Mandatory Minimums

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Senate Judiciary Chair Calls for End to Mandatory Minimums

Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT), the powerful head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called for the end of mandatory minimum sentencing at both the state and federal levels in comments made last Wednesday. He also said he hoped the federal government would not spend "a great deal of resources" on enforcing marijuana laws in states where it is legal. 

Sen. Leahy addresses law students at Georgetown University (leahy.senate.gov)
While Leahy said his highest priority in the new Congress that begins next month would be overhauling immigration laws, along with renewing the Violence Against Women Act and taking some action on gun policy, he diverted from his prepared remarks to Georgetown University law students to condemn mandatory minimum sentencing, calling the practice "a great mistake" that harms youth and minorities.

"I think at the federal level and at the state level, get rid of these mandatory minimum sentences. Let judges act as judges and make up their own mind what should be done," he said. "The idea that we protect society by one size fits all, or the idea that we can do this kind of symbolism to make us safer -- it just does not work in the real world."

Leahy, who has previously said he would hold hearings on the federal response to successful marijuana legalization initiatives in Colorado and Washington, did not bring up the topic in his prepared remarks, but did respond to questions from students on the issue. He reiterated that he will seek clarification from the administration on how it will enforce federal marijuana laws there and suggested that he hoped it would not be a high priority.

"My own predilection is, I hate to see a great deal of law enforcement resources spent on things like the possession, use of marijuana when we have murder cases, armed robbery cases, things like that that go unsolved," he said.

Leahy is the longest serving Democrat in Congress. He could have been appointed to the chairmanship of the budget-controlling Senate Appropriations Committee, but instead chose to stay on as head of the Judiciary Committee, where he has the power to call hearings and move legislation on criminal justice issues.

Washington, DC
United States

California Three Strikes Reform Initiative Poised to Win [FEATURE]

In 1998, Bernice Cubie got caught with $10 worth of cocaine. Since it was her third offense, although she had never hurt anyone, she was sentenced to up to life in prison under California's Three Strikes law. Now 59 years old, Cubie has served more than 14 years in prison at a cost to California taxpayers of around $700,000 dollars.

Barring something changing fast for Ms. Cubie, she will die in prison. The African-American grandmother has already lost one kidney in prison and is now suffering from an advanced form of terminal cancer. Although she walks only with the assistance of a walker and had a parole plan to be housed with her daughter and a drug treatment counselor, as well as the recommendation of prison doctors, the California parole board denied her compassionate release petition. She has less than six months to live, but will not have a parole opportunity until 2023.

Shane Taylor is another California Three Strikes lifer. He's also been behind bars since 1998, when he was convicted and sentenced to life for possession 0.14 grams of methamphetamine. His previous two convictions were for burglaries days apart in which nothing was taken but a checkbook, and police recovered that before any money was withdrawn.

The judge who sentenced Taylor now regrets that decision and speaks out publicly in favor of his release. So does the district attorney who prosecuted him under the Three Strikes law. But although he has already served 13 years in prison for little more than a tenth of a gram of meth, he won't be eligible for parole for another dozen years.

That is, unless California voters next month approve Proposition 36, a measure designed to amend the Three Strikes law so that only prisoners whose third strike was a "serious" or "violent" offense under California statute would be subject to life imprisonment. In addition to modifying future Three Strikes sentencing, the measure would also impose some retroactivity, allowing prisoners currently serving Three Strikes life sentences to seek a judicial order to reduce those sentences to no more than twice the sentence for a first offender.

Proposition 36 could save the cash-strapped state $100 million a year, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office. Between the prospect of budgetary savings and the desire to undo egregious sentences imposed on small-time, nonviolent offenders, including many drug offenders, the measure looks likely to appeal to California voters.

According to a bevy of recent polls, Proposition 36 appears to be sitting pretty. A September California Business Roundtable poll had it winning 72% to 19%, a September Los Angeles Times poll had it winning 65% to 20%, and an October Business Roundtable poll had it winning by 72% to 20% in a survey that included strong support, likely support, and leaning toward. The lone outlier was a September SurveyUSA poll that had Prop 36 with 43%, with 23% opposed and a whopping 34% undecided, but even in that poll, support for the measure was nearly double opposition.

