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Will UNGASS 2016 Be the Beginning of the End for the War on Drugs?

This article is by Ann Fordham and Martin Jelsma, and is republished from openDemocracy. It is part a series of articles about this April's UNGASS. Further information appears below.

In April 2016, the UN will dedicate, for the third time in its history, a United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) to discuss global drug policy. The UNGASS has the potential to be a ground-breaking moment that could change the course of the international drug control system. However, political divisions and entrenched institutional dynamics have dampened hopes that it will go down in history as the beginning of the end of the war on drugs.

At the joint request of Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala, the General Assembly decided to bring forward the convention of a special session to assess "the achievements and challenges in countering the world drug problem", originally foreseen for 2019 or 2020. The three countries stated at the time that "revising the approach on drugs maintained so far by the international community can no longer be postponed", and the UN needed to exercise leadership to "conduct an in-depth review analyzing all available options, including regulatory or market measures, in order to establish a new paradigm that would impede the flow of resources to organized crime groups". An international meeting had to be convened, "capable of taking the decisions necessary to increase the effectiveness of the strategies and instruments with which the global community addresses the challenges of drugs and their consequences".

Conventional drug control wisdom has put forward the view that stopping the supply of drugs at the source would solve the 'world drug problem', but Latin American countries bear witness to the failure of this approach. Stirred into action by the futility of spending billions of dollars to fight an unwinnable and increasingly violent war on drugs, it is no surprise that political leaders from Latin America have been at the forefront of the drug policy debate. From their perspective, the high human cost in terms of violence, insecurity, mass incarceration and the exacerbation of the social and economic vulnerability of some of society’s most marginalised groups – can no longer be justified as necessary collateral damage in pursuit of eradicating drug markets.

A growing group of Latin American and Caribbean countries are calling for a real discussion on alternative policies. In the meantime, Uruguay has moved to create the world's first national legally regulated cannabis market for recreational use, and similar initiatives have happened in the US at the state level. This opening up of the long entrenched and seemingly immovable discussion on prohibitionist drug control principles is unprecedented and has implications for global policy.

In this context, the UNGASS in April represents a critical juncture, an opportunity for an honest evaluation of global drug policy and how to address the most pressing challenges going forward. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in recognition of this rare and important opportunity, has urged member states to use the 2016 UNGASS "to conduct a wide-ranging and open debate that considers all options."

The UNGASS preparations

The initial discussions to prepare for the UNGASS were fraught with disagreements over many procedural aspects. These included difficult negotiations over the extent to which the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna would lead the process; how to strike the right balance between the UN capitals of Vienna, Geneva and New York in the preparations; how to ensure meaningful involvement of all relevant UN agencies, academia and civil society; and – last but not least – how open the debate should be: should it be restricted to a discussion of how to improve the implementation of the 2009 Political Declaration and the achievement of its targets for 2019, or should the UNGASS be an opportunity to challenge the current global drug control strategy, possibly even questioning its foundation of the three UN drug conventions?

These difficult negotiations, which on the surface often appeared to be arguments over procedure, reflected the deep political divisions within the international drug policy debate. The much-revered 'Vienna Consensus' continues to weaken as the divide between some governments becomes increasingly irreconcilable. A growing number of countries now believe that the traditional repressive drug control approach, based on zero-tolerance, has not worked and has led to disastrous consequences for human rights, public health, citizen security and sustainable development, and as a result it has to be modernised.

Some countries calling for an open and inclusive debate at the UNGASS questioned whether this could be truly achieved with a process led by the Vienna-based drug control apparatus, given that the CND, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) have all gained quite a conservative reputation over the decades. Conducting all the preparations in Vienna led to a further problem for inclusivity, given that at least 70 member states do not have permanent representation there and would therefore struggle to fully participate in the process. The point of convening an UNGASS, is that by definition all UN member states and the whole UN system should be included on a equal basis, but limiting the political negotiations on the outcomes exclusively to Vienna, means that in practice the countries and UN agencies not represented in Vienna have much less influence on the process.

In the end, the hard fought-over resolution on the procedures decided that the UNGASS "will have an inclusive preparatory process that includes extensive substantive consultations, allowing organs, entities and specialized agencies of the United Nations system, relevant international and regional organizations, civil society and other relevant stakeholders to fully contribute to the process", while the CND "as the central policymaking body within the United Nations system dealing with drug-related matters, shall lead this process", inviting the president of the General Assembly to "support, guide and stay involved in the process".

UN special sessions are rare and crucial moments in UN-level policy making and are designed to ensure a coherent UN system-wide response to global problems of major concern to the international community. This has so far been less than optimal in discussions on global drug policy. After initial slow engagement from other key UN agencies, significant contributions have now been made from UNDP, UNAIDS and the WHO. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has also submitted a comprehensive reportthat outlines the most pertinent human rights violations in relation to drug control policies, while the Human Rights Council held a high level panel in September 2015 on the topic of "the impact of the world drug problem on the enjoyment of human rights".

A Civil Society Task Force (CSTF) was convened to ensure the participation of civil society in the process. The CSTF has representatives from every region of the world, as well as representatives of the key affected populations such as people who use drugs and subsistence farmers growing drug-linked crops among others. Initially, formal recognition of the CSTF was challenging – civil society has always had to fight for visibility and access at the CND but over the last year there has been increasing support for this initiative from governments.  A major victory for the CSTF was explicit support from the president of the General Assembly, who presided over an Informal Interactive Stakeholder Dialogue in New York on the 10 February 2016 organised with the CSTF in support of the preparatory process. The calls for progressive policiesbased in principles of harm reduction, of public health and of human rights from global civil society were deafening at the event.

