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The Top Ten International Drug Policy Stories of 2016 [FEATURE]

(See our Top Ten Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2016 feature story too.)

The year that just ended has seen a serious outbreak of bloody violence against drug users and sellers in one country, it has seen drug offenders hung by the hundreds in another, it has seen efforts to fight the spread of drug-related HIV/AIDS falter for lack of funding, and it has seen the tenacity of the prohibitionist apparatus in the halls of the United Nations.

But there was also good news emanating from various corners of the world, including advances in marijuana legalization in Canada, the US, and Europe and the flouting of the proscription against the coca trade in the UN anti-drug treaties. And speaking of treaties, alhough we didn't include it this year because the drug policy implications remain unclear, the fruition of years'-long peace negotiations between Colombia and the leftist rebels of the FARC, which brings an end to the Western hemisphere's longest-running guerrilla war, is certainly worth noting.

Here are the ten most notable international drug policy events of 2016, the good, the bad, and the ugly:

The UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs saw progress, but achingly little. (Wikimedia.org)
1. The UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs

The global prohibitionist consenus was under growing strain at the UNGASS on Drugs, as civil society pressed the UN bureaucracy and member states for reforms as never before. But changes come at a glacial pace at the level of global diplomacy, and the vision of the UNGASS as a platform for discussing fundamental issues and plotting a new course ran up against the resistance of drug war hard-liners like Russia and China, and the studied indifference of European governments, who preferred that the UN drug policy center of gravity remain at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna. And while the US delegation advocated for some good stances, it, too, opposed any meddling with the trio of UN conventions that form the legal backbone of global drug prohibition.

Still, there were some incremental victories. UN agencies submitted their own position papers, many highly progressive, as were the submissions from some countries and international organizations. EU states and others fought hard for language opposing the death penalty for drug offenses, though unsuccessfully. And while the UNGASS Outcome Document avoids most big issues, it puts strong emphasis on treatment and alternatives to incarceration. It acknowledges the importance of human rights and proportionate sentencing. It has support for naloxone (the overdose antidote), medication-assisted treatment (e.g. methadone and buprenorphine), and safe injecting equipment, though avoiding the term "harm reduction" itself. And it calls for addressing obstacles to opioid availability. (Read a detailed report on UNGASS by some of our colleagues here, and read about some of our own work for the UNGASS here.)

2. Global Harm Reduction for AIDS Remains Tragically Underfunded, and Facing Worse. Despite the repeatedly-proven positive impact of harm reduction measures in reducing the spread and prevalence of HIV/AIDS, donors continue to refuse to pony up to pay for such measures. The UNAIDS program estimates that $2.3 billion was needed to fund AIDS-related harm reduction programs last year, but only $160 million was actually invested by donors as most member states cut their aid levels. That's only 7% of the requested funding level. That's after 2015 saw the first drop in support in five years (see pages 21-22) in funding for AIDS efforts in low- and middle-income countries. The world spends an estimated $100 billion a year on fighting drugs, but it can't come up with 2.3% of that figure to fight drug-related AIDS harms. Harm Reduction International has proposed a "10x20" shift of 10% of law enforcement funding toward harm reduction services by 2020 to address the gap.

Harm reduction's global funding challenges are further impacted by the global AIDS-fighting budget, which has taken a hit as the rise in the dollar has reduced the spending power of contributions from donor countries that use other currencies. Even worse, many of the countries currently benefiting from UN harm reduction funding have progressed economically to a point at which they are supposed to begin funding their own programs according to the UN development framework. But that may not be a realistic expectation, especially for the sometimes politically fraught programs needed to address disease transmission related to drug use.

3. America's Most Populous State Legalizes Marijuana, and So Do Several More. You know the global prohibitionist consensus is crumbling when the rot sets in at home, and that's what happened in November's US elections. California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts all voted to legalize marijuana, joining Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, which had led the way in 2012 and 2014. Now, some 50 million Americans live in pot-legal states, and that's going to mean increasing pressure on the government in Washington to end federal pot prohibition. It's also an example to the rest of the world.

4. Europe's Prohibitionist Consensus Begins Crumbling Around the Edges. No European nation has legalized marijuana, but signs are increasing that somebody is going to do it soon. If 2016 was any indication, the best candidates may be Italy, where a broadly supported legalization bill got a parliamentary hearing this year before surprise election results upset the country's political apple cart; Germany, where "legalization is in the air" as Berlin moves toward allowing cannabis coffee shops and Dusseldorf moves toward total marijuana legalization; and Denmark, where Copenhagen is trying yet again to legalize weed. In both Denmark and Germany, legalization isn't currently favored by the central governments, while in Italy, everything is in limbo after Europe's populist uprising swept the prime minister out of office. Still, the pressure is mounting in Europe.

