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Washington Marijuana Legalization Initiative Hands in Signatures

New Approach Washington, the organizers of the I-502 marijuana legalization and regulation initiative, last week handed in 350,000 voter signatures to try to qualify for the November ballot. They turned in 341,000 last Thursday and another 10,000 last Friday, the last day to hand them in.

The campaign needs 241,153 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. With some 350,000 signatures handed in, the campaign has a considerable cushion to account for duplicate and other invalid signatures, meaning it is likely to qualify for the ballot, but it will take state officials several weeks to make that determination.

If the measure meets the valid signature threshold, it then goes before the state legislature. If the legislature doesn't approve it, it then goes before the voters in November.

I-502 would allow Washington adults to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, which would be sold at pot-only stores licensed and regulated by the state Liquor Control Board. Marijuana cultivation for the state stores would also be licensed and regulated by the board. Estimated excise, business, and sales revenues of $215 million a year would be split between the state's general fund and certain earmarked public health and prevention programs.

I-502 would also create a per se DUID standard of five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood, which has become a contentious issue in the state's marijuana and medical marijuana communities. According to the Associated Press, those divisions were on display Thursday as New Approach Washington members handed in signatures.

The AP reported that about a dozen demonstrators carrying signs reading "Legalize, Don't Penalize" shouted and chanted as the signatures were turned in. "New Approach, telling lies, we don't want your DUIs," the protesters chanted.

The "lies" to which the protestors referred are New Approach Washington's arguments that including the per se DUID language is a pragmatic measure designed to blunt fears of drugged driving among voters, that Washington already has a drugged driving law, and that the measure is unlikely to result in a wave of DUID arrests of medical marijuana patients due to the "probable cause" requirement that a driver demonstrate signs of impairment before a police officer may order a drug test.

The unhappy patients have organized as Patients Against I-502. The initiative is also drawing opposition from the folks at Sensible Washington, who echo the anti-DUID argument and also argue for a measure that would allow for personal home cultivation and with fewer restrictions overall. Sensible Washington tried unsuccessfully for two years to get its initiative on the ballot and failed for lack of funding. New Approach Washington, on the other hand, has managed to garner the support and raise the funds to gather the necessary signatures.

It looks like marijuana legalization is going to be on the ballot in Washington this year. It also looks like Washington won't be alone; a Colorado legalization initiative is well-advanced in its signature gathering phase and appears set to make the ballot after turning in nearly twice the required signatures this week. But competing legalization initiatives in California and Oregon don't appear nearly as well positioned to break through the signature ceiling, although that could change if some funding angel appears.

Olympia, WA
United States

The Top Ten International Drug Policy Stories of 2011 [FEATURE]

The new year is upon us and 2011 is now a year for the history books. But we can't let it go without recognizing the biggest global drug policy stories of the year. From the horrors of the Mexican drug wars to the growing clamor over the failures of prohibition, from the poppy fields of Afghanistan and the Golden Triangle to the coca fields of the Andes, from European parliaments to Iranian gallows, drug prohibition and its consequences were big news this year.

Of course, we can't cover it all. We have no room to note the the emergence of West Africa as a transshipment point for South American cocaine bound for Europe's booming user markets, nor the unavailability of opioid pain medications in much of the world; we've given short shrift to the horrors of "drug treatment" in Southeast Asia; and we've barely mentioned the rising popularity of synthetic stimulants in European club scenes, among other drug policy-related issues. We'll be keeping an eye on all of those, but in the meantime, here are our choices for this year's most important global drug policy stories:

The Mexican Drug Wars

militarized US-Mexico border
This month marks the fifth anniversary of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's declaration of war on his country's drug trafficking organizations -- the so-called cartels -- and five years in, his policy can only be described as a bloody disaster. The death toll stands at somewhere around 45,000 since Calderon sent in the army and the federal police, but that figure doesn't begin to describe the horror of the drug wars, with their gruesome brutality and exemplary violence.

Mexico's drug wars pit the army and the state and federal police against the cartels, the cartels against each other, and different factions of state, local, and federal police, and even different military commands, aligned with various cartels fighting each other in a multi-sided dance of death. All the violence and corruption has had a corrosive effect on Mexicans' perceptions of personal and public safety and security, as well as on its political system.

It has also tarnished the reputation of the Mexican military. After a two-year investigation, Human Rights Watch reported last month credible evidence that the security forces, led by the military, were responsible for 170 cases of torture, 39 disappearances and 24 extrajudicial killings in the five states they studied.

And, as the cartels battle each other, the military, and the various police, the violence that was once limited to a handful of border cities has spread to cities across the country. Once relatively peaceful Acapulco has been wracked by cartel violence, and this year, both Veracruz and Monterrey, cities once unaffected by the drug wars, have seen murderous acts of spectacular violence.

Meanwhile, business continues as usual, with drugs flowing north across the US border and voluminous amounts of cash and guns flowing south. Calderon's drug war, which has racked up a $43 billion bill so far (and an additional nearly one billion in US Plan Merida aid), has managed to kill or capture dozens of cartel capos, but has had no discernable impact on the provision of drugs across the border to feed America's voracious appetite. Worse, the attempted crackdown on the cartels has led them to expand their operations to neighboring Central American countries where the state is even weaker than in Mexico. Both Guatemala and Honduras have seen significant acts of violence attributed to the cartels this year, while El Salvador and Nicaragua also complain of the increasing presence of Mexican drug trafficking organizations.

