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"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 The US was able to host the conference for the first time in 22 years after it finally repealed a law denying people with HIV admission to the country.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://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

US/Mexico Drug War "Caravan of Peace" Gearing Up [FEATURE]

Aghast and appalled at the bloody results of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's war on drugs, which has resulted in at least 50,000 deaths since he deployed the military against the so-called drug cartels in December 2006 and possibly as many as 70,000, dozens of organizations in Mexico and the US announced Monday that they will take part in a "Caravan for Peace" that will journey across the US late this summer in a bid to change failed drug war policies on both sides of the border.

caravan launch at Museo Memoria y Tolerancia, Plaza Juárez, Mexico City (@CaravanaUSA @MxLaPazMx)
Led by Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, who was spurred to action by the murder of his son by cartel members in Cuernavaca in 2010, and the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity (MPJD) he heads, the caravan will depart from San Diego on August 12 and arrive in Washington on September 10 after traveling some 6,000 miles to bring to the American people and their elected officials the bi-national message that failed, murderous drug war policies must end.

The caravan will be underway in between presidential elections in the two countries. Mexico will choose a successor to Calderon on July 1, and whoever that successor is, will be re-tooling its fight against the drug cartels. By late summer, the US presidential campaign will be in full swing, and advocates hope to have at least some impact on that as well.

The caravan builds on similar efforts last year in Mexico. Led by Sicilia and other relatives of drug war victims, one caravan of more than 500 people left Cuernavaca and traveled north through 15 cities to Ciudad Juarez, one of the epicenters of prohibition-related violence in Mexico. A second caravan left Mexico City with 700 people traveling south through 21 cities. Those caravans helped turn what was an amorphous fear and dismay among Mexicans at the violence into a political movement that has put the issue of the drug wars and their victims squarely on the Mexican political agenda.

"The war on drugs has had painful consequences for our country, such as corruption and impunity," said Sicilia at a Mexico City press conference. "The proof of this is that Mexico has seen over 70,000 deaths and 10,000 disappearances, and this is closely linked to US regional security policies, which have sparked widespread areas of violence, human rights violations, and the loss of the rule of law. The drug war has failed," he said bluntly.

"On August 12, Mexicans will come to the US and cover a route of 25 cities in one month," Sicilia continued. "Our message is one of peace, and our journey will be peaceful with an open heart and the hope of speaking with each other. We believe the harm we live is linked to the failed policies we want to change."

"Regarding policies on the war on drugs, we propose the need to find a solution with a multidimensional and international approach that places the dignity of the individual at the center of drug policy," Sicilia said. "We call on both Mexican and US civil society to open and maintain a dialogue on evidence-based alternatives to prohibition and to consider various options for regulating drugs."

Javier Sicilia on CNNMéxico
For Sicilia and the caravan, drug policy is inextricably tied to other policies and issues that affect both sides of the border. The caravan is also calling for a ban on the importation of assault weapons to the US (because they then end up being exported to Mexican criminals), a higher priority for concentrating on money laundering, an end to US immigration policies that have resulted in the militarization of the border and the criminalization of immigrants, and a refocusing of US foreign policy to emphasize human rights while suspending US military aid to Mexico.

The broad range of interrelated issues is helping build a broad coalition around the caravan. Groups concerned with the border, immigrant rights, human rights, racial justice, and labor are all coming on board.

"Forty years ago, then President Nixon inaugurated the war on drugs, and we've not won the war on drugs -- the only thing we've achieved is being the world's leader in incarceration," said Dr. Niaz Kasravi, with the NAACP criminal justice program. "Through these policies, we've also promoted violence and death for those caught up in the drug war in the US and Mexico. In the US, those who have borne the brunt of it have been people of color. The war on drugs hasn't made our communities safer, healthier, or more stable, but has resulted in the mass incarceration of people of color, a de facto Jim Crow. We are in a violent state of emergency that must end, and we stand committed to ending the war on drugs."

"We emphasize the dignity and humanity of immigrants in the US," said Oscar Chacon of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities (NALACC), "and when we were invited to consider joining the caravan, we identified with it as a cause of our own. We see our issues reflected throughout the caravan. Policies that emphasize militarization and authoritarianism and enforcement and punishment have human rights violations as their natural results. We see in the caravan an opportunity to write a new chapter in our initiatives to highlight the value of respect for all human life and we will use our participation to further educate Latino and immigrant communities about the relationship between policy decisions made in Washington and the sad effects they can have -- in this case, particularly for our Mexican brothers and sisters."

