local level."

There it is, the official platform of the Republican Party this year. One mention of drug dealers, one mention of drug users, no mentions of medical marijuana or marijuana legalization, but some hints that the GOP could live with some experimentation in the states and a smaller federal enforcement arm.

Tampa, FL
United States

Some States Move on Sentencing Reform

With state budgets devastated by the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent slow economic growth, the impulse to incarcerate is being blunted by fiscal realities. This year, a number of states have passed legislation designed to ease the financial burden of mass incarceration.

The slight trend away from mass incarceration by the states has been evident for the past couple of years, as for the first time in decades, the number of prisoners being held by the states has declined. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at the end of 2010, the last year for which numbers are available, the number of combined state and federal prisoners declined for the first time since 1972. The decline was driven by the states, with state prison populations down 0.5%, while the federal prison population grew by 0.8%.

A number of states, including California and Texas, have in the past decade begun reforming their sentencing practices, accounting for the decline. Recently passed sentencing reforms in several states could help see those numbers drop even further. These include:

Hawaii

Last month, Gov. Neal Abercrombie (D) signed into law two bills, House Bill 2515 and Senate Bill 2776. They will, among other things, allow judges to impose probation for first- and second-time drug possession charges. The bills also expand the use of pre-trial and parole hearing risk assessment to identify and release low-risk offenders and prisoners. And they provide funds for community-based drug treatment programs.

Illinois

Late last month, Gov. Pat Quinn (D) signed into law Senate Bill 2621, which restores good time credits to non-violent offenders who complete drug treatment, job training, or other rehabilitation programs. Quinn had suspended the good time credits after a 2010 scandal in which it was revealed that many prisoners had won early release after serving only weeks in prison. The new new law requires prisoners to serve at least 60 days before they could be released for good time credit, and prisoners can earn no more than 180 days of good time credit.

Missouri

Last week, a bill that reduces the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine began law without the signature of Gov. Jay Nixon (D). The bill was approved by the Republican-led legislature on the last day of the session and reduces the state's 75-to-1 ratio in sentencing for the two different types of cocaine to a ratio of about 18-to-1.

New Jersey

Late last month, the legislature passed Senate Bill 881, under which non-violent, drug-dependent offenders will receive treatment rather than prison. The bill also removes prosecutorial objections to sending someone to drug court and expands eligibility for the state's drug court program. Gov. Chris Christie (R) is expected to sign the bill.

Ohio

Late last month, Gov. John Kasich (R) signed into law Senate Bill 337, which allows people to seal the records on one felony and one misdemeanor or two misdemeanor convictions. The idea is to make it easier for former prisoners to find work. The law also creates a certificate of qualification that will give ex-offenders the ability to get some occupational licenses they were previously barred from obtaining.

Pennsylvania

Earlier this month, Gov. Tom Corbett (R) signed into law Senate Bill 100, which incorporates many of the recommendations of his Justice Reinvestment Working Group and passed both houses of the legislature unanimously. It expands eligibility for alternative sentencing programs, allows for intermediate sanctions so that fewer technical parole violators are sent to prison, and diverts some low-level defendants from prison. But it's not all good: The bill also eliminates the pre-release program that allows qualifying prisoners to be paroled to halfway houses before their minimum dates.

Tennessee

In May, Gov. Bill Haslam (R) signed into law Senate Bill 3520, which allows some former prisoners to expunge certain felonies and misdemeanors from their criminal records. It only applies to those with a single conviction, but legislative fiscal analysts projected it would increase expungement requests by 60,000 a year.

The states are not undertaking a radical rethinking of the rote resort to incarceration, but they are nibbling at the edges, particularly when it comes to drug offenders. Every little bit helps.

Marking Mother's Day With Calls for Reform [FEATURE]

On this Mother's Day, more than 100,000 women are behind bars in American prisons, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and many of them are doing time for drug offenses. That's too many, said members of a new coalition, Moms United to End the War on Drugs, as they held events last week in the days running up to Mother's Day.

Gretchen Burns Bergman at the National Press Club (Moms United)
"The war on drugs is really a war on families," said Mom's United's Gretchen Burns Bergman. "It is time to end the stigmatization and criminalization of people who use drugs and move from arrest and mass incarceration to therapeutic, health-oriented strategies. Moms were the driving force in repealing alcohol prohibition and now moms will play a similar role in ending the war on drugs."

