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Chronicle AM: Dutch to Address Coffee Shop Supply, Campaign Against Sessions as AG, More... (11/22/16)

Nashville blows off state attorney general and will continue marijuana decriminalization, time to give your senators your two cents worth on the Sessions nomination, the Dutch ruling party belatedly comes around on coffee shop supply, and more.

Dutch coffee shops may finally get a legal source of supply. (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
Marijuana

Nashville Will Cite and Release Marijuana Offenders Despite State Attorney General's Opinion. The city of Nashville and surrounding Davidson County will continue to allow police to ticket and release small-time marijuana offenders, even though state Attorney General Herbert Slatery has issued an opinion contending that the local ordinance is invalid because it is preempted by state law. Metro Law Director Jon Cooper: "We have reviewed the Attorney General's opinion and understand his position. However, we believe we have a good faith legal argument that the ordinance is not preempted by state law," Cooper said in a statement Monday. "At this point, we do not believe a change in the police department's enforcement practice is warranted."

Medical Marijuana

Arkansas Lawmakers Eye Changes, Delays in Implementing Medical Marijuana. A week after voters approved a medical marijuana initiative, some legislators are acting to delay implementation, saying they need more time for rulemaking. Rep. Doug House (R-North Little Rock) said he is preparing a bill to do that. And Sen. Bart Hester (R-Bentonville) wants to add an additional tax to medical marijuana to help pay for $105 million in tax cuts he is proposing.

Drug Policy

Write Your Senator to Oppose the Sessions Nomination for Attorney General. Donald Trump's pick for Attorney General, Sen. Jeff Sessions, is one of the worst drug warriors in Congress. He almost single-handedly blocked mild sentencing reform bills that members of Congress from both parties supported. He opposes marijuana legalization and has even claimed that "good people don't use marijuana." Sen. Sessions was rejected for a judgeship by a Republican-controlled Senate because of racism and false prosecutions he brought against civil rights activists. He is not a likely leader for continuing the much-needed work that has begun on police reform; in fact he's more likely to worsen the divisions in our country, not improve them. Click on the link to tell your senator what you think.

International

Dutch Ruling Party Gets on Board With Cannabis Law Reforms. After 20 years of blocking any effort to decriminalize marijuana production, Prime Minister Mark Rutte's VVD party has had a change of heart. At a party conference last weekend, the VVD voted to support "smart regulation" of marijuana and "to redesign the entire domain surrounding soft drugs." The full text of the resolution, supported by 81% of party members, reads: "While the sale of cannabis is tolerated at the front door, stock acquisition is now illegal. The VVD wants to end this strange situation and regulate the policy on soft drugs in a smarter way. It's time to redesign the entire domain surrounding soft drugs. This redevelopment can only take place on a national level. Municipalities should stop experiments with cannabis cultivation as soon as possible." The opposition political parties are already in support of solving the long-lived "back door problem."

Global Commission on Drugs Calls for Decriminalization of All Drugs [FEATURE]

In a report released Monday, global leaders denounced harsh responses to drug use, such as the mass killing of drug users in the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, and called for worldwide drug decriminalization.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy calls for drug decriminalization. (globalcommissionondrugs.org)
The report, Advancing Drug Policy Reform: A New Approach to Drug Decriminalization, is a product of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a high-level panel that includes former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan; former presidents of Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Switzerland; and British philanthropist Richard Branson, among others.

Since its inception in 2011, the Commission has consistently called for drug decriminalization, but this year's report goes a step further. Unlike existing decriminalization policies around the world, where drug users still face fines or administrative penalties, the report argues that no penalties at all should attach to simple drug possession.

"Only then," the report says, "can the societal destruction caused by drug prohibition be properly mitigated."

And the report breaks more new ground by calling for alternatives to punishment for other low-level players in the drug trade, including small dealers who sell to support their habits, drug mules, and people who grow drug crops. Many of those people, the report notes, engage in such activities out of "economic marginalization… a lack of other opportunities… or coercion," yet face severe sanctions ranging from the destruction of cash crops to imprisonment and even the death penalty.

