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World Leaders Call for Regulatory Alternatives to Drug Prohibition [FEATURE]

In a report released last night and in a New York City press conference this morning, a number of global leaders, including former heads of state, called for drug decriminalization and the regulation of psychoactive drug markets. Those same global leaders are meeting this afternoon with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and his deputy, Jan Eliasson.

These world leaders are members of the Global Commission on Drugs and their new report is Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies that Work. The commission's members include former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, former Swiss President Ruth Dreifuss, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Virgin Airlines founder Richard Branson, and more.

The report's executive summary lists a number of policy prescriptions, some of them quite breathtakingly bold:

  • Putting health and community safety first requires a fundamental reorientation of policy priorities and resources, from failed punitive enforcement to proven health and social interventions.
  • Focus on reducing the power of criminal organizations as well as the violence and insecurity that result from their competition with both one another and the state.
  • Take advantage of the opportunity presented by the upcoming UNGASS in 2016 to reform the global drug policy regime.
  • Rely on alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent, low-level participants in illicit drug markets such as farmers, couriers and others involved in the production, transport and sale of illicit drugs.
  • Stop criminalizing people for drug use and possession -- and stop imposing "compulsory treatment" on people whose only offense is drug use or possession.
  • Allow and encourage diverse experiments in legally regulating markets in currently illicit drugs, beginning with but not limited to cannabis, coca leaf and certain novel psychoactive substances.
  • Ensure equitable access to essential medicines, in particular opiate-based medications for pain.

In other words, decriminalize drug possession, legalize and regulate drug markets, and end the failed decades-long embrace of prohibitionism. This is a policy advance from the Commission's initial 2011 report, which, while breaking new ground in advancing the debate of drug prohibition, did not go as far as calling for efforts to regulate and legalize drugs.

Global Commission meeting in Warsaw last year, with four former presidents present. (globalcommissionondrugs.org)
"Ultimately, the global drug control regime must be reformed to permit legal regulation," said Cardoso. "Let's start by treating drug addiction as a health issue -- rather than as a crime -- and by reducing drug demand through proven educational initiatives. But let's also allow and encourage countries to carefully test models of responsible legal regulation as a means to undermine the power of organized crime, which thrives on illicit drug trafficking."

"Health-based approaches to drug policy routinely prove much less expensive and more effective than criminalization and incarceration," said former Mexican President Zedillo. "Decriminalization of drug consumption is certainly crucial but not sufficient. Significant legal and institutional reforms, both at the national and international levels, are needed to allow governments and societies to put in place policies to regulate the supply of drugs with rigorous medical criteria, if the engines of organized crime profiting from drug traffic are to be truly dismantled."

The Commission's report today is only the latest evidence of growing global momentum for fundamental drug policy reforms. After the Commission's 2011 report, sitting Latin American heads of state, including Presidents Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia, Otto Perez Molina in Guatemala, and José Mujica in Uruguay, as well as then-President Felipe Calderón in Mexico, for the first time made drug reform a major topic at the Summit of the Americas in April 2012 in Cartagena, Colombia.

That was followed 13 months later by an Organization of American States report, commissioned by the heads of state of the region, calling for consideration of drug legalization along with other possible scenarios as a potential policy alternative. And late last year, Uruguay broke new ground, becoming the first country in the world to legalize and regulate marijuana commerce.

All of this has created a big push for a new look at global drug prohibition during the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs set for 2016. The last UNGASS, in 1998, was dominated by rhetorical calls for a "drug-free world" and ended with unrealistic goals of suppressing illicit drug production (which, of course, have not been met), but the Commission and the global political leaders whose voices it echoes are working to use the next UNGASS to advance a frankly and radically reformist alternative.

Celebrity Commission member Richard Branson (Wikimedia/David Shankbone)
"We can't go on pretending the war on drugs is working," said Richard Branson. "We need our leaders to look at alternative, fact-based approaches. Much can be learned from successes and failures in regulating alcohol, tobacco or pharmaceutical drugs. The risks associated with drug use increase, sometimes dramatically, when they are produced, sold and consumed in an unregulated criminal environment. The most effective way to advance the goals of public health and safety is to get drugs under control through responsible legal regulation."

American drug reformers liked what they were hearing.

"When the Commission released its initial report just three years ago, few expected its recommendations to be embraced anytime soon by current presidents," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "But that's exactly what happened, with Colombian President Santos and Guatemala President Perez-Molina speaking out boldly, former Mexican President Calderon calling on the United Nations to reassess the prohibitionist approach to drugs, and Uruguayan President Mujica approving the first national law to legally regulate cannabis. Meanwhile, one Commission member, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, has opened up the drug policy debate in West Africa, recruiting some of the region's most distinguished figures," he noted.

"The import of the Commission's report lies in both the distinction of its members and the boldness of their recommendations," Nadelmann continued. "The former presidents and other Commission members pull no punches in insisting that national and global drug control policies reject the failed prohibitionist policies of the 20th century in favor of new policies grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights. There's no question now that the genie of reform has escaped the prohibitionist bottle. I'm grateful to the Commission for the pivotal role it has played in taking drug policy reform from the fringes of international politics to the mainstream."

"With polling having shown consistent majority voter support for legalizing marijuana in the US for several years now, it's been clear that this is a mainstream issue in this country," said Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority. "Now this group of world leaders has not only put marijuana legalization on the table for serious consideration on the global stage, but has gone even further by suggesting that ending the prohibition of other drugs should be considered as a way to better protect public health and safety. The hope now is that these forward-thinking recommendations by so many respected former heads of state will encourage current officials to modernize their nations' policies."

The Global Commission on Drugs is showing the path forward to more enlightened drug policies. Now it's up to citizens to push for reform from the bottom up, and it's up to national and international leaders to start making those changes at the national and international level.

New York, NY
United States

Chronicle AM: Illinois Taking Medical Marijuana Applications, WaPo Forfeiture Series, NYT on SWAT, More (9/8/14)

Two majors newspapers have special reports on law enforcement related to the drug war, a staunch Kansas Republican says marijuana should be decided by the states -- not the feds -- Illinois is now taking medical marijuana business applications, Britain's Lib Dems are ready to consider drug decrim and marijuana legalization, and more. Let's get to it:

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS)
Marijuana Policy

Kansas Republican US Senator Pat Roberts Says Legalization Should Be Up to the States." [Marijuana is] not a federal issue. That's a state issue. If you want to get a Rocky Mountain high, go west. That should be for the Kansas legislature and the governor to decide, not federally," Roberts said during a campaign debate last Saturday. Marijuana Majority's Tom Angell was inspired to respond: "When a conservative Republican senator from Kansas tells the feds to let states legalize marijuana in the middle of a tight race for reelection, it's pretty clear that the days when politicians thought they needed to be as 'tough' on drugs as possible in order to get elected are over. But Sen. Roberts needs to do more than just talk about change. At the very least he should team up with Sens. Cory Booker & Rand Paul on their effort to stop federal interference with state medical marijuana laws."

York, Maine, to Vote on Possession Legalization Initiative. York will be the third Maine community to vote on marijuana reform this year. Organizers for an initiative removing penalties for simple pot possession have handed in enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot. York joins Lewiston and South Portland in voting on the issue this year. Portland, the state's largest city, approved a similar initiative last year.