There are, however, a couple of positives to report. First, the carnage may have peaked, or at least reached a plateau. It now appears that the 2011 death toll this year, while tremendously high at around 12,000, didl not exceed last year's 15,000. That would mark the first downturn in the killing since Calderon called out the troops.

Second, the bloody failure of Calderon's drug war is energizing domestic Mexican as well as international calls to end drug prohibition. A strong civil society movement against the drug war and violence has emerged in Mexico and, sadly, the sorrow of Mexico is now Exhibit #1 for critics of drug prohibition around the world.

Afghanistan: Still the World's Drug Crop Capital

anti-opium abuse posters at a drug treatment center in Kabul (photo by the author)
A decade after the US invaded Afghanistan in a bid to decapitate Al Qaeda and punish the Taliban, the US and NATO occupation drags bloodily on, even as it begins to wind down. And Afghanistan's status as the world's number one opium poppy producer remains unchallenged. In a Faustian bargain, the West has found itself forced to accept widespread opium production as the price of keeping the peasantry out of Taliban ranks while at the same time acknowledging that the profits from the poppies end up as shiny new weapons used to kill Western soldiers and their Afghan allies.

The Afghan poppy crop was down in 2010, not because of successful eradication programs, but because a fungus blighted much of the crop. In 2011, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that the area under poppy cultivation increased 7%, but that the expected harvest increased 61% because of better yields and would produce about 5,800 metric tons of opium.

The 2010 blight-related poppy shortage led to price increases, which encouraged farmers to plant more poppy and more than doubled the farm-gate value of the crop from $605 million to more than $1.4 billion. Additional hundreds of millions go to traders and traffickers, some linked to the Taliban, others linked to government officials. Last year, US and NATO forces embarked on counter-drug operations aimed at traders and traffickers, but only those linked to the Taliban.

And it's not just opium. According to the UNODC World Drug Report 2011, Afghanistan is also "among the significant cannabis resin producing countries," producing somewhere between 1,500 and 3,500 metric tons of hash in 2010, with no reason to think it has changed dramatically in 2011. That brings in somewhere between $85 million and $265 million at the farm gate.

A decade after the US invasion, Afghanistan remains the world's largest opium producer by far and possibly the world's largest cannabis producer. Given the crucial role these drug crops play in the Afghan economy, there is little reason to think anything is going to change anytime soon.

The Return of the Golden Triangle

In 2010's roundup of major international drug stories, we mentioned the reemergence of opium production in Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle. In 2011, production has accelerated. According to the UNODC's Southeast Asia Opium Survey 2011, opium production has been increasing since 2006, but jumped 16% last year.

The region produced an estimated 638 metric tons this year, of which 91% came from Myanmar, with Laos and Thailand producing the rest. The region is now responsible for about 12% of annual global opium production.

The amount of land under poppy cultivation is still only one-third of what it was at its 1998 peak, but has more than doubled from its low point of 20,000 hectares in 2006. More importantly, estimated total production has rebounded and is now nearly half of what it was in 1998. The UNODC points a finger at chronic food insecurity, weak national governments, and the involvement of government actors, especially in Myanmar.

If Afghanistan does not produce enough opium to satisfy global illicit demand, the countries on the Golden Triangle are standing in the wings, ready to make up the difference.

The Rising Clamor for Legalization

former Mexican president Vicente Fox speaking at the Cato Institute
2011 saw calls for ending drug prohibition growing ever louder and coming from ever more corners of the world. Throughout the year, Latin American leaders, such as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and former Mexican President Vicente Fox, have called repeatedly for drug legalization, or at least a serious discussion of it. Although the specifics of their remarks shift over time -- sometimes it's a call for drug legalization, sometimes for marijuana legalization, sometimes for decriminalization -- leaders like Fox and Santos are issuing a clarion call for fundamental change in global drug policies.

That such calls should come from leaders in Colombia and Mexico is no surprise -- those are two of the countries most ravaged by drug prohibition and the violence it fuels. By the fall, even current Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who unleashed Mexico's drug war five years ago, was starting to join the chorus. In an October interview with Time magazine, Calderon said he could never win in Mexico if Americans don't reduce demand or "reduce at least the profits coming from the black market for drugs." While he was unwilling to take the final step and embrace ending prohibition, he added that "I want to see a serious analysis of the alternatives, and one alternative is to explore the different legal regimes about drugs."

But the biggest news in the international battle to end drug prohibition came at mid-year, when the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a star-studded panel of former presidents and prime ministers, public intellectuals, and business magnates, called the global war on drugs "a failure" and urged governments worldwide to should shift from repressive, law-enforcement centered policies to new ways of legalizing and regulating drugs, especially marijuana, as a means of reducing harm to individuals and society, in a report that drew press attention from around the world.

The commission, heavily salted with Latin American luminaries, grew out of the previous year's Latin American Initiative on Drug Policy and includes some of the same members, including former Brazilian President Henry Cardoso and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo. It is paired with the UK-based Beckley Foundation's Global Initiative for Drug Policy Reform, which launched in November and is eyeing changes in the legal backbone of international drug prohibition, the UN 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and its successor treaties. The global commission also picked up strong support from an organization of Latin American judicial figures, Latin Judges on Drugs and Human Rights, which echoed the commission's call with its own Rome Declaration.

