Prohibition

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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 (wikimedia.org)
"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
Canada

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

Mexico's "Caravan for Peace" Heads to Washington [FEATURE]

The Mexico-based Caravan for Peace and Justice and its American allies are now more than halfway through their 6,000-mile, 27-city journey to focus attention on the drug war's terrible toll in both countries. After beginning two weeks ago in San Diego, the caravan has now traversed California, Arizona, New Mexico, and miles and miles of Texas, and on Wednesday, was set to join with African-American and other activists to march over the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma, Alabama.

rally in El Paso
The Edmund Pettus Bridge is an enduring symbol of the civil right struggles of the 1960s and was the scene of the Bloody Sunday of March 7, 1965, when armed police officers attacked peaceful civil rights demonstrators attempting to march to the state capitol in Montgomery.

While on Wednesday, the theme of the day's events was to be "the new Jim Crow" and the mass criminalization and incarceration of large numbers of African-Americans through the war on drugs, that is only one of the themes the caravan is emphasizing in its bid to put the harms of the drug war on full view for the American public and its politicians.

Led by Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, the caravan said it wants put faces on Mexico's drug war dead -- who are too often assumed to have been "bad" by virtue of having been killed.

"Our purpose is to honor our victims, to make their names and faces visible," Sicilia said. "We will travel across the United States to raise awareness of the unbearable pain and loss caused by the drug war -- and of the enormous shared responsibility for protecting families and communities in both our countries."

vigil in Brownsville
But it's not just about honoring the victims of the drug war; the Caravan also explicitly seeks policy changes on both sides of the border, not only to drug policy. These policy areas and the Caravan's recommendations include:

"Drug War policies: We propose the need to find a solution, with a multidisciplinary and intergenerational approach that places individuals, and their welfare and dignity, at the center of drug policy. We call on both the Mexican and the U.S. community to open and maintain a dialogue about alternatives to Prohibition based on evidence, and which is inclusive in its considerations of the diverse options for drug regulation.

"Arms trafficking: We propose that the President of the United States immediately prohibit the importation of assault weapons to the United States. Assault weapons are often smuggled into Mexico, and have also been used too many times against innocent civilians in the US. We propose giving authorities effective regulatory tools and adequate resources to halt arms smuggling in the border regions, especially in border states like Arizona and Texas.

"Money laundering: We call for governments on both sides of the border to take concrete steps to combat money laundering. We propose that financial institutions be held accountable for preventing money laundering through increased government surveillance, investigations, fines and criminal charges. We also call for the Treasury Department to immediately implement Congress’ 2009 call to close the "prepaid/stored value cards" loophole.


visit to the Sacred Heart Convent, Houston
"US foreign aid policy: We call for a change from the United States' "war" focus to one of human security and development that contemplates promoting the healing of Mexico's torn social fabric. We propose the immediate suspension of US assistance to Mexico's armed forces. The "shared responsibility" for peace that both governments share must begin with each country complying with its own respective national laws.

"Immigration: We call for a change in the policies that have militarized the border and criminalized immigrants. These policies have generated a humanitarian crisis driven by unprecedented levels of deportations and incarceration of migrants. In addition, these policies have also inflicted immeasurable environmental damage. We call for protecting the dignity of every human being, including immigrant populations that have been displaced by violence who are fleeing to the US seeking safe haven and a better life."

 

The Caravan is a natural outgrowth of Sicilia's Mexican Movement for Peace and Justice with Dignity (MMPJD), which he formed after his son and several comrades were kidnapped and murdered by drug cartel gunmen in Cuernavaca in March 2011. It is designed to put names and faces on the estimated 60,000 dead, 10,000 disappeared, and 150,000 displaced by the prohibition-related violence pitting the so-called cartels against each other and the Mexican state.

memorial representing victims of the Monterrey Casino Royale attack
In Mexico, the MMPJD struck a deep chord with a population increasingly angered and frightened by the often horrific violence raging across the country. Caravans organized by the MMJPD crisscrossed the country last year before bringing 100,000 people to mass in Mexico City's huge national plaza, the Zocalo in June. The mass outpouring of grief and anger convinced President Felipe Calderon to meet with Sicilia, who brought along photos of some of the dead depicting them as happy, smiling human beings.

"The powers that be were trying to tell us that all those who were dying were just criminals, just cockroaches," Sicilia explained. "We had to change the mindset, and put names to the victims for a change."

In Texas last week, the caravan traveled the breadth of the state, stopping in El Paso, Laredo, McAllen, San Antonio, Austin, and Houston before heading into the final half of the tour. In Austin, groups such as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and local NORML affiliates joined the travelers.

El Paso
"I think what is important is the binational nature of this caravan," said Roberto Lovato, the founder of Presente.org, an online Latino advocacy organization. "The drug war has been a fantastic failure here in the United States, if you look at more than 2 million people being incarcerated, families destroyed by that incarceration, a trillion of our tax dollars utterly wasted. So we have law enforcement officers who lost their brothers and their sisters in the law enforcement world, and people who have lost family members in Mexico."