Los Angeles Event to Mark 100th Anniversary of First "Marihuana" Raid. Cal NORML and the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform will host a press conference marking the 100th anniversary of the nation's first "marihuana" raid in LA's Mexican Sonoratown neighborhood on Thursday, September 11 at 10 am on the steps of LA City Hall. And LA NORML will be hosting an "End the 100 Year War on Pot" party on Saturday, September 13. State and local political officials and advocates will address the failed marijuana policy that has cost California billions of dollars in arrest, prosecution and prison expenses; fueled an illegal black market and lined the pockets of violent narcotrafficantes; promoted environmentally damaging trespass grows on public and private lands; and blocked access to useful medicine, all while failing to stem drug abuse in the state and depriving it of billions in tax dollars from a legitimate industry. Click on the title link for more details.

Medical Marijuana

Illinois Accepting Applications for Medical Marijuana Businesses. The state Agriculture Department is now taking applications from people who want to open dispensaries or cultivation centers. There are 22 licenses available for growers and 60 for dispensaries.

Asset Forfeiture

Washington Post Takes on Asset Forfeiture, In an ongoing series of articles, The Washington Post is taking a cold-eyed look at asset forfeiture practices and the law enforcement culture that has grown around them. The article linked to above examines a private intelligence network used by cops across the country to trade information on motorists and help them decide whom to subject to pretextual traffic stops in order to look for loot to seize. There's a lot of dirt in here, and there's more to come as the series continues.

Drug Policy

NFL, Players Union in Drug Policy Talks.The NFL and its players' union are meeting today to try to thrash out new drug policies. Marijuana use is a key topic. The league has been criticized recently for treating pot-smoking offenses by players more seriously than domestic abuse.

Prescription Drugs

Obama Administration Announces Expanded Prescription Drug Takeback Plan. The White House announced today that hospitals, pharmacies and other medical facilities will be authorized to collect unused prescription drugs, a move designed to keep the drugs out of the hands of people who may attempt to abuse or sell them. "We know if we remove unused painkillers from the home, we can prevent misuse and dependence from ever taking hold," said Michael Botticelli, the acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. "These regulations will create new avenues for addictive prescription drugs to leave the house and be disposed of in a safe, environmentally friendly way."

DEA Sets Production Limits for Pain Relievers, With Big Increases for Some. In a Federal Register notice posted last Friday, the DEA released a list of dozens of Schedule I and II substances subject to production quotas next year. Twenty-two of the 63 substances will see increases in production quotas next year, including cocaine, codeine, dihydrocodeine, hydromorphone, and ephedrine. The DEA says the changes are based on public comments that quota amounts were "insufficient to provide for the estimated medical, scientific, research and industrial needs of the US." Among substances seeing quota decreases are amphetamine, methamphetamine, and methadone.

Law Enforcement

New York Times Video "Retro Report" Takes on History of SWAT. As part of a video documentary series presented by the Times called Retro Report, the nation's newspaper of record examines the rise of SWAT-style policing, tracing its roots to the turmoil and tumult of the 1960s. Once rare, SWAT teams now appear ubiquitous, whether in big cities or sleepy small towns. They are now under greater scrutiny in the wake of the Ferguson, Missouri, protests, making this report quite timely.

International

British Liberal Democrats to Consider Drug Decriminalization, Legal Marijuana Sales. Britain's Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in a governing coalition with the Conservatives, will consider drug decriminalization and marijuana legalization at their party conference next month. The announcement comes after a party policy paper to be debated at the conference called on the party to "adopt the model used in Portugal, where those who possess drugs will be diverted into other services." The paper also said the party "welcomes the establishment of a regulated cannabis market in Uruguay, Colorado and Washington state. These innovative approaches are still in their infancy and the data that would allow us to examine their impact are not yet available. We will establish a review to examine the impact of these schemes in relation to public health," it said.

Australia's Tasmania Reverses Course, Will Allow Medical Marijuana Trials. Tasmania's governing Liberals will support medical marijuana trials, the health minister told a parliamentary inquiry. The minister, Michael Ferguson, had rejected a bid for trials in the state just weeks ago in July. But now he has changed his tune. "We support appropriately conducted clinical trials, feeding into the existing national medicines regulatory framework," he said. "We will objectively consider any proposal regarding a trial of medicinal cannabis on a case-by-case basis."

Amnesty International Report Says Torture in Mexico Out of Control. Reported cases of torture and mistreatment by police and armed forces in Mexico have increased six-fold in the past decade, according to a new report issued by Amnesty International. The report says much of the increase was driven by the Mexican government's aggressive effort to repress drug trafficking organizations.

Top Albanian Christian Democrat Calls for Marijuana Legalization. The head of Albania's Christian Democratic Party, Zef Bushati, has called for the legalization of marijuana on his Facebook page. "Countries are okay with that," he wrote. "First USA, France and now Italy. It's business. It increases the economic level. I never knew or even imagined that cannabis was cultivated all over Albania. When I knew that I started thinking about those families that needed to feed with this kind of job." Christian Democrats have only one member in the Albanian parliament.

Chronicle AM: Massive Marijuana Poll, Saudis Behead Four for Drugs, CA Defelonization Init, More (9/4/2014)

Massive marijuana poll has good news, Cornhuskers ponder legalization "problems," another Florida medical marijuana poll is out, a California defelonization initiative quietly advances, another drug war death, Saudis behead four people for drug trafficking, and more. Let's get to it:

Another poll suggests marijuana is becoming normalized. (Sandra Yruel/Drug Policy Alliance)
Marijuana Policy

Massive Online Polling Survey Finds 58% Support for Legalization. The online polling data company CivicScience has released the results of a massive, two-year online poll that asked more than 450,000 US adults whether they would "support or oppose a law in your state that would legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana like alcohol." Some 39% said they strongly supported, and another 19% said they somewhat supported the idea. That's 58% for legalization. Support is even higher in the last three months, with 61% of recent respondents saying they favored legalization. The results are music to the ears of Marijuana Majority head Tom Angell. "This huge poll is yet another indication that marijuana legalization is officially a mainstream issue. With ending prohibition polling better with voters than most elected officials do these days, it'll be really interesting to see which 2016 contenders realize that supporting marijuana reform is good politics and which still don't get it," he said.

Nebraska Legislature to Consider "Problems" of Colorado Marijuana Legalization. Next Monday, the legislature's Judiciary Committee will hear testimony on LR 520, a resolution "to gather information about the developing problems that law enforcement is encountering since the State of Colorado legalized the sale and recreational use of marijuana." The Marijuana Policy Project is encouraging legislators to examine all the results of legalization in Colorado, not just the "problems."

Medical Marijuana

New Florida Poll Has Medical Marijuana Initiative Coming Up Just Short. A new Florida Decides poll has a majority in favor of the Measure 2 medical marijuana initiative, but not the supermajority needed to pass a constitutional amendment. The poll had support at 57%, but 60% is needed. But the poll also had 17% undecided, and if only a fraction of the undecided break in favor of the initiative, it could win. Another poll earlier this week had support at 64%.