European Reforms

wall paintings near the entrance to Christiania, Copenhagen (wikipedia.org)
Drug reform continued its achingly slow progress in Europe in 2011, with a handful of real advances, as well as a number of parties in various countries taking strong drug reform stands. But while Europe has largely embraced harm reduction and seen the positive results of Portugal's decade-long experiment with drug decriminalization, getting to the take level -- ending drug prohibition -- remains elusive.

In March, Scotland's Liberal Democrats voted to making campaigning for heroin maintenance treatment part of their party platform. Heroin users should not be fined or imprisoned, but should be given the drug through the National Health Service, party members agreed.

In September, their more powerful brethren, the British Liberal Democrats, who are junior partners with the Conservatives in the governing coalition, did them one better by adopting a resolution supporting the decriminalization of drug possession and the regulated distribution of marijuana and calling for an "impact assessment" of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act that would provide a venue for considering decriminalization and controlled marijuana sales. That is going to lead to debate in parliament on the issue next year.

In August, the Greek government proposed drug decriminalization in a bill sent to parliament by Justice Minister Miltadis Papioannou. Under the proposed bill, drug possession for personal use would qualify only as "misconduct" instead of a more serious criminal offense. The bill would also guarantee the right to drug treatment, including for people currently imprisoned. People deemed "addict offenders" by the courts would be provided treatment instead of being jailed. But given the other pressing matters before the Greek government, the bill has yet to move.

Probably the most significant actual drug reform achievement in Europe in 2011 was Poland's passage of a law that allows prosecutors to divert drug users into treatment instead of prison. That law went into effect in December. The new law lets prosecutors bypass the courts in a "treat, not punish" approach to drug use when confronted with people arrested in possession of small amounts of drugs. A person arrested with personal use quantities of drugs can now be immediately referred to a therapist, and prosecutors are compelled to gather information on the extent of the person's drug problem. Still, there is an appetite for more reform; a political party that wants legalize soft drugs won 10% of the vote in the October presidential elections.

There has been some movement on marijuana and hints of more to come, as well in 2011. In an otherwise dismal year for weed in the Netherlands (see below), the Dutch high court ruled in April that anyone can grow up to five pot plants without facing criminal charges, no matter how big the harvest. The ruling came after prosecutors went after two different people who produced large multi-pound yields from a handful of plants, arguing that such harvests violated the Dutch five-gram rule. The court disagreed, but said that the pot would have to be turned over to police if they came to the door.

In June, Italy's top court ruled that balcony pot grows are okay, finding that the amounts of pot produced in such grows "could cause no harm." It's a small advance on earlier court rulings, and a step in the right direction.

And then there are moves that are pushing the envelope. Last month, the Copenhagen city council voted to explore how best to legalize and regulate pot sales. The move has the support of the mayor, but has to be approved by the Danish parliament, which has balked at such measures before. Maybe this time will be different. And raising the ante, the Basque parliament is set to approve a new drug law that will regulate marijuana cultivation, distribution, and consumption. The move is being propelled by the health ministry in the autonomous region of Spain, and would be a direct challenge to the UN conventions' ban on legalization.

Medical Marijuana's Slowly Growing Global Acceptance

It comes by dribs and drabs, but it comes.

In Israel, the Cabinet approved guidelines in August that will govern the supply of marijuana for medical and research purposes. In so doing, it explicitly agreed that marijuana does indeed have medical uses. The move came on the heels of a Health Ministry decision the week before  to deal with supply problems by setting up a unit within the department to grow medical marijuana. That unit will begin operating in January 2012. Currently, medical marijuana is supplied by private Israeli growers, but with the number of medical marijuana patients expected to rise from the current 6,000 to 40,000 by 2016, the state is stepping in to help out with supply.

In the Czech Republic, the Ministry of Health said in September it plans to remove marijuana from its list of proscribed substances and allow it to be prescribed by doctors. The ministry said it would move to amend Czech drug laws by the end of the year to allow for the prescription of marijuana by doctors, although we haven't seen that actually happen yet. The ministry must also determine what sort of distribution system to set up. The Israeli model, where the state is licensing medical marijuana farms, is one oft-cited system.

In New Zealand, medical marijuana was on the agenda of the New Zealand Law Commission when it issued a report in May reviewing the country's drug laws. In addition to other drug reform measures, the commission called for clinical trials on medical marijuana "as soon as practicable" and said medical marijuana patients should not be arrested in the meantime. "Given the strong belief of those who already use cannabis for medicinal purposes that it is an effective form of pain relief with fewer harmful side effects than other legally available drugs, we think that the proper moral position is to promote clinical trials as soon as practicable. We recommend that the government consider doing this." The government there does not appear to be eager to follow those recommendations, but the commission report is laying the groundwork for progress.

In Canada, which has an existing medical marijuana program, the news is more mixed. Health Canada is in the process of adopting a "more traditional regulatory role" for the medical marijuana "marketplace, and envisions privatized medical marijuana provision by licensed and strictly regulated grower. That doesn't sit well with a lot of patients and activists because it means Health Canada wants to eliminate patients' ability to grow their own. Nor were patients particularly impressed with Health Canada's earlier attempt to provide privately produced and licensed medical marijuana. Without outright legalization of marijuana being more popular than the Conservative government, Canada may eventually get around to solving its medical marijuana problem by just legalizing it all.

