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The Promise of Psychedelic Healing: Entheogens, Psychotherapy and Spiritual Development

An evening with Neal Goldsmith and special guests John Perry Barlow, Julie Holland, Daniel Pinchbeck, Rick Doblin, and Ethan Nadelmann. And a dance party.

Join Evolver.net and Mangusta Productions for a mind expanding night of psychedelic exploration. Banned after promising research in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, the use of psychedelics as therapeutic catalysts is now being rediscovered -- a topic covered by Neal Goldsmith's new book, Psychedelic Healing: The Promise of Entheogens for Psychotherapy and Spiritual Development (Inner Traditions, 2011). Come celebrate its publication with a kaleidoscopic conversation featuring five of the leading figures in this field, speaking on the latest theories, research, and legal developments.

How can psychedelic experiences shape personality and healing? Can psychedelic psychotherapy truly can be transformative, either individually or collectively? Can humanity change course from an impending human dieback and blossom to create a truly integral planet?

Come for a reading and discussion with:

Neal Goldsmith, Ph.D, Psychotherapist specializing in psychospiritual development. A frequent speaker on spiritual on spiritual emergence, drug policy reform, and post-modern society. Author of Psychedelic Healing: The Promise of Entheogens for Psychotherapy and Spiritual Development

Rick Doblin, Ph.D., President and Founder of Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Science (MAPS). His dissertation was on “The Regulation of the Medical Use of Psychedelics and Marijuana and his master’s thesis (Harvard) focused on the attitudes and experiences of oncologists concerning the medical use of marijuana.

John Perry Barlow, Visionary, former Grateful Dead lyricist, and a founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization which promotes freedom of expression in digital media.

Julie Holland, M.D., Psychiatrist specializing in psychopharmacology. Author of Ecstasy: The Complete Guide and bestselling Weekends at Bellevue and editor of The Pot Book: A Complete Guide to Cannabis and Ecstacy: The Complete Guide.

Daniel Pinchbeck, Bestselling author of 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, Notes from the Edge of Time, and Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shaminism; Co-editor of Toward 2012: Perspectives on the Next Age. Daniel is the editorial director of RealitySandwich.com, and co-founder of Evolver.net.

Ethan Nadelmann, Ph.D., founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, the leading organization in the United States promoting alternatives to the war on drugs. Author of Cops Across Borders, the first scholarly study of the internationalization of U.S. criminal law enforcement, and co-author of Policing the Globe: Criminalization and Crime Control in International Relations.

Dance Celebration follows discussion with live music performance by JahFurry & Kochie Banton with the I & I Drum Link. DJ sets by Krister Linder and Winslow Porter.

Cash bar – organic beer, wine and drinks.
Astoria's own Beyond Kombucha presents a special blend for the event.
Snacks by Xango.

Doors at 7:30, panel at 8:00, dance celebration 11pm – 2am

Price - $25, $20 for Evolver Social Network Members (e-mail psychedelichealing@gmail.com for info); $15 after midnight.

To purchase tickets please go to http://psychedelichealing.eventbrite.com/. Tickets will sell out so to guarantee your entrance, get yours ahead of time.

Date: 
Fri, 02/04/2011 - 7:30pm - Sat, 02/05/2011 - 2:00am
Location: 
446 Broadway 3rd floor Safe Harbor
New York, NY 10013
United States

Australia: Ecstasy Emerges As Secret Choice of Middle Age

Location: 
Australia
Publicity about people being caught with party drugs usually concentrates on those in their teens and 20s. So when the Austalian Labor aide Matthew Chesher, 44, was charged with possessing one ecstasy tablet last week, the lid was lifted on a quite different phenomenon: the growing number of middle-aged ecstasy users. The generation that championed the drug in the '80s and '90s is getting older.
Publication/Source: 
The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)
URL: 
http://www.smh.com.au/national/ecstasy-emerges-as-secret-choice-of-middle-age-20110131-1ab4v.html?from=smh_sb

