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Chronicle AM: CA Waits for Big Legalization Init, NYC "Fake Weed" Ban Proposed, More (8/26/2015)

We're still waiting for the big one to drop in California, Ohio officials don't play nice with initiative ballot title language, Illinois gets its first dispensary approved, NYC wants to ban "fake weed,' and more.

The long-awaited ReformCA initiative is late out of the gate, but should be coming soon. (
Marijuana Policy

Big California Legalization Initiative Nearly Ready. It's getting late in the season, and the ReformCA legalization initiative has yet to be rolled out. ReformCA chair Dale Sky Jones says it is coming next month, but the delay is cutting into signature-gathering time and is keeping funding on the sidelines for now. Click on the link for more details.

Ohio Secretary of State Uses "Monopoly" to Describe Legalization Initiative in Ballot Title. Secretary of State Jon Husted (R) has inserted the word "monopoly" into the title of the ResponsibleOhio legalization initiative, now known as Issue 3. The title voters will see when they cast their votes will be "Grants a monopoly for the commercial production and sale of marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes." The initiative would give exclusive rights to grow marijuana commercially to 10 growing facilities whose owners are the funders of the initiative. But ResponsibleOhio counters that state regulators could later expand the number of sites.

Medical Marijuana

Illinois Issues First Dispensary License. The state Department of Financial and Professional Regulations has granted a dispensary license to the Harbory in Marion. Another dispensary is under construction in Milan, but has yet to be licensed. There will be more to come. "Illinois medical cannabis dispensaries will continue to be registered on a rolling basis," said the DFPR in a statement. "Illinois medical cannabis dispensaries will receive medical cannabis exclusively from Illinois' licensed growing facilities once it becomes available."

New Psychoactive Substances

Bill Would Ban "Synthetic Marijuana" in New York City. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said Tuesday she will file a bill to ban the sale of synthetic cannabinoids in the city. "This is a concern that's growing. We're trying to get a handle on it," she said at a news conference. Under the bill, people found guilty of selling the substance could face up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine, with the fine increasing to $25,000 for subsequent violations. City officials have reported violent incidents and hospital ER visits linked to the drug.


British Tories Forego Debate to Reject Marijuana Legalization Petition. The British government is rejecting out of hand a petition calling for legalization that garnered more than 200,000 signatures on a new government website. The petition is supposed to require the parliament to consider the question, but the Tories control the backbenches, and the government isn't waiting to dash cold water on the idea. Its official reply says: "Substantial scientific evidence shows cannabis is a harmful drug that can damage human health. There are no plans to legalize cannabis as it would not address the harm to individuals and communities. Cannabis can unquestionably cause harm to individuals and society. Legalization of cannabis would not eliminate the crime committed by the illicit trade, nor would it address the harms associated with drug dependence and the misery that this can cause to families."

Salvia Divinorum To Be Banned in Canada as of February. On February 8, 2016, the fast-acting psychedelic will officially be added to Schedule IV of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. "The (CDSA) will prohibit activities such as the trafficking, possession for the purpose of trafficking, importation, exportation, possession for the purpose of exportation, and production, of Salvia Divinorum, its preparations, and derivatives, unless authorized by regulation or via an exemption," Health Canada said. Simple possession will not be prohibited by law.

Three Marijuana Reform Bills Filed in Louisiana

(Welcome back to our one-time intern Jimi Devine, who has graciously volunteered his time to support our blog.)

Louisiana State Capitol
The smell of marijuana reform is strong in the bayou air, Louisiana is now home to a big push for both medical marijuana and major sentencing reforms around marijuana convictions.

Today the Louisiana legislature' House Health and Welfare Committee will hear a medical marijuana bill brought forward by Republican State Senator Fred Mills, a man who formerly served as head of the Louisiana Board of Pharmacy. Mills spent the last year working with law enforcement to make it past a committee and organizations that had held it back in the past.

According to Northeast Louisiana media outlet The News Star, major revisions have been made with support from the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, they include:

  • Prescribed marijuana would be taken in a form other than smoking it, perhaps in a pill.
  • The state Agriculture Department would be in charge of growing marijuana to be used for medical purposes.
  • Dispensing pharmacies -- ten, at this point -- would be required to meet certain conditions.
  • The bill would "sunset," or be reviewed on Jan. 1, 2020, giving lawmakers pause to determine if the changes to state law were beneficial. If the bill proves ineffective, the law could be corrected or ended.
  • The Louisiana Board of Pharmacy would adopt rules about dispensing medical marijuana.

This session the bill made it through the Senate Health and Welfare Committee that halted its progress in 2014, and then passed the full senate with two thirds in support. On when he takes it before the house Mills noted, "I'm hoping for a repeat performance from the Senate."

While the bill is very restrictive, but it would reinforce national trends on the medical use of marijuana in Louisiana. Hopefully leading to a more inclusive law in the future.

The sentencing reform bills look to reduce the penalties associated with a marijuana conviction in the state. Currently a third marijuana possession conviction could lead to a baffling 20 year sentence.

According to, the bill authored by New Orleans State Senator J.P. Morrell,

"reduces the maximum penalty for possession from 20 years in prison to eight, raises the threshold for a felony-level possession charge and adds a second-chance provision for first-time offenders."

Penalties would still be much more severe than their counterparts in other states, but first time offenders would have one opportunity to expunge their record after two years without a conviction. The bill would also reclassify a second offense from a felony to misdemeanor for quantities between fourteen grams and two and a half pounds.

The bill is projected to save Louisiana $17 million over the first five years. This would cover the $900,000 a year in wasteful spending on corrections highlighted by the Office of State Inspector General with $13 million to spare. columnist Jarvis DaBerry noted,

"Such a bill does two important things. First, it establishes that a person with a small amount of weed isn't a real threat to the public. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the bill would keep such a conviction from haunting a person forever."