Shifting regional priorities

 

In terms of regional perspectives, as noted above, the impetus for pushing for another UNGASS on drugs followed growing calls for reform from across Latin America at the highest political level. In fact, the previous UNGASS meetings in 1990 and 1998 had been convened in response to similar calls from Colombia and Mexico. Around them, a group of like-minded countries is gradually shaping up around certain positions, including Ecuador, Uruguay and Costa Rica and supported by Brazil and Bolivia on some issues. Caribbean countries have long been largely absent from the debate, not least because discussions have been limited to the CND in Vienna, where few Caribbean countries are represented – although Jamaica has recently joined the chorus of dissent and the discussion on several other islands has intensified.

In terms of European, particularly European Union (EU), engagement, this has been markedly different from Latin America and reflects the fact that Europe has managed to avoid the sharpest edges of a repressive approach to drug control. European countries have not experienced to the same extent, the high human cost in terms of violence, insecurity, and mass incarceration experienced in Latin America.  Of course the context is different, but in addition, many European governments have been pragmatic, have prioritised health care, harm reduction and human rights protection. While in Europe there are some serious issues regarding the criminalisation of people who use drugs and disproportionate sentences for minor drug offences, most European countries have managed to keep a certain distance from the escalation of the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s in the US, Latin America and Asia. At the international level, the leadership that EU governments have shown in this regard has been critical in shifting the drug policy narrative towards public health, harm reduction and human rights principles.

On issues where common positions can be found, the EU can have a strong impact on the global debate. For example, a united EU promoted the principle of proper sequencing with respect to ensuring that subsistence farmers have sufficient access to alternative livelihoods before being forced to abandon their drug-linked crops. The EU has also demonstrated unity and commitment on harm reduction and the removal of death penalty for drug offences, although a global consensus on these issues is not yet in sight.

Unfortunately, there are also crucial areas where a strong European voice has been absent, and the EU has failed to understand or acknowledge the sense of urgency and relevance of this UNGASS. This is clearly the case with regard to the shift in priority that Latin American countries are seeking, to move away from arresting small-time dealers and chasing drug shipments towards reducing drug-related violence, organised crime and corruption instead. In a sense, this is a plea for a harm reduction policy on the supply side: the drugs market will not be “eliminated or significantly reduced” by 2019, and it is time to forget the hollow illusion of a drug-free world.

Instead, government policy could be more sophisticated and focus on mitigating the most harmful aspects of the drug trade through reducing the levels of illicit drug market-related violence, crime, insecurity and corruption. This thinking mirrors similar priority shifts that have previously taken place in Europe under the harm reduction banner, with governments taking a pragmatic approach to reduce the harms associated with drug consumption without necessarily seeking to stop the use of drugs. These harm reduction policies and programmes have significantly reduced drug-related harm such as overdose deaths, and HIV and hepatitis C prevalence among people who inject drugs.

Cannabis policy and UN treaties

 

Another example is the lack of EU engagement in the debate about global cannabis policy developments, the result of the absence of a common EU position on cannabis and huge national policy variations. Demonstrating an ostrich-like denial regarding cannabis policy developments in the Americas but also at local levels within the EU, the EU common position for the UNGASS underscores the need to “maintain a strong and unequivocal commitment to the UN conventions” and that there is “sufficient scope and flexibility within the provisions of the UN Conventions to accommodate a wide range of approaches to drug policy”. In addition, the issue of drug control is a low political priority as the EU currently has it hands full with the refugee crisis and existential threats around the euro and the future of European integration.

A game-changing difference between this UNGASS and the preceding ones is the fact that the position of the US has fundamentally changed. No longer among the hardliners, the US has acknowledged, both at the UN but also more recently domestically, that the over-reliance on incarceration has failed. In August 2013, US Attorney General Eric Holder admitted that mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences were ‘draconian’ and that too many Americans had been imprisoned for too long for no good law enforcement justification. He made it clear that the status quo was unsustainable and damaging. In 2015, President Obama began a process to commute the sentences of around 6,000 federal drug offenders. In early 2016 the congressional task force created to examine overcrowding in the federal prison system, recommended the repeal of federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences. Different legislative initiatives have been tabled, including the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would cut many mandatory minimums for drug offences in half.

The domino effect of cannabis regulation at state level makes the US less sure-footed of condemning other countries for not stringently adhering to a zero-tolerance approach. Cannabis regulation for recreational use is outside of the scope of the current UN treaty framework for drugs, creating a significant problem for the US since it undermines its credibility to continue defending the conventions as they stand. The big question is whether this will lead to the US accepting more flexibility in policy areas that have been explored elsewhere. These include initiatives such as decriminalisation, drug consumption rooms or the regulation of coca in Bolivia, all policy options that the US currently opposes.

UNGASS outcomes: change of course

 

The past several years have seen significant changes in the global drug policy landscape representing a trend towards more humane and proportional responses based on health, human rights and development principles. To some extent, the UNGASS will acknowledge those advances and thereby consolidate the significant change of course that is happening in various regions of the world. Perhaps the most significant advance will be on the issue of access to controlled medicines – an area that has long been de-prioritised in favour of a focus on repressive, law enforcement-led approaches to reduce the illicit drug trade. Most drugs included in the schedules of the UN conventions also have important medical purposes, and several appear on the WHO “List of Essential Medicines”.  However, the availability of opiate painkillers like morphine for example, has been dramatically low in most developing countries due to overly strict regulations reflecting over-riding concerns about diversion and addiction rather than a need to ensure access to pain relief.