Bergman, from San Diego, is the mother of two sons who have struggled with substance abuse and incarceration and is a founder of A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment & Healing). A New PATH has joined forces with other groups, including Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), the NORML Women's Alliance, Families to Amend California's Three Strikes, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy to form Moms United to agitate for an end to the drug war and a turn toward sensible, evidence-based drug policies.

The week leading up to Mother's Day was a week of action under the rubric of Cops and Moms Working Together to End Prohibition. The week saw events and press conferences in Atlanta, Boston, New York City, and Washington, DC, in the East and Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland on the West Coast.

"Mother's Day was derived out of an intensely political effort to organize women on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line against the Civil War," said Sabrina Fendrick, coordinator for the NORML Women's Alliance. "The reason mothers were made the vehicle was because they were the ones whose children were dying in that war. Women were also largely responsible for ending alcohol prohibition. This is more than just a ‘greeting-card holiday,’ this is the beginning of an institutional change in our society. The government's war on drugs is unacceptable. For our children's sake, the concerned mothers of the world are being called on to demand the implementation of a rational, responsible, reality-based drug and marijuana policy."

Last Wednesday, at a San Diego press conference, the umbrella group unveiled the Moms United to End the War on Drugs Bill of Rights, a 12-point motherhood and drug reform manifesto which calls for "the right to nurture our offspring, and to advocate for their care and safety" and "the parental right to policies and practices that recognize addiction as a disease in need of treatment, rather than a willful behavior to be criminalized," as well as the right to have harm reduction and overdose prevention practices implemented, the right to be free from heavy-handed, constitution-threatening drug war policing, and the right to be free from drug war violence.

Moms United in Los Angeles (Moms United)
"If we stop arresting and incarcerating drug users, think of the number of children who would have the chance to look upon their parents as positive role models instead of having parents who are absent because they are incarcerated," the group said. "We have a moral and ethical obligation to give these children a better chance in life by allowing parents to take care of their families. These parents should have the opportunity to become the productive members of society and role models to their children that they want to be and that their children need and deserve."

The Bill of Rights has been endorsed by a number of religious, reform, and civil rights groups, and individuals can sign onto it, too. To sign on, go to the online petition.

"We are building a movement to stop the stigmatization and criminalization of people who use drugs or are addicted to drugs," the group said. "We urgently call for health-oriented strategies and widespread drug policy reform in order to stop the irresponsible waste of dollars and resources, and the devastating loss of lives and liberty."

It's not just Moms United who is using Mother's Day to strike a blow for drug reform. In Colorado, where Amendment 64 to legalize and regulate marijuana is on the ballot, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol is running a television ad featuring a young woman writing an email to her mother in which she explains that she has found her marijuana use to be safer and healthier than the drinking she did in college.

The ad is aimed at a demographic that is both critical to and difficult for the campaign: women in their 30s and 40s, many of whom are mothers. The ad appeared Friday and again on Mother's Day.

"Our goal with the ad is to start a conversation -- and encourage others to start their own conversations -- about marijuana," Betty Aldworth, the advocacy director for the campaign.

And it's not just the United States, either. In mother-honoring Mexico, which marked Mother's Day on Thursday, hundreds of women and other family members traveled to Mexico City on the National March for Dignity to demand that the government locate their loved ones gone missing in the drug wars, according to the Frontera NorteSur news service.

"They took them alive, and alive we want them," the marchers chanted.

While the drug wars in Mexico have claimed at least 50,000 lives, including 49 people whose dismembered bodies were found on a highway outside Monterrey Sunday morning, thousands more have gone missing, either simply vanished or last seen in the hands of armed, uniformed men.

The Mexican government doesn't report on how many have gone missing in its campaign against the cartels, but the Inter-American Human Rights Commission counts more than 5,000 missing persons complaints filed with police -- and this in a country where many people so mistrust the police they don't bother to file official reports.

"For some it has been years, for others months or days, of walking alone, of clamoring in the desert of the hallways of indolent and irresponsible authorities, many of them directly responsible for disappearances or complicit with those who took our loved ones away," the mothers' group said.

On Mother's Day, many mothers in Mexico have "nothing to celebrate," said Norma Ledezma, cofounder of Justice for Our Daughters in Chihuahua City. "As families, we want to take this occasion to tell society not to forget that in Mexico there is home with a plate and a seat empty."