Study Explores Therapeutic Value of Ecstasy

The recreational drug known as ecstasy may have a medicinal role to play in helping people who have trouble connecting to others socially, new research suggests. In a study involving a small group of healthy people, investigators found that ecstasy prompted heightened feelings of friendliness, playfulness and love, and induced a lowering of the guard that might have therapeutic uses for improving social interactions. The researchers suggested that ecstasy might help people with post-traumatic stress disorder as well those with autism, schizophrenia or antisocial personality disorder cope with a variety of emotional difficulties.
Publication/Source: 
Chicago Sun-Times (IL)
URL: 
http://www.suntimes.com/news/metro/3090288-418/drug-club-disorder-dose-feelings.html

Psychedelic Pioneer Alexander Shulgin Suffers Stroke

Alexander "Sasha" Shulgin, the Berkeley pharmacologist who synthesized hundreds of psychoactive compounds and re-introduced Ecstasy to the world, is hospitalized in San Francisco after suffering a stroke over the weekend, his wife Ann told the British newspaper The Guardian Tuesday. He is 84 years old.

Sasha and Ann Shulgin
"Sasha had a mild stroke over the weekend and is still in the hospital, where they are treating him. He will be undergoing speech therapy for a while," Shulgin told The Guardian. She added that he is not paralyzed and is expected to recover.

Shulgin is a counter-culture hero to generations of psychonauts. Beginning in the 1960s, he synthesized and then sampled hundreds of variations of phenethylamines and tryptamines. The former are related to mescaline, a psychoactive compound found in peyote cactus and the latter are related to the psychoactive compounds in hallucinogenic mushrooms.

That research was anthologized in a pair of books, PiHKAL (Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved) and TiHKAL (Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved), which Shulgin and his wife co-authored. Both came out in the 1990s.

Shulgin is known in some circles as the "Godfather of Ecstasy" after he re-synthesized MDMA in 1976 for use in psychotherapy. The drug had been invented by Merck in 1912, but then largely forgotten. After Shulgin began experimenting with it in the 1970s, its popularity spread rapidly beyond psychotherapeutic circles as it became one of the world's most popular synthetic psychedelics.

Shulgin and his wife have been in tough financial straits recently, and friends have set up a Facebook page to appeal for donations.

"We need funds for a lot of things including attempts at archiving his work, and that is something we have been asking for money for. But right now it's simply donations for Sasha's health that we need," Ann Shulgin told The Guardian. "The Medicare system in the US pays 80% of certain things but what is left over is considerable, and we are not wealthy. We need around-the-clock care for him right now, and for the next few months, and that can mount up rather fast."

Shulgin is notorious for his decades of drug consumption, but Ann Shulgin was quick to declare that his drug use was not the cause of his stroke. "Considering the hundreds of thousands of people who have experimented with psychoactive drugs and visionary plants, many of them using them as spiritual tools, there is no medical evidence whatsoever that that would be the case. It's simply not true," she told The Guardian.

San Francisco, CA
United States

Ecstasy found to Help Alleviate PTSD among Military Veterans

Researchers are gaining ground in the combat against posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in an unlikely way.  Touted as “the party drug,” ecstasy, or MDMA, may just be the saving grace for hundreds of thousands of veterans suffering from PTSD.

According to a study by the Rand Corporation, in 2008 one in five soldiers returning home from Afghanistan or Iraq showed symptoms of PTSD. All in all, nearly 300,000 returning soldiers were affected. Letting individuals with PTSD go untreated is detrimental to both the individual and to society as a whole, as it has been linked to higher incidences of depression, health issues, violence, marital problems, drug use, unemployment, homelessness and suicide among veterans. And although each active military service member is provided with $400,000 in military life insurance coverage, that provides little comfort to families of a PTSD-afflicted veterans.

The Study

In the first controlled study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology in July, 2010, ecstasy was used in combination with psychotherapy to treat patients suffering from PTSD.  The subjects tested in the trial were patients with symptoms that were not improving with standard psychotherapy and antidepressants. According to Time Magazine, government-approved drugs such as Paxil and Zoloft typically administered to PTSD patients are only effective in about 20% of cases. Therapy has a higher success rate in alleviating symptoms; however, one-fourth of all patients drop out when asked to recall painful or stressful memories.