Unfortunately, other areas of progress remain stilted. Russia, alongside several Asian and Middle Eastern countries, has played hardball in the negotiations, effectively putting the brakes on the shifting discourse. The negotiations are driven by consensus, making it unlikely that contested policies in the field of harm reduction, or reforms like decriminalisation, despite being widely accepted and propounded by all relevant UN agencies, will be explicitly recommended in the UNGASS outcome document. Likewise, a clear condemnation of the death penalty for drug offences is probably going to be blocked by a small group of countries. The prophecy that allowing the CND to take full control over the UNGASS preparations would undermine progress towards a more system-wide coherent UN drugs policy seems to be being borne out. Negotiations about the UNGASS outcomes have taken place mostly in ‘informal’ sessions in Vienna, dominated by a minority of member states and from which civil society is excluded from participating or even observing.

For the General Assembly, an obvious priority for this UNGASS would be how to align UN drug policy with the recently adopted new global framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but negotiations in Vienna carry on as if they are negotiating another CND resolution. Submissions from other member states, UN agencies and civil society calling for a recognition of the failure of repressive responses and highlighting the need to connect the drugs issue with the agreed UN priorities for the future of the planet have so far not been reflected in successive drafts of the UNGASS outcome document.  The general tone of these drafts is very much ‘business-as-usual’.

At present, few countries are willing to openly acknowledge the existence of structural deficiencies with regard to UN system-wide coherence, the institutional architecture and the legal treaty framework. No easy solutions are available for reforming the foundations of the global control system and consensus will be hard to find, but a continued denial of the reality of the on-going policy trends and the resulting tensions with the treaty system will not make them disappear. In fact, to do so will hinder the much-needed evolution of the UN drug control system and its ability to adapt to the realities of today. Towards this end, it could be helpful if the UNGASS outcome leads to the convening of an advisory group or an expert panel to think through different scenarios for the future evolution of the system, especially in the lead up to the next important moment in 2019 when member states will have to agree a new global action plan on drugs, hopefully more in line with the broader set of UN priority goals for the next decade.

Although it is clear that the so-called ‘Vienna consensus’ has been breaking apart for some time and there is a growing desire to find viable policy alternatives to repression and punishment, there are still powerful countries and entrenched bureaucracies that are staunchly opposed to any kind of reform. The divisions between member states but also between UN agencies on this issue have become too visible to ignore and the UNGASS is a perfect opportunity for an honest assessment of the performance of the international drug control system and the options for a change of course.

Given the high human cost of the damaging approaches pursued to date, many people around the world have high hopes that governments will not squander this opportunity. And yet, to what extent the UNGASS can really live up to these hopes remains to be seen. The latest dynamics in Vienna do not bode well, as bureaucratic machinations, political complacency and exclusion seem to rule the process. The lack of vision, inclusivity and commitment to finding new solutions to many of the challenges that remain must be strongly condemned, especially given the urgency expressed by those countries that called for this moment in the first place.

This article was written by Ann Fordham of the International Drug Policy Consortium and Martin Jelsma of the Transnational Institute. It is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organisation with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights. The partnership coincides with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.

Chronicle AM: LatAm Leaders Call for Drug Decrim, NH House Approves Marijuana Decrim, More... (3/11/16)

Three former Latin American heads of state call for drug decriminalization, the New Hampshire House votes for pot decriminalization, medical marijuana dies in the Utah legislature, but will get a vote in the Pennsylvania legislature, and more. 

Canadian judges are wondering why they're still prosecuting pot possession cases as the wait for the Liberals to legalize it.
Marijuana Policy

Maine Legislative Committee Rejects Marijuana DUID Bill. The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted 7-4 Thursday to reject a bill that sought to set a blood level limit to determine whether a driving is impaired by marijuana use. A majority of committee members voiced concern that setting a legal limit (5 nanograms per milliliter of blood) would not be an accurate measure of impairment.

Michigan Bill Could Kill Legalization Initiative Ballot Push This Year. The Senate Thursday gave fast-track approval a bill seemingly designed to thwart the MiLegalize pot legalization initiative. The bill would close a loophole that would allow initiative campaigns to count signatures gathered outside the 180-day limit, which the initiative campaign had counted on to get sufficient signatures to make the ballot. The bill is expected to win quick passage in the House and then by signed by Gov. Rick Snyder (R). The group has about 250,000 raw signatures, but needs 253,000 valid ones to qualify. It argues that the time limit for signatures can be stretched if it can prove the signatures are still valid, but passage of the bill would make that argument moot.

New Hampshire House Approves Decriminalization Bill (Again)! The House Thursday rejected a negative recommendation from its Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and passed House Bill 1631 to decriminalize the possession of up to a half ounce of marijuana. This marks the seventh time the House has approved a decrim bill since 2008, but the Senate has failed to pass any of the previous bills. New Hampshire is now the only state in the region that hasn't decriminalized small-time pot possession.

Medical Marijuana

Pennsylvania House to Vote on Medical Marijuana Bill Monday. Ten months after the Senate approved Sen. Mike Folmer's Senate Bill 3, the House will finally vote on it next week.

Utah Legislature Kills CBD Cannabis Oil Bill. First, lawmakers killed an actual medical marijuana, Senate Bill 73, and Thursday, a watered-down substitute, Senate Bill 89 died as lawmakers could not come to agreement on late amendments on the last day of the session. The stage is now set for a medical marijuana initiative drive by patients and supporters frustrated with the legislature's inaction.