Unlike people caught with drugs for personal use, however, the Commission envisions such low-level players being subjected to civil penalties, although not criminal ones.

"After years of denouncing the dramatic effects of prohibition and the criminalization of people that do no harm but use drugs on the society as a whole, it is time to highlight the benefits of well-designed and well-implemented people centered drug polices," said former Swiss President Ruth Dreifuss, Chair of the Commission. "These innovative policies cannot exist as long as we do not discuss, honestly, the major policy error made in the past, which is the criminalization of personal consumption or possession of illicit psychoactive substances in national laws."

"At the global, regional or local levels, drug policies are evolving," added César Gaviria, former president of Columbia and Global Commission member. "However, in order to build solid and effective policies to mitigate the harms of the last 60 years of wrong policies, and to prepare for a better future where drugs are controlled more effectively, we need to implement the full and non-discretionary decriminalization of personal use and possession of drugs."

The new report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy issues the following recommendations:

1. States must abolish the death penalty for all drug-related offenses.

2. States must end all penalties -- both criminal and civil -- for drug possession for personal use, and the cultivation of drugs for personal consumption.

3. States must implement alternatives to punishment for all low-level, nonviolent actors in the drug trade.

4. UN member states must remove the penalization of drug possession as a treaty obligation under the international drug control system.

5. States must eventually explore regulatory models for all illicit drugs and acknowledge this to be the next logical step in drug policy reform following decriminalization.

DC report launch Monday with Cesar Gaviria, Pavel Bem, Ruth Dreifuss, Michel Kazatchkine and Paul Volcker
"People who use drugs have paid a huge toll to the current drug control system; they faced alone and without any legal protection the ravages of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, as well as many non-communicable diseases," said Professor Michel Kazatchkine, former Executive Director of the Global Fund on AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. "Now we have the scientific and medical tools to provide all the services they need, but we mostly lack the political leadership to implement an enabling legal environment. This starts by the complete decriminalization of drugs."

The Global Commission on Drug Policy was established in 2010 by political leaders, cultural figures, and globally influential personalities from the financial and business sectors. The Commission currently comprises 23 members, including nine former heads of states and a former Secretary General of the United Nations. The high-level group's mission is to promote evidence-based drug policy reforms at international, national and regional levels, with an emphasis on public health, social integration and security, and with strict regard for human rights.

Chronicle AM: TX MJ Decrim Bills, Canada Study and BMJ Call for Drug Decrim, More... (11/15/16)

As more states legalize weed, Colorado's governor warns of gray market dangers, Texas sees a slew of early marijuana decriminalization bills, the British Medical Journal calls the drug war a failure, and more.

Marijuana

Colorado Governor Warns of Dangers of Gray Market. Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) said Monday that the state's gray market in marijuana is a "clear and present danger" that demands tougher regulations and enforcement. The state must "move swiftly and aggressively to make sure illegal activity is stamped out," he said. "If we don't stamp it out right now, it becomes acceptable. And then, all of a sudden, people are going to start getting hurt. If you let crime grow, it will breed on its opportunity." Hickenlooper's remarks come as he asks lawmakers to set aside $16 million in pot tax revenues for new efforts to control the gray market.

Texas Marijuana Decriminalization Bills Filed. Lone Star State lawmakers filed several decriminalization bills Monday, the first day of filing for the 2017 legislative session. One would create a special court for first-time possession offenders; another would reduce criminal penalties for possessing up to a half ounce. Similar bills have been offered in Austin in the past, but have so far failed to pass. House Bill 58 by state Rep. James White (R-Woodville) would create a specialty court for certain first-time marijuana possession offenders based on the principle that first-time defendants are often self-correcting. House Bill 81, filed by Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso) would replace criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana with a civil fine of up to $250. The bill also allows Texans to avoid arrest and possible jail time for possessing a small amount of marijuana. House Bill 82, filed by Rep. Harold Dutton, Jr. (D-Houston), would make a pot possession a Class C misdemeanor, down from a Class B. And Sen. Joe Rodriguez has filed Senate Bill 170, which would decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce.

