Addiction Treatment

RSS Feed for this category

The Top Ten International Drug Policy Stories of 2011 [FEATURE]

The new year is upon us and 2011 is now a year for the history books. But we can't let it go without recognizing the biggest global drug policy stories of the year. From the horrors of the Mexican drug wars to the growing clamor over the failures of prohibition, from the poppy fields of Afghanistan and the Golden Triangle to the coca fields of the Andes, from European parliaments to Iranian gallows, drug prohibition and its consequences were big news this year.

Of course, we can't cover it all. We have no room to note the the emergence of West Africa as a transshipment point for South American cocaine bound for Europe's booming user markets, nor the unavailability of opioid pain medications in much of the world; we've given short shrift to the horrors of "drug treatment" in Southeast Asia; and we've barely mentioned the rising popularity of synthetic stimulants in European club scenes, among other drug policy-related issues. We'll be keeping an eye on all of those, but in the meantime, here are our choices for this year's most important global drug policy stories:

The Mexican Drug Wars

militarized US-Mexico border
This month marks the fifth anniversary of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's declaration of war on his country's drug trafficking organizations -- the so-called cartels -- and five years in, his policy can only be described as a bloody disaster. The death toll stands at somewhere around 45,000 since Calderon sent in the army and the federal police, but that figure doesn't begin to describe the horror of the drug wars, with their gruesome brutality and exemplary violence.

Mexico's drug wars pit the army and the state and federal police against the cartels, the cartels against each other, and different factions of state, local, and federal police, and even different military commands, aligned with various cartels fighting each other in a multi-sided dance of death. All the violence and corruption has had a corrosive effect on Mexicans' perceptions of personal and public safety and security, as well as on its political system.

It has also tarnished the reputation of the Mexican military. After a two-year investigation, Human Rights Watch reported last month credible evidence that the security forces, led by the military, were responsible for 170 cases of torture, 39 disappearances and 24 extrajudicial killings in the five states they studied.

And, as the cartels battle each other, the military, and the various police, the violence that was once limited to a handful of border cities has spread to cities across the country. Once relatively peaceful Acapulco has been wracked by cartel violence, and this year, both Veracruz and Monterrey, cities once unaffected by the drug wars, have seen murderous acts of spectacular violence.

Meanwhile, business continues as usual, with drugs flowing north across the US border and voluminous amounts of cash and guns flowing south. Calderon's drug war, which has racked up a $43 billion bill so far (and an additional nearly one billion in US Plan Merida aid), has managed to kill or capture dozens of cartel capos, but has had no discernable impact on the provision of drugs across the border to feed America's voracious appetite. Worse, the attempted crackdown on the cartels has led them to expand their operations to neighboring Central American countries where the state is even weaker than in Mexico. Both Guatemala and Honduras have seen significant acts of violence attributed to the cartels this year, while El Salvador and Nicaragua also complain of the increasing presence of Mexican drug trafficking organizations.

There are, however, a couple of positives to report. First, the carnage may have peaked, or at least reached a plateau. It now appears that the 2011 death toll this year, while tremendously high at around 12,000, didl not exceed last year's 15,000. That would mark the first downturn in the killing since Calderon called out the troops.

Second, the bloody failure of Calderon's drug war is energizing domestic Mexican as well as international calls to end drug prohibition. A strong civil society movement against the drug war and violence has emerged in Mexico and, sadly, the sorrow of Mexico is now Exhibit #1 for critics of drug prohibition around the world.

Afghanistan: Still the World's Drug Crop Capital

anti-opium abuse posters at a drug treatment center in Kabul (photo by the author)
A decade after the US invaded Afghanistan in a bid to decapitate Al Qaeda and punish the Taliban, the US and NATO occupation drags bloodily on, even as it begins to wind down. And Afghanistan's status as the world's number one opium poppy producer remains unchallenged. In a Faustian bargain, the West has found itself forced to accept widespread opium production as the price of keeping the peasantry out of Taliban ranks while at the same time acknowledging that the profits from the poppies end up as shiny new weapons used to kill Western soldiers and their Afghan allies.

The Afghan poppy crop was down in 2010, not because of successful eradication programs, but because a fungus blighted much of the crop. In 2011, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that the area under poppy cultivation increased 7%, but that the expected harvest increased 61% because of better yields and would produce about 5,800 metric tons of opium.

The 2010 blight-related poppy shortage led to price increases, which encouraged farmers to plant more poppy and more than doubled the farm-gate value of the crop from $605 million to more than $1.4 billion. Additional hundreds of millions go to traders and traffickers, some linked to the Taliban, others linked to government officials. Last year, US and NATO forces embarked on counter-drug operations aimed at traders and traffickers, but only those linked to the Taliban.

And it's not just opium. According to the UNODC World Drug Report 2011, Afghanistan is also "among the significant cannabis resin producing countries," producing somewhere between 1,500 and 3,500 metric tons of hash in 2010, with no reason to think it has changed dramatically in 2011. That brings in somewhere between $85 million and $265 million at the farm gate.

A decade after the US invasion, Afghanistan remains the world's largest opium producer by far and possibly the world's largest cannabis producer. Given the crucial role these drug crops play in the Afghan economy, there is little reason to think anything is going to change anytime soon.

The Return of the Golden Triangle

In 2010's roundup of major international drug stories, we mentioned the reemergence of opium production in Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle. In 2011, production has accelerated. According to the UNODC's Southeast Asia Opium Survey 2011, opium production has been increasing since 2006, but jumped 16% last year.

The region produced an estimated 638 metric tons this year, of which 91% came from Myanmar, with Laos and Thailand producing the rest. The region is now responsible for about 12% of annual global opium production.

The amount of land under poppy cultivation is still only one-third of what it was at its 1998 peak, but has more than doubled from its low point of 20,000 hectares in 2006. More importantly, estimated total production has rebounded and is now nearly half of what it was in 1998. The UNODC points a finger at chronic food insecurity, weak national governments, and the involvement of government actors, especially in Myanmar.

If Afghanistan does not produce enough opium to satisfy global illicit demand, the countries on the Golden Triangle are standing in the wings, ready to make up the difference.

The Rising Clamor for Legalization

former Mexican president Vicente Fox speaking at the Cato Institute
2011 saw calls for ending drug prohibition growing ever louder and coming from ever more corners of the world. Throughout the year, Latin American leaders, such as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and former Mexican President Vicente Fox, have called repeatedly for drug legalization, or at least a serious discussion of it. Although the specifics of their remarks shift over time -- sometimes it's a call for drug legalization, sometimes for marijuana legalization, sometimes for decriminalization -- leaders like Fox and Santos are issuing a clarion call for fundamental change in global drug policies.

That such calls should come from leaders in Colombia and Mexico is no surprise -- those are two of the countries most ravaged by drug prohibition and the violence it fuels. By the fall, even current Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who unleashed Mexico's drug war five years ago, was starting to join the chorus. In an October interview with Time magazine, Calderon said he could never win in Mexico if Americans don't reduce demand or "reduce at least the profits coming from the black market for drugs." While he was unwilling to take the final step and embrace ending prohibition, he added that "I want to see a serious analysis of the alternatives, and one alternative is to explore the different legal regimes about drugs."

But the biggest news in the international battle to end drug prohibition came at mid-year, when the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a star-studded panel of former presidents and prime ministers, public intellectuals, and business magnates, called the global war on drugs "a failure" and urged governments worldwide to should shift from repressive, law-enforcement centered policies to new ways of legalizing and regulating drugs, especially marijuana, as a means of reducing harm to individuals and society, in a report that drew press attention from around the world.

