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What To Do About the Drug Trade in West Africa? [FEATURE]

Over the past decade, West Africa has emerged as an increasingly important player in the global illicit drug trade. Although the region has historically not been a drug producing one -- with the important exception of marijuana -- it has become a platform for predominantly Latin American drug traffickers moving their illicit commodities toward lucrative European and Middle Eastern markets. The cocaine traffic alone is worth more than a billion dollars a year, according to a 2013 report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

children walking from home to school in Bamako, Mali (JoeyTranchinaPhotography©2014 Sète, France)
And the trade is becoming more complex. Now, it's not only cocaine flowing through the region, but heroin destined mainly for Western Europe and methamphetamines being manufactured there and exported to Asia and South Africa, that same UNODC report found.

The region -- stretching along the African coast from Nigeria to the east to Senegal on the west, and extending deep into the Sahara Desert in countries such as Mali and Niger -- is plagued by weak states and corrupt governments, making it attractive to criminals of all sorts, who thrive in lawless lands. And it's not just criminals. The region is also home to various bands of Islamist militants, some of whom are involved in the drug trade.

Now, a commission of prominent West Africans is calling for fundamental changes in drug policies in the region. Last week, the West Africa Commission on Drugs, issued a report, Not Just in Transit: Drugs, the State and Society in West Africa, calling for the decriminalization of drug use, treating drug use primarily as a public health issue, and for the region to avoid becoming the next front line in the failed war on drugs.

The commission is impressive. It was initiated by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan of Nigeria and headed by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, and includes other former heads of state as well as a distinguished group of West Africans from the worlds of politics, civil society, health, security and the judiciary.

And so is its very existence. It marks the entrance of West African civil society into the international debate on drug policy in which calls for fundamental drug reform have gained increasing momentum in recent years. In 2008, former Latin American heads of state and other luminaries formed the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, and in 2011, Annan and other world luminaries and former heads of state came together to form the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Now, West Africa adds its voice to the chorus calling for change.

"We call on West African governments to reform drug laws and policies and decriminalize low-level and non-violent drug offenses," said Obasanjo upon the report's release last week. "West Africa is no longer just a transit zone for drugs arriving from South America and ending up in Europe but has become a significant zone of consumption and production. The glaring absence of treatment facilities for drug users fuels the spread of disease and exposes an entire generation, users and non-users alike, to growing public health risks."

"Most governments' reaction to simply criminalize drug use without thinking about prevention or access to treatment has not just led to overcrowded jails, but also worsened health and social problems," added Kofi Annan.

West Africa
"We need the active support and involvement of civil society and of the international community," said commission member Edem Kodjo. "South America, where most of the drugs smuggled to West Africa come from, and Europe, which is the main consumer market, must take the lead to deal with both production and consumption at home. We cannot solve this problem alone; governments and civil society have to come together in West Africa to help prevent the drug problem from getting completely out of hand."

The report won kudos from American drug reformer Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance.

"First Europe, then the Americas, now Africa," he said. "Drug policy reform is truly becoming a global movement, with Kofi Annan and Olusegun Obasango providing the sort of bold leadership that we've also seen in Latin America. Maybe, just maybe, West Africa will be spared the fate of other parts of the world where prohibition-related crime, violence and corruption spiraled out of control."

But some analysts, while welcoming the report, suggested that it did not get at the heart of the problem in West Africa.

"The report focuses on public health, and that's great, but I'm not sure that's the issue," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow with the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution who has published extensively on West Africa. "Nor are there generally large prison populations due to the arrests of low-level drug offenders. There is increasing drug use, and many addicts don't have access to public health. That, however is not because they were arrested, but because Africa in general doesn't have access to public health," she pointed out.

"In some senses, the commission report is preventative -- it warns of policies that would be counterproductive -- but it is not going to solve West Africa's problems," Felbab-Brown continued. "And the harm reduction approaches that dominate the discourse in Europe and the US are not really apropos for West African public health issues. The increasing focus of the international community is interdiction, but that accounts for only a small fraction of the total traffic, and the report doesn't deal with what kind of alternate law enforcement there should be, or who should be targeted."

But others thought the criminal justice and public health emphasis in the report were a step down the right path.

"The report's message about alternatives to criminalization for use and minor offenses is important in criminal justice terms -- to discourage the horrible over-representation of minor drug offenders in prisons in the region -- but also as a reminder that there are no such alternatives unless the health and social sectors develop those alternatives," said Joan Csete, deputy director of the Open Society Foundation's Global Drug Policy Program.

"Health ministries need to be as important around the drug policymaking table as the police, which is far from the case in most of Africa today," she added. "Services for treatment of drug dependence in the region are absent or of appalling quality. Improving health and social support for people with drug dependence is a key to drug policy reform in West Africa."

And Felbab-Brown agreed that while measures like drug prevention and treatment wouldn't solve the region's problems, they would still be helpful.

"We're already seeing quite a bit of heroin in the region, and we are seeing increasing use," she said. "These are cheap and prevalent commodities, the traffickers partake in kind, and user communities are being established. In a sense, developing strategies to prevent use, get treatment, and prevent the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C is useful because there are more and more users."

drug, security, and insurgency analyst Vanda Felbab-Brown (brookings.edu)
But for Felbab-Brown, the key problem for West Africa is its weak and corrupt states.

"The big trafficking issues are around the intersection of very poor, very weak, very corrupt, and often very fragile states with state participation in various forms of criminality," she said. "Drugs are just another commodity to be exploited by elites for personal enrichment. Elites are already stealing money from oil, timber, and diamonds, and now there is another resource to exploit for personal enrichment and advancement," she argued.

"One narrative has it that drug trafficking has caused fragility and instability, but I think trafficking compounded the problems; it didn't create them," Felbab-Brown continued. "There is a systematic deficiency of good governance. Many of these states have functioned for decades like mafia bazaars, and the trafficking just augments other rents. There are rotten governments, miserable institutions, and poor leadership around all commodities, not just drugs."

"The states are not monolithic," Csete noted. "Some have high-level corruption, some are aggressive in trying to fight money-laundering and other elements of organized criminal networks, some rely heavily on traditional interdiction methods. Some of these countries have relatively strong democratic systems and relatively strong economic growth; some have governance institutions that are less strong."

The state of the states in West Africa influenced the commission and its recommendations, Csete said.

"Legalization of drugs -- production, sale, consumption -- was not judged to be politically feasible or necessarily desirable by the commission," she explained. "I think the commissioners generally perceive that generally these countries do not yet have a political climate favorable to debate on progressive changes in drug policy. The whole idea of the commission and its report is to open those debates -- high-profile people from the region saying things that sitting officials do not find it politically easy to say."

"These are newer post-colonial states," Felbab-Brown noted. "Are we having unreasonable expectations? Is this like Europe in the 13th Century, or is that some of these countries are doomed to exist in perpetual misgovernance?"

While there may be concern in Western capitals about the specter of West African drug trafficking, many West Africans have other, more pressing, drug policy concerns.

In its 2013 report, the UNODC noted that the importation of fake pharmaceutical drugs from South and Southeast Asia into the region was a problem. Joey Tranchina, a longtime drug policy observer who has recently spent time in Mali, agrees.

