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Beyond UNGASS: Looking Toward 2019 [FEATURE]

The United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs is set for UN Headquarters in Manhattan next week, and civil society and some European and Latin American countries are hoping to make limited progress in moving toward more evidence- and public health-based drug policies. But, knowing the glacial pace of change at the UN and well aware of how little of substance is likely to emerge from the UNGASS, some eyes are already turning to the post-UNGASS international arena.

UNGASS is coming... and then what? (Creative Commons)
Hopes for more forward movement at the UNGASS, always tentative and facing opposition from global drug war hardliners such as Russia, China, and Singapore, were effectively dashed at the run-up meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) meeting last month in Vienna, whose outcome document was described as "quite awful" by leading Canadian drug policy expert Donald MacPherson.

The outcomes document includes some minor progressive movement, but does not challenge the trio of treaties that form the legal backbone of global drug prohibition, while its embrace of "flexibility" emboldens regressive, repressive measures (the death penalty for drug offenses, forced "treatment," criminalization of drug users) in hard line countries, despite being helpful for progressive reforms around the edges of the treaties' prohibition.

MacPherson was one of a handful of international drug policy experts and elected officials who took part in a teleconference last week organized by StoptheDrugWar.org (publisher of this newsletter), a US-based group that has been deeply involved in civil society organizing around the UNGASS. He wasn't the only one looking beyond 2016.

Mexican Senator Laura Angelica Rojas Hernández, chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Organizations, called this year's UNGASS poses "a step" toward examining the objectives of the 2009 Political Declaration and Action Plan on drugs, which will be reviewed in 2019. While the CND outcomes document had good language around the need for embracing multiple approaches, such as public health, human rights, gender, and prevention, it also includes serious shortcomings, she said.

Mexican Senator Laura Angelica Rojas Hernandez (pan.senado.gob.mx)
"There is a lack of recognition of the relative efficacy of demand reduction and harm reduction policies and the absence of an acknowledgement of the high costs that the prohibitionist and punitive approaches have generated," the senator said.

Mexican senators know all too well the high costs of drug prohibition. For the past decade, the country has been battered by brutal prohibition-related violence that has left at least 100,000 dead, tens of thousands more "disappeared," a legacy of human rights abuses by soldiers and police fighting the cartels, and the legitimacy of the state severely weakened.

"The international community should continue to work toward the establishment of indicators that could help measure the impact of drug policies on people's lives and their rights," Rojas said, suggesting this could still happen at the UNGASS.

But she was also looking down the road.

"Something that should be placed on the table in 2019 is a thorough review of the three conventions on drug control that acknowledges the highly detrimental effects of the current approaches," she said. "And we should be more honest about the so-called flexibility of implementation offered by these treaties and acknowledge that there should be a wider range of action for countries to define their own drug policies, taking into consideration their national and cultural context."

Canadian drug policy expert Donald MacPherson (cssdp.org)
Both Rojas and Canada's MacPherson called for some sort of expert mechanism to guide policymakers eyeing the 2019 meeting.

"Organizations and even some governments are beginning to call for a mechanism post-UNGASS to get real with the modernizing of the treaties," MacPherson said, reflecting frustration with the UNGASS process and prospects. "It's really important that UN member states speak strongly for the need for that mechanism, whether it's an expert committee or some other sort of group. And it needs to happen now -- the next three years are critical coming up to 2019. We really do need to have that process in place to [counter] the kind of intransigence of other countries that use the consensus-based model to hold progress ransom."

"The international community should examine the possibility of establishing an analysis mechanism as a working group of experts, for example, with a mandate to formulate recommendations aimed at the modernization of the international system of drugs for the 2019 review process," Rojas added. "And from a longer-term perspective, we need to see the creation of a special office within the UN Human Rights Council, to follow up and monitor the respect of human rights in the context of the enforcement of the drug policies."

The UNGASS hasn't even gotten here yet, and interested observers are already looking past it. Welcome to politics at the United Nations where most things happen at a snail's pace. The global drug prohibition consensus may be crumbling, but it is crumbling very slowly at the level of international conventions and institutions. The work continues.

[A follow-up story on prospects for marijuana legalization in Canada and Mexico will highlight remarks during the teleconference by Canadian Member of Parliament Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, Aram Barra of Mexico United Against Crime, and StoptheDrugWar.org executive director David Borden.]

Will UNGASS 2016 Be the Beginning of the End for the War on Drugs?

This article is by Ann Fordham and Martin Jelsma, and is republished from openDemocracy. It is part a series of articles about this April's UNGASS. Further information appears below.

In April 2016, the UN will dedicate, for the third time in its history, a United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) to discuss global drug policy. The UNGASS has the potential to be a ground-breaking moment that could change the course of the international drug control system. However, political divisions and entrenched institutional dynamics have dampened hopes that it will go down in history as the beginning of the end of the war on drugs.

At the joint request of Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala, the General Assembly decided to bring forward the convention of a special session to assess "the achievements and challenges in countering the world drug problem", originally foreseen for 2019 or 2020. The three countries stated at the time that "revising the approach on drugs maintained so far by the international community can no longer be postponed", and the UN needed to exercise leadership to "conduct an in-depth review analyzing all available options, including regulatory or market measures, in order to establish a new paradigm that would impede the flow of resources to organized crime groups". An international meeting had to be convened, "capable of taking the decisions necessary to increase the effectiveness of the strategies and instruments with which the global community addresses the challenges of drugs and their consequences".