Amsterdam's famed cannabis coffee houses look set to final get a legal source of supply. (Wikimedia.org)
5. The Dutch Are Finally Going to Do Something About the "Back Door Problem." The Dutch have allowed for the sale of marijuana at "coffee shops" since the 1980s, but never made any provision for a legal pot supply for retailers. Now, after 20 years of blocking any effort to decriminalize marijuana production, Prime Minister Mark Rutte's VVD party has had a change of heart. At a party conference in November, the VVD voted to support "smart regulation" of marijuana and "to redesign the entire domain surrounding soft drugs." The full text of the resolution, supported by 81% of party members, reads: "While the sale of cannabis is tolerated at the front door, stock acquisition is now illegal. The VVD wants to end this strange situation and regulate the policy on soft drugs in a smarter way. It's time to redesign the entire domain surrounding soft drugs. This redevelopment can only take place on a national level. Municipalities should stop experiments with cannabis cultivation as soon as possible." The opposition political parties are already in support of solving the long-lived "back door problem."

6. Canada's Move Toward Marijuana Legalization Continues Apace. Justin Trudeau and the Liberals swept the Tories out of power in October 2015 with a platform that included a clear-cut call for marijuana legalization. Movement toward that goal has been slow but steady, with the task force charged with clearing the way calling for wide-ranging legalization in a report report issued in December. The Liberals say they expect to file legalization bills in the parliament this spring, and Canada remains on track to free the weed.

7. Bolivia Ignores UN Drug Treaty, Agrees to Export Coca to Ecuador. Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former coca grower union leader himself, opened the year campaigning to decriminalize the coca trade and closed it without waiting for the UN to act by inking an agreement with Ecuador to export coca there. The agreement would appear to violate the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which bans the export of coca leaf because it contains the cocaine alkaloid, but neither Bolivia nor Ecuador seem to care.

Mexico's latest drug war marked its 10th anniversary last month. (Wikimedia.org)
8. Mexico Marks a Decade of Brutal Drug Wars. In December, 2006, then-President Felipe Calderon sent the Mexican army into the state of Michoacan in what he said was a bid to get serious about fighting the drug trade. It didn't work, and in fact, led to the worst prohibition-related violence in the country's history, with an estimated 100,000 + killed and tens of thousands more gone missing. Attention to the cartel wars peaked in 2012, which was a presidential election year in both the US and Mexico, and the level of killing declined after that, but has now risen back to those levels. Calderon's replacement, Enrique Pena Nieto, has publicly deemphasized the drug war, but has not substantially shifted the policy. The arrest of Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman has weakened his cartel, but that has only led to more violence as new competitors vie for supremacy.

There are signs of hope on the policy front though, if early ones, with medical marijuana being implemented, attitudes toward legalization softening, and the government playing a role in forwarding the international debate on drug policy reform.

9. Iran Has Second Thoughts About the Death Penalty for Drugs. The Islamic Republic is perhaps the world's leading drug executioner, with drug offenders accounting for the vast majority of the more than a thousand people it executed in 2015 (2016 numbers aren't in yet), but there are increasing signs the regime could change course. In November, the parliament agreed to expedite deliberations on a measure that would dramatically limit the number of people facing execution for drugs. Now, the proposal will get top priority in the Legal and Social Affairs Committee before heading before the full parliament. The measure would limit the death penalty to "organized drug lords," "armed trafficking," "repeat offenders," and "bulk drug distributors."

10. The Philippines Wages a Bloody War on Drug Users and Sellers. With the election of former Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte as president, the country descended into a veritable blood-bath, as police and "vigilantes" seemingly competed to see who could kill more people faster. Duterte has brushed off criticism from the US, the UN, and human rights groups, and even insulted his critics, although he did have kind words to say about Donald Trump, who had kind words to say about him. As of year's end, the death toll was around 6,000, with the vigilantes claiming a slight lead over the cops.

Chronicle AM: MT MedMJ Patients Out of Luck, Christie Signs Needle Exchange Funding, More... (9/1/16)

It the end of easy access for Montana medical marijuana patients, the Arizona Supreme Court rejects the last challenge to that state's legalization initiative, the second Arkansas medical marijuana initiative is now officially on the ballot, Chris Christie signs a needle exchange funding bill, and more.