"Having traversed Mali from Bamako to Mopti, except for the usual oblique indigenous references to smoking weed, the only personal experience I have with drug crime is counterfeit pharmaceuticals from India, China, and Russia," he said. "They're sold cheap in the streets to people who can't afford regular meds and they take the place of real pharmaceuticals, especially malaria and HIV drugs. These drug scams are killing people in Mali," he said.

"Most people in West Africa don't see drug trafficking as that much of a problem," said Felbab-Brown. "If it's mostly going to Westerners, they say so what? For them it is a mechanism to make money, and those drug traffickers frequently become politicians. They are able to create and reconstitute patronage networks around drug trafficking, just as they were once able to get elected with money from blood diamonds."

It seems that, to the degree that drug use and drug trafficking are West African problems, they are problems inextricably interwoven with the broader issues of weak, fragile, and corrupt states that are unable or unwilling to deliver the goods for their citizens. The West Africa Commission on Drugs has pointed a way toward some solutions and avoiding some failed policies already discredited elsewhere, but it seems clear that that is just the beginning.

Chronicle AM -- June 18, 2014

A pair of potential presidential contenders speak out on marijuana, five New England governors meet on the opiate issue, New York cops are starting to be trained to use the overdose reversal drug naloxone, New York's governor makes passage of medical marijuana there iffy, the Dutch high court rules cities can ban foreigners from cannabis coffee shops, and more. Let's get to it:

Hillary Clinton talks pot. (Wikimedia/Chatham House Flickr Stream)
Marijuana Policy

Hillary Clinton Evolves on Marijuana Policy. In an interview with CNN international correspondent Christiane Amanpour Tuesday, former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she favors medical marijuana for people who are in "extreme medical conditions" and is willing to "wait and see" how recreational pot works in Colorado and Washington state. "On recreational, states are the laboratories of democracy," Clinton said. "We have at least two states that are experimenting with that right now. I want to wait and see what the evidence is." That's a step forward for Clinton, who in 2008 opposed marijuana decriminalization and who in 2012 said she doubted drug legalization would end black market violence in Central America.

Chris Christie Doesn't. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said Monday night that medical marijuana is "a front for legalization" and suggested that -- unlike every other industry in the United States -- medical marijuana providers should not be concerned with making money. His remarks came in response to criticism of his management of the state's highly-regulated medical marijuana program. Christie has said repeatedly that he opposes legalization, and that it won't happen "on my watch."

No Legalization Initiative for Arizona This Year. A Safer Arizona campaign to get its legalization initiative on the November ballot is over after the campaign came up well short in its signature-gathering efforts. The group needed 250,000 signatures to qualify, but said it only had about a third of that number. They are vowing to be back in 2016.

Delaware Decriminalization Bill to Get Hearing Tomorrow. The House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing on a decriminalization bill tomorrow. House Bill 371, sponsored by Rep. Helene Keeley (D-Wilmington), would make possession of less than an ounce a civil infraction punishable by a fine. Under current law, possession of any amount is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail.

Medical Marijuana

New York Governor Rejects Medical Marijuana Bill, Demands No Smoking. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has rejected the Compassionate Use Act just two days before the state's legislative session ends. Legislators are working to revise the bill in a manner acceptable to Cuomo, and he has signaled he was willing to waive legislative rules to allow a late bill to be introduced.

Opiates

New England Governors Meet to Address Opiates. The five governors of the New England states (except for Maine, whose Republican governor, Paul LePage didn't attend) met yesterday to address rising drug overdoses and agreed to cooperate on the cross-state monitoring of prescription drug monitoring and to expand drug treatment. They said they would try to make prescription monitoring mandatory and would try to curb "doctor shopping." The governors had nothing to say about ensuring that patients with legitimate needs for pain medications are able to get access to them.

Harm Reduction

New York Cops Get Training in Using Overdose Reversal Drug. By the end of this week, more than 600 New York state police officers and sheriff's deputies will have received the necessary training to carry and administer naloxone (Narcan), the opiate overdose reversal drug. The state has pledged to make the life-saving drug available to police officers across the state, and the program is just being rolled out now.

International

Myanmar's 15-Year Opium Eradication Effort a Failure, Government Minister Says. A Myanmar Home Affairs minister told parliament Monday that the country's 15-year effort to wipe out opium poppies had failed, and that the government would extend it for another five years. Brigadier General Kyaw Kyaw Tun said poppy crops had declined until 2006, but had been on the rise since then. It has been increasing at a rate of more than 10% a year in the past several years, he said. Myanmar is the world's second largest opium producer, although it trails far behind world leader Afghanistan in output.

Canada Prescription Opiate Overdoses on the Increase, New Report Says. Overdose deaths from prescription opiates have "risen sharply" and now account for about half of all drug-related deaths in the country, the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition said in a report released Monday. The report, Getting to Tomorrow: A Report on Canadian Drug Policy, calls for harm reduction measures and a public health approach to reduce overdose deaths.

Dutch High Court Decides Local Councils Can Ban Foreigners From Cannabis Coffee Shops. The Dutch Council of State, the country's highest court, has ruled that municipalities have the ability to bar people who are non-residents from the country's famous cannabis cafes. The aims of preventing drug tourism and combating organized crime are sufficient to allow discrimination based on nationality, the court ruled. The ruling comes in the case of coffee shop owners in the border towns of Maastrict and Limburg, where councilors had closed coffee shops for selling to tourists. Most other municipalities have not moved to ban foreigners. Read the advisory opinion here.

Chronicle AM -- June 17, 2014

It looks like Oregon is set to join Alaska in voting on marijuana legalization this year, the New York medical marijuana bill is going down to the wire, Florida's governor signs a pair of drug-related bills, Colombia's drug-reforming president wins reelection, and more. Let's get to it:

Colombia's drug reforming and peace negotiating President Juan Manuel Santos has won reelection. (wikiemedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

New Approach Oregon Legalization Initiative Now Has More Than 100,000 Signatures. Only yesterday, we reported that just before the weekend, the New Approach Oregon legalization initiative had handed in some 83,000 raw signatures, but that proponents would need more than 100,000 raw signatures to feel comfortable that they will actually attain the 87,213 valid signatures needed to qualify for the November ballot. Now, the campaign reports that it has more than 100,000 raw signatures and will continue signature-gathering until the July 3 deadline. It looks like Oregon is about to join Alaska as states where residents will vote on marijuana legalization this fall.

Medical Marijuana

Thirty Congressmembers Call on HHS to End Roadblocks to Marijuana Research. Thirty members of Congress led by Rep. Earl Blumenaur (D-OR) have sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Mathews Burkwell calling on her to make the process for obtaining marijuana for research purposes less onerous.

California Assembly Committee is Debating Medical Marijuana Regulation Bill. A bill that would create the first statewide regulation of medical marijuana is being heard in the Assembly Business, Professions and Consumer Protection Committee today. Senate Bill 1262, sponsored by Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), has already passed the Senate.

Florida Governor Signs Limited CBD Medical Marijuana Bill. Gov. Rick Scott (R) Monday signed into law the "Charlotte's Web" bill (Senate Bill 1030), which allows a small number of patients to use high-CBD, low-THC cannabis oils for the treatment of epilepsy or cancer.