Conventional drug control wisdom has put forward the view that stopping the supply of drugs at the source would solve the 'world drug problem', but Latin American countries bear witness to the failure of this approach. Stirred into action by the futility of spending billions of dollars to fight an unwinnable and increasingly violent war on drugs, it is no surprise that political leaders from Latin America have been at the forefront of the drug policy debate. From their perspective, the high human cost in terms of violence, insecurity, mass incarceration and the exacerbation of the social and economic vulnerability of some of society’s most marginalised groups – can no longer be justified as necessary collateral damage in pursuit of eradicating drug markets.

A growing group of Latin American and Caribbean countries are calling for a real discussion on alternative policies. In the meantime, Uruguay has moved to create the world's first national legally regulated cannabis market for recreational use, and similar initiatives have happened in the US at the state level. This opening up of the long entrenched and seemingly immovable discussion on prohibitionist drug control principles is unprecedented and has implications for global policy.

In this context, the UNGASS in April represents a critical juncture, an opportunity for an honest evaluation of global drug policy and how to address the most pressing challenges going forward. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in recognition of this rare and important opportunity, has urged member states to use the 2016 UNGASS "to conduct a wide-ranging and open debate that considers all options."

The UNGASS preparations

The initial discussions to prepare for the UNGASS were fraught with disagreements over many procedural aspects. These included difficult negotiations over the extent to which the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna would lead the process; how to strike the right balance between the UN capitals of Vienna, Geneva and New York in the preparations; how to ensure meaningful involvement of all relevant UN agencies, academia and civil society; and – last but not least – how open the debate should be: should it be restricted to a discussion of how to improve the implementation of the 2009 Political Declaration and the achievement of its targets for 2019, or should the UNGASS be an opportunity to challenge the current global drug control strategy, possibly even questioning its foundation of the three UN drug conventions?

 

These difficult negotiations, which on the surface often appeared to be arguments over procedure, reflected the deep political divisions within the international drug policy debate. The much-revered 'Vienna Consensus' continues to weaken as the divide between some governments becomes increasingly irreconcilable. A growing number of countries now believe that the traditional repressive drug control approach, based on zero-tolerance, has not worked and has led to disastrous consequences for human rights, public health, citizen security and sustainable development, and as a result it has to be modernised.

 

Some countries calling for an open and inclusive debate at the UNGASS questioned whether this could be truly achieved with a process led by the Vienna-based drug control apparatus, given that the CND, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) have all gained quite a conservative reputation over the decades. Conducting all the preparations in Vienna led to a further problem for inclusivity, given that at least 70 member states do not have permanent representation there and would therefore struggle to fully participate in the process. The point of convening an UNGASS, is that by definition all UN member states and the whole UN system should be included on a equal basis, but limiting the political negotiations on the outcomes exclusively to Vienna, means that in practice the countries and UN agencies not represented in Vienna have much less influence on the process.

In the end, the hard fought-over resolution on the procedures decided that the UNGASS "will have an inclusive preparatory process that includes extensive substantive consultations, allowing organs, entities and specialized agencies of the United Nations system, relevant international and regional organizations, civil society and other relevant stakeholders to fully contribute to the process", while the CND "as the central policymaking body within the United Nations system dealing with drug-related matters, shall lead this process", inviting the president of the General Assembly to "support, guide and stay involved in the process".

UN special sessions are rare and crucial moments in UN-level policy making and are designed to ensure a coherent UN system-wide response to global problems of major concern to the international community. This has so far been less than optimal in discussions on global drug policy. After initial slow engagement from other key UN agencies, significant contributions have now been made from UNDP, UNAIDS and the WHO. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has also submitted a comprehensive reportthat outlines the most pertinent human rights violations in relation to drug control policies, while the Human Rights Council held a high level panel in September 2015 on the topic of "the impact of the world drug problem on the enjoyment of human rights".

A Civil Society Task Force (CSTF) was convened to ensure the participation of civil society in the process. The CSTF has representatives from every region of the world, as well as representatives of the key affected populations such as people who use drugs and subsistence farmers growing drug-linked crops among others. Initially, formal recognition of the CSTF was challenging – civil society has always had to fight for visibility and access at the CND but over the last year there has been increasing support for this initiative from governments.  A major victory for the CSTF was explicit support from the president of the General Assembly, who presided over an Informal Interactive Stakeholder Dialogue in New York on the 10 February 2016 organised with the CSTF in support of the preparatory process. The calls for progressive policiesbased in principles of harm reduction, of public health and of human rights from global civil society were deafening at the event.

Shifting regional priorities

 

In terms of regional perspectives, as noted above, the impetus for pushing for another UNGASS on drugs followed growing calls for reform from across Latin America at the highest political level. In fact, the previous UNGASS meetings in 1990 and 1998 had been convened in response to similar calls from Colombia and Mexico. Around them, a group of like-minded countries is gradually shaping up around certain positions, including Ecuador, Uruguay and Costa Rica and supported by Brazil and Bolivia on some issues. Caribbean countries have long been largely absent from the debate, not least because discussions have been limited to the CND in Vienna, where few Caribbean countries are represented – although Jamaica has recently joined the chorus of dissent and the discussion on several other islands has intensified.

In terms of European, particularly European Union (EU), engagement, this has been markedly different from Latin America and reflects the fact that Europe has managed to avoid the sharpest edges of a repressive approach to drug control. European countries have not experienced to the same extent, the high human cost in terms of violence, insecurity, and mass incarceration experienced in Latin America.  Of course the context is different, but in addition, many European governments have been pragmatic, have prioritised health care, harm reduction and human rights protection. While in Europe there are some serious issues regarding the criminalisation of people who use drugs and disproportionate sentences for minor drug offences, most European countries have managed to keep a certain distance from the escalation of the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s in the US, Latin America and Asia. At the international level, the leadership that EU governments have shown in this regard has been critical in shifting the drug policy narrative towards public health, harm reduction and human rights principles.