"Things are looking pretty positive," Yes on 36 spokesman Dan Newman reluctantly conceded. "Most of the public polling has it around 70%, and people are voting now. We've built an unprecedentedly broad and deep coalition with support from law enforcement leaders, civil rights groups, the district attorneys of big cities, and fiscal conservatives like Grover Norquist."

Indeed, the campaign's list of endorsements is impressive, and includes Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and former Chief Bill Bratton. Also on board are San Francisco DA George Gascoigne and Santa Clara County DA Jeff Rosen, along with several dozen other law enforcement and elected officials.

"The state should not allow the misallocation of limited penal resources by having life prison sentences for those who do not pose a serious criminal threat to society. The punishment should fit the crime," said Cooley.

Somewhat more head-turning is support from conservatives, such as Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform. It's about the money, said Newman.

"Conservatives support this largely for fiscal reasons," he explained. "They don't like seeing us waste $100 million a year at a time of looming fiscal crisis. This is money that could be used for schools or to prevent crime."

Not everyone supports the initiative. Mike Reynolds, the author of the original Three Strikes legislation, wrote that initiative after his teenage daughter was shot and killed by a repeat offender in an attempted purse snatching in Fresno. He says that $100 million a year is a small price to pay to keep dangerous offenders locked up.


"Three Strikes passed and California's crime rate dropped in half," said Reynolds. "There is no way we should change something that has been so successful," he argued. "The reductions in crime have really saved the state an enormous amount of money and increased our quality of life. You have half the chance of being a violent crime victim than before Three Strikes."

But attributing the drop in crime in California to the Three Strikes law may be a stretch. Violent crime rates have been dropping around the country for the past two decades -- in states with and without harsh sentencing mechanisms. Criminologists are divided on the causes of the drop.

"The initiative campaign is quick to point out their support from law enforcement, but only three of 58 district attorneys, one sitting police chief, and one retired chief support it," Reynolds said. "Virtually all major agencies in the state are against this. Everything with a badge and a uniform short of the Cub Scouts is against this thing. I've never seen such a full court press."

But despite all that supposed law enforcement enmity, there has been very little opposition presence this year. That's a change from 2004, when Proposition 64, which also would have amended the Three Strikes law, looked set to pass until the final weeks, when Gov. Schwarzenegger and actor Martin Sheen helped law enforcement raise a late clamor and send the initiative down to defeat.

Reynolds' opposition to Three Strikes reform is understandable given his personal history, said Newman, but it shouldn't get in the way of smart public policy.

"I'm sorry for the unbelievably tragic loss he suffered," he said. "It's the worst thing anyone could have to go through, and I can't imagine the pain and suffering that must bring, but for folks who want to prevent serious and violent crimes in the future, the best way to do that is to ensure that law enforcement resources are focused on those dangerous and violent criminals. We are facing dual challenges of fiscal crisis and prison overcrowding," Newman continued. "We have to be smart and make some wise decisions in terms of how we deal with this. Will we release someone who recently committed a violent crime or will we release someone who got caught with a joint 30 years ago and is now in a wheelchair?"

California voters are already making their choice through early voting. We will know how they feel when the final votes are tallied on election day.

CA
United States

Supreme Court Grants Lesser Sentences in "Pipeline" Crack Cocaine Cases

The US Supreme Court ruled last Thursday that decreased crack cocaine sentences approved by Congress in 2010 also apply to people who were convicted but not yet sentenced when the law took effect. The decision could result in reduced sentences for thousands of so-called "pipeline" federal crack cocaine defendants.

Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act and President Obama signed it into law after years of complaints about the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine and the racial impact of those disparities. Under laws passed in the late 1980s, it took 100 times as much powder cocaine to generate mandatory minimum prison sentences as it did for crack cocaine. The act reduced the quantity disparity to 18:1.

The decision in two cases of men convicted on federal crack charges but sentenced after the act became law came on a narrow 5-4 vote. The two cases were consolidated in a single ruling in Dorsey v. United States.

In one case, Edward Dorsey was arrested in 2008 and pleaded guilty in July 2010 to possessing 5.5 grams of crack with the intent to distribute. He was sentenced to a mandatory minimum 10 years; under the new law, his sentence would likely have been around four years.

In the other case, Corey Hill was convicted in 2009 of selling 53 grams of crack in 2007 and sentenced to 10 years in prison; under the new law, his sentence would have been around five years.

