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Feature: The Clock is Ticking on Canadian "Prince of Pot" Marc Emery's Extradition

Canadian "Prince of Pot" Marc Emery's battle to avoid being extradited to the US to serve a five-year federal prison sentence for selling pot seeds over the Internet continues as the clock ticks down toward May 10 -- the date by which Canadian Justice Minister Rob Nicholson is to decide whether to okay his extradition or not. Emery and his supporters are fighting to the bitter end, and they're picking up some significant support along the way.

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Marc and Jodie Emery (courtesy Cannabis Culture)
Last month, members of all three major English speaking political parties, including the ruling Conservatives, handed in 12,000 signatures on petitions to parliament demanding he not be extradited and addressed the House of Commons on the issue. Shortly thereafter, the French speaking Bloc Quebecois announced it, too, was joining the cause of keeping Emery in Canada.

Emery was Canada's best known marijuana legalization advocate and a leading funder of marijuana reform groups there and in other countries when he was arrested in Vancouver on a US warrant for marijuana seed-selling after being indicted by a federal grand jury in Seattle. He faced up to life in prison under the US charges.

Emery, his supporters, and other marijuana reformers have argued that he was arrested for political reasons -- for his support of the legalization cause -- and the gleeful words of then DEA administrator Karen Tandy provided valuable ammunition for the claim. Emery's arrest was "a significant blow not only to the marijuana trafficking trade in the US and Canada, but also to the marijuana legalization movement," Tandy said in a statement the day of the bust.

"His marijuana trade and propagandist marijuana magazine have generated nearly $5 million a year in profits that bolstered his trafficking efforts, but those have gone up in smoke today. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of Emery's illicit profits are known to have been channeled to marijuana legalization groups active in the United States and Canada. Drug legalization lobbyists now have one less pot of money to rely on," Tandy gloated.

For four years, he and his employees and fellow indictees, Michelle Rainey and Greg Williams, negotiated with federal prosecutors, before Rainey and Williams struck plea deals that allowed them to simply remain in Canada. Then, last September, Emery himself agreed to a plea bargain that would see him serve five years in US prison.

Emery was detained in Canada on September 28 and was jailed until mid-November before he was released pending the justice minister's decision on whether to approve his removal to the United States. Since then, the campaign to block his extradition has gone all out. Even in prison, Emery did podcasts -- "potcasts," the magazine calls them -- and since his release, he has been as media-friendly as ever. He has used his Cannabis Culture magazine as a bully pulpit and established a No Extradition! web site to further the cause.

The high point of the campaign so far came on March 12 when three members of parliament, Conservative MP Scott Reid, New Democratic MP Libby Davies, and Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh stood before parliament in Ottawa to deliver the petitions. All three told the Commons that extraditing Emery for what is considered a non-serious offense in Canada was unfair.

MP Reid, a Conservative leader in the House, reminded the Commons that the Extradition Act specifies that the justice minister "shall refuse to surrender a person when that surrender could involve unjust or undue or oppressive actions by the country to which he is being extradited."

Reid pointed out that Health Canada used to refer medical marijuana patients to Emery's seed bank. He also noted that Canadian courts had found that $200 fines were appropriate for seed sellers, while Emery faced up to life for the same offense in the US.

"It appears to me that we have assisted a foreign government arresting a man for doing something that we wouldn't arrest him for doing in Canada," said MP Dosanjh. "As a former premier and a former attorney-general, I sense a certain degree of unfairness in the process. Countries don't usually extradite people to countries where they could face inordinate penalties."

"Many dedicated individuals have collected approximately 12,000 petitions reflecting a strong belief that Mr. Emery or any Canadian should not face harsh punishment in the US for selling cannabis seeds on the Internet when it is not worthy of prosecution in Canada," said MP Davies. "The petitioners call on Parliament to make it clear to the Minister of Justice that such an extradition should be opposed. I am very pleased to present this; I think it is a very strong reflection of Canadians' views on this matter and we hope that the Parliament of Canada will act on this, and certainly the Minister of Justice will take this into account."

"My prospects are getting better," said an ever optimistic Emery. "There have been more than 50,000 communications -- phone calls, letters, emails -- to the justice minister, and we have members of all four major political parties, including the governing party, presenting petitions urging the minister not to extradite. We also have the last three mayors of Vancouver agreeing to sign a statement urging the government not to extradite."

Support is palpable in his adopted hometown, Emery said. "I can't go 50 feet in this city without people stopping me on the street," he said from his downtown Vancouver building. "I have lots of support in this province and throughout the country. I enjoy a lot of positive affirmation. For me, this has been excellent -- I've been giving interviews all over the world, and the movie 'Prince of Pot' is being translated into Mongolian! The national TV network there has permission to do two documentaries on pot, and I'm in both of them."

Now, all eyes turn toward Justice Minister Nicholson. A month from now, he will decide whether to extradite Emery or not -- or he may punt. The minister has the option of applying for an extension on his decision.

There is precedent for the minister to seek an extension, said attorney Kirk Tousaw, who has worked on Emery's case. "Renee Boje was committed for extradition, and the decision sat on the desk of three different justice ministers for five years," he pointed out. "Renee was a US citizen who committed offenses in America, so she seemed like a much more reasonable prospect for extradition than Marc, who has never gone to America or committed any crimes there."