The Science behind Ecstasy and PTSD-afflicted Military Veterans

The theory behind this very controversial treatment is that ecstasy releases a large amount of mood-regulating chemicals, serotonin and dopamine, in the brain. Patients who have taken ecstasy are more open in therapy sessions and able to talk about otherwise agonizing events.  The results showed that after two months of therapy 83% of the patients that were given ecstasy showed tremendous signs of improvement and were no longer being classified as PTSD patients.

This pilot study has opened a psychedelic door in the pharmaceutical world. There is hope yet for veterans suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder.

Feds: National Drug Intelligence Center Predicts Continued Failure in Drug War

In a report released Thursday, the Justice Department's National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) said that overall, the availability of illegal drugs is increasing and that "the overall threat posed by illicit drugs will not diminish in the near term." The announcement comes after more than four decades of harsh state and federal policies designed to curb the supply of illicit drugs.

The report, the National Drug Threat Assessment 2010, also once again identified Mexico's so-called drug cartels as the "single greatest drug trafficking threat to the United States." It blamed the cartels, or DTOs (drug trafficking organizations), as it more accurately but less catchily refers to them, for much of the increase in illegal drug availability.

The NDIC noted that the prevalence of four out of five of the major drugs of concern -- heroin, marijuana, MDMA (ecstasy), and methamphetamine -- was "widespread and increasing in some areas." Only cocaine availability was down, with NDIC reporting persistent shortages.

Heroin availability was up, and NDIC said that was "partly attributable to increased production in Mexico," where opium production more than doubled between 2007 and 2008. Meth availability was up "as the result of higher production in Mexico," and "sustained" US domestic production. Also, "marijuana production increased in Mexico." Only with MDMA did NDIC point the finger at anyone else -- in this case, Asian DTOs who produce it in Canada.

"Mexican DTOs, already the predominant wholesale suppliers of illicit drugs in the United States, are gaining even greater strength in eastern drug markets where Colombian DTO strength is diminishing," NDIC said as it pronounced them the greatest drug trafficking threat. It included the following bullet points making the case:

  • Mexican DTOs were the only DTOs operating in every region of the country.
  • Mexican DTOs increased their cooperation with US-based street and prison gangs to distribute drugs. In many areas, these gangs were using their alliances with Mexican DTOs to facilitate an expansion of their midlevel and retail drug distribution operations into more rural and suburban areas.
  • In 2009, midlevel and retail drug distribution in the United States was dominated by more than 900,000 criminally active gang members representing approximately 20,000 street gangs in more than 2,500 cities.
  • Mexican DTOs increased the flow of severaldrugs (heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana) into the United States, primarily because they increased production of those drugs in Mexico.
  • Drugs smuggled into the United States by Mexican DTOs usually are transported in private or commercial vehicles; however, Mexican DTOs also use cross-border tunnels, subterranean passageways, and low-flying small or ultra-light aircraft to move drugs from Mexico into the United States.
  • Mexican DTOs smuggled bulk cash drug proceeds totaling tens of billions of dollars from the United States through the Southwest Border and into Mexico. Much of the bulk cash (millions each week) was consolidated by the DTOs in several key areas, including Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, and North Carolina, where it was prepared for transport to the US-Mexico border and then smuggled into Mexico.
  • According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), Mexican DTO members or associates acquire thousands of weapons each year in Arizona, California, and Texas and smuggle them across the border to Mexico.

The report came as a senior US delegation led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton returns from Mexico City, where it spent two days in talks with Mexican officials about increasing cooperation in their joint struggle against the drug traffic.

Feature: SSDP Does San Francisco -- The 11th Annual National Conference

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plenary session
Some 500 student drug policy reform activists flooded into San Francisco last weekend for the 11th annual Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) national conference, "This is Your Brain on Drug Policy Reform." In a sign of growing momentum for drug reform, this was the largest SSDP conference yet.

There couldn't have been a more inviting place for it. The San Francisco Bay area is the epicenter of marijuana and medical marijuana activism, as well as being a counterculture mecca for decades. The students did their best to take advantage of the advantageous locale.