"The drug problem isn’t just an American problem, and the harm that prohibition of drugs causes in the world is phenomenal," said LEAP member and Texas resident Terry Nelson, who spent more than three decades in federal law enforcement. "Hundreds of thousands are dying in the Western Hemisphere alone, it’s got to stop," he said. "The drug war is a war on people, it's not a war on drugs."

In Houston, state Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) presented Sicilia with a non-binding resolution praising his efforts and criticizing the drug war.

Javier Sicilia with the LEAP van
"Although our nation spends in excess of $40 billion a year combating the drug trade, the United States remains the principal destination for drugs produced in and transported through Mexico," the resolution said. "Moreover, many of the firearms found at crime scenes in Mexico have been traced to sources in the United States; interdiction initiatives have not resulted in the decline of drug abuse."

Along the way, the caravan has touched on a number of intersecting issues. Javier Sicilia himself told Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio to treat his prisoners better, and the caravan has visited immigrant detention centers to criticize US policies toward undocumented immigrants. Similarly, in Houston, group members purchased a pistol and an AK-47 at gunshow, then dismantled the rifle, transforming into a peace symbol in line with its calls on the US government to crack down on the flow of firearms south of the border. And above all, the call for the respect for human rights has been a constant on the caravan.

The caravan is set to arrive in Washington, DC, on September 10 for events scheduled the following day. So far, it is succeeding in its aim of bringing attention to the harms of the drug war on both sides of the border -- a Google news search for "caravan for peace" now shows 2,660 results. That number was at 145 when last we wrote about the caravan two weeks ago.

Many more photos are available on the Caravan's Flickr page.

Book Review: Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States: The Problems of Prohibition

Chronicle Book Review: Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States: The Problems of Prohibition by Nigel Inkster and Virginia Comolli (2012, Adelphi, 163 pp. PB, $12.50) 

Longtime readers of Drug War Chronicle likely are already familiar with many -- but not all -- of the topics in Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States. The Chronicle has been on the ground and reported back from Afghanistan, Colombia, and Mexico -- all of which get individual chapters in this new book -- on the problems generated by drug prohibition in those producer and/or transit nations.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/iiss-book.jpg
We've also reported to a lesser extent on the drug war's impact on Central America, but almost not at all on its impact in the countries of West Africa, which has become an important staging ground for drug flows from Latin America to Europe and the Middle East. Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States has individual chapters on these two regions as well.

Even though some of the information is new, the book's thesis should also be familiar to Chronicle readers: The present drug prohibition regime is not only failing to win the war on drugs, it is also setting off and prolonging violent conflict -- both political and criminal -- in producer and transit countries.

We have certainly seen that in spades in the past few decades. In Mexico, which is both a producer and a transit state, the multi-sided drug wars pitting the so-called cartels against each other and the state have left more than 50,000 dead in six years and shaken public confidence in state institutions. In Colombia, profits from the illicit coca and cocaine trade fund leftist guerrilla armies -- one of which, the FARC, has been at war with the state since 1964 -- and rightist paramilitaries alike. In Afghanistan, which supplies almost 90% of the world's opium and the heroin derived from it, both the Taliban and elements of the Afghan state are profiting handsomely from the illicit trade.

Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States provides succinct, yet fact-filled overviews of the deleterious effects of prohibition in all three countries, as well as West Africa and Central America. In all of them, the lure of the profits of prohibition exceed the threat of law enforcement or the ability of the state to suppress the black market economy. That's not news.

What is newsworthy about Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States is who has produced it. The authors, Nigel Inkster and Virginia Comolli, are, respectively the director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk at the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) and a research analyst at that august institution. Not only that, Inkster is a veteran of the British Secret Intelligence Service who spent his last two years as the Assistant Chief and Director for Operations and Intelligence. 

The IISS, which was founded to manage the Cold War for the West more than half a century ago, describes itself as "the world's leading authority on political-military conflict." With many former US and British government officials among its members, IISS very much is the establishment, an organ of the global security elite.

When the IISS says a policy has not only failed but has produced counterproductive results, governments tend to listen. Now, we have the IISS quite clearly and vehemently saying that drug prohibition has done both. And that's what makes Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States so remarkable -- not that we want to give short shrift to the cogent analysis in the book.

It is noteworthy that the authors also take on the international drug control bureaucracy based in UN agencies such as the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) and the Office on Drugs and Crime. They chide the INCB for not only failing to control the illicit drug traffic, but also with failing to uphold the other part of its mandate: ensuring an adequate supply of opiate-based pain medications. Noting that a handful of Western countries account for a staggering 80% or more of all opioid pain medication usage, Inskter and Comolli clearly think vast portions of the planet are not getting sufficient pain medications, and they blame the INCB. To be fair, though, they also acknowledge other obstacles to the effective treatment of pain in developing nations.

Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed Statesis also useful for its discussion of the alternatives to prohibition and what decriminalization or legalization would and would not achieve. Decriminalization would be a benefit to drug users, they argue, citing the Portuguese experience, but would not address black market profits. And legalization would certainly weaken, but is unlikely to eliminate, the violent criminal organizations running amok in places like Mexico and Central America.