On issues where common positions can be found, the EU can have a strong impact on the global debate. For example, a united EU promoted the principle of proper sequencing with respect to ensuring that subsistence farmers have sufficient access to alternative livelihoods before being forced to abandon their drug-linked crops. The EU has also demonstrated unity and commitment on harm reduction and the removal of death penalty for drug offences, although a global consensus on these issues is not yet in sight.

Unfortunately, there are also crucial areas where a strong European voice has been absent, and the EU has failed to understand or acknowledge the sense of urgency and relevance of this UNGASS. This is clearly the case with regard to the shift in priority that Latin American countries are seeking, to move away from arresting small-time dealers and chasing drug shipments towards reducing drug-related violence, organised crime and corruption instead. In a sense, this is a plea for a harm reduction policy on the supply side: the drugs market will not be “eliminated or significantly reduced” by 2019, and it is time to forget the hollow illusion of a drug-free world.

Instead, government policy could be more sophisticated and focus on mitigating the most harmful aspects of the drug trade through reducing the levels of illicit drug market-related violence, crime, insecurity and corruption. This thinking mirrors similar priority shifts that have previously taken place in Europe under the harm reduction banner, with governments taking a pragmatic approach to reduce the harms associated with drug consumption without necessarily seeking to stop the use of drugs. These harm reduction policies and programmes have significantly reduced drug-related harm such as overdose deaths, and HIV and hepatitis C prevalence among people who inject drugs.

Cannabis policy and UN treaties

 

Another example is the lack of EU engagement in the debate about global cannabis policy developments, the result of the absence of a common EU position on cannabis and huge national policy variations. Demonstrating an ostrich-like denial regarding cannabis policy developments in the Americas but also at local levels within the EU, the EU common position for the UNGASS underscores the need to “maintain a strong and unequivocal commitment to the UN conventions” and that there is “sufficient scope and flexibility within the provisions of the UN Conventions to accommodate a wide range of approaches to drug policy”. In addition, the issue of drug control is a low political priority as the EU currently has it hands full with the refugee crisis and existential threats around the euro and the future of European integration.

A game-changing difference between this UNGASS and the preceding ones is the fact that the position of the US has fundamentally changed. No longer among the hardliners, the US has acknowledged, both at the UN but also more recently domestically, that the over-reliance on incarceration has failed. In August 2013, US Attorney General Eric Holder admitted that mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences were ‘draconian’ and that too many Americans had been imprisoned for too long for no good law enforcement justification. He made it clear that the status quo was unsustainable and damaging. In 2015, President Obama began a process to commute the sentences of around 6,000 federal drug offenders. In early 2016 the congressional task force created to examine overcrowding in the federal prison system, recommended the repeal of federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences. Different legislative initiatives have been tabled, including the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would cut many mandatory minimums for drug offences in half.

The domino effect of cannabis regulation at state level makes the US less sure-footed of condemning other countries for not stringently adhering to a zero-tolerance approach. Cannabis regulation for recreational use is outside of the scope of the current UN treaty framework for drugs, creating a significant problem for the US since it undermines its credibility to continue defending the conventions as they stand. The big question is whether this will lead to the US accepting more flexibility in policy areas that have been explored elsewhere. These include initiatives such as decriminalisation, drug consumption rooms or the regulation of coca in Bolivia, all policy options that the US currently opposes.

UNGASS outcomes: change of course

 

The past several years have seen significant changes in the global drug policy landscape representing a trend towards more humane and proportional responses based on health, human rights and development principles. To some extent, the UNGASS will acknowledge those advances and thereby consolidate the significant change of course that is happening in various regions of the world. Perhaps the most significant advance will be on the issue of access to controlled medicines – an area that has long been de-prioritised in favour of a focus on repressive, law enforcement-led approaches to reduce the illicit drug trade. Most drugs included in the schedules of the UN conventions also have important medical purposes, and several appear on the WHO “List of Essential Medicines”.  However, the availability of opiate painkillers like morphine for example, has been dramatically low in most developing countries due to overly strict regulations reflecting over-riding concerns about diversion and addiction rather than a need to ensure access to pain relief.

Unfortunately, other areas of progress remain stilted. Russia, alongside several Asian and Middle Eastern countries, has played hardball in the negotiations, effectively putting the brakes on the shifting discourse. The negotiations are driven by consensus, making it unlikely that contested policies in the field of harm reduction, or reforms like decriminalisation, despite being widely accepted and propounded by all relevant UN agencies, will be explicitly recommended in the UNGASS outcome document. Likewise, a clear condemnation of the death penalty for drug offences is probably going to be blocked by a small group of countries. The prophecy that allowing the CND to take full control over the UNGASS preparations would undermine progress towards a more system-wide coherent UN drugs policy seems to be being borne out. Negotiations about the UNGASS outcomes have taken place mostly in ‘informal’ sessions in Vienna, dominated by a minority of member states and from which civil society is excluded from participating or even observing.

For the General Assembly, an obvious priority for this UNGASS would be how to align UN drug policy with the recently adopted new global framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but negotiations in Vienna carry on as if they are negotiating another CND resolution. Submissions from other member states, UN agencies and civil society calling for a recognition of the failure of repressive responses and highlighting the need to connect the drugs issue with the agreed UN priorities for the future of the planet have so far not been reflected in successive drafts of the UNGASS outcome document.  The general tone of these drafts is very much ‘business-as-usual’.