New York Medical Marijuana Fight Going Down to Last Minute. Medical marijuana proponents continued to do battle with Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) over the Compassionate Care Act as the state's legislative session draws to a close. Legislators have amended the bill to address Cuomo's concerns, but patients and providers expressed outrage over Cuomo's "attempt to derail the legislation." Cuomo has called for eliminating many medical conditions from eligibility for medical marijuana, as well as imposing onerous restrictions on physicians. Another obstacle is the Senate's GOP leadership, which could block a floor vote. The session ends on Thursday.

Oklahoma Initiative Signature-Gatherers Complain of Harassment by Tulsa Police. Signature-gatherers for the state's medical marijuana initiative say that on at least four occasions, Tulsa Police have shown up to harass them. Police asked signature-gatherers to leave, then, when they asserted their right to petition, began asking for identification and doing background checks on them. Tulsa Police, for their part, said they had records of two calls reporting that signature-gatherers were selling marijuana. But no one was arrested for selling marijuana or anything else, and the campaign group Oklahomans for Health said its people were not selling or advertising marijuana. The group said it has asked the ACLU of Oklahoma for assistance.

Privacy

Methadone Advocates Warn of SAMHSA Patient Confidentiality Threat. A proposed Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) regulation that would end the exclusion of methadone treatment records from electronic health records is raising concern among methadone advocates. They say methadone patients suffer from stigma and that the records of their treatment should stay protected. Click on the link for information about how to have some input on the decision-making process.

New Synthetic Drugs

Florida Governor Signs Bill Targeting New Synthetic Drugs. Gov. Rick Scott Monday signed into law House Bill 697, which adds six new synthetic drugs to the list of criminally banned substances. The new synthetics targeted all appear to be phenethylamines.

Law Enforcement

South Dakota Drug Arrests Up More than 40% Last Year. Although overall arrests were only up slightly last year, drug arrests in South Dakota jumped more than 40%. Law enforcement is saying the big jump is due to the increased presence of meth and other drugs in the state's largest cities, Sioux Falls and Rapid City "Certainly more people have been arrested for drug offenses," Attorney General Marty Jackley said. "Part of that is attributable to more people using controlled substances." Drug arrests accounted for one out of six of all arrests in the state last year. More people were arrested for drugs than for DUI, assault, or larceny.

New Orleans Police Department Loosens Past Drug Use Policies. Under a policy change approved Monday, past drug use is no longer an automatic disqualifier for being hired as a New Orleans police officer. Now, applicants can be hired if that have not used marijuana or prescription pills within the last three years and most other drugs within the last 10 years. The brings the NOPD in line with the FBI and other major city police departments.

International

Drug Reformer, Peace Negotiator Juan Manuel Santos Re-Elected President of Colombia. Juan Manuel Santos has won reelection as president of Colombia in a race against a rightist candidate who criticized his peace negotiations with the leftist guerrillas of the FARC. Santos has been a loud voice for drug reform on the national and international stages.

Bermuda Approves Drug Testing of Parliamentarians. After rancorous debate, Bermuda's parliament has approved a proposal to require drug testing of parliamentarians. MPS can test positive for marijuana three times before they are suspended; for other drugs, it's one time.

What Does the Dance of the Peruvian Drug Czars Mean? Peruvian President Ollanta Humala recently fired hard-line DEVIDA head Carmen Macias, replacing her with former Defense Minister Luis Alberto Otarola. Humala also backed away from a controversial coca eradication campaign about to get under way in the Apurimac-Ene-Mantaro River Valley (VRAEM) that faced strong local opposition. Washington Office on Latin America analyst Coletta Youngers has written an analysis of what it all means, both domestically and internationally. Click on the link to read her piece.

Chronicle AM -- June 12, 2014

Marijuana reform is exciting some third-party activity, New York's medical marijuana bill is still alive amidst ongoing last-minute negotiations, the New York Senate has passed a package of anti-opiate bills that will bring on more drug war, a high-level commission calls for radical drug policy changes in West Africa, and more. Let's get to it:

coca plant (unodc.org)
Marijuana Policy

Minnesota Independence Party Runs on Legalization Platform. The Independence Party of Minnesota, a fiscally conservative and socially liberal state party, is making marijuana legalization a key part of its 2014 platform. The party, which is fielding candidates in a number of statewide and legislative races, is descended from the Jesse Ventura-era Reform Party. Its gubernatorial candidate got 12% of the vote in the 2010 election.

New Jersey Democrats Try to Kick NJ Weedman Off Ballot. Ed Forchion, better known as the NJ Weedman, is running for a congressional seat on the Legalize Marijuana Party ticket, but the state Democratic Party issued a last-minute (or past the last minute) challenge to his candidacy Monday afternoon. The Democrats claim he is one signature short of qualifying and that he registered to vote last month in California, where he sometimes resides. NJ Weedman says he will fight the challenge.

Medical Marijuana

New York Medical Marijuana Bill Still Alive; Talks Underway. Last minute negotiations to pass the Compassionate Care Act continued in Albany today. The measure was transferred out of the Senate Finance Committee, where the committee chair said yesterday he would not allow a vote, to the Senate Rules Committee. Bill sponsor Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island) said she is in talks with legislative leaders and Gov. Andrew Cuomo's (D) office to keep the bill alive. Cuomo said earlier today that he still has "serious questions" about the bill. Stay tuned.

South Carolina Democrats Overwhelmingly Favor Medical Marijuana in Non-Binding Primary Question. South Carolina Democrats voting in the party primary Tuesday supported a non-binding question about allowing for medical marijuana use by a margin of three-to-one. The state passed a limited CBD medical marijuana bill this year, but that will only help a small number of patients.

Opiates

New York Senate Passes Package of Heroin Bills; Would Intensify Drug War. The state Senate earlier this week passed a massive package of bills aimed at dealing with increased levels of heroin and other opiate use. While the package includes prevention and harm reduction measures, such as increasing access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone, other bills in the package seek to limit access to prescription opiates for acute pain, and the majority of the 23-bill package are law enforcement measures that aim to take the state back in the direction of the draconian Rockefeller drug laws of the 1970s. Read the complete list of bills passed here. Whether any of these will become law remains to be seen; the session ends next week.

International

West Africa Needs to Consider Drug Decriminalization, Report Says. The West Africa Commission on Drugs, headed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, issued a report today calling for radical policy changes, including drug decriminalization, to reduce regional instability in West Africa exacerbated by the illicit trade in drugs. Otherwise, the region faces becoming "a new front line in the failed 'war on drugs,'" the report says. It also calls for drugs to be treated primarily as a public health issue. The report is Not Just in Transit: Drugs, the State, and Society in West Africa.

Spain to Start Including Illicit Drug Trade in GDP. Spanish officials said today they will begin including estimated revenues from the drug trade, as well as prostitution, in calculating the country's Gross Domestic Product. Other European countries are doing the same as part of new European Union requirements that they must state percentages of GDP derived from illicit activities.

Peru Coca Output Declined Last Year, Prices Soared Amidst Eradication Efforts. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported Wednesday that, under the pressure of eradication campaigns, coca leaf production declined 18% last year, but that prices jumped nearly 50%, to more than $1300 a kilogram. The UNODC noted the changes in its annual Peruvian coca survey. Cultivation fell last year after expanding for the seven previous years. Peru is either the world's number one or number two coca producer; we'll have to see what UNODC says about Colombian production later this year. Bolivia is number three.