The commission, heavily salted with Latin American luminaries, grew out of the previous year's Latin American Initiative on Drug Policy and includes some of the same members, including former Brazilian President Henry Cardoso and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo. It is paired with the UK-based Beckley Foundation's Global Initiative for Drug Policy Reform, which launched in November and is eyeing changes in the legal backbone of international drug prohibition, the UN 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and its successor treaties. The global commission also picked up strong support from an organization of Latin American judicial figures, Latin Judges on Drugs and Human Rights, which echoed the commission's call with its own Rome Declaration.

European Reforms

wall paintings near the entrance to Christiania, Copenhagen (wikipedia.org)
Drug reform continued its achingly slow progress in Europe in 2011, with a handful of real advances, as well as a number of parties in various countries taking strong drug reform stands. But while Europe has largely embraced harm reduction and seen the positive results of Portugal's decade-long experiment with drug decriminalization, getting to the take level -- ending drug prohibition -- remains elusive.

In March, Scotland's Liberal Democrats voted to making campaigning for heroin maintenance treatment part of their party platform. Heroin users should not be fined or imprisoned, but should be given the drug through the National Health Service, party members agreed.

In September, their more powerful brethren, the British Liberal Democrats, who are junior partners with the Conservatives in the governing coalition, did them one better by adopting a resolution supporting the decriminalization of drug possession and the regulated distribution of marijuana and calling for an "impact assessment" of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act that would provide a venue for considering decriminalization and controlled marijuana sales. That is going to lead to debate in parliament on the issue next year.

In August, the Greek government proposed drug decriminalization in a bill sent to parliament by Justice Minister Miltadis Papioannou. Under the proposed bill, drug possession for personal use would qualify only as "misconduct" instead of a more serious criminal offense. The bill would also guarantee the right to drug treatment, including for people currently imprisoned. People deemed "addict offenders" by the courts would be provided treatment instead of being jailed. But given the other pressing matters before the Greek government, the bill has yet to move.

Probably the most significant actual drug reform achievement in Europe in 2011 was Poland's passage of a law that allows prosecutors to divert drug users into treatment instead of prison. That law went into effect in December. The new law lets prosecutors bypass the courts in a "treat, not punish" approach to drug use when confronted with people arrested in possession of small amounts of drugs. A person arrested with personal use quantities of drugs can now be immediately referred to a therapist, and prosecutors are compelled to gather information on the extent of the person's drug problem. Still, there is an appetite for more reform; a political party that wants legalize soft drugs won 10% of the vote in the October presidential elections.

There has been some movement on marijuana and hints of more to come, as well in 2011. In an otherwise dismal year for weed in the Netherlands (see below), the Dutch high court ruled in April that anyone can grow up to five pot plants without facing criminal charges, no matter how big the harvest. The ruling came after prosecutors went after two different people who produced large multi-pound yields from a handful of plants, arguing that such harvests violated the Dutch five-gram rule. The court disagreed, but said that the pot would have to be turned over to police if they came to the door.

In June, Italy's top court ruled that balcony pot grows are okay, finding that the amounts of pot produced in such grows "could cause no harm." It's a small advance on earlier court rulings, and a step in the right direction.

And then there are moves that are pushing the envelope. Last month, the Copenhagen city council voted to explore how best to legalize and regulate pot sales. The move has the support of the mayor, but has to be approved by the Danish parliament, which has balked at such measures before. Maybe this time will be different. And raising the ante, the Basque parliament is set to approve a new drug law that will regulate marijuana cultivation, distribution, and consumption. The move is being propelled by the health ministry in the autonomous region of Spain, and would be a direct challenge to the UN conventions' ban on legalization.

Medical Marijuana's Slowly Growing Global Acceptance

It comes by dribs and drabs, but it comes.

In Israel, the Cabinet approved guidelines in August that will govern the supply of marijuana for medical and research purposes. In so doing, it explicitly agreed that marijuana does indeed have medical uses. The move came on the heels of a Health Ministry decision the week before  to deal with supply problems by setting up a unit within the department to grow medical marijuana. That unit will begin operating in January 2012. Currently, medical marijuana is supplied by private Israeli growers, but with the number of medical marijuana patients expected to rise from the current 6,000 to 40,000 by 2016, the state is stepping in to help out with supply.

In the Czech Republic, the Ministry of Health said in September it plans to remove marijuana from its list of proscribed substances and allow it to be prescribed by doctors. The ministry said it would move to amend Czech drug laws by the end of the year to allow for the prescription of marijuana by doctors, although we haven't seen that actually happen yet. The ministry must also determine what sort of distribution system to set up. The Israeli model, where the state is licensing medical marijuana farms, is one oft-cited system.

In New Zealand, medical marijuana was on the agenda of the New Zealand Law Commission when it issued a report in May reviewing the country's drug laws. In addition to other drug reform measures, the commission called for clinical trials on medical marijuana "as soon as practicable" and said medical marijuana patients should not be arrested in the meantime. "Given the strong belief of those who already use cannabis for medicinal purposes that it is an effective form of pain relief with fewer harmful side effects than other legally available drugs, we think that the proper moral position is to promote clinical trials as soon as practicable. We recommend that the government consider doing this." The government there does not appear to be eager to follow those recommendations, but the commission report is laying the groundwork for progress.

In Canada, which has an existing medical marijuana program, the news is more mixed. Health Canada is in the process of adopting a "more traditional regulatory role" for the medical marijuana "marketplace, and envisions privatized medical marijuana provision by licensed and strictly regulated grower. That doesn't sit well with a lot of patients and activists because it means Health Canada wants to eliminate patients' ability to grow their own. Nor were patients particularly impressed with Health Canada's earlier attempt to provide privately produced and licensed medical marijuana. Without outright legalization of marijuana being more popular than the Conservative government, Canada may eventually get around to solving its medical marijuana problem by just legalizing it all.

Iran's Drug War Execution Frenzy

drug burn marking International Anti-Drugs Day, Tehran
Iran has garnered itself a well-deserved reputation as one of the world's leading practitioners of the death penalty, but 2011 saw an absolute explosion of death sentences and executions -- the vast majority of them for drug offenses. At the end of January, we reported that Iran had already executed 56 drug offenders for offenses involving more than five kilograms of opium or 30 grams of heroin. As if that weren't enough, in February, the Islamic Republic made trafficking in synthetic drugs, including meth, a capital offense. More than 50 grams (less than two ounces) of meth could bring the death penalty, but only on a second offense.

At the end of May, by which time the execution toll for drug offenses had risen to 126, Iran announced it had 300 drug offenders on death row and lashed out at Western critics, saying if the West was unhappy with the killings, Iran could simply quit enforcing its drug laws.

"The number of executions in Iran is high because 74% of those executed are traffickers in large quantities of opium from Afghanistan bound for European markets," said Mohammad Javad Larijani, head of Iran's Supreme Council for Human Rights, during a press conference that month. "There is an easy way for Iran and that is to close our eyes so drug traffickers can just pass through Iran to anywhere they want to go," he said."The number of executions in Iran would drop 74%. That would be very good for our reputation."

In a December report, Amnesty International condemned Iran's drug executions, saying the Islamic Republic has embarked on "a killing spree of staggering proportions." The London-based human rights group said "at least 488 people have been executed for alleged drug offenses so far in 2011, a nearly threefold increase on the 2009 figures, when Amnesty International recorded at least 166 executions for similar offenses."

"To try to contain their immense drug problem, the Iranian authorities have carried out a killing spree of staggering proportions, when there is no evidence that execution prevents drug smuggling any more effectively than imprisonment," said Amnesty's Interim Middle East and North Africa deputy director, Ann Harrison. "Drug offenses go much of the way to accounting for the steep rise in executions we have seen in the last 18 months," Harrison said.