At present, few countries are willing to openly acknowledge the existence of structural deficiencies with regard to UN system-wide coherence, the institutional architecture and the legal treaty framework. No easy solutions are available for reforming the foundations of the global control system and consensus will be hard to find, but a continued denial of the reality of the on-going policy trends and the resulting tensions with the treaty system will not make them disappear. In fact, to do so will hinder the much-needed evolution of the UN drug control system and its ability to adapt to the realities of today. Towards this end, it could be helpful if the UNGASS outcome leads to the convening of an advisory group or an expert panel to think through different scenarios for the future evolution of the system, especially in the lead up to the next important moment in 2019 when member states will have to agree a new global action plan on drugs, hopefully more in line with the broader set of UN priority goals for the next decade.

Although it is clear that the so-called ‘Vienna consensus’ has been breaking apart for some time and there is a growing desire to find viable policy alternatives to repression and punishment, there are still powerful countries and entrenched bureaucracies that are staunchly opposed to any kind of reform. The divisions between member states but also between UN agencies on this issue have become too visible to ignore and the UNGASS is a perfect opportunity for an honest assessment of the performance of the international drug control system and the options for a change of course.

Given the high human cost of the damaging approaches pursued to date, many people around the world have high hopes that governments will not squander this opportunity. And yet, to what extent the UNGASS can really live up to these hopes remains to be seen. The latest dynamics in Vienna do not bode well, as bureaucratic machinations, political complacency and exclusion seem to rule the process. The lack of vision, inclusivity and commitment to finding new solutions to many of the challenges that remain must be strongly condemned, especially given the urgency expressed by those countries that called for this moment in the first place.

This article was written by Ann Fordham of the International Drug Policy Consortium and Martin Jelsma of the Transnational Institute. It is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organisation with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights. The partnership coincides with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.

Open Letter in Advance of the UNGASS Calls for Obama to Go Bold

With the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs at UN headquarters in New York City just a little more than a month away, more than 230 civil rights, health, faith-based, and other organizations sent a letter to President Obama Thursday urging him to use the UNGASS on Drugs to make an international push for a fundamental shift in drug policy away from criminalization and toward public health and human rights approaches.

UN headquarters, New York City (Creative Commons)
The signatories form a broad range of groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, AIDS United, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the World Hepatitis C Council, as well as dozens of drug reform and harm reduction nonprofits.

The signatories also include NGOs from around the world, from Accion Semilla Bolivia to the Zimbabwe Civil Liberties and Drug Network. As with the domestic sign-ons, the international groups include dozens of drug reform and harm reduction organizations.

All the signatories are united in calling for the US and President Obama to take "a stronger US stance" in areas like human rights, public health, and development and urging the US to promote the initial steps the UN can take in reforming the international drug conventions that form the legal backbone of the global prohibition regime.

The letter urges the administration to call on the UN to appoint an "Expert Advisory Group," whose mandate would be to study tensions faced by the international drug control regime today, and to recommend options for moving forward. Groups argue that the current US stance toward marijuana legalization and international treaties, which relies in part on continued federal prohibition, is "likely to face shrinking credibility internationally as legalization spreads to more states."

"US agencies have played an important role promoting positive reforms like alternatives to incarceration and people-centered public health drug policies," said David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org, who coordinated the sign-on letter. "Unfortunately, the current US UNGASS stance avoids engaging with a number of contested human rights issues, such as the death penalty for nonviolent drug offenses, and punts on the obvious treaty questions that legalization raises. We think this is unfortunate at a time when real strides are being made in reforming our domestic policies, partly because of President Obama's vision for criminal justice reform. We think the administration has viable options available to take further productive steps on global drug policy too."

The letter calls on the Obama administration to:

  • Acknowledge the ramifications of recent drug reforms, such as marijuana legalization in Uruguay and some US states.
  • Stand up for human rights by calling for an end to the death penalty for drug offenses, reducing racial disparities in drug law enforcement, and respecting indigenous traditions.
  • Craft a people-centered approach to drug policy by explicitly adopting harm reduction practices, such as syringe exchanges, and rejecting the criminalization of peasant farmers and the eradication of their drug crops in favor of sustainable development.
  • Take a stronger stance on criminal justice reforms by moving toward drug decriminalization, urging sentencing reforms around the globe, and treating pregnant women who use drugs as patients, not criminals.
  • Work toward a more open dialog by having key documents finalized at the UNGASS rather than at closed sessions of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna and taking a more inclusive posture toward NGOS and civil society.

We will see next month how much Obama is listening.

Chronicle AM: DC Council Backs Away From Pot Club Ban, RI Gov Wants Patient Tax, More... (2/3/16)

The idea of marijuana social clubs in the nation's capital remains alive, Rhode Island patients face the prospect of seeing their plants taxed, there are medical marijuana advances in Australia and Poland, and more.

Marijuana Policy

DC City Council Backs Away from Pot Social Club Ban. The District of Columbia city council today voted to halt consideration of legislation that would permanently ban adult consumption of marijuana outside the home, and instead moved forward with the creation of a task force to explore the establishment of regulated places where adults can legally consume marijuana in the District. Last week, the council passed an emergency ban on social clubs and it was supposed to make that ban permanent today, but backed off in the face of strong public pressure. Instead, it voted to establish a task force to study the issue.

Medical Marijuana

Rhode Island Governor Wants to Impose Hefty Plant Tax on Patients, Caregivers. Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) has introduced a medical marijuana reform plan that would impose a $150 per plant tax on plants grown by patients and a $350 per plant tax on plants grown by caregivers. The governor says this will help the state raise $8.4 million in new tax revenues. But that tax is based on the administration's position that each plant is worth $17,000, which is nowhere near the case. Patient advocates are not happy.