In the meantime, the campaign to keep Emery in Canada continues to gather support and argue the position that his was a politically motivated prosecution. "If the minister believes the prosecution to be politically motivated, he is prohibited from extraditing," said attorney Kirk Tousaw, who has worked on Emery's case. "I don't know if he will take that position. The minister may need a lot of time to consider his options."

The calculations may be as much political as legal, Tousaw said. "This is a minority Conservative government that is attempting to pass unpopular mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, and there will be an election sometime this year or early next year," he argued. "I think that extraditing Marc Emery will be politically costly to the Conservative Party. I'm not sure they can afford to do it if they want to form a majority government."

"The government does want to extradite me," said Emery, "but the public pressure not to do it is substantial. There is nothing to be gaining by extraditing me, and it will piss off a couple of million voters in the next election."

A month from now, we will know whether the Conservative government is willing to sacrifice the gadfly Emery on the altar of the drug war, or whether it is too concerned about the potential backlash to either reject extradition or postpone the decision.

Canada: Half Support Marijuana Decriminalization, Poll Finds

An EKOS Research Associates poll has found that half of all Canadians support marijuana decriminalization, while only 30% oppose it, with 20% apparently uncertain or without strong views on the matter. That's a 5% increase in support since EKSOS last polled on the issue a decade ago.

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The numbers are lower than those reported in recent Angus Reid polls on marijuana legalization. In those polls, support for legalization was 55% in July 2007, 51% in October 2007, and 53% in May 2008.

A notable aspect of the EKOS poll is the high number of undecideds. While opposition to decriminalization has been declining (down from 37% in 2000), uncertainty has also been increasing, up from 16% in 2000. Optimistically one hopes the new undecideds are former opponents.

Also notable about the EKOS poll is the political context. Canada is six years into Conservative rule, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper last week released a Youtube video in which he said he rejected marijuana legalization.

In the EKOS poll, the Conservatives were the only party with less than majority support for decriminalization at 39%. Some 63% of left-leaning New Democratic Party voters supported decrim, as did 59% of Green Party members, 58% of the Bloc Quebecois, and 53% of the main opposition party, the Liberals.

Regionally, support for decrim was strongest in British Columbia (54%), Ontario (53%), and Quebec (51%). Support was lowest in the prairie provinces of Alberta (45%) and Saskatchewan and Manitoba (45%).

Support for decriminalization was also strong among young people (58% for under-25s), and, while declining with age, was still above 50% for every age group except the over-65s. Among seniors, support declined to only 38%.

Harper and the Conservatives have been pushing a harder line on crime, drug offenses, and marijuana offenses in particular. This poll is only the latest indicator that the Conservative push may not be in line with public opinion.

Feature: UN Anti-Drug Agency Complains Latin American Decriminalization Trend Undermines Prohibition Regime

In its annual report on countries' compliance with the global drug prohibition regime, released Wednesday, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) challenged the trend toward the decriminalization of drug possession in Latin America, saying it undermines the three international treaties that define the international framework for drug prohibition. Critics were quick to strike back, saying the INCB was overstepping its boundaries.

Under the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the 1988 UN Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, the INCB is charged with being the "nattering nanny" of the global prohibition regime. It "identifies weaknesses in national and international control systems and contributes to correcting such situations."

Its powers are primarily rhetorical, and it used them in the annual report to lash out at creeping decriminalization in the Western Hemisphere:

The Board notes with concern that in countries in South America, such as Argentina, Brazil and Colombia (and in countries in North America, such as Mexico and the United States), there is a growing movement to decriminalize the possession of controlled drugs, in particular cannabis, for personal use. Regrettably, influential personalities, including former high-level politicians in countries in South America, have publicly expressed their support for that movement. The Board is concerned that the movement, if not resolutely countered by the respective Governments, will undermine national and international efforts to combat the abuse of and illicit trafficking in narcotic drugs. In any case, the movement poses a threat to the coherence and effectiveness of the international drug control system and sends the wrong message to the general public.

Brazil quasi-decriminalized drug possession in 2006 (drug users are still charged, but cannot be sentenced to jail terms), a series of Argentine court decisions in recent years culminating in a Supreme Court decision last year has decriminalized marijuana position (and implies the looming decriminalization of the possession of any drug), and Mexico last year decriminalized the possession of small amounts of drug for personal use. In addition, possession of small amounts of marijuana has been decriminalized in 13 US states.

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The "influential personalities" to whom the INCB critically referred, include former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Colombian President Carlos Gaviria, and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, who, as members of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy last year issued a report highly critical of the US-led war on drugs in the region. That report called on the US to decriminalize marijuana possession and treat drug use as a public health -- not a criminal -- matter. To that list could be added former Mexican President Vicente Fox, who just this week reiterated his call for a debate on drug legalization (See related story here.)

While the former presidents have yet to respond to the INCB's critique, non-governmental organizations working in the field have come out swinging. They accuse the INCB of overstepping its bounds and attempting to block necessary and desirable drug law reforms.