The second bill authored by Rep. Austin Badon would push major reforms, but is not as big a shift as the one presented by Morrell. Badon' bill would see those committing a third offense jailed five years, as opposed to the two year sentence in Morell' bill. It also does not include the possibility of conviction being expunged for first time offenders.

UPDATE: On Thursday Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said he would sign the bills if passed by the house and senate. In regards to the sentencing bill he told the Shreveport Times

"We've said all along we're fine with the idea of providing rehabilitation and treatment for nonviolent drug offenders. I think this bill does that. That's good for those offenders, that is good for taxpayers. So again, that's another one of those bills that if it got to our desk we'd sign that."

While Louisiana debates the direction of their sentencing procedures, I'll leave you with another quote from Jarvis DeBerry on the subject:

"Here's a prediction: Sooner or later, we're going to look back at what Louisiana has doing to folks caught with marijuana, and we're going to be just as shocked those sentences had our officials' blessing."


Release: Major Groups Call for UN to Respect Countries That Legalize Marijuana or Other Drugs (5/5/15)


CONTACT: David Borden,

Major Groups Call for UN to Respect Countries That Legalize Marijuana or Other Drugs

Human Rights Should Take Priority Over Drug Enforcement, New Letter Says

NEW YORK, NY – As the United Nations prepares for the first comprehensive review of global responses to drug problems in nearly two decades, a broad coalition of more than 100 organizations is pushing for the international body to respect countries that move away from prohibition.

"Existing US and global drug control policies that heavily emphasize criminalization of drug use, possession, production and distribution are inconsistent with international human rights standards and have contributed to serious human rights violations," the groups write in a new letter being released today.

Groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, Global Exchange, Drug Policy Alliance and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights are among the signatories. Also notable are a number of organizations devoted to health policy and AIDS services.

The letter's release is timed to a United Nations "High-Level Thematic Debate on the World Drug Problem" taking place in New York on Thursday, May 7, in preparation for a UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) scheduled for April 2016. Advocates believe that countries should take the UNGASS as an opportunity to pursue a range of reforms to global drug policy, including revising provisions of the UN Drug Conventions that threaten to stand in the way of reform. The Obama administration has taken the stance that countries should be free to pursue different kinds of systems under the treaties – including legalization – but has also opposed treaty reform, a stance which advocates have questioned.

"The administration's call to respect countries' right to try regulation rather than prohibition is a positive step for drug policy, as are other reforms the US has sought internationally," said David Borden, executive director of, who coordinated the sign-on letter. "But it doesn't make sense to oppose having a discussion within the UN about modernizing the treaties to reflect that."

The coalition has called for the UN to appoint a "Committee of Experts" to study treaty reform, a common UN procedure for addressing issues of interest.

To date, four US states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis, as has the nation of Uruguay. Many other countries have decriminalized possession of certain drugs or have implemented harm reduction measures like syringe exchange programs. While the UN's drug enforcement body has warned that some of these policies may violate the treaties, the push for reform doesn't appear to be slowing anytime soon.

The new letter calls for revising the treaties, and says that in the meanwhile "in case of irreconcilable conflict, human rights principles, which lie at the core of the United Nations charter, should take priority over provisions of the drug conventions."  Human rights concerns may require shifting to drug control systems that aren't based on prohibition, the statement suggests. "Accommodating… experiments… with legalization and regulation of internationally controlled substances may require that the UN drug conventions are interpreted in light of countries' international human rights and other obligations."

Although marijuana legalization is a major factor driving the international drug debate, another is the impact the illicit drug trade has in Latin America, where violence and related criminal problems associated with the trade exceed that suffered in other regions.

John Walsh, senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), said, "Some Latin American leaders are now openly questioning the global drug prohibition regime, because of the destruction caused by criminal organizations fueled by enormous drug trade profits. Meanwhile, the US is undergoing important shifts in its own domestic policy, with the Obama administration wisely accommodating states that are legalizing and regulating cannabis. This expands the political space for other countries as well." Walsh is the coauthor of "Marijuana Legalization is an Opportunity to Modernize International Drug Treaties," co-published by WOLA and The Brookings Institution.

Advocates also warn that flexibility, as called for by the State Department, shouldn't be used to justify human rights violations in any country, such as the death penalty for nonviolent offenses or the banning of life-saving public health interventions like syringe exchange or opioid substitution therapy. "Prohibition has been a public health and human rights disaster," said Charles King, CEO of the US's largest community-based AIDS service organization, Housing Works. "That's why citizens around the world are calling for – and in some cases enacting – forward-thinking reforms that move away from criminalization and toward regulation and control. US and UN agencies should stop trying to cut off the treaty reform discussion and encourage a truly open debate instead."

The full text of the letter and list of signatories are online at works for an end to drug prohibition worldwide, and an end to the "drug war" in its current form. We believe that much of the harm commonly attributed to "drugs" is really the result of placing drugs in a criminal environment. We believe the global drug war has fueled violence, civil instability and public health crises; and that the currently prevalent arrest- and punishment-based policies toward drugs are unjust.

# # #

End the Drug War "For the Kids" Coalition Forms [FEATURE]

In a move precipitated by the child immigration border crisis, but informed by the ongoing damage done to children on both sides of the border by law enforcement-heavy, militarized anti-drug policies, a broad coalition of more than 80 civil rights, immigration, criminal justice, racial justice, human rights, libertarian and religious organizations came together late last week to call for an end to the war on drugs in the name of protecting the kids.

The failures of the war on drugs transcend borders. (

"The quality of a society can and should be measured by how its most vulnerable are treated, beginning with our children," said Asha Bandele of the Drug Policy Alliance, the organization that coordinated the letter. "Children have every right to expect that we will care for, love and nurture them into maturity. The drug war is among the policies that disrupts our responsibility to that calling."

The groups, as well as prominent individuals such as The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander, signed on to a letter of support for new policies aimed at ending the war on drugs.