Iran's Drug War Execution Frenzy

drug burn marking International Anti-Drugs Day, Tehran
Iran has garnered itself a well-deserved reputation as one of the world's leading practitioners of the death penalty, but 2011 saw an absolute explosion of death sentences and executions -- the vast majority of them for drug offenses. At the end of January, we reported that Iran had already executed 56 drug offenders for offenses involving more than five kilograms of opium or 30 grams of heroin. As if that weren't enough, in February, the Islamic Republic made trafficking in synthetic drugs, including meth, a capital offense. More than 50 grams (less than two ounces) of meth could bring the death penalty, but only on a second offense.

At the end of May, by which time the execution toll for drug offenses had risen to 126, Iran announced it had 300 drug offenders on death row and lashed out at Western critics, saying if the West was unhappy with the killings, Iran could simply quit enforcing its drug laws.

"The number of executions in Iran is high because 74% of those executed are traffickers in large quantities of opium from Afghanistan bound for European markets," said Mohammad Javad Larijani, head of Iran's Supreme Council for Human Rights, during a press conference that month. "There is an easy way for Iran and that is to close our eyes so drug traffickers can just pass through Iran to anywhere they want to go," he said."The number of executions in Iran would drop 74%. That would be very good for our reputation."

In a December report, Amnesty International condemned Iran's drug executions, saying the Islamic Republic has embarked on "a killing spree of staggering proportions." The London-based human rights group said "at least 488 people have been executed for alleged drug offenses so far in 2011, a nearly threefold increase on the 2009 figures, when Amnesty International recorded at least 166 executions for similar offenses."

"To try to contain their immense drug problem, the Iranian authorities have carried out a killing spree of staggering proportions, when there is no evidence that execution prevents drug smuggling any more effectively than imprisonment," said Amnesty's Interim Middle East and North Africa deputy director, Ann Harrison. "Drug offenses go much of the way to accounting for the steep rise in executions we have seen in the last 18 months," Harrison said.

Amnesty said it began to receive credible reports of a new wave of drug executions in the middle of 2010, including reports of mass executions at Vakilabad Prison in Mashhad, with one, on August 4, 2010, involving at least 89 people. While Iran officially acknowledged 253 executions in 2010, of which 172 were for drug offenses, Amnesty said it has credible reports of another 300 executions, "the vast majority believed to be for drug-related offenses."

"Ultimately, Iran must abolish the death penalty for all crimes, but stopping the practice of executing drug offenders, which violates international law, would as a first step cut the overall number significantly," said Harrison.

Amnesty also accused Iran of executing people without trial, extracting confessions by torture, failing to notify families -- or sometimes, even inmates -- of impending executions, and mainly executing the poor, members of minority groups, or foreigners, including large numbers of Afghans.

Amnesty noted tartly that Iran receives significant international support in its war on drugs. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has provided $22 million since 2005 to support training for Iranian anti-drug forces, while the European Union is providing $12.3 million for an Iran-based project to strengthen regional anti-drug cooperation. Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, and Japan have all provided anti-drug assistance to Iran via UNODC programs.

"All countries and international organizations helping the Iranian authorities arrest more people for alleged drugs offenses need to take a long hard look at the potential impact of that assistance and what they could do to stop this surge of executions," said Harrison. "They cannot simply look the other way while hundreds of impoverished people are killed each year without fair trials, many only learning their fates a few hours before their deaths."

Iran may be the most egregious offender when it comes to killing drug offenders, but it is by no means the only one. Other countries that not only have the death penalty for drug offenses but actually apply it include China, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Vietnam. Human rights activists argue that the death penalty for drug offenses violates the UN Charter. For information on ongoing efforts to curtail the use of the death penalty for drug offenses, visit the International Harm Reduction Association's Death Penalty Project.

In a bit of good news on the death penalty front, in June, India's Bombay High Court struck down a mandatory death penalty for some drug offenses.The regional high court is the equivalent of a US district court of appeals.

"This is a positive development, which signals that courts have also started to recognize principles of harm reduction and human rights in relation to drugs. It is not utopia, but it is a giant step," said Indian Harm Reduction Network head Luke Samson.

"The Court has upheld at the domestic level what has been emphasized for years by international human rights bodies -- capital drug laws that take away judicial discretion are a violation of the rule of law," said Rick Lines, executive director of Harm Reduction International (formerly the International Harm Reduction Association) and author of The Death Penalty for Drug Offenses: A Violation of International Human Rights Law"India's justice system has affirmed that it is entirely unacceptable for such a penalty to be mandatory. This will set a positive precedent for judicial authorities in the region, which is rife with draconian drug laws."

Weekly updates on executions worldwide including for drug offenses are available from the Rome-based group Hands Off Cain.

The Netherlands Will Bar Foreigners from its Cannabis Cafes... and More

a coffee shop in Amsterdam (wikimedia.org)
The Netherlands' conservative coalition government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte continued and deepened its effort to undo Holland's reputation as a marijuana haven and drug tourism destination last year. Plans to ban foreigners from Dutch cannabis cafes reached fruition in 2011, with the Dutch Justice Ministry saying in November that foreigners would be barred from southern border coffee shops effective January 1. A month later, the government announced that plan would be delayed until May, and would go into effect nationwide beginning in 2013. Goodbye, tourist dollars.

But it's not just clamping down on foreigners. The number of coffee shops operating in the country has dropped by about half from its peak, with local governments putting the squeeze on them via measures such as distance restrictions (must be so far from a school, etc.). Now, the national government will be limiting their client base to 2,000 card carrying Dutch nationals each.