Law Enforcement

Ohio Man Kills Himself During Marijuana Garden Raid Stand-Off. An Ashville, Ohio, man shot and killed himself after a two-hour stand-off at a property where he was growing marijuana Tuesday evening. Timothy Sturgis, 42, becomes the 32nd person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

Sentencing

California Defelonization Initiative Quietly Awaits Opposition. An initiative that would reduce petty drug (and other) offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, Proposition 47, is qualified for the November ballot and is now quietly waiting for a backlash to emerge. It polled at 57% in June and has $3 million in the bank. Opponents have raised only $8,000. But there are still two months left.

International

Saudi Arabia Beheads Four Foreigners for Drug Trafficking. Three Syrians and an Iranian were executed by beheading for drug trafficking offenses, the Saudi Interior Ministry said. The three Syrians were executed for smuggling "a large quantity of banned amphetamine pills" into the kingdom, and the Iranian was beheading for smuggling "a large quantity of hashish." That makes 45 executions in Saudi Arabia so far this year. It's not clear how many were for drug offenses, but the Saudis also executed four people for hash offenses last month.

Guyana Rastafaris Call for National Marijuana Commission. The Guyana Rastafari Council has called for the creation of a National Marijuana Commission. "Among the resolutions passed at the Council's last General Meeting held at the F.E. Pollard Primary School on August 24, was a call on the Government of Guyana to immediately implement the mandate of the last CARICOM Heads of Government meeting, that each CARICOM member state sets up a National Marijuana Commission to complement the Regional Marijuana Commission to look at decriminalizing marijuana for medical, religious and recreational purposes," the council said.

Chronicle AM: Santa Fe Decriminalizes, New Drug Czar Nominated, NYC Heroin Deaths Rise, More (8/29/14)

Santa Fe decriminalizes, no medical marijuana for Alzheimer's in New Mexico, NYC heroin deaths at 10-year high, new drug czar nominated, another drug war death, and more. Let's get to it:

Michael Botticelli has been nominated to be the new head of ONDCP, the drug czar's office. (whitehousedrugpolicy.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Santa Fe Decriminalizes Marijuana Possession. In a surprise move, the Santa Fe city council voted Wednesday night to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. The move came after the Drug Policy Alliance and Progress Now New Mexico undertook a successful signature drive to put a decriminalization initiative on the ballot. Rather than have it go to a vote, the city council simply approved the ordinance instead.

NORML Endorses Alaska, DC, Oregon Legalization Initiatives. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) has officially endorsed all three marijuana legalization initiatives on statewide (or District-wide) ballots this fall. "NORML's board of directors endorses these cannabis legalization measures. All three support basic tenets of reform. They differ slightly in scope and implementation based on local considerations of law, customs and polled public sentiment," the group said. Both the Oregon and Alaska initiatives envision a legalize, tax, and regulate scheme, while, because of peculiarities in local law, the DC initiative only legalizes the possession and cultivation -- but not the sale and taxation of -- small amounts of marijuana.

Alaska Conference of Mayors Opposes Legalization Initiative. The Alaska Conference of Mayors announced Thursday it had voted to oppose Measure 2, the state's marijuana legalization initiative. The mayors' group is also kicking in $5,000 to the opposition campaign. The group expressed concerns over public safety, increased enforcement costs (?), and possible effects on youth.

Medical Marijuana

New Mexico Overrides Advisory Board, Denies Medical Marijuana for Alzeimer's. The Secretary of Health yesterday denied a petition to add Alzheimer's disease to the list of qualifying medical conditions for medical marijuana. The Medical Cannabis Advisory Board had unanimously recommended that Alzheimer's be added. Click on the link to read some reactions.

Georgia Medical Marijuana Study Committee Holds First Hearing. The Georgia Medical Cannabis Joint Study Committee held the first of five scheduled public hearings at the state capitol yesterday. The hearings are aimed at drafting legislation to allow for the use of medical marijuana for epilepsy and other conditions. Click on the link for more details.

Drug Policy

White House Nominates Acting Drug Czar to Head ONDCP. The White House has nominated acting drug czar Michael Botticelli to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). Botticelli, a recovering alcoholic, has been acting drug czar since March, when his predecessor, Gil Kerlikowske, left to take over Customs and Border Protection. Prior to coming to ONDCP in 2012 to serve as Kerlikowske's deputy, he headed the Massachusetts Bureau of Substance Abuse Services.

Heroin

New York City Heroin Overdose Deaths at Ten Year High. Some 420 people in New York City died of heroin overdoses last year, the highest figure since the 438 recorded in 2003, according to data released Thursday by the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. After peaking in 2003, the number of heroin deaths declined steadily, bottoming out at 209 in 2010. Since then, they have been steadily increasing.

Law Enforcement

Armed Orlando Man Killed in SWAT Drug Raid is Year's 31st Drug War Death. Members of Orlando SWAT team serving a drug search warrant shot and killed an armed man this morning. The man, who is as yet unnamed, becomes the 31st person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year. According to the Orlando Sentinel, citing police sources, the SWAT team hit an apartment on Orange Blossom Trail about 8:00am. At least two members of the SWAT team opened fire on the man as he pointed his weapon at them.

What To Do About the Drug Trade in West Africa? [FEATURE]

Over the past decade, West Africa has emerged as an increasingly important player in the global illicit drug trade. Although the region has historically not been a drug producing one -- with the important exception of marijuana -- it has become a platform for predominantly Latin American drug traffickers moving their illicit commodities toward lucrative European and Middle Eastern markets. The cocaine traffic alone is worth more than a billion dollars a year, according to a 2013 report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

children walking from home to school in Bamako, Mali (JoeyTranchinaPhotography©2014 Sète, France)
And the trade is becoming more complex. Now, it's not only cocaine flowing through the region, but heroin destined mainly for Western Europe and methamphetamines being manufactured there and exported to Asia and South Africa, that same UNODC report found.

The region -- stretching along the African coast from Nigeria to the east to Senegal on the west, and extending deep into the Sahara Desert in countries such as Mali and Niger -- is plagued by weak states and corrupt governments, making it attractive to criminals of all sorts, who thrive in lawless lands. And it's not just criminals. The region is also home to various bands of Islamist militants, some of whom are involved in the drug trade.

Now, a commission of prominent West Africans is calling for fundamental changes in drug policies in the region. Last week, the West Africa Commission on Drugs, issued a report, Not Just in Transit: Drugs, the State and Society in West Africa, calling for the decriminalization of drug use, treating drug use primarily as a public health issue, and for the region to avoid becoming the next front line in the failed war on drugs.

The commission is impressive. It was initiated by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan of Nigeria and headed by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, and includes other former heads of state as well as a distinguished group of West Africans from the worlds of politics, civil society, health, security and the judiciary.

And so is its very existence. It marks the entrance of West African civil society into the international debate on drug policy in which calls for fundamental drug reform have gained increasing momentum in recent years. In 2008, former Latin American heads of state and other luminaries formed the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, and in 2011, Annan and other world luminaries and former heads of state came together to form the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Now, West Africa adds its voice to the chorus calling for change.