Drug Testing

Wisconsin Bill Would Make It a Crime to Cheat a Drug Test. State Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay) has introduced a bill that would criminalize the possession, sale, or advertising of chemicals used to create synthetic urine to defeat drug tests. Under current state law, workers can be fired for cheating on drug tests, but face no criminal penalty. The bill would make using synthetic urine to cheat a drug test a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail for users and up to 90 days in jail for sellers or manufacturers. Fourteen other states have similar laws.

International

Human Rights Watch Condemns Tunisia's Drug Laws. The group issued a report this week singling out Law 52, which is says requires courts to impose "cruel, disproportionate, and counterproductive" sentences on drug offenders. The law requires a mandatory minimum one year jail sentence for any illegal drug possession, including marijuana.

Australian State Run Synthetic CBD Trials on Children With Epilepsy. The Victoria state government has authorized a study on 10 children as part of an effort to understand the effects of synthetic cannabinoids on children with epilepsy. The trial is set to get underway in Melbourne this month. The state government has kicked in $150,000 for the trial.

Polish Rapper Files Medical Marijuana Bill. The pioneering Polish rapper known as Liroy is now Polish Member of Parliament Piotr Liroy-Marzec, and on Monday, he presented a draft bill to legalize medical marijuana in the East European country. "This draft crowns everything I've said over the years, especially during the election campaign," said Liroy-Marzec. "I promised people I met who were ill that I would do everything possible to table this draft," he said.

Chronicle AM: Sanders End MJ Prohibition Bill, MX Supreme Court Protects MJ Use & Growing, More (11/5/15)

Bernie Sanders makes Senate history with the first bill in that chamber to end federal marijuana prohibition, the DEA head badmouths medical marijuana, the Mexican Supreme Court issues a historic ruling on the human right to use and grow marijuana, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Bernie Sanders Files Bill to End Federal Marijuana Prohibition. Vermont independent senator and Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders Wednesday filed legislation in the Senate that would end federal marijuana prohibition by removing -- not rescheduling -- marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances. It is the first bill ever introduced in the Senate to end the federal war on marijuana. The bill, the Ending Federal Prohibition Act of 2015, has not yet been assigned a bill number, but the text is available here. Click on the title link to read our feature story.

Nebraska's Omaha Tribe Voices Support for Legal Marijuana Operations. Members of the Omaha tribe voting in a referendum Tuesday supported moving toward legal marijuana operations on the reservation. Some 78% said they supported medical marijuana, 67% said they supported industrial hemp, and 59% said they supported recreational use. The Omaha tribal council will now vote on all three questions, using the referendum as guidance.

Medical Marijuana

DEA Head Calls Medical Marijuana "A Joke." DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg Wednesday rejected smoking marijuana as a medicine. It's "a joke," he said. "What really bothers me is the notion that marijuana is also medicinal -- because it's not," Rosenberg said in a briefing to reporters. "We can have an intellectually honest debate about whether we should legalize something that is bad and dangerous, but don't call it medicine -- that is a joke."

Asset Forfeiture

Wyoming Legislative Committee Waters Down Reform Effort. The Joint Judiciary Committee Wednesday rejected a bill that would have ended civil asset forfeiture in favor of another bill that would require a judge to decide within 30 days whether a seizure was appropriate and to hold a hearing within 120 days. Earlier this year, the legislature passed a bill ending civil asset forfeiture, only to see it vetoed by Gov. Matt Mead (R).

Drug Testing

Wisconsin to Start Drug Testing Welfare Recipients Monday. Drug testing for some welfare recipients begins next week after Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed off on a rule from the Department of Children and Families requiring able-bodied adults to be screened for drug use before seeking benefits. "Employers across the state frequently tell me they have good-paying jobs available in high-demand fields, but need their workers to be drug-free," Walker said in a statement. "These important entitlement reforms will help more people find family-supporting jobs, moving them from government dependence to true independence."

International

Mexican Supreme Court Rules People Have the Right to Grow and Use Marijuana. In a decision that could open the door to pot legalization south of the border, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that individuals have the right to use and grow the plant. The decision does not undo Mexico's marijuana laws, but does open the door for a wave of legal actions that could end in their being rewritten.

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

Chronicle AM: LEAP Endorses Ohio Initiative, Federal Drug War Prisoners Start Going Home, More (10/29/15)

LEAP endorses Ohio's Issue 3, another tribe wants in on the medical marijuana action, a West Virginia mayor calls fro drug decriminalization, backers of Bolivia's president are using coca as campaign contributions, and more.

Evo Morales' backers are contributing coca for the cause. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Marijuana at the GOP Debate. In Wednesday night's debate, only Ohio Gov. John Kasich had an opportunity to answer a question on marijuana legalization, and he's not for it. He said it would send the wrong message to kids and that he had spent years of his administration working "to rein in the problem of overdoses." Texas Sen. Ted Cruz mentioned marijuana, but only jokingly, offering to buy tequila "or even some famous Colorado brownies" for debate moderator Carlos Quintanilla after a heated exchange.

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition Endorses Ohio Legalization Initiative. LEAP has endorsed the ResponsibleOhio Issue 3 legalization initiative as the campaign counts down toward election day next Tuesday. "Legalization will take money away from the cartels, provide funding for public safety and health services, and reduce the violence associated with the illegal drug market. Passage of Issue Three puts us in charge, not the dealers," said retired Cincinnati Police Captain Howard Rahtz. The initiative is also endorsed by national NORML, but has split Buckeye State legalization proponents, some of who especially object to its "monopoly" on commercial grow sites. The initiative would only allow ten, on land owned by the investors who bankrolled the campaign.

