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Big Name Panel Calls Global Drug War a "Failure" [FEATURE]

The global war on drugs is a failure and governments worldwide 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, a high-profile group of world leaders said in a report issued last Thursday.

Richard Branson blogs about being invited onto the global commission, on virgin.com.
The Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose members include former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former presidents of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, said the global prohibitionist approach to drug policy, in place since the UN adopted the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs a half-century ago, has failed to reduce either the drug supply or consumption.

Citing UN figures, the report said global marijuana consumption rose more than 8% and cocaine use 27% in the decade between 1998 and 2008. Again citing UN figures, the group estimated that there are some 250 million illegal drug consumers worldwide. "We simply cannot treat them all as criminals," the report concluded.

The report also argued that arresting "tens of millions" of low-level dealers, drug couriers, and drug-producing farmers not only failed to reduce production and consumption, but also failed to address the economic needs that pushed people into the trade in the first place.

Prohibitionist approaches also foster violence, most notably in the case of Mexico, the group argued, and impede efforts to stop the spread of diseases like HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis. Governments should instead turn to science- and evidence-based public health and harm reduction approaches, the group said. It cited studies of nations like Portugal and Australia, where the decriminalization of at least some drugs has not led to significantly greater use.

"Overwhelming evidence from Europe, Canada and Australia now demonstrates the human and social benefits both of treating drug addiction as a health rather than criminal justice problem and of reducing reliance on prohibitionist policies," said former Swiss president Ruth Dreifuss. "These policies need to be adopted worldwide, with requisite changes to the international drug control conventions."

The report offered a number of recommendations for global drug policy reform, including:

  • End the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others.
  • Encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs (especially cannabis) to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.
  • Ensure that a variety of treatment modalities are available -- including not just methadone and buprenorphine treatment but also the heroin-assisted treatment programs that have proven successful in many European countries and Canada.
  • Apply human rights and harm reduction principles and policies both to people who use drugs as well as those involved in the lower ends of illegal drug markets such as farmers, couriers and petty sellers.

"Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and 40 years after President Nixon launched the US government's global war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed," said former president of Brazil Fernando Henrique Cardoso. "Let's start by treating drug addiction as a health issue, reducing drug demand through proven educational initiatives, and legally regulating rather than criminalizing cannabis."

"The war on drugs has failed to cut drug usage, but has filled our jails, cost millions in tax payer dollars, fuelled organized crime and caused thousands of deaths. We need a new approach, one that takes the power out of the hands of organized crime and treats people with addiction problems like patients, not criminals," said Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group and cofounder of The Elders, United Kingdom. "The good news is new approaches focused on regulation and decriminalization have worked. We need our leaders, including business people, looking at alternative, fact based approaches. We need more humane and effective ways to reduce the harm caused by drugs. The one thing we cannot afford to do is to go on pretending the war on drugs is working."

The Obama administration is having none of it. "Making drugs more available -- as this report suggests -- will make it harder to keep our communities healthy and safe," Rafael Lemaitre, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy told the Wall Street Journal the same day the report was released.

That sentiment is in line with earlier pronouncements from the administration that while it will emphasize a public health approach to drug policy, it stands firm against legalization. "Legalizing dangerous drugs would be a profound mistake, leading to more use, and more harmful consequences," drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said earlier this year.

But if the White House isn't listening, US drug reformers are -- and they're liking what they're hearing.

"It's no longer a question of whether legalizing drugs is a serious topic of debate for serious people," said Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and a 34-year veteran police officer from Baltimore, Maryland. "These former presidents and other international leaders have placed drug legalization squarely on the table as an important solution that policymakers need to consider. As a narcotics cop on the streets, I saw how the prohibition approach not only doesn't reduce drug abuse but how it causes violence and crime that affect all citizens and taxpayers, whether they use drugs or not."

"These prominent world leaders recognize an undeniable reality. The use of marijuana, which is objectively less harmful than alcohol, is widespread and will never be eliminated," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. "They acknowledge that there are only two choices moving forward. We can maintain marijuana's status as a wholly illegal substance and steer billions of dollars toward drug cartels and other criminal actors. Or, we can encourage nations to make the adult use of marijuana legal and have it sold in regulated stores by legitimate, taxpaying business people. At long last, we have world leaders embracing the more rational choice and advocating for legal, regulated markets for marijuana. We praise these world leaders for their willingness to advocate for this sensible approach to marijuana policy."