"In recent weeks," the letter says, "the plight of the 52,000 unaccompanied children apprehended at the US border since last October, many of whom are fleeing drug war violence in Central America, has permeated our national consciousness. The devastating consequences of the drug war have not only been felt in Latin America, they are also having ravaging effects here at home. All too often, children are on the frontlines of this misguided war that knows no borders or color lines."

Organizations signing the letter include a broad range of groups representing different issues and interests, but all are united in seeing the war on drugs as an obstacle to improvement. They include the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Center for Constitutional Rights, the Institute of the Black World,, Students for Liberty, United We Dream, the William C. Velasquez Institute, and the Working Families Organization. For a complete list of signatories, click here. [Disclosure:, the organization publishing this article, is a signatory.]

In the past few months, more than 50,000 minors fleeing record levels of violence in the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have arrived at the US border seeking either to start a new life or to reconnect with family members already in the country. The causes of the violence in Central America are complex and historically-rooted, but one of them is clearly the US war on drugs, heavy-handedly exported to countries throughout the Western Hemisphere in the past several decades.

Those northern Central American countries -- the so-called Northern Triangle -- have been especially hard hit by drug prohibition-related violence since about 2008, when, after the US helped Mexico bulk up its war on the drug cartels via the $2.4 billion Plan Merida assistance package (President Obama wants another $115 million for it next year), the cartels began expanding their operations into the weaker Central American states. Already high crime levels went through the roof.

Honduras's second largest city, San Pedro Sula, now has the dubious distinction of boasting the world's highest murder rate, while the three national capitals, Guatemala City, San Salvador, and Tegucigalpa, are all in the top 10 deadliest cities worldwide. Many of the victims are minors, who are often targeted because of their membership in drug trade-affiliated street gangs (or because they refuse to join the gangs).

Protesting for schools, not prisons in California (Ella Baker Center)
The impact of the war on drugs on kids in the United States is less dramatic, but no less deleterious. Hundreds of thousands of American children have one or both parents behind bars for drug offenses, suffering not only the stigma and emotional trauma of being a prisoner's child, but also the collateral consequences of impoverishment and familial and community instability. Millions more face the prospect of navigating the mean streets of American cities where, despite some recent retreat from the drug war's most serious excesses, the war on drugs continues to make some neighborhoods extremely dangerous places.

"In the face of this spiraling tragedy that continues to disproportionately consume the lives and futures of black and brown children," the letter concludes, "it is imperative to end the nefarious militarization and mass incarceration occurring in the name of the war on drugs. So often, repressive drug policies are touted as measures to protect the welfare of our children, but in reality, they do little more than serve as one great big Child Endangerment Act. On behalf of the children, it is time to rethink the war on drugs."

Although the signatory groups represent diverse interests and constituencies, coming together around the common issue of protecting children could lay the groundwork for a more enduring coalition, said Jeronimo Saldana, a legislative and organizing coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance.

"The idea was to get folks together to make a statement. Now, we have to figure out how to move forward. The letter was the first step," he said.

"The groups have been very positive," Saldana continued. "They're glad someone was speaking up and putting it all together. What's going on in Central American and Mexico is tied into what's happening in our own cities and communities. This crosses partisan lines; it's really obvious that the failed policies of the war on drugs affects people of all walks of life, and the images of the kids really brings it home. We hope to build on this to get some traction. We want folks to continue to make these connections."

Different signatories do have different missions, but a pair of California groups that signed the letter provide examples of how the drug war unites them.

Child refugee in a US border detention facility (
"We have a history of working on behalf of youth involved in the criminal justice system and their families," said Azadeh Zohrabi, national campaigner for the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. "We see desperate families trying to stay connected, strong, and healthy, but mass incarceration is really making that difficult. We work both with families whos kids are involved in the justice system and with families with one or both parents in prison or who have lost custody of their kids because of their involvement in the criminal justice system," she explained.

"We are working to combat this, and we think the war on drugs overall has had disastrous consequences for families, both here and abroad," Zohrabi continued. "The trillions poured into policing and militarization has just produced more misery. It's time for drugs to be dealt with as a public health issue, not a crime."

"We signed on because the letter is very clear in addressing an important component of the discussion that hasn't really been out there," said Arturo Carmona, executive director of the Latino social justice group "This crisis on the border is not the result of deferring actions against immigrant child arrivals, as many right-wing Republicans have been saying, but is the result of one of the most deadly peaks in crime and violence in the Northern Triangle in recent memory," he argued.

"The violence there is one of the main push factors, and when we talk about this in the US, it's critical that we acknowledge these push factors, many of which are connected to the war on drugs," Carmona continued. "You'll notice that the kids aren't coming from Nicaragua, where we haven't been supporting the war on drugs, but from countries that we've assisted and advised on the drug war, where we've provided weaponry. This is very well-documented."

While is very concerned with the immigration issue, said Carmona, there is no escaping the role of the war on drugs in making things worse -- not only in Central America and at the border, but inside the US as well.

"We're very concerned about the chickens coming home to roost for our failed war on drugs policy," he said. "The American public needs to be made very aware of this, and we are starting to see a greater understanding that this is a failed policy -- not only in the way we criminalize our young Latino and African-American kids here in the US, but also in the way this policy affects other countries in our neighborhood. As Nicaragua shows, our lack of involvement there has seen a lower crime rate. Our military involvement through the drug war is an abysmal failure, as the record deaths not only in Central America, but also in Mexico, shows."

War of Words: The International Narcotics Control Board vs. A Changing World [FEATURE]

The global drug prohibition bureaucracy's watchdog group, the International Drug Control Board (INCB) released its Annual Report 2013 today, voicing its concerns with and wagging its finger at drug reform efforts that deviate from its interpretation of the international drug control treaties that birthed it. The INCB is "concerned" about moves toward marijuana legalization and warns about "the importance of universal implementation of international drug control treaties by all states."