Federal appeals court split on whether the new law should be applied retroactively, prodding the Supreme Court to take up the cases and bring clarity to the issue.

The court split in what has become almost standard for the Roberts court. All four liberal justices weighed in on the side of extending the sentencing reductions and were joined by swing justice Anthony Kennedy. The court's four staunch conservatives all dissented.

Sentencing reform advocates welcomed the ruling.

"We are thrilled with the court's decision," said Julie Stewart, executive director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which had filed a friend of the court brief in the case. "We considered it patently unjust to make these pipeline defendants serve longer sentences under a scheme that was completely repudiated by Congress. As the court found, doing so would have flouted the will of Congress, which called on the US Sentencing Commission to lower crack cocaine sentences 'as soon as practicable' after the Fair Sentencing Act was signed into law. Especially exciting is the fact that Justice Breyer's opinion for the majority recognized that people who were sentenced after August 3, 2010 to an old law sentence are eligible to seek relief in federal courts."

Washington, DC
United States

US Senate Passes Synthetic Drug Ban, Without Mandatory Minimums [FEATURE]

The Senate has passed House Resolution 1254, the Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2011, which would federally criminalize the possession, distribution, and manufacture of synthetic cannabinoids ("fake marijuana") and synthetic stimulants ("bath salts"). The measure has already passed the House, and President Obama is expected to quickly sign it into law.

The synthetic cannabinoids are marketed as "herbal incense" and sold under brand names such as K2 and Spice, while the synthetic stimulants are marketed as "bath salts" and sold under a variety of names, including Ivory Wave and Vanilla Sky. Poison control centers and emergency rooms around the country have reported a sharp increase in synthetic drug incidents in the past two years, with Spice users reporting adverse effects similar to those sometimes reported with marijuana, while bath salts users have suffered more serious adverse effects, including hallucinations, psychotic breaks, and death.

Fake pot or bath salts or both are already banned in a number of states, and more states are considering criminalizing them. Both types of drugs have already been subject to emergency bans by the DEA while its legislatively mandated process for evaluating new drugs proceeds.

A widely publicized incident over the weekend in which a man chewed off parts of another man's face before being shot and killed by police has heightened concerns about the new synthetics, generating headlines like "Miami cannibal zombie-like attack linked to powerful 'bath salts' drug," but at this point, such claims are pure speculation. Police in the case have also posited "a new form of LSD" and "cocaine psychosis" to explain the attack, but any real information will have to await a toxicologist's report.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) had single-handedly blocked passage of the bill for months by placing a senatorial hold on it. Paul objected to harsh mandatory minimum sentences in the bill, as well as to further broadening of the federal war on drugs.

But bill supporters, led by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), resorted to a parliamentary maneuver to get it passed. They quietly attached it to an FDA regulatory bill, which the Senate passed last Wednesday.

Sen. Rand Paul got mandatory minimums removed
Still, Sen. Paul was able to insert language into the bill specifying that the Controlled Substance Act's mandatory minimum 20-year sentence for anyone supplying a drug that causes severe bodily harm or death to a user does not apply to the newly banned synthetics. That's because in order to get the FDA bill approved by Memorial Day, Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), who actually sponsored the amendment adding the synthetics to the FDA bill, had to win unanimous consent for his amendment. Paul agreed not to object after Portman inserted the language about the mandatory minimums.

The bill still contains draconian sentencing provisions, including sentences of up to 20 years for a first sale or manufacturing offense and up to 30 years for a subsequent offense.

The bill's sponsors said after the vote that its passage would strike a strong blow against the new synthetics, but industry advocates and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) disagree.

"Let this be a warning to those who make a profit manufacturing and selling killer chemical components to our teens and children: the jig is up," Schumer said in a statement. "This bill closes loopholes that have allowed manufacturers to circumvent local and state bans and ensures that you cannot simply cross state lines to find these deadly synthetic drugs."

"These new designer drugs can kill, and if we don't take action, they are going to become more and more prevalent and put more and more people at risk," Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), another sponsor of the bill said in a statement. "Today's action is good news for this critical legislation to give law enforcement the tools they need to crack down on synthetic drugs before they put more lives in danger, and I will continue to work to ensure these provisions are signed into law."