International

Canadian Federal Study Calls for Drug Decriminalization. A research paper from the Canadian Justice Department has noted that that are healthier and less costly ways of dealing with drug users than arresting them, and urges the Canadian government to seriously consider drug decriminalization. "It is becoming more challenging to justify the criminalization of drug users," the study says.

British Medical Journal Says War on Drugs Has Failed. The prestigious British Medical Journal has called for ending penalties against drug users and for governments to regulate legal drug markets. "All wars cause human rights violations, and the war on drugs is no different," the Journal said in an editorial, "Prohibition and stigma encourage less safe drug consumption and push people away from health services."

Chronicle AM: New MA Poll Has Pot Init Winning Handily, Ghana Moves Toward Drug Decrim, More... (11/4/16)

It's just about all pot legalization and medical marijuana initiatives today--oh, and Ghana is moving toward drug decriminalization.

It's looking like legal buds are coming to Boston. (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy 

Another New National Poll Has a Solid Majority for Marijuana Legalization. A new American Values Survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute finds that 63% of Americans 18 and over favor freeing the weed. Only three years ago, the survey had support for legalization at only 45%. The poll is in line with other recent national opinion polls that show solid majorities for marijuana legalization.

Former DEA Heads Ask California Governor to Take Stand Against Legalization. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has yet to take a position on the Prop 64 legalization initiative, and now five former DEA heads are urging him to come out against it. They cited alleged problems with drugged driving and use by teens in Colorado. "Let us at least see if these negative trends continue before taking this plunge," the letter said. "This means that Californians, many of whom will listen to you, should vote against Prop 64. Is it wise social policy to adopt a measure that will substantially increase the numbers of marijuana users, including our youth? The letter was signed by former DEA administrators Robert C. Bonner, Jack Lawn, Karen Tandy, Peter Bensinger and Michele Leonhart.

New Massachusetts Poll Has Legalization With Wide Lead. A new poll from the Western New England University Polling Institute has the Question 4 legalization initiative winning handily with 61% of the vote. Only 34% were opposed. The "yes" vote is up nine points from the group's previous poll at the end of September. The measure had a whopping 81% support among voters under age 40.

Medical Marijuana

Arkansas Supreme Court Rejects Bid to Reinstate Initiative; One Still Remains on the Ballot. The state's high court Thursday denied a petition for a rehearing on its decision to disqualify Issue 7. Another medical marijuana initiative, Issue 6, remains on the ballot.

North Dakota Initiative Campaign Gets Last Minute Cash. North Dakota for Compassionate Care, the group behind the Measure 5 medical marijuana initiative has received an unexpected last-minute donation of $15,000 from Drug Policy Action, the lobbying and campaign arm of the Drug Policy Alliance. The group will use the money for a final advertising push to get their message out to voters ahead of next week's elections.

International

Ghana Moving Toward Drug Decriminalization. The country is moving to decriminalize drug use as a means of better managing addiction, Deputy Interior Minister James Agalga said Thursday. Under a bill moving through parliament, users would receive clinical care and treatment instead of prosecution and incarceration. "Those who are addicted and under normal circumstances ought to be treated as patients who need care in the hospital," he explained. 

Chronicle AM: CA MJ Ticket Race Disparities Persist, Bolivians Protest New US Law, More... (6/1/16)

Two presidential candidates get "A" grades on marijuana policy, racial disparities in marijuana law enforcement persist in Los Angeles even in the age of decriminalization, Bolivians protest a new US drug trafficking law that extends Uncle Sam's reach, and more.

Bolivian coca farmers don't consider themselves drug traffickers. (justice.gov/dea)
Marijuana Policy

Marijuana Policy Project Updates Guide to Presidential Candidates, Adds Third Parties. MPP has released an updated version of its voters' guide to include Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein. Both received "A+" grades from the group. Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump got a "C+," while the two remaining contenders, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, received a "B" and an "A," respectively. MPP called this "the most marijuana-friendly field of presidential candidates in history."