Friday was mainly a day of tourism and networking for the student activists from around the country and the planet. Hundreds of them signed up to head across San Francisco Bay to tour Oaksterdam University and Oakland's Oaksterdam neighborhood downtown. Many then headed to the nearby Harborside Health Center, a state of the art medical marijuana dispensary. The day of medical marijuana tourism gave students at up-close look at medical marijuana as it should be done -- and as it could be done in their home states.

On Saturday, it was just like being back at college as students spent the day in numerous panels around the theme "Drug War Education." Acting SSDP executive director Matt Palevsky opened the session with optimism, challenging the students to seize the day.

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El Paso city councilman Beto O'Rourke, Mexico session
"This is our biggest conference to date," he said. "Now we have as many chapters in California as we do in the Northeast" where the group had its genesis, he noted. "We're really a national organization now, more than 200 chapters large. The power we feel in this room is the power of a movement. And for the first time since SSDP was founded, we can really feel the wind at our backs," he said to loud applause.

Palevsky was followed by NORML policy analyst Paul Armentano, who urged students to get out and talk to people one-to-one about ending pot prohibition. "Talk to family, friends, faculties, neighbors, school advisors, people who know you, and with whom you have credibility," he advised. "Then start talking to people who can shape public opinion, and then become an opinion-shaper yourself. Become the editor of your newspaper, run for the student council, run for the city council. We want this failed drug policy to end before you fuck over another generation of young people like you fucked over our generation," Armentano said to loud applause, presumably aiming his latter remarks at prohibitionist politicians and opinion-makers.

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/ssdp-2010-exhibitor-hallway.jpg
exhibitor hallway
Linking with the previous day's medical marijuana tourism, one of the Saturday panels was on what the medical marijuana movement and business looks like. With panelists including Steve DeAngelo of Harborside Health Center, Robert Jacob of Sebastopol's Peace in Medicine, Debby Goldsberry of the Berkeley Patients Group, and Aundre Speciale of the Cannabis Buyers Club of Berkeley, students got a well-informed earful. The panel was also a sign of an evolving symbiotic relationship between the medical marijuana movement and SSDP. The medical marijuana community's support for SSDP was evident by its heavy participation in the conference -- both in panels and at the vendors' booths -- and it has, in turn, become a career opportunity for more than one former SSDPer.

One of the most popular panels of the day Saturday was the one on psychedelics. It was headlined by Rick Doblin, head of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), who described the group's work researching the therapeutic uses of ecstasy (MDMA) and fighting for the ability of researchers to grow their own marijuana. It gave attendees a good enough sense of the group's work to ensure that at least some of them will show up for MAPS' upcoming conference Psychedelic Research in the 21st Century, set for April 15 -18 just down the road from San Francisco in San Jose.

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/ssdp-2010-nadelmann-birthday.jpg
students and others wish Ethan Nadelmann a happy birthday -- also on panel: Steph Shere (ASA), Paul Armentano (NORML), Aaron Smith (MPP)
Saturday also saw panels on the Mexican drug war, what legalization could look like when it happens, and on the drug war's impact on women, communities of color, and the poor. For the SSDP activists, many of whom were attending their first national conference, Saturday was a definite eye-opener.

"It's really been exciting," said Melissa Beadle, attending her first conference as head of a brand new SSDP chapter at South Dakota State University in Brookings. "I've been learning so much."

One of the highlights of the day was the session-closing presentation by California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-SF), the author of California's marijuana legalization bill. Ammiano is not just a serious guy, he's a seriously funny guy, and his comedic talent was on full display Saturday afternoon. Mixing earthy language and humor, the openly gay Ammiano sketched the intertwined history of gay activism, the AIDS crisis, and medical marijuana in the Bay Area, and he didn't let party loyalty get in the way of telling it like it was.

"Bill Clinton was shit on this issue," he said. "He put out that edict that doctor's couldn't prescribe it," referring to the Clinton administration's effort to try to intimidate doctors by threatening to jerk their DEA licenses to prescribe drugs if they recommended medical marijuana to patients. "That's not an adult way to deal with an issue, and it's certainly not a statesman-like way." The would-be censors lost in the Supreme Court.