"There are too many consumers and small-time drug offenders overcrowding Latin American jails. This is not only inhumane, it also means justice systems are diverting their scarce resources and attention away from big traffickers," said Pien Metaal, Drugs and Democracy Program Researcher for the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute (TNI). "Part of the overcrowding problem stems from disproportionate prison sentences for nonviolent offenders."

Decriminalization has not been shown to increase drug use. Portugal decriminalized the possession of all drugs for personal use nine years ago, and its usage rates are squarely in the middle of European averages. Similarly, the Dutch experience with de facto personal legalization has not led to Dutch usage rates outside the European norm, nor are marijuana usage rates in American states where it is decriminalized substantially different from those where it is not.

John Walsh, head of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), criticized the INCB for "reminding" governments that the treaties require that drug possession be criminalized. "Apparently it's the INCB that needs reminding, both about the limits of its own role and about what the treaties actually require," said Walsh. "Not only does the INCB lack the mandate to raise such issues, the INCB misreads the 1988 Convention itself, asserting an absolute obligation to criminalize drug possession when the Convention explicitly affords some flexibility on this matter."

Walsh noted that while the 1988 Convention requires each party to "establish as a criminal offence [...] the possession, purchase or cultivation of narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances for personal consumption," an article within the convention explicitly states that such laws are subject to each country's "constitutional principles and basic concepts of its legal system." Thus, he argued, countries have "a certain latitude" within the global prohibition regime to reform their drug laws.

"In the case of the Argentine Supreme Court ruling, it is arrogant interference by the INCB to question the judgment of the highest judicial authority of a sovereign State. The INCB has neither the mandate nor the expertise to challenge such a decision," said Martin Jelsma, TNI Drugs and Democracy Program Coordinator.

The INCB also expressed its concern about medical marijuana in Canada:

Canada continues to be one of the few countries in the world that allows cannabis to be prescribed by doctors to patients with certain serious illnesses. […] Until 2009, cannabis could be either obtained from a Government supplier or grown in small amounts by the patient, or a person designated by the patient, with the sole limitation that only one patient could be supplied by a licensed supplier. In 2009, following court decisions stipulating that that approach unjustifiably restricted the patient's access to cannabis used for medical purposes, the Government increased the number of cultivation licenses a person could hold from one to two. The Government intends to reassess the program for controlling medical access to cannabis. According to article 23 of the 1961 Convention, a party to the Convention, if it is to allow the licit cultivation of cannabis, must fulfill specific requirements, including the establishment of a national cannabis agency to which all cannabis growers must deliver their crops. […] The Board therefore requests the Government to respect the provisions of article 23.

But as with the case of the decriminalization decision by the Argentine Supreme Court, the Canadian courts were acting within their "constitutional principles and basic concepts of its legal system."

And in the US:

While the consumption and cultivation of cannabis, except for scientific purposes, are illegal activities according to federal law in the United States, several states have enacted laws that provide for the 'medical use' of cannabis. The control measures applied in those states for the cultivation of cannabis plants and the production, distribution and use of cannabis fall short of the control requirements laid down in the 1961 Convention. The Board is deeply concerned that those insufficient control provisions have contributed substantially to the increase in illicit cultivation and abuse of cannabis in the United States. In addition, that development sends a wrong message to other countries.

The INCB also again went after Bolivia, which enshrined the coca leaf in its constitution as part of its cultural heritage in 2008 and which has called for coca to be removed from the 1961 Single Convention. The tone, however, was a bit softer than last year, when it reprimanded Bolivia over coca production, coca chewing, and other traditional uses of the Andean plant:

The Board wishes to remind the Governments of all countries concerned, in particular the Government of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, that unless any further amendments to the 1961 Convention are put into effect, the use or importation of coca leaf from which cocaine has not been extracted, for purposes other than those allowed under the 1961 Convention, constitutes a breach of obligations under the Convention.

"The INCB again shows itself to be out of touch with reality by demanding that Bolivia stamp out coca use, also wrongfully prohibited in the Conventions," said TNI's Pien Metaal. "The controversies around Article 3 of the 1988 Convention and the erroneous treatment of the coca leaf in the 1961 Convention are two examples of why the drug control treaty system, including the role played by the INCB, needs to be revised."

Along with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the INCB is the bureaucratic backbone of the global prohibition regime. That it continues to work to uphold the prohibitionist principles of the regime is no surprise. That it is now subject to increasing criticism and attack in the face of the myriad failures of global drug prohibition is no surprise either.

Canada: Federal Government to Appeal Ruling Okaying Safe Injection Site

The Conservative federal government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper will ask the Canadian Supreme Court to overturn a provincial court ruling that okayed Vancouver's InSite safe injection site. Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said the government will appeal because the case raised important questions about the division of powers among the federal and provincial governments, the CBC reported Tuesday.

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InSite (courtesy Vancouver Coastal Health)
InSite is the only supervised drug injection site in North America. It has been in place since 2003, when British Columbia health authorities won a temporary exemption from Canada's federal drug law. While the then-Liberal government approved, the now-governing Conservatives do not.

Over 20 peer-reviewed studies showed the supervised injection site to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS and incidences of drug overdoses while increasing the number of drug users accessing rehabilitation services.