"Prior to coming here, I did not know the extent of the pain, sorrow, and suffering of the families here in Mexico," said Neill Franklin, head of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "There are so many orphans, so many families being attacked. Families and future generations are also under attack in my country, with drive-by shootings and running gun battles in the streets of our big cities. Most of those targeted by the drug war here are blacks and Latinos; we have many broken families and communities because of these policies. This caravan will unite our people, our pain, and our solutions in an effort to save our sons and daughters."

"This is a historic moment and one of great necessity," said Ted Lewis of Global Exchange. "The caravan arrives between two presidential elections, and that's intentional, not because we have electoral ends, but because we want the message to be heard on both sides of the border. This is a truly binational effort, and it is very important that leaders on both sides of the border take this message deeply into account as they organize in Mexico a new administration and as they campaign here in the US. This issue must be dealt with now."

Also on board is Border Angels, a San Diego-based group best known for leaving caches of water in the desert to help save the lives of undocumented immigrants heading north. The group has long been critical of increased border enforcement efforts such as Operation Gatekeeper, which have pushed those immigrants away from urban areas and into harsh and unforgiving environments as they seek to make their way to a better life.

"Operation Gatekeeper has led to more than 10,000 deaths since 1994," said the group's Enrique Morones. "Two people die crossing the border every day, but they are also dying south of the border. Now, we see a new wave of migration to escape the terrible violence in Mexico, the country of my parents, and that's why we are joining this movement for peace in this historic caravan. We have told both Obama and Calderon that human rights, love, and peace have no borders. We demand peace, justice, and dignity."

"I think this will really have a significant impact," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "It's going to be a pivotal moment, just a month after the Mexican elections and just a few months before the US elections. I don't think drugs will be a major issue, but it will be bubbling up from time to time."

The caravan will seek to raise awareness on both sides of the border, Nadelmann said.

"Americans need to be aware of the devastation in Mexico from the combination of US demand and our failed prohibitionist policies," he said. "It's also important that Mexicans understand the devastating consequences of the war on drugs in the US -- the arrests and incarceration, the evisceration of civil rights. This mutual understanding is a pivotal part of what we're trying to accomplish."

"I hope the message will come through that change is needed on both sides of the border," Nadelmann continued. "We've seen the failures of prohibition on both sides, but the biggest impetus has to come from the US through legal regulation of marijuana and more innovative policies to reduce demand -- not from locking up more people, but by providing effective drug treatment and allowing people addicted to drugs to get them from legal sources. We need a fundmentally different approach, and this caravan will be a leap forward in understanding the consequences of failed prohibition."

Mexico City
Mexico

US Senate Passes Synthetic Drug Ban, Without Mandatory Minimums [FEATURE]

The Senate has passed House Resolution 1254, the Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2011, which would federally criminalize the possession, distribution, and manufacture of synthetic cannabinoids ("fake marijuana") and synthetic stimulants ("bath salts"). The measure has already passed the House, and President Obama is expected to quickly sign it into law.

The synthetic cannabinoids are marketed as "herbal incense" and sold under brand names such as K2 and Spice, while the synthetic stimulants are marketed as "bath salts" and sold under a variety of names, including Ivory Wave and Vanilla Sky. Poison control centers and emergency rooms around the country have reported a sharp increase in synthetic drug incidents in the past two years, with Spice users reporting adverse effects similar to those sometimes reported with marijuana, while bath salts users have suffered more serious adverse effects, including hallucinations, psychotic breaks, and death.

Fake pot or bath salts or both are already banned in a number of states, and more states are considering criminalizing them. Both types of drugs have already been subject to emergency bans by the DEA while its legislatively mandated process for evaluating new drugs proceeds.

A widely publicized incident over the weekend in which a man chewed off parts of another man's face before being shot and killed by police has heightened concerns about the new synthetics, generating headlines like "Miami cannibal zombie-like attack linked to powerful 'bath salts' drug," but at this point, such claims are pure speculation. Police in the case have also posited "a new form of LSD" and "cocaine psychosis" to explain the attack, but any real information will have to await a toxicologist's report.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) had single-handedly blocked passage of the bill for months by placing a senatorial hold on it. Paul objected to harsh mandatory minimum sentences in the bill, as well as to further broadening of the federal war on drugs.