The national government also rather bizarrely declared in October that it wanted to declare high-potency marijuana a dangerous drug like cocaine or heroin and ban its possession or sale. That hasn't happened yet, but unless the Dutch get around to electing a more progressive government, the Christian Democrats and their allies will continue to work to undo the country's progressive pot policy reputation, not to mention its tourism industry..

North America's Only Supervised Injection Site Gets a Reprieve

Ending a years' long effort by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Steven Harper to close Insite, the Vancouver supervised injection site for hard drug users, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously in September that it should be allowed to stay open.

The Harper government, a foe of harm reduction practices in general and safe inection sites in particular, had argued that the federal drug law took precedence over British Columbia's public health policies. British Columbia and other Insite supporters argued that because Insite is providing a form of health care, its operation is a provincial matter. The federal government's concerns did not outweigh the benefits of Insite, the court said.

"The grave consequences that might result from a lapse in the current constitutional exemption for Insite cannot be ignored," the court said. "Insite has been proven to save lives with no discernible negative impact on the public safety and health objectives of Canada."

Insite has been the only supervised injection site on the North American continent, but in the wake of that ruling, that may not be the case for long. In the wake of the September ruling, Montreal announced plans for four safe injection sites in December. It's not a done deal -- it will require financing from provincial health agencies -- but plans are moving forward. And there are distant rumblings of plans for an effort to get a supervised injection site running in San Francisco, which would be a first for the US, but don't hold your breath on that one.

If the Harper government has been defeated in its effort to kill supervised injection sites, it is moving forward with plans to pass an omnibus crime bill that includes mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses, including growing as few as six pot plants. With an absolute majority in a parliamentary system, there seems to be no way to block the bill's passage, which will mean a real step backward for our northern neighbor as it emulates some of our worst penal practices.

Bolivia Challenges the Global Coca Ban

coca leaves drying in warehouse, Ayacucho province (photo by the author)
At the end of June, the Bolivian government of former coca-grower union leader Evo Morales announced it was resigning from the UN 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs because that treaty bans the cultivation of coca. The resignation is effective January 1. The move came after a failed effort last year by Bolivia to amend the treaty to allow for coca cultivation, a traditional activity in the Andes, where the plant has been used as a mild stimulant and hunger suppresser for millennia.

"This is an attempt to keep the cultural and inoffensive practice of coca chewing and to respect human rights, but not just of indigenous people, because this is an ancient practice of all Bolivian people," Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca told the British newspaper The Guardian at the time.

Bolivia will rejoin the convention sometime during the new year, but with the reservation that it does not accept the language proscribing the coca plant.

That move has aroused the concern of the International Narcotics Control Board, which issued a statement saying the international community should reject moves by any country to quit the treaty and return with reservations doing so "would undermine the integrity of the global drug control system."

Of course, there are many people aside from Evo Morales who believe the global drug control system lacks any integrity whatsoever. For those people, the actions of Bolivia represent the first serious effort to begin to undo the legal backbone of the global prohibition system.

Morales himself said last month
that he believes Bolivia will succeed next year. "I am convinced that next year we will win this international 'fight' for the recognition of chewing coca leaves as a tradition of peoples in Latin America, living in the Andes," he  said in an interview with the Bolivian radio station Patria Nueva.

In ending...

Global drug prohibition is under sustained, systemic, and well-deserved attack. It is being attacked (finally) in its core treaties and institutions, it is under ever broader political attack from around the planet; its central precepts are increasingly tattered. Ever year the clamor grows louder in the face of prohibition's screaming failure to accomplish its given ends and the terrible costs it generates. The process of chipping away at drug prohibition is under way. The prohibitionist consensus is crumbling; now comes the struggle to finally kill the beast and replace it with a more sensible, compassionate, and smarter approach to mind-altering substances.

Gary Johnson to Seek Libertarian Presidential Nomination

The Washington, DC, political news web site Politico.com reported Tuesday that Gary Johnson will end his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination and instead seek the Libertarian Party nomination. Citing Johnson campaign sources, Politico.com said that Johnson will make the announcement at a December 28 press conference in Santa Fe.

Gary Johnson (wikimedia.org)
Calling news of the switch "the worst kept secret," Libertarian Party Chairman Mark Hinkle told Politico.com that Johnson had been in talks with Libertarian officials for months. "It looks like it's definitely going to come to fruition here," he said.

The former New Mexico governor's bid for the Republican nomination never got any traction and he never got above single digits in any polls. The low polling numbers keep him out of most debates -- unfairly, his campaign claimed -- further reducing his chances in a crowded field.

Johnson has a strong drug reform platform, which calls outright for legalization of marijuana and a harm reduction approach to other drugs.

"Abuse of hard drugs is a health problem that should be dealt with by health experts, not a problem that should be clogging up our courts, jails, and prisons with addicts," the platform says. "Instead of continuing to arrest and incarcerate drug users, we should seriously consider the examples of countries such as Portugal and the Netherlands, and we should ultimately choose to adopt policies which aim to reduce death, disease, violence, and crime associated with dangerous drugs."

Although it's no shoo-in, Johnson could well win the Libertarian nomination. While there are a handful of other contenders, none of them has Johnson's national stature. And while party stalwarts daydream of a Ron Paul or Jesse Ventura candidacy, Paul is busy fighting for the Republican nomination and says he has no plans to seek a third party nomination, and Ventura is incommunicado in Mexico.