International

Three Latin American Leaders Call for Decriminalizing Drug Use. In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Colombian President  Cesar Gaviria, and former Mexican President Felipe Zedillo have called the war on drugs "an unmitigated disaster" and urged the decriminalization of drug use. They also critique the way global anti-drug bureaucrats have conducted the run-up to next month's UNGASS on Drugs, claiming that key documents have been drafted in a way that is "neither transparent nor inclusive."

Canada Judges Wonder Why They're Still Trying Marijuana Cases. Senior prosecutors told parliamentarians Thursday that some criminal trial judges are questioning why people continue to be prosecuted for simple marijuana possession while the Liberal government moves to legalize the plant. The government is spending $4 million a year pursing small-time pot offenders, and prosecutors said they would continue to enforce the law until it changes. 

Open Letter in Advance of the UNGASS Calls for Obama to Go Bold

With the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs at UN headquarters in New York City just a little more than a month away, more than 230 civil rights, health, faith-based, and other organizations sent a letter to President Obama Thursday urging him to use the UNGASS on Drugs to make an international push for a fundamental shift in drug policy away from criminalization and toward public health and human rights approaches.

UN headquarters, New York City (Creative Commons)
The signatories form a broad range of groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, AIDS United, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the World Hepatitis C Council, as well as dozens of drug reform and harm reduction nonprofits.

The signatories also include NGOs from around the world, from Accion Semilla Bolivia to the Zimbabwe Civil Liberties and Drug Network. As with the domestic sign-ons, the international groups include dozens of drug reform and harm reduction organizations.

All the signatories are united in calling for the US and President Obama to take "a stronger US stance" in areas like human rights, public health, and development and urging the US to promote the initial steps the UN can take in reforming the international drug conventions that form the legal backbone of the global prohibition regime.

The letter urges the administration to call on the UN to appoint an "Expert Advisory Group," whose mandate would be to study tensions faced by the international drug control regime today, and to recommend options for moving forward. Groups argue that the current US stance toward marijuana legalization and international treaties, which relies in part on continued federal prohibition, is "likely to face shrinking credibility internationally as legalization spreads to more states."

"US agencies have played an important role promoting positive reforms like alternatives to incarceration and people-centered public health drug policies," said David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org, who coordinated the sign-on letter. "Unfortunately, the current US UNGASS stance avoids engaging with a number of contested human rights issues, such as the death penalty for nonviolent drug offenses, and punts on the obvious treaty questions that legalization raises. We think this is unfortunate at a time when real strides are being made in reforming our domestic policies, partly because of President Obama's vision for criminal justice reform. We think the administration has viable options available to take further productive steps on global drug policy too."

The letter calls on the Obama administration to:

  • Acknowledge the ramifications of recent drug reforms, such as marijuana legalization in Uruguay and some US states.
  • Stand up for human rights by calling for an end to the death penalty for drug offenses, reducing racial disparities in drug law enforcement, and respecting indigenous traditions.
  • Craft a people-centered approach to drug policy by explicitly adopting harm reduction practices, such as syringe exchanges, and rejecting the criminalization of peasant farmers and the eradication of their drug crops in favor of sustainable development.
  • Take a stronger stance on criminal justice reforms by moving toward drug decriminalization, urging sentencing reforms around the globe, and treating pregnant women who use drugs as patients, not criminals.
  • Work toward a more open dialog by having key documents finalized at the UNGASS rather than at closed sessions of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna and taking a more inclusive posture toward NGOS and civil society.

We will see next month how much Obama is listening.

Chronicle AM: ME Legalizers Sure Over Invalidated Signatures, Civil Society Groups Sign UNGASS Letter, More... (3/10/16)

A South Dakota GOP lawmaker tells the parents of sick kids they should move to another state if they want to use CBD cannabis oil, Maine legalizers are suing over disqualified signatures, the Senate passes a major bill dealing with heroin and opiates, but without funding, and more. 

UNGASS on Drugs is now just five weeks away. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Maine Legalization Initiative Files Lawsuit Over Disqualified Signatures. The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol today filed a lawsuit in Kennebec County Superior Court challenging a decision by the secretary of state to disqualify more than 17,000 voter signatures because of an issue surrounding one notary's signature. That was enough to knock the measure off the fall ballot, but the campaign says the signatures should be counted because the notary's signature does indeed match the one on file and because the secretary of state acted outside his authority in rejecting the petitions. The court has 30 days to rule.

North Dakota Legalization Initiative Approved for Signature Gathering. Secretary of State Al Jaeger Wednesday approved a marijuana legalization initiative for circulation. Organizers now have until July 11 to gather at least 13,452 valid voter signatures. They say they are aiming at 20,000 to have a cushion.

Medical Marijuana

South Dakota House Kills CBD Cannabis Oil Bill. A bill that would have allowed for the use of CBD cannabis oil was killed in the House Wednesday on a 25-43 vote, with one "no" voter suggesting parents who lobbied for it should move to another state. The measure, Senate Bill 171, had already passed the Senate, and Republican Gov. Dennis Daugard had suggested he would sign it. Rep. Kristin Conzet (R-Rapid City) told people suffering seizure disorders they should move elsewhere. "I don’t like the road that we’re going down at this time," she said. "This is not a bill for South Dakota."

Heroin and Opiates

Senate Overwhelmingly Passes Landmark Opioid Bill – the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA). The measure now goes on to the House. CARA advances a large number of treatment and prevention measures intended to reduce prescription opioid and heroin misuse, including evidence-based interventions for the treatment of opioid and heroin addiction and prevention of overdose deaths.