Mexico Awaiting DNA Test Results to Confirm Death of Sinaloa Cartel Leader "El Azul" Esparragoza. Mexican officials are waiting for DNA test results that would confirm the death by natural causes of Sinaloa cartel leader Juan Jose "El Azul" Esparragoza, which was first reported by the Sinaloa news weekly RioDoce on Sunday. Family members have reportedly confirmed his death, but the government is still waiting to make it official.

(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.)

Chronicle AM -- June 11, 2014

There's money in marijuana, as Colorado keeps finding out, MPP is eyeing Massachusetts in 2016, opponents of Florida's medical marijuana initiative got a big bucks contribution from a major Republican funder, Customs and Border Patrol fires its internal affairs head, the US Embassy in Kabul can't explain what impact $7 billion in anti-drug aid there has had, and more. Let's get to it:

In Afghan fields, the poppies grow... (unodc.org)
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Marijuana Revenues Keep Climbing. Recreational marijuana sales hit $22 million in April, with the state taking in more than $3.5 million in sales and excise taxes. With medical marijuana sales factored in, people bought more than $53 million worth of weed in Colorado in April.

MPP Opens Ballot Committee in Massachusetts, Eyes 2016. The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) opened a ballot referendum committee in Massachusetts Tuesday, a preliminary step for a marijuana legalization campaign in 2016. The formation of the committee, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Massachusetts, allows MPP to begin raising and spending money in the state.

Medical Marijuana

Florida Polls Have Strong Support for Medical Marijuana Among Likely Voters. With medical marijuana on the ballot in November, a new poll shows 70% of likely voters support the constitutional amendment. Because it is a constitutional amendment, it needs 60% to pass. Another poll released this week has support at 66%. "Florida's medical marijuana amendment that will be on the ballot this fall continues to appear headed for easy passage," Public Policy Polling, which did the second poll, wrote in an analysis.

Conservative Billionaire Sheldon Adelson Kicks In $2.5 Million to Defeat Florida Medical Marijuana Initiative. Billionaire casino magnate and major Republican political donor Sheldon Adelson has donated $2.5 million to the campaign to defeat the Florida medical marijuana initiative. A newly-formed group backed by Adelson, the Drug Free Florida Committee, was started by longtime GOP fundraiser Mel Sembler and his wife Betty. It has raised $2.7 million so far and its top donors have been primarily Republicans.

Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Bill Still Alive. Following a Tuesday hearing on Senate Bill 1182 Tuesday, committee members said they had been assured the bill would get a vote in the Senate Law and Justice Committee, but it will be then up to Senate leaders to decide if they will allow a floor vote. If it gets and wins a floor vote, the House would still have to pass it, or pass its own version.

Methamphetamine

Michigan Bill to Restrict Meth Precursor Purchases Passes House. A bill that would require people with prior methamphetamine convictions to obtain a prescription to buy cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine has passed the House. The bill also creates a statewide database for pseudoephedrine purchases and would require buyers to show the drivers' licenses.

Opiates

New York Governor Announces Doubling of State Police Drug Team to Fight Heroin, Prescription Pill Use. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced this morning that he will add 100 investigators to the State Police Community Narcotics Enforcement Team, nearly doubling the unit's size. He also announced that the state would make the overdose reversal drug naloxone to all first responders. And he announced an education and prevention campaign involving SUNY campuses.

New England Governors to Meet Next Week on Confronting Rising Opiate Use. The six New England governors are set to meet next week at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, to forge a regional strategy in response to growing alarm over increased use of prescription opiates and heroin. Massachusetts has declared a public health emergency over opiates, and other states in the region are experiencing similar issues. [Ed: Whether any of the New England governors, or New York's governor and narcotics police, will bear in mind the needs of chronic pain patients, remains to be seen.]

Law Enforcement

Myles Ambrose, Nixon's First Drug Czar, Dies. Myles Ambrose has died at age 87. He was President Richard Nixon's first "drug czar," serving as head of the White House Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE), the precursor to the DEA, which was formed in 1973. He had come to Nixon's attention when, as head of Customs, he initiated Operation Intercept, which shut down the US-Mexico border in 1969. Ambrose appeared set to take over DEA, but was pushed aside, in part due to bureaucratic infighting and in part because of hints of scandal related to his visits to the home of a Texas banker investigated in a drug trafficking conspiracy.

Customs and Border Protection Fires Its Own Head of Internal Affairs. The US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) has let go James Tomsheck, head of internal affairs for the agency, after claims he failed to investigate hundreds of allegations of abuse. More than 800 complaints of abuse by agents had been made during his tenure since 2006, but only 13 resulted in disciplinary actions. Tomsheck's firing by CBP head Gil Kerlikowske is part of an attempt by Kerlikowske to address widespread allegations of abuse by American border agencies. Last week, Kerlikowske set out new rules for the use of deadly force, only to be followed hours later by a Border Patrol agent shooting and killing a fleeing drug trafficker. At least 22 people have been killed by Border Patrol agents since January 2010 and many more injured.

Sentencing

New Jersey Bail Reform Bill Gets Committee Vote Today. The Assembly Judiciary is set to consider Assembly Bill 1910, which would implement widely supported reforms to the state's bail system. Under the proposed legislation, arrestees would be assessed for risk and pretrial release decisions would be based on their measured risk, not their ability to pay money bail. Companion legislation in the state Senate, Senate Bill 946, was approved by the Budget and Appropriations Committee last week.

International

Rising Afghan Opium Production Threatens Reconstruction, US Official Says. Afghanistan's record-level opium production is stoking corruption, spilling into the financial sector, and aiding the Taliban and criminal networks, all of which threaten national reconstruction, John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction, told a House subcommittee Tuesday. The US has spent $7 billion on anti-opium efforts since it invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, but "On my trips to Afghanistan in 2013 and earlier this year, no one at the Embassy could convincingly explain to me how the US government counter-narcotics efforts are making a meaningful impact on the narcotics trade or how they will have a significant impact after" the US-led combat mission ends in December," Sopko said.

Finland Greens Call for Marijuana Legalization, Drug Policy Shift From Punishment to Harm Reduction. The Finnish Green League has adopted a new manifesto on drugs that says "the focus of drug policy should be shifted from punishments to reducing adverse effects" and that "the criminal sanctions for the use of cannabis as well as the possession and cultivation of cannabis for personal use should be abolished." The Greens hold 10 seats in Finland's 198-seat parliament and are part of the ruling six-party "rainbow coalition" government.

Chronicle AM -- June 5, 2014

An Arkansas marijuana legalization initiative can start signature-gathering, DC's medical marijuana program now includes more eligible conditions, Tennessee's governor unveils his prescription drug plan, Canada's mandatory minimum sentencing law is being challenged, and more. Let's get to it:

DNC Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz gets scolded by the medical marijuana movement.
Marijuana Policy

Arkansas Legalization Initiative Approved for Signature-Gathering. State Attorney General Dustin McDaniel yesterday approved the popular name and ballot title for a constitutional amendment initiative that would legalize marijuana. Supporters of the Arkansas Hemp and Cannabis Amendment now have just over one month -- until July 7 -- to submit more than 78,000 valid voter signatures in order to qualify for the November ballot. A medical marijuana initiative sponsored by Arkansans for Compassionate Care is already in the signature-gathering phase.