Medical Marijuana

Medical Marijuana an Issue in Kentucky Governor's Race. In something of a political oddity, Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin is supporting medical marijuana, while Democratic candidate and current state attorney general Jack Conway, is opposing it. This issue has been causing fireworks on the campaign trail. The election is next Tuesday. Click on the link for some of the flavor. [Ed: Conway ran campaign ads attacking Rand Paul as "soft on drugs" when the two were competing for the state's open Senate seat in 2010. It's not surprising to see Conway take a regressive stance on medical marijuana.]

Nevada Tribe to Join Medical Marijuana Industry. The Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe is planning to open a medical marijuana grow facility for economic development reasons. "Jobs to bring our people out of poverty, to create the jobs that we can better our community," said tribal president Tildon Smart. "And the profits would be used for helping out with programs." The tribe said it plans to start growing next spring.

Los Angeles to Stop Giving Tax Certificates to Unpermitted Dispensaries. The city council voted Wednesday to stop giving tax certificates for new medical marijuana dispensaries. In 2013, the city approved Measure D, which banned most dispensaries, but that hasn't stopped them from opening. The city had been issuing tax certificates to them, but the council agreed that it was "insincere" to collect taxes from shops the city was working to shut down. Click on the link for much more detail.

Drug Policy

Charleston, West Virginia, Mayor Calls for Drug Decriminalization. Charleston Mayor Danny Jones told local talk radio Wednesday that reducing crime requires radical changes in the drug laws. "I don't think we're going to be able to arrest our way out of it. I think we're going to have to look at these drug laws," Jones said. "The money you would save from incarcerations, which would be in the multi-billions you could use to help people. The crime there (in the west side of the city) would end overnight if you legalize or decriminalized drugs, but there would have to be a way to get drugs to people who needed them… to end the criminality in it."

Harm Reduction

North Carolina Governor Signs Partial Needle Decriminalization Bill. Gov. Pat McCrory last week signed into law House Bill 712, the Pilot Project/Used Needle Disposal bill. Under the bill, people who tell police they are carrying needles cannot be charged with either paraphernalia or drug possession based on residues in the needles. The bill also allows a handful of counties to undertake pilot needle disposal programs. The effort was led by the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition.

Sentencing

6,000 Federal Drug Prisoners Start Going Home This Weekend. Some 6,000 granted sentence reductions as a result of policy changes by the US Sentencing Commission will be released from prisons and halfway houses beginning tomorrow and going through the weekend. About one-third are foreigners who will be deported, but the other two thirds are going home to US communities. Another 8,500 are eligible for early release in the coming year.

International

Mexico Supreme Court Postpones Marijuana Legalization Case. The country's high court has delayed action on a case arguing that Mexicans have a human right to cultivate and consume marijuana. There is no word on when it will be heard.

Bolivian President's Backers Make Coca Campaign Contributions. Backers of President Evo Morales, a former coca growers' union leader, are providing bags of coca and potatoes for their campaign to seek a constitutional amendment to allow him to seek a third term in 2019. One coca grower union leader said his members had pledged 20 tons of coca to be sold to raise money for the effort. That would raise about $120,000 and, they point out, that coca would not be turned into cocaine.

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

Chronicle AM: UN Decriminalization Drama, Global Undertreatment of Pain Report, More (10/19/15)

A thousand march for marijuana in Dallas, a few dozen in Montgomery; a UNODC document calling for drug decriminalization gets leaked, then yanked; the Global Commission on Drug Policy issues a report on pain, and more.

A Halloween/Reefer Madness-themed billboard rolled out today by Arizona legalization activists.
Marijuana Policy

Dallas March for Marijuana Brings Nearly a Thousand to the Streets. Around a thousand people joined a march calling for marijuana law reform in Texas Saturday. The march was organized by Dallas-Fort Worth NORML. Click on the link for more.

Dozens Turn Out for Alabama Rally for Marijuana Law Reforms. Several dozen people took to the foot of the state capitol last Friday to call for marijuana decriminalization and access to medical marijuana. Efforts to pass a medical marijuana bill have stalled in the legislature.

Medical Marijuana

Seneca Nation Moving Toward Medical Marijuana. The Seneca Nation of Indians is preparing to vote early next month on whether to authorize the National Council to start drafting laws and regulations to govern medical marijuana. The vote would be only a first step toward the tribe getting in the medical marijuana business. The Justice Department opened the door for tribes to get involved in pot operations with a memo last fall.

Kansas Silver Haired Legislature to Renew Push for Medical Marijuana. The Silver Haired Legislature, which advocates for senior citizens, is again calling on the legislature to pass medical marijuana. At a meeting earlier this month in Topeka, the group adopted three proposed bills it will push to see passed in the next term. Click on the link for more details.

International

UN Bid to Urge Drug Decriminalization Foiled. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has withdrawn a document calling on governments to consider "decriminalizing drug use and possession for personal consumption" after at least one country objected. The document was leaked by Sir Richard Branson over the weekend, and when a journalist violated the UNODC's embargo on release of the document, UNODC walked back the report.

Global Commission on Drug Policy Releases Report on Undertreatment of Pain. The Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP) today released its third thematic report, The Global Crisis of Avoidable Pain: The Negative Impact of Drug Control on Public Health. The report was launched by Commissioners, former Swiss President Ruth Dreifuss, UN Secretary General Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Michel Kazatchkine and former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to health, Anand Grover. The report finds that three-quarters of the world's population has no access to pain-relieving drugs and that "the reasons for this have little to do with issues of cost or scarcity of supplies- and everything to do with the prohibition and repressive stand the world has taken on drugs. States are obsessed by the fear that people will use controlled medicines, such as morphine as drugs, thereby neglecting the important medical uses." Click on the title link to read the report.