White House Will Announce Funding to Fight Drug Addiction. Just hours after the Senate passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), the Obama administration said it will announce "a significant federal investment" to help fund its goals. Democrats had tried unsuccessfully to add $600 million in funding to the bill, but were blocked by Republicans.

Asset Forfeiture

Florida Poll Finds Strong Support for Ending Civil Asset Forfeiture. A new poll released by Drug Policy Action finds that 84% of registered Florida voters do not think police should be able to seize property from people who have not been convicted of a crime. And two-thirds of those polled said they would be more likely to support a presidential candidate who opposed civil asset forfeiture.  The poll comes as an asset forfeiture reform bill, Senate Bill 1044, passed out of the legislature Wednesday and awaits the signature of Gov. Rick Scott (R).

Drug Testing

West Virginia House Overwhelmingly Approves Welfare Drug Testing Bill. The bill, Senate Bill 6, would mandate drug testing for any welfare applicant who gives state workers "reasonable suspicion" he or she is using drugs, including having a drug conviction in the previous three years. The bill has already been approved by the Senate, but that body will have to take it up again in concurrence since the House added amendments note voted on in the Senate.

International

Civil Rights, Health, Faith-Based, Justice Reform Groups Call on Obama to Push to End Global Drug War. More than 225 civil rights, health, faith-based and other organizations sent a letterto President Obama Thursday calling on him to use an upcoming United Nations high-level session on global drug policies to push for a fundamental change in course away from criminalization. The letter was submitted as the UN prepares for its highest level session on drug policy since 1998 – the "UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem,"or UNGASS, scheduled for April 19-21 at UN headquarters in New York. US diplomats and drug and crime officials have played a central role in negotiations over the UNGASS Outcome Document, an official product of the meeting that will impact policy.The sign-on campaign for the letter was coordinated by David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org.

Chronicle AM: INCB Rejects Drug War, ME Pot Legalization Init Rejected, More... (3/2/16)

The International Narcotics Control Board takes a surprising stand, Maine's pot legalization initiative hits an unexpected roadblock, Denver NORML files a pot social club initiative, a Florida needle exchange bill heads to the governor's desk, and more.

INCB head Werner Sipp: "The conventions never called for a war on drugs." (incb.org)
Marijuana Policy

Maine Says Legalization Initiative Short on Signatures, Campaign Strongly Disagrees. The secretary of state's office today rejected the legalization initiative from the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, saying it had failed to hand in a sufficient number of valid voter signatures. The group handed in more than 99,000 signatures and only needed 61,000 valid ones to qualify for the November ballot, but the state rejected more than 48,000 signatures, and now the campaign is crying foul. "Based on documents they have provided, it appears that more than 17,000 valid signatures from registered Maine voters were excluded from the count because the signature of a single notary — whose notary commission has not expired — did not exactly match the signature the state has on file for that notary," MPP Maine political director David Boyer said in a written statement. "We are exploring all legal means available to appeal this determination and we sincerely hope that 17,000-plus Maine citizens will not be disenfranchised due to a handwriting technicality."

Mississippi House Rejects Legalization. Offered unexpectedly as an amendment to a drug penalties bill, House Bill 701, a bid to legalize marijuana went down 90-29 Tuesday. Lawmakers said it was the first time in decades, and possibly ever, that the House had voted on marijuana legalization.

New Hampshire Poll Has Strong Support for Legalization. Some 62% of adults polled in a new WMUR Granite State survey favor legalizing marijuana, and 72% of those surveyed said they would approve of selling it in licensed retail outlets.

Denver NORML Files Marijuana Social Club Initiative. The group today submitted an initiative to legalize marijuana consumption clubs and special events. "Denver residents and visitors alike need places other than private homes to legally and responsibly enjoy legal marijuana with other adults," said Jordan Person, executive director of Denver NORML. "This submission to city council is the first step. We’ll get feedback from the city, finalize the language, then start gathering signatures to put it on the ballot," Person said.

Heroin

Maine Bill to Refelonize Heroin Possession Advances. Last year, legislators voted to make small-time heroin possession a misdemeanor; this year, they are on a path to reverse themselves. On Monday, the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee approved LD 1554, which would let prosecutes charge anyone possessing heroin, meth, or more than 14 grams of cocaine with a felony. The bill is supported by the administration of Gov. Paul Le Page (R).

Harm Reduction

Florida Needle Exchange Bill Heads for Governor's Desk. The House today approved Senate Bill 242, which authorizes the creation of pilot program to establish needle exchange programs in Miami-Dade County.  The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott (R).

International

INCB Rejects War on Drugs. In its

released today, the International Narcotics Control Board criticized militaristic approaches toward drugs and said excessive punishments of drug users run counter to UN treaties. "As the Board has stated on numerous occasions, the international drug control conventions do not require the incarceration of drug users," wrote the 13 medical and legal experts who make up the board. "The conventions never called for a war on drugs," added INCB President Werner Sipp.

David Borden -- Remarks at the United Nations, February 10, 2016

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke on the event's opening panel.
Last week then UN held a meeting for NGOs concerned with drug policy -- the "Interactive Institutional Stakeholders Consultation" -- as one of a series of events leading up to this April's "UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem" (UNGASS). The event was not recorded, but the following is approximately what I said during one of the panels. More information on the concepts discussed here can be found at http://stopthedrugwar.org/global.

Thank you. My name is David Borden, and I'm the executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org. We support the calls that have been made for harm reduction and the decriminalization of users, and for people-centered approaches. But it's important to remember that the harm we seek to reduce is not only from drugs, but also from drug policies.