"We call on West African governments to reform drug laws and policies and decriminalize low-level and non-violent drug offenses," said Obasanjo upon the report's release last week. "West Africa is no longer just a transit zone for drugs arriving from South America and ending up in Europe but has become a significant zone of consumption and production. The glaring absence of treatment facilities for drug users fuels the spread of disease and exposes an entire generation, users and non-users alike, to growing public health risks."

"Most governments' reaction to simply criminalize drug use without thinking about prevention or access to treatment has not just led to overcrowded jails, but also worsened health and social problems," added Kofi Annan.

West Africa
"We need the active support and involvement of civil society and of the international community," said commission member Edem Kodjo. "South America, where most of the drugs smuggled to West Africa come from, and Europe, which is the main consumer market, must take the lead to deal with both production and consumption at home. We cannot solve this problem alone; governments and civil society have to come together in West Africa to help prevent the drug problem from getting completely out of hand."

The report won kudos from American drug reformer Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance.

"First Europe, then the Americas, now Africa," he said. "Drug policy reform is truly becoming a global movement, with Kofi Annan and Olusegun Obasango providing the sort of bold leadership that we've also seen in Latin America. Maybe, just maybe, West Africa will be spared the fate of other parts of the world where prohibition-related crime, violence and corruption spiraled out of control."

But some analysts, while welcoming the report, suggested that it did not get at the heart of the problem in West Africa.

"The report focuses on public health, and that's great, but I'm not sure that's the issue," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow with the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution who has published extensively on West Africa. "Nor are there generally large prison populations due to the arrests of low-level drug offenders. There is increasing drug use, and many addicts don't have access to public health. That, however is not because they were arrested, but because Africa in general doesn't have access to public health," she pointed out.

"In some senses, the commission report is preventative -- it warns of policies that would be counterproductive -- but it is not going to solve West Africa's problems," Felbab-Brown continued. "And the harm reduction approaches that dominate the discourse in Europe and the US are not really apropos for West African public health issues. The increasing focus of the international community is interdiction, but that accounts for only a small fraction of the total traffic, and the report doesn't deal with what kind of alternate law enforcement there should be, or who should be targeted."

But others thought the criminal justice and public health emphasis in the report were a step down the right path.

"The report's message about alternatives to criminalization for use and minor offenses is important in criminal justice terms -- to discourage the horrible over-representation of minor drug offenders in prisons in the region -- but also as a reminder that there are no such alternatives unless the health and social sectors develop those alternatives," said Joan Csete, deputy director of the Open Society Foundation's Global Drug Policy Program.

"Health ministries need to be as important around the drug policymaking table as the police, which is far from the case in most of Africa today," she added. "Services for treatment of drug dependence in the region are absent or of appalling quality. Improving health and social support for people with drug dependence is a key to drug policy reform in West Africa."

And Felbab-Brown agreed that while measures like drug prevention and treatment wouldn't solve the region's problems, they would still be helpful.

"We're already seeing quite a bit of heroin in the region, and we are seeing increasing use," she said. "These are cheap and prevalent commodities, the traffickers partake in kind, and user communities are being established. In a sense, developing strategies to prevent use, get treatment, and prevent the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C is useful because there are more and more users."

drug, security, and insurgency analyst Vanda Felbab-Brown (brookings.edu)
But for Felbab-Brown, the key problem for West Africa is its weak and corrupt states.

"The big trafficking issues are around the intersection of very poor, very weak, very corrupt, and often very fragile states with state participation in various forms of criminality," she said. "Drugs are just another commodity to be exploited by elites for personal enrichment. Elites are already stealing money from oil, timber, and diamonds, and now there is another resource to exploit for personal enrichment and advancement," she argued.

"One narrative has it that drug trafficking has caused fragility and instability, but I think trafficking compounded the problems; it didn't create them," Felbab-Brown continued. "There is a systematic deficiency of good governance. Many of these states have functioned for decades like mafia bazaars, and the trafficking just augments other rents. There are rotten governments, miserable institutions, and poor leadership around all commodities, not just drugs."

"The states are not monolithic," Csete noted. "Some have high-level corruption, some are aggressive in trying to fight money-laundering and other elements of organized criminal networks, some rely heavily on traditional interdiction methods. Some of these countries have relatively strong democratic systems and relatively strong economic growth; some have governance institutions that are less strong."

The state of the states in West Africa influenced the commission and its recommendations, Csete said.

"Legalization of drugs -- production, sale, consumption -- was not judged to be politically feasible or necessarily desirable by the commission," she explained. "I think the commissioners generally perceive that generally these countries do not yet have a political climate favorable to debate on progressive changes in drug policy. The whole idea of the commission and its report is to open those debates -- high-profile people from the region saying things that sitting officials do not find it politically easy to say."

"These are newer post-colonial states," Felbab-Brown noted. "Are we having unreasonable expectations? Is this like Europe in the 13th Century, or is that some of these countries are doomed to exist in perpetual misgovernance?"

While there may be concern in Western capitals about the specter of West African drug trafficking, many West Africans have other, more pressing, drug policy concerns.

In its 2013 report, the UNODC noted that the importation of fake pharmaceutical drugs from South and Southeast Asia into the region was a problem. Joey Tranchina, a longtime drug policy observer who has recently spent time in Mali, agrees.

"Having traversed Mali from Bamako to Mopti, except for the usual oblique indigenous references to smoking weed, the only personal experience I have with drug crime is counterfeit pharmaceuticals from India, China, and Russia," he said. "They're sold cheap in the streets to people who can't afford regular meds and they take the place of real pharmaceuticals, especially malaria and HIV drugs. These drug scams are killing people in Mali," he said.

"Most people in West Africa don't see drug trafficking as that much of a problem," said Felbab-Brown. "If it's mostly going to Westerners, they say so what? For them it is a mechanism to make money, and those drug traffickers frequently become politicians. They are able to create and reconstitute patronage networks around drug trafficking, just as they were once able to get elected with money from blood diamonds."

It seems that, to the degree that drug use and drug trafficking are West African problems, they are problems inextricably interwoven with the broader issues of weak, fragile, and corrupt states that are unable or unwilling to deliver the goods for their citizens. The West Africa Commission on Drugs has pointed a way toward some solutions and avoiding some failed policies already discredited elsewhere, but it seems clear that that is just the beginning.

Growing Demands for UN Drug Policy Reform [FEATURE]

The United Nations' Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) has wrapped up the High-Level Segment portion of its annual meeting in Vienna. The session revealed schisms among countries about future steps on global drug control even as the global drug bureaucrats gave signs of softening in some policy areas, especially around emphasizing public health as opposed to criminalization.

An indication of relaxation came when a key working group of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced the release of groundbreaking recommendations discouraging criminal sanctions for drug use. The Scientific Consultation Working Group on Drug Policy, Health and Human Rights of the UNODC -- which includes Nora Volkow, head of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) -- released the recommendations as the session got underway. The working group recommendations say 'criminal sanctions are not beneficial' in addressing the spectrum of drug use and misuse.

Getting down to business at the CND in Vienna (unodc.org)
The meeting ended with a formal joint ministerial statement agreed to at the last minute after months of contentious wrangling, but one where countries failed to agree on a common approach and where certain fractious issues -- such as the use of the death penalty for drug offenses or even the mention of the term "harm reduction" -- were omitted entirely.