If he wins the nomination, not only could Johnson use the campaign as a bully pulpit for his drug policy ideas, his candidacy could have an impact on the two-party presidential race, especially in his home state of New Mexico, which went big for Obama in 2008. According to a Public Policy Polling survey conducted earlier this month, Johnson would pull 23% in a contest with Obama (44%) and Romney (27%) and he would pull 20% in a contest with Obama (45%) and Gingrich (28%). Obama is currently polling well against all the Republican candidates and can probably carry the state, but a third party Johnson candidacy would almost ensure an Obama victory in a state he can ill afford to lose next year.

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares 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.)

Washington, DC
United States

Basque Country to Legalize, Regulate Marijuana

The parliament of Spain's Basque Country Autonomous Community will approve a new drug law early next year that will regulate marijuana cultivation, distribution, and consumption, EFE reported Tuesday.

the Basque parliament in Vitoria-Gasteiz (wikimedia.org)
The Basque Country Autonomous Community is charged with setting and enforcing domestic law within its borders in northeastern Spain. If the bill passes, it would mark a direct challenge to the United Nations' 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which forbids legalization.

"It's better to regulate than to ban," said Jesus Maria Fernandez, second in command at the region's health authority. Regulating "the growing, sale, and consumption of cannabis" is a better approach to pot smoking, he said, calling it "a practice that is already consolidated."

Regional health authority head Rafael Bengoa echoed his subordinate's words. "We do not want to be prohibitionists," he said. Bengoa added that "technical and legal studies have been undertaken" and that the regional government wants to "open a debate" with groups representing marijuana users to help "shape their rights."

The pending bill also includes measures for prevention and treatment not only of drug addiction, but also addictions to gambling and new technologies.

Vitoria-Gasteiz
Spain

Marijuana Legalization Fares Well in Colorado, Massachusetts Polls

Two polls released late last week show strong support for marijuana legalization in Colorado and Massachusetts. Both states have already decriminalized the possession of small amounts of pot, and activists in both states are working toward legalization. In Colorado, an effort to put a legalization initiative on the ballot next year is well underway, while in Massachusetts, this year's emphasis is on legalizing medical marijuana.

In Massachusetts, a DAPA Research poll conducted for the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition/NORML found that 58% support legalizing marijuana and regulating it like other agricultural commodities with sales prohibited to underage persons. The figure was 69% for Democrats, 44% for Republicans, and 54% for "other."

Support for legalization rose to 62% when respondents were asked if a proposed law would tax and regulate the cultivation and distribution of marijuana to adults like the state currently regulates alcohol. The figure was 70% for Democrats, 56% for Republicans, and 60% for "other."

The poll also found that 54% opposed the federal government disregarding state laws in states that legalize marijuana, while only 35% supported the federal government disregarding state law.

The Massachusetts poll was conducted in November. It surveyed 600 Massachusetts voters by telephone and has a margin of error of +/-4%.

"The data strongly suggests that Massachusetts voters are more ready than voters in any other state to end prohibition and establish reasonable regulation of cannabis cultivation and commerce for all purposes," said Steven Epstein, a founder and currently an officer of MassCann/NORML. "The data also establishes that if the legislature does not enact a law allowing medical use of marijuana this session the voters will overwhelmingly, perhaps 80%+, approve the voter initiative for the Humanitarian Medical Use of Marijuana at the ballot box in November."

"Legalization is essential to ending crime created by the prohibition of cannabis," said Cara Crabb-Burnham, a member of MassCann/NORML's board of directors. "It is important to recognize legal vendors will card customers and keep it out of the hands of children."

In Colorado, a Public Policy Polling survey asked "in general, do you think marijuana usage should be legal or illegal," and legal won by a margin of 49% to 40%. A similar question about medical marijuana showed support at 68%, with only 25% saying it should be illegal. No cross tabs were available for the poll.

The poll surveyed 793 Colorado voters from December 1 to 4. The margin of error for the survey is +/-3.5%.  It was conducted via automated telephone interview.

The poll sends a mixed message for Colorado legalizers. It demonstrates that marijuana legalization is more popular than pot prohibition in the Rocky Mountain State, but not quite popular enough to win at the polls next year. The conventional wisdom among initiative experts is that they should be polling at 60% or above before the campaign begins.

But Art Way, Colorado manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, told the Colorado Independent said he had seen polls showing stronger support than this one and that it was early yet. "I think it will go higher as the campaign heats up," he said.

Poland "Treatment Not Jail" Drug Law Now in Effect

An amendment to Poland's drug law that allows prosecutors to divert drug users to treatment instead of prison went into effect last Friday, PolskieRadio reported.

This crack smoker could get treatment instead of jail under a new Polish law (image via wikimedia.org)
The amendment lets prosecutors bypass the courts in a "treat, not punish" approach to drug use when confronted with people arrested in possession of small amounts of drugs. A person arrested with personal use quantities of drugs can now be immediately referred to a therapist, and prosecutors are compelled to gather information on the extent of the person's drug problem.

National Bureau for Drug Prevention spokeswoman Barbara Wilamowska told PolskieRadio she believes the new approach will result in fewer prosecutions.

Agnieszka Sieniawska, head of the Polish Drug Policy Network (PSPN), said the new system will be quicker, cheaper and more efficient.

But while the amendment represents a kinder, gentler approach to drug users, that same law increases penalties for drug trafficking.

The amendment comes into effect a month after two Polish Nobel Prize laureates, former president Lech Walesa and poet Wislawa Szymborska, signed a statement calling for lighter punishments for those arrested for personal use.