Criminalizing the drug trade drives users into an underground where drugs' quality and potency are uncertain. The high price of street drugs causes life destabilization for addicted users, often in ways beyond the effects of the drugs themselves. The criminalized environment encourages high-risk behaviors such as the sharing of syringes, or resorting to prostitution or becoming homeless because of the financial cost. Illicit drug profits fund transnational criminal organizations, as well as low-level street crime that fuels poverty, social instability and violence.

And so along with pursuing these necessary objectives for drug policy that many of us have talked about – human rights, development, health and security – in fact in order to pursue them more effectively, we urge that this UNGASS consider alternatives to criminalizing the drug trade, and the changes to the drug conventions that can codify such alternatives as legitimate. We likewise urge that the UNGASS consider how nations' obligations under the drug control conventions vs. human rights treaties should be balanced, in cases when those obligations conflict.

We also support a proposal offered by several nations for an UN Expert Advisory Group to assess the tensions in the international drug control regime and present options for moving forward.

Location: 
New York, NY
United States

Chronicle AM: Bolivia to Fight at UN to Decriminalize Coca, No MedMJ Initiative for OK This Year, More... (1/4/16)

Some former NFL players would rather treat their aches and pains with medical marijuana than opiates, an effort to put medical marijuana on the ballot in Oklahoma comes up short, Bolivia's president vows to fight for coca decriminalization, and more.

Bolivia's coca-growing president, Evo Morales, will fight to see his crop decriminalized. (wikipedia.org)
Medical Marijuana

Former NFL Players Want Medical Marijuana Off Banned List. Former pro football players have organized to lobby the league to allow access to medical marijuana. They formed a group called the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition to share their experiences and advocate for its inclusion in the NFL.

Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Petition Drive Falls Short. There will be no vote on a medical marijuana initiative this year. An all-volunteer signature gathering campaign by Green the Vote only managed to obtain 70,266 signatures. They needed 123,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot.

International

Bolivia Will Push for Decriminalization of the Coca Trade. President Evo Morales said last Friday that he will campaign for the United Nations to decriminalize the coca trade. Bolivia has already secured a finding from the UN that chewing coca leaf is not illicit, but wants to be able to export coca and coca products. "This is the second battle that must be waged. We are ready," he told a gathering of coca traders in Yacuiba, a village on the border with Argentina.

UN University to Host Discussion on Metrics in Evaluating Drug Policies. The UN University in New York City will host a panel discussing what metrics might best evaluate drug policy at UN headquarters on January 21. The discussion is part of the run-up to the UNGASS on Drugs set for later this spring. Click on the link for registration information.

The Top 10 International Drug Policy Stories of 2015 [FEATURE]

Last century's international prohibitionist consensus on drug policy continued to crumble this year, with moves to relax controls on medical and personal use of marijuana leading the way. But harm reduction measures such as supervised injection sites are also on the rise, international civil society and even some governments are laying the groundwork for reforming the global drug control regime next year at the UN, America's most stalwart drug war ally in South America changes its tune, and more.

Here are the biggest international drug policy stories of the year, in no particular order:

Canada Elects a Marijuana-Legalizing Prime Minister. We may have a handful of legal pot states, but Canada is about to become the first country in North America to free the weed. Newly elected Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made marijuana legalization a central plank of his election campaign, and this month, he immediately ordered his new Justice Minister to get on it after winning the election. In the annual throne speech last week, his government reiterated its intention to legalize it. It won't happen overnight, but it's coming.

The US is No Longer the Bogeyman of International Drug Reform. It's not like 2001, when Jamaican decriminalization got put on the back burner after thunderous protests from the US embassy, or even 2009, early in the Obama administration, when more muffled protests from the US helped put the kibosh on drug decriminalization in Mexico. It's more difficult for Washington to criticize other countries when the Obama administration has signaled it can live with legal marijuana in US states, but the administration seems less inclined to do so, anyway. Last year, William Brownfield, head of the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs enunciated a policy of tolerance toward reform efforts abroad, and the State Department reiterated that again this year. It's not all roses, though; the prohibitionist beast may be weakening, but its tail still twitches.

Laying the Groundwork for UNGASS on Drugs. The UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs is coming next spring, and the international drug reform movement was busy preparing for it this year. In May, during the High Level Thematic Debate on drugs, reform groups released an open letter calling on the UN to respect countries' drug policy reforms, and in June, while the UNODC marked global anti-drug day, global civil society fought back with events and demonstrations around the globe. Then, in October, Sir Richard Branson provoked a kerfluffle by leaking a UNODC draft document that urged governments to consider drug decriminalization, forcing the agency to walk it back under pressure from at least one country. At year's end, the European Parliamentary Council called for a public health-oriented global drug policy. A lot more has been going on behind the scenes, too, but drug reform at the UN moves at a glacial pace. Stay tuned.

Afghan Opium Production Declines. For the first time since 2009, opium production has decreased in Afghanistan, the UNODC reported. The area under cultivation declined by 19% from last year -- an all-time high -- and production declined even more, by 48%. UNODC attributed the decline to drought conditions. "The low (overall) production can be attributed to a reduction in area under cultivation, but more importantly to a drop in opium yield per hectare," said the report, which was released last week. "The lack (of) sufficient water for irrigation... affected the decision of some farmers not to cultivate poppy."