"We have walked alone in the middle of stares and stigmatizing commentaries, and we have been treated like lepers, marginalized and condemned to the worst pain a human being could live: not knowing the whereabouts of our sons and daughters," the new mother's movement declared. "But now we are not alone. We have found hundreds of mothers and we unite our clamor and our love to recover our loved ones and bring them home."

On Mother's Day, the agony of the drug war transcends borders. And the call from mothers for a more sane and human alternative continues to grow, from Chihuahua to Chicago and from Oaxaca to Washington.

Obama Releases 2012 National Drug Control Strategy

The Obama administration released its 2012 National Drug Control Strategy and accompanying 2013 drug budget Tuesday, but while the administration touted it as a "drug policy for the 21st Century," it is very much of a piece with anti-drug policies going back to the days of Richard Nixon.

The federal government will spend more than $25 billion on drug law enforcement under the proposed budget, and despite the administration's talk about emphasizing prevention and treatment over war on drugs spending, it retains the same roughly 60:40 ratio of law enforcement and interdiction spending over treatment and prevention training that has obtained in federal drug budgets going back years.

The administration is high-lighting a renewed emphasis on drugged driving and is encouraging states to pass "zero tolerance" drugged driving laws. It is also emphasizing the massive increase in non-prescription use of opioid pain pills.

While the strategy calls for lesser reliance on imprisonment for drug offenders, it also calls for increased "community corrections" surveillance of them, including calling for expanded drug testing with "swift and certain" sanctions for positive tests. But drug testing isn't just for parolees and probationers; the drug strategy calls for expanded drug testing in the workplace, as well.

The drug strategy acknowledges the calls for recognition of medical marijuana and marijuana legalization, but only to dismiss them.

"While the Administration supports ongoing research into determining what components of the marijuana plant can be used as medicine, to date, neither the FDA nor the Institute of Medicine has found the marijuana plant itself to meet the modern standard for safe or effective medicine for any condition," the strategy said. "The Administration also recognizes that legalizing marijuana would not provide the answer to any of the health, social, youth education, criminal justice, and community quality of life challenges associated with drug use."

This year's drug strategy looks like last year's drug strategy, which looked like Bush administration drug strategies, which looked like Clinton administration drug strategies. When it comes to the federal drug war, it's more of the same old same old.

Look for an expanded version of this news brief Thursday afternoon, with deeper analysis and commentary from drug war observers.

Washington, DC
United States

Historic Challenge to Drug War Looms at Cartagena Summit [FEATURE]

In just a couple of days, President Obama will fly to Cartagena, Colombia, to attend this weekend's Organization of American States (OAS) Sixth Summit of the Americas. He and the US delegation are going to get an earful of criticism of US drug policies from Latin American leaders, and that makes it an historic occasion. For the first time, alternatives to drug prohibition are going to be on the agenda at a gathering of hemispheric heads of state.

group photo at 2009 Summit of the Americas (whitehouse.gov)
It's been building for some time now. More than a decade ago, Uruguayan President Jorge Batlle became the first Latin American sitting head of state to call for a discussion of drug legalization. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox joined the call, albeit only briefly while still in office through some media quotes, much more frequently after leaving office in 2006. Honduran President Manuel Zelaya issued a similar call in 2008, but didn't move on it before being overthrown in a coup the following year.

Meanwhile, drug prohibition-related violence in Mexico exploded in the years since President Felipe Calderon called out the army after taking office in December 2006. As the savagery of the multi-sided Mexican drug wars intensified and the death toll accelerated, surpassing 50,000 by the end of last year, the call for another path grew ever louder and more insistent.

In 2009, a group of very prominent Latin American political leaders and public intellectuals led by former Brazilian President Henrique Cardoso, former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo formed the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, calling for a fundamental reexamination of drug policy in the hemisphere and a discussion of alternatives, including decriminalization and regulation of black markets. That was followed last year by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which includes the Latin American ex-presidents, as well as former Switzerland President Ruth Dreiffus and other prominent citizens such as Richard Branson and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, echoing the Latin American Commission's call for reform.