For politically motivated actors, such as the FARC in Colombia and the Taliban in Afghanistan, for which the profits of the drug trade are not an end in themselves, but a means to achieving political goals, legalization would have little impact, except on their revenue streams. Such groups would find other means to continue, Inkster and Comolli suggest.

The book also discusses the prospects for trying to change the global prohibition regime, which is based on the 1961 Single Convention and its two successor treaties. The outlook is not sunny, the authors suggest, given a distinct lack of interest in reforms by such major players as the United States, China, and Russian, not to mention the lack of a hue and cry for change from regions including Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast and East Asia.

But even within the ambit of the global prohibition regime, there is a bit of room for experimentation. The INCB could try to find less restrictive interpretations of the treaties, and the Office on Drugs and Crime could shift its emphases. That could result in some small openings, perhaps for supervised injection sites or heroin maintenance and the like, but not in major changes and not in an end to global drug prohibition.

Drugs, Insecurity, and Failed States concisely restates some old arguments and adds a few new ones, and it provides handy overviews of the problems of prohibition in producer and transit countries. One can only hope that members of the policymaking circles at which it is aimed actually pick it up and read it because the global security establishment is telling them in no uncertain terms that not only is prohibition not working, it's making matters worse.

Now They're Trying to Ban... Kratom? [FEATURE]

The prohibitionist impulse is strong. When confronted with a newly encountered psychoactive substance, there are always special pleaders to sound the alarm and politicians willing to reflexively resort to the power of the ban. Whether it is something with serious potential dangers, like the "bath salts" drugs, or something much more innocuous, like khat, the mild stimulant from the Horn of Africa, doesn't seem to matter; the prohibitionist impulse is strong.

mitragyna speciosa (kratom) tree (photo by Gringobonk, courtesy Erowid.org)
Kratom is a substance that falls on the more innocuous side of the psychoactive spectrum. It is the leaves of the kratom tree, mitragyna speciosa, which is native to Thailand and Indonesia, where the leaves have been chewed or brewed into a tea and used for therapeutic and social purposes for years. According to the online repository of psychoactive knowledge, the Vaults of Erowid, kratom acts as both a mild stimulant and a mild sedative, creates feelings of empathy and euphoria, is useful for labor, and is relatively short-acting.

Of course, any psychoactive substance has its good and its bad sides, but kratom's downside doesn't seem very severe. Erowid lists its negatives as including a bitter taste, dizziness and nausea at higher doses, mild depression coming down, feeling hot and sweaty, and hangovers similar to alcohol. There is no mention of potential for addiction, and while fatal overdoses are theoretically possible, especially with its methanol and alkaloid extracts, in the real world, ODing on kratom doesn't appear to be an issue. No fatal overdoses are known to have actually occurred.

On the other hand, some of kratom's alkaloids bind to opioid receptors in the brain, making it an opioid agonist, and it is now being sold in the West and used to treat pain, depression, anxiety, and opiate withdrawal. Sold in smoke shops, herbal supplement emporia, and on the Internet, it is now apparently being lumped in with synthetic cannabinoids and the "bath salts" drugs by treatment professionals, law enforcement, and others who make a habit of searching for scary new drugs.

Kratom is not listed as a banned substance in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs or its successor treaty, and has been banned in only a handful of countries, most ironically in Thailand itself. It was banned there in 1943, when then Thai government was taxing the opium trade and opium users were switching to kratom to aid in withdrawals and as a substitute.

Arrests for kratom possession have jumped in recent years, from more than 1,200 in 2005 to more than 7,000 in 2009, even though the Thai Office of the Narcotics Control Board recommended to the Justice Department in 2010 that it be decriminalized because of the lack of any perceivable social harms.

In the US, the DEA added kratom to its list of drugs of concern in 2010, although that doesn't mean that a federal ban is necessarily imminent. Salvia divinorum, for example, has been a drug of concern for more than a decade now, with no action taken. But while the feds haven't acted, there were efforts to ban kratom in several states in the US this year, although only Indiana actually succeeding in outlawing it. In Louisiana, age restrictions were placed on its purchase.

The experience of Iowa, where legislation to ban kratom is still pending, is illustrative of how bans are created. The Iowa effort happened after state Rep. Clel Baudler (R) heard about kratom on a radio program. Within two hours, he was moving to ban it.

"Kratom is a hallucinogen, addictive, and can be life threatening," he said at the time, in complete contradiction of all that is actually known about kratom.

It's not just states that are considering bans on kratom. Pinellas County, Florida, was about to enact one this week, but the prohibitionist bandwagon hit a bump in the road in the form of perennial drug war gadfly Randy Heine, owner of Rockin' Cards and Gifts in Pinellas Park, who told the Chronicle he had been selling kratom in his store since 1981.