But the Retail Compliance Association (RCA), which represents smoke shop and convenience store operators and which opposed the bill, pointed out that the bill only bans five chemical families and only names 15 synthetic cannabinoids. Many of those compounds are already off the market, the RCA said, adding that the bill does not include hundreds of additional compounds unrelated to the chemical families banned under it.

"This bill will be touted as banning what law enforcement has deemed 'fake pot,' but it does no such thing; it actually only bans a few of the potential ingredients of these products, by no means the products themselves," said RCA spokesman Dan Francis. "The bill's range of enforcement may well be limited to the specifically named compounds because labs cannot test for chemical families, nor can the police or retailers. The products are tested by many different levels of this industry, and no lab I have spoken with has a test to determine the chemical family," Francis added.

The CBO, for its part, published a cost analysis of the bill in November that found its impact would be minimal.

"Based on information from industry and law enforcement experts, CBO expects that, by the date of the legislation's enactment, most vendors will have largely replaced the banned substances with new products because many states have already passed legislation banning some or all of the compounds listed in the bill and because the DEA has already issued emergency rules temporarily banning five cannabimimetic agents and three synthetic stimulants," the analysis found.

Still, Congress can pat itself on the back for "doing something" about the new synthetic drugs -- whether or not it actually does anything good.

Washington, DC
United States

Why Is Clarence Aaron Still in Federal Prison? [FEATURE]

Sentenced nearly two decades ago to three life prison sentences for his peripheral role in a crack cocaine deal, Clarence Aaron became a poster child for the inequities and harshness of drug war policing and sentencing policies. His case has garnered attention in media outlets from PBS to Fox News, and he was featured in the 1999 PBS documentary "Snitch."

Clarence Aaron
Aaron, then a linebacker at Southern University in Baton Rouge, introduced the brother of a drug supplier to a cocaine dealer he knew from his high school days in Mobile and was present when a nine-pound cocaine deal went down. Despite his tangential involvement, when federal authorities busted the cocaine operation, Aaron ended up with by far the longest sentence of anyone involved, because the other players cooperated with the government and named him as a major player, and because he refused to testify against his friends.

Now, the 43-year-old Alabamian is becoming a poster child for yet another drug war inequity: the failure of the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney to promptly and accurately report to the president on requests for pardons and commutations.

In a pair of lengthy investigative reports, the most recent published last Saturday, ProPublica and the Washington Post revealed that when Aaron tried for commutation for a second time in 2008, Pardon Attorney Ronald Rodgers, who is still in the post, failed to convey critical information about his request to the Bush White House, including recommendations from the US Attorney and his sentencing judge that his application be granted. 

"I have reviewed various documents submitted by Clarence Aaron in support of his petition for commutation of sentence and agree that Aaron should receive a commutation of his life sentence," wrote US Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama Deborah Rhodes in her November 2008 memo to Rodgers.

US District Court Judge Charles Butler, Jr., also shifted from an earlier stance of neutrality on Aaron's request to one of support. "Looking through the prism of hindsight, and considering the many factors argued by the defendant that were not present at the time of his initial sentencing, one can argue that a less harsh sentence might have been more equitable," he wrote in response to a motion filed by Aaron’s attorneys.

Via a phone interview with the pardon office, Butler told staff attorney Samuel Morison that Aaron "should be granted relief" immediately by the president. Morison then sent an e-mail to Rodgers telling him what Butler had said and asking whether he should update Aaron's file with the new positions taken by the judge and the prosecutor. Rodgers responded by saying he would take care of it.

He didn't. Instead, he made no new recommendation to the White House and did not revise Aaron's file to reflect the new stances by the judge and prosecutor. Nor did he pass on years of favorable prison reports describing Aaron's rehabilitation or mention an affidavit Aaron filed with the pardons office in 2007 in which he expressed further remorse and asked "for a second chance to be a productive citizen."

The Bush administration, acting on the Office of the Pardon Attorney's recommendation, turned down Aaron's commutation request in December 2008.

When ProPublica showed the statements from the judge and prosecutor to Kenneth Lee, the White House lawyer working on Aaron's case, Lee was mind-boggled. He said that had he seen those statements, he would have recommended a commutation.

"This case was such a close call," Lee said. "We had been asking the pardons office to reconsider it all year. We made clear we were interested in this case."