Iran executes drug offenders (handsoffcain.net)
Iran Drug Death Penalty Mania Shows First Signs of Receding. Iran has executed hundreds of people for drug offenses this year, but a campaign to end European and UN funding of Iran's drug war has been picking up steam. Some European countries, including Denmark, Great Britain, and Ireland have stopped funding, and in October, the UN special rapporteur on Iran warned that it was using UN support to justify its aggressive use of the death penalty. But that didn't stop the UN Office on Drugs and Crime from this month increasing funding for Iranian anti-drug operations. While the struggle continues on the international front, this month, Iranian parliamentarians themselves expressed discomfort with the death toll. At least 70 are supporting an effort to end the death penalty in nonviolent drug smuggling cases. Lawmakers are now preparing a bill to present to the parliament.

Columbia Stops Aerial Spraying of Herbicide on Coca Fields, Farmers. With US backing and encouragement, the Colombian government sprayed the herbicide glyphosate on coca crops for years despite peasant protests that it was causing illness and damaging other crops and livestock. But in April, after a World Health Organization report reclassified the herbicide as "probably carcinogenic to humans," the health ministry called for the suspension of spraying. The following month, Colombia ended the program despite US pressure to continue it. Then, in September, President Juan Manuel Santos deepened the departure from two decades of US-style drug policies, unveiling a new national drug strategy that will emphasize alternative development.

Mexico Marijuana Moves. In a country where public opinion does not favor legalization, the Supreme Court stunned the nation in November by ruling that people have the right to grow and use marijuana. The decision does not undo Mexico's marijuana laws, but does open the door for a wave of legal actions that could end in their being rewritten. It also opened the door for a national debate on marijuana policy, with President Enrique Pena Nieto promising it will occur early next year.

Medical Marijuana Advances. More countries okayed the use of medical marijuana in 2015, including Australia, Croatia, and, just this week, Colombia. Meanwhile, Chile harvested its first medical marijuana crop in April, the Italian Army began growing it in May (to address shortages within the country), and the Dalai Lama endorsed it in June. That same month, Costa Rica outlined requirements for a pending medical marijuana bill, and in July, Israel announced it would make it available in pharmacies and allow more doctors to prescribe it.

Jah Herb is decriminalized in Jamaica. (wikimedia.org)
Jamaica Decriminalizes Ganja. In February, parliament voted to approve a government-supported decriminalization bill, and the law went into effect in April. Now, anyone, including foreign tourists, can now possess up to two ounces of ganja and face only a $5 fine. And any household can now grow up to five plants. Adult Rastafarians can also now use the herb for religious purposes. The law also paved the way for a regulatory authority for medical, scientific, and therapeutic uses. In July, Justice Minister Mark Golding signed an order to expunge minor marijuana convictions, and by December, the government had granted its second "marijuana exemption" allowing Rastafarians at a festival to partake of (and possess and transport) Jah Herb without fear of arrest.

Supervised Injection Sites Expand. The harm reduction measure allows drug users to ingest their drugs under medical supervision and without fear of arrest and has been proven to improve outcomes for users and the community without increasing crime or other negatives and without fear of arrest. At the beginning of the year, there were supervised injection sites in eight countries -- Australia, Canada, Germany, Holland, Luxembourg, Norway, Spain, and Switzerland. By year's end, two more countries got them up and running, France in the spring and Slovenia in the fall. Late in the year, Ireland approved a supervised injection site in Dublin. Meanwhile, in the US, the Drug Policy Alliance and other advocates are mounting a campaign to open one in New York City, which would be the first (official) one in the country.

Chronicle AM: DEA Snitching Issues, Dutch Towns Want Regulated Marijuana Grows, More (11/30/15)

Marijuana Policy

Cherokee Chief Vetoes Marijuana Legalization Study Resolution. The principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Patrick Lambert, has vetoed a resolution authorizing a feasibility study to examine the "issues and impacts associated with the legalization of cannabis" on tribal lands. "I have stated my opposition to the recreational use of drugs many times, and this includes marijuana," Chief Lambert wrote in his veto letter to Tribal Council Chairman Bill Taylor. Tribal members supporting legalization, organized as Common Sense Cannabis, responded with a statement saying Lambert was misguided: "In Chief Lambert's veto letter, he solely focuses on the 'recreational' marijuana, in which we call personal use. He cites recreational drug use as the problem in our community. While he is right about drug use as a problem, it does not stem from cannabis use. The problem lies with legal prescription pills and other synthetics, such as meth and heroin." The group is calling for the veto to be overridden in a tribal council meeting this Thursday.

Medical Marijuana

Florida Approves Five Medical Marijuana Growers. The state Department of Health has named the five operations that will be allowed to grow high-CBD, low-THC marijuana. The state's law limits the use of oils derived from the plants to patients suffering from cancer or a disease that "chronically produces symptoms of seizures or severe and persistent muscle spasms that can be treated with low-THC cannabis."

New Hampshire Woman Wins Approval to Seek Medical Marijuana in Maine. A woman suffering from late-stage lung cancer can seek to buy medical marijuana in neighboring Maine, a judge ruled last Tuesday. Linda Horan, 64, said she could be dead by the time dispensaries open in New Hampshire, so she sued the state to get an ID card that would allow her to purchase it in Maine. The state had argued that issuing her an ID card would undermine its need to control distribution, but the judge wasn't buying that argument. "She is suffering from a painful, terminal disease and is also undergoing chemotherapy. There is no dispute that cannabis can ameliorate some of her suffering," wrote Judge Richard McNamara. "She will suffer irreparable harm if relief is not granted."

Law Enforcement

Justice Department Inspector General Slams DEA Snitch Practices. In its semiannual report to Congress, the DOJ's OIG criticized the DEA for failing to have guidelines for the use of "high-level and media-affiliated sources," failing to effectively review snitches' authorization to conduct "Otherwise Criminal Activity," and failing to review its continued use of long-term snitches. The report also noted that the DEA was at times uncooperative, including efforts to obstruct the OIG's reviews of snitch file reviews and long delays in providing requested information.