In Los Angeles, Racial Disparities in Marijuana Enforcement Persist. A new analysis from the ACLU and the Drug Policy Alliance finds that even in the era of decriminalization, blacks in Los Angeles are much more likely to be ticketed for pot possession than whites or Latinos. Although pot use was "similar across racial and ethnic lines," blacks were nearly four times more likely than whites to be ticketed and about 2 ½ times more likely than Latinos to be ticketed.

Maine Legalization Effort Gets Organized Opposition. A new coalition aimed at defeating the state's legalization initiative has formed. The group, Mainers Protecting Our Youth and Communities, says it represents parents, health experts, clergy, and police. Its spokesman is Scott Gagnon, chair of the Maine affiliate of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, the brainchild of leading pot prohibitionist Kevin Sabet.

Law Enforcement

Oklahoma Reserve Deputy Who Mistakenly Killed Drug Suspect Gets Four Years in Prison. Former reserve deputy Robert Bates, who fatally shot unarmed drug suspect Eric Harris in April 2015 after he said he mistakenly drew his handgun instead of his stun gun, was sentenced to four years in state prison Tuesday. The killing raised the veil on favoritism and corner-cutting in the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office and led to an indictment of Sheriff Stanley Glanz, who resigned last November.

International

Bolivians Reject New US Drug Trafficking Law. Political and social leaders, peasants, and coca growers rejected the new US Transnational Drug Trafficking Act, signed into law by President Obama last month. According to the Congressional Research Service, the act criminalizes the manufacture or distribution of a controlled substance "by individuals having reasonable cause to believe that such a substance or chemical will unlawfully be imported into the United States…" On Tuesday, hundreds of people marched through the city of Santa Cruz to protest the law, which they said could target coca growers, and President Evo Morales warned that Bolivia is not a US colony and added that coca is part of the country's cultural patrimony.

(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: AAA Slams Per Se Marijuana Drugged Driving Laws, Brit College Hands Out Pill Test Kits, More... (5/10/16)

In a major study, AAA finds no scientific basis for drugged driving laws that assume impairment based on THC levels, Orlando becomes the latest city to downgrade small-time pot possession, the Ohio House approves a medical marijuana bill--but no smoking--an English university begins handing out pill test kits to students, and more.

Pill testing kits distributed by Britain's Newcastle University and its local SSDP chapter. (SSDP Newcastle)
Marijuana Policy

AAA Study: No Scientific Basis for Laws Regulating Marijuana and Driving. A new study from the American Automobile Association's Safety Foundation has found that per se limits (those that base an assumption of impaired driving on a specified level of THC in one's system) are "arbitrary and unsupported by the evidence."  Six states have  per se marijuana impaired driving laws, while nine states have zero tolerance marijuana DUID laws, and the AAA calls for scrapping them. They should be replaced by police officers trained to detect impairment, with a THC test as a back-up, the automobile club said.

Orlando "Decriminalizes" Pot Possession. The city council voted 4-3 Tuesday to adopt a revised measure that makes possession of 20 grams or less of weed a violation of city code. Police officers will have the discretion to issue civil citations instead of arresting violators. The fine is $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second,  and a third offense will generate a mandatory court appearance.  Small-time pot possession remains a misdemeanor under state law.

Medical Marijuana

Ohio House Approves Medical Marijuana Bill. The House voted 71-26 Tuesday to approve a medical marijuana bill, House Bill 523. Patients under a doctor's supervision could use marijuana oils, tinctures, edibles, and vapors, but could not smoke it, nor could they grow their own.  The bill specifies 18 conditions for which medical marijuana could be used and now goes to the Senate.  Meanwhile, activists are working to get a more patient-friendly medical marijuana initiative on the November ballot.

Harm Reduction

Maryland Governor Signs Needle Access Expansion Bill. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) Tuesday signed into law Senate Bill 97, which will allow thousands of Marylanders to access life-saving needle exchange programs.  The bill passed both chambers with overwhelming support. Maryland ranks 2nd nationally in new per capita HIV infections, and needle exchanges are a proven method of reducing and preventing new infections.