Chris Christie does the right thing on needle exchange. (Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore)
Marijuana Policy

More Smoke Pot, Fewer Find it Risky, Survey Reports. Survey data shows more adults are using marijuana, they are using it more often, and they're less inclined to think it's risky than in the past, research results reported in The Lancet found. The number of adults using marijuana in the past year has jumped to 32 million -- going from one in ten in 2002 to one in eight in 2014. Only one-third of adults thought weekly marijuana use was risky, down from half in 2002.

Alaska Attorney General Says Pot Social Clubs Are Illegal. State Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth said in a legal opinion Wednesday that marijuana social clubs are illegal. "Under Alaska law, a business cannot sell or provide marijuana or allow marijuana to be consumed on the premises unless it is licensed as a retail marijuana store by the Marijuana Control Board," Lindemuth wrote. The ruling does not apply to retail pot shops, for which state regulators are considering rules that would allow on-site cannabis consumption.

Arizona Supreme Court Rejects Challenges to Pot Legalization Initiative. Arizonans will be voting on Proposition 205 on November 8. The state Supreme Court has thrown out the last challenges to the measure, which accused it of misleading voters with its language, but the high court upheld a lower court ruling that Prop 205 substantially complies with legal requirements for initiatives.

Medical Marijuana

It's Official: Second Arkansas Initiatives Qualifies for the Ballot. Secretary of State Mark Martin's office said Wednesday that the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment had submitted sufficient valid voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot. That means Arkansas voters will have two medical marijuana initiatives to vote on. The Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act was approved for the ballot in July. If both pass, the one with the most votes goes into effect.

Delaware Governor Signs Bill Allowing Medical Marijuana for Terminally Ill. Gov. Jack Markell (D) Wednesday signed into law "Bob's Bill," named for lung cancer patient Robert Jester, who died in 2014 without being able to legally use marijuana to ease his suffering. The bill allows for medical marijuana for terminally ill patients, including those under 18 who are suffering pain, anxiety, or depression.

Montana Medical Marijuana Patients Now Out of Luck. In the biggest medical marijuana rollback ever, as of September 1, medical marijuana dispensaries are now illegal, and up to 12,000 patients have lost legal access to marijuana. Medical marijuana providers are now limited to three patients, and thousands of patients have no provider. This is the end result of the GOP-led legislature's 2011 move to gut the state's voter-approved medical marijuana law. An initiative that would restore the state's medical marijuana system, I-182, has been approved for the November ballot.

Harm Reduction

New Jersey Governor Signs Needle Exchange Funding Bill. Gov. Christ Christie (R) Wednesday signed into law Assembly Bill 415, which creates permanent funding for five locally run needle exchange programs. Three of them, in Atlantic City, Camden, and Paterson, had already run out of funds and were close to closing their doors. "These programs not only distribute clean syringes to intravenous drug users, but also deliver lifesaving education, treatment, and testing to their participants," according to Christie's bill-signing statement.

New Psychoactive Substances

California Bill Would Make Possession of Synthetic Cannabinoids, Stimulants a Crime. The legislature has approved a bill requested by the California Narcotics Officers Association that would make first-time possession of specified synthetic cannabinoids or stimulants an infraction, with subsequent offenses treated as misdemeanors. Under current state law, selling the drugs is a crime, but possessing them isn't. The measure, Senate Bill 139, now goes to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown (D). It is opposed by the ACLU and the Drug Policy Alliance.

International

EU Wants to Ban New, Powerful Synthetic Cannabinoid. The European Commission announced Wednesday that it wants to ban MDMB-CHMICA, also known as "Black Mamba," a synthetic cannabinoid reportedly 10 times stronger than already banned synthetic cannabinoids. The European Monitoring Center on Drugs and Drug Abuse reported that it has been linked to at least 42 "acute intoxications" and 29 deaths.

Philippines President Snubs UN Effort to Meet Over Drug Killings. President Rodrigo Duterte has turned down a meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon after threatening last month to quit the UN over its criticism of the mass killings of drug users and dealers since he came to office three months ago. Officials from Duterte's office said he was too busy to meet with the head of the global body. One UN official said it was "basically unheard of" for a national leader to be "too busy" to meet the secretary-general.

Chronicle AM: Duterte Lashes Out at UN, CA MJ Arrests Haven't Gone Away, More... (8/18/16)

Despite what's been called "de facto legalization," California has arrested a half million for pot in the last decade; Tennessee's Music City moves toward decriminalization, a Montana anti-medical marijuana initiative has come up short, and more.