"We deeply regret the developments at the state level in Colorado and Washington, in the United States, regarding the legalization of the recreational use of cannabis," INCB head Raymond Yans said in introducing the report. "INCB reiterates that these developments contravene the provisions of the drug control conventions, which limit the use of cannabis to medical and scientific use only. INCB urges the Government of the United States to ensure that the treaties are fully implemented on the entirety of its territory."

For some years now, some European and Latin American countries have been expressing a desire to see change in the international system, and "soft defections," such as the Dutch cannabis coffee shop system and Spain's cannabis cultivation clubs, have stretched the prohibitionist treaties to their legal limits. But legal marijuana in Uruguay is a clear breach of the treaties, as Colorado and Washington may be. That is bringing matters to an unavoidable head.

After surveying the state of drug affairs around the globe, the 96-page INCB report ends with a number of concerns and recommendations, ranging from non-controversial items such as calling for adequate prevention and treatment efforts to urging greater attention to prescription drug abuse and more attention paid to new synthetic drugs. [Ed: There is some controversy over how to best approach prescription drug abuse and synthetic drugs. e.g. the type of attention to pay to them.]

But the INCB is clearly perturbed by the erosion of the international drug prohibition consensus, and especially by its concrete manifestations in legalization in Uruguay, Colorado, and Washington and the spreading acceptance of medical marijuana.

"The Board is concerned that a number of States that are parties to the 1961 Convention are considering legislative proposals intended to regulate the use of cannabis for purposes other than medical and scientific ones" and "urges all Governments and the international community to carefully consider the negative impact of such developments. In the Board's opinion, the likely increase in the abuse of cannabis will lead to increased public health costs," the report said.

Similarly, the INCB "noted with concern" Uruguay's marijuana legalization law, which "would not be in conformity with the international drug control treaties, particularly the 1961 Convention" and urged the government there "to ensure the country remains fully compliant with international law, which limits the use of narcotic drugs, including cannabis, exclusively to medical and scientific purposes."

Ditto for Colorado and Washington, where the board was "concerned" about the marijuana legalization initiatives and underlined that "such legislation is not in conformity with the international drug control treaties." The US government should "continue to ensure the full implementation of the international drug control treaties on its entire territory," INCB chided.

But even as INCB struggles to maintain the legal backbone of global prohibition, it is not only seeing marijuana prohibition crumble in Uruguay and the two American states, it is also itself coming under increasing attack as a symbol of a crumbling ancien regime that creates more harm than good with its adherence to prohibitionist, law enforcement-oriented approaches to the use and commerce in psychoactive substances.

"We are at a tipping point now as increasing numbers of nations realize that cannabis prohibition has failed to reduce its use, filled prisons with young people, increased violence and fueled the rise of organized crime," said Martin Jelsma of the Transnational Institute. "As nations like Uruguay pioneer new approaches, we need the UN to open up an honest dialogue on the strengths and weaknesses of the treaty system rather than close their eyes and indulge in blame games."

"For many years, countries have stretched the UN drug control conventions to their legal limits, particularly around the use of cannabis," agreed Dave Bewley-Taylor of the Global Drug Policy Observatory. "Now that the cracks have reached the point of treaty breach, we need a serious discussion about how to reform international drug conventions to better protect people's health, safety and human rights. Reform won't be easy, but the question facing the international community today is no longer whether there is a need to reassess and modernize the UN drug control system, but rather when and how."

"This is very much the same old stuff," said John Collins, coordinator of the London School of Economics IDEAS International Drug Policy Project and a PhD candidate studying mid-20th Century international drug control policy. "The INCB views its role as advocating a strict prohibitionist oriented set of policies at the international level and interpreting the international treaties as mandating this one-size-fits-all approach. It highlights that INCB, which was created as a technical body to monitor international flows of narcotics and report back to the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, has carved out and maintains a highly politicized role, far removed from its original treaty functions. This should be a cause for concern for all states interested in having a functioning, public health oriented and cooperative international framework for coordinating the global response to drug issues," Collins told the Chronicle.

"The INCB and its current president, Raymond Yans, take a very ideological view of this issue," Collins continued. "Yans attributes all the negative and unintended consequences of bad drug policies solely to drugs and suggests the way to lessen these problems is more of the same. Many of the policies the board advocates fly in the face of best-practice public health policy -- for example the board demanding that states close 'drug consumption rooms, facilities where addicts can abuse drugs,'" he noted.

"If the board was really concerned about the 'health and welfare' of global populations it would be advocating for these scientifically proven public health interventions. Instead it chooses the road of unscientific and ideological based policies," Collins argued.

The INCB's reliance on ideology-driven policy sometimes leads to grotesque results. There are more than 30 countries that apply the death penalty for drugs in violation of international law. Virtually every international human rights and drug control body opposes the death penalty for drugs including the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the UN Human Rights Committee, the UN's human rights experts on extrajudicial killings, torture and health, among many others.

INCB head Raymond Yans (
But when an INCB board member was asked in Thailand -- where 14 people have been executed for drugs since 2001 -- what its position on capital punishment was, he said, "the agency says it neither supports nor opposes the death penalty for drug-related offenses," according to the Bangkok Post.

Human rights experts were horrified and immediately wrote asking for clarification, to which the INCB responded, "The determination of sanctions applicable to drug-related offenses remains the exclusive prerogative of each State and therefore lie beyond the mandate and powers which have been conferred upon the Board by the international community," according to Human Rights Watch.

Another area where the board's concern about the health and welfare of global populations is being challenged is access to pain medications. A key part of the INCB's portfolio is regulating opioid pain medications, and this year again it said there is more than enough opium available to satisfy current demand, although it also noted that "consumption of narcotic drugs for pain relief is concentrated within a limited number of countries."

The World Health Organization (WHO) agrees about that latter point. A 2011 study estimated that around 5.5 billion people -- or 83% of the world population -- live in countries with 'low to non-existent' access to opioid pain relief for conditions such as cancer and HIV/AIDS. These substances are listed by the WHO as essential medicines, and the international drug control conventions recognise explicitly that they are 'indispensable' to the 'health and welfare of mankind.'