Seeing what was coming down the pike, Heine alerted the Kratom Association, a group of users, producers, and vendors dedicated to keeping kratom legal, who flooded county commissioners with emails. He also addressed the commission itself.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/randy-heine-201px.jpg
Randy Heine
"I have been selling kratom for over 30 years out of my store on Park Blvd. I challenge anyone to find any problem originating from my store selling kratom," he wrote in a letter made available to the Chronicle. "Do not lump in synthetic chemicals with an organic plant material. This is like comparing apples to oranges. I would like to see kratom be sold only to persons over the age of 18, similar to the proposal being made in our sister state of Louisiana."

In the conservative county, Heine also appealed to the ghost of Ronald Reagan in his letter to commissioners. What riles up the Reagan in him, Heine wrote, is "growing the bureaucracy by creating another board to regulate what I and others do in privacy of our own homes."

"I got letters back from two of the commissioners," said Heine. "They read my Ronald Reagan letter out loud, and one of the GOP commissioners thanked me for sharing my thoughts. The commission has now deferred this item so we can take a closer look at the issues involved."

Many of his kratom customers are using it as an opiate substitute, he said.

"We have a drug rehab place here, and my feeling is that a lot of their clients are purchasing kratom instead of methadone. It's competition; I'm taking away money," he said. "Some of my customers say methadone is worse than heroin and keeps you addicted. Kratom weans them off heroin. A lot of them say they just do less and less kratom until the craving stops. I have a couple of senior women who say they're tired of taking prescription pills, that they make them nutty, and kratom works for them."

Chronicle readers may recall that Pinellas County is where a drug reform-minded upstart Democratic candidate for sheriff is taking on either the scandal-plagued Republican incumbent sheriff or his challenger and predecessor, former Sheriff Everett Rice (the GOP primary is next week), whose supporters on the council were pushing the kratom ban. That Democrat, Scott Swope, is so good on drug policy that his candidacy persuaded Heine to drop his own bid for the sheriff's office.

"This looks like another unconstitutional intrusion into the lives of Pinellas citizens who aren't harming anyone," Swope said. "I've researched kratom and although there doesn't seem to be as much research available as cannabis, it appears to me to be a plant product that should not be banned. I think the purchase or possession of any of these things (cannabis, kratom, bath salts) by minors should not be allowed. Adults, however, should be free to do what they want as long as they aren't harming anyone else."

While Heine is currently bedeviled by the effort to ban kratom, as well as an associated effort to force smoke shops to put large signs on their doors saying they sell drug paraphernalia, the Swope candidacy has him hoping for better times ahead. 

"Swope can win," he exulted. "We finally have a candidate who is talking about marijuana. Even the Republican candidates are now saying they wouldn't bust people for marijuana. When I was still a candidate, I went to many forums to talk about pot, and the media started asking these guys about it. Scott won't arrest people for personal use."

Whether it's relatively unknown substances like kratom or now familiar substances like marijuana, the battle lines are drawn in what is ultimately a culture war. On one hand, the forces of fear and authoritarianism; on the other, the forces of free inquiry and personal liberty. It's been a long war, and it isn't going to end anytime soon, but perhaps now there are hints that the correlation of forces is changing.

Stopping unnecessary prohibitions before they get started is part of the struggle; undoing entrenched prohibitions with powerful interests behind them is another part of the struggle, but even though the substances are different, it's the same struggle.

(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.)

Pinellas County
FL
United States

"You Can't Stop AIDS Without Ending the Drug War" [FEATURE]

The XIX International AIDS Conference took place in Washington, DC, last week, bringing more than 20,000 scientists, activists, government officials, and journalists to assess the science and determine best practices for reducing the spread of the HIV virus. The US was able to host the conference for the first time in 22 years after it finally repealed a law denying people with HIV admission to the country.

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/aids2012-protest-1.jpg
activists interrupt the conference opening session to protest the exclusion of drug users and sex workers (video at droginreporter.hu/en)
But other critical groups remained excluded -- drug users and sex workers. Although they make up a majority of people living with HIV in many countries, people who admit to ever using drugs or engaging in prostitution within the past 10 years are inadmissible under US immigration laws. The State Department could have issued a blanker waiver of inadmissibility for people attending the conference, but declined to do so.

Drug users and sex workers who wanted to attend the conference were thus faced with a dilemma: Tell the truth and be barred or lie on the visa application, which in itself is a violation of US immigration law. As a result, representatives of some of the groups most affected -- and most likely to be affected in the future -- were unable to attend.

"People do not want to run the risk of attending the conference in a country where they are told they are not wanted or desired," said Allan Clear, the executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition. "It sends the message that people who have a history of drug use or sex work are not actually included in the dialog at all, and is a serious setback in the fight against AIDS. I don't think the US government has any particular interest in actually involving sex workers or drug users in policy or programming."

The exclusion of drug users and sex workers hasn't gone down well with activists. As far back as two years ago at the Vienna AIDS conference, Indian activist Meena Seshu called for a boycott of AIDS 2012, pointing out that it was unethical three decades into the AIDS epidemic to discuss AIDS policy without including those most affected. Some have boycotted the conference, opting instead to attend a Kiev conference that began July 9 for drug users and people living with HIV from Eastern Europe. Sex workers and their allies followed with a side meeting in Kolkata this week. While those two events are officially considered "hubs" of the International AIDS Conference, many attended them as a means of protesting the exclusion of drug users and sex workers in Washington.