InSite originally won a three-year exemption from the federal drug law. Under tremendous pressure, the Conservatives grudgingly gave InSite a 15-month extension, and then extended it to 22 months ending in June 2008.

But fearing the Conservatives' intentions, InSite operator the Portland Hotel Society, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), and two InSite clients filed a lawsuit in the BC courts seeking to have the provincial government, which under Canadian law is responsible for health care, declared the sole authority over InSite -- not the federal government or federal drug laws.

InSite and its supporters won in the BC Supreme Court in 2008 and won again last month in the province's highest court, the Court of Appeals. It is those decisions, which puts decisions on whether to keep InSite open firmly in the hands of BC health officials, that the federal government now seeks to overturn.

In his remarks Tuesday, Justice Minister Nicholson said nothing about shutting down InSite, instead saying the appeal was about clarifying provincial versus federal powers. "The case we'll be presenting before the court is to ask for clarification," he said. "I think it is important to do that."

But Portland Hotel Society director Mark Townsend was running out of patience with the Conservatives. "The courts have now ruled twice in favor of InSite," he said in a statement Tuesday. "Last time, they thought the feds were so out of line they made them pay all the costs. We wish Stephen Harper would stop wasting court time and the taxpayers' money and start helping to solve the drug problem in our community."

So does New Democratic Party MP Libby Davies, who represents Vancouver's east side, including the InSite location. "InSite saves lives," said Davies. "The science proves it, and the BC Supreme Court and BC Appeal Court agree," she continued. "Yet the Conservatives continue to spend tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on legal fees to try to shut it down. If the Conservatives are really so tough on crime, they should respect the law and support these harm reduction strategies that work," said Davies. "Evidence-based success should be shaping our drug policy, not Conservative ideology."

Canada: Federal Government to Appeal Ruling Okaying Vancouver Safe Injection Site

The Conservative federal government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper will ask the Canadian Supreme Court to overturn a provincial court ruling that okayed Vancouver's InSite safe injection site. Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said the government will appeal because the case raised important questions about the division of powers among the federal and provincial governments, the CBC reported Tuesday. InSite in the only supervised drug injection site in North America. It has been in place since 2003, when British Columbia health authorities won a temporary exemption from Canada's federal drug law. While the then Liberal government approved, the now governing Conservatives do not. InSite originally won a three-year exemption from the federal drug law. Under tremendous pressure, the Conservatives grudgingly gave InSite a 15-month extension, then extended it to 22 months ending in June 2008. But fearing the Conservatives' intentions, InSite operator the Portland Hotel Society, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), and two InSite clients filed a lawsuit in the BC courts seeking to have the provincial government, which under Canadian law is responsible for health care, declared the sole authority over InSite—not the federal government and the federal drug laws. InSite and its supporters won in the BC Supreme Court in 2008 and won again last month in the province's highest court, the Court of Appeals. It is those decisions, which puts decisions on whether to keep InSite open firmly in the hands of BC health officials, that the federal government now seeks to overturn. In his remarks Tuesday, Justice Minister Nicholson said nothing about shutting down InSite, instead saying the appeal was about clarifying provincial versus federal powers. "The case we'll be presenting before the court is to ask for clarification," he said. "I think it is important to do that." But Portland Hotel Society director Mark Townsend was running out of patience with the Conservatives. "The courts have now ruled twice in favor of InSite," he said in a statement Tuesday. "Last time, they thought the feds were so out of line they made them pay all the costs. We wish Stephen Harper would stop wasting court time and the taxpayers' money and start helping to solve the drug problem in our community."
Location: 
Ottawa, ON
Canada

Canada: Mandatory Minimum Bill for Marijuana Growing Dies Sudden Death When Prime Minister Shuts Down Parliament

In a political maneuver designed to shield his embattled Conservative government from criticism during the upcoming Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper on December 30th "prorogued," or shut down, Parliament until a new session begins in March. The move kills all pending legislation, including a Tory "tough on crime" bill, C-15, that included mandatory minimum nine-month prison sentences for growing as much as a single marijuana plant.

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Proroguing parliament is not a routine move, but this is the second time Harper has done it in a year. Last December, he did it to head off a looming vote of no-confidence, with a coalition of New Democrats, Liberals, and Bloc Quebecois looking to replace his Conservative government. Now, he says he is doing it to introduce a new budget, but the maneuver also kills all parliamentary committees, including one looking into allegations Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan turned detainees over to Afghan authorities who abused them. That inquiry has raised embarrassing questions about Canada's policies in Afghanistan.

To the relief of drug reform advocates and Canada's cannabis culture, the move kills a bill that was very harsh and very near to passage. Under the provisions of C-15 as passed by the House, people growing between one and 200 marijuana plants faced a minimum of six months if the "offense is committed for the purpose of trafficking." That would rise to nine months if it were a rental property, if children were endangered, or if the grow presented a public safety threat, i.e. was stealing electricity.