Adding to the paradox -- the global supply is sufficient, but four-fifths of the world doesn't have access -- the INCB calls on governments to "ensure that internationally controlled substances used for pain relief are accessible to people who need them."

What is going on?

"The INCB uses totals of requirements for opioid medicines compiled by the UN treaty signatory states," said Ann Fordham, executive director of the International Drug Policy Consortium, which keeps an eye on the agency with its INCB Watch. "Unfortunately there is often a huge gap between these administrative estimates and the actual medical needs of their populations."

The prohibitionist slant of global drug control also creates a climate conducive to understating the actual need for access to pain relief in other ways, Fordham told the Chronicle.

"Many governments interpret the international drug control conventions in a more restrictive manner than is necessary, and focus their efforts towards preventing access to the unauthorized use of opioids rather than to ensuring their medical and scientific availability," she said. "This is a grossly unbalanced reading of the conventions, underpinned by fear and prejudice regarding opioids and addiction."

Although the agency has cooperated somewhat with the WHO in attempting to enhance access to the medicines, said Fordham, it bears some blame for rendering the issue so fraught.

"The INCB has continually stressed the repressive aspect of the international drug control regime in its annual reports and other public statements, and in its direct dealings with member states," she said. "The INCB is therefore responsible for at least some of the very anxieties that drive governments toward overly restrictive approaches. This ambivalence considerably weakens the INCB's credibility and contradicts its health-related advocacy."

Fordham joined the call for a fundamental reform of global drug prohibition, and she didn't mince words about the INCB.

"The entire UN drug control system needs to be rebalanced further in the direction of health rather than criminalization, and it is changing; the shift in various parts of the system is apparent already," she said before leveling a blast at Yans and company. "But the INCB is notable as the most hard line, backward-looking element, regularly overstepping its mandate in the strident and hectoring manner its adopts with parties to the treaties, in its interference in functions that properly belong to the WHO and in its quasi-religious approach to a narrow interpretation of the drug control treaties."

The INCB should get out of the way on marijuana and concentrate on its pain relief function, said Collins.

"The INCB should stay out if it," he said bluntly. "It is a technocratic monitoring body. It should not be involving itself in national politics and national regulatory systems. So it doesn't need to be either a help or hindrance on issues regarding cannabis reform. It has no reason to be involved in this debate. It should be focusing on ensuring access to essential pain medicines. These debates are a distraction from that core function and I would argue one of the reasons it is failing to meet this core function."

Sorry, INCB. Welcome to the 21st Century.


UN Drug Agencies Fret over Uruguay Marijuana Vote

Wednesday night's vote in the Uruguayan chamber of deputies to approve state-run marijuana commerce would make the South American nation the first to create legal pot markets, and that's making United Nations anti-drug bureaucracies nervous. Both the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) issued statements Thursday fretting about the vote.

Uruguay hasn't legalized the marijuana market yet -- that will require a vote in the Uruguayan Senate this fall -- but the Vienna-based UN organs aren't waiting. Charged with enforcing the global drug prohibition regime, and its legal backbone, the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and successor treaties, the INCB and UNODC are raising the alarm about the apparent looming breach of the treaty.

"The INCB has noted with concern a draft law under consideration in Uruguay which, if adopted, would permit the sale of cannabis herb for non-medical use," INCB head Dr. Raymond Yans said in a statement. "Such a law would be in complete contravention to the provisions of the international drug control treaties, in particular the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, to which Uruguay is a party."

The INCB said it had always "aimed at maintaining a dialogue with the government of Uruguay" and complained that Montevideo wasn't paying attention to it. "The Board regrets that the government of Uruguay refused to receive an INCB mission before the draft law was submitted to parliament," Yans said.

The statement further urged Uruguayan leaders "to ensure that the country remains fully compliant with international law which limits the use of narcotic drugs, including cannabis, exclusively to medical and scientific purposes" and warned that legalization "might have serious consequences for the health and welfare of the population and for the prevention of cannabis abuse among the youth."

The UNODC, for its part, said in its statement that it supported the INCB statement and was continuing "to follow developments in Uruguay closely."

But, perhaps signaling a belated recognition that the global drug prohibition regime is increasingly tattered, the UNODC acknowledged that the results of enforcing drug prohibition, including "horrorific violence" related to black market drug trafficking have "led to a debate over best to address such problems."

UNODC said it "welcomes this discussion," but that "this dialogue should be conducted on the basis of the agreed conventions, in line with international law. It invited nations to talk about it all at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting next year.

In the meantime, Uruguay isn't waiting, and there is little the UN anti-drug agencies can do about except shout from their bully pulpits.


You Don't Need Prohibition to Help People

CDC headquarters, Atlanta
A new Centers for Disease Control study has found the US rate of tobacco usage dropping again:

ATLANTA (AP) — Fewer U.S. adults are smoking, a new government report says.

Last year, about 18 percent of adults participating in a national health survey described themselves as current smokers.

The nation’s smoking rate generally has been falling for decades, but had seemed to stall at around 20 to 21 percent for about seven years. In 2011, the rate fell to 19 percent, but that might have been a statistical blip.

Health officials are analyzing the 2012 findings and have not yet concluded why the rate dropped, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. The CDC released its study Tuesday.

Of course, this was achieved without prohibition -- some regulation that has not been without controversy, but without prohibition. So what else could be achieved without prohibition?

The Top Ten Drug Policy Stories of 2012 [FEATURE]

In some ways, 2012 has been a year of dramatic, exciting change in drug policy, as the edifice of global drug prohibition appears to crumble before our eyes. In other ways it is still business as usual in the drug war. Marijuana prohibition is now mortally wounded, but there were still three-quarters of a million pot arrests last year. The American incarceration mania appears to be running its course, but drug arrests continue to outnumber any other category of criminal offense. There is a rising international clamor for a new drug paradigm, but up until now, it's just talk.