Unhappiness broke into the open in Washington Monday when dozens of drug user and sex workers activists disrupted the conference's opening press event. They leapt from their seats unexpectedly and marched through the room, waving banners and shouting slogans such as "No drug users? No sex workers? No International AIDS conference!"

Discontent with AIDS policies that marginalize drug users and sex workers escaped from the conference rooms and onto the streets again on Tuesday, as hundreds marched to the White House chanting "No More Drug War" in a rally timed to coincide with the conference. The march broadened the scope of protest, linking the battle against AIDS with the war on drugs and corporate domination of US political life.

On the way to the White House, protestors stopped at UPS and Wells Fargo facilities to chide those corporations for unhelpful practices. UPS took heat for donating to politicians who voted to restore the federal ban on needle exchange funding, and Wells Fargo for investing in private prisons.

"Wells Fargo is literally invested in locking more people up," said Laura Thomas of Drug Policy Alliance (DPA).

Activism around drug users and AIDS also took place in the conference's Global Village, including the installation of a model of Vancouver's Insite supervised injection site and tours of a local needle exchange outreach van courtesy of DC's Family and Medical Counseling Services. The Harm Reduction and Global Drug Policy Zone in the village also featured special events and presentations put on by groups including the Harm Reduction Coalition, Harm Reduction International, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, the Eurasian Harm Reduction Network, and the International Network of People Who Use Drugs.

Advocates also took advantage of the AIDS conference to unleash a campaign on the theme of "You Can't End AIDS Unless You End the Drug War." Articles to that effect appeared on Alternet and the Huffington Post (and were picked up elsewhere), while Global Commission on Drug Policy member Richard Branson penned a USA Today op-ed piece on how drug prohibition contributes to the spread of HIV. As part of the same campaign, Politico ran a full-page ad signed by Global Commission members and other notables, repeating the message and directly challenging both President Obama and Gov. Romney to "do the right thing." Giants in AIDS advocacy like Michael Kazatchkine and Stephen Lewis joined the calls in speeches given during the conference.

In an unexpected cap to things, former President Bill Clinton called for drug use to be treated as a public health issue, not a criminal justice one, in remarks at the closing plenary. Clinton cited The Huffington Post and Alternet op-eds, coauthored by the Drug Policy Alliance's Ethan Nadelmann and American Foundation for AIDS Research founder Matthilde Krim.

Activists demanding a larger role for drug users and sex workers in setting the policies that are supposed to help them fight AIDS came armed with powerful ammunition. Two recent reports clearly lay out how criminalizing drug use helps spread the disease and how many countries are failing to adequately deal with the spread of HIV among injection drug users.

The first report, from the Global Commission on Drug Policy, makes its findings clear in its title: "The War on Drugs and HIV/AIDS: How Criminalization of Drug Use Fuels the Global Pandemic." In the report, the commission noted that injection drug use now accounts for one-third of new HIV infections outside of sub-Saharan Africa, including some 354,000 people in the US.

"Throughout the world, research has consistently shown that repressive drug law enforcement practices force drug users away from public health services and into hidden environments where HIV risk becomes markedly elevated," the commission said. "Mass incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders also plays a major role in spreading the pandemic."

The commission also remarked on "the remarkable failure" of drug prohibition in reducing the global drug supply. The worldwide supply of illicit opiates, such as heroin, has increased almost four-fold in recent decades, the commissioners noted. They also noted the drug war's contribution to the growth of organized crime and violence.

The commission identified proven addiction treatment and evidence-based public health measures that countries should put in place to reduce the spread of HIV and protect community health and safety. They include needle exchange programs, safer injecting facilities, and prescription heroin programs.

"Failure to take these steps is criminal," the commission said.

In the second report, "The Global State of Harm Reduction 2012: Towards an Integrated Response," from the London-based Harm Reduction International (formerly the International Harm Reduction Association), researchers found that while injection drug use has been identified in 158 countries, only half of them have any programs aimed at preventing the spread of HIV among injectors, and the situation internationally is not improving. Even in countries that are addressing the problem, programs suffer from lack of funding and donor support is decreasing. That is undermining the global response to AIDS, the report concluded.

"In the last two years, we have seen a significant scale-down of services in countries with some of the highest HIV burdens among people who inject drugs," said Rick Lines, the group's executive director. "As tens of thousands gather in Washington this week to call for an end to AIDS, it is becoming increasingly clear that governments have neither the will nor the intention of ending the spread of HIV among people who use drugs."

"We have seen the number of needle exchange programs in Russia drop for 70 in 2010 to only six in 2012. This is made worse by a retreat of many bilateral and multilateral donors to funding effective harm reduction interventions in many countries," said Claudia Stoicescu, public health analyst at Harm Reduction International and author of the report. "Such developments significantly limit progress toward global commitments to halve HIV transmission related to unsafe injecting by 2015, let alone any hope of achieving universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support for people who inject drugs."