"The long-term impact of the Global Commission's efforts will be defining," predicted David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org (publisher of this newsletter). "Most people don't realize that there are leaders of this stature who believe prohibition causes much of the harm commonly seen as due to drugs. As more and more people hear these arguments, coming from some of the most credible people on the planet, legalization will come to be viewed as a credible and realistic option."

Other commission members include Louise Arbour, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Canada; Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil (chair); Marion Caspers-Merk, former State Secretary at the German Federal Ministry of Health; Maria Cattaui former Secretary-General of the International Chamber of Commerce, Switzerland; Carlos Fuentes, writer and public intellectual, Mexico; Asma Jahangir, human rights activist, former UN Special Rapporteur on Arbitrary, Extrajudicial and Summary Executions, Pakistan; Michel Kazatchkine, executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria , France; Mario Vargas Llosa, writer and public intellectual, Peru; George Papandreou, Prime Minister of Greece; George P. Shultz, former Secretary of State, United States (honorary chair); Javier Solana, former European Union High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy , Spain; Thorvald Stoltenberg, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Norway; Paul Volcker, former Chairman of the United States Federal Reserve and of the Economic Recovery Board; John Whitehead, banker and civil servant, chair of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, United States; and Ernesto Zedillo, former President of Mexico.

While the Obama administration may be loathe to listen, the weight of world opinion, as reflected in the composition of the global commission that issued this report, is starting to create stress fractures in the wall of prohibition. A half-century of global drug prohibition has showed us what it can deliver, and the world is increasingly finding it wanting.

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.

Is DARE Program Worth It?

While participants remain enthusiastic, scientific reviews have been negative on the effectiveness of the DARE program, which started in Los Angeles in 1983. A 2006 report by the U.S. Surgeon General concluded that those who participate in DARE are just as likely to use drugs as those who don’t. Khadija K. Swims, of Grand Valley State University, reviewed several studies on DARE and concluded the program is "ineffective" in preventing future drug, alcohol and tobacco use in adolescents. The results of such studies mean schools can’t spend federal money on DARE. Under rules that went into effect in 1998, the Department of Education requires agencies that receive federal money to prove within two years that their programs reduce drug use among students.
Publication/Source: 
Chicago Sun-Times (IL)
URL: 
http://www.suntimes.com/lifestyles/4497466-418/is-dare-program-worth-it.html

Study Casts Doubts Over Canada's Strategy on Illicit Drug Use

Location: 
Canada
Much like the American approach to drug policy, it's not clear Canadians are getting a whole lot of bang for all the bucks thrown at the illicit drug problem, a new report says. "In the case of the strategy, many programs do not have the means to demonstrate the incremental impact of their activities...Many programs report output information...but the validity of the information remains questionable from an impact measurement perspective," the document says.
Publication/Source: 
CTV Television Network (Canada)
URL: 
http://montreal.ctv.ca/servlet/an/local/CTVNews/20110317/study-drug-use-ottawa-strategy-110317/20110317/?hub=MontrealHome

Illinois Just Says No to Drug Treatment (Jails Will Remain Open for Business)

The idea that drug treatment is a more effective, more affordable alternative to putting drug offenders in prison is so popular these days that you can even find the President talking about it. Unfortunately, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn seems determined to prove everyone wrong:

The harsh reality of the budget cuts proposed by Illinois governor Pat Quinn will become very real for tens of thousands of residents, as the state prepares to kill all funding for its drug treatment and prevention programs.

Sara Howe, CEO of the Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association told the News-Gazette that "80 percent of our clients on March 15 would be thrown out of care." That adds up to around 55,000 people who will lose their help battling drugs. [Huffington Post]
 

I'm sure police and prosecutors will be happy to help find them a place to stay.

The 2012 Federal Drug Budget: More of the Same [FEATURE]

The Obama administration released its a href="http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/policy/12budget/fy12Highlight.pdf">proposed 2012 National Drug Control Budget Monday and, despite President Obama's statement just over two weeks ago that the federal government needed to "shift resources" to have a smarter, more effective federal drug policy emphasizing public health approaches, there is little sign of any resource shifting.