Filipino President Rodrigo "The Punisher" Duterte (theinfluence.org)
Marijuana Policy

California Saw Half a Million Marijuana Arrests in the Last Decade. And you thought pot was virtually legal there already. A new report from the Drug Policy Alliance shows that far from "de facto legalization," tens of thousands of Californians are still getting arrested for marijuana offenses each year. Even though the state decriminalized pot possession in 2011, thousands are still arrested for marijuana misdemeanors each year, and the burden of arrests falls disproportionately on blacks, Latinos, and youth.

Report Finds West Virginia Could Make Millions By Legalizing Marijuana. The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy released a report Thursday saying that if the state legalized marijuana and taxed it at 25% of its wholesale price, the state could collect an estimated $45 million a year. And if just 10% of marijuana users living within 200 miles of the state came to buy legal weed there, the state could make $194 million a year. It would also save most of the $17 million a year it currently spends enforcing pot prohibition.

Nashville Moves Toward Marijuana Decriminalization. Tennessee's second largest city (less than a thousand people fewer than Memphis) is headed for decrim. The city council Tuesday gave its initial approval to a measure that would make possession of up to an ounce a civil infraction punishable by a $50 fine. It's not a done deal yet, though, and the police are grumbling. Stay tuned.

Medical Marijuana

Possible Arizona Pot Legalization Spurs Rush for Medical Marijuana Licenses. More than 750 people or groups have submitted applications for 31 medical marijuana dispensary licenses to be awarded in October. Medical marijuana license holders will get first crack at new adult use licenses if the Prop 205 legalization initiative passes.

Montana Anti-Medical Marijuana Initiative Fails To Qualify for Ballot, But Challenges Signature Shortfall. An initiative seeking to repeal the state's medical marijuana law has failed to qualify for the November ballot after coming up short on valid signatures. The Safe Montana campaign claims the state improperly rejected or lost signatures and has filed suit to challenge the state's decision. Meanwhile, the I-182 initiative, which would rebuild the state's largely gutted medical marijuana program, has already qualified for the ballot.

International

Philippines President Duterte Slams "Stupid" UN Criticism of Drug War Killings.President Duterte, who has presided over hundreds of drug war killings since assuming office just weeks ago, has pushed back against criticism of his policies by the United Nations. ""Here comes the UN, easily swayed, and coming with a very stupid proposition,"Duterte said in a speech on Wednesday at an event for police officers also attended by foreign diplomats. "Why would the United Nations be so easily swayed into interfering in the affairs of this republic?" Duterte has ordered police not to hesitate to kill and even urged ordinary citizens and communist rebels to join in the war against drugs. Drug users are "not viable human beings," he said.

Chronicle AM: UN Agencies Condemn Philippine Killings, Huge Danish Consumption Room Opens, More... (8/4/16)

UN drug agencies join civil society in condemning Philippine drug war killings, the world's largest drug consumption facility opens in Copenhagen, the California marijuana legalization initiative sues to have "false and misleading" ballot arguments removed, and more.

The Copenhagen drug consumption room covers a thousand square meters. (Nanna Gotfredsen, Sune Kehlet)
Marijuana Policy

California Prop 64 Campaign Sues to Disallow "False, Misleading" Ballot Arguments. The Prop 64 marijuana legalization campaign filed a lawsuit in state superior court in Sacramento Thursday seeking to have what it calls false or misleading statements submitted by opponents removed from ballot arguments. Ballot arguments appear in the voter information guide. The campaign wants the judge to reject or amend a number of arguments, including one that claims children will be exposed to edibles advertising and one that claims Prop 64 will remove consumer protections, among others. All legal questions around ballot arguments must be settled by August 15.

Medical Marijuana

Arkansas Poll Has Support for Medical Marijuana at 58%. A new poll of likely voters has a healthy majority for medical marijuana, with 58% saying they support it. Voters will have a chance to signal that support at the polls in November, when the Arkansans for Compassionate Care initiative will appear on the ballot. A second medical marijuana initiative, the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Amendment, is still trying to qualify for the ballot and has received an extension to gather more signatures after coming up just short last month.

New Jersey Legislature Passes Bill to Make PTSD a Qualifying Condition. The Senate Tuesday gave final approval to Assembly Bill 457, which would allow people with PTSD to use medical marijuana. The bill now goes to Gov. Chris Christie (R), who has not indicated whether he will sign or veto it.