The drug prohibition paradigm is trembling, but it hasn't collapsed yet -- we are on the cusp of even more interesting times. Below, we look at the biggest drug policy stories of 2012 and peer a bit into the future:

1. Colorado and Washington Legalize Marijuana!

Voters in Colorado and Washington punched an enormous and historic hole in the wall of marijuana prohibition in November. While Alaska has for some years allowed limited legal possession in the privacy of one's home, thanks to the privacy provisions of the state constitution, the November elections marked the first time voters in any state have chosen to legalize marijuana. This is an event that has made headlines around the world, and for good reason -- it marks the repudiation of pot prohibition in the very belly of the beast.

And it isn't going away. The federal government may or may not be able to snarl efforts by the two states to tax and regulate legal marijuana commerce, but few observers think it can force them to recriminalize marijuana possession. It's now legal to possess up to an ounce in both states and to grow up to six plants in Colorado and -- barring a sudden reversal of political will in Washington or another constitutional amendment in Colorado -- it's going to stay that way. The votes in Colorado and Washington mark the beginning of the end for marijuana prohibition.

2. Nationally, Support for Marijuana Legalization Hits the Tipping Point

If Colorado and Washington are the harbingers of change, the country taken as a whole is not far behind, at least when it comes to public opinion. All year, public opinion polls have showed support for marijuana legalization hovering right around 50%, in line with last fall's Gallup poll that showed steadily climbing support for legalization and support at 50% for the first time. A Gallup poll this month showed a 2% drop in support, down to 48%, but that's within the margin of error for the poll, and it's now a downside outlier.

Four other polls released this month
demonstrate a post-election bump for legalization sentiment. Support for legalization came in at 47%, 51%, 54%, and 57%, including solid majority support in the West and Northeast. The polls also consistently find opposition to legalization strongest among older voters, while younger voters are more inclined to free the weed.

As Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown put it after his survey came up with 51% support for legalization, "This is the first time Quinnipiac University asked this question in its national poll so there is no comparison from earlier years. It seems likely, however, that given the better than 2-1 majority among younger voters, legalization is just a matter of time."

Caravan for Peace vigil, Brownsville, Texas, August 2012
3. Global Rejection of the Drug War

International calls for alternatives to drug prohibition continued to grow ever louder this year. Building on the work of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy and the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the voices for reform took to the stage at global venues such as the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, in April, the International AIDS Conference in Washington in July, and at the United Nations General Assembly in September.

While calls for a new paradigm came from across the globe, including commissions in Australia and the United Kingdom, this was the year of the Latin American dissidents. With first-hand experience with the high costs of enforcing drug prohibition, regional leaders including Colombian President Santos, Guatemalan President Perez Molina, Costa Rican President Chinchilla, and even then-Mexican President Calderon all called this spring for serious discussion of alternatives to the drug war, if not outright legalization. No longer was the critique limited to former presidents.

That forced US President Obama to address the topic at the Summit of the Americas and at least acknowledge that "it is entirely legitimate to have a conversation about whether the laws in place are doing more harm than good in certain places" before dismissing legalization as a policy option. But the clamor hasn't gone away -- instead, it has only grown louder -- both at the UN in the fall and especially since two US states legalized marijuana in November.

While not involved in the regional calls for an alternative paradigm, Uruguayan President Mujica made waves with his announcement of plans to legalize the marijuana commerce there (possession was never criminalized). That effort appears at this writing to have hit a bump in the road, but the proposal and the reaction to it only added to the clamor for change.

4. Mexico's Drug War: The Poster Child for Drug Legalization

Mexico's orgy of prohibition-related violence continues unabated with its monstrous death toll somewhere north of 50,000 and perhaps as high as 100,000 during the Calderon sexenio, which ended this month. Despite all the killings, despite Calderon's strategy of targeting cartel capos, despite the massive deployment of the military, and despite the hundreds of millions of dollars in US aid for the military campaign, the flow of drugs north and guns and money south continues largely unimpeded and Mexico -- and now parts of Central America, as well -- remain in the grip of armed criminals who vie for power with the state itself.

With casualty figures now in the range of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars and public safety and security in tatters, Calderon's misbegotten drug war has become a lightning rod for critics of drug prohibition, both at home and around the world. In the international discussion of alternatives to the status quo -- and why we need them -- Mexico is exhibit #1.

And there's no sign things are going to get better any time soon. While Calderon's drug war may well have cost him and his party the presidency (and stunningly returned it to the old ruling party, the PRI, only two elections after it was driven out of office in disgrace), neither incoming Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto nor the Obama administration are showing many signs they are willing to take the bold, decisive actions -- like ending drug prohibition -- that many serious observers on all sides of the spectrum say will be necessary to tame the cartels.

The Mexican drug wars have also sparked a vibrant and dynamic civil society movement, the Caravan for Peace and Justice, led by poet and grieving father Javier Sicilia. After crisscrossing Mexico last year, Sicilia and his fellow Mexican activists crossed the border this summer for a three-week trek across the US, where their presence drew even more attention to the terrible goings on south of the border.

5. Medical Marijuana Continues to Spread, Though the Feds Fight Back

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have now legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes, and while there was only one new one this year, this has been a year of back-filling. Medical marijuana dispensaries have either opened or are about to open in a number of states where it has been legal for years but delayed by slow or obstinate elected officials (Arizona, New Jersey, Washington, DC) or in states that more recently legalized it (Massachusetts).

None of the newer medical marijuana states are as wide open as California, Colorado, or Montana (until virtual repeal last year), as with each new state, the restrictions seem to grow tighter and the regulation and oversight more onerous and constricting. Perhaps that will protect them from the tender mercies of the Justice Department, which, after two years of benign neglect, changed course last year, undertaking concerted attacks on dispensaries and growers in all three states. That offensive was ongoing throughout 2012, marked by federal prosecutions and medical marijuana providers heading to federal prison in Montana. While federal prosecutions have been less resorted to in California and Colorado, federal raids and asset forfeiture threat campaigns have continued, resulting in the shuttering of dozens of dispensaries in Colorado and hundreds in California. There is no sign of a change of heart at the Justice Department, either.