Drug War Autopilot and Co-Autopilot: ONDCP Director Gil Kerlikowske with President Obama
Although budget documents said the administration seeks "a balanced approach" of prevention, treatment, and domestic and international law enforcement, law enforcement continues to get the lion's share of federal drug dollars. Of the more than $26 billion allocated for federal drug control efforts, nearly 60% would go to "supply reduction" (read: domestic and international drug law enforcement and military interdiction) and only 40% would go to treatment and prevention.

And in a time when the clamor for deficit reductions and budget cuts grows louder by the day, the Obama administration drug budget actually increases by 1.3% over 2010. That means it could be in for a rough ride when congressional appropriations committees get their hands on it, although no Republican leaders have yet commented on it.

[Editor's Note: All year-to-year comparisons are to Fiscal Year 2010 because Congress still hasn't passed a FY 2011 budget.]

On the other hand, at least the administration is being honest. Since 2004, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), which produces the drug budget, under drug czar John Walters had used accounting legerdemain to substantially understate the real costs of federal drug control by not including the drug component in the work of a number of different federal agencies. Using the understated figures, this year's drug budget would have appeared to have been only $15.3 billion instead of the more accurate $26.2 billion, with a false appearance of equality between supply-side and demand-side funding.

[Editor's Note: Bush-era drug czar John Walters stated directly, in response to a question I asked at an event, that they omitted budget items that included drug control but were not 100% about drug control -- claiming that made the numbers "more accurate," but not explaining how that made sense in any way. -DB]

"At least they finally got around to fixing the accounting problem," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance."It took them five years after Congress told them to fix it, but at least they are showing the true cost of things, like incarceration."

But neither Piper nor representatives of other drug reform groups had much else nice to say about the budget. "It's very much like last year's budget, with most money going to ineffective supply side programs and not enough going to treatment," Piper said. "You have the president and the drug czar talking about treating drug abuse as a public health issue just weeks ago, but their budget continues to treat it as a law enforcement and military issue."

"I don't understand how the president can tell us with a straight face that he wants to treat drugs as a health issue but then turn around just a few weeks later and put out a budget that continues to emphasize punishment and interdiction," said Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and a former narcotics officer in Baltimore. "The president needs to put his money where his mouth is. Right now it looks like he's simply all talk and no game."

"I see this similarly to Obama's approach on needle exchange and crack sentencing -- the president supported those reforms verbally, but did nothing else to help them at first, even when he had the opportunity," said David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org, publisher of this newsletter. "But when Congress was ready to take them on, the administration provided enough support to get them through. Obama has also supported the idea of shifting the drug budget's priorities, but again has done nothing whatsoever to make it happen. Maybe what he wants is for Congress to do the heavy lifting on this as well. If so, our movement's task is to propose a politically viable new version of the budget that does change the priorities, to build support for it in Congress, and then look for the administration to get on board."

"We're definitely going to be focused on cutting funding to the drug war during the congressional appropriations process," said Piper. "We're already meeting with both Republicans and Democrats to increase support for cutting funding to the Byrne grants, the media campaign, and other ineffective drug war programs. I don't think there are any sacred cows now, and our goal is to get the drug war on the chopping block along with everything else."

While there are individual programs that saw cuts in both the treatment and prevention side and the law enforcement side, only in the realm of international anti-drug assistance was there an overall decrease in spending. Although the budget funds foreign assistance at $2.1 billion, that is $457 million less than the 2010 budget, a decrease of 17%. The decrease results from the winding down of Plan Colombia funding, a shift from expensive technologies for Mexico to more programmatic aid, and the re-jiggering of some of the Afghanistan anti-drug spending to be counted as "rule of law" spending.

Proposed spending on interdiction is set at $3.9 billion, an increase of $243 million over 2010 levels. The departments of Defense and Homeland Security account for the bulk of that spending, which includes an increase of $210 million for border security and port of entry facilitation on the US-Mexico border.

But international anti-drug aid and interdiction spending are dwarfed by domestic drug law enforcement, which would gobble up $9.5 billion under the Obama drug budget, an increase of $315 million over 2010 levels, or 3.4%. Unsurprisingly, the single largest domestic law enforcement expenditure is $3.46 billion to incarcerate federal drug war prisoners.

[Editor's Note: In the budget, the authors refer to high federal corrections costs because of the high number of drug war prisoners -- they make up well over half the more than 200,000 federal prisoners -- as "a consequence of drug abuse," when those costs are more than anything a consequence of public policy decisions made over decades.]