Countries critical of the global drug policy status quo, particularly from Europe and Latin America, were joined by an ever-stronger civil society presence at the CND. The message of reform grows ever louder and presages an especially contentious next step, the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs, set for 2016.

It's not just change in the halls of the UN drug bureaucracies, but changes on the ground that are helping to drive the debate. Uruguay and two US state, Colorado and Washington, have legalized marijuana in apparent contravention of the global drug treaties, and Latin American countries in particular have for several years now expressed growing dismay at the drug war status quo.

Uruguay's decision to legalize marijuana commerce was "not a solution to dealing with the world's drug problem," UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) head Yuri Fedotov said just days ago, and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) called the Uruguayan government "pirates" for going up against the UN drug conventions. But the UN drug bureaucrats were singing a slightly softer tune last week in Vienna.

Taking in the discussions in Vienna (idpc.net)
"My impression from the debates so far is that the prevailing mood is to say no to dismantling the provisions of the conventions, but yes to returning to the original spirit of the conventions: protection of health, welfare, and safety of people," Fedotov said in anodyne remarks at the release of the ministerial statement.

"The provisions of the conventions indeed are flexible, human rights based, and founded on the protection of health. I would like particularly to stress the need of strengthening the public health in a comprehensive, balanced, scientific evidence-based approach, that is very important, and fully consistent with human rights standards," Fedotov continued. "There is also a growing need for every country to move away from compulsory treatments and punitive measures and towards embracing these approaches, including protection against HIV/AIDS, as envisaged by the Conventions."

The ministerial statement itself, a compromise document, for the most part blandly supported the existing international drug control regime, although it, too, signaled a shift toward a more public health-oriented approach, and it obliquely referenced ongoing dissent by noting "the ongoing discussions in some regions on how to address the world drug problem, in light of the current situation and policies, and emphasize the importance of a broad, transparent, inclusive and scientific evidence-based discussion among Member States, with inputs from other relevant stakeholders, as appropriate, in multilateral settings, on the most effective ways to counter the world drug problem consistent with the three international drug control conventions…"

But behind the smooth language of the official statements, there was real anger and dismay at the toll of more than a half-century of global drug prohibition.

"People have been sacrificed in our actions to tackle the drug problem," Colombian Justice Minister Gomez Mendez told delegates. "We call for more effective ways to achieve the objectives stated in international agreements. Alternatives are needed. Drug policies cannot travel at the speed of a telegraph while drug problems develop at the speed of broadband Internet."

ENCOD's Coffee Sniffer Brigade reenacted prohibitions of yore, to the bemusement of CND security. (encod.org)
"We should not be driven by ideologies and wishful thinking. We unfortunately know today that the idea of a drug-free world based on the belief that, if we eradicate supply, we will reduce demand, is not achievable. We should look to and evaluate alternative regimes appearing in North and South America and in Europe rather than just be silent about it", said the Czech Republic delegate, echoing the calls for drug policy reform made by not only Colombia, but also Guatemala, Ecuador, Mexico and Uruguay.

"Since 1961, due to a rigid and narrow interpretation of the UN drug conventions, there has been one single means to control the use of cannabis -- criminalization has been imposed, "said Diego Canepa, representative of the delegation of Uruguay. "We have don't have a magic recipe, but we are trying to find a way out and snatch the market away from traffickers. We have a responsibility to represent our citizens, and not to take the challenge and act accordingly would be an unforgivable error."

The Mexican delegation said that health policies should be encouraged instead of the criminalization of drug use and that a thorough review of the international drug strategies is required. The delegation of Guatemala highlighted that "the revision of the UN drug conventions is needed and that the Latin American hemispheric debate is ongoing."

"The failure of present drug policies has generated questions from governments, policy-makers, intellectuals and civil society organizations from across the region," said the Ecuadorian delegation. "Many voices are calling for a change in paradigm in the understanding and approach to the drug phenomenon."

Even the US delegation was sounding eerily reformist. Acting Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) head Michael Botticelli called for continuing down "the path of criminal justice reform" and cited recent Obama administration moves to minimize mandatory minimum drug sentences.

But the call for reform came most loudly in the person of Eliot Ross, representing the International Network of People Who Use Drugs, who noted that human rights law and drug control law continued to be inconsistent, and called for a comprehensive overhaul of the treaties and amnesty for drug prisoners.

Changing the global drug control system for the better is agonizingly slow work -- it's been 16 years since hundreds of global intellectuals signed an open letter in The New York Times calling on the last UNGASS on Drugs to begin to adopt fundamental reforms. But, under the weight of rising pressure, the creaky machine is starting to move.

"We derive hope from the fact that, contrary to earlier CND meetings, there are now countries openly condemning prohibition as the basic answer to drug problems," said ENCOD (the European NGO Council for Just and Effective Drug Policies). "More than ever, not just governmental but UNODC officials see the writing on the wall. Instead of insisting on the need to create 'a drug free world', they refer to the need to protect people and societies from the damages of drugs and drug trafficking. We continue to urge governments to put these words into action and steadily direct their policy towards legal regulation as the only way to reduce harms and increase public safety. We hope for and expect major change at the 2016 UNODC meetings in New York. Prohibitionary drug laws are the problem. Removing them is the solution."

In a theatrical jab at prohibitions gone by, ENCOD activists reprised the strange saga of the Coffee Sniffer Brigade, a group of disabled soldiers who had to enforce the ban on coffee roasting and brewing that was imposed by the Prussian King Frederick the Great in the second half of the 18th Century. Delegates reacted first with reservation, then with support, the activists reported.

"The remaking of the system is happening before our eyes. For decades governments used the United Nations to push a one-size-fits-all approach," said Joanne Csete, deputy director of the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program. "The dissent we're seeing today is the deconstruction of the international drug war."

"This is the beginning of a serious re-think on drug control," said Ann Fordham, executive director of the International Drug Policy Consortium. "Billions of dollars have been wasted, millions of people have been criminalized, thousands of lives have been lost and the drug cartels carry on getting richer. Given this reality, the charade of a global consensus on drugs is now unacceptable, and some governments have found the courage to speak out."

Chronicle AM -- March 13, 2014

Attorney General Holder endorses federal drug sentencing reductions, CBD medical marijuana bills move in the South, a New Hampshire decriminalization bill advances, Zohydro may get some competition, and the UN is generating plenty of news, and more. Let's get to it:

Attorney General Eric Holder endorses federal drug sentence reductions. (usdoj.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Marylanders Rally for Legalization. Nearly 100 supporters of sweeping changes in Maryland's marijuana laws rallied in Annapolis Thursday before planned legislative hearings on bills to legalize -- or at least decriminalize -- possession of the drug. The House Judiciary Committee is hearing a series of marijuana reform bills this afternoon, including a legalization bill (House Bill 880) from Rep. Curt Anderson (D-Baltimore).

Maryland Poll Has Slim Majority for Legalization. As the legislature considers marijuana reform bills, a new Goucher Poll has support for legalization at 50.1%, with 39.4% opposed. The poll also had a whopping 89.6% in favor of medical marijuana.