International

UN Drug Agencies Join Chorus of Critics of Philippines Drug Killings. In a statement Wednesday, UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) executive director Yuri Fedotov said he joined UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in "condemning the apparent endorsement of extrajudicial killings" of alleged drug users and dealers in the country under the new administration of President Rodrigo "Death Squad" Duterte. "[Extrajudicial killing] is illegal and a breach of fundamental rights and freedoms," he said. "Such responses contravene the provisions of the international drug control conventions, do not serve the cause of justice, and will not help to ensure that 'all people can live in health, dignity and peace, with security and prosperity,' as agreed by governments in the outcome document approved at the UN General Assembly special session on the world drug problem," he said. The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) likewise expressed its concern later the same day. In a written statement, the self-described "quasi-judicial" agency that monitors compliance with the drug conventions wrote that "should these reports prove accurate, this would constitute a serious breach of the legal obligations to which the Philippines is held by the three UN drug control conventions and by the corpus of international legal instruments to which the country has adhered."

World's Largest Drug Consumption Room Opens in Copenhagen. The drug consumption room is 1,000 square meters and includes space for both drug injecting and smoking. It is partially funded by the city of Copenhagen. Users at the site will also be able to engage with medical and social welfare services.

Chronicle AM: MA Init Passes Two Hurdles, Feds Ease Docs' Buprenorphine Limits, More... (7/6/16)

It's a two-fer for Bay State legalizers today, the feds move to ease the opioid problem, Italy's top anti-Mafia and anti-terrorism prosecutor comes out for marijuana legalization, and more.

It looks like they will be voting on marijuana legalization in Boston in November. (regulatemassachusetts.org)
Marijuana Policy

Massachusetts Legalization Initiative Turns in Final Batch of Signatures. The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Tuesday handed in some 25,000 signatures to comply with a final signature gathering requirement before its legalization initiative can appear on the November ballot. Proponents only need 10,971 valid voter signatures for the measure to qualify for the ballot. The campaign already successfully completed a larger signature gathering campaign in the spring, but had to do a second round under state law after the legislature refused to act on the initiative petition.

Massachusetts Supreme Court Okays Legalization Initiative for Ballot… With Changes. The state's Supreme Judicial Court Wednesday ruled that the legalization initiative from the Massachusetts Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol can appear on the November ballot. But the court also massaged the language of the title -- changing it from "Marijuana Legalization" to "Legalization, Regulation, and Taxation of Marijuana" -- and the summary language that will appear on the ballot. The new summary reads as follows: "A YES VOTE would allow persons 21 and older to possess, use, and transfer marijuana and products containing marijuana concentrate (including edible products) and to cultivate marijuana, all in limited amounts, and would provide for the regulation and taxation of commercial sale of marijuana and marijuana products." (Changes highlighted in bold).

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Feds Raise Patient Limits for Buprenorphine Docs. The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has nearly tripled the number of opioid-addicted patients who can be prescribed buprenorphine by a single doctor. Under old rules, doctors were limited to treating 100 patients; now, the cap has been set at 275. The drug is used to help wean people off heroin and prescription opioids.

International

Italy's Anti-Mafia Prosecutor Says Legalize "Soft Drugs." As the Italian parliament prepares to take up marijuana legalization later this month, the country's top anti-Mafia and anti-terrorism prosecutor, Franco Roberti, has endorsed the proposal, calling for the legalization of "soft drugs" as a means of redirecting police resources and weakening the finances of terrorist groups. Under prohibition, he said, "cannabis production is one of the main financing sources of terrorists. If we want to give a blow to the Mafia and the Taliban, we must remove this extraordinary financing channel from illegality."

Bolivia's Coca Crop is Under Control, UN Says. Bolivia has brought the number of acres under coca cultivation down to 50,500, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported Tuesday. Since farmers are allowed to plant 50,000 acres to supply the country's traditional and industrial coca market, that means that only 1% of production is destined for the illicit market. Cocaine continues to be exported through Bolivia, the agency said, but it coming from Peru.

Canada Will Move to Legalize Marijuana Next Year

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, elected last fall, campaigned on a promise that his Liberal government would legalize marijuana. Now, we're getting an idea of just when that is going to happen.

Speaking at the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem Wednesday, Canadian Health Minister Jane Philpott said the government will introduce legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana in spring 2017.

"Our approach to drugs must be comprehensive, collaborative, and compassionate. It must respect human rights while promoting shared responsibility. And it must have a firm scientific foundation. In Canada, we will apply those principles with regard to marijuana," she said.

"To that end, we will introduce legislation [to legally regulate marijuana] in spring 2017 that ensures we keep marijuana out of the hands of children and the profits out of the hands of criminals. While this plan challenges the status quo in many countries, we are convinced it is the best way to protect our youth while enhancing public safety."