The Office of Justice Grants program, which includes the Byrne Justice Assistance Grants used to fund anti-drug multi-jurisdiction law enforcement task forces, would be slashed substantially, from $3.52 billion in 2010 to $2.96 billion in 2012, but on the other hand, the Justice Department 2012 budget contains $600 million to hire and retain 4,500 new police officers.

"It's encouraging that they cut funding for the Byrne grants," said Piper, "but they're increasing funding for the COPS program. The money is still going to law enforcement, but cutting those grants is a step in the right direction."

There are a few law enforcement side losers in addition to the Byrne grants. The DEA budget is down slightly, from $2.05 billion in 2010 to $2.01 billion in 2012, but that reflects supplemental spending for the southwest border that was included in 2010. The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program, which has evolved into a prime example of pork, saw its funding slashed to $200 million, down from $239 million.

And while overall treatment and prevention funding was up slightly, by 1% and 8% respectively, those increases are relatively slight, and there are some losers there, too. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Prevention grant program would decline from $565 million in 2010 to $550 million in 2012, Drug Free Communities funding would decline from $95 million to $89 million, and substance abuse treatment Medicaid grants to the states would decline from $3.78 billion to $3.57 billion.

On the plus side, spending for the Successful, Safe, and Healthy Students grant program would increase from $177 million to $267 million, Medicare treatment spending would increase by about 10% to $1.463 billion, Substance Abuse Treatment Block Grant funding would increase fractionally, and reentry funding under the Second Chance Act would increase from $30 million to $50 million.

The much criticized ONDCP youth media campaign would remain at $45 million, and the mostly praised drug court program would also remain unchanged, at $57 million.

All in all, despite slight changes in emphasis, the 2012 federal drug control budget is much of a muchness with previous drug budgets, despite the Obama administration's lip service about changing priorities and embracing the public health paradigm.

"Everyone wants to cut federal spending somehow," said Piper. "It seems that cutting the drug war would be an easy way to do that without cutting funds to the poor, to education, and other desirable social programs. Obama has said how sad he was to have to cut programs he likes, but he probably could have saved those programs by cutting funding for the drug war."

Washington, DC
United States

Ex-World Leaders Form Global Drug Policy Commission

A group of world political leaders, intellectuals, and businessman Richard Branson have formed a Global Commission on Drug Policies in a bid to boost the effort to achieve more humane and rational drug laws. The commission is headed by former Brazilian President Henrique Cardoso and builds on the work Cardoso and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria did with the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/latinamericacommission.jpg
Latin America Commission panel, 2009, President Gaviria on left (courtesy comunidadsegura.org)
The commission's goals include reviewing the basic assumptions, effectiveness and consequences of the 'war on drugs' approach; evaluating the risks and benefits of different national responses to the drug problem; and developing actionable, evidence-based recommendations for constructive legal and drug policy reform. The commission will issue a report in six months.

The commission will examine the current international drug control regime, conduct a global overview of drug policies and laws, examine the drug production and supply chain, address criminal justice challenges, study the lessons learned from harm reduction, treatment, and prevention campaigns, and examine the economic and political ramifications of the massive illicit global drug trade.

In addition to the three Latin American ex-presidents, commission members include former US Secretary of State George Schulz, writers Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, former European Union official Javier Solana, former Swiss President Ruth Dreifuss, and former UN High Commissioner for Refugees Thorvald Stoltenberg.

"There is a growing perception that the "war on drugs" approach has failed," the commission said in a statement as it announced its existence in Geneva this week. "Eradication of production and criminalization of consumption did not reduce drug traffic and drug use," the commission said.

The harm from corruption and violence resulting from prohibition "largely exceeds the harm caused by drugs," the statement says.

We will be looking forward to seeing the commission's report this summer. The report from the Latin American Commission helped stir debate and advance the cause of reform, and this should, too.