International

British University Handing Out Drug Test Kits to Students. In what as described as a first of its kind harm reduction effort, Newcastle University and the local Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) chapter have joined forces to distribute drug test kits so students can check and see if they drugs they are about to consume are safe or not.  “Although drugs are illegal, statistics suggest lots of young people still use illegal drugs, and that the prevalence of this use is even higher within student communities," said SSDP President Holly Robinson.  “We recognize the safest way to take drugs is not to take drugs but, as some individuals will always choose to take them, we believe it is important to make information and services available to minimise the risks."

Chronicle AM: TN Pregnant Women Drug Law Fails, AR Welfare Drug Testing Starting, More... (3/24/16)

An asset forfeiture reform bill moves in New Hampshire, Arkansas and West Virginia advance welfare drug testing, a global commission on public health calls for drug decriminalization, and more.

Medical Marijuana

Louisiana House Committee Approves Bill to Set Up Medical Marijuana Shops. The House Health and Welfare Committee Wednesday approved House Bill 446, sponsored by Rep. H. Bernard LeBas (D-Ville Platte). The bill would create a licensing scheme for the distribution of medical marijuana products. The bill now heads for a House floor vote. It must still be approved by the Senate.

More Michigan Protests Over Dispensary Raids. Dozens of patients, advocates, and supporters took to the steps of the state capitol in Lansing Tuesday to protest a new wave of raids by the Michigan State Police and local narcotics teams. Both state Sen. Coleman Young (D-Detroit) and Rep. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) addressed the crowd.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Kentucky Senate Restores Funding for Heroin Fight. The Senate Wednesday agreed to restore $12 million in funding for anti-heroin efforts that had been proposed by Gov. Matt Bevin (R), but cut by the House last week. House Democrats had slashed the $32 million over two years proposed by the governor to $20 million. Now, the House and Senate will have to thrash out the difference in conference committee.

Asset Forfeiture

New Hampshire House Approves Bill to End Civil Asset Forfeiture. The House Wednesday approved House Bill 636, which would require a criminal conviction before assets could be seized and which would move seized goods from the drug forfeiture fund to the state's general fund. Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) is threatening to veto the bill, saying that because of the state's opioid crisis, this isn't the time to eliminate law enforcement resources.

Drug Policy

Hawaii Lawmakers Take Up Resolution Urging Study on Drug Decriminalization. The House Judiciary Committee today is hearing a resolution, HCR 127, that calls on the state's Legislative Research Bureau to "conduct a study on the feasibility and advisability of decriminalizing the illegal possession of drugs for personal use in Hawaii" so that it "would constitute an administrative or civil violation rather than a criminal offense." If the resolution passes both chambers, the study would be due before year's end to be ready for next year's legislative session. The study would examine Portugal's experience with decriminalization as a possible model for the state.

Drug Testing

Arkansas Welfare Drug Testing to Begin Within Days. The head of the Department of Workforce Services, Daryl Bassett, said Wednesday that the state's welfare drug testing program would get underway within "seven to 10 days." Under the program, all applicants for government aid would be screened for possible drug use and those deemed likely to have been using drugs would have to undergo drug testing. Refusal to take the drug test will result in being denied benefits for six months. Someone who tests positive can continue to receive aid if he follows treatment and recovery plans set by state officials.

West Virginia Governor Signs Welfare Drug Test Bill. Gov. Early Ray Tomblin (D) today signed into law a bill that mandates screening of all welfare applicants for drug use and drug testing those for whom case workers have "reasonable suspicion" of drug use. Applicants who fail drug tests can continue to receive benefits as long as they enroll in drug treatment and job training programs, but a second failed test could mean loss of benefits for up to a year, and a third would earn a lifetime ban.

Harm Reduction

King County Sheriff Says He Would Not Arrest Drug Users Going to Seattle Safe Injection Site. King County Sheriff John Urquhart edged ever closer Tuesday to outright support of a safe injection site in Seattle. "I guarantee you," said Urquhart, "that if you're going into a safe injection site, you will not be arrested by any of my deputies, period." But he was careful to add that while he was "intrigued" by the success of Vancouver's InSite supervised injection facility, he is not yet ready to endorse them for Seattle.