Medical Marijuana

Group Targets DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz for Not Voting to End DEA Interference in Medical Marijuana States. The medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access is now running TV ads criticizing Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee as "out of touch" for voting against a measure to bar the DEA from interfering in medical marijuana states. Wasserman Schultz was one of only 18 Democrats who voted against it while 170 Democrats voted for it. The ads are running on MSNBC in South Florida, where her district is.

DC Medical Marijuana Program Adds New Qualifying Conditions. The DC Department of Health has approved new conditions for which patients will be able to use marijuana. They are seizure disorders, Lou Gehrig's Disease, decompensated cirrhosis, cachexia or wasting syndrome, and Alzheimer's. Hospice patients will also be allowed to use marijuana. Previously, the DC program had been restricted to people suffering from HIV/AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, and muscle spasticity.

Heroin

Ohio Democratic Candidates Call for Tougher Action Against Heroin. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald and Democratic attorney general candidate David Pepper are calling for tougher action against heroin. FitzGerald said he wants tougher enforcement on dealers and that rising heroin use should be treated as a public health emergency. And Pepper called for heroin overdose deaths to be treated like murder. FitzGerald added that not enough dealers are going to prison, especially after a sentencing reform bill passed. The Ohio Republican Party responded calling the Democrats "tone deaf" and "ghoulish," saying that Gov. John Kasich (R) has been a strong advocate on the issue, and besides, Attorney General Mike DeWine's (R) office had just indicted two heroin dealers last week.

Prescription Drugs

Tennessee Governor Rolls Out Prescription Drug Plan. Gov. Bill Haslam (R) Tuesday unveiled his seven-point program to battle problems associated with prescription drug use. "Prescription for Success: Statewide Strategies to Prevent and Treat the Prescription Drug Abuse Epidemic in Tennessee" calls for reducing the prescribing of prescription opiates, reducing overdose deaths (including through enactment of a 911 Good Samaritan law), increasing prevention, early intervention, and treatment, and increased cooperation among state agencies and between the state and other entities. While it has a law enforcement component, that doesn't seem to be emphasized. [Ed: There are some good provisions in this document, but reducing the prescribing of pain medications needs to be handled with great care. Although more people are getting opiates now, not all of the people who need them are, and it could easily get even worse for pain patients.]

Drug Testing

California Initiative to Drug Test Doctors Qualifies for Ballot. An initiative that requires random, suspicionless drug and alcohol testing of doctors has qualified for the November 2014 ballot, according to the Secretary of State's office. It also requires doctors to report any other doctor they suspect of being impaired by drugs or alcohol. It also increases the cap on pain and suffering damages in medical malpractice lawsuits, which may the initiative's main goal. Legislative analysts estimate it could cost the state "at least in the low tens of millions of dollars annually" in higher malpractice costs and up to "hundreds of millions of dollars annually" because of changes in the amount and type of health care services provided.

Law Enforcement

In Massive Heroin Sweep, New Jersey Police Arrest Seven Users for Every Dealer. New Jersey cops arrested 325 people during an eight-week heroin sting, but only 40 of them are accused of selling heroin. The rest are alleged heroin users. Authorities said all were arrested on relatively low-level charges and all would have a chance to go through treatment programs, but the head of the state's drug court program said she wasn't sure the system could accommodate all of them.

International

New Zealand Workers Win Drug Testing Case. Workers at a mill who were subjected to mandatory drug tests after two marijuana plants were found growing on the site were treated unfairly and must be compensated, the Employment Relations Authority has ruled. The mill owner had argued that the discovery of pot plants was "reasonable cause" to drug test everybody, but the authority disagreed. "This is a victory for our members, and a victory for common decency and respect," says Ron Angel, a union organizer for timber workers. "Drug testing has to be about proving actual impairment at work - not treating workers as guilty until proven innocent."

Canada Battle over Mandatory Minimum Sentences Heads to BC Appeals Court. A case that could eventually overturn the Conservative government's mandatory minimum sentence scheme for drug offenses is being heard in the BC Court of Appeals today. Earlier this year, a BC provincial court judge ruled unconstitutional an automatic one-year prison term for a person repeatedly convicted of drugs. Lawyers for the government appealed; thus today's hearing. The case is that of Vancouver Downtown Eastside resident Joseph Lloyd, a long-time drug user with 21 previous convictions who was convicted last fall of trafficking small amounts of heroin, cocaine, and meth. The provincial court judge held that mandatory minimum sentences amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

Bolivian Village to Bake Coca Birthday Cake for UN Head Ban Ki-Moon. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon will be in Bolivia when his birthday rolls around on June 15, and the mayor of Cobija, Ana Lucia Reis, says they are going to bake him a coca birthday cake. "The idea is that Ban tries the coca and realizes that coca is part of our culture and is not cocaine," she said.

Chronicle AM--May 30, 2014

Yesterday was a bad day for the DEA as the House thrice voted to slap its hands, an anti-marijuana initiative in Montana gets okayed for signature-gathering, the New York Senate releases a report on heroin and opiate addiction and calls for more drug war, marijuana legalization supporters rally in Tel Aviv, and more. Let's get to it:

The DEA had a bad day on Capitol Hill yesterday.
Marijuana Policy

Montana Anti-Marijuana Initiative Approved for Signature-Gathering. An initiative that would repeal Montana's already severely scaled-back medical marijuana law and ban anything listed as a Schedule I controlled substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act, including marijuana, has been approved for signature-gathering. But Billings car dealer and initiative sponsor Steve Zabawa has only three weeks to get the 24,175 signatures necessary to get the measure on the November ballot.

Medical Marijuana

In Historic Vote, House Bars Justice Department, DEA from Using Taxpayer Funds to Interfere with Medical Marijuana in States Where It Is Legal. The US House of Representatives voted 219-189 last night to approve an amendment to 2015 Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill to cut off funds for the Justice Department and its agencies, including the DEA, to interfere in state-sanctioned medical marijuana programs. If the Senate doesn't come up with similar language, the provision will have to be fought for in conference committee.

Hemp

In Historic Vote, House Bars Justice Department, DEA from Using Taxpayer Funds to Interfere with Hemp Production in States Where It Is Legal. The US House of Representatives voted last night to bar the Justice Department and its agencies, including the DEA, from using taxpayer dollars to interfere with industrial hemp production in states where it is legal. Hemp production for research purposes in states that have laws allowing it was approved by the Congress as part of the omnibus farm bill earlier this year. A dozen states have such laws.

Law Enforcement

In Historic Vote, House Takes Funds from DEA, Shifts Them to Addressing Rape Kit Backlog. In addition to barring the DEA from going after hemp and medical marijuana in states where they are legal, the House also approved an amendment from Rep. Steven Cohen (D-TN) to take $5 million from the DEA's appropriation and shift the money into grants for state and local law enforcement to address backlogs of untested rape kits. The House voted down another Cohen amendment that would have taken $15 million from the DEA and allocated it instead to the Legal Services Corporation. The House also approved an amendment that would block additional staffing for the Pardon Attorney's Office in a bid to thwart President Obama's call for drug war prisoners to seek clemency.

Heroin and Opiates

New York Senate Task Force Proposes Massive Package of Prevention, Treatment, Law Enforcement Bills to Fight Increased Heroin, Prescription Pill Use. The state Joint Senate Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction issued its final report Wednesday. The report, Solutions to New York's Heroin Epidemic, calls for prevention, treatment, and harm reduction measures, but the 25-bill package it includes is heavy on law enforcement. Thirteen of the 25 proposed bills would ratchet up the drug war. There is a complete list of the bills in the package in the report.