6. The Number of Drug War Prisoners is Decreasing

The Bureau of Justice Statistics announced recently that the number of people in America's state and federal prisons had declined for the second year in a row at year's end 2011. The number and percentage of drug war prisoners is declining, too. A decade ago, the US had nearly half a million people behind bars on drug charges; now that number has declined to a still horrific 330,000 (not including people doing local jail time). And while a decade ago, the percentage of people imprisoned for drug charges was somewhere between 20% and 25% of all prisoners, that percentage has now dropped to 17%.

That decline is mostly attributable to sentencing reforms in the states, which, unlike the federal government, actually have to balance their budgets. Especially as economic hard times kicked in in 2008, spending scarce taxpayer resources on imprisoning nonviolent drug offenders became fiscally and politically less tenable. The passage of the Proposition 36 "three strikes" sentencing reform in California in November, which will keep people from being sentenced to up to life in prison for trivial third offenses, including drug possession, is but the latest example of the trend away from mass incarceration for drug offenses.

The federal government is the exception. While state prison populations declined last year (again), the federal prison population actually increased by 3.1%. With nearly 95,000 drug offenders doing federal time, the feds alone account for almost one-third of all drug war prisoners.

President Obama could exercise his pardon power by granting clemency to drug war prisoners, but it is so far a power he has been loathe to exercise. An excellent first candidate for presidential clemency would be Clarence Aaron, the now middle-aged black man who has spent the past two decades behind bars for his peripheral role in a cocaine deal, but activists in California and elsewhere are also calling for Obama to free some of the medical marijuana providers now languishing in federal prisons. The next few days would be the time for him to act, if he is going to act this year.

7. But the Drug War Juggernaut Keeps On Rolling, Even if Slightly Out of Breath

NYC "stop and frisk" protest of mass marijuana arrests
According to annual arrest data released this summer by the FBI, more than 1.53 million people were arrested on drug charges last year, nearly nine out of ten of them for simple possession, and nearly half of them on marijuana charges. The good news is that is a decline in drug arrests from 2010. That year, 1.64 million people were arrested on drug charges, meaning the number of overall drug arrests declined by about 110,000 last year. The number of marijuana arrests is also down, from about 850,000 in 2010 to about 750,000 last year.

But that still comes out to a drug arrest every 21 seconds and a marijuana arrest every 42 seconds, and no other single crime category generated as many arrests as drug law violations. The closest challengers were larceny (1.24 million arrests), non-aggravated assaults (1.21 million), and DWIs (1.21 million). All violent crime arrests combined totaled 535,000, or slightly more than one-third the number of drug arrests.

The war on drugs remains big business for law enforcement and prosecutors.

8. And So Does the Call to Drug Test Public Benefits Recipients

Oblivious to constitutional considerations or cost-benefit analyses, legislators (almost always Republican) in as many as 30 states introduced bills that would have mandated drug testing for welfare recipients, people receiving unemployment benefits, or, in a few cases, anyone receiving any public benefit, including Medicaid recipients. Most would have called for suspicionless drug testing, which runs into problems with that pesky Fourth Amendment requirement for a search warrant or probable cause to undertake a search, while some attempted to get around that obstacle by only requiring drug testing upon suspicion. But that suspicion could be as little as a prior drug record or admitting to drug use during intake screening.

Still, when all the dust had settled, only three states -- Georgia, Oklahoma, and Tennessee -- actually passed drug testing bills, and only Georgia's called for mandatory suspicionless drug testing of welfare recipients. Bill sponsors may have been oblivious, but other legislators and stakeholders were not. And the Georgia bill is on hold, while the state waits to see whether the federal courts will strike down the Florida welfare drug testing bill on which it is modeled. That law is currently blocked by a federal judge's temporary injunction.

It wasn't just Republicans. In West Virginia, Democratic Gov. Roy Tomblin used an executive order to impose drug testing on applicants to the state's worker training program. (This week came reports that only five of more than 500 worker tests came back positive.) And the Democratic leadership in the Congress bowed before Republican pressures and okayed giving states the right to impose drug testing requirements on some unemployment recipients in return for getting an extension of unemployment benefits.

This issue isn't going away. Legislators in several states, including Indiana, Ohio, Texas, and West Virginia have already signaled they will introduce similar bills next year, and that number is likely to increase as solons around the country return to work.

9. The US Bans New Synthetic Drugs

In July, President Obama signed a bill banning the synthetic drugs known popularly as "bath salts" and "fake weed." The bill targeted 31 specific synthetic stimulant, cannabinoid, and hallucinogenic compounds. Marketed under brand names like K2 and Spice for synthetic cannabinoids and under names like Ivory Wave, among others, for synthetic stimulants, the drugs have become increasingly popular in recent years. The drugs had previously been banned under emergency action by the DEA.

The federal ban came after more than half the states moved against the new synthetics, which have been linked to a number of side effects ranging from the inconvenient (panic attacks) to the life-threatening. States and localities continue to move against the new drugs, too.

While the federal ban demonstrates that the prohibitionist reflex is still strong, what is significant is the difficulty sponsors had in getting the bill passed. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) put a personal hold on the bill until mandatory minimum sentencing requirements were removed and also argued that such efforts were the proper purview of the states, not Washington. And for the first time, there were a substantial number of Congress members voting "no" on a bill to create a new drug ban.

10. Harm Reduction Advances by Fits and Starts, At Home and Abroad

Harm reduction practices -- needle exchanges, safer injection sites, and the like -- continued to expand, albeit fitfully, in both the US and around the globe. Faced with a rising number of prescription pain pill overdoses in the US -- they now outnumber auto accident fatalities -- lawmakers in a number of states have embraced "911 Good Samaritan" laws granting immunity from prosecution. Since New Mexico passed the first such law in 2007, nine others have followed. Sadly, Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the New Jersey bill this year.