Aaron isn't alone in getting sub-par treatment from the pardon office. ProPublica and the Post cited a former pardon office lawyer as saying some applicants have been turned down "en masse," with little or no review. But it gets worse. The first ProPublica and Post report on the pardon office, published in December, found that white offenders seeking pardons and commutations were four times more likely to receive them than black ones.

And, as the number of commutation requests has risen along with the prison population, the likelihood of actually winning one has been declining. It was one out of a hundred under Reagan and Clinton, but declined to little more than one out of a thousand under George Bush. President Obama so far has commuted the sentence of one person out of 3,800.

The Office of the Pardon Attorney has been backlogged for much of the last decade, and that may account for some of the problem. When Rodgers took over, he attempted to streamline the office to address the backlog. Instead of having office attorneys review and research each case, he turned them over to paralegals. The result was too often merely a pro forma review.

"The office types up a list of names, along with basic sentencing and offense information for each prisoner, and sends the list to the White House with a note that says the attached cases are meritless and should be denied," Morison said.

Rodgers reverted back to the old system in 2010, but that was too late for Clarence Aaron and the thousands of others summarily rejected by the pardon office. The apparent problems at the pardon office have sentencing advocates calling for changes.

"We need to see some change on several fronts," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. "First, the administration needs to look at what's happening or not happening at the Office of the Pardon Attorney, and some of that should include a rethinking of how the pardon process takes place. There are calls for an independent commission to make these recommendations to the president, not an entity within the Justice Department. That's at least worthy of consideration to see what the trade-offs are," he mused.

"Also, the White House should make it clear that to be consistent with its longstanding support or the reform of crack cocaine sentencing, there should be an examination of those older cases currently in prison," Mauer added. "They should consider recalculating those mandatory minimum sentences as if they were sentenced today, to put them in sync with the new law. That would not only be consistent, it could have a substantial effect on the federal prison population."

Mauer's first suggestion echoes one made by former Obama White House counsel Gregory Craig, who told an American Constitution Society panel on the pardons issue last week that the president could eliminate the pardon office by executive order. He suggested a bipartisan review panel reporting directly to the president.

"We cannot improve or strengthen the exercise of this power without taking it out of the Department of Justice," Craig said.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), which has championed Aaron's case as well as many others, called the ProPublica report "extremely disturbing but not surprising." The organization is calling for a congressional investigation and, on Monday, issued a sign-on letter to demonstrate public support for the call.

"Between this report and ProPublica's earlier report on the pardon process, the Pardon Attorney's office has been shown to willfully misrepresent the facts of commutation requests to the President and contribute to a racial imbalance among pardon recipients. The Pardon Attorney's office is not a gatekeeper but a brick wall," said FAMM president Julie Stewart. "Congress should investigate this egregious behavior immediately with oversight hearings. The entire clemency process should be removed from the Department of Justice's control. It is not in the president or the public's interest to have a Pardon Attorney's office that is captive to a prosecutorial agenda, doesn't take clemency cases seriously, and doesn't treat applicants fairly."

FAMM pointed to other cases it said suggested something was seriously wrong with the pardon office.

"We have long believed that the Pardon Attorney's case evaluations have been subjective and misleading," said Stewart. "Now we know that is true in the case of Clarence Aaron. Many other cases are suspect, too. President Obama denied a commutation to Barbara Scrivner, a low-level, nonviolent drug offender who has served 16 years of her 30-year sentence for her minor and addiction-driven role in her husband's methamphetamine activity. Did the Pardon Attorney ever inform President Obama of Scrivner's extraordinary rehabilitation and the support she had from the prosecutors who tried her, the judge who sentenced her, and her congressman? If someone with that much support cannot get a favorable recommendation from the Pardon Attorney, who can?" she asked.
 

"We learned there have been only 12 commutations in the past 12 years, and only one under this president, and at least one derailed under Bush," said FAMM general counsel Mary Price. "And then there are the problems with the pardons. There is a lot more to investigate. I don't see how lawmakers can come to the conclusion there's not a serious problem. Not only Congress, but the administration and the Justice Department ought to be taking notice of this and acting accordingly."

"The letter sent today demonstrates that this story is not going to go away and that DOJ cannot sweep the Office of the Pardon Attorney's disturbing behavior under the rug," said Stewart.