International

Colombian Government Releases Outline of Drug Accords With FARC. The Colombian government has released a document laying out the points agreed to with the FARC guerrillas on dealing with drug cultivation and the illicit drug trade. The two sides, meeting at peace talks in Havana a couple of weeks ago, reached the agreement a couple of weeks ago. Colombia Reports has the details at the title link.

Despite Drug Decriminalization, Colombia Continues to Arrest, Hassle Drug Users, Researcher Finds. In a report from the Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law, researcher Diane Guzman found that Colombia continues to rely excessively on punishing drug users, even though drug use is decriminalized there. Guzman blames police enforcement strategies and their focus on arrest, and reports that drug users detained by police are often let go after they pay bribes. She also found that Colombia's goal of reducing drug addiction suffers because the country doesn't devote sufficient resources to improving health care and rehabilitation for drug users. The report, En Busca De Los Derechos: Usuarios De Drogas Y Las Respuestas Estatales En América Latina, also examines drug policies in seven other Latin American countries. Guzman wrote the Colombia chapter.

Thousands March for Marijuana in Tel Aviv. An estimated 2,000 people marched and rallied for marijuana legalization in Tel Aviv Thursday night. The march comes as the Knesset prepares to debate a bill easing restrictions on medical marijuana next week and a bill from MK Tamar Zandberg to legalize marijuana a few weeks from now.

Chronicle AM -- May 29, 2014

Minnesota becomes the 22nd medical marijuana state, the California Senate passes a medical marijuana regulation bill and a bill equalizing crack and powder cocaine offenses, a new study reports on who current heroin users are, there are a series of votes set for today to rein in the DEA, a Canadian court allows heroin-assisted treatment trials to move forward, and more. Let's get to it:

Cocaine is cocaine, whether rock or powder, and the California Senate has voted to treat it like that. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Michigan Poll Has Support for Legalization at 42%. A Detroit News/WDIV-TV poll released today has support for marijuana legalization at 42%, with 52% opposed. The poll conducted by the Glengariff Group of Chicago surveyed 600 voters. It has a margin of error of +/ -4%. "There is a sharp difference in attitudes on marijuana legalization among voters under and over the age of 40," said pollster Richard Czuba. "And while Democratic voters support legalization of marijuana, independents and Republican voters strongly oppose legalization." Click the link for more demographic details.

Washington, DC, Initiative is Sweating the Signature-Gathering. Organizers of the DC initiative to legalize the possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana -- but not the legalization and regulation of marijuana sales -- are "a little nervous" about the progress of their signature-gathering campaign. They have until July 7 to collect 22,373 valid voter signatures. They had collected some 19,000 raw signatures by Monday, but of the 16,734 that have been processed, only 5,360 have been found to be valid.

Delaware Decriminalization Bill Filed. Rep. Helene Keeley (D-Wilmington) today introduced a decriminalization bill, House Bill 371. It would make possession of up to an ounce a civil offense with a maximum $100 fine for people 21 and over. Currently, possession is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail.

Medical Marijuana

Minnesota Governor Signs Medical Marijuana Bill. Gov. Mark Dayton (DFL) today signed into law the medical marijuana bill approved earlier this month by the legislature. It allows for eight distribution centers across the state to by supplied by two medical marijuana manufacturers. The bill does not allow for the smoking of medical marijuana; but it can be vaped or eaten. Some medical marijuana groups are calling the law "overly restrictive."

California Senate Approves Medical Marijuana Regulation Bill. The state Senate yesterday approved Senate Bill 1262, sponsored by Sen. Lou Correa (D-Anaheim). It is supported by cities and law enforcement, and would impose tighter controls on dispensaries, cultivation, and recommending. A competing bill, Assembly Bill 1894, sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) was expected to be voted on today. If both pass their respective houses, look for a compromise.

Drug Policy

Congress Set to Vote Today on Four Amendments to Reign in DEA. Congress is set to vote today on at least four amendments aimed at reigning in the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). One would prohibit DEA from interfering in states that allow medical marijuana; another would prohibit it from blocking hemp seed imports in states that have approved hemp research; a third would prohibit it from undermining state laws that allow for hemp cultivation; and a fourth would reject a proposed $35 million increase in the DEA's FY 2015 budget.

Heroin

Today's Heroin Users Are Mainly Young, White and Not in the Big City, New Study Finds. A new research article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that, unlike the heroin boom of the 1960s, most heroin users today are young white men whose opiate habits overwhelmingly started with prescription pain pills. "Our data show that the demographic composition of heroin users entering treatment has shifted over the last 50 years such that heroin use has changed from an inner-city, minority-centered problem to one that has a more widespread geographical distribution, involving primarily white men and women in their late 20s living outside of large urban areas," the authors concluded.

Law Enforcement

Minnesota Prosecutor "Sending a Message" Charges Five Teens With Murder in Teen Girl's Overdose Death. Washington County Attorney Pete Orput has charged five local teenagers with murder in the January death of a 17-year-old girl who died after taking a new synthetic hallucinogen. "We think there's a moral obligation to keep kids free of drugs," said Orput. "We're sending a message that suppliers will be held fully to account." Those charged include a 19-year-old, an 18-year-old, and three 17-year-olds. Orput said the three minors will be charged as adults. The 19-year-old is accused of being the dealer; the others bought some of the drug and shared it among themselves and the dead girl.

Customs to Curtail Searches of General Aviation Aircraft Not Crossing Borders. After loud complaints from private pilots that their domestic flights were being searched for drugs by Customs agents, the Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) has announced it will curtail the searches. An official told National Public Radio yesterday that "his agency has heard pilots' grievances and the program is being altered so as not to needlessly affront law-abiding pilots." The Airline Operators and Pilots Association has been raising a stink about the issue for the past year, saying it has received more than 50 reports from members who recounted their encounters with law enforcement at airports.

Georgia SWAT Team Throws Flash-Bang Grenade, Burns Toddler in Drug Raid. A 2-year-old child was burned when members of the Habersham County Special Response Team deployed a "distraction device" as they executed a drug search warrant early yesterday morning. The raid came a day after a snitch made a drug buy at the home and reported no children present. The raiders got themselves a no-knock warrant and breached the door of the home. "What had happened was there was a playpen -- a Pack N Play -- that was pushed up against the door, and when they breached the door it wouldn't open up because of the Pack N Play," Sheriff Joey Terrell said. "It was just wide enough to toss the flash bang in, then they had to physically push it [Pack N Play] on out of the way to get in. That's when the team medics saw the child, stopped at the child, took the child out and began first aid. "The door that we entered was the door that we bought dope out of -- that's why entered at that door," Terrell said. "Our team went by the book. Given the same scenario, we'll do the same thing again. I stand behind what our team did," he maintained. He blames the target of the warrant. Read the whole story at the link.

Sentencing

California Senate Approves Bill to Eliminate Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity. The state Senate Wednesday approved a bill that would equalize the penalties for crack and powder cocaine sales and make it easier to get probation for either. The measure is Senate Bill 1010, introduced by Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles). It now goes to the Assembly.