Canada's is a parliamentary system, which generally means that if the government introduces a bill, it becomes law. There could be unforeseen bumps in the road, but it appears all but certain that the land of the maple leaf is soon going to become the land of the pot leaf, too.

In the meantime, government officials, including legalization point man former Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair, are emphasizing that until the law changes, marijuana remains illegal except for medicinal purposes. After a Canadian Supreme Court decision in March, medical marijuana users will be able to grow their own, a right that was taken away by the previous Conservative government.

But within a couple of years, any adult Canadian should be able to join them.

New York, NY
United States

Beyond UNGASS: Looking Toward 2019 [FEATURE]

The United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs is set for UN Headquarters in Manhattan next week, and civil society and some European and Latin American countries are hoping to make limited progress in moving toward more evidence- and public health-based drug policies. But, knowing the glacial pace of change at the UN and well aware of how little of substance is likely to emerge from the UNGASS, some eyes are already turning to the post-UNGASS international arena.

UNGASS is coming... and then what? (Creative Commons)
Hopes for more forward movement at the UNGASS, always tentative and facing opposition from global drug war hardliners such as Russia, China, and Singapore, were effectively dashed at the run-up meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) meeting last month in Vienna, whose outcome document was described as "quite awful" by leading Canadian drug policy expert Donald MacPherson.

The outcomes document includes some minor progressive movement, but does not challenge the trio of treaties that form the legal backbone of global drug prohibition, while its embrace of "flexibility" emboldens regressive, repressive measures (the death penalty for drug offenses, forced "treatment," criminalization of drug users) in hard line countries, despite being helpful for progressive reforms around the edges of the treaties' prohibition.

MacPherson was one of a handful of international drug policy experts and elected officials who took part in a teleconference last week organized by StoptheDrugWar.org (publisher of this newsletter), a US-based group that has been deeply involved in civil society organizing around the UNGASS. He wasn't the only one looking beyond 2016.

Mexican Senator Laura Angelica Rojas Hernández, chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Organizations, called this year's UNGASS poses "a step" toward examining the objectives of the 2009 Political Declaration and Action Plan on drugs, which will be reviewed in 2019. While the CND outcomes document had good language around the need for embracing multiple approaches, such as public health, human rights, gender, and prevention, it also includes serious shortcomings, she said.

Mexican Senator Laura Angelica Rojas Hernandez (pan.senado.gob.mx)
"There is a lack of recognition of the relative efficacy of demand reduction and harm reduction policies and the absence of an acknowledgement of the high costs that the prohibitionist and punitive approaches have generated," the senator said.

Mexican senators know all too well the high costs of drug prohibition. For the past decade, the country has been battered by brutal prohibition-related violence that has left at least 100,000 dead, tens of thousands more "disappeared," a legacy of human rights abuses by soldiers and police fighting the cartels, and the legitimacy of the state severely weakened.

"The international community should continue to work toward the establishment of indicators that could help measure the impact of drug policies on people's lives and their rights," Rojas said, suggesting this could still happen at the UNGASS.

But she was also looking down the road.

"Something that should be placed on the table in 2019 is a thorough review of the three conventions on drug control that acknowledges the highly detrimental effects of the current approaches," she said. "And we should be more honest about the so-called flexibility of implementation offered by these treaties and acknowledge that there should be a wider range of action for countries to define their own drug policies, taking into consideration their national and cultural context."

Canadian drug policy expert Donald MacPherson (cssdp.org)
Both Rojas and Canada's MacPherson called for some sort of expert mechanism to guide policymakers eyeing the 2019 meeting.

"Organizations and even some governments are beginning to call for a mechanism post-UNGASS to get real with the modernizing of the treaties," MacPherson said, reflecting frustration with the UNGASS process and prospects. "It's really important that UN member states speak strongly for the need for that mechanism, whether it's an expert committee or some other sort of group. And it needs to happen now -- the next three years are critical coming up to 2019. We really do need to have that process in place to [counter] the kind of intransigence of other countries that use the consensus-based model to hold progress ransom."

"The international community should examine the possibility of establishing an analysis mechanism as a working group of experts, for example, with a mandate to formulate recommendations aimed at the modernization of the international system of drugs for the 2019 review process," Rojas added. "And from a longer-term perspective, we need to see the creation of a special office within the UN Human Rights Council, to follow up and monitor the respect of human rights in the context of the enforcement of the drug policies."

The UNGASS hasn't even gotten here yet, and interested observers are already looking past it. Welcome to politics at the United Nations where most things happen at a snail's pace. The global drug prohibition consensus may be crumbling, but it is crumbling very slowly at the level of international conventions and institutions. The work continues.