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Cliff Thornton of the Hartford, CT, based group Efficacy wants inner-city communities who have become dependent on the illicit economy created by drug prohibition to be indemnified from the economic effects of the job losses that will accompany legalization.
Ammiano was a bit kinder to the current White House occupant. "In terms of Obama," he said, "the messaging is good, but it's sometimes contradictory. Still, history isn't always linear. But I'm here to tell you this movement has never been stronger; we've never been on the cusp in such a pronounced way."

Mentioning the Tax and Regulate Cannabis 2010 initiative that will in all likelihood be on the California ballot in November, Ammiano said he was working closely with initiative organizers and that their efforts were not competitive, but complementary. He also unleashed a bit of pot humor, noting that 57 people had signed initiative petitions twice.

"You can imagine what they were doing just before that," he said before switching into a stoner voice. "Dude, let me sign this again to make sure it passes," he role-played to gales of laughter.

Regarding his bill's prospects in Sacramento, the dapper and diminutive Ammiano reported that there is a lot of sympathy, even among conservatives, but many are still afraid to say so out loud or to vote yes for the record. "If we voted in the capitol hallways, we'd be home free," he said, before engaging in a replay of dialogues he's had with other lawmakers.

"They come up to me and say, 'Man, I used to smoke that shit in college, let's tax the hell out of it.' And I'd say, 'Are you with me then?' and they'd say, 'Oh, no, man, I can't do that.'"

Ammiano also mentioned Barney Frank's federal decriminalization bill. "I guess it's a queer thing," he said, mincing mightily and pretending to swoon over Frank.

"You guys ought to get married," someone yelled from the audience to more laughter.

And then he was gone, leaving an appreciative audience reinvigorated and still laughing.

On Saturday night, SSDP announced new board members and honored well-performing chapters, then celebrated by rocking out to live music from Panda Conspiracy and Roots of Creation. On Sunday, it was up early despite the shift to Daylight Savings Time for a day of serious activist how-to panels. Then on Monday, it was back home to put the information and lessons learned to work on campuses across the country. Students departed San Francisco feeling like they were riding the crest of a reform wave, and maybe, just maybe, they were right. We'll have to check back next year.

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Dorm Room Dealers: Drugs and the Privileges of Race and Class," by A. Rafik Mohamed and Erik D. Fritsvold (2010, Lynne Reinner Publishers, 197 pp., $49.95 HB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer/Editor

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/dormroomdrugdealers.jpg
Whom do you picture when you read the phrase "drug dealer"? It's probably not the subjects of this book. They're white, upper-middle class and beyond, upwardly mobile college students blithely enmeshed in a web of criminality -- drug use and sales -- that, for them at least, goes unnoticed, and even when noticed, largely unpunished.

And that really irks Mohamed and Fritsvold, a pair of Southern California sociologists who gained entrée into a network of drug sellers and users centered on a private college in San Diego and then spent six years interviewing and observing them as they partied hearty, gobbled and swapped pills, and peddled dope with reckless abandon. It's not, as the authors make clear, that they wish their student subjects were punished with the same heavy hand awaiting a poor black kid slinging crack in on an inner city street corner.

In fact, Mohamed and Fritsvold make equally clear that they view US drug policies as harsh and counterproductive, in no small part because of the race and class biases they so inarguably exhibit. Healthy chunks of "Dorm Room Dealers" are devoted to delineating in detail just how racially skewed and cleaved by class the application of American drug laws are. That's what really irks the authors.

And that partially answers the questions the authors posed at the beginning of the book. Why do privileged college students -- who have everything to lose and little to gain -- choose to sell drugs? Well, because they can do so with almost total impunity. They are not the target of the drug war. They're the wrong color and the wrong class. They essentially get a free pass -- from police, who ignore them; from college administrators, who don't want to upset their parents; from doctors, who are happy to prescribe them whatever pills they desire... because they are the children of "good people," i.e. white and wealthy people.

Mohamed and Fritsvold show repeatedly the reckless abandon with which their subjects went about their business: Dope deals over the phone with uncoded messages, driving around high with pounds of pot in the car, doing drug transactions visible from the street, selling to strangers, smuggling hundreds of pills across the Mexican border. These campus dealers lacked even the basics of drug dealer security measures, yet they flew under the radar of the drug warriors.