But bill supporters, led by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), resorted to a parliamentary maneuver to get it passed. They quietly attached it to an FDA regulatory bill, which the Senate passed last Wednesday.

Sen. Rand Paul got mandatory minimums removed
Still, Sen. Paul was able to insert language into the bill specifying that the Controlled Substance Act's mandatory minimum 20-year sentence for anyone supplying a drug that causes severe bodily harm or death to a user does not apply to the newly banned synthetics. That's because in order to get the FDA bill approved by Memorial Day, Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), who actually sponsored the amendment adding the synthetics to the FDA bill, had to win unanimous consent for his amendment. Paul agreed not to object after Portman inserted the language about the mandatory minimums.

The bill still contains draconian sentencing provisions, including sentences of up to 20 years for a first sale or manufacturing offense and up to 30 years for a subsequent offense.

The bill's sponsors said after the vote that its passage would strike a strong blow against the new synthetics, but industry advocates and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) disagree.

"Let this be a warning to those who make a profit manufacturing and selling killer chemical components to our teens and children: the jig is up," Schumer said in a statement. "This bill closes loopholes that have allowed manufacturers to circumvent local and state bans and ensures that you cannot simply cross state lines to find these deadly synthetic drugs."

"These new designer drugs can kill, and if we don't take action, they are going to become more and more prevalent and put more and more people at risk," Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), another sponsor of the bill said in a statement. "Today's action is good news for this critical legislation to give law enforcement the tools they need to crack down on synthetic drugs before they put more lives in danger, and I will continue to work to ensure these provisions are signed into law."

But the Retail Compliance Association (RCA), which represents smoke shop and convenience store operators and which opposed the bill, pointed out that the bill only bans five chemical families and only names 15 synthetic cannabinoids. Many of those compounds are already off the market, the RCA said, adding that the bill does not include hundreds of additional compounds unrelated to the chemical families banned under it.

"This bill will be touted as banning what law enforcement has deemed 'fake pot,' but it does no such thing; it actually only bans a few of the potential ingredients of these products, by no means the products themselves," said RCA spokesman Dan Francis. "The bill's range of enforcement may well be limited to the specifically named compounds because labs cannot test for chemical families, nor can the police or retailers. The products are tested by many different levels of this industry, and no lab I have spoken with has a test to determine the chemical family," Francis added.

The CBO, for its part, published a cost analysis of the bill in November that found its impact would be minimal.

"Based on information from industry and law enforcement experts, CBO expects that, by the date of the legislation's enactment, most vendors will have largely replaced the banned substances with new products because many states have already passed legislation banning some or all of the compounds listed in the bill and because the DEA has already issued emergency rules temporarily banning five cannabimimetic agents and three synthetic stimulants," the analysis found.

Still, Congress can pat itself on the back for "doing something" about the new synthetic drugs -- whether or not it actually does anything good.

Washington, DC
United States

Australia Bans Synthetic Marijuana

As of Tuesday, synthetic cannabis ("fake weed") products are illegal in Australia. The ban came when the Therapeutic Goods Administration placed eight groups of synthetic cannabinoids and all synthetic cannabinomimetics on the National Medical and Poisons Schedule.

"spice" or K2 packet (wikimedia.org)
Fake weed is already banned in at least 16 countries and an ever-growing number of US states. The DEA issued an emergency ban on the substances last year, but a bill to make that ban permanent has been stalled in Congress by a hold placed on it by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY).

Fake weed consists of powdered synthetic cannabinoids, which are then sprayed on herbal matter and marketed under brand names including Kronic, K-2, and Spice. They produce a high similar to marijuana and sometimes create undesired side effects in users similar to those sometimes experienced with marijuana. No deaths in the US have been directly linked to their use.

Possession, manufacture, or sale of fake weed is now a criminal offense in Australia with violators facing fines or jail, including up to 10 years in prison for manufacturing and distribution offenses.

The ban came after police last month called for urgent meetings with public health and drug authorities. The state of Western Australia last year requested consideration of a national ban and had banned fake weed in its territory last year after a spate of highly-publicized hospitalizations of users, but no other Australian state had enacted a ban.