International

Peru Names Former Defense Minister as New Drug Czar. President Ollanta Humala has named former Defense Minister Luis Otorala as the new head of the Peruvian anti-drug agency, DEVIDA. He replaces Carman Masias. Otarola said that while eradication of coca crops will continue, greater emphasis will be placed on economic alternatives for farmers. Hardline critics said the move and the new emphasis "showed a weakening in the resolve of the government" to confront the drug trade. Peru is once again the world's leading coca and cocaine producer.

Medical Marijuana Bill Introduced in Philippines. Rep. Rodolfo Albano III has filed a medical marijuana bill in the Philippine legislature. House Bill 4477, the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Bill, is intended "to provide accessible, affordable, safe medical cannabis to qualifying patients."

British Columbia Supreme Court Grants Injunction for Heroin Treatment Study to Continue. Canada's BC Supreme Court today granted an injunction for an exemption from federal drug laws for participants in the SALOME study (The Study to Assess Long-term Opioid Maintenance Effectiveness). The injunction will allow doctors in the study to continue prescribing heroin to patients for whom other treatment options have been ineffective.

There's More to Colorado Than Marijuana [FEATURE]

Colorado has certainly garnered a lot of attention since voters there decided to legalize marijuana in the 2012 election, but when it comes to drug reform, there's a lot more going on in the Rocky Mountain State than just buds, blunts, and bongs. In the past few years, Colorado has taken significant steps toward more enlightened drug policies, and with the powerful coalitions that have emerged to push the agenda, more is likely to come.

Passed last year while all the attention was on the legislature's race to get marijuana commerce regulations passed, the single most significant piece of broader drug reform legislation was Senate Bill 250, which aims to rein in and redirect corrections spending by reducing the number of drug offenders in prison.

The bill creates a separate sentencing system for drug offenders and allows people convicted of some felony drug charges to be sentenced to probation and community-based sentencing and see that felony charge changed to a misdemeanor conviction upon completion of probation. It allow provides that savings from the sentencing changes be plowed back into drug treatment.

The bill didn't come out of nowhere. It was the outgrowth of a 2008 law that created the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. That panel brought together in one effort the heads of all the relevant state agencies as they grappled with how to reduce recidivism and put a brake on prison spending. It also provided an opportunity for groups like the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (CCJRC) to start confronting the commission with research-based evidence about what does and doesn't work.

"There is a lot of good evidence-based practice that shows what we did in the past didn't work, and a lot of it had to do with national attention," said Pam Clifton, communications coordinator for the CCJRC. "People were asking 'How come half your people are going back to prison?' Well, we didn't have funding for treatment in Colorado. If you didn't have any money, there wasn't any place for you to go. Another problem was helping people on the front end. How can we be more proactive with people on probation? The recession gave us a little bit of leverage."

But to get sentencing and drug reforms passed required not just a commission to come up with best policies and practices, but a political leadership that was willing to act. That came in 2008, when Colorado turned from red to blue, with a new Democratic governor, Bill Ritter, and Democrats in control of the legislature.

"When Bill Owens (R) was governor, he wasn't going to let anything happen," said Clifton. "But with the commission, a lot of conversations got started and we were able to educate about why change was needed, so when we had a change in leadership, there was a mandate from the commission to get good legislation passed. A lot of the recommendations the commission made went directly to the legislature, and when a bill showed up from the commission, it had a better opportunity to survive the process."

And while, as noted above, the legislature has passed other reforms, Senate Bill 250 was the biggie.

"That was the landmark legislation that really changes things," said Clifton. "This was the whole state -- prosecutors, defense counsel, the commission, us -- coming together and agreeing it was the right approach."

The bill only went into effect last October, so its results remain to be seen. But advocates are confident it has not only changed the conversation about drugs and sentencing, but that it will pay off in terms of fewer prisoners doing less time at less cost to the state -- and with less harm to the futures of drug offenders in the state.

Even the prisons are scenic in Colorado, although it is hoped that fewer prisoners will be forced to enjoy the view soon. (CDOC)
"It's too early to tell what impact Senate Bill 250 will have," said Art Way, Colorado manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. "It was definitely a step in the right direction, though. It shrank the number of felony degrees for drug charges from six to four, and now, many low-level drug felonies can wobble down to misdemeanors thanks to that bill. It's not true defelonization of use and possession, but it still gives defendants some opportunities to avoid the label of felons."

And the CCJRC deserves some major credit, he said.

"The CCJRC has been doing great work in the past decade revealing that we are on an unsustainable path," said Way. "The Department of Corrections budget was only increasing year after year, and they were able to make this a fiscal argument as well as a human argument. They've been at the forefront here."

Another front where Colorado is forging ahead is harm reduction. Needle exchange programs were legalized in 2010 and there are now six across the state, the state passed a 911 Good Samaritan law in 2012, and a law allowing friends and family members of injection drug users to carry and administer the overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan) passed last year.

Activists have also managed to push through laws exempting needle exchange participants from the state's drug paraphernalia laws, and in Denver, an ordinance last year allowed the first mobile needle exchange in the state.

"We've been really excited, not only about all these programs, but also about getting these policy wins," said Lisa Raville of the Denver-based Harm Reduction Action Center. "Every time we go to the capitol, we've been winning. The legislature is very excited about harm reduction."

After passing Senate Bill 250, this year was relatively quiet on the sentencing and drug reform front. There are a number of reasons for that, some of them having to do with gauging public (and legislative) attitudes in the wake of a well-publicized violent crime, the killing of state prison chief Tom Clements by a parolee.

"Our corrections director was murdered last spring, and that caused a lot of ripples and made people at the capitol freak out a bit, so we wanted to tread lightly," said Clifton. "And things are really tricky in Colorado now," she added. "Elections are coming up, and everyone's concerned about what color we're going to be come November. Our elected officials are all being very cautious right now."

Like the CCJC, the harm reductionists were quiet in the legislature this year. It was a time for solidifying gains and getting previous victories implemented, Raville said.

Harm reduction measures in place in Colorado include needle exchanges and overdose reversal drug access. (wikimedia.org)
"This is an election year, and we knew they would be playing defense at the capitol," she said. "We decided this year would be all about promoting harm reduction policies and procedures. When we got those laws passed, we assumed that the legislature and the courts would implement them, but they didn't, so we spent the first six months promoting implementation, working with the legislature, as well as working with doctors and pharmacies so they know about these new laws."

But that doesn't mean the Harm Reduction Action Center is giving up on the legislature.

"Depending on how the election goes, our goal next year is total syringe decriminalization," said Raville. "We have the exemption for needle exchange participants, but there are still folks who won't ever access a needle exchange program, and we want them exempt as well. Now, you can get eight to 15 days in jail for every syringe, clean or used."

Raville pointed to the success of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition in getting a similar measure passed last year in the last year in getting a similar measure passed in the Tar Heel State. That partial decriminalization bill allows people carrying needles to avoid arrest if they inform officers they are carrying them.

"Robert Childs and the NCHRC got that passed with the support of law enforcement, who didn't want to get pricked," she said. "That's inspired us to work closely with the Denver Police Department. We have two officers on our advisory board."

"We have an overdose issue here in Colorado," Raville noted. "ODs have tripled in the past 10 years, and we have a fatal overdose every day and a half in the state. Not many doctors are prescribing naloxone, but we've had 92 overdose reversals so far. And a couple of hospitals in Denver are discharging overdose patients with a prescription for naloxone. We're trying to make that the standard for hospitals across the state."