New Hampshire Decriminalization Bill Passes House. The House approved a decriminalization bill by a veto-proof margin Wednesday. House Bill 1625, sponsored by Rep. Adam Schroadter (R-Newmarket) and a bipartisan group of seven cosponsors including Sen. Jeff Woodburn (D-Dalton), would make possession of up to one ounce of marijuana punishable by a civil fine of up to $100. It would also make cultivation of up to six plants a Class A misdemeanor instead of a felony. Currently, possession of any amount of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $2,000. Now, it's on to the state Senate.

Medical Marijuana

Kentucky Senate Approves CBD Medical Marijuana Bill. The Senate passed a bill allowing doctors to prescribe and patients to use CBD cannabis oil for medical reasons Wednesday. The bill passed with no opposition. Senate Bill 124 now goes to the House.

Georgia Senate Committee Approves CBD Medical Marijuana Bill. The Senate Health and Human Services Committee unanimously approved House Bill 885, which would allow patients to use CBD-based cannabis oils. It also amended the bill to allow parents to bring the oil into the state without facing penalties. The bill has already passed the House and now awaits a Senate floor vote.

South Carolina Senate Panel Approves CBD Medical Marijuana Bill. A subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Medical Affairs approved a bill allowing people suffering from epilepsy to use CBD cannabis oil Wednesday. Senate Bill 1035 still needs to pass the full committee. Similar legislation is moving in the House.

Hemp

Tennessee Hemp Bill Wins House Committee Vote. A bill that would allow the cultivation of hemp for research purposes passed the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Wednesday. House Bill 2445 now heads for the House Finance Ways and Means Committee.

Drug Testing

Mississippi Food Stamp Drug Testing Bill Heads to Governor. A bill that would require applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to undergo drug testing if there is a suspicion they are using drugs passed the Senate Wednesday and now goes to the desk of Gov. Phil Bryant (R), who has made it a keystone of his legislative agenda. House Bill 49 passed the Senate after debate in which supporters couched the program as an additional benefit that could help somebody struggling with addiction, while opponents said it was unfairly singling out the poor.

ASAM White Paper Calls for Vastly Expanded Drug Testing. The American Society for Addiction Medicine (ASAM) has published a white paper by former NIDA director and present day drug testing consultant Robert Dupont calling drug testing "underutilized" and arguing it should be expanded to be include people of all ages in virtually all aspects of daily life. The totalitarian vision is ably critiqued by NORML drug testing expert Paul Armentano (click the title link), as well as by progressive talk radio host Thom Hartman, who countered Dupont with an op-ed entitled "It's Time to End All Drug Testing." Both Armentano's and Hartman's critiques are worth the read.

Prescription Opioids

Oxycontin Maker Offers Alternative to Zohydro. Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of Oxycontin, says it has completed testing of an abuse-resistant version of the painkiller hydrocodone, a surprise development that could derail sales of the recently launched Zohydro, a similar medication that has been criticized for lacking such safeguards. Purdue Pharma says it plans to submit its extended-release hydrocodone drug to the Food and Drug Administration later this year. Shares of rival Zogenix Inc. plunged more than 20% after the announcement, which appears to jeopardize sales of the company's just-launched drug Zohydro. Zogenix began shipping Zohydro to pharmacies last week.

Sentencing

Attorney General Holder Endorses Proposal to Cut Federal Sentences. US Attorney General Eric Holder today endorsed a proposal from the US Sentencing Commission to reduce the sentences of people convicted of federal drug trafficking offenses by about a year, from an average of 62 to months to an average of 51 months. "This overreliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable," Holder said. "It comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate."

International

Listen to the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs Sessions. You can do it by clicking on the UNODC's webcast page at the link above. Also, Oregon activist Doug McVay has uploaded audio of the second part of today's plenary session here. There will be more updates on McVay's weekly Drug War Facts podcast.

UNODC Panel Says Criminalizing Drug Use "Not Beneficial". Today, a key working group of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced the release of groundbreaking recommendations discouraging criminal sanctions for drug use. The Scientific Consultation Working Group on Drug Policy, Health and Human Rights of the UNODC -- which includes Nora Volkow, head of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) -- is releasing the recommendations at the High-Level Segment of the 57th UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs. The working group recommendations say "criminal sanctions are not beneficial" in addressing the spectrum of drug use and misuse.

UNODC Sees "Serious Setbacks" in Fight Against Drugs. Addressing the opening session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNOC) head Yury Fedotov said the global fight against drugs had suffered "serious setbacks," including record opium crops in Afghanistan, violence linked to drug trafficking in Central America, and weak West African states succumbing to the blandishments of traffickers. While he said legalization was no solution, he did add that: "A public health response to the drug use problem should consider alternatives to penalization and incarceration of people with use disorders."

Caricom Creates Commission to Study Marijuana Legalization. The leaders of the Caricom Caribbean trade bloc announced today that they are creating a commission to study the impact of legalizing marijuana. The move came at the end of a two-day summit where members discussed a preliminary report on decriminalization. The commission is charged with presenting its report in early July for a Caricom summit in Antigua.

Iran Executed More Than 300 People for Drugs Last Year, Report Says. A report from the nonprofit group International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran released Wednesday says Iran executed 331 people on drug-related charges last year. The drug executions accounted for almost half of all executions in the Islamic Republic, the report found. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime sponsors anti-drug programs in Iran, and is under increasing pressure from European donor countries to put in place measures to stop its support from contributing to the death penalty.

Dire Prospects for Afghanistan Drug War, Analysis Finds. A new analysis from Alex Pollard-Lipkis of Foreign Policy in Focus finds that "if costly drug war strategies in Afghanistan have been unsuccessful even with a strong US military presence, they won't stand a chance after the US withdraws." The analysis critiques contemporary US approaches and peeks into the post-US future. Click on the title link to read the whole thing.

Responding to Holder on Heroin, Reformers Call for a Health Direction [FEATURE]

US Attorney General Eric Holder had heroin on his mind Monday, using his weekly video message and an accompanying press release to draw attention to rising heroin overdose deaths and vowing to combat the problem with a combination of law enforcement, treatment, prevention, and harm reduction measures. Drug reformers generally responded positively, but called on the Obama administration to seek comprehensive, science- and health-based solutions instead of engaging in more drug war.

Attorney General Holder takes on heroin (usdoj.gov)
"Addiction to heroin and other opiates -- including certain prescription pain-killers -- is impacting the lives of Americans in every state, in every region, and from every background and walk of life -- and all too often, with deadly results. Between 2006 and 2010, heroin overdose deaths increased by 45%," Holder said. "Scientific studies, federal, state and local investigations, addiction treatment providers, and victims reveal that the cycle of heroin abuse commonly begins with prescription opiate abuse. The transition to -- and increase in -- heroin abuse is a sad but not unpredictable symptom of the significant increase in prescription drug abuse we've seen over the past decade."

What Holder didn't mention is that the rise in prescription pain pill misuse is tied to a massive increase in prescribing opioids for pain in the past decade. A study published last fall found that between 2000 and 2010, the amount of opioids prescribed for non-cancer pain had nearly doubled, and that during the same period, the percentage of people complaining of pain who received prescriptions for opioids jumped from 11% to nearly 20%. But reining in prescriptions generally isn't the answer either.