Whether the Obama administration or the Congress will be moved to act on these latest revelations remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Clarence Aaron sits in federal prison, where he will die if he does not win a commutation. He filed a new application in 2010. That one is still pending.

Washington, DC
United States

Louisiana Heroin Penalties Not Harsh Enough, Solon Claims

In Louisiana, merely possessing an ounce of heroin earns a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence and up to 45 years, and possessing 400 grams (less than a pound) earns a 15-year mandatory minimum. Possession of any amount with the intent to distribute earns a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, and up to 50 years. That's not enough for one Louisiana legislator.

An ounce of heroin would get you eight years in prison under a bill proposed in Louisiana. (wikimedia.org)
Sen. J.P. Morrell (D-New Orleans) has introduced a pair of bills that would make those draconian sentences even harsher. Senate Bill 66 would double the mandatory minimum for possession with intent from five to 10 years, while Senate Bill 67 increases the penalty for possessing an ounce from five to eight years and the penalty for possessing 400 grams from 15 to 24 years.

Those bills are currently before the Senate Judiciary Committee, as is another Morell-sponsored bill, Senate Bill 3, which would alter the state's second-degree murder statute.

Under that law, deaths that occur during the commission of any of 15 specified felonies are considered second-degree murder, even if the perpetrator had no intent to kill. Morrell's bill would add "the unlawful sale, distribution, or dispensation of heroin, methamphetamine or 'crack' cocaine" to the list. Under Morrell's bill, people who sold those drugs to others who then overdosed and died could be charged with second-degree murder.

Yet another Morrell bill, Senate Bill 59, would make it a felony offense to use a minor in a drug trafficking offense or even to commit such an offense if a minor is present. Morrell seeks a 10-year mandatory minimum for that one, and up to 30 years. SB 59 has already passed out of committee and awaits a Senate floor vote.

Baton Rouge, LA
United States

West Australia Enacts Mandatory Minimums for Marijuana

Changes to West Australia's Misuse of Drugs Act that came into effect last weekend are shifting the state from among Australia's most marijuana-friendly to one with the most draconian punishments. People convicted of growing a single pot plant or processing the herb could face a mandatory minimum one-year sentence if a child was endangered or suffered harm.

West Australia succumbs to "reefer madness"
People convicted of a second drug offense, even if they were growing only one plant, face a six-month mandatory minimum if by doing so, they endangered a child's health by exposing him to the activity. People could get the mandatory minimum, for example, if a child is exposed to fertilizers or pesticides, if he cut himself on gardening equipment, or if he knocked over a potted marijuana plant and injured himself. In passing the amendments, West Australia is criminalizing and harshly punishing acts that would be considered accidents, or, at worst, incidents that could be investigated for child endangerment, if any other plant were involved.

That's a sea change from last year, when people who were caught growing one or two marijuana plants faced a maximum $150 fine and drug counseling. The amendment is ostensibly aimed at clandestine drug labs -- meth lab busts happened at a rate of every other day in the state last year -- but they also target those who "cultivate or prepare illicit drugs," including marijuana.

A spokeswoman for Police Minister Rob Johnson told the Australian AP that it was "unlikely" small-time users and growers with children would be sentenced under the provision, but there was still a risk.

"If the children are exposed to dangerous chemicals and safety hazards as a result of the cultivation or are injured by the cultivation, the new provisions could be applied," the spokeswoman said.

But the West Australia Law Society criticized the mandatory minimums, saying they removed any discretion in sentencing and were open to abuse.

"You might even find that where the judicial system does not agree with a mandatory jail term for a small-time cannabis grower and user, there will be a reluctance to prosecute or convict," a society spokesman said. "As it stands, the punishment would certainly not fit the crime and would appear to be excessive."

The opposition Labor Party, which had championed the state's earlier progressive marijuana laws, tried to have it both ways. The party voted for the amendments because it didn't want to be seen as "soft on crime," but tried to change the legislation to remove mandatory minimums for marijuana growers and users, spokeswoman Michelle Roberts told the AAP. Failing that, Labor voted for it anyway.

And Labor leader Mark McGowan said he disagreed with the new provisions. "Personally, I wouldn't like to see people go to jail, mandatorily, if they're growing a couple of marijuana plants -- even though we support laws to ensure that is made an offense," he said.