"The reluctance of governments to fund an adequate response to HIV and injecting drug use stands in stark contrast to the seemingly limitless budgets for ineffective and punitive law enforcement responses," said Lines. "Governments care more about fighting a losing war on drugs than they do about winning the fight against HIV."

As the world enters its fourth decade of living -- and dying -- with HIV/AIDS, this week's conference and its barriers to participation by and concern for some of those most directly affected by the crisis -- drug users and sex workers -- demonstrate how far we still have to go. They also make achingly clear the destructive role that drug prohibition and the criminalization of marginalized populations play in perpetuating the epidemic.

Maybe next time the International AIDS Society will hold its conference someplace where drug users and other marginalized groups can attend and be heard. Or maybe the United States will alter its harsh visa requirements aimed at drug users and sex workers. Either one would be good. Ending drug prohibition, the stigma it generates, and the obstacles to fighting disease it engenders would be better.

Washington, DC
United States

Obama Signs Synthetic Drug Ban Bill

President Barack Obama Monday signed into law a bill banning the synthetic drugs known popularly as "bath salts" and "fake weed." The language barring the substances was inserted into the Food and Drug Administration safety bill passed last month by the Congress.

Bye-bye Spice, hello...? (wikimedia.org)
The bill targets 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.

With their rising popularity came rising reports of emergency room visits and poison control center calls attributed to the drugs. Synthetic cannabinoids have been linked to symptoms similar to those suffered by people who sought medical help after smoking marijuana, while the adverse reactions reported by "bath salts" users have been more serious.

More than half the states and numerous localities have moved to ban some of these new synthetics, and the DEA placed both groups of substances under an emergency ban until Congress acted.

Congressional advocates of the prohibitionist approach to new synthetics were pleased.

"President Obama's swift approval of this federal ban is the final nail in the coffin for the legal sale of bath salts in smoke shops and convenient stores in New York State and throughout the rest of the country," said Schumer in a press release (which also includes a complete list of the 31 banned substances). "This law will close loopholes that have allowed manufacturers to circumvent local and state bans and ensure that you cannot simply cross state lines to find these deadly bath salts, and I'm pleased that after a great deal of effort, it has become law. We have seen bath salts catalyze some of the most heinous crimes in recent months across Upstate New York, and the President's signature ensures that the federal government can fight this scourge with a united front, across state lines and at our borders."

Schumer used the occasion to take a jab at Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who had placed a senatorial hold on the bill, blocking it for months over his concerns about mandatory minimum sentences before removing the hold after the bill's sentencing structure was modified. Schumer gloated that Congress passed the bill "over the strenuous objections" of Paul.

While Schumer and his colleagues claimed the bill will suppress the new synthetics, others were not so certain.

New York state anti-synthetic activist Deirdre Canaday, whose 26-year-old son Aaron Stinson died last year after smoking a form of fake weed called Mr. Nice Guy, told a local TV news station the ban addressed only a handful of potential new synthetic drugs.

"I think if the American public isn't careful, they'll think this issue has been addressed when this is really just the tip of the iceberg," she said. "By specifically labeling chemical compounds, they are creating an open door for these basement and garage chemists to create analogs, which is branching out from the original compound, and differing just slightly, and it still has the same effect," said Canaday.

Washington, DC
United States

Mexico President-Elect Wants Drug Legalization Talks

Mexico's likely president-elect, Enrique Peña Nieto, said in a PBS Newsmaker interview that aired Tuesday evening that Mexico should discuss legalizing drugs and regulating their sale, and that the US and other countries should be part of the discussion as well. But he also said that he wasn't calling for legalization and that he would continue using the military in Mexico's battle against its powerful drug trafficking organizations, the so-called cartels.

Mexican president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto (cddiputados.gob.mx)
While Peña Nieto is virtually certain to be Mexico's next president, it's not quite official yet. Mexico election officials are recounting half the ballot boxes because of inconsistencies in the tallies and expect to release final results Sunday. But with Peña Nieto holding a five-point lead over second place finisher Andre Manuel Lopez Obrador, the recount is unlikely to change the outcome.

[Editor's Note: For our feature article on what Peña Nieto might mean for Mexico's future drug policy, published just as the PBS interview aired, go here.]

"I'm in favor of opening a new debate in the strategy in the way we fight drug trafficking. It is quite clear that after several years of this fight against drug trafficking, we have more drug consumption, drug use and drug trafficking. That means we are not moving in the right direction. Things are not working," he told PBS's Margaret Warner in Mexico City. "I'm not saying we should legalize," he repeated. "But we should debate in Congress, in the hemisphere and especially the US should participate in this broad debate."

"So let the debate begin, but you're not taking a position yet?" Warner asked.

"That's right," he said.

Peña Nieto joins an ever growing list of Latin American leaders calling for frank discussions on alternatives to US-style drug war policies. The incipient rebellion has been brewing for years, but broke into the open on the hemispheric diplomatic this spring at the Organization of American States' Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia.