WOLA Discussion on Impact of Drug Policy on Human Rights in the Americas Wednesday. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) is hosting the discussion in Washington, DC, at lunch time Wednesday. Click on the link for speakers, more information, and to RSVP.

State Department Cuts Some Mexico Drug War Funding Over Human Rights Concerns. The State Department has concluded that Mexico failed to reach some human rights goals in its drug war, triggering the cutoff of millions of dollars of drug war assistance. The move only affects a small portion of overall US drug war aid to Mexico, but does signal growing frustration with alleged abuses by Mexican security forces. Some 15% of aid provided to Mexican security forces is subject to human rights provisions, meaning that Mexico lost $5 million of a total of $148 million in US drug war funding this year. That $5 million was instead diverted to Peru to help finance coca eradication.

Mexico Supreme Court to Take Up Marijuana Legalization Next Week. The high court is set to discuss a legal challenge that could effectively legalize the use and production of marijuana. The challenge comes from a non-profit that filed an injunction against the Mexican health regulatory body COFEPRIS over a 2013 ruling by that body. The hearing is set for October 28.

Norway's Two Largest Cities to Move Toward Giving Free Heroin to Addicts. The cities of Oslo and Bergen are set to begin heroin-assisted treatment pilot programs after the Labor Party won local elections there, but they will have to win approval from the national parliament first. Parliament rejected a 2012 effort to start the programs. Norway has the world's second highest drug overdose rate, after Estonia.

Chronicle AM: OR Marijuana Sales Begin This Week, FDA Defends Oxycontin for Youth, More (9/29/15)

Half of Oregon's dispensaries will start selling marijuana to any adult beginning this week, the FDA fires back at critics of its pediatric prescribing rules for Oxycontin, a prominent UN official lists the ways the drug "problem" impacts human rights, and more.

The FDA counters critics who say its rules for pediatric prescribing will increase availability. (wikipedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Florida Legalization Bill Filed. Rep. Michelle Rehwinke Vasilinda (D-Tallahassee) has introduced a bill to legalize marijuana. The measure is House Bill 4021. This is the second time she has filed the bill.

Oregon Dispensaries to Start Selling to Recreational Users This Week. More than half of the state's 345 medical marijuana dispensaries have told the Health Authority they plan to sell recreational marijuana starting Thursday, October 1. Recreational marijuana has been legal in the state since July 1, but recreational pot shops won't be open until next year, so the state is allowing dispensaries to fill the void.

Medical Marijuana

Maryland Now Taking Applications for Medical Marijuana Businesses. As of Monday, the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission is accepting applications for state licenses for growers, processors, and dispensaries. The commission will issue 15 licenses for growers, up to 92 for dispensaries, and an unlimited number for processors. The deadline for applications is November 6, and dispensaries could be stocked and open by next fall. Click on the commission link for more details.

Heroin and Prescription Opiates

FDA Rejects Critics on Oxycontin for Youth. In response to critics including US senators, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has defended its decision last month to allow the prescribing of the powerful opioid to pediatric patients. Critics accused the agency of expanding access to the drug, but the FDA said doctors could already prescribe Oxycontin to pediatric patients and the agency was merely setting prescribing standards. "It's important to stress that this approval was not intended to expand or otherwise change the pattern of use of extended-release opioids in pediatric patients," said FDA spokesman Eric Pahon said in a statement. "Doctors were already prescribing it to children, without the safety and efficacy data in hand with regard to the pediatric population."

Drug Policy

UN Official Says Drug "Problem" Violates Human Rights in Five Areas. UN Deputy Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansieri said Monday that the global drug "problem" violates human rights in the areas of the right to health, rights relating to criminal justice and discrimination, the rights of the child, and the rights of indigenous peoples. "It is clear that the world's drug problem impacts the enjoyment of a wide range of human rights, often resulting in serious violations," said Pansieri, "It is, nevertheless, a positive development that human rights are increasingly being taken into account in the preparations for the General Assembly's Special Session on the world drug problem to be held in April 2016." The remarks came during her report to the High Commissioner on Human Rights.

Harm Reduction

New York Governor Signs Bill to Expand Opiate Maintenance in Drug Courts. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) last Friday signed into law Senate Bill 4239, which prohibits drug court judges from forcing defendants to withdraw from opiate maintenance treatments as a condition of avoiding prison. Click on the title link for more details.

International

New Zealand Activists Call for Party Pill Drug Testing. The New Zealand Drug Foundation is calling on the government to legalize pill testing services. Foundation Executive Director Ross Bell said it was only a matter of time until someone died taking pills of unknown provenance. He added that the government routinely tests drugs for criminal justice purposes, and that those results should be made available as a public health measure. The government said it hadn't considered pill testing, but was open to the possibility in the future.

Chronicle AM: The Pope on Dope, Marijuana Arrests Jump, NYC Safe Injection Site Campaign, More (9/28/15)

The pope criticizes the drug war at the UN, the president addresses overdoses and addiction in his weekly address, marijuana arrests jumped last year, a campaign to bring safe injection sites to New York City is launching, and more.

Pots busts jumped last year. Why?
Medical Marijuana

Minnesota Lawmakers Get Earful from Patients at Hearing. The task force overseeing the state's medical marijuana program heard from patients and providers at a hearing last Friday, with complaints about high prices and logistical problems getting lots of attention. Click on the link for more details.