As the commissions issued their reports, the violence in Mexico not only worsened, it spread south into Central America, where governments were weaker, poverty more endemic, and violent street gangs already well-entrenched. Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, in particular, saw homicide rates soar in recent years, well beyond Mexico's, as the Mexican cartels moved into the region, a key transit point on the cocaine trail from South America to the insatiable consumers of the north.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, the secretary of defense under his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, and a man who knows well just what a sustained war on drugs can and cannot achieve, has been among the latest to pick up the torch of drug reform. Santos has made repeated statements in favor of putting alternatives to prohibition on the table, although he has been careful to say Colombia doesn't want to go it alone, and now he has been joined by another unlikely reformer, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, a rightist former general who campaigned on a tough on crime agenda.

It is Perez Molina who has been most active in recent weeks, calling for a Central American summit last month to discuss alternatives to drug prohibition ranging from decriminalization to regulated drug transit corridors to charging the US a "tax" on seized drugs. That summit saw two of his regional colleagues attend, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla and Panamian President Ricardo Martinelli, but no consensus was achieved, no declaration was issued, and three other regional leaders declined to show up. But that summit, too, was a first -- the first time Latin American leaders met specifically to discuss regional drug law reform.

All of this has not gone unnoticed by policymakers in Washington. Vice-President Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano, State Department functionaries and US military brass have all been flying south this year, reluctantly conceding that drug legalization may be a legitimate topic of debate, but that the US is having none of it.

"It's worth discussing," Biden told reporters in Mexico City last month. "But there's no possibility the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on legalization. There are more problems with legalization than non-legalization."

But along with discussing an end to prohibition, the Latin Americans have also offered up proposals between the polar opposites of prohibition and legalization. Options discussed have included decriminalization of drug possession and marijuana legalization to different approaches to combating the drug trade to maintaining addicts with a regulated drug supply. In Colombia, Santos has sponsored legislation to decriminalize possession of "personal dose" quantities of drugs, restoring a policy mandated by the country's Constitutional Court but undone by a constitutional amendment under President Uribe.

And it's not just Latin American political leaders. The calls for change at the top are reflected in a civil society movement for drug reform that has been quietly percolating for years. In fact, an international, but mainly Latin American, group of non-governmental organizations this week issued an Open Letter to the Presidents of the Americas calling for decriminalizing drug use and possession, alternatives to incarceration for non-serious drug offenses, a regulated market for marijuana, a public health approach to problematic drug use, alternative development, respect for traditional uses, and a more focused war on organized crime that is less broadly repressive than current models. In Mexico, a social movement led by poet Javier Sicilia, whose son fell victim to cartel violence, has called for an end to the violence and pressed Preident Calderon on drug reform.

After decades of US-imposed drug war, from US military operations in Bolivia in the 1980s to the multi-billion dollar Plan Colombia, with its counterinsurgency and aerial herbicide spraying, to the blood-stained Mexican border towns and the drug gang-ridden slums of Rio de Janeiro, Latin America is growing increasingly ready to strike out on a different path.

That's what awaits President Obama and the US delegation in Cartagena. The most vibrant discussions may well take place in hallways or behind closed doors, but the US is now faced with yawning cracks in its decades-long drug war consensus.

Joe Biden with Mexican Pres. Calderon last month (whitehouse.gov)
"It's very clear that we may be reaching a point of critical mass where a sufficient number of people are raising the questions of why not dialog on this issue, why not discuss it, why peremptorily dismiss it, why does the president laugh when the subject of drugs is brought up, is he so archly political that it becomes a sort of diabolical act to seriously discuss it, why isn't some new direction being ventured forth?" said Larry Birns, executive director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

"It seems the public is approaching the point where it has become credible to say quite frankly that the drug war hasn't worked. The real menace to society is not so much legalization but the failure to confront the hard fact that after decades of effort and hundreds of billions of dollars, a successful prohibition strategy has not been created, nor is there any likelihood of it being created," he said.

"This is the first major gathering of heads of state at which alternatives to prohibitionist drug control policies, including decriminalization and legal regulation of currently illegal drugs, will be on the agenda," said Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Arguments that were articulated just five years ago primarily by intellectuals and activists, and three years ago by former presidents, are now being advanced, with growing sophistication and nuance, by current presidents. There is now, for the first time, a critical mass of support in the Americas that ensures that this burgeoning debate will no longer be suppressed."