While it was relatively quiet this year in the legislature, activists had to play defense on one set of bills and managed to kill them. That was a pair of bills to amend the civil code for child neglect to explicitly include marijuana use as an indicator, even though the state has legalized both medical and recreational marijuana use and possession.

"Stopping that bill was our top concern this year," said Way. "We worried that amending the civil code the way those bills tried to do would simply help law enforcement during drug investigations by leveraging parental rights. This wasn't a public health approach; it was a law enforcement bill couched as a public health and child protection bill," he said.

"The bill's fiscal notes only involving increasing bed space for what they expected to an influx of people put in jail," he noted. "There was nothing about access to treatment or reunification with kids. It was a standard, punitive drug war approach to a public health issue, and we were able to kill it for the second year in a row."

The CCJRC, for its part, is continuing to push for reform. While it wasn't ready to share its strategic planning for the near future, Clifton did say that the group is working around implementation of the Affordable Care Act's provisions requiring insurance companies to cover drug treatment.

"We've convened a stakeholder group from around the state -- health care and criminal justice people -- to make sure they knew each other as a step toward successfully implementing the ACA, getting more people in treatment, and reducing the prison population. We're teaching people how to navigate the system and teaching the system how to help people navigate it," she said.

And while sentencing reform and harm reduction efforts in Colorado haven't, for the most part, been about marijuana, the whole opening on marijuana has given political and social space to drug reform efforts that go beyond pot.

"The conversation about marijuana has absolutely helped," said Raville. "We legalized it and the sky didn't fall. This has helped normalize pot and normalize drug use more broadly. And it's been a good opportunity to talk to people about how voting matters."

"Marijuana reform has helped legislators understand what we mean by a public health approach," said Way. "We hope to now be able to address drug policy on a broader level with the legislature."

But much of that will depend on what the makeup of the legislature looks like after November. Still, Colorado has shown what some persistence, some coalition-building, and some science, evidence, and compassion can accomplish.

CO
United States

Chronicle AM -- May 22, 2014

A new poll suggests Vermont is ready to legalize it, and so is the mayor of Rome, a San Francisco crack pipe exchange is set to expand, a West Virginia county's latest grand jury indictments shine a light on drug war in the Appalachians, Bermuda marijuana growers want an emergency exemption for medical marijuana, and more. Let's get to it:

Bermuda-grown cannabis indica await patients there. (Alan Gordon)
Marijuana Policy

Vermont Poll Has 57% Support for Legalization, Taxation, and Regulation. A new poll from the Castleton Polling Institute has 57% of respondents saying they would support legalizing marijuana for adults, taxing it, and regulating it like alcohol. Only 34% were opposed. The poll has +/- 4% margin of error. The Vermont legislature approved a bill in April that includes an amendment initiating a study to evaluate the potential impact of making marijuana legal for adults and regulating it similarly to alcohol. Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) is expected to sign it into law.

Medical Marijuana

North Carolina Legislator Files Bill for Medical Marijuana Referendum. Rep. Kelly Alexander (D-Mecklenburg) has filed a measure, House Bill 1161, that, if approved, would put a referendum on the November ballot asking voters to legalize the use and cultivation of marijuana to treat specified medical conditions. Alexander had filed a medical marijuana bill last year, but it went nowhere in the legislature. The new bill would have to get super-majorities in both chambers of the legislature before it could go to the voters.

Harm Reduction

San Francisco's Crack Pipe Exchange Program to Expand. A crack pipe exchange program operated by volunteers from the Urban Survivors Union, a drug users' rights group, is set to expand even though the city won't condone or fund the program. Volunteers have been distributing about 50 clean crack pipes a week in the Tenderloin, SOMA, and Polk Gulch neighborhoods, even though city officials say there is no evidence it is an effective harm reduction measure. Seattle is the only other city in the country with a similar program.

Sentencing

Federal Smarter Sentencing Act Picks Up Another Sponsor. Rep. David Price (D-NC) has become the latest representative to endorse the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 (House Resolution 3382). The bill would reduce some drug mandatory minimums, allow judges greater leeway to sentence beneath the mandatory minimum, and allow for reduced sentences for crack offenders whose offense took place before passage of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. Price is the 32nd cosponsor and the second this week.

Law Enforcement

In One West Virginia County, Drugs Dominate Grand Jury Indictments. Holy hydrocodone, Batman! The Fayette County grand jury in West Virginia has just released its May batch of bills of indictment, and 71 out 101 of them were for drugs and related charges. There are a whole lot of "conspiracy" and "possession with intent to distribute" charges, too. The indictments don't specify which drugs were at play, but there are a bunch of "obtaining a controlled substance by misrepresentation, fraud, or forgery" charges as well, and a handful of meth lab charges. Click on the link for the whole list.

International

Mayor of Rome Says Legalize It. Rome Mayor Ignazio Marino said Wednesday he supports legalizing marijuana in Italy. "I am in favor of the possibility of deregulating cannabis for medical or personal use," he told the 8th Annual Conference of the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy. "In 2011, more than one million plants were confiscated in our country compared to 73,000 in France," Marino continued. "Organized crime still manages large portions of international traffic and there are enough reasons to reopen the debate today in Italy. We live in a time in which reform for drug laws is necessary on an international and national level. For Italy I personally have a very clear idea of what needs to be done: the decriminalization of marijuana should be considered a starting point because the years of prohibition have not brought any results to prevent the dramatic increase in the use of drugs. In addition, new forms of legalization could be experimented with in medicine for people's health but also to target organized crime." Marino's comments come just weeks after the Italian parliament approved a new law amending the country's drug laws and treating marijuana as a "soft drug" with reduced penalties.

Portugal Soon to Get First Safe Injection Site. The Lisbon city council has approved the location for what would be Portugal's first "assisted consumption room" for drug users. Portugal approved safe injection sites several years ago, but left implementation up to local councils. None had moved to do so until now.

Bermuda Marijuana Growers Seek Emergency Amnesty for Medical Grows, Offer Up Over 50 Locally Available Varieties. Bermuda attorney and marijuana reform activist Alan Gordon, speaking on behalf of a collective of nearly two dozen Bermuda marijuana growers, called today for the government to act immediately to allow for the use of medical marijuana, as called for in last month's Cannabis Reform Collaboration report. "There is only one way to allow the immediate medical cannabis called for by the CRC Report," Gordon said. "We need to just do it instead of just shuffling paperwork. Eighty small medical grade cannabis trees are available to start, and over 50 medical cannabis strains currently on-island." Click on the title link to read more.

NORML Canada Conference This Weekend in Toronto. NORML Canada is holding its annual conference this weekend in Toronto. Click on the link for the details.

Indonesia's New Drug Treatment Over Prison Scheme Faces Challenges. In another excellent analysis from Asiancorrespondent.com, Patrick Tibke looks at Indonesia's progressive new guidelines for the "Processing of Drug Addicts and Drug Abusers into Rehabilitation Centers" and warns of the obstacles ahead in actually implementing such reforms. As he notes, the move was not new legislation, but simply gives a push to the country's 2009 Narcotics Law, which first allowed for the rehabilitation of drug users instead of their incarceration. Whether and how this will actually be implemented remains to be seen. It's a good, thorough read; click on the link for the whole thing.

Drug War Issues

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