Drug Policy

Pope Francis Criticizes War on Drugs. During his address to the United Nations last Friday, Pope Francis turned from criticizing "systemic violence" in places like Syria and Ukraine to addressing violence linked to drug prohibition -- although without calling it that. "Along the same lines I would mention another kind of conflict which is not always so open, yet is silently killing millions of people. Another kind of war experienced by many of our societies as a result of the narcotics trade," Pope Francis said. The drug war is failing, the pontiff said, and it brings dire consequences. "[It is] a war which is taken for granted and poorly fought. Drug trafficking is by its very nature accompanied by trafficking in persons, money laundering, the arms trade, child exploitation and other forms of corruption," he continued. Click on the link for a full transcript of his remarks.

President Obama Uses Weekly Address to Talk About Preventing Substance Abuse. Obama used his weekly radio address last Saturday to encourage people to participate in "National Drug Take-Back Day" that same day, warning that too many Americans are dying of drug overdoses. "More Americans now die every year from drug overdoses than they do in car crashes," he said. "And most of those deaths aren't due to drugs like heroin or cocaine, but rather prescription drugs." Click on the link for a full transcript of the president's address.

International Drug Policy Conference in DC in November. The Drug Policy Alliance is hosting the world's premier drug policy conference in suburban Washington, DC, on November 18-21. Click on the link for much more information.

Harm Reduction

Campaign for Supervised Injection Sites Coming to New York City. The Open Society Foundation will host a town hall Wednesday on innovative solutions to public drug use and overdosing, including supervised injection sites. It's the opening salvo in a campaign to bring such sites to New York City. While a proven harm reduction measure, no such sites currently operate in the United States. Click on the link for more.

Law Enforcement

Nationwide Marijuana Arrests Jumped Last Year. The FBI has released its annual Uniform Crime Report. The report shows that nearly 701,000 people were arrested for marijuana offenses in 2014, up from 693,000 the previous year. Nearly 90% of all arrests were for possession.

International

United Nations Will Monitor Honduras War on Drug Gangs. The UN will open a human rights monitoring office in Honduras to monitor potential human rights violations by security forces as they pursue their war on drug gangs, President Juan Hernandez said Sunday. Hernandez and his predecessor, Porfirio Lobo, have increasingly relied on the military to fight gangs, and complaints about human rights violations have been piling up.

Bolivian Drug Law Reforms Would Reduce Penalties for "Microtraffickers," Consumers. The government of President Evo Morales has proposed reforms of the country's drug laws that would cut sentences for consumers and small-time traffickers. The proposal has been sent to the Legislative Assembly. Click on the link to read more in Spanish.

Chronicle AM: NORML Endorses Ohio MJ Init, Obama Issues Annual Country Trafficking Report, More (12/14/05)

NORML endorses the ResponsibleOhio legalization initiative, California legislators pass medical marijuana regulation, the White House issues its annual report on drug trafficking countries, and more.

The controversial initative has won an endorsement from NORML.
Marijuana Policy

Martin O'Malley to Hold Marijuana Legalization "Listening Session" in Denver This Week. The former Maryland governor and Democratic presidential contender will hear from policymakers, experts, business owners, and law enforcement about how Colorado's decision to legalize marijuana has been working and affecting communities across the state. As governor, O'Malley decriminalized marijuana in Maryland and started the state's medical marijuana program. In his presidential campaign, Governor O'Malley calls for re-classifying marijuana as part of his criminal justice platform.

NORML Endorses the ResponsibleOhio Legalization Initiative. The board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) has voted to endorse the ResponsibleOhio initiative. While the board expressed concern about "investor-driven initiatives," calling them a "perversion" of the initiative process, it said that ending prohibition outweighed the negatives. Click on the link for the entire statement.

Medical Marijuana

California Legislature Approves Medical Marijuana Regulation. After nearly 20 years of wrangling over what is and is not legal under California's 1996 Proposition 215 medical marijuana law, the state legislature has passed a set of bills designed to bring order to the chaos. After working with Gov. Jerry Brown (D) on acceptable language, the Assembly and the Senate Friday passed Assembly Bill 243 Assembly Bill 266, and Senate Bill 643. The session ended at midnight Friday. Click on the title link for more, and look for a feature article later this week on reaction to the move.

Drug Policy

White House Drug Trafficking Nation List Singles Out Bolivia, Burma, Venezuela. The White House released its annual Presidential Determination on Major Drug Transit or Major Illicit Drug Producing Countries today, and singled out Bolivia, Burma, and Venezuela as failing to comply with US drug war demands. The other countries on the list are: Afghanistan, The Bahamas, Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Jamaica, Laos, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, and Peru. Click on the link to read the entire determination.

Drug Testing

South Dakota Indian Tribal Chairman in Hot Water Over Mass Drug Testing. In a bid to address drug abuse on the reservation, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribal Chairman Bruce Renville ordered surprise, mandatory, suspicionless drug testing of hundreds of tribal employees last month. But while some of them came up dirty, Renville is the only one whose job is in danger. Tribal opponents accuse him of trampling individual and constitutional rights with the move, and now the council has suspended him from his position, with a hearing on whether to fire him set for later this week. Click on the link to read a very detailed report.

International

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Issues Report on Drugs and Human Rights. The Human Rights Council had requested the study, which will be presented to the council at its next session. The study, Impact of the World Drug Problem on Human Rights, examines the impact drug policy decisions on personal and public health, harm reduction, as well as examining the role of criminal justice systems and the use of the death penalty.

Philippines Bans Hemp Products. The Philippine Food and Drug Administration and Philippine DEA have banned the sale of consumer products containing "hempseed oil or their varieties and derivatives from cannabis or marijuana in consumer products." The move is being sold as an effort "to protect the public from the harmful effects of dangerous drugs," even though hemp products normally don't contain more than trace amounts of THC, the main psychoactive substance in marijuana.

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

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