Pregnancy

Tennessee Law That Allows Assault Charges for Pregnant Drug Users Not Renewed. The state's two-year experiment with arresting pregnant drug users is about to come to an end after the legislature failed to re-authorize the law this week. At least a hundred women have been prosecuted under the program, which has been condemned by human rights, civil rights, and pregnant women's rights advocates.

International

Leading Global Health Commission Calls for Reform of Drug Policies Worldwide. A leading global public health commission is calling for new policies that would transform our approach to drug use, addiction and control worldwide, including the decriminalization of minor and non-violent drug offenses. According to a report released this morning by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and The Lancet, the war on drugs and zero-tolerance policies have undercut public health across the globe and have directly contributed to many of today's most urgent public health crises, while doing little to affect drug markets or drug use. The Johns Hopkins University -- Lancet Commission on Public Health and International Drug Policy calls for worldwide reform of drug policies, including: the decriminalization of minor and non-violent drug use, possession and petty sale; enactment of policies that reduce violence and discrimination in drug policing; increased access to controlled medicines that could reduce the risk of overdose deaths; and greater investments in health and social services for drug users. The report is based on an extensive review by the Commissioners of the published evidence, and on original analyses and modeling on violence, incarceration and infectious diseases associated with drug policies.

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.

Chronicle AM: PA MedMJ Bill Finally Moving, WA Governor Vetoes Hemp Bill, More... (3/15/16)

Rhode Island voters may get a say on pot legalization, no medical marijuana deliveries for Los Angeles, the Pennsylvania medical marijuana bill is finally moving, Colombia's high criminal court expands the parameters of decriminalization, and more.

No hemp fields for Washington state after the governor vetoed the hemp bill because...budgets. (votehemp.org)
Marijuana Policy

Rhode Island Governor Open to Legalization Referendum. Gov. Gina Raimundo (D) said today that she is open to the idea of a statewide referendum on marijuana legalization proposed by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (D). The referendum would be non-binding. There is "some talk at the General Assembly of maybe putting it on the ballot to ask the voters their opinion of should we do this? And I would be open to that, because I think it's a big issue and it would be good know where the voters stand," Raimundo said. The talk comes as the legislature considers pending legalization proposals.

Medical Marijuana

California Appeals Court Upholds Ban on LA Pot Deliveries. A three-judge appellate court panel Monday upheld a lower court's decision to temporarily ban Nestdrop, an app that allowed people in the city to have marijuana delivered to their door. But the decision will have an impact beyond Nestdrop; the justices held that under the city's zoning law, Proposition D, all delivery services are barred from operating in the city.

Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Bill Moves After Long Delay. The House Monday night passed an amended version of Sen. Mike Folmer's Senate Bill 3. The vote comes 10 months after the bill passed the Senate. The bill still faces a final House vote and then must return to the Senate for its approval of the amended version.

Hemp

Washington Governor Vetoes Hemp Bill for No Good Reason. Gov. Jay Inslee (D) has vetoed Senate Bill 6206, which would have legalized industrial hemp production in the state. Inslee's reason nothing to do with the substance of the bill; he is irritated with the legislature for failing to pass a budget bill. Inslee said the hemp measure was "a worthy bill," but he couldn't sign it until "a budget agreement is reached." The bill passed the House unanimously and the Senate 48-1, so a veto override is possible.  

International

Colombian Supreme Court of Justice Rules "Addicts" Can Carry More Than "Minimum Dose" of Drugs. The high criminal court ruled that "addicts" can carry more than the legal "minimum dose" of drugs out of "necessity" without being charged with a crime. The ruling came in the case of soldier caught with 50 grams of marijuana, 2 ½ times the decriminalized amount of 20 grams. Instead of the "minimum dose," the courts will have to contend with the "supply dose," enough of the drug to meet to the user's needs. Prior to this ruling, people caught in excess of the "minimum dose" faced charges of drug possession with intent to traffic. They can still be charged that way, but now have an additional defense.