Amnesty said it began to receive credible reports of a new wave of drug executions in the middle of 2010, including reports of mass executions at Vakilabad Prison in Mashhad, with one, on August 4, 2010, involving at least 89 people. While Iran officially acknowledged 253 executions in 2010, of which 172 were for drug offenses, Amnesty said it has credible reports of another 300 executions, "the vast majority believed to be for drug-related offenses."

"Ultimately, Iran must abolish the death penalty for all crimes, but stopping the practice of executing drug offenders, which violates international law, would as a first step cut the overall number significantly," said Harrison.

Amnesty also accused Iran of executing people without trial, extracting confessions by torture, failing to notify families -- or sometimes, even inmates -- of impending executions, and mainly executing the poor, members of minority groups, or foreigners, including large numbers of Afghans.

Amnesty noted tartly that Iran receives significant international support in its war on drugs. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has provided $22 million since 2005 to support training for Iranian anti-drug forces, while the European Union is providing $12.3 million for an Iran-based project to strengthen regional anti-drug cooperation. Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, and Japan have all provided anti-drug assistance to Iran via UNODC programs.

"All countries and international organizations helping the Iranian authorities arrest more people for alleged drugs offenses need to take a long hard look at the potential impact of that assistance and what they could do to stop this surge of executions," said Harrison. "They cannot simply look the other way while hundreds of impoverished people are killed each year without fair trials, many only learning their fates a few hours before their deaths."

Iran may be the most egregious offender when it comes to killing drug offenders, but it is by no means the only one. Other countries that not only have the death penalty for drug offenses but actually apply it include China, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Vietnam. Human rights activists argue that the death penalty for drug offenses violates the UN Charter. For information on ongoing efforts to curtail the use of the death penalty for drug offenses, visit the International Harm Reduction Association's Death Penalty Project.

In a bit of good news on the death penalty front, in June, India's Bombay High Court struck down a mandatory death penalty for some drug offenses.The regional high court is the equivalent of a US district court of appeals.

"This is a positive development, which signals that courts have also started to recognize principles of harm reduction and human rights in relation to drugs. It is not utopia, but it is a giant step," said Indian Harm Reduction Network head Luke Samson.

"The Court has upheld at the domestic level what has been emphasized for years by international human rights bodies -- capital drug laws that take away judicial discretion are a violation of the rule of law," said Rick Lines, executive director of Harm Reduction International (formerly the International Harm Reduction Association) and author of The Death Penalty for Drug Offenses: A Violation of International Human Rights Law"India's justice system has affirmed that it is entirely unacceptable for such a penalty to be mandatory. This will set a positive precedent for judicial authorities in the region, which is rife with draconian drug laws."

Weekly updates on executions worldwide including for drug offenses are available from the Rome-based group Hands Off Cain.

The Netherlands Will Bar Foreigners from its Cannabis Cafes... and More

a coffee shop in Amsterdam (wikimedia.org)
The Netherlands' conservative coalition government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte continued and deepened its effort to undo Holland's reputation as a marijuana haven and drug tourism destination last year. Plans to ban foreigners from Dutch cannabis cafes reached fruition in 2011, with the Dutch Justice Ministry saying in November that foreigners would be barred from southern border coffee shops effective January 1. A month later, the government announced that plan would be delayed until May, and would go into effect nationwide beginning in 2013. Goodbye, tourist dollars.

But it's not just clamping down on foreigners. The number of coffee shops operating in the country has dropped by about half from its peak, with local governments putting the squeeze on them via measures such as distance restrictions (must be so far from a school, etc.). Now, the national government will be limiting their client base to 2,000 card carrying Dutch nationals each.

The national government also rather bizarrely declared in October that it wanted to declare high-potency marijuana a dangerous drug like cocaine or heroin and ban its possession or sale. That hasn't happened yet, but unless the Dutch get around to electing a more progressive government, the Christian Democrats and their allies will continue to work to undo the country's progressive pot policy reputation, not to mention its tourism industry..

North America's Only Supervised Injection Site Gets a Reprieve

Ending a years' long effort by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Steven Harper to close Insite, the Vancouver supervised injection site for hard drug users, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously in September that it should be allowed to stay open.

The Harper government, a foe of harm reduction practices in general and safe inection sites in particular, had argued that the federal drug law took precedence over British Columbia's public health policies. British Columbia and other Insite supporters argued that because Insite is providing a form of health care, its operation is a provincial matter. The federal government's concerns did not outweigh the benefits of Insite, the court said.

"The grave consequences that might result from a lapse in the current constitutional exemption for Insite cannot be ignored," the court said. "Insite has been proven to save lives with no discernible negative impact on the public safety and health objectives of Canada."

Insite has been the only supervised injection site on the North American continent, but in the wake of that ruling, that may not be the case for long. In the wake of the September ruling, Montreal announced plans for four safe injection sites in December. It's not a done deal -- it will require financing from provincial health agencies -- but plans are moving forward. And there are distant rumblings of plans for an effort to get a supervised injection site running in San Francisco, which would be a first for the US, but don't hold your breath on that one.

If the Harper government has been defeated in its effort to kill supervised injection sites, it is moving forward with plans to pass an omnibus crime bill that includes mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses, including growing as few as six pot plants. With an absolute majority in a parliamentary system, there seems to be no way to block the bill's passage, which will mean a real step backward for our northern neighbor as it emulates some of our worst penal practices.

Bolivia Challenges the Global Coca Ban

coca leaves drying in warehouse, Ayacucho province (photo by the author)
At the end of June, the Bolivian government of former coca-grower union leader Evo Morales announced it was resigning from the UN 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs because that treaty bans the cultivation of coca. The resignation is effective January 1. The move came after a failed effort last year by Bolivia to amend the treaty to allow for coca cultivation, a traditional activity in the Andes, where the plant has been used as a mild stimulant and hunger suppresser for millennia.

"This is an attempt to keep the cultural and inoffensive practice of coca chewing and to respect human rights, but not just of indigenous people, because this is an ancient practice of all Bolivian people," Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca told the British newspaper The Guardian at the time.

Bolivia will rejoin the convention sometime during the new year, but with the reservation that it does not accept the language proscribing the coca plant.

That move has aroused the concern of the International Narcotics Control Board, which issued a statement saying the international community should reject moves by any country to quit the treaty and return with reservations doing so "would undermine the integrity of the global drug control system."

Of course, there are many people aside from Evo Morales who believe the global drug control system lacks any integrity whatsoever. For those people, the actions of Bolivia represent the first serious effort to begin to undo the legal backbone of the global prohibition system.

Morales himself said last month
that he believes Bolivia will succeed next year. "I am convinced that next year we will win this international 'fight' for the recognition of chewing coca leaves as a tradition of peoples in Latin America, living in the Andes," he  said in an interview with the Bolivian radio station Patria Nueva.

In ending...

Global drug prohibition is under sustained, systemic, and well-deserved attack. It is being attacked (finally) in its core treaties and institutions, it is under ever broader political attack from around the planet; its central precepts are increasingly tattered. Ever year the clamor grows louder in the face of prohibition's screaming failure to accomplish its given ends and the terrible costs it generates. The process of chipping away at drug prohibition is under way. The prohibitionist consensus is crumbling; now comes the struggle to finally kill the beast and replace it with a more sensible, compassionate, and smarter approach to mind-altering substances.