Similarly, the use of the opioid antagonist naloxone, which can reverse overdoses and restore normal breathing in minutes, also expanded this year. A CDC report this year that estimated it had saved 10,000 lives will only help spread the word.

There has been movement internationally as well this year, including in some unlikely places. Kenya announced in June that it was handing out 50,000 syringes to injection drug users in a bid to reduce the spread of AIDS, and Colombia announced in the fall plans to open safe consumption rooms for cocaine users in Bogota. That's still a work in progress.

Meanwhile, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs unanimously supported a resolution calling on the World Health Organization and other international bodies to promote measures to reduce overdose deaths, including the expanded use of naloxone; Greece announced it was embracing harm reduction measures, including handing out needles and condoms, to fight AIDS; long-awaited Canadian research called for an expansion of safe injection sites to Toronto and Ottawa; and Denmark first okayed safe injection sites in June, then announced it is proposing that heroin in pill form be made available to addicts. Denmark is one of a handful of European countries that provide maintenance doses of heroin to addicts, but to this point, the drug was only available for injection. France, too, announced it was going ahead with safe injection sites, which could be open by the time you read this.  

This has been another year of slogging through the mire, with some inspiring victories and some oh-so-hard-fought battles, not all of which we won. But after a century of global drug prohibition, the tide appears to be turning, not least here in the US, prohibition's most powerful proponent. There is a long way to go, but activists and advocates can be forgiven if they feel like they've turned a corner. Now, we can put 2012 to bed and turn our eyes to the year ahead.

Canada Health Ministry Bans "Bath Salts" Drug

The Canadian government has banned MDPV (methylenedioxypyrovalerone), a synthetic stimulant commonly found in "bath salts" drugs. The ban went into effect last Wednesday, the same day it was announced by Health Canada.

now banned in Canada (
"Our government is committed to protecting hardworking Canadian families and keeping our streets and communities safe," said Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq in a statement. "That's why we have moved quickly to make the illicit drug known as "bath salts" illegal to possess, traffic, import or export, unless authorized by regulation."

The criminalization of MDPV -- it is now a Schedule I controlled substance, like heroin and cocaine -- had been a promise of the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Aglukkaq said in July that regulation was forthcoming.

All activities involving MDPV are now illegal, except for research and scientific activities, which must be authorized by regulation. That means that people seeking to use and distribute it will have to resort to underground markets, something that police spokesmen who lauded the move don't seem to understand.

"Today's announcement by the Government of Canada to add MDPV in Schedule I of the Controlled Drug and Substances Act is an important step in stopping organized criminal groups from acquiring and profiting from this illegal substance," said Staff Inspector Randy Franks of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and Acting Chair of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police Drug Abuse Committee.

But as Marni Soupcoff noted in a National Post op-ed critical of the ban, Franks was both taking credit where it was not due and making unwarranted assumptions about how drug markets work.

"The substance, which is a key ingredient in the drug known as 'bath salts,' was obviously not illegal before the ban," Soupcoff wrote. "So it's circular to credit the ban for stopping the acquisition of something illegal. My bigger problem with the quote is the notion that making a substance illegal stops organized criminals from profiting from it. This is precisely the opposite of how things have gone with alcohol, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana and pretty much every other illicit drug or beverage in history."

Instead of prohibiting a relatively new and uncommon drug, Canada could have gone a more rational, public health-oriented way, Soupcoff suggested.

"What else could Canada have done to try to mitigate harm from MDPV?" she asked. "How about public health and education initiatives? Maybe monitoring MDPV sellers to ensure compliance with existing laws (investigating instances of fraud, false advertising, etc.) and creating open forums for MDPV buyers to report complaints, adverse reactions, etc. Heck, Health Canada could even have formally declared the stuff dangerous, no good, terrible, very bad and to be avoided by those who know what’s good for them."

But instead Canada gets a new addition to its list of banned substances -- and a new, underground criminal market to supply it.

Ottawa, ON

Latin Americans Seek Drug Policy Debate at the UN

Wednesday's United Nations General Assembly session saw not one, not two, but three Latin American heads of state call on it to promote debate on alternatives to the war on drugs. The presidents of Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico all used their 15-minute addresses at the Assembly to call for exploring new paths.

Otto Pérez Molina
Outgoing Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who has presided over a drug war that has left more than 55,000 people dead during his six-year term, told the General Assembly the UN should lead "a profound international debate" about ways to reduce drug trafficking and its consequences. The UN itself should do more to intervene if wealthy Western countries that consume "tons and tons of drugs" cannot bring their demand down.

The US and other drug consuming countries need to "evaluate with all sincerity, and honesty, if they have the will to reduce the consumption of drugs in a substantive manner," Calderon said. "If this consumption cannot be reduced, it is urgent that decisive actions be taken." 

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos also called for a "frank, and without a doubt, global" discussion on alternatives to the status quo. "It is our duty to determine -- on objective scientific bases -- if we are doing the best we can or if there are better options to combat the scourge," he said.

According to the UN News Network, Calderon hinted without quite suggesting an examination of legalization alternatives, stating, "The enormous profits from the black market due to prohibition have exacerbated the ambition of criminals, increasing the massive flow of resources to their organizations and allowing them to create powerful networks," adding "thousands and thousands of young people in Latin America have died because of drug trafficking-related violence, and, in particular, the nations that are suffering the most are the ones located between the drug-producing zone in the Andes and the main drug market: the United States."

There was speculation that Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina would actually call for the legalization of the drug trade, as he has in the past, but he didn't go that far in New York.

"We must seek new avenues with responsibility and perseverance, with the cooperation of all: producing, consuming and transit countries," he said, adding that his government "would like to establish an international group of countries that are well disposed to reforming global policies on drugs" and would consider "new creative and innovative alternatives."

A concerted call for discussing alternatives to the drug war, yes. A clarion call for drug legalization, not yet.

New York, NY
United States

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