While Labor can share the credit -- or blame -- for passage of the amendments, the bulk of the responsibility lies with the ruling Liberal-National coalition government, which pushed the legislation as part of its "tough on crime" agenda.

The law contains "obvious injustices," Labor spokeswoman Roberts said. "It won't stop drug cultivation -- there's no evidence to suggest that," she said. "What it's going to do is wrap up a whole lot of people unwittingly into a situation where they are facing a mandatory jail term. It's a huge cost to the community -- hundreds of thousands of dollars to incarcerate both parents and to take a child or children into care," she said. And it doesn't actually deal with the main issue," which she identified as drug addiction.

Perth
Australia

Canadian Senate Passes Harsh Crime Bill

The Canadian Senate last Thursday night gave its approval to a government package of crime measures that include a number of harsh provisions, including mandatory minimum prison sentences for growing as few as six marijuana plants. The bill, C-10, the Safe Streets and Communities Act, now heads back to the House of Commons for final approval.

Canada's Senate Chamber
The bill has already passed the House, but members will have to approve amendments adopted by the Senate that more clearly define terrorist activities and how victims of terrorism can seek compensation from groups or states that support terrorism.

Passage in the Senate came after ruling Conservatives used their majority to limit debate on the measure to six hours. Liberals objected vociferously, but in vain. The only Conservative to vote against limiting debate was Sen. Pierre Claude Nolin, a long-time advocate of marijuana and other drug law reforms.

"Canadians are expecting us to pass this," said Conservative Sen. Claude Carignan, explaining that the rush to passage was necessary because the government had promised to pass the legislation within a hundred days of taking office. "The best way to ensure the population is not jaded when it comes to politics is to keep our promises."

Liberals argued that there was enough opposition to the bill that every senator deserved to be heard on the issue, but that argument didn't fly with the Conservative majority.

"There is no excuse for what this chamber is about to do," said Liberal Sen. Joan Fraser. "We should be ashamed of ourselves."

The Senate vote came despite heated opposition, both from within Canada, where various polls show consistent majority support for marijuana legalization, and internationally. The Global Commission on Drug Policy this week urged Parliament not to pass the bill, while Law Enforcement Against Prohibition also urged the Conservatives to reconsider.

While the bill is now almost assured of final passage, opponents have vowed to carry on the fight in the courts. Once the bill becomes law and goes into effect, look for quick challenges to its constitutionality under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Ottawa
Canada

LEAP Urges Canada to Reject Harsh Crime Bill

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) has intervened in the debate over the Canadian government's crime bill. The group, composed of current and former members of law enforcement and other criminal justice professionals, sent a letter last Wednesday to Canadian parliamentarians, warning them of the consequences of adopting a harsh approach and urging them to instead regulate and tax marijuana.

The pending crime bill, C-10, has already passed the lower chamber of the parliament and is currently before the Senate. The bill would impose mandatory minimum sentences for a number of offenses, including growing as few as six marijuana plants.

"Through our years of service enforcing anti-marijuana laws, we have seen the devastating consequences of these laws. Among the greatest concerns is the growth in organized crime and gang violence. Just as with alcohol prohibition, gang violence, corruption and social decay have marched in lockstep with marijuana prohibition," the LEAP letter said.

LEAP is not alone in opposing the Tories' crime bill. It is also opposed by the New Democrats and the Liberals. Earlier this month, four former British Columbia attorneys general called for marijuana legalization, and days later, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations criticized the bill. Chief Shawn Atleo said aboriginal peoples with drug problems needed intervention and rehabilitation, not incarceration.

So far, though, the Tories aren't listening to LEAP or anyone else. Responding to the LEAP letter, Canadian Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said he was unswayed.

"We develop our criminal law legislation looking at the experiences from around the world, from Britain and other countries," Nicholson said at a news conference Wednesday in Regina. "But again, ours is a Canadian solution to Canadian issues and we make no apology for that."

Nicholson also defended mandatory minimums and said the crime bill sends the right message.

"Over the years there has been introduced mandatory penalties by different governments. I think there's about 40 of them in the criminal code, so they're nothing new to this government," he said. "But I believe they send out the right message to individuals that if you start bringing, for instance, drugs into this country, if you're into the business of trafficking, there will be a price to pay and you'll be going to jail."

Although the Conservatives control the Senate, the bill isn't passed until the bill is passed. Organizing against it continues.

Canada

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.

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