Even when the rare encounter with police occurred, these well-connected students skated. In one instance, a dealer got too wasted and attacked someone's car. He persuaded a police officer to take him home in handcuffs to get cash to pay for the damages. The cop ignored the scales, the pot, the evidence of drug dealing, and happily took a hundred dollar bill for his efforts. In another instance, a beach front dealer was the victim of an armed robbery. He had no qualms about calling the police, who once again couldn't see the evidence of dealing staring them in the face and who managed to catch the robbers. The dealer wisely didn't claim the pounds of pot police recovered and didn't face any consequences.

Even when the rare arrest for drug dealing occurred, these folks emerged relatively unscathed. With daddy's money and daddy's lawyers, serious felony charges evaporate. One dealer who could have gone to prison for years ended up with probation for a misdemeanor, which was subsequently wiped from his record. Ah, privilege -- ain't it sweet?

The lack of consequences for breaking drug laws may help explain the students' almost universal lack of interest in drug law reform. These student dope-slingers were not SSDP types. Only one of the two dozen or so dealers watched by Mohamed and Fritsvold expressed any interest in changing the laws. Why should these folks care about reforming the drug laws? They appear to be irrelevant to their lives. Perhaps if these privileged students were subjected to the wrath of the drug war the same way their poorer, darker-skinned counterparts were, they and their powerful parents might begin to feel compelled to address the drug laws. Until then, not so much.

These student dealers were mostly vending pot, with a few offering cocaine and ecstasy as sidelines. There was no mention of heroin or methamphetamines. One finding that surprised the authors was the prevalence of the pill culture. Students were gobbling down Valium, Xanax, Oxycontin, Lorcet, Vicodin, Adderall and Ritalin like crazy, swapping or selling excess pills, lying to doctors to get prescriptions, even smuggling in loads obtained in Tijuana strip joints.

The pill-poppers felt even less like criminals than the illicit drug dealers did. All of the students were able to rationalize their lawbreaking, in part, the authors suggest, because they never really self-identified as dope dealers. After all, dope dealers live in the inner city, are poor, and are a different color. For the subjects of "Dorm Room Dealers," collegiate dope-dealing was incidental, a passing phase on their road to mainstream success as realtors, upper management types, and business owners. They were invested in conventional lives and careers, and, as follow up interviews suggest, as a group they are now doing quite well.

"Dorm Room Dealers" is a valuable contribution to the ethnography of drug use and drug selling and is an interesting read, too. But at $50 for the hardback, you'll probably want to check it out of your campus library or wait for the paperback.

Europe: Czech Government Announces Decriminalization Quantities; Law Goes Into Effect on New Year’s Day

The Czech cabinet Monday approved a Justice Ministry proposal that sets personal use quantity limits for illicit drugs under a penal code revision that decriminalizes drug possession in the Czech Republic. The law and its quantity limits will take effect on January 1. The Czech government had approved the decriminalization law late last year, but failed to set precise quantities covered by it, instead leaving it to police and prosecutors to determine what constituted a “larger than small” amount of drugs. The resulting confusion--and the prosecution of some small-scale marijuana growers as drug traffickers--led the government to adopt more precise criteria. Under the new law, possession of less than the following amounts of illicit drugs will not be a criminal offense: Marijuana 15 grams (or five plants) Hashish 5 grams Magic mushrooms 40 pieces Peyote 5 plants LSD 5 tablets Ecstasy 4 tablets Amphetamine 2 grams Methamphetamine 2 grams Heroin 1.5 grams Coca 5 plants Cocaine 1 gram Possession of “larger than a small amount” of marijuana can result in a jail sentence of up to one year. For other illicit drugs, the sentence is two years. Trafficking offenses carry stiffer sentences. Justice Minister Daniela Kovarova said that the ministry had originally proposed decriminalizing the possession of up to two grams of hard drugs, but decided that limits being imposed by courts this year were appropriate. "The government finally decided that it would stick to the current court practice and drafted a table based on these limits," Kovarova said. The Czech Republic now joins Portugal as a European country that has decriminalized drug possession.
Location: 
Prague
Czech Republic

Feature: Mexico and Argentina Enact Drug Decriminalization

In the last eight days, the decriminalization of drug possession has gone into effect for 150 million Latin Americans. Last Thursday, as part of a broader bill, Mexico (pop. 110 million) decriminalized the possession of small amounts of all drugs through the legislative process. Four days later, the Argentine Supreme Court declared unconstitutional that country's law criminalizing drug possession. While the Argentine case involved marijuana possession, the ruling clears the way for the government to draft a new law decriminalizing all drug possession.

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Latin America map (usaid.gov)
The shift in policies toward drug users in the two countries is a dramatic indication of the seismic shift in drug policy already well underway in Latin America. Colombia's high court declared the law against drug possession unconstitutional in 1994. Brazil has had a version of decriminalization since 2006 -- users cannot be imprisoned, but can be forced into treatment, educational programs, or community service -- and Uruguay now allows judges to determine if someone in possession of drugs intended to use them or sell and to act accordingly. Movement toward decriminalization is also underway in Ecuador.

That reformist zeitgeist is perhaps best encapsulated in the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, led by former presidents Cesar Gaviria of Colombia, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, and Enrique Cardoso of Brazil. In its report earlier this year, Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift, the commission called for decriminalization of drug use, especially marijuana, and treating drug use as a public health -- not a law enforcement -- issue. A similar commission got underway in Brazil last week.

"Decriminalization permits a distinction between users and drug traffickers," said John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America. "This allows governments to focus their efforts in reducing the terrible harms caused by the big criminal networks and the violence related to the illicit traffic, instead of repressing users and small-scale dealers."

"What's happened in Mexico and now Argentina is very consistent with the broader trend in Europe and Latin America in terms of decriminalizing small amounts of drugs and promoting alternatives to incarceration and a public health approach for people struggling with drug addiction," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The decision in Argentina reminds me of similar rulings in Colombia more than a decade ago and in Germany before that, and, more generally, what's been going on in the Netherlands, Portugal, and Switzerland. In some cases, there is a legal or constitutional notion about personal sovereignty or autonomy, but there is also a recognition of the failures of the drug war approach vis a vis low-level offenders. There is a kind of human rights element that you see popping up in both contexts," Nadelmann said.

But the devil is in the details. Mexico's decriminalization, for example, comes as part of a broader law aimed at "narcomenudeo," or small-scale drug dealing. In addition to decriminalizing drug possession, the law for the first time allows state and local authorities to arrest and prosecute drug offenders. Previously, such powers had been the sole province of federal authorities. The new law also allows police to make undercover drug buys, a power they did not previously possess. (To read the full text of the law in Spanish, go to page 83 of the Official Daily.)

Under the Mexican law, the amounts of various drugs decriminalized are as follows:

  • opium -- 2 grams
  • cocaine -- 1/2 gram
  • heroin -- 1/10 gram
  • marijuana -- 5 grams
  • LSD -- 150 micrograms
  • methamphetamine -- 1/5 gram
  • ecstasy -- 1/5 gram

For Mexican drug reformers, the law is definitely a mixed bag. The Collective for an Integral Drug Policy, a Mexico City-based reform think-tank, felt compelled to note that while "the law represents certain advances... it could have very negative consequences for the country" because the public health and human rights perspectives are not implicated strongly enough in it.

While the collective applauded the law's distinctions between consumer, addict, and criminal; its rejection of forced drug treatment, its lip service to harm reduction, and its recognition of the traditional, ritual use of some substances, it challenged other aspects of the law. "It focuses on intensifying a military and police strategy that has proven to be a failure," the collective said, alluding to the more than 12,000 people killed in prohibition-related violence since President Felipe Calderon unleashed the military against the cartels in December 2006.

"The law will criminalize a vast group of people who make a living off the small-time dealing of drugs, but who in reality do not consciously form part of organized crime," but who are instead merely trying to make a living, the collective argued. "Imprisoning them will not diminish the supply of drugs on the street, nor will it improve public security, yet it will justify the war on drugs, since the government will be able to boast of the number of people incarcerated with this policy."

"Mexican decriminalization will have no impact whatsoever on the broader issues of drug trafficking and violence," agreed Nadelmann. "From the legal and institutional perspective, this is very, very significant, but in terms of actual impact on the ground in Mexico, that remains to be seen."

The collective also criticized the law's provision allowing police to make drug buys to nab small-time dealers and warned that the small quantities of drugs decriminalized "are not realistic" and will as a consequence lead to "a significant increase in corruption and extortion of consumers by police forces."

University of Texas-El Paso anthropologist Howard Campbell, who has studied the street drug scene across the river in Ciudad Juarez, was more cynical. "It was a good move by the government to make that distinction between users and traffickers, but I'm not sure what the effects of the law will be," he said. "All over Mexico, cops prey on junkies, and one effect of this might be to give low-down junkies a bit of a break from the cops. On the other hand, street-level drug dealing is often controlled by the cops... but if the cops are corrupt and in control, it doesn't really matter what the law says."

Campbell also doubted the new law would have much effect in reducing the prohibition-related violence. "I don't think it will have much initial impact, but still, the overarching importance of this law is symbolic. It shows that governments can revamp their policies, not just keep on working with failed ones," he said.

In Argentina, the situation is less dire and the reform is less ambiguous. On Tuesday, the Argentine Supreme Court, ratifying a series of lower court decisions in recent years, declared that the section of the country's drug law that criminalizes drug possession is unconstitutional. While the ruling referred only to marijuana possession, the portion of the law it threw out makes no distinction among drugs.

The decision came in the Arriola case, in which a group of young men from the provincial city of Rosario were each caught with small amounts of marijuana, arrested, and convicted. Under Argentina's 1989 drug law, they faced up to two years in prison.

But imprisoning people absent harm to others violated constitutional protections, a unanimous court held. "Each individual adult is responsible for making decisions freely about their desired lifestyle without state interference," their ruling said. "Private conduct is allowed unless it constitutes a real danger or causes damage to property or the rights of others. The state cannot establish morality."

"It is significant that the ruling was unanimous," said Martin Jelsma, coordinator of the Drugs and Democracy program at the Transnational Institute, which has worked closely with Latin American activists and politicians on drug reform issues. "It confirms the paradigm shift visible throughout the continent, which recognizes that drug use should be treated as a public health matter instead of, as in the past, when all involved, including users, were seen as criminals."

That paradigm shift has also occurred within the current Argentine government of President Cristina Kirchner, which favors a public health approach to drug use. The government has been waiting on this decision before moving forward with a bill that would decriminalize possession of small quantities of all drugs.

"The declaration of the unconstitutionality of the application of the drug law for marijuana possession is a great advance since it eliminates the repressive arm from a problem that should be confronted with public health policies," said Intercambios, an Argentine harm reduction organization. "Whatever retreat in the application of the criminal law in relation to drug users is positive; not only to stop criminalizing and stigmatizing users, but to permit the advance of educational, social, and health responses that are appropriate for this phenomenon."

Some Argentine harm reductionists warned that while the ruling was of transcendent importance, its real impact would be measured by its effect on the policies of the state. "In the vertical sense, it should oblige all the judges in the country to take heed of this declaration of the unconstitutionality of punishing drug possession for personal use," said Silvia Inchaurraga of the Argentine Harm Reduction Association (ARDA). "In the horizontal sense, it should force all the agencies of the state involved in drug policy to redefine their involvement to guarantee that they do not fail to comply with international human rights treaties subscribed to by the country," she added.

For the Argentine section of the global cannabis nation, it was a happy day. "Wow! This feels like honest good vibrations from the Supreme Court and the government," said Argentine marijuana activist Mike Bifari. "They really do have this new policy of generally being more tolerant and talking about human rights in the drug issue nationally and internationally, instead of that tired old war on drugs."

The Supreme Court decision will pave the way to full decriminalization, he said. "Although this was a marijuana case, the current law is about all types of drugs," said Bifari. "Now we have to wait for the government's scientific committee to come up with a draft of a new drug law, and that will be the government's bill in the congress. We think there are going to be lot of media debates and lots of discussion, and what we will try to do is to occupy all the different cultural spaces and try to advance on issues such as access and medical marijuana."

And so the wheel turns, and the United States and its hard-line drug policies are increasingly isolated in the hemisphere. As anthropologist Campbell noted, "This is happening all over Latin America. You'd think we might be able to do it here, too."

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