The bill mandated a one-year minimum for between 201 and 500 plants or for producing hashish and two years for more than 500 plants. It also had one-year minimums for importing or exporting marijuana and for trafficking more than three kilograms if it was for the benefit of "organized crime," there was threat or use of violence or weapons, or if the offender had a serious previous drug offense. The trafficking minimum jumped to two years if it occurred in a prison, if the trafficking was to a minor, or if it was "in or near a school, in or near an area normally frequented by youth or in the presence of youth."

The bill had been amended earlier this month by the Senate Constitutional Affairs and Legal Committee to remove the mandatory minimum provisions for under 201 plants, but only if the grows were not in residential areas and owned by the grower. That meant anyone growing in a residential neighborhood or in a rental property still faced a nine-month minimum, limiting relief to rural home-owners.

The bill awaited only a final vote in the Senate. Now, Harper has sacrificed it on the altar of his political calculations. But like a vampire, C-15 is likely to rise from the grave. It has been a central plank in Harper's appeals to his law-and-order constituencies, and his government is almost certain to reintroduce it when the new session begins in March, or after he calls snap elections, which the Conservatives seem well-positioned to win as their main rivals, the Liberals, flounder.

Don't put away those wooden stakes just yet.

Canada: Mandatory Minimum Bill for Pot Growing Dies Sudden Death When Prime Minister Shuts Down Parliament

In a political maneuver designed to shield his embattled Conservative government from criticism during the upcoming Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper Wednesday "prorogued," or shut down, parliament until a new session begins in March. The move kills all pending legislation, including a Tory "tough on crime" bill, C-15, that included mandatory minimum nine-month prison sentences for growing as much as a single marijuana plant. Prorouging parliament is not a routine move, but this is the second time Harper has done it in a year. Last December, he did it to head off a looming vote of no-confidence, with a coalition of New Democrats, Liberals, and Bloc Quebecois looking to replace his Conservative government. Now, he says he is doing it to introduce a new budget, but the maneuver also kills all parliamentary committees, including one looking into allegations Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan turned detainees over to Afghan authorities who abused them. That inquiry has raised embarrassing questions about Canada's policies in Afghanistan. To the relief of drug reform advocates and Canada's cannabis culture, the move kills a bill that was very harsh and very near to passage. Under the provisions of C-15 as passed by the House, people growing between one and 200 marijuana plants faced a minimum of six months if the "offense is committed for the purpose of trafficking." That would rise to nine months if it were a rental property, if children were endangered, or if the grow presented a public safety threat, i.e. was stealing electricity. The bill mandated a one-year minimum for between 201 and 500 plants or for producing hashish and two years for more than 500 plants. It also had one-year minimums for importing or exporting marijuana and for trafficking more than three kilograms if it was for the benefit of "organized crime," there was threat or use of violence or weapons, or if the offender had a serious previous drug offense. The trafficking minimum jumped to two years if it occurred in a prison, if the trafficking was to a minor, or if it was "in or near a school, in or near an area normally frequented by youth or in the presence of youth." The bill had been amended earlier this month by the Senate Constitutional Affairs and Legal Committee to remove the mandatory minimum provisions for under 201 plants, but only if the grows were not in residential areas and owned by the grower. That meant anyone growing in a residential neighborhood or in a rental property still faced a nine-month minimum, limiting relief to rural home-owners. The bill awaited only a final vote in the Senate. Now, Harper has sacrificed it on the altar of his political calculations. But like a vampire, C-15 is likely to rise from the grave. It has been a central plank in Harper's appeals to his law-and-order constituencies, and his government is almost certain to reintroduce it when the new session begins in March, or after he calls snap elections, which the Conservatives seem well-positioned to win as their main rivals, the Liberals, flounder. Don't put away those wooden stakes just yet.
Location: 
Ottawa, ON
Canada

Heroin Maintenance: SALOME Trials Set to Begin in Vancouver

In the Chronicle's review of the top international drug policy stories of the year last week, the slow spread of heroin maintenance was in the mix. This week, it's back in the news, with word that a new Canadian heroin maintenance study in Vancouver is about to get underway.

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Hastings St., on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (courtesy vandu.org)
The Study to Assess Longer-term Opioid Medication Effectiveness (SALOME) will choose a Downtown Eastside location next month and begin taking applications from potential participants in February, according to a Tuesday press release from the Inner Change Foundation, which, along with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, is funding the trial. With selection of participants supposed to last only three weeks, that means SALOME could be underway by March.

SALOME will enroll 322 hard-core heroin addicts -- they must have been using at least five years and failed other treatments, including methadone maintenance -- in a year-long, two-phase study. During the first phase, half will be given injectable heroin (diacetylmorphine) and half will be given injectable Dilaudid® (hydromorphone). In the second phase, half of the participants will be switched to oral versions of the drug they are using.

The comparison of heroin and Dilaudid® was inspired by unanticipated results from SALOME's forerunner, NAOMI (the North American Opiate Medication Study), which began in Vancouver in 2005 and produced positive results in research reviews last year. In NAOMI, researchers found that participants could not differentiate between heroin and Dilaudid®. The comparison of success rate among injection and oral administration users was inspired by hopes of reducing rates of injection heroin use.

SALOME was also supposed to take place in Montreal, but Quebec provincial authorities effectively killed it there by refusing to fund it. SALOME researchers have announced that it will now proceed in Vancouver alone.