"A lot of countries don't want to do the US's dirty work anymore -- enforcing the prohibitionist policies that are unenforceable and hypocritical," said Laura Carlson, director for Latin America rights and security in the Americas program at the Center for International Policy. "Everybody knows that it's impossible to wipe out the illicit drug business without making it legal, and most people know that the efforts aimed at ostensibly doing that are not 100% honest and certainly not effective. Many Latin American countries don't want the degree of US intervention in their national security that the drug war entails either," she noted.

"Having said that, the US government is determined to put down any talk of alternatives and particularly alternatives that begin with regulation rather than prohibition. The recent visits of Napolitano, Biden, [US State Department Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William] Brownfield and the military leaders all carried that message," the Mexico City-based analyst continued. "Small and dependent countries -- El Salvador is the example here, after reversing its position on legalization -- are afraid to stand up to the US on this, and progressive countries don't seem to want to get involved, both because they find the issue a political hot potato and because they are focusing efforts on strengthening alternative organizations to the OAS."

"I think the US strategy of Brownfield and the State Department will be to say that legalization was brought up and rejected by the Latin American leaders," offered Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. "They will use dichotomous rhetoric, they will try to maneuver the discussion into either prohibition or heroin in vending machines, but this is about the whole spectrum of regulatory possibilities. That's what we need to be talking about instead of that false dichotomy."

Still, to even deign to discuss policy alternatives to prohibition is a notable step forward for the US, even if it is only to dismiss them, Nadelmann argued.

"The shift in the public posture of the US government -- from rejecting any discussion of legalization to acknowledging that 'it is a legitimate subject of debate' -- is significant, notwithstanding the clear caveat by the Obama administration that it remains firmly opposed to the notion," he noted. "That said, it is safe to assume that the US government will do all it can to suppress, ignore, distort and otherwise derail the emerging dialog.  US officials are handicapped, however, by the remarkable failure of government agencies over the past thirty years to contemplate, much less evaluate, alternative drug control strategies. They also must contend with the fact that the United States has rapidly emerged -- at the level of civil society, public opinion and state government -- as a global leader in reform of marijuana policies."

The discussion on drug policy at Cartagena isn't taking place in a vacuum, and there is at least one other issue where the US finds itself at odds with its host and most of the region: Cuba. The US has once again insisted that Cuba not be allowed to attend the summit, and President Santos reluctantly acceded, but the whole affair leaves a sour taste in the mouth of Latin Americans. Ecuadorian President Correa is not coming because of the snub, and the issue only plays into hemispheric discontent with Washington's war on drugs.

"The US won the day in persuading Santos not to invite Cuba," said Birns, "but the political cost of that action is high, and the whole drug issue is twinned to it, not because Castro has an enlightened position on drugs, but because of anti-Americanism in the region. This means Cartagena is the city where a lethal blow against the status quo will be achieved."

"The United States is not going to listen," said Birns, "but this era of non-discussion of drug legalization and refusal to countenance the possibility of dialog on the issue may be coming to an end. More and more people who aren't known as drug reform crusaders are coming forth and saying it's not working, that we need another approach, and that's probably decriminalization and legalization. We're very much closer to liberation on this issue than we've ever been before."

"Liberation" may now be within sight, but diplomatic dissent is not yet close to being translated into paradigmatic policy shifts. Whatever discussion does take place in Cartagena this weekend, don't expect any official breakthroughs or even declarations, said Carlson.

"I am not optimistic about there being any formal commitment, or perhaps even mention, of legalization per se," she said. "The implementation group for the Sixth Summit is already working on the final declaration and it contains a section on 'Citizen Security and Transnational Organized Crime.' I think that as far as it will go is to state that transnational organized crime is a growing problem and that the nations of the Americas agree to work together, blah, blah, blah," she predicted.

"The United States will reiterate its 'shared responsibility' and commitment, but will not mention the need to change a failed model," Carlson said. "There will be more rhetorical emphasis on social programs for 'resilient communities' and especially on police and judicial reform, although the former will not be reflected in what are largely military and police budgets. I think the best we can hope would be a mandate for a policy review and a commitment to continue to discuss alternatives. The specific proposals to legalize transit, to create a regional court for organized crime cases and US payment for interdictions will not likely be resolved."