Seattle Pilot Program Offers Treatment Not Arrest [FEATURE]

The Belltown neighborhood near downtown Seattle is a charming, vibrant urban locale, located just south of the city's landmark Space Needle. Filled with bars and cafes and desirable condos, it is a nighttime hot spot, but it is also a neighborhood where a relatively small number of problematic drug users have reduced the quality of life for residents and businesses alike. According to a recent study by the Seattle Police Department, some 50 people in Belltown were responsible for a whopping 2700 arrests.

4th Ave. & Wall St., Belltown neighborhood (Chas Redmond via wikimedia.org)
Now, instead of cycling those people through more endless -- and expensive -- rounds of arrest, prosecution, incarceration, and supervision, local officials and the Seattle Defender Association have embarked on an innovative pilot program in which beat officers will offer to take low-level, nonviolent drug offenders to drug treatment instead of arresting them, booking them into jail, and prosecuting them.

The pioneering program will allow officers the discretion to offer treatment to people charged with crimes such as public intoxication or drug possession, but not people with records of violence or those accused of dealing drugs. Offenders can decline the offer of treatment and instead be arrested and go through the criminal justice system.

Known as LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion), the pilot program is designed to improve public safety and order and reduce the criminal behavior of program participants. It is based on successful "arrest referral" programs that have been operating in the United Kingdom for the past several years. The program has strong support from local elected and law enforcement officials.

"We are looking for effective public safety solutions,” said Mayor Mike McGinn. "If drug dealing and crime could be solved by arrests alone, we would have solved this problem a couple thousand arrests ago. LEAD offers a promising alternative to traditional responses to street-level drug dealing, and we look forward to tracking its results in Belltown."

"We know that the issue of chemical dependency in our society cannot be solved by law enforcement alone. It is a complex social problem that requires a comprehensive social solution,” said Seattle Chief of Police John Diaz. "LEAD provides our front line police officers with the discretion necessary to ensure that treatment diversion is utilized as a viable alternative to incarceration."

"Sheriff Sue Rahr and her staff support the concepts that act as the basis for the LEAD program, and we look forward to our participation," said King County Sheriff Major James Graddon. "Respect, open communication and common goals among some historically adversarial groups have created a positive environment to move this program forward. Using the formal criminal justice system for all offenses is costly and has proven to not necessarily be the most effective way to impact future offender behavior."

Graddon was referring to strained relations dating back to the last decade between the Seattle Police and the Defender Association, a nonprofit agency that provides legal representation to indigent defendants. In a bid to reduce tensions and work together on the common goal of reducing the number of repeat offenders cycling through the system, the Defender Association and law enforcement began discussing possible responses to the continuing problem of drug-user generated low-level crime with back in 2008. The LEAD program, which rolled out in Belltown a month ago now and which will also be tried in the Skyway neighborhood of unincorporated King County, is the fruit of those discussions.

Mayor McGinn at LEAD program press conference (mayormcginn.seattle.gov)
Defender Association Deputy Director Lisa Daugaard has been a prime mover in getting the program going. Given that the state of Washington faces a $2 billion budget deficit and looming social service cuts, Daugaard managed to obtain $4 million in grants from private foundations, including the Open Society Institute and the Ford Foundation, to pay for four years worth of LEAD services, including not only drug treatment, but also job training, housing assistance, and educational opportunities.

"Now, because of the dismantling of the social safety net, these LEAD resources may be the only way that some people will be able to get treatment, housing, and other services," said Daugaard.

LEAD supporters hope that the by the end of the four-year pilot period, the program will be able to demonstrate that it can generate cost savings worthy of being picked up by state and local government. They aren't the only ones watching with interest. Stateline, a media outlet covering state government issues across the land, reported last week that Baltimore, New Orleans, Oakland, and the state of New Mexico have already expressed interest in the program.

As a pilot program, LEAD will undergo a rigorous evaluation to determine whether it has been a success. It that proves to be the case, it could be expanded in other Seattle and King County locales, officials said.

"The LEAD pilot has the potential to help people struggling with addiction and save public dollars at the same time," said King County Executive Dow Constantine. "We can work in partnership to replace a downward spiral toward jail with support and resources. Our families and neighborhoods are better off when those headed for the criminal justice system are instead given the opportunity to lead a fulfilling and productive life."

It won't take four years to see what kind of impact LEAD has on Belltown and Skyway. Within a matter of weeks or months, we should be able to see whether this experiment in smart policing is working and produces a model that can be adopted elsewhere.

Seattle, WA
United States

British Lib Dems Call for Sweeping Drug Reforms [FEATURE]

Members of Britain's Liberal Democratic Party overwhelmingly adopted a resolution Sunday supporting the decriminalization of drug possession and the regulated distribution of marijuana and calling for an "impact assessment" of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act that would provide a venue for considering decriminalization and controlled marijuana sales.

The resolution calls for an independent panel "to properly evaluate, economically and scientifically, the present legal framework for dealing with drugs in the United Kingdom." Citing the Portuguese decriminalization model, the resolution called for consideration of reforms so that "possession of any controlled drug for personal use would not be a criminal offense" or that "possession would be prohibited but should cause police officers to issue citations for individuals to appear before panels tasked with determining appropriate education, health or social interventions."

The resolution also calls for the review to consider "alternative, potential frameworks for a strictly controlled and regulated cannabis market and the potential impacts of such regulation on organized crime, and the health and safety of the public, especially children."

The resolution includes a call for "widespread provision of the highest quality evidence-based medical, psychological and social services for those affected by drugs problems," including the widespread use of heroin maintenance clinics for hard-core addicts.

The resolution also offers support for the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), whose scientific integrity has been under attack first by the former Labor government, which resulted in a number of high profile resignations, and then by the Conservatives, who have put forth a plan to no longer require a certain number of scientists to sit on the council. The council should "retain a majority of independent scientific and social scientific experts in its membership," and no changes to the drug laws should take place without its advice, the resolution said.

The Liberal Democrats are the junior partner in Britain's coalition government, having brokered a deal with Conservatives after the last parliamentary elections. The resolution will put the party in conflict with the Conservatives, who are opposed to any liberalization of Britain's drug laws.

It also puts them at odds with Labor, which after a brief dalliance with downgrading marijuana offenses in 2004, overrode the advice of the ACMD to restore the old, harsher penalties the following year. The Liberal Democrats can continue to boast of having the most progressive drug policy position of any of Britain's major parties.

The resolution was introduced by Ewan Hoyle, delegate from Glasgow South and founder of Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform. Politicians have tip-toed around drug policy reform because of "cowardice, pure cowardice," he said. Instead of panicking over what the tabloids might say, Hoyle added, "It's time politicians looked voters in the eye and attempted to explain complex concepts. I want [Liberal Democratic leader] Nick Clegg to walk into [Prime Minister] David Cameron's office and say: 'This is part of what is needed to get the country out of a hole.'"

While most party front-benchers stayed out of the debate, MP Tom Brake, co-chair of the Home Affairs Parliamentary Party Committee, congratulated delegates on passage of the resolution.

"Today, Liberal Democrats reaffirmed our support for an evidenced based drugs policy, calling for an independent panel to review current drug laws," Brake said after passage. "We want to ensure the Government has a clear focus on prevention and reducing harm by investing in education, treatment and rehabilitation, and moving away from criminalizing individuals and vulnerable drug users. We need proper regulation and investment if we are to get to the root of the battle with drugs. Liberal Democrats are the only party prepared to debate these issues."

The Conservatives were quick to go on the attack. The resolution "sends out the message that taking drugs is okay, but it is not," Tory MP Charles Walker told the tabloid Daily Mail. "If the Liberal Democrats think taking heroin, cocaine and smoking skunk is okay, then that is up to them, but the government and I think most people in Britain do not agree with them."