Although US media coverage of the summit was devoted almost entirely to the bright shiny object that was the Secret Service prostitution scandal, the summit saw Latin American leaders, including Colombian President Santos and Guatemalan President Perez Molina urge that formal discussions take place. And just days ago, Uruguayan President Mujica joined the ranks of the drug war dissenters, as his government put forth plans to establish a state monopoly on marijuana sales.

While Peña Nieto's comments on debating legalization won't be welcomed with open arms in Washington, his affirmation that he will largely continue the policies of his predecessor, President Felipe Calderon, will reassure politicians and policymakers worried that he was going to go soft on the cartels. While he would shift the focus from going after gang capos to reducing the violence, the Mexican state would continue to battle organized crime, he said.

"I know there is a concern around this issue, in terms of assuming this adjustment means not going after drug cartels involved in drug trafficking. No, absolutely not," he insisted.

"I will maintain the presence of a Mexican Army, and the Navy and police in the states of the Mexican Republic, where the problem of crime has increased," the telegenic former governor of Mexico state emphasized. "We will adjust the strategy so that we can focus on certain type of crimes, like kidnapping, homicide, extortion, which today, unfortunately, have worsened or increased, because we have a lot of impunity in some areas. The state's task is to achieve more efficiency, and to go back to the rule of law and enforce laws strictly in our country."

And while he said he wanted to intensify cooperation with the US, he made clear that he felt the US had failed to do enough to stop gun-running into Mexico. That has been a complaint of Calderon's as well.

"We have been insisting on getting the US more involved in arms control," Peña Nieto said bluntly. "Unfortunately, it has had no impact."

The cracks in the wall of global drug prohibition keep getting bigger, and that bleeding fissure opened up by Mexico's wave of prohibition-related violence has created yet another stress point on the prohibitionist consensus. We may not be there quite yet, but the time when that wall finally collapses is coming.

Mexico City
Mexico

Making Sure Drugs Kill: Commission Blames Drug War for Spreading AIDS [FEATURE]

On Tuesday, as the UN's global drug prohibition bureaucracy marked its annual International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking and UN Office on Drugs and Crime head Yuri Fedotov blamed hard drug use for "bringing misery to thousands of people, insecurity, and the spread of HIV," a group of leading international voices offered a starkly contrasting perspective, arguing instead that is the failures and consequences of global drug prohibition that are driving the spread of HIV/AIDS and other blood-borne diseases among drug users.

Commission members Michel Kazatchkine, Ruth Dreifuss, and Ilana Szabo at London press conference
Those voices, gathered together as the Global Commission on Drug Policy, include six former presidents from around the world, public health experts, and socially conscious entrepreneurs such as Sir Richard Branson. They took the opportunity of global anti-drug day to issue a report, The War on Drugs and HIV/AIDS: How the Criminalization of Drug Use Fuels the Global Pandemic that directly condemns the drug war as a failure and calls for immediate, fundamental reforms of the global drug prohibition regime to slow the spread of HIV and reduce other drug war harms.

There are an estimated 33 million people worldwide infected with HIV, and outside sub-Saharan Africa, injection drug use accounts for one-third of new infections. The situation is particularly bad in Russia and other countries in the former Soviet Union and East Bloc that continue to take harsh drug war approaches to drug use despite the evidence before their own eyes. In Russia, nearly one in a hundred adults is now infected with HIV.

But it's not just the Russian sphere where policymakers ignore the evidence. The report also cites China, Thailand, and the US, where Congress recently reinstated a longstanding ban on the use of federal funds for syringe exchange programs. In countries that have adopted evidence-based HIV prevention programs, such as Switzerland and Portugal, injection drug use-related HIV infections have nearly been eliminated.

According to the report, drug prohibition and the criminalization of drug users spurs the spread of HIV through the following means:

  • Fear of arrest drives persons who use drugs underground, away from HIV testing and HIV prevention services and into high-risk environments.
  • Restrictions on provision of sterile syringes to drug users result in increased syringe sharing.
  • Prohibitions or restrictions on opioid substitution therapy and other evidence-based treatment result in untreated addiction and avoidable HIV risk behavior.
  • Deficient conditions and lack of HIV prevention measures in prison lead to HIV outbreaks among incarcerated drug users.
  • Disruptions of HIV antiretroviral therapy result in elevated HIV viral load and subsequent HIV transmission and increased antiretroviral resistance.
  • Limited public funds are wasted on harmful and ineffective drug law enforcement efforts instead of being invested in proven HIV prevention strategies.

"The Global Commission is calling on all entities to acknowledge and address the causal links between the war on drugs' criminalization of drug use and drug users and the spread of HIV/AIDS," commission member Michel Kazatchkine, the former executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria told a London press conference. "For people who inject drugs and their sex partners, the AIDS epidemic continues to be a public health emergency."

"It is so clear now that there is a relation between repressive drug policies and the spread of HIV/AIDS," said former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria. "If we don't get people into the health system without fear, it will be very difficult to do treatment and prevention."