International

European Parliamentary Council Calls for Public Health-Oriented Drug Policy. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, in advance of next year's UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs, has called for a public health approach to drug policy. "The Committee on Social Affairs, Health and Sustainable Development of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe stresses that the world drug problem constitutes a major public health threat, for both individual drug users and society as a whole… the committee strongly supports the call for a change in approach to drug policy and calls on member States to adopt and promote a public-health-oriented drug policy based on prevention, treatment and harm reduction. It also invites all participants of the UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem to defend a new approach to drug policy, which should shift the emphasis from criminal justice to public health."

Dutch Localities Call for Regulated Marijuana Cultivation. The association of Dutch localities, VNG, has issued a new report calling for the government to regulate and license marijuana cultivation as a means of squeezing out smugglers and organized crime. The Dutch allow for the sale of small amounts of marijuana, but there is no legal provision for supplying the crop. 'The current situation cannot continue,' the report states. 'As local officials, we are experiencing major social problems… By turning a blind eye [to marijuana], the government is giving criminals free rein to sell their products. The cannabis industry is loosely entwined with organized crime, which is also involved in ecstasy and human trafficking," the report says.

Uttarkakhand to Become First Indian State to Allow Hemp Cultivation. The state government is now allowing farmers to grow hemp plants with less than 1.5% THC for industrial purposes. The crop can only be sold to the state government, not private buyers.

Chronicle AM: UN Decriminalization Drama, Global Undertreatment of Pain Report, More (10/19/15)

A thousand march for marijuana in Dallas, a few dozen in Montgomery; a UNODC document calling for drug decriminalization gets leaked, then yanked; the Global Commission on Drug Policy issues a report on pain, and more.

A Halloween/Reefer Madness-themed billboard rolled out today by Arizona legalization activists.
Marijuana Policy

Dallas March for Marijuana Brings Nearly a Thousand to the Streets. Around a thousand people joined a march calling for marijuana law reform in Texas Saturday. The march was organized by Dallas-Fort Worth NORML. Click on the link for more.

Dozens Turn Out for Alabama Rally for Marijuana Law Reforms. Several dozen people took to the foot of the state capitol last Friday to call for marijuana decriminalization and access to medical marijuana. Efforts to pass a medical marijuana bill have stalled in the legislature.

Medical Marijuana

Seneca Nation Moving Toward Medical Marijuana. The Seneca Nation of Indians is preparing to vote early next month on whether to authorize the National Council to start drafting laws and regulations to govern medical marijuana. The vote would be only a first step toward the tribe getting in the medical marijuana business. The Justice Department opened the door for tribes to get involved in pot operations with a memo last fall.

Kansas Silver Haired Legislature to Renew Push for Medical Marijuana. The Silver Haired Legislature, which advocates for senior citizens, is again calling on the legislature to pass medical marijuana. At a meeting earlier this month in Topeka, the group adopted three proposed bills it will push to see passed in the next term. Click on the link for more details.

International

UN Bid to Urge Drug Decriminalization Foiled. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has withdrawn a document calling on governments to consider "decriminalizing drug use and possession for personal consumption" after at least one country objected. The document was leaked by Sir Richard Branson over the weekend, and when a journalist violated the UNODC's embargo on release of the document, UNODC walked back the report.

Global Commission on Drug Policy Releases Report on Undertreatment of Pain. The Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP) today released its third thematic report, The Global Crisis of Avoidable Pain: The Negative Impact of Drug Control on Public Health. The report was launched by Commissioners, former Swiss President Ruth Dreifuss, UN Secretary General Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Michel Kazatchkine and former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to health, Anand Grover. The report finds that three-quarters of the world's population has no access to pain-relieving drugs and that "the reasons for this have little to do with issues of cost or scarcity of supplies- and everything to do with the prohibition and repressive stand the world has taken on drugs. States are obsessed by the fear that people will use controlled medicines, such as morphine as drugs, thereby neglecting the important medical uses." Click on the title link to read the report.

WOLA Discussion on Impact of Drug Policy on Human Rights in the Americas Wednesday. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) is hosting the discussion in Washington, DC, at lunch time Wednesday. Click on the link for speakers, more information, and to RSVP.

State Department Cuts Some Mexico Drug War Funding Over Human Rights Concerns. The State Department has concluded that Mexico failed to reach some human rights goals in its drug war, triggering the cutoff of millions of dollars of drug war assistance. The move only affects a small portion of overall US drug war aid to Mexico, but does signal growing frustration with alleged abuses by Mexican security forces. Some 15% of aid provided to Mexican security forces is subject to human rights provisions, meaning that Mexico lost $5 million of a total of $148 million in US drug war funding this year. That $5 million was instead diverted to Peru to help finance coca eradication.

Mexico Supreme Court to Take Up Marijuana Legalization Next Week. The high court is set to discuss a legal challenge that could effectively legalize the use and production of marijuana. The challenge comes from a non-profit that filed an injunction against the Mexican health regulatory body COFEPRIS over a 2013 ruling by that body. The hearing is set for October 28.

Norway's Two Largest Cities to Move Toward Giving Free Heroin to Addicts. The cities of Oslo and Bergen are set to begin heroin-assisted treatment pilot programs after the Labor Party won local elections there, but they will have to win approval from the national parliament first. Parliament rejected a 2012 effort to start the programs. Norway has the world's second highest drug overdose rate, after Estonia.

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