But at the same time, a 2011 Institute of Medicine report found that while "opioid prescriptions for chronic non-cancer pain [in the US] have increased sharply… 29% of primary care physicians and 16% of pain specialists report they prescribe opioids less often than they think appropriate because of concerns about regulatory repercussions."

As the IOM report noted, having more opioid prescriptions doesn't necessarily mean that "patients who really need opioids [are] able to get them." Opioid misuse and under-use of opioids for pain treatment when they are needed are problems that coexist in society. Pain pill crackdowns have also been found to result in increased use of street heroin, as a Washington Post article last week reports -- two additional reasons advocates prefer public health approaches to heroin more than law enforcement -- and why great care should be taken with the law enforcement measures.

"It's clear that opiate addiction is an urgent -- and growing -- public health crisis. And that's why Justice Department officials, including the DEA, and other key federal, state, and local leaders, are fighting back aggressively," Holder continued. "Confronting this crisis will require a combination of enforcement and treatment. The Justice Department is committed to both."

Holder pointed to DEA efforts to prevent diversion of pharmaceutical pain-relievers to non-medical users, mentioning investigations of doctors, pharmacists, and distributors.

"With DEA as our lead agency, we have adopted a strategy to attack all levels of the supply chain to prevent pharmaceutical controlled substances from getting into the hands of non-medical users," Holder said.

Cooking heroin (wikimedia.org)
Holder also pointed out that DEA had opened some 4,500 heroin investigations since 2011 and promising more to come.

But, as Holder noted, "enforcement alone won't solve the problem," so the administration is working with civil society and law enforcement "to increase our support for education, prevention, and treatment."

And although he didn't use the words "harm reduction," Holder is also calling for some harm reduction measures. He urged law enforcement and medical first responders to carry the overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan) and signaled support for "911 Good Samaritan" laws, which grant immunity from criminal prosecution to those seeking medical help for someone experiencing an overdose.

Holder got restrained plaudits from drug reformers for his small steps toward harm reduction measures, but they called for a more comprehensive approach.

"Preventing fatal overdose requires a comprehensive solution," said Meghan Ralston, harm reduction manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. "While naloxone is an absolutely critical component, we need a scientific, health-based approach to truly address the roots of the problem. This includes improving access to effective, non-coercive drug treatment for everyone who wants it, as well as improving access to medication-assisted treatments such as methadone and buprenorphine."

Naloxone (Narcan) can reverse opiate overdoses (wikimedia.org)
Ralston also added that just making naloxone available to cops and EMTs wasn't good enough. Friends and family members, not "first responders," are most often the people who encounter others in the throes of life-threatening overdoses.

"While we applaud Attorney General Holder's clear support for expanding access to naloxone, particularly among law enforcement and 'first responders,' we urge him to clarify that he supports naloxone access for anyone who may be the first person to discover an opiate overdose in progress," she said.

But Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group of law enforcement officials opposed to the war on drugs, applauded the move, which could help soften reflexive law enforcement opposition to carrying the overdose antidote, an attitude reflected in the the International Association of Chiefs of Police's opposition to all harm reduction measures.

"Police may not be the first to embrace change, but we are slowly evolving," said Lieutenant Commander Diane Goldstein (Ret.). "We cannot arrest our way out of a public health problem, and it's clear that the Attorney General is beginning to understand that and to embrace the role of harm reduction in reducing death, disease and addiction in our communities. We still have a long way to go, but this is a good sign."

The idea is "a no-brainer," according to executive director Major Neill Franklin (Ret.). "It is simply immoral not to support something proven to save lives for political reasons," Franklin added. "Yes, police send a message when they choose not to carry naloxone. But that message is not 'don't do drugs,' it's 'if you make the wrong decisions in your life, we don't care about you.' That offends me both as a former cop and as a human being."

The nuanced pushback to Holder's law enforcement/prevention/treatment/hint of harm reduction approach is good as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. Decriminalizing and destigmatizing now illicit drug use, as has been the case in Portugal, is an obvious next step, and removing the question of drugs from the purview of the criminal justice system altogether would be even better. Still, that a sitting attorney general is calling for treatment and harm reduction as well as law enforcement is a good thing, and for reformers to be calling him on not going far enough is a good thing, too.

Mexico Marijuana and Drug Reform Bills Filed [FEATURE]

Late last week, lawmakers in Mexico City filed two bills that would begin to radically transform the country's approach to drugs. One was introduced in the Mexico City legislative assembly and one in the federal legislature.

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/mexico-seal-231px.jpg
The moves come as the debate over drug policy in general and marijuana in particular heats up in the region. The legalization of marijuana in Uruguay and the US states of Colorado and Washington has enlivened ongoing efforts at drug reform in Mexico, and the country continues to bleed from the violence associated with criminal organizations that rose to power on the back of drug prohibition.

They also come just days after four former Latin American presidents -- Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, Ricardo Lago of Chile, Fernando Enrique Cardoso of Brazil, and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia -- penned an open letter in support to Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera, himself a proponent of legalization.

"This is a necessary debate to have for Mexico City, Mexico and the entire region," the four ex-presidents said. "Something needs to change as 40 years of immense efforts and funds have failed to reduce both the production and consumption of illicit drugs."

"We believe we're making a very important contribution to a global debate that has to do with rethinking the issue of drugs," Vidal Llerenas, a member of the Mexico City Legislative Assembly and sponsor of the local legislation, said at Thursday news conference announcing the bills.

"The aim of this legislation is not to change the drug sphere in the city, but rather to simply avoid criminalizing those who consume marijuana," said Deputy Eduardo Santillan Perez, another sponsor of the bill.

The Legislative Assembly in Mexico City
The Mexico City bill would de-emphasize small-time marijuana prosecutions. It would instruct police and judges to deprioritize prosecution of marijuana violations in some circumstances, and it would create a Portugal-style "dissuasion commission" which could impose administrative sanctions on offenders instead of subjecting them to the criminal process.

The bill would also allow for the limited retail sales of marijuana in the Federal District. Such sales could only take place under certain criteria, including posting warnings to consumers about potential health risks. Retailers would not be allowed to sell to minors or be located near schools, and they would not be allowed to sell adulterated marijuana. Retailers who complied with these criteria would be issued permits to sell marijuana by the district government's Institute for the Attention and Prevention of Addictions.

The federal bill would raise possession limits for the amount of drugs decriminalized under a 2009 law. Under that law, the possession of up to five grams of pot was decriminalized; the new bill would increase that to 30 grams (slightly more than an ounce). It would similar increase the decriminalized possession limits for drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine.

The federal bill would also allow for the use of medical marijuana. And it would devolve some decision making power on drug policy issues from the federal government to states and cities.

There are clear medicinal benefits to using marijuana, said PRD Deputy Fernando Belaunzaran Mendez, and denying these benefits "is like when the clergy denied Galileo's claim that the Earth moves."

The prospects of passage are much better for the Mexico City bill than the federal bill, because the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), whose members introduced both the local and the federal bills, dominates the Mexico City assembly, but not the federal one. Mexico City, which has moved to allow abortion, divorce, and same-sex marriage, is also more socially liberal than the country as a whole. The Mexico City bill is likely to be debated early next month.