"This is a long process, not an immediate objective," said Tree. "In Central America, it's going to take a year or two of thoughtful -- not sensational -- media coverage. When people see anarchy, they want order. With a more thoughtful dialog, we can begin to get traction."

"It is too soon to predict that this Summit of the Americas represents any sort of tipping point in global or even regional drug control policy," Nadelmann summed up. "But the odds are good that this gathering will one day be viewed as a pivotal moment in the transformation from the failed global drug prohibition regime of the twentieth century to a new 21st century global drug control regime better grounded in science, health, fiscal prudence and human rights."

We'll see what happens this weekend, but at the very least, the taboo on serious discussion of reforming the drug prohibition regime at the highest levels has been shattered. Look for a report on the summit itself next week.

Cartagena
Colombia

Pat Robertson Demands Marijuana Reform and Blames the Drug War on Liberals

Update: Robertson has now made it official -- he's for legalization of marijuana, and supports the Colorado and Washington initiatives: NYT

For the second time now, televangelist Pat Robertson has gone off on our drug laws in a big way. This time he has an entire segment on his Christian Broadcasting Network program attacking over-incarceration and generally saying cool stuff that you never thought you'd hear on a hardcore Christian cable channel (except the liberal-bashing, of course). You can check it out from 20:40 to 29:25:

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For the video-impaired, our friends at LEAP tapped out the transcript. Here's a taste:

We here in America make up 5% of the world's population, but we make up 25% of jailed prisoners...

Every time the liberals pass a bill -- I don't care what it involves -- they stick criminal sanctions on it. They don't feel there is any way people are going to keep a law unless they can put them in jail.

I became sort of a hero of the hippie culture, I guess, when I said I think we ought to decriminalize the possession of marijuana.

I just think it's shocking how many of these young people wind up in prison and they get turned into hardcore criminals because they had a possession of a very small amount of controlled substance. The whole thing is crazy.

It is crazy. It's also crazy that so many of the politicians on the left who've backed this idiocy did so only because they were afraid people like Pat Robertson would accuse them of sympathizing with hippies. We've reached a turning point in the drug war debate where we're no longer arguing reform vs. non-reform. Every voice in the discussion of U.S. drug policy is speaking of reform, with the only difference being that people like Pat Robertson are serious about it, and people like Barack Obama are not. Weird, but worth watching.

Drug Policy Reform Gets Standing Ovation in New Jersey Statehouse

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/christie.jpg

Something amazing happened in New Jersey yesterday. It's not the kind of news that's likely to make national headlines, but I think it says a lot about where our nation is heading when it comes to our attitudes about drug use and the criminal justice system.

The highlight came after Christie called for a revolution in New Jersey’s approach to the drug war that would divert non-violent addicts from prison and put them in treatment programs instead. And he did it with characteristic Christie style, in big bold strokes.

"I am not satisfied to have this merely as a pilot project," the governor said. "I am calling for a transformation of the way we deal with drug abuse and incarceration in every corner of New Jersey." [NJ.com]

Those are strong words, especially from a man who many believe represents the future of the republican party. But more impressive than Gov. Christie's words was the way they were received:

[Former Gov.] Jim McGreevey, sitting perhaps 10 feet from Christie, jumped out of his seat to try to start a standing ovation.

And it worked. Within five or six seconds, the entire Assembly chamber, Democrats and Republicans, followed the lead of the humbled former governor, giving sustained applause from their feet.

"Addiction touches so many lives, and destroys one family at a time," McGreevey says. "The governor stated the obvious."

And yet much of what Gov. Christie has to say about drug policy is far from obvious to the leadership of his own party. In a noisy and high-profile republican presidential primary season, only Ron Paul has lent his voice to the message of a more measured and sensible approach to drug policy.

Meanwhile, the runaway front-runner, Mitt Romney, has achieved what many are calling an early lock on the nomination, and he did so without sharing any actual ideas about drug policy at all. The powerful right-wing political infrastructure that now rallies around Romney is oblivious to this conspicuous intransigence, even as he sets his sights on a showdown with Obama, where the youth vote is going to matter and concerns about issues ranging from marijuana reform to over-incarceration are increasingly resonant.

That's why it's just so weird to see a roomful of politicians clapping for drug policy reform, while so few have done anything to market that message to their supporters. If they don't yet understand that we're clapping too, we need to start clapping that much louder.

(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.)

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