[A follow-up story on prospects for marijuana legalization in Canada and Mexico will highlight remarks during the teleconference by Canadian Member of Parliament Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, Aram Barra of Mexico United Against Crime, and StoptheDrugWar.org executive director David Borden.]

Chronicle AM: NE Pot Politics, DEA Drug Plane Scandal, FL Forfeiture Reform Signed, More.... (4/1/16)

Marijuana politics is hopping in New England, decrim goes into effect in Tampa, the DEA gets raked for wasting tens of millions on an anti-drug plane that never flew, Florida's governor signs an asset forfeiture reform bill, and more.

Another $86 million down the drain, thanks to the DEA and it's flightless anti-drug plane.
Marijuana Policy

Maine Marijuana DUID Bill Killed. The House voted unanimously and without debate Thursday to kill LD 1628, which would have set a standard of 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood to prove a driver was impaired on marijuana. The smack down of the bill came after concerns were raised that there wasn't science to support the limit. The effort is now dead at least until next year.

Connecticut Hearing on Marijuana Legalization Set for Next Week. State Reps. Juan Candelaria (D-New Haven) and Toni Walker (D-New Haven) are hosting an information hearing on legalization next week. Candelaria is the lead sponsor of a legalization bill, House Bill 5209. The session is set for next Tuesday afternoon at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.

Vermont House Hears Testimony on Legalization Bill. More than 50 people testified about Senate Bill 241 at a hearing at the statehouse Thursday night. The marijuana legalization bill has already passed the Senate and has the support of Gov. Peter Shumlin (D). The first House committee vote on the bill is expected next week. If the bill passes, Vermont will be the first state to have legalized marijuana through the legislative process.

Vermont Libertarian Party Calls for Legalization Bill to Include Home Cultivation. The party says "the absence of a home growing provision will limit the bill's chances to decrease the black market" and that "legalization of marijuana is NOT all about tax revenue." The party also says that legal home cultivation "will allow Vermonters to develop their cannabis cultivation skills to support an artisan cannabis industry." The legalization bill originally contained a provision for allowing up gardens of up to 100 square feet per household, but that was stripped out after powerful politicos objected.

Decrim Goes Into Effect in Tampa, Volusia County. Marijuana decriminalization ordinances approved by governing bodies in Tampa and Volusia County, Florida, earlier this year are now in effect. In Tampa, people caught with 20 grams or less will face only a $75 ticket; in Volusia County, it's 20 grams and a $100 fine.

Asset Forfeiture

Florida Governor Signs Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill. Gov. Rick Scott (R) Friday signed into law a bill designed to reform civil asset forfeiture in the state. The bill, Senate Bill 1044, had been approved unanimously by both houses. It will require the seizing agency to make a "probable cause" determination that there is "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" that the seized goods were used in a crime.

Tennessee House Approves Civil Asset Forfeiture Reporting Bill. The House unanimously approved House Bill 2176, which will require annual reporting on law enforcement agency property seizures. The Senate is expected to vote on the measure in coming day.

Law Enforcement

DEA Spent $86 Million for Anti-Drug Plane It Never Used. The DEA procured the plane seven years ago to fly surveillance and counter-narcotics missions in Afghanistan and spent $86 million to upgrade it with surveillance capabilities -- four times the initial estimated cost -- but the plane has never left the ground and will likely never fly in Asia, the Justice Department's inspector general said in a scathing report. "Our findings raise serious questions as to whether the DEA was able to meet the operational needs for which its presence was requested in Afghanistan," the review said. The plane could be ready to fly next year, but the DEA pulled out of Afghanistan last year.

Sentencing

Petitioners Urge Senate Leader Mitch McConnell to Allow Vote on Sentencing Bill. Sentencing refom activists handed in more than 30,000 petitions to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) Tuesday demanding that he allow the Senate to vote on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (Senate Bill 2123). The bill would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses and give judges greater discretion to sentence below the guidelines.

International

IDPC Reviews What Was and Wasn't Gained at the CND. The International Drug Policy Consortium last year elaborated five main "asks" it was seeking at the looming UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs, and now, in the wake of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) meeting in Vienna last month, produced a sort of scoresheet on the progress made. It's a worthy read.

Chronicle AM: New AP Poll Has 61% for Pot Legalization, PA MedMJ Bill Not a Done Deal Yet, More... (3/25/16)

Sixty-one percent of respondents said "legalize it" in a new AP poll -- sort of -- Vermont's pro-legalization governor attacks the Massachusetts legalization initiative, a Georgia CBD bill dies, a drug war justice caravan begins heading from Central America to the UN in New York, and more.