Bloody Gunfights in Mexico's Reynosa.  Prohibition-related violence flared in the Mexican border town of Reynosa, just across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas, Sunday, when at least nine suspected cartel gunmen died in battles with government forces. At least three separate armed clashes took place, with gunmen also setting vehicles afire and blocking roads. The operation was aimed at taking down Gulf Cartel leaders in the city, but it wasn't clear if the police and military found their targets.

 

Chronicle AM: US Signals Flexibility on International Drug Reforms, Senate Set to Approve CARA, More... (3/9/16)

In the run-up to UNGASS, the US is signalling some flexibility if other countries want to decriminalize drugs, the Senate is poised to pass a bill to deal with heroin and prescription opiate use, crackdowns could be coming for unpermitted dispensaries in Los Angeles and San Diego, and more.

State Department's William Brownfield signals "flexibility" on other countries' drug reform efforts. (state.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Illinois Decriminalization Bill Wins Senate Committee Vote. The Senate Criminal Law Committee voted Tuesday to advance a decriminalization bill, Senate Bill 2228, sponsored by Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago). The bill would drop criminal penalties for possession of less than 10 grams of pot, but also set a limit at which someone can be prosecuted for drugged driving at 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood. A decrim bill was vetoed last year by Gov. Bruce Rauner (R); this one attempts to address his concerns by lowering the amount decriminalized, increasing the fine from $100 to $200, and by lowering the nanogram limit.

Colorado Springs Wants Its Cannabis Social Clubs to Go Away. The city council voted Tuesday night to ban "cannabis consumption clubs" despite overwhelming public support for them at the council before the vote was taken. But it isn't going to happen overnight. The council gave the clubs eight years to shut down. In the meantime, they will have to be licensed by the city and pay for the privilege of doing so.

Medical Marijuana

Los Angeles County to Crack Down on Illegal Dispensaries. The county supervisors voted Tuesday to crack down on dispensaries in unincorporated areas of the county. The county will create a "Medical Marijuana Dispensary Enforcement Team" to shut down and prosecute the unpermitted operations, which have been banned since 2011.

San Diego Licensed Dispensaries Call for Crackdown on Unlicensed Ones. The Association of Cannabis Professionals, which represents licensed dispensaries, is calling on the city to shut down dispensaries operating without a license. There are an estimated 30 unpermitted dispensaries in the city, and the seven licensed ones are claiming they can't compete because of the increased costs they bear to get and stay legal. "The City of San Diego spent nearly four years developing regulations, and our members spent nearly two years, and hundreds of thousands of dollars, to meet the conditions needed to obtain their permits from the City of San Diego,” says Association President Chris Siegel. “But despite having jumped through all of these hoops and costs, in order to do things right, the City continues to allow unpermitted dispensaries to operate with impunity."

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Senate About to Pass Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. Senators voted 83-6 to advance the bill Monday, setting the stage for a final vote sometime this week. The bill, S 524, is sponsored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and has 42 cosponsors. It would provide support drug treatment, education, and prevention initiatives, and expanded prescription drug monitoring programs.

Harm Reduction

Iowa Senate Approves Opioid Overdose Reversal Drug Bill. The Senate voted 48-0 Tuesday to approve Senate File 2218, which would allow police, fire departments, EMS programs and others to carry and use naloxone (Narcan), the opioid overdose reversal drug. The bill now goes to the House

International

Top State Department Official Gives Green Light for Other Countries to Decriminalize Drugs. William Brownfield, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs ("drugs and thugs"), told reporters at the United Nations Tuesday that it was less concerned with how countries attempted to deal with drug problems than with reducing the harms from drug use. "The issue is not precisely whether a government has chosen to decriminalize or not to decriminalize," Brownfield remarked. "It is whether the government is working cooperatively to reduce the harm of a product. A nation can reach its own determination," he added, suggesting that countries should feel free to consider removing penalties for drug use.

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