"These products do not appear to have any legitimate therapeutic use and there is a developing international body of evidence and clinical experience that is showing harm related to use of these substances," said Western Australia Mental Health Minister Helen Morton, who had championed the ban there last year. "Removing synthetic cannabinoids from legal supply, sale and possession is expected to result in a significant decrease in consumption and the associated harm related to their use," she told Perth Now.

Ironically, the surge in fake weed use in Western Australia came as the state government there toughened its marijuana laws last year. Prior to the enactment of that law last August, possession of up to 30 grams of pot had been decriminalized, but under the new law, those possessing more than 10 grams face up to two years in prison. The cultivation of up to two plants had also been decriminalized, but is now punishable by up to two years in prison as well.

Canberra
Australia

Gary Johnson Picks Judge Jim Gray for Libertarian Party Ticket

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who is seeking the Libertarian Party presidential nomination, has selected California Judge Jim Gray as his running mate, the Daily Caller reported Monday.

Gov. Gary Johnson
Johnson, a pro-drug reform Republican, sought the GOP presidential nomination earlier this year, but switched gears (and parties) and entered the Libertarian nominating fray after failing to gain traction with Republicans.

His selection of Judge Gray, a prominent advocate of marijuana legalization, "puts pot front and center in the campaign," a Johnson staffer told the Caller. But that staffer added that Johnson's opposition to the war in Afghanistan will remain the campaign's central issue.

As governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003, Johnson emerged on the national scene as one of the first elected officials to embrace drug law reform and helped lay the groundwork for the passage of a medical marijuana law there under his successor, Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson.

Like Johnson, Gray is a former Republican turned Libertarian whose vantage point on the criminal bench turned him away from the drug policy status quo and toward drug legalization. He is the author of several books on drug policy and the law and was an outspoken supporter of California's 2010 Proposition 19, as well as a proponent of this year's Regulate Marijuana Like Wine initiative, which failed to gather enough signatures to make the ballot.

“Jim Gray is not only a highly-respected jurist, but he is also a proven leader on issues of concern to Americans -- from drug policy to civil liberties to ethics," Johnson said in a statement Monday. "I am proud he is joining me to offer America a real choice in this election, and excited that his forceful and extremely credible voice will be a vital part of our campaign. Judge Gray is a reformer with the track record and credentials to prove it, and I urge the Libertarian Party to nominate him for Vice-President of the United States."

Gray, for his part, said he was "excited" to join Johnson in campaign that will provide voters with "a credible, proven alternative" to the choices offered by the two major parties.

"Especially with the candidacy of former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, the 2012 election offers an historic opportunity for libertarian ideals and policies to be a very real part of the national debate," Gray said. "As the only candidates for president and vice president who will be on the ballot in all 50 states who will cut federal spending by 43%, oppose the war in Afghanistan and the failed and expensive war on drugs, repeal the Patriot Act, support gay marriage equality and the legalization of marijuana, we will offer voters a choice voters crave."

According to the Daily Caller, Gray wasn't the campaign's first choice, although Johnson kept suggesting his name. The Caller reported that Fox News host Judge Andrew Napolitano, former California Rep. Barry Goldwater, Jr., and Daily Caller editor-in-chief Tucker Carlson all turned down a place on the ticket before the campaign offered the nod to Gray.

"Gary had liked him from the very beginning," the Johnson adviser said. "Every time we would bring up somebody else, Gov. Johnson would say 'what about Jim Gray?' He was Johnson's favorite from the beginning."

Johnson still has to win the Libertarian Party nomination, which has its nominating convention this week in Las Vegas, but is expected to easily do so. For a complete list of Libertarian presidential nominee candidates, go here.

A Johnson-Gray Libertarian Party ticket emphasizing marijuana legalization and broader drug law reform could potentially impact the presidential race in at least two states identified as "toss ups" by the campaign watch site Real Clear Politics. In Colorado, the electorate will also be voting on a marijuana legalization initiative, Amendment 64, while in New Hampshire, pot politics is also a hot issue, with both medical marijuana and decriminalization before the legislature this session.

(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.)

Oakland 4/20: "Obama, You're Alienating Your Base" [FEATURE]

4/20 is supposed to be a day of cannabis celebration, but in Oakland last Friday it was a day of protest and demonstration. Angered by the ongoing federal crackdown on medical marijuana distribution and shocked and infuriated by the April 2 raids on Oaksterdam University and associated businesses, protestors gathered outside the federal building in downtown Oakland to denounce the administration before marching to President Obama's Northern California campaign headquarters to deliver a letter demanding the administration cease and desist.

Delivering a message to the Obama campaign: Back off!
"Terrorist Haag Wanted for War Crimes Against Humanity," read one hand-made sign, an expression of the widespread anger against the US Attorney for Northern California, who has targeted Northern California dispensaries as part of the ongoing federal offensive against medical marijuana distribution.

Printed green, white, and red "Cannabis medicine, let states regulate" sign waved among the crowd, as chants of "Obama, keep your promise!" and "Stop the lies, legalize!" echoed through the courtyard of the towering federal building.

But it's not just marijuana advocates who are angry. "What happened here two weeks ago with the raid of Oaksterdam was an attack on our local and our members," said Matt Witemyre, special project union representative for UFCW Local 5, which represents Northern California dispensary workers. "We're here to register our displeasure with the administration's actions and we're stopping by campaign headquarters to let them know we do not support these policies. We're here in solidarity with our brothers and sisters. They had good jobs and good benefits, and in the midst of the worst economic crisis in the country in decades, the administration is destroying these jobs. It makes no sense," he fumed.

Richard Lee addressing an admiring and supportive crowd.
"We're behind you 100%," said Bob Swanson, representing Oakland Supervisor Nate Miley. "We ask that President Obama back off and rein his people in. Marijuana is medicine; let the people have it. Leave Richard Lee alone -- he's a good man and had done wonders for Oakland."

Lee himself made an appearance. "This was supposed to be a day of celebration, but it's a day of protest," he said to loud cheers and cries of support.

There was also support from the other side of San Francisco Bay, with representatives of San Francisco United, a medical marijuana coalition opposing the federal attacks, standing in solidarity with their brethren in the East Bay.

"We are outraged and disgusted with what happened here two weeks ago," said SF United's Stephanie Tucker, referring to the Oaksterdam raids. "We won't be treated this way. Obama, you are alienating your voter base. Rein in the Department of Justice and the US Attorneys. They are going after a peaceful and well-regulated community," she said to more cheers.

The president isn't winning friends in Oakland...
"We're here to protest the outrageous use of federal resources and what our federal government has done, raiding Oaksterdam and many other well-respected and -loved cannabis establishments here in California," said California NORML executive director Dale Gieringer. "This is not the kind of change we were expecting from the Obama administration."

Friday was also Gieringer's birthday, and the crowd gave the veteran activist a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday to You" to mark the occasion.

"They said they wouldn't waste Justice Department resources on medical marijuana, but we've seen DEA raids all up and down the state, we've seen Treasury attacking the banks, we've seen the IRS going after dispensaries, we've seen BATF saying that medical marijuana patients don't have the right to bear arms, we've seen the Justice Department deny that marijuana has any medical value," Gieringer continued.

"They've turned down a rescheduling petition after nine years of delay and ignored hundreds of studies to the contrary. This administration was supposed to respect science, but it's turned its back on it. This makes no sense at all, and we're going to deliver a message to the Obama administration," he said before leading the chanting, banner-waving crowd on the short march to Obama campaign headquarters.

Passing cars honked in support as the crowd gathered in front of Obama headquarters. Richard Lee's replacement as head of Oaksterdam, Dale Sky Jones, and UFCW representative Dan Rush hand-delivered a letter to campaign staffers demanding the administration cease and desist.

...and neither is US Attorney Melinda Haag.
"What advantages do we derive from continuing this failed policy of prohibition?" asked Jones. "They're committing robbery with a badge, empowering terrorists and cartels, and denying a proven medicine to patients in the guise of keeping it from our kids. We ended the first failed Prohibition. We can do it again, President Obama. We must repeal prohibition," she insisted.

After handing over the letter at the doorway to the campaign headquarters, the crowd lingered to chant and wave signs, making sure the campaign noticed their presence.

"The local staff has heard our cries, and they support us," said Jones. "They will take the letter we've written and deliver it straight to him."

The Obama campaign has gotten the letter, but has it gotten the message? Time will tell, but the demonstrators in Oakland Friday put the campaign on notice that the administration is losing friends in California with its attacks on medical marijuana.

(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.)

Oakland, CA
United States

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