With an estimated 5,000 heroin addicts in the Downtown Eastside and a municipal government that has officially embraced the progressive four pillars approach to problematic drug use -- prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and law enforcement -- Vancouver is most receptive to such ground-breaking research. It is also the home of Insite, North America's only safe injection site.

The NAOMI and SALOME projects are the only heroin maintenance programs to take place in North America. Ongoing or pilot heroin maintenance programs are underway in Britain, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland.

Move Over NAOMI, Here Comes SALOME--Vancouver's New Heroin Maintenance Trial About to Get Underway

In the Chronicle's review of the top international drug policy stories of the year last week, the slow spread of heroin maintenance was in the mix. This week, its back in the news, with word that a new Canadian heroin maintenance study in Vancouver is about to get underway. The Study to Assess Longer-term Opioid Medication Effectiveness (SALOME) will choose a Downtown Eastside location next month and begin taking applications from potential participants in February, according to a Tuesday press release from the Inner Change Foundation, which, along with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, is funding the trial. With selection of participants supposed to last only three weeks, that means SALOME could be underway by March. SALOME will enroll 322 hard-core heroin addicts—they must have been using at least five years and failed other treatments, including methadone maintenance—in a year-long, two-phase study. During the first phase, half will be given injectable heroin (diacetylmorphine) and half will be given injectable Dilaudid® (hydromorphone). In the second phase, half of the participants will be switched to oral versions of the drug they are using. The comparison of heroin and Dilaudid® was inspired by unanticipated results from SALOME's forerunner, NAOMI (the North American Opiate Medication Study), which began in Vancouver in 2005 and produced positive results in research reviews last year. In NAOMI, researchers found that participants could not differentiate between heroin and Dilaudid®. The comparison of success rate among injection and oral administration users was inspired by hopes of reducing rates of injection heroin use. SALOME was also supposed to take place in Montreal, but Quebec provincial authorities effectively killed it there by refusing to fund it. SALOME researchers have announced that it will now proceed in Vancouver alone. With an estimated 5,000 heroin addicts in the Downtown Eastside and a municipal government that has officially embraced the progressive four pillars approach--prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and law enforcement—to problematic drug use, Vancouver is most receptive to such ground-breaking research. It is also the home of Insite, North America's only safe injection site. The NAOMI and SALOME projects are the only heroin maintenance programs to take place in North America. Ongoing or pilot heroin maintenance programs are underway in Britain, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland.
Location: 
Vancouver, BC
Canada

The Year on Drugs 2009: International Drug Policy Developments

(Please read our top ten US domestic drug policy stories review too!)

As 2009 winds to a close, we review the global year in drug policy. There were a number of events of global significance -- the trend toward decriminalization of drug possession in Europe and Latin America, the slow spread of heroin maintenance therapy, the frontal assault on global prohibitionist orthodoxy at the UN -- as well as new developments in ongoing drug-policy related struggles from the poppy fields of Afghanistan to the cannabis cafes of Amsterdam.

This review can't cover everything -- it's a big world, and there's a lot happening in drug policy these days. Among the items worth at least mentioning in passing: Israel's embrace of medical marijuana, Canada's flirtation with mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana growers (still in process, and amended to be less harmful by the Canadian Senate), the continuing resort to the death penalty for drug offenses in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, the bemusing link between cannabis and schizophrenia apparently at work only in some Commonwealth countries, the Andean drug war (unchanged in its essential outlines this year), and the rise of poor West African nations as favored smugglers' destinations.

What about Mexico? There is one glaring omission here, but there is a reason for that: In the third year of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's offensive against the so-called drug cartels, the violence is more intense and destabilizing than ever. What is happening in Mexico is certainly a drug policy-related phenomenon of global significance, but this year, with more than a billion US dollars in the anti-drug aid pipeline, beefed up border security, official acknowledgement that insatiable American appetites play a crucial role, and growing public and political concern about the violence on the border, we will examine the Mexican drug war in the context of US domestic drug policy issues. Look for it to be among the Top 10 domestic drug policy stories in our feature next issue.

With that as a caveat, here are this year's biggest global drug policy developments:

Afghanistan: War on Drugs, Meet War on Terror

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Afghan opium
Eight years after the US and NATO forces invaded and occupied Afghanistan, driving the Taliban from power, the Taliban have returned with a vengeance, fueled by revenues from the country's primary cash crop: opium. Western estimates of Taliban income from the poppy and heroin trade are in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually, which buys a lot of shiny new weapons for the resurgent insurgents.

This year has been the bloodiest yet for Western occupiers, with 495 US and NATO forces killed this year, according to iCasualties.org. Part of the uptick in violence can be attributed to the Taliban's opium wealth, but the decision by US and NATO forces to move aggressively into the Taliban's eastern and southern heartlands, especially Helmand and Kandahar provinces, has also led to increased fighting and higher casualties.

In June, President Obama, adhering to his election campaign vows if not the wishes of his some of his most ardent supporters, moved to directly confront the drug trade, sending 20,000 troops into Helmand to take on the Taliban and allied traffickers. But while that looked like more of the same, just weeks later, the US announced a major shift in its anti-drug policy in Afghanistan when US envoy Richard Holbrooke announced the US would no longer participate in poppy eradication campaigns. That was a startling, reality-driven break from previous US policy in Afghanistan, as well as with current US policies against coca production in Colombia and Peru.