Marijuana Policy

New AP Poll Has Record Support for Legalization. A new survey released today from the Associated Press and University of Chicago has a whopping 61% saying they support marijuana legalization. But there is some nuance in the poll. Some 24% of legalization supporters said it should be available "only with a medical prescription," and 43% said there should be "restrictions on purchase amounts." About a third of legalization supporters said there should be no restrictions.

Vermont's Pro-Legalization Governor Slags Massachusetts Legalization Initiative. Gov. Peter Shumlin (D), who supports a carefully crafted legalization bill in his own state, is taking pot-shots at the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol initiative next door in Massachusetts. "The [Vermont] bill's approach is in stark contrast to the one proposed in the Massachusetts referendum that will be voted on in November, which would allow edibles that have caused huge problems in other states, smoking lounges, home delivery service, and possession of up to 10 ounces of marijuana. Vermont's bill allows none of that," Shumlin wrote in a blog post on his official webpage. "If Massachusetts moves forward with their legalization bill while Vermont delays, the entire southern part of our state could end up with all the negatives of a bad pot bill and none of the positives of doing the right thing." The Massachusetts folks were not impressed, with initiative campaign manager Jim Borghesani retorting that Shumlin is obsessed with edibles and is "falling into the same exaggerations when it comes to edibles that a lot of people have."

Medical Marijuana

Georgia CBD Expansion Bill Dies on Last Day of Session. A bill that would have made the state's CBD cannabis oil law workable by allowing companies outside the state to ship it into Georgia has died as the legislative session ended. The bill, House Bill 722, was defeated earlier in the session, but sponsor Rep. Allen Peake (R-Macon) managed to add it as an amendment to another bill in a last ditch effort to get it through. That didn't work either.

Pennsylvania State Senators Have Issues With House Version of Medical Marijuana Bill. Key senators are expressing reservations about the medical marijuana bill passed by the House last week and may press for changes that would require another vote by both chambers. It had been hoped that the Senate would simply vote to approve the House bill, but Senate bill sponsor Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) suggested the flaws in the House bill needed to be fixed first.

International

'No More Drug War' Caravan to Visit Five Impacted Countries on way to UN Session in NY. Starting in Honduras on March 28th, the Caravan for Peace, Life and Justice will travel through El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and the United States with the goal of reaching New York City on the eve of the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs beginning on April 19. Made up of a diverse group of people including victims of the drug war, families who have lost relatives to violence or incarceration, human rights defenders, journalists, faith leaders, activists and others, the Caravan will travel through some of the places most affected by the war on drugs with the purpose of giving way to an inclusive, collective and open dialogue on drug policy and creating alternatives to the failed prohibitionist regime.

European Drug Reform Stalwart Joep Oomen Dead at 54

Joep Oomen, a key figure in European civil society drug reform efforts, has died unexpectedly of natural causes at his home in Antwerp, Belgium. He was found by colleagues dead in bed Friday when they went looking for him after he failed to show up for a meeting. He was 54 years old.

Joep Oomen RIP (voc-nederland.org)
A veteran activist with more than a quarter century of organizing under his belt, Oomen was the cofounder of numerous drug reform NGOs, including the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD), the Trekt Uw Plant cannabis cultivation social club in Antwerp, and the Dutch Union for the Abolition of Cannabis Prohibtion (VOC).

Joep's vision of a world without drug war drew his attention beyond Europe's borders as well. He had been active with groups like Mama Coca and Friends of the Coca Leaf in working to see the coca plant treated with the respect it deserves, and had been a steady presence at organizing around the United Nations' international drug prohibition bureaucracy.

"Joep was the kind of activist you only very rarely come across," wrote VOC chairman Derrick Bergman. "He combined a seemingly inexhaustible drive and perseverance with impeccable integrity and transparency. Joep spoke fluent Spanish since his studies in Amsterdam in the eighties, he became half-Flemish in Antwerp, but in the end he was primarily a world citizen. I consider myself lucky to have known Joep and to have worked closely with him for eight years with the VOC and Encod. He was not only a hugely effective and inspiring activist, but also a very dear friend."Oomen was present at many international drug reform conferences, where he shared his knowledge and experience about Europe and eagerly sucked up the latest information from around the world. He was also a key source on European drug policy reforms for this newsletter (Drug War Chronicle), always responsive to our requests for information and clarifying the sometimes murky goings on across the water.

We consider Joep a friend and colleague. We are shocked and saddened by his untimely departure.

He leaves behind a wife, Beatriz, two sons, and a grandson.

Antwerp
Belgium

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