Geneva
Switzerland

Kids Will See Laughable Drug Video As 'not4me' (Letter to Editor)

Location: 
Canada
Russell Barth of Educators for Sensible Drug Policy opines that Canada's new "drugsnot4me" campaign video is a total embarrassment due to the over-the-top rhetoric which generates fear rather than educates youth.
Publication/Source: 
The Ottawa Citizen (Canada)
URL: 
http://www.ottawacitizen.com/business/Kids+will+laughable+drug+video+not4me/3846553/story.html

Senior US Appeals Court Judge Says Drug War 'Lost,' Country Should Try Legalizing Marijuana

U.S. federal appeals court judge Judge Juan Torruella says the United States should consider legalizing marijuana and perhaps other drugs as it is a better way to reduce drug abuse and crime.
Publication/Source: 
The Canadian Press (Canada)
URL: 
http://www.google.com/hostednews/canadianpress/article/ALeqM5jfyVtRpH9HS60T2KCmINiiIHujWA?docId=5090089

The Republican House and Drug Reform: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly [FEATURE]

Last week, a resurgent Republican Party retook control of the US House of Representatives, giving the Democrats a drubbing the likes of which has not been seen for decades. The Democrats lost 61 seats, seeing their side sink to 189 seats to the Republicans' 240. They needed 218 to take over again.

The change in control of the House has some serious drug policy implications. There's bad news, but maybe also some good news.

Reform measures passed in the current Congress, such as repealing the bans on federal funding of needle exchange programs and implementation of the Washington, DC, medical marijuana program, could see attempts to roll them back. And pending reforms efforts, such as the battle to repeal the HEA student loan provision, are probably dead. Reform friendly Democratic committee chairs, who wield considerable power, have been replaced by hostile Republicans.

But the incoming Republicans made slashing the deficit and cutting the federal budget a winning campaign issue for themselves, and will be looking for programs they can cut or eliminate. That could open the door to hacking away at programs that support the ongoing prosecution of the drug war, but it could also open the door for cuts in prevention and treatment programs.

As the Chronicle noted here earlier this week, it's not just Tea Party types who want to wield the budget ax. The mainstream conservative Heritage Foundation issued a report just before election day laying out a whopping $434 billion in federal budget cuts, including eliminating the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the drug task force-funding Justice Assistance Grant (JAG, formerly the Byrne grant program) program, and the Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities state grant program.

"Budgetary issues is where I'm most optimistic," said Bill Piper, veteran national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Given the fiscal climate, there could be real cuts in the federal budget. Next year is probably an unprecedented opportunity to de-fund the federal drug war. These new Republicans are a different breed—anti-government, anti-spending, pro-states' rights, and some are proven to be prone to bucking the leadership. If the Republican leadership votes to preserve the drug war, they may rebel," he said.

"We can go after the Byrne grant program," Piper enthused. "That's a very important deal. If we can cut off drug war funding to the states, the states won't be able to afford their punitive policies anymore. During the recession in the Bush administration, when the administration was cutting money to the states, a lot of states passed reform measures because they couldn't afford to lock people up. This time, the federal government has been bailing out state criminal justice systems, but if we can cut or eliminate Byrne grants, the states won't have money for their drug task forces and imprisoning people. Then they will have to consider reforms like cutting sentences and making marijuana possession an infraction."

"Sentencing reform on budgetary grounds is possible," said Kara Gotsch, director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project. "From our perspective, that is a way to reduce government spending. If you want to reduce drug war spending, you reduce costs by investing in prevention and substance abuse programs. That will be part of our talking points, but the reality is, to be successful they're going to have to be bipartisan."

Eric Sterling, former House Judiciary Committee counsel and current head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation was less sanguine than either Piper or Gotsch about the urge to cut the deficit leading to progress in drug reform. "The prospect of saving money leading to criminal justice and drug policy reform is remote," said Sterling. "In state legislatures where they have to balance the budget, everyone recognizes what has to happen. But in Congress, they know there is still going to be a deficit."

Sterling also questioned just how different the Republican freshman class will be from traditional Republicans. "That's a big question mark," he said. "They are younger and bring with them different experiences about drug policy or marijuana in particular, but most of these men and women won by using traditional themes that most incumbent Republicans used, too. I think for them, cracking down on drugs and crime will have more value than trying to save money by funding diversion or correctional programs that aren't about harsh punishment."

But Piper remained upbeat. "Next year is probably an unprecedented opportunity for the movement to defund the drug war. The stars are aligning. A lot of tax groups are already on record for cutting some of these programs," he noted. "Given the fiscal climate, we could see considerable cuts in the federal budget. The type of Republicans coming into office, as well as Obama's own need to show he can practice fiscal discipline, means a real chance to cut or eliminate some of those programs," he said. "The down side is that funding for prevention and treatment is likely to come under fire, too."