Commission member Sir Richard Branson at "Atlantic Exchange" drug policy discussion, Washington, DC, March 2012
"I have long thought the war on drugs did more harm than good, and the commission's report put the data behind those beliefs," said Branson. "The war on drugs is not stopping drug use, and it also contributes significantly to the AIDS epidemic by driving users into the shadows. As an entrepreneur, if my business was failing for 40 years, I would close it down. Refusing to implement public health measures to reduce HIV and protect people with a drug problem is nothing short of criminal."

Branson and the other commissioners made some concrete recommendations for action in the report. Those include:

  • Push national governments to halt the practice of arresting and imprisoning people who use drugs but do no harm to others.
  • Measure drug policy success by indicators that have real meaning in communities, such as reduced rates of transmission of HIV and other infectious diseases, fewer overdose deaths, reduced drug market violence, fewer individuals incarcerated and lowered rates of problematic substance use.
  • Respond to the fact that HIV risk behavior resulting from repressive drug control policies and under-funding of evidence-based approaches is the main issue driving the HIV epidemic in many regions of the world.
  • Act urgently: The war on drugs has failed, and millions of new HIV infections and AIDS deaths can be averted if action is taken now.

"The AIDS epidemic is a harsh and brutal teacher that obliges us to take a scientific approach to deal with sex workers and drug addicts," said former Swiss President and commission member Ruth Dreifuss. "Politicians have to inform citizens of the benefits, risks, and failures of drug policy, and politics has to take responsibility for policy change. Public health has to be at least as important as criminalizing the drug traffic," she told the press conference.

"Addicted injecting drug users is one of the main sources of the spread, and not all of them will achieve abstinence," said Dreifuss. "Substitution therapies can take people away from street drug dealers and violence. For some, the provision of medical heroin is necessary to allow them to abandon criminal activities and overcome marginalization. It's possible to implement these large scale programs at low costs with high benefits," she argued.

"For others, harm reduction measures are necessary in order to avoid the spread of HIV/AIDS and other bloodborne disease. Needle exchange programs, free condoms, safe consumption rooms all not only save the lives of drug users but protect the whole population," Dreifuss explained. "We need the full spectrum of these measures for those in prison, too, who are at more risk for HIV infections."

Dreifuss touted her own country's experience as a model. Faced with mounting injection drug use, Switzerland eventually went the route of supervised injection sites and opioid maintenance, including heroin maintenance.

"Our experience is that it works," she said. "The police protect the injection rooms from dealers. The four pillar policy [prevention, treatment, harm reduction, enforcement] has been broadly accepted by our citizens and the spread of HIV/AIDS is under control."

Even within the constraints imposed by the global drug prohibition regime, countries can still take action to mitigate the drug war's role in the spread of infectious disease, she said.

"It is possible for countries to adopt effective harm reduction measures within existing drug laws," Dreifuss argued. "The decriminalization of drug use is the first step, and the second step is to determine what type of market can drive out dealers. The war on drugs has failed to reduce supply or demand; let us replace prohibition with regulation and avoid jeopardizing public health and harm reduction policies with inefficient measures."

"Our message is that prohibitionist law enforcement has failed in its goals of eradicating drugs and protecting people's health," said Kazatchkine. "Illegal drugs have become cheaper and more available and HIV and other health risks have increased. Prohibitionist policies have been shifting the market to stronger drugs and led to a war on users with numerous human rights abuses, police harassment, violence, extortion. The fear of police and stigma is driving users underground and away from access to information, care, and medical services," he warned.

"One cannot improve health through war," he concluded. "This is an epidemic among people who inject that we can actually control. If we are to have a chance at reducing the transmission of AIDS, we need to open up and change our ways."

The Global Commission on Drugs has laid out the problem and showed us the path to fix it. Now, it is up to our political leadership to act accordingly, and it is up to us to ensure that it does.

London
United Kingdom

Japan to Ban New Synthetic Drugs

The Japanese government will ban four new synthetic drugs in August, according to Japanese press reports. The four drugs are the synthetic cannabinoids JWH-018 and cannabicyclohexanol and the synthetic stimulants mephedrone and MDPV.

mephedrone among new synthetic drugs to be banned in Japan
The synthetic cannabinoids are commonly sold as incense and marketed in the US under brand names like Spice and K2. The synthetic stimulants are commonly sold as plant fertilizer and marketed under names such as Ivory Wave. The two types of synthetic drugs are commonly referred to as "fake pot" and "bath salts," respectively.

The compounds have been banned in the European Union, and numerous states in the US have also taken action to prohibit them. Legislation is pending in the US Congress to ban them as well, and both sets of drugs are currently banned federally under emergency DEA edicts.

The Japanese Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry will designate the four synthetic drugs as "narcotics" under the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law and is working on a blanket regulation that would allow it to impose the same designation on new drugs with slightly differing chemical compositions but that have similar effects to the banned substances.

Japanese health authorities have reported 114 cases of "health problems" associated with the use of the synthetic drugs, but there is no reporting on how many of those cases were associated with synthetic cannabinoids or how many were associated with synthetic stimulants. The adverse reactions to synthetic stimulants are more severe than those associated with synthetic cannabinoids. Authorities in Japan have also reported a number of cases of people injuring others while driving under the influence of the new synthetics.

Tokyo
Japan

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