While Labor continues to back away from drug reform, at least one Labor MP congratulated the Liberal Democrats on the resolution.

"The resolution passed should be acceptable to all but the most prejudiced MPs," said MP Paul Flynn, a long-time supporter of drug law reform. "But what next? Will someone take the campaign forward in Parliament?" he asked. "I've tried several times with bills and debates. I still have the scars to prove it. But, contrary to popular belief, advocating the end of drug prohibition is not an electoral liability. If it was I would have been rejected by the voters twenty years ago. This is an era when there is respect for strongly held independent views that challenge accepted foolishness."

Flynn could not resist a chance to jab at Prime Minister Cameron -- who supported drug legalization before he opposed it -- and the Liberal Democrats as well.

"An additional reason why drugs reform may be successful is that we have a Prime Minister who understands the argument," Flynn noted. "He wrote a great column in 2002 setting out the alternatives. The vote was practically unanimous this afternoon. Will the Lib Dems have the cojones to implement their conference policy?"

It may not be just a matter of cojones, but also of numbers, said Steve Rolles of the Transform Drug Policy Institute.

"This is Liberal Democratic policy only, and they are the minority partner in the coalition government," he noted. "They have had a pretty strong drug policy position for years, but the problem has been that it has been a shield issue for them rather than a sword issue. They have not wanted to take the lead on it because the leadership sees it as a potential liability rather than a strength. They have made the intellectual journey, but are afraid to commit on the political side."

But now the Liberal Democrats have passed their resolution, even if party leader Nick Clegg has been noticeably silent on the issue, and that puts the issue squarely before the public again. That's a good thing, said Rolles.

"The Tories will certainly need to respond, and will be made to look trenchant, anti-evidence, and dogmatic as a result," the analyst said. "Labor may move slightly, but I think they are biding their time to see what the public reaction will be. All the parties know that drug policy reform must happen at some point, but none want to move on it until they are more confident it will play well politically," he said.

"This pushes the debate into the political mainstream, which is always helpful, not least because it provides cover for others to take a public position on reform," Rolles continued. "We know that exposure to informed debate on this issue tends to move opinion in a positive direction so that is also a positive.  This isn't a seismic moment but it is another step in the right direction. Undermining the creaking edifice of prohibition is an attritional process."

The Liberal Democratic Party has had its say on drug policy reform this past weekend. Now, the question is how the party leadership responds and whether Labor and the Conservatives can be moved on the issue. It looks like the drug debate is heating up again in Britain.

United Kingdom

Vietnam Using Drug Takers as Slave Labor [FEATURE]

Vietnamese drug users detained by the police are held for years without due process, subjected to torture and physical violence, and forced to work as low- or no-wage labor in camps that are supposed to be drug treatment centers, according to an explosive new report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch, which called for the camps to be closed and the prisoners released.

The report, The Rehab Archipelago: Forced Labor and Other Abuses in Drug Detention Centers in Southern Vietnam, documents the experience of people confined in 14 detention centers controlled by the government of Ho Chi Minh City. It found that the camps, which are mandated to treat and rehabilitate drug users are instead little more than forced labor camps where prisoners work six days a week processing cashew nuts, sewing clothes, and manufacturing other items.

Those who refuse to work or who violate camp rules are subject to punishments that Human Rights Watch said in some cases amounts to torture. It cited the experience of Quynh Luu, a former detainee who was caught trying to escape.

"First they beat my legs so that I couldn't run off again," Quynh said. "Then they shocked me with an electric baton and kept me in the punishment room for a month."

Quynh's case is hardly an exception, said the human rights monitoring organization, which talked to numerous current and former prisoners.

"People did refuse to work but they were sent to the disciplinary room. There they worked longer hours with more strenuous work, and if they balked at that work then they were beaten. No one refused to work completely," said Ly Nhan, who was detained in Nhi Xuan center in Ho Chi Minh City for four years.

"Work was compulsory," said Luc Ngan, who was a minor when he began more than three years in detention at Youth Center No. 2 in Ho Chi Minh City. "We produced bamboo furniture, bamboo products, and plastic drinking straws. We were paid by the hour for work -- eight-hour days, six days a week."

While workers were paid, they never saw the money, said Quynh, who spent five years at Center No. 3 in Binh Duong province. "On paper I earned 120,000 Vietnamese dollars a month, but they took it. The center staff said it paid for our food and clothes."

"If we opposed the staff they beat us with a one-meter, six-sided wooden truncheon. Detainees had the bones in their arms and legs broken. This was normal life inside," said Dong Ban, who was imprisoned for more than four years in Center No. 5 in Dak Nong province.

"Tens of thousands of men, women and children are being held against their will in government-run forced labor centers in Vietnam," said Joe Amon, health and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. "This is not drug treatment, the centers should be closed, and these people should be released."

The Vietnamese embassy in Washington did not return a call for comment Wednesday.

The system of forced labor camps for drug users originated with "reeducation through labor" camps for drug users and prostitutes established after the North Vietnamese victory over the South in 1975. They received a renewed impetus in the mid-1990s as the government launched a campaign to eradicate "social evils," including drug use. Their numbers have grown as the Vietnamese economy has expanded, more than doubling from 56 in 2000 to 123 at the beginning of this year.

Perversely, international donations to support drug treatment centers and to the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs have enabled the regime to continue to hold HIV-positive drug users against their will, even though Vietnamese law says they have the right to be released if they are not receiving appropriate medical care. Since 1994, international donors have sought to "build capacity," including training staff in drug treatment and support for HIV interventions, but Human Rights Watch reported that most centers offer no antiretroviral treatment or even basic medical care. The group cites various reports putting the number of HIV-positive detainees at between 15% and 60% of the detainee population.

The report contains testimonies from numerous detainees and former detainees who said they were sent to the centers without a formal hearing and without ever seeing a lawyer or judge. Some were sent to the camps after being arrested by police, while others were turned in by family members who "volunteered" them, believing they would get effective drug treatment there.

"I was caught by police in a roundup of drug users," said Quy Hop, who spent four years in the Binh Duc camp in Binh Phuoc province. "They took me to the police station in the morning and by that evening I was in the drug center. I saw no lawyer, no judge."

A small number of detainees voluntarily placed themselves in the centers to get drug treatment, but even they were not free to leave. Some reported that their detention was capriciously extended by camp managers or by changes in government policy.

Human Rights Watch was unable to provide the names of any foreign companies benefiting from detainee labor, saying "the lack of transparency or any publicly accessible list of companies that have contracts with these government-run detention centers made corroborating the involvement of companies difficult." But it did cite Vietnamese media reports as saying two Vietnamese companies, Son Long JSC, a cashew processing firm, and Tran Boi Production, which manufactures plastic goods, both used detainee labor. Neither company has replied to inquiries from Human Rights Watch, the group said.

"Forced labor is not treatment, and profit-making is not rehabilitation," Amon said. "Donors should recognize that building the capacity of these centers perpetuates injustice, and companies should make sure their contractors and suppliers are not using goods from these centers."

Besides calling on the government of Vietnam to shut down the camps, Human Rights Watch is seeking "an immediate, thorough, and independent investigation into torture, ill treatment, arbitrary detention, and other abuses in the country's drug detention centers." In addition, it wants the government to make public a list of all companies with contracts for detainee labor.

Human Rights Watch also calls on international donors to review their aid to the detention centers to ensure that it is not supporting programs that violate international human rights standards and urges companies working with the detention centers to end all relationships immediately.