Meanwhile, a newly formed liberal political party, Palikot's Movement, is calling for the full legalization of soft drugs. It won a surprising 10% of the vote in the October general election. But Prime Minister Donald Tusk, head of the current coalition government, has said that his Civic Platform Party opposes legalization.

Poland

New Study Finds Traffic Fatalities Decline with Medical Marijuana Laws [FEATURE]

A study released this week has found legalizing medical marijuana has resulted in a nearly 9% decline in traffic deaths and a 5% reduction in beer sales in states that allow it. The study is the first ever to examine the relationship between medical marijuana and traffic fatalities.

Reduces nausea, spasms -- and traffic accidents? (image courtesy Laurie Avocado via wikimedia.org)
The study, Medical Marijuana Laws, Traffic Fatalities, and Alcohol Consumption, could be an important intervention in ongoing debates over medical marijuana and marijuana legalization, reformers said. Opponents of loosened marijuana laws use concerns over drugged driving and possible traffic fatalities as one of their most effective arguments against liberalization, and this study could lessen the effectiveness of that argument.

"Our research suggests that the legalization of medical marijuana reduces traffic fatalities through reducing alcohol consumption by young adults," said Daniel Rees, professor of economics at the University of Colorado Denver, who coauthored the study with D. Mark Anderson, assistant professor of economics at Montana State University.

The economists analyzed traffic fatalities nationwide, including 13 states that legalized medical marijuana between 1990 and 2009. In those states, they found evidence that alcohol consumption by 20-29-year-olds went down, resulting in fewer deaths on the road. The researchers collected data from a variety of sources including the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, and the Fatality Analysis Reporting System.

"We were astounded by how little is known about the effects of legalizing medical marijuana," Rees said. "We looked into traffic fatalities because there is good data, and the data allow us to test whether alcohol was a factor."

Anderson noted that traffic deaths are significant from a policy standpoint. "Traffic fatalities are an important outcome from a policy perspective because they represent the leading cause of death among Americans ages five to 34," he said.

According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control, alcohol-impaired driving accounted for fully one-third of the 10,839 traffic fatalities in 2009. If the 9% reduction in fatalities reported by the researchers in medical marijuana states were applied nationwide, easy availability of marijuana could result in about 1,000 fewer traffic deaths a year.

Anderson and Rees noted that simulator studies conducted by other researchers showed that drivers under the influence of marijuana tend to avoid risks, while those under the influence of alcohol underestimate their degree of impairment, drive faster, and take more risks. But they cautioned that traffic deaths may have declined not because driving while high is safer than driving while drunk, but because medical marijuana is typically used in private, while alcohol is often consumed at bars and restaurants.

"I think this is a very timely study given all the medical marijuana laws being passed or under consideration," Anderson said. "These policies have not been research-based thus far and our research shows some of the social effects of these laws. Our results suggest a direct link between marijuana and alcohol consumption."

"Although we make no policy recommendations, it certainly appears as though medical marijuana laws are making our highways safer," Rees said.

Marijuana reform advocates who have studiously compared alcohol and marijuana liked what they heard.

"Every objective study on marijuana has concluded that it is far safer than alcohol for the user and society," said Mason Tvert, executive director of Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER) and coauthor of the book, Marijuana is Safer: So why are we driving people to drink? "It should come as little surprise that when we allow adults to make the safer choice to use marijuana it results in less drinking and fewer alcohol-related problems."

Tvert coordinated the successful ballot initiatives in Denver that made it the first city in the nation to remove all penalties for adult possession (2005), and designated possession as its lowest law enforcement priority (2007).  He is currently one of two formal proponents of a 2012 statewide initiative campaign to make marijuana legal in Colorado and regulate it like alcohol.

"This is far from conclusive, but the study definitely shows a clear correlation between medical marijuana laws and decreased traffic fatalities," said Morgan Fox, communications manager for the Marijuana Policy Project. "The important thing is that is concurrent with a decrease in alcohol consumption."

"When these laws get passed, traffic fatalities go down, and that's important because fear of increased traffic fatalities is one of the biggest arrows in the quiver of foes," Fox noted. "This is going to make it easier for us to win that argument."

The argument could be applied not only to medical marijuana, but also to marijuana legalization in general, Fox said. "You certainly could make the argument that allowing it for recreational use instead of just medical would decrease the amount of alcohol consumed and reduce traffic fatalities," he said.

"If allowing the legal use of marijuana for medical purposes reduces alcohol consumption and traffic deaths, making it legal for personal use could reduce it dramatically," Tvert agreed. "It's time for our government to stop driving people to drink -- and drink and drive -- and start allowing them to make the rational, safer choice to use marijuana, if that is what they prefer."

Drug Reform Ally Barney Frank Retiring from Congress

Advocates of drug policy reform are losing a key ally on Capitol Hill. Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) announced Monday that he will not seek reelection and will retire at the end of this term in January 2013.

Barney Frank at press conference calling for repeal of a law that denies financial aid to students because of drug convictions
Frank, 71, has served in Congress for 30 years and is now the ranking minority member of the House Financial Services Committee. The openly gay congressman has been a liberal stalwart throughout his tenure on the Hill and among the strongest congressional advocates of drug policy reform.

Beginning in 2001, Frank repeatedly introduced bills that would block the government from intervening in states with medical marijuana laws, and since 2008, he has introduced bills that would decriminalize marijuana possession. This year, he teamed up with libertarian Republican Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) to introduce the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act. That bill currently has 19 cosponsors.