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) -- no friend of drug reform.
While budget battles will be fought in appropriations committees, criminal justice issues are a different matter. One of the most striking changes  comes in the House Judiciary Committee, where pro-drug reform Democrats like chairman John Conyers (D-MI) and Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security chair Bobby Scott (D-VA) are being replaced by the likes of Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who will head the Judiciary Committee. Smith, a conservative old school drug warrior, was the only congressman to speak up against passage of the bill to reduce the disparity in crack and powder cocaine sentences.

He also authored a bill this fall that would have made it a federal offense for US citizens to plan to commit acts outside the US that would violate US drug laws. While that bill was allegedly aimed at large drug trafficking organizations, it could have made federal criminals out of college students making plans to visit the coffee shops of Amsterdam. He took to Fox News last month to lambaste the Obama administration as insufficiently tough on marijuana law enforcement, a clip he displays on his web site (scroll over the small video screens; the title will pop up).

"The fact that Rep. Smith is going to be the chair will definitely have an impact," said Gotsch. "He was the only vocal opposition to the crack cocaine sentencing reform, and the fact that he is now going to be chair is discouraging. It indicates that he won't be thoughtful about sentencing reforms for low level drug offenders."

"The Democratic committee chairs were good on drug policy and unlikely to advance bad drug war bills," said Piper. "Now, with Conyers and Scott gone and Lamar Smith in charge, we can expect stuff like Smith's foreign drug conspiracy bill to come out of that committee."

"You couldn’t find bigger champions for reform than Scott and Conyers," said Gotsch. "We won't have them as chairs now; that's probably the biggest disappointment to our community."

"Smith has been quite out there in his attacks over the drug issue," said Sterling. "My hunch is that we will take advantage of the political attractiveness of the drug issue to try to have both oversight hearings and legislation that would be embarrassing to Democrats."

And don't expect too much from the Democrats, either, he added. "The Democratic caucus is going to be more reluctant to deal with the drug issue in a progressive way than it has been," said Sterling. "They see it as a distraction from the heart of the message they need to bring to retake power in 2012."

With people like Smith holding key House committee positions, the drug reform agenda is likely to stall in the next Congress. Instead, reformers will be fighting to avoid reversing earlier gains.

"In terms of passing good things, there probably wasn’t a lot more that was going to happen with Democrats before 2012," said Piper. "The important low hanging fruit of overturning the syringe ban, the DC medical marijuana ban, and the crack sentencing bill had already gotten through. We might have been able to achieve repeal of the HEA drug provision, but probably not now."

The drug reform movement's job now will be not only blocking bad legislation, but also fighting to prevent a rollback of drug reform victories in the current Congress, such as the repeal of the bans on syringe exchange funding and implementing the Washington, DC, medical marijuana law, said Piper. 

"They're unlikely to go backwards on crack, but the syringe ban and the DC medical marijuana ban were both repealed with some, but not a lot, of Republican support," he said. "The syringe ban repeal barely passed, and that was in a Congress dominated by Democrats. Will they try to restore the syringe funding ban and overturn DC's medical marijuana program? That's our big fear. Hopefully, we can scrape up enough votes to defeat in the House, or stop it on the Senate side," he said.

Piper also dared to dream of an emerging Republican anti-drug war caucus. "We don't know who these new Republicans all are, but some have probably been influenced by Ron Paul (R-TX)," he said. "If only 10 of them stand up against the drug war, that's a huge opportunity to raise hell in the Republican caucus. Almost a third of Republican voters want to legalize marijuana, and that's an opportunity for us, too. Maybe there will be Republicans we can work with and create a truly bipartisan anti-drug war coalition in Congress. That's a foothold."

For Piper, the future looks stormy and cloudy, but "the silver lining is in appropriations fights and opportunities to organize an anti-drug war movement in the Republican caucus. We just have to play defense on a bunch of stuff," he said. 

"The activist community is going to have to figure out what the recipe for our lemonade is," advised Sterling. "That requires first a redoubled effort at organizing, using themes such as the wise stewardship of the scarce resources we have, and what works and what is effective," he said.

"It also requires mobilizing people not involved in this issue before, whether it's the business community or people who see their rice bowls been broken by the Republican approach," Sterling continued. "Teachers, nurses, people asking how come the part of the public work force this is protected is the police and the police guards. Drug policy reform activists have to think about what are the alliances they can make in this time of public resource scarcity."

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