Instead of persecuting poverty-stricken opium-growing peasants, the US and NATO would concentrate on drug manufacturers and traffickers, but only those linked to the Taliban -- not those linked to the corrupt and illegitimate (after this fall's fraudulent election fiasco) regime of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The US beefed up the in-country DEA contingent and even came up with a "hit list" of some 50 Afghan traffickers linked to the Taliban.

This fall, fighting has been intense in southern and eastern Afghanistan, as well as across the border in Pakistan, and now, the first of President Obama's promised 30,000-troop escalation is headed precisely for Helmand, where one of its first assignments will be to take and hold a major Taliban trafficking center. The war on drugs and the war on terror will continue to collide in Afghanistan, but now, at least, the imperatives of the war on terror have forced a historic shift in US anti-drug policy, at least in Afghanistan.

Latin American Leaders Call for a Drug Policy Paradigm Shift

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Commission panel, former President of Colombia Cesar Gaviria on left (courtesy comunidadsegura.org)
In February, a blue-ribbon panel of Latin American leaders, including former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, and former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria issued a report and statement saying the US-led war on drugs has failed and it is time to consider new policies, particularly treating drug use as a public health matter and decriminalizing marijuana possession.

The report, Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift, is the work of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, which also includes prominent writers Paulo Coelho, Mario Vargas Llosa, Sergio Ramírez and Tomás Eloy Martínez as well as leading scholars, media members and politicians.

Latin America is the leading exporter of both cocaine and marijuana. As such, it has faced the ravages of heavy-handed American anti-drug interventions, such as Plan Colombia and earlier efforts to destroy the Bolivian coca crop, as well as the violence of drug trafficking organizations and politico-military formations of the left and right that have grown wealthy off the black market bonanza. And while the region's level of drug consumption has historically been low, it is on the rise.

"The main reason we organized this commission is because the available evidence indicates the war on drugs is a failed war," said Cardoso at a February press conference in Rio de Janeiro to announce the report. "We need a different paradigm to cope with the problem of drugs. The power of organized crime is undermining the very foundations of democracy in some Latin American countries. We must acknowledge that these policies have failed and we must break the taboo that prevents us from discussing different strategies."

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''Global Marijuana Day'' demonstration in Mexico City, May 2008
The report garnered considerable attention, not only in the US and Latin America, but worldwide, and it set the tone for a very reformist year in Latin America.

Mexico Decriminalizes Drug Possession

In May, Mexico decriminalized the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs, including up to five grams of marijuana, a fifth-gram of ecstasy and methamphetamine, a tenth-gram of heroin, and a half-gram of cocaine. The new law closely resembled a 2006 decriminalization bill that had passed the legislature only to die in the face of US protests. There were no US protests this time.

With the Mexican government's action, drug decriminalization has now reached the very borders of the US.

But, according to well-placed observers, the Mexican decriminalization is a case of two steps forward, one step back. In addition to decriminalizing possession of very small amounts of drugs, the new law grants drug enforcement powers to state and local police forces that they never had before. That could mean an increase in the arrests and prosecution of retail-level drug sellers. Still, the long-term political ramifications could be helpful; as one observer noted, "the headline will read that Mexico decriminalized drugs."

Argentina Decriminalizes Marijuana Possession, Laws Against Possessing Other Drugs Tremble

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Supreme Court of Argentina
While Mexico decriminalized through the legislative process, Argentina is doing it through the courts. In a series of cases dating back to 2006, Argentine judges have grown increasingly skeptical of arguments for criminalizing drug use. In the spring, judges in Buenos Aires threw out marijuana cultivation charges against a defendant, saying the plants were for personal use, and the following month, a federal appeals court threw out ecstasy possession charges against a group of defendants, again saying the drugs were for personal use. In both cases, the courts cited a 2006 Argentine Supreme Court ruling that it was the burden of the state "to demonstrate unequivocally that the drugs were not for personal use." In the ecstasy case, the appeals court held that the portion of the country's drug law regarding drug possession must be declared unconstitutional.

In August, the Supreme Court did just that, using another marijuana possession case to rule that the section of the country's drug law that criminalizes drug possession is unconstitutional. While the ruling referred only to marijuana possession, the portion of the law it threw out makes no distinction among drugs.

Imprisoning people absent harm to others violates constitutional protections, a unanimous court held. "Each individual adult is responsible for making decisions freely about their desired lifestyle without state interference," their ruling said. "Private conduct is allowed unless it constitutes a real danger or causes damage to property or the rights of others. The state cannot establish morality."

"It is significant that the ruling was unanimous," said Martin Jelsma, coordinator of the Drugs and Democracy program at the Transnational Institute, which has worked closely with Latin American activists and politicians on drug reform issues. "It confirms the paradigm shift visible throughout the continent, which recognizes that drug use should be treated as a public health matter instead of, as in the past, when all involved, including users, were seen as criminals."