Frank was also the lead sponsor of the "Removing Impediments to Students' Education" act to repeal a provision added to the Higher Education Act in 1998 that delays or denies federal financial aid to students because of drug convictions. The law was scaled back in 2006 to apply just to offenses committed while one is in college and receiving aid, and in 2009 the House of Representatives passed language as part of a student aid funding bill that would have limited it further to just sales convictions. (The section of the 2009 bill containing that language was stripped as part of Democrats' strategy to pass health care reform, in which the health care reform and education bills were combined.)

In 1994 Frank was one of four members of Congress, a Democrat and Republican from both the House and Senate, who advanced "safety valve" legislation to allow judges to exempt first-time drug offenders from five- and ten-year mandatory minimum sentences under specified circumstances.

None of his marijuana law reform bills have come close to passage, but Frank gets big kudos from the reform community for his tireless efforts. His sponsorship of marijuana reform legislation has helped change the conversation in Congress, a process he admitted in a 2009 interview with Esquire is still far from complete.

"Announcing that the government should mind its own business on marijuana is really not that hard," he said. "There's not a lot of complexity here. We should stop treating people as criminals because they smoke marijuana. The problem is the political will. This is a case where there's cultural lag on the part of my colleagues. If you ask them privately, they don't think it's a terrible thing. But they're afraid of being portrayed as soft on drugs."

Frank's bold and straightforward stance has helped begin to change that, but with his impending retirement, marijuana and larger drug policy reform will lose a champion in Congress. His seat may remain Democratic, but there are few Democrats who have been as good as Barney Frank when it comes to trying to end the drug war.

Washington, DC
United States

Vancouver Mayors Say Legalize Marijuana

Four of Vancouver's last five former mayors called last week for end of marijuana prohibition, saying anti-pot policies have failed to reduce marijuana's availability and that prohibition has fueled violence in British Columbia communities. Thursday evening, current Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson joined his predecessors, adding his voice to the call.

Free the weed, say Vancouver mayors (image courtesy the author).
In an open letter released November 23, former mayors Mike Harcourt (1980-1986), Philip Owen (1993-2002), Larry Campbell (2002-2005), and Sam Sullivan (2005-2008) called on the province's politicians to legalize and regulate pot in BC. The letter was released by Stop the Violence BC, which just last month published a report outlining the links between marijuana prohibition and organized crime and violence and calling for a regulated, public health approach to marijuana.

"Marijuana prohibition is -- without question -- a failed policy," the former mayors wrote. "It is creating violent, gang-related crime in our communities and fear among our citizens, and adding financial costs for all levels of government at a time when we can least afford them. Politicians cannot ignore the status quo any longer; they must develop and deliver alternative marijuana policies that avoid the social and criminal harms that stem directly from cannabis prohibition."

The ex-mayors' intervention comes as the Canadian federal government of Conservative Prime Minister Steven Harper is attempting to push through a crime bill that would, among other things, impose mandatory minimum prison sentences for growing as few as five plants. But that's not a popular position in British Columbia, where a recent Angus Reid poll had support for taxing and regulating marijuana at 69%. It is past time for elected officials to get on board the marijuana reform bandwagon, the ex-mayor's said.

"Clearly, elected officials are out of step with their public on marijuana prohibition," they wrote. "It is time that elected officials enter the debate and deliver specific proposals to address the easy availability of cannabis to youth and the organized crime concerns stemming directly from cannabis prohibition."

One elected official who has heeded that call is current Vancouver Mayor Robertson. In a tweet sent out the following evening, Robertson said, "Good to see 4 Vancouver ex-mayors calling for end of cannabis prohibition. I agree, we need to be smart and tax/regulate."

In British Columbia, at least, the wall of silence by elected officials around legalizing marijuana has been breached. Whether that will lead to BC retaking its spot in the vanguard of pot law reform worldwide remains to be seen, but it's a good start.

(Drug War Chronicle's 2003 interview with Mayor Campbell is online here.)

Vancouver, BC
Canada

Video: Former Drug Czar Gets Destroyed in Legalization Debate

This recent debate between former Drug Czar John Walters and blogger/author Glenn Greenwald is worth watching in its entirety.

Since 98% of Greenwald’s writing isn’t even about drug policy, it’s easy to forget what a powerful advocate for reform he really is. His opening statement is impressive and couldn’t easily be improved upon. Walters is terribly boring and dispassionate by comparison, aside from being completely wrong about everything.

Many of us, particularly Pete Guither, have salivated for years at the thought of standing onstage across from Walters and taking him apart as Greenwald does here. It’s a rare and interesting event, but it also serves to illustrate something I’ve struggled at times to explain to enthusiastic young reform activists: our opponents don’t vanish in a puff of smoke when you beat them in a debate. They don’t break down like Michael Douglas in Traffic, and proceed to rebuke everything they stood for the day before. It’s not that easy.

Still, there was a time in the very recent past when someone with John Walters’ towering drug war credentials would never even entertain the idea that another approach existed. That he must now take the stage in defense of his own legacy is an interesting thing to see, even if every word out of his mouth is what we expected to hear.

In so many ways, not even George Soros has done more to devastate the popularity of prohibition in America than former Drug Czar John Walters. Any time this man wants a microphone in front of his face, we’ll do well to make damn sure he gets it. 

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