Both bills had their genesis in discussions that began last summer, when the Mexico City legislature organized public hearings to explore alternative solutions to the city's drug problems. Civil society groups, including México Unido Contra la Delincuencia (MUCD), the Colectivo por Una Politica Integral Hacia las Drogas (CUPIHD), and Britain's Transform Drug Policy Foundation were deeply involved in the drafting process, along with lawyers, medical professionals, security professionals and drug policy experts.

"Of the four specialists that helped draft the bill, two were from CUPIHD," said Alejandro Madrazo Larous, a constitutional law expert, law professor and CUPIHD member who helped draft the bill.

He told the Chronicle that international reform currents were indeed percolating in Mexico.

"As other countries move forward with reforms, it just seems more and more absurd that we are killing each other in Mexico to ban something that is becoming a regulated business," he said.

Reefer Bender in Mexico City wants to legalize it. (Phillip Smith, Drug War Chronicle)
"We welcome this attempt to replace stringent cannabis law enforcement with humane, just and effective alternatives," said MUCD's Lisa Sanchez. "Decades of punitive responses have failed to reduce levels of use and have effectively left the market in the hands of criminal entrepreneurs whose watchwords are violence and greed. This is a great opportunity for the government to adopt a new approach to drugs and improve the health and safety of its citizens. Let's not waste it."

"On the heels of historic marijuana legalization victories in Washington, Colorado and Uruguay, it's promising to see other countries and jurisdictions following suit. The innovative nature of the marijuana bill -- which combines elements of marijuana regulation models from around the world -- demonstrates that reforms can be tailored to fit the local context," said Hannah Hetzer, policy manager for the Americas at the Drug Policy Alliance.

"Mexico has suffered immensely from the war on drugs," Hetzer continued. "Amidst extreme levels of violence and crime, it is encouraging to see Mexico's capital city attempt to refocus its efforts away from marijuana possession and low-level drug offenses and to invest in reducing violent crime instead."

Madrazo Larous said passage of the bills would smartly reprioritize law enforcement, but that it would take work.

"I think they have a chance," he said. "We are reaching out for more support. If we can pass this at the national level, it would free up resources at the local level which would allow for better criminal investigation and prosecution of violent crimes. Today, we waste too many resources running after consumers and petty dealers."

With marijuana legalization also on both the legislative and the popular agenda in Washington, DC, it appears that Mexico City and Washington are in a race to see which North American capital city becomes the first to allow legal marijuana sales. Sorry, Ottawa.

Mexico City
Mexico

Chronicle AM -- February 13, 2014

A bill has been filed to stop forcing the drug czar to oppose drug legalization, CBD medical marijuana bills continue to get attention, and there are big doings south of the border, and more. Let's get to it:

Russell Brand helped push British petition over the top. (flickr.com/photos/evarinaldiphotography/)
Drug Legalization

Congressman Steven Cohen Files Bill to Let Drug Czar Deal Honestly with Drug Legalization. The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP, the drug czar's office) is required by law to oppose legalization of any Schedule I substance and prohibited from studying it. Now, Rep. Steven Cohen (D-TN) has filed a bill, the Unmuzzle the Drug Czar Act (H.R. 4046), that would strip that language from the drug czar's enabling legislation, the ONDCP Reauthorization Act of 1998.

Marijuana Policy

High Times, Westword Sue Colorado Over Marijuana Advertising Restrictions. Marijuana magazine High Times and Denver alternative weekly Westword filed a lawsuit in federal court Monday challenging Colorado's restrictions on advertising for legal marijuana. The state's rules allow pot businesses to advertise only in adult-oriented publications for which "no more than 30% of the publication's readership is reasonably expected to be under 21." The lawsuit argues that the restrictions are an unconstitutional contravention of free speech.

Rhode Island Legalization Bill Coming. House Judiciary Committee Chair Edith Ajello and Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chair Josh Miller announced Wednesday they will file a bill to legalize marijuana for adults and set up a system of taxation and regulation for marijuana commerce. The effort is backed by Regulate Rhode Island and the Marijuana Policy Project.

Hawaii Decriminalization, Medical Marijuana Bills Get Hearing Today. Three Senate committees are holding a joint hearing today on two decriminalization bills, Senate Bill 2358 and Senate Bill 2733, and one bill, Senate Bill 2402, a bill that would take away protections for patients who possess and use marijuana concentrates.

Medical Marijuana

Medical Marijuana Rally Set for Friday in Topeka. Supporters of a long-stalled medical marijuana bill, Senate Bill 9, will rally at the Kansas State Capitol Rotunda Friday morning and lobby legislators after that. The effort is organized by Kansas for Change. Click on the title link for more details.

Hundreds Pack Oklahoma Capitol for CBD Medical Marijuana Hearing. Demonstrators called for marijuana legalization outside as hundreds of people jammed into the state capitol for a hearing on CBD medical marijuana. Dramatic and moving testimony was heard from family members of children suffering seizure disorders who might be helped by access to CBD cannabis oils.

Wisconsin Lawmakers Hold Hearing on CBD Medical Marijuana. Wisconsin legislators Wednesday heard from families of children with seizure disorders, who pleaded with them to pass a pending CBD medical marijuana bill.

Harm Reduction

Cincinnati Gets Its First Needle Exchange Program. The first needle exchange program in the Southwest Ohio/Northern Kentucky region is open for business. The Cincinnati Exchange Program becomes the third in Ohio, with others already operating in Cleveland and Portsmouth. The needle exchanges have been proven to reduce the spread of HIV, Hep C, and other blood-borne infectious diseases.

Prescription Drugs

Prescription Drug Database Bill Wins Missouri House Vote. A bill that would establish a prescription drug database has won a vote in the House, but senators, citing privacy concerns, said there is little chance of it moving forward in their chamber. The bill would create an electronic database managed by the state health department that would share information about prescriptions, patients, and doctors. The bill is House Bill 1133.

International

Mexico City Decriminalization, Regulation Bill and Mexican National Drug Reform Bill Introduced Today. In Mexico City, legislators for the federal district introduced a bill to decriminalize the possession of up to five grams of marijuana and remove the option of incarceration for possession of small amounts of other drugs. The bill would also allow for limited regulated marijuana sales. The second, national, bill would reschedule marijuana and allow for its medical use. Look for a Chronicle feature article on this soon.

Dark Web Drug Sales Site Busted. German and Dutch authorities have arrested five men in a sting directed at an internet drug sales portal. The men were connected to Black Market Reloaded and its successor web site, Utopia. Undercover police purchased drugs and weapons through the web sites, they said, and seized computers, hard drives, USB sticks, and a Bitcoin wallet containing $680,000 worth of the electronic currency.

More Than 100,000 Sign British Petition for Review of Drug Laws. Green Party MP Caroline Lucas set up an online petition urging the British government to order a cost-benefit analysis and impact assessment of British drug laws within the next year. It has now achieved the benchmark of 100,000 signatures, which means it must be addressed by the Backbench Business Committee. Sign-ons accelerated after actor and comedian Russell Brand joined with the online campaign group Avaaz to encourage its 1.1 million members to sign up.

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