"People who are dependent on drugs in Vietnam need access to community-based, voluntary treatment," Amon said. "Instead, the government is locking them up, private companies are exploiting their labor, and international donors are turning a blind eye to the torture and abuses they face."

Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam

Greek Government Proposes Drug Decriminalization

The Greek government is proposing to decriminalize the possession of drugs under a bill sent to parliament by Justice Minister Miltadis Papioannou, the British web site Talking Drugs reported this week. Under the bill, drug possession would be decriminalized as long as the drug use does not affect others.

Athens Cycle Tour (cityofathens.gr)
The bill is a response to continuing high drug overdose numbers -- more than 300 deaths a year in recent years -- and high levels of imprisonment. Some 40% of Greek prisoners are doing time for drug or drug-related offenses.

Under the proposed bill, drug possession for personal use would qualify only as "misconduct" instead of a more serious criminal offense. The decriminalization provision would also apply to people growing marijuana for their personal use.

The bill would also guarantee the right to drug treatment, including for people currently imprisoned. People deemed "addict offenders" by the courts would be provided treatment instead of being jailed.

Under the "treatment not jail" approach, addicts would be admitted to an approved treatment program for detoxification, then granted deferred prosecution and conditional release under a drug monitoring program. It is unclear what would happen to addicts who relapse while in the program.

The bill does not legalize the sale of drugs, which would remain a felony offense. Like other decriminalization schemes, the measure would make life easier for drug users in some ways, but would do little to reduce the deleterious effects of the black market in proscribed substances.

Athens
Greece

Chronicle Book Review: Drugs and Drug Policy

Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Mark Kleiman, Jonathan Caulkins, and Angela Hawken (2011, Oxford University Press, 234 pp., $16.95 PB)

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/drugs_and_drug_policy.jpg
Mark Kleiman isn't real popular among the drug reform set. The UCLA professor of public policy is no legalizer, and even though he's too much of an evidence-minded academic to be a wild-eyed drug warrior, he still seems to have an unbecoming fondness for the coercive power of the state. Kleiman, who gets top-billing over coauthors Jonathan Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon and Angela Hawken at Pepperdine, also ruffles reformers' feathers with unnecessary snideness and snark.

But I watched Kleiman address Students for Sensible Drug Policy conventions a couple of times, and I thought it was a good thing, a very useful jolt to the group-think that can grip any gathering of congregants committed to a cause. I thought having the students have to hear the arguments of a leading academic thinker on drug policy who, while not "the enemy," was not especially saying what the average SSDPer wanted to hear, was salubrious for their critical thinking skills. I still think so.

In Drugs and Drug Policy, Kleiman and his coauthors continue with the occasional jibes aimed at the drug reform movement, at times reach conclusions at odds with my own, but also serve up a surprisingly chewy work of drug policy wonkery in delicious bite-size chunks. The innovative format, something like a series of FAQs organized within broader chapters -- "Why Have Drug Laws?" "How Does Drug Law Enforcement Work?" "What Treats Drug Abuse?" "Can Problem Drugs Be Dealt With at the Source?" -- allows us to unpack that all-encompassing monster called "drug policy" one subset at a time, and for that achievement alone, is worthy of praise. That it manages to cover so much ground in a paltry 234 pages is all the more laudable.

Overall, Drugs and Drug Policy is smart, reasonable, and thoughtful. It wants policies based on evidence and it advocates for some intelligent alternatives to current policies. It recognizes the utility of needle exchanges, safe injection sites, and opiate maintenance, even as it complains that "harm reduction" has been hijacked by legalizers. It explains that most people who use drugs -- even those diagnosable as suffering from substance abuse disorders -- will quit using drugs themselves without recourse to treatment. And it even allows that drug use can have beneficial effects, even if it doesn't do so until the seventh chapter.

But Kleiman et. al dismiss decriminalization as unlikely to have a big impact on the social fiscal burden of drug law enforcement because, even though it doesn't appear to have much impact on consumption, drug consumers are not, for the most part, filling our prisons -- drug dealers are. While they do concede that not criminalizing otherwise law-abiding citizens could have "significant benefits," they seem to underplay the negative, life-long impact of a criminal drug record on one's life prospects.

In fact, they seem all too comfortable with maintaining the pernicious role of the criminal justice system in drug policy even as they recognize that enforcing the drug laws is "unavoidably an ugly process," with its reliance on snitches, surveillance, and other "intrusive methods" of enforcement. To give them credit, they want smarter drug law enforcement -- concentrating police repression on violent drug dealers while turning a blind eye to discreet dealing, triaging coerced drug treatment spots so they are reserved for the people who could most benefit from them, giving up on interdiction and source country eradication as ineffective -- that might actually reduce the social and fiscal costs of both drug abuse and enforcement, and since drug prohibition isn't going away anytime soon, at least wasting less money on drug war tactics that don't work well should be on the table.

And they reject drug legalization as too scary to experiment with, but seem to imagine it as possible only within a corporate-controlled, heavily-advertised, low-priced scenario similar to that which has accreted around the alcohol industry. Yes, it's probably true that selling cocaine like Coors, would lead (at least initially) to a significant increase in use and problem use, but why does that have to be the only model? A government monopoly similar to the state liquor store model, with reasonable taxes and no corporate pressure to advertise could conceivably allow legalization without the increases in consumption that the authors predict, even though they concede they don't know how large they might be.

Still, when you get to what it is Kleiman et al. would do if they had their druthers, all but the most purist of legalization advocates will find a lot to like. They create three separate lists of recommendations -- a "consensus list" of reforms they think are politically doable now or in the near future, a "pragmatic list" of reforms that would appeal to dispassionate observers but could raise the hackles of moralists, and a "political bridge too far list" of reforms too radical for mainstream politicians to embrace.

The "consensus list" includes expanding opiate maintenance therapy, encouraging evidence-based treatment, early intervention by the health care system, encouraging people to quit on their own (as opposed to being "powerless"), relying less on interdiction, ending the charade that alternative development is drug control, and concentrating drug enforcement on reducing violence and disorder, as well as smarter, more effective coerced treatment in the legal system. If we saw the drug czar's office produce a National Drug Control Strategy with these recommendations, we would consider that a great victory. It ain't legalization, but its headed in a more intelligent, more humane direction.

The "pragmatic list" includes recommendations to lower the number of drug dealers behind bars, not reject harm reduction even if it's been "hijacked," stop punishing former dealers and addicts, reduce barriers to medical research on illegal substances, and be open-minded about less harmful forms of tobacco use.

The authors don't neglect alcohol and tobacco -- the two most widely-used drugs -- and that is really evident in their "political bridge too far" recommendations. The first three items there are aimed squarely at reducing alcohol consumption and its ill effects. They also argue for the legalization of individual or collective marijuana cultivation, a sort of legalization without the market, increased study of the non-medical benefits of drugs, and increasing cigarette taxes in low tax states.

I think Drugs and Drug Policy needs to be read by anyone seriously interested in drug policy reform. It hits almost all the bases, and it's well-informed, provocative, and challenging of dogmatic positions. You don't like the authors' conclusions? Refute them. It'll be good for you.

Obama Says Drug Users Must Be Treated as Criminals

No, those weren't his exact words, but his exact words don't sound much better. My latest piece at Huffington Post explores the inherent contradictions that spring forth from the president's most recent contribution to the drug policy debate. Check it out.

NAACP Calls for End to War on Drugs

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has now officially broken with the war on drugs. At its 102nd annual convention in Los Angeles Tuesday, the nation's oldest and largest black advocacy group passed an historic resolution calling for an end to the drug war.

screening of "10 Rules for Dealing with Police," NAACP national conference, July 2010
The title of the resolution pretty much says it all: "A Call to End the War on Drugs, Allocate Funding to Investigate Substance Abuse Treatment, Education, and Opportunities in Communities of Color for A Better Tomorrow."

"Today the NAACP has taken a major step towards equity, justice and effective law enforcement," said Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP.  "These flawed drug policies that have been mostly enforced in African American communities must be stopped and replaced with evidenced-based practices that address the root causes of drug use and abuse in America."

The resolution noted that the US spends over $40 billion a year to battle against drugs and locks up hundreds of thousands of low-level drug offenders, mostly from communities of color. Blacks are 13 times as likely to be imprisoned for low-level drug offenses as whites, despite using drugs at roughly the same rate as whites, the group noted.

"Studies show that all racial groups abuse drugs at similar rates, but the numbers also show that African Americans, Hispanics and other people of color are stopped, searched, arrested, charged, convicted, and sent to prison for drug-related charges at a much higher rate," said Alice Huffman, President of the California State Conference of the NAACP, which last year endorsed California's Prop 19 marijuana legalization initiative. "This dual system of drug law enforcement that serves to keep African-Americans and other minorities under lock and key and in prison must be exposed and eradicated."

Instead of choking the US criminal justice system with drug offenders, the resolution called for an investment in treatment and prevention programs, including methadone clinics and treatment programs proven effective.

"We know that the war on drugs has been a complete failure because in the forty years that we’ve been waging this war, drug use and abuse has not gone down," said Robert Rooks, director of the NAACP Criminal Justice Program. "The only thing we've accomplished is becoming the world's largest incarcerator, sending people with mental health and addiction issues to prison, and creating a system of racial disparities that rivals Jim Crow policies of the 1960's."

Neill Franklin, an African American former narcotics cop from Baltimore and executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, made a presentation about ending the war on drugs to the conference Monday, and had more to say Tuesday.   

"The NAACP has been on the forefront of the struggle for civil rights and social justice in this country for over a century. The fact that these leaders are joining others like the National Black Police Association in calling for an end to the 'war on drugs' should be a wake up call to those politicians - including and especially President Obama - who still have not come to terms with the devastation that the 'drug war' causes in our society and especially in communities of color."

Although passed by delegates to the convention, the resolution must be ratified by the NAACP board of directors in October. Once that happens, the NAACP's 1,200 active units across the country will mobilize to conduct campaigns advocating for the end of the war on drugs.

The African-American community has long suffered the brunt of drug law enforcement in this country, but has proven remarkably resistant to calls to reform our drug policies, in part because it has also suffered the effects of drug abuse. That the nation's leading African-American organization has taken a stand against the drug war is a big deal.

Los Angeles, CA
United States

New Zealand Commission Urges Drug Law Reform

The New Zealand Law Commission Monday urged a broad overhaul of the island nation's drug laws to bring them into the 21st Century. The call came as the commission unveiled its review of the country's drug laws in a report, Controlling and Regulating Drugs: A Review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975.

Will Auckland become more like Oakland? It will if the Law Commission has its way. (Image via Wikimedia.org)
The Law Commission is an independent, but government-funded, body whose mission is to review areas of law that need developing or reforming and to make recommendations to parliament. It was asked by the then Labor government in 2007 to review the drug laws.

The commission called for steps toward legalizing medical marijuana, decriminalizing drug possession and small-time drug dealing, and doing away with drug paraphernalia laws. In response to the arrival of new synthetic drugs, it called for the reversal of current policy, which allows them until they are proven dangerous, and its replacement with a policy that bans them until they are proven safe.

The review calls for clinical trials on medical marijuana "as soon as practicable" and said medical marijuana patients should not be arrested in the meantime. "Given the strong belief of those who already use cannabis for medicinal purposes that it is an effective form of pain relief with fewer harmful side effects than other legally available drugs, we think that the proper moral position is to promote clinical trials as soon as practicable. We recommend that the government consider doing this."

People caught with drugs for personal use should be "cautioned" instead of arrested, the report said. "We recommend that a presumption against imprisonment should apply whenever the circumstances indicate that a drug offense was committed in a personal use context," the review said.

There should also be a statutory presumption against imprisonment for small-time drug dealing, the review said. ''We consider that the supply by drug users of small amounts of drugs with no significant element of commerciality ("social dealing") is entirely different from commercial dealing.''

Get rid of drug paraphernalia laws, the review said. ''We are not aware of any evidence that existence of the offense itself deters drug use."

The report highlights four key recommendations:

  • A mandatory cautioning scheme for all personal possession and use offences that come to the attention of the police, removing minor drug offenders from the criminal justice system and providing greater opportunities for those in need of treatment to access it.
  • A full scale review of the current drug classification system which is used to determine restrictiveness of controls and severity of penalties, addressing existing inconsistencies and focusing solely on assessing a drug's risk of harm, including social harm.
  • Making separate funding available for the treatment of offenders through the justice sector to support courts when they impose rehabilitative sentences to address alcohol and drug dependence problems.
  • Consideration of a pilot drug court, allowing the government to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of deferring sentencing of some offenders until they had undergone court-imposed alcohol and/or drug treatment.

"There are adverse social consequences from a distinctly punitive approach to lower level offending," Law Commission head Grant Hammond told the New Zealand Herald. "Quite large numbers of young New Zealanders receive criminal convictions -- which might subsist for life -- as a result of minor drug offenses. This is a disproportionate response to the harm those offenses cause. More can be done through the criminal justice system to achieve better outcomes for those individuals and for society at large."

The review won plaudits from Green Party leader Metiria Turei. "Current drug law is 35 years out-of-date and is hurting our families," she said. "Too many resources are directed into criminalizing people rather than providing them with the medical help they most need. The Law Commission's report recognizes this and seeks to redress it by adopting a harm reduction approach for dealing with personal drug use by adults. This new approach, if adopted, will actually save money enabling greater resources to be directed into health services for breaking the cycle of drug abuse and addiction. It will also free police to tackle more serious crime."

But Bob McCoskrie, director of the tough-on-drugs group Family First found little to like in the review. "A weak-kneed approach to drug use will simply send all the wrong messages that small amounts of drug use or dealing aren't that big a deal -- the completely wrong message, especially for younger people," he warned. "A cautioning scheme will simply be held in contempt by users, and fails to acknowledge the harm done by drug use which is undetected. The report is correct to call for better treatment facilities for addiction and mental illness, but a zero-tolerance approach to the use of drugs combined with treatment options is a far better solution."

A spokesman for the governing center-right National Party said the government welcomed the report, but needed time to study it.

Auckland
New Zealand

California Corrections "Realignment" Not Nearly Enough [FEATURE]

Faced with a staggering budget deficit and a prison overcrowding crisis, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and the state legislature have approved legislation that would shift responsibility for low-level, nonviolent offenders and parole violators from the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to the state's counties. But sentencing and drug reform advocates say the measure merely shifts the burden of the state's corrections overcrowding from the state to the counties, fails to fund crime prevention services like drug treatment, and fails to include real sentencing reforms.

California Gov. Jerry Brown takes a tiny step toward corrections reform.
On Monday, Gov. Brown signed  Assembly Bill 109, the law shifting responsibility for many low-level offenders to the counties.  The law is designed to stop the "revolving door" of low-level offenders cycling and recycling through the prison system, Brown said in a signing statement.

"For too long, the state’s prison system has been a revolving door for lower-level offenders and parole violators who are released within months -- often before they are even transferred out of a reception center," Brown said. "Cycling these offenders through state prisons wastes money, aggravates crowded conditions, thwarts rehabilitation, and impedes local law enforcement supervision."

But the law will not go into effect unless and until the legislature approves and funds a community corrections grant program, something Republicans in the legislature have opposed.

"I will not sign any legislation that would seek to implement this legislation without the necessary funding," Brown said. "In the coming weeks, and for as long as it takes, I will vigorously pursue my plan to balance the state's budget and prevent reductions to public safety through a constitutional guarantee."

The cost of corrections in California is staggering. Gov. Brown's proposed Fiscal Year 2011-2012 budget funds the prison system to the tune of $9.19 billion, nearly 7.2% of the entire state budget. And the war on drugs is responsible for a hefty portion of it.

The state prison system holds a whopping 144,000 inmates, including more than 28,000 drug offenders and more than 1,500 marijuana offenders. Of those 28,000 drug offenders, 9,000 are there for simple drug possession at a cost of $450 million a year, or about $4.5 billion over the past decade. That figure doesn't include the cost of re-incarcerating parole violators who have been returned to prison for administrative violations, such as failing drug tests, so the actual cost of drug law enforcement to the prison system is even higher.

Not only does the prison system face a budgetary crisis, it also faces a looming US Supreme Court decision that, by most predictions, will result in the state being ordered to reduce the prison population to 110,000, which is still about 30,000 over official capacity. The lawsuit before the Supreme Court alleges that California does not provide adequate medical and mental health services to its prisoners.

Gov. Brown's and the legislature's plan to shift low-level offenders out of CDCR and into county facilities does not address the core of the problem, advocates said.

"This plan is a shell game that would simply shift corrections costs from the state to the counties without addressing the real problem: California is locking up too many people for low-level offenses for too long," said Allen Hopper, police practices director with the ACLU of Northern California. "The cost of mass incarceration is robbing the people of California of vitally needed services, including education and healthcare. What we need is real sentencing reform, such as shortening the sentences for simple possession drug crimes. It's time for California to stop wasting hundreds of millions of dollars incarcerating people who pose no threat to public safety."

"This plan would allow people to be locked up in local jails for up to three years, triple the current limit. Research consistently shows that longer sentences do not produce better outcomes. In fact, shorter sentences coupled with re-entry and prevention tactics are both more effective and more cost-effective," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, deputy state director in Southern California for the Drug Policy Alliance. "We're talking about people convicted of low-level offenses, like drug possession, prostitution and petty theft, often related to a drug problem. But the plan doesn't include a dime for drug treatment or mental health care. In fact, the governor has proposed reducing funds for those services."

"Any California corrections reform must include sentencing reform," said Kris Lev-Twombly, director of programs at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. "A felony conviction is a life-long sentence that should not be applied to low-level offenses. No matter how old the conviction, people with a felony on their record will face significantly diminished employment opportunities and much lower lifetime earnings. They may also be prohibited from accessing student loans, food stamps and other public assistance. This works against individual, family and community well-being and public safety."

San Quentin Prison -- no room at the inn. (Image via Wikimedia.org)
The bill signed into law by Gov. Brown is not sentencing reform, but sentencing reform is what is needed, said Dooley-Sammuli. Decriminalization of drug possession is the goal, but legislators aren't ready to embrace that yet, she said. In the meantime, there are other options.

"We want the legislature to reduce the penalty from a felony to a misdemeanor," she said. "We don't think the legislators are at the point where they understand the real harms that come to drug users, their families, and their communities because of the criminal penalties for drug use, but we think they do understand there is no reason why the penalties should be as severe as they are. The common ground is that they cost too much money and they do damage because of the burden of a felony conviction."

Advocates are continuing to push for real sentencing reform in California, said Dooley-Sammuli. "This would be a very good year for it," she said. "The critical thing is for the legislature to understand that there are additional cost savings to be had by reducing these low-level felony offenses to misdemeanors, with no threat to public safety, but with positive advantages for reentry success. They think that this realignment solves the problem, but this is not sentencing reform. Incarcerating people in county jails instead of state prisons is not sentencing reform."

But even as reformers continue to fight for sentencing reform, Gov. Brown and the legislature still have to figure out how to pay for the shift from state prisons to county jails. Brown has been pushing for a special election in June to give voters the chance to approve tax increase extensions, but he needs support from Republicans, and that doesn’t appear to be there. If that doesn't happen, it may appear on the November ballot as an initiative, but the tax extensions expire July 1, and a November vote would require voters to increase taxes, not a popular notion these days.

"Funding is not imminent," said Dooley-Sammuli. "But the deal has been struck. If they can get the Republicans or the voters to agree to tax extensions, this is the plan Democrats want for realignment.

And speaking of funding not being imminent, Gov. Brown has proposed zero increases for community-based drug treatment and actual cuts to drug treatment programs within the CDCR. That would affect treatment for both prisoners and parolees.

"He is talking about reducing access to services even as we face a major shift in how corrections works in this state," said Dooley-Sammuli. "That's really stupid."

It has become increasingly evident that California can't afford its drug war. Gov. Brown and the legislature have attempted to craft a fix, but the fix will leave the system just as broken as ever. Now, the state's political elite has to understand that half-measures won't solve the problem. If they're not ready for decriminalization or legalization, it is at least time for de-felonization.

Drug War Issues

Criminal JusticeAsset Forfeiture, Collateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Court Rulings, Drug Courts, Due Process, Felony Disenfranchisement, Incarceration, Policing (2011 Drug War Killings, 2012 Drug War Killings, 2013 Drug War Killings, 2014 Drug War Killings, Arrests, Eradication, Informants, Interdiction, Lowest Priority Policies, Police Corruption, Police Raids, Profiling, Search and Seizure, SWAT/Paramilitarization, Task Forces, Undercover Work), Probation or Parole, Prosecution, Reentry/Rehabilitation, Sentencing (Alternatives to Incarceration, Clemency and Pardon, Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity, Death Penalty, Decriminalization, Defelonization, Drug Free Zones, Mandatory Minimums, Rockefeller Drug Laws, Sentencing Guidelines)CultureArt, Celebrities, Counter-Culture, Music, Poetry/Literature, Television, TheaterDrug UseParaphernalia, ViolenceIntersecting IssuesCollateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Violence, Border, Budgets/Taxes/Economics, Business, Civil Rights, Driving, Economics, Education (College Aid), Employment, Environment, Families, Free Speech, Gun Policy, Human Rights, Immigration, Militarization, Money Laundering, Pregnancy, Privacy (Search and Seizure, Drug Testing), Race, Religion, Science, Sports, Women's IssuesMarijuana PolicyGateway Theory, Hemp, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Marijuana Industry, Medical MarijuanaMedicineMedical Marijuana, Science of Drugs, Under-treatment of PainPublic HealthAddiction, Addiction Treatment (Science of Drugs), Drug Education, Drug Prevention, Drug-Related AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis C, Harm Reduction (Methadone & Other Opiate Maintenance, Needle Exchange, Overdose Prevention, Safe Injection Sites)Source and Transit CountriesAndean Drug War, Coca, Hashish, Mexican Drug War, Opium ProductionSpecific DrugsAlcohol, Ayahuasca, Cocaine (Crack Cocaine), Ecstasy, Heroin, Ibogaine, ketamine, Khat, Marijuana (Gateway Theory, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Medical Marijuana, Hashish), Methamphetamine, New Synthetic Drugs (Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Stimulants), Nicotine, Prescription Opiates (Fentanyl, Oxycontin), Psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Salvia Divinorum)YouthGrade School, Post-Secondary School, Raves, Secondary School