UN's Global Anti-Drug Bureaucracy Meets Organized Resistance

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demonstration at the UN drug meeting, Vienna
It wasn't like this a decade ago, the last time the UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs took place. This year, for the first time, the UN's global anti-drug bureaucracy ran into organized resistance when its Committee on Narcotic Drugs (CND) met in March in Vienna. Not only did a large contingent of drug reform, human rights, and public health NGOs show up to challenge global prohibitionist orthodoxy, they were joined by a number of European and Latin American countries showing serious signs of defecting from the half-century old prohibitionist consensus.

In the end, the CND issued a political statement and plan of action that largely reaffirmed existing prohibitionist policies and ignored harm reduction, but with some victories for reformers both substantive and symbolic. For one, the US delegation finally removed its objection to needle exchanges.

But if the global anti-drug bureaucracies ignored their critics in their report, they were impossible to ignore in Vienna. Demonstrations took place outside the meeting hall, and Bolivian President Evo Morales brandished then chewed coca leaves as he demanded that his country's sacred plant be removed from the list of proscribed substances.

Even UN Office on Drugs and Crime head Antonio Maria Costa was forced to publicly acknowledge the failures and unintended consequences of prohibition. In his address opening the session, Costa bravely argued that "drugs are not harmful because they are controlled; they are controlled because they are harmful," but was forced to concede that prohibition had created a dire situation in some places. "When mafias can buy elections, candidates, political parties, in a word, power, the consequences can only be highly destabilizing" he said. "While ghettoes burn, West Africa is under attack, drug cartels threaten Central America and drug money penetrates bankrupt financial institutions."

All the more reason to challenge prohibitionism and its consequences. After this year, the global anti-drug bureaucracy knows that not only is its long-held consensus under assault, it is beginning to crack.

Czech Republic Decriminalizes Drug Possession, Finally Sets Quantity Limits

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Czech marijuana reform demonstration, 2005 (courtesy Michal Vlk)
Following in Portugal's footsteps, authorities in the Czech Republic voted late last year to decriminalize the possession of "smaller than large amounts" of drugs. But that term was vague, leaving its interpretation up to police and prosecutors and resulting in situations where people like personal marijuana growers were being charged as traffickers.

This month, Czech authorities formalized "smaller than large amounts." The new guidelines mean Czechs will suffer neither arrest nor prosecution for up to 15 grams or five marijuana plants, five grams of hashish, 40 magic mushroom segments, five peyote plants, five LSD tablets, four ecstasy tablets, two grams of amphetamine or methamphetamine, 1.5 grams of heroin, five coca plants, or one gram of cocaine.

The new quantity rules go into effect on January 1.

Science vs. Politics in Great Britain

The British Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) is an official body charged with providing evidence-based analysis of drug policy issues for the British Home Office. Tensions between the ACMD and the Labor government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown had been on the rise since it rejected the ACMD's recommendation that marijuana, which had been down-scheduled from a Class B to a Class C (least harmful) drug under Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair, remain at Class C. The government instead up-scheduled it back to Class B.

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David Nutt
The ACMD was slighted again in February, when it recommended that ecstasy be down-scheduled from Class A (most harmful) to Class B, only to have the Home Office reject that recommendation the same day. ACMD head Professor David Nutt also drew heated criticism from the Home Office -- as well as Britain's horsey set -- for heretically suggesting that ecstasy was safer than horse-riding. Nutt was forced to apologize for his remarks.

After a relatively quiet summer, the clash between drug science and drug politics exploded anew when Home Secretary Alan Johnson fired Nutt in late October for again criticizing the government's refusal to follow the science-based recommendations of the panel. That firing caused a huge fire storm of protest, including the resignations of at least six ACMD members, and was splashed across newspaper front pages for weeks.

Now, the credibility of the Labor government and its adherence to evidence-based policy-making have been called into serious doubt, as it becomes clear that Home Office drug scheduling decisions are driven by a political calculus, not a scientific one. And if the Home Office thought firing Nutt was going to make him go away, it was sadly mistaken. Nutt is maintaining a high public profile and is vowing to set up his own independent drug panel.

Whither Holland's Cannabis Coffee Shops?

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downstairs of a Maastricht coffee shop (courtesy Wikimedia)
This year has seen the long-running battle over the Netherland's famous cannabis coffee shops continue to escalate. Under the Dutch policy of "gedogen," or pragmatic tolerance, marijuana remains technically illegal in Holland, but the sale and possession of small amounts is tolerated and even regulated.

But that tolerant policy is not a favorite of the conservative coalition national government, and it has created a number of problems. "Drug tourism," as the influx of border town marijuana buyers from more repressive neighboring countries is known, has led to everything from traffic jams to public urination to lurking hard-drug peddlers.

And Holland's halfway approach to marijuana policy -- it does not allow for the regulated provision of marijuana to the coffee houses -- has led to the "backdoor problem," in which coffee shop proprietors must rely on criminal-by-definition suppliers to provide them with their product. That provides additional ammunition for the anti-coffee shop crowd.

The conservative coalition government, however, is split on how best to rein in the coffee shops and has promised not to take action at the national level until after the 2010 elections. That has left the field to local authorities, and they have responded.

In March, the "drