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Portuguese Drug Reformers Look Beyond Decriminalization [FEATURE]

The Portuguese government has garnered well-earned plaudits for its nine-year-old policy of the decriminalization of drug possession, first last year from Glenn Greenwald in a White Paper commissioned by the Cato Institute, and just last month in a new academic study in the British Journal of Criminology. But while they applaud the Portuguese government for embracing decriminalization, some drug user advocates there are saying there is more to be done.

Lisbon, capital of Portugal
Portugal broke new ground back in July 2001 when it decriminalized the possession of up to a 10-day supply of all illicit drugs. Under the new policy, drug users caught with drugs are not arrested, but are instead referred to regional "committees for the dissuasion of addiction." Those committees are empowered to impose warnings or administrative penalties, including fines, restrictions on driving, and referral to treatment.

But in most cases, the committees simply suspend the proceedings, meaning that, in effect, no punishment is meted out. The decriminalization policy has been accompanied by increased investment in treatment and harm reduction services, including methadone maintenance for people addicted to heroin.

As Greenwald found last year, and researchers Dr. Caitlin Hughes and Professor Alex Stevens last month, decriminalization is working. Hughes and Stevens found that while there had been a modest increase in drug use by adults, it was in line with increases reported by other southern European countries.

While drug use increased modestly, Hughes and Stevens were able to report that the harms associated with drug use had decreased under decriminalization. They found a reduction in the rate of spread of HIV/AIDS, a reduction in drug-related deaths, and a reduction in drug use by adolescents. They also found that drug seizures had increased under decriminalization.

"Contrary to predictions, the Portuguese decriminalization did not lead to major increases in drug use," the researchers concluded. "Indeed, evidence indicates reductions in problematic use, drug-related harms and criminal justice overcrowding.”

For Hughes and Stevens, the Portuguese experiment was also significant because it showed that decriminalization reduces harm for all drugs, not just marijuana. "Such effects can be observed when decriminalizing all drugs," they wrote. "This is important, as decriminalization is commonly restricted to cannabis alone."

Speaking in New York last week, Stevens elaborated: "The evidence from Portugal suggests that we could end the criminalization of users of all types of drugs -- and not just marijuana -- without increasing drug use and harms. It also shows the importance of continued investment in treatment services and harm reduction to reduce drug-related deaths and HIV."

But while Portugal's decriminalization is gathering praise from abroad, the view from the ground is a bit more nuanced. Decriminalization has improved the lives of drug users, but much remains to be done, said Jorge Roque, a Portuguese attorney who works with the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD), the International Network of People Who Use Drugs (INPUD), and the Portuguese group Diferenca Real, which attempts to improve conditions for drug users there.

"Decriminalization allowed drug users to stop being persecuted by the police and helped many of them realize they are not criminals simply because they chose to use drugs," said Roque. "And many people are now receiving help from the drug attendance centers," where addicted drug users may be sent after being caught. "Many drug users are trying hard to stay within the law, because if one isn't a criminal just for using drugs and one can pay for his drugs through his job, he doesn't want to be identified as a criminal, which was impossible before decriminalization."

Decriminalization has also led to changes in policing, said Roque. "After some time, the police shifted from arresting drug users to going after small-time dealers," he noted. "The police realized that arresting the small-timers is the best way to catch the big sharks," he said, alluding to the continuing black market drug trade. "The black market remains. Decriminalization didn't stop that," Roque said.

"The majority of drug-related crime wasn't caused by using a drug," the attorney continued, "but by committing an offense to buy drugs. Decriminalization is an important step, but it is only a step. Drug distribution is still forbidden in Portugal, and that means traffickers have a monopoly on the drug supply, and as a result, the prices are very high. So many people commit small thefts to buy their drugs, and the police try to control them and the drug neighborhoods with all the usual abuses."

The Portuguese government should not be sitting on its laurels, Roque said. While it deserves praise for what it has done, it has not done enough, he said.

"We are completely happy that the government decriminalized drug use, but the drug situation is very complex and touches on many different aspects -- legal, political, health, social, economic, morality -- and we have some demands that we think the government is not addressing because it is satisfied with what it has done with decriminalization," said Roque.

That point was echoed by Joep Oomen, head of ENCOD. If the Portuguese government stops with just decriminalization, it will be just as hypocritical as any other government, he said.

"By decriminalizing the use and possession of small quantities of illegal drugs, Portugal has reduced the immediate damage of drug prohibition," Oomen said. "The police don't persecute users and petty dealers as much, and problematic users find their way to health services. But decriminalization has not solved the main problem of prohibition: Drugs continue to be distributed by traffickers who inflate the price, impose criminal marketing methods, and have minimal concern for product quality or the safety of consumers. If Portuguese authorities do not take the next step toward legal regulation of the market, their policies will remain as hypocritical as those of any other country," he said.

But that's unlikely any time in the near future, said Roque. Even other drug reforms this side of ending prohibition are now stalled, he said.

"After all the international news reporting on the success of decriminalization in Portugal, the politicians' egos are so big they think they don't need to do anything else," said Roque. "But many drug users want to see safe injection sites, heroin maintenance programs, and the like, instead of just decriminalizing use. Similarly, the cannabis reform bill is still stuck in parliament waiting for approval. The government says it is busy with the international financial crisis and now our own public deficit, and can't do anything, even though this could mean revenues for the government."

With its drug decriminalization policy, Portugal has indeed become a beacon to the world, a model of progressive drug reform that could and should be emulated elsewhere. But as Roque and Oomen make clear, decriminalization is only half the battle.

Portugal

DEA Criminalization of 'Fake Marijuana' Repeats Mistakes of Past Prohibitions (Opinion)

Grant Smith, federal policy coordinator in the Drug Policy Alliance's office of national affairs in Washington, D.C., says we know from marijuana prohibition that law enforcement has no control over the drug market and the criminals who run it. By choosing to ban K2 outright, lawmakers are committing millions of taxpayer dollars to investigate, prosecute and incarcerate K2 users. He points out that we simply cannot afford to expand the war on drugs at a time when budgets are in the red and the United States incarcerates more people than any country in the world.
Publication/Source: 
Alternet (CA)
URL: 
http://www.alternet.org/drugs/149036/dea_criminalization_of_%27fake_marijuana%27_repeats_mistakes_of_past_prohibitions

DEA Bans Synthetic Marijuana

The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced Wednesday that it is issuing an emergency ban on five chemicals used to make synthetic marijuana products. The ban will go into effect in 30 days and will at least temporarily place the chemicals on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.

Banned in 30 days (Image courtesy Wikimedia)
Marketed as incense and sold under names including Spice and K2, the stuff has grown increasingly popular since it first appeared on store shelves around two years ago. Spurred on by prohibitionist reflex, as well as reports of emergency room visits and calls to poison centers, 15 states have already banned synthetic pot products. Similar legislation is pending in several more. Last week, powerful Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) wrote a letter to the DEA seeking a federal ban.

The ban announced Wednesday is temporary and will be in effect for one year, with the possibility of a six-month extension. During that period, DEA and the Department of Health and Human Services will decide whether the substances should be permanently controlled. 

“The American public looks to the DEA to protect its children and communities from those who would exploit them for their own gain,” said DEA Acting Administrator Michele Leonhart. “Makers of these harmful products mislead their customers into thinking that ‘fake pot’ is a harmless alternative to illegal drugs, but that is not the case. Today’s action will call further attention to the risks of ingesting unknown compounds and will hopefully take away any incentive to try these products.”

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) was quick to criticize the DEA's move. "The DEA says that prohibiting synthetic marijuana will 'control' it – yet we know from history that prohibition is the complete opposite of drug control," said DPA spokesman Tony Newman in a Wednesday press release. "DPA is advocating for establishing regulatory restrictions, such as age limits and product labeling requirements, rather than banning it outright and relegating it to the black market."

Despite approximately 2,000 poison control center contacts from synthetic pot users complaining of a variety of symptoms including nausea, rapid heartbeat, and disorientation, DPA noted that there are no known cases of fatal synthetic pot overdoses and that there is no evidence the stuff is addictive.

"Scheduling [synthetic marijuana] as a controlled substance will have unintended detrimental consequences," DPA warned. "If K2 were banned outright, young adults could face immediate, devastating and life-long legal barriers to education, employment, voting and government benefits for K2-related drug law violations, despite a lack of evidence of harm to themselves or others. The use of scarce government funds to enforce, prosecute and incarcerate people who use K2 would put a strain on criminal justice resources."

Washington, DC
United States

Sen. Orrin Hatch Asks DEA to Ban Spice, K2

Products containing synthetic cannabinoids possessing psychoactive properties similar to marijuana if ingested, have been banned in a number of states -- and more are currently considering bans -- but are not illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Not yet, anyway. Last week, Sen. Orrin Hatch, the powerful Utah Republican, sent a letter to the DEA asking the agency to use its emergency powers to make synthetic cannabinoids a Schedule I controlled substance.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/orrin-hatch.jpg
a new target for the stalwart drug warrior
Sold under names such as K2, Spice, Yucatan Fire, and Solar Flare, among others, the stuff is marketed as incense or potpourri and can be found at smoke shops, head shops, gas stations, and other retail outlets in states where it is legal. It is also easily available via the Internet.

Users seek to replicate the high of marijuana without the attendant legal risks, but according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, they sometimes get more than they bargained for. The centers issued a report Monday saying that they had received more than 2,000 calls about synthetic cannabinoids so far this year.

Symptoms reported included nausea, rapid heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, anxiety, and disorientation. While the centers reported that some symptoms can be "life-threatening," there are no known cases of a fatal synthetic cannabis overdose.

"Young adults and adolescents are turning to 'Spice' as a form of legalized marijuana, Hatch wrote in his letter to DEA acting administrator Michelle Leonhart. "Currently, almost two dozen states have passed legislation identifying spice as a controlled substance. I am requesting your assistance in having the Drug Enforcement Administration exercise its emergency scheduling authority to classify Spice as a schedule I substance."

Spice use in Utah was at "epidemic proportions" among the state's youth, Hatch complained.

If the DEA accedes to Hatch's demand, synthetic cannabinoids would be officially considered drugs with no accepted medical use and high potential for abuse, like marijuana, LSD, and heroin. Sales would be banned, and their users and sellers would be subject to federal prison sentences.

But Hatch's demand is no guarantee the agency will act. The DEA has had salvia divinorum on its list of drugs of interest for close to a decade now and has still not moved to make it a controlled substance, even though it has been banned or restricted in more than a dozen states.

Washington, DC
United States

European Blueprint Signals Way for America to End the War on Drugs (Opinion)

As America's drug war spirals out of control, Europe's reformist organizations offer a view that policymakers must heed, argues Charles Shaw.
Publication/Source: 
The Guardian (UK)
URL: 
http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/joepublic/2010/nov/15/america-war-on-drugs

The Writing on the Wall: Calendar Portrays America's Longest War

It's easy to say and easy to document, but quite difficult to really internalize, the human suffering and the outright absurdities wrought by our 40-year-old war on drugs. Sometimes it takes a picture to drive the point home. The Drug Policy Alliance has teamed up with award-winning artist Ricardo Cortes to produce an engaging, eye-catching 2011 wall calendar about the history of drug prohibition in the United States.
Publication/Source: 
Alternet (CA)
URL: 
http://www.alternet.org/drugs/148791/the_writing_on_the_wall%3A_calendar_portrays_america%27s_longest_war

Despite Prop. 19 Loss, Marijuana Debate Still Aflame in Mexico

Location: 
Mexico
While some Mexicans expressed relief that California’s Proposition 19 was defeated in Tuesday’s election, others felt that the fight in Mexico was just beginning. The proposition, which essentially would have legalized marijuana in California, had a renewed sense of urgency south of the border, where the body count in the government’s crusade against drug trafficking organizations continues to rise.
Publication/Source: 
New America Media (CA)
URL: 
http://newamericamedia.org/2010/11/after-prop-19-marijuana-debate-still-aflame-in-mexico.php

Time for Latin America to Reconsider Prohibition (Opinion)

Location: 
Erika De La Garza, program director of the Latin American Initiative at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice, and William Martin, the Harry and Hazel Chavanne Senior Fellow in Religion and Public Policy at the Baker Institute, opine on the general failures of drug prohibition and what direction Latin America should go.
Publication/Source: 
The Houston Chronicle (TX)
URL: 
http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/editorial/outlook/7280128.html

European Union Uses Weak Evidence to Urge Mephedrone Ban

The European Commission, the executive body of the European Union (EU), called for an EU-wide ban on the synthetic drug mephedrone last week, describing it as "dangerous psychoactive substance," but based that call on scanty evidence. The stimulant drug, with effects likened to those of cocaine and ecstasy, is already illegal in 15 EU countries, but remains available in 12 more.

mephedrone sample (photo from mephedrone.org)
Mephedrone, also known as meow meow, MCAT, or meph, is derived from cathinone, the psychoactive stimulant in khat. It first appeared in European markets in 2007, presumed to be courtesy of Chinese manufacturers, and has been popular in the club scene. For the last year, mephedrone has been breathlessly reported on, especially by tabloids in Britain, where it is now banned.

"It is a dangerous drug that is available online and on the street corner. People have died because of this drug, so I urge governments to move fast to control and criminalize it," said justice commissioner Viviane Reding in a Wednesday statement. "We have a responsibility to protect young people against dangerous new psychoactive substances."

The commission claimed that mephedrone "has been linked to at least 37 deaths in the UK and Ireland alone" and acted in an emergency manner because of a mephedrone risk assessment report published last week by the European Monitoring Center on Drugs and Alcohol (EMCDDA). The commission added that the report "showed that mephedrone can cause acute health problems and lead to dependency."

But the report itself says that no direct causal link can yet be made between mephedrone and the reported deaths. "There have been a very limited number of deaths reported to be related directly to the use of mephedrone," the EMCDDA report said.

There are only two in which mephedrone appears to be the sole cause of death. Of the other 35 reported deaths, the EMCDDA report noted, "In some of these cases it is likely that other drugs and/or other medical conditions or trauma may have contributed to or been responsible for death. The inquests into the deaths are pending for the majority of these cases therefore it is not possible at this time to determine the contribution of mephedrone."

The evidence base for assessing mephedrone is weak, the report found. "The studies available on mephedrone are few, largely preliminary and focused on user self-reports. To date no epidemiological data on prevalence has been published. The majority of studies originate from the United Kingdom and evidence from other member states is scarce."

As a result, EMCDDA warned against a rush to judgment about mephedrone's danger. "Taken as a whole, the scientific evidence base available for drawing conclusions is limited and this proviso should be borne in mind when interpreting the findings of the risk assessment exercise," the report said.

But that, of course, is what the EU has done with its call for a union-wide ban on the new club drug. That didn't sit well with former British Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs head David Nutt, who was fired for criticizing the government there as "politically motivated rather than scientifically justified" for rescheduling cannabis to a more serious schedule.

"An EU-wide ban on mephedrone is remarkable for its lack of scientific evidence," Nutt told EUobserver. "The report primarily relies on user experiences and a handful of hospital admissions, with no formal studies to demonstrate the actual or potential harms of the drug. It is not yet possible to say how harmful mephedrone is given the lack of evidence. However, by legislating on a substance without reliable scientifically-based evidence, we run the risk of causing more harm through criminalizing users than might be caused by the drug itself. The evidence on drug harms should not be sacrificed for political and media pressure."

Mothers Lead the Charge Against the Nation's War on Drugs

Location: 
Sacramento, CA
United States
Mothers from across California rallied at the state capitol Wedneday to launch a national movement to end the nation's war on drugs. The group wants alternatives to jail time for drug offenses, such as addiction treatment. "While it may seem counter-intuitive that a group of mothers would say such a thing, it's because we love our children and we really feel the war on drugs is more harmful than the drugs themselves," Gretchen Burns Bergman, mother and rally leader said.
Publication/Source: 
KGET (CA)
URL: 
http://www.kget.com/news/local/story/Mothers-lead-the-charge-against-the-nations-war/Wc-7YovDr0K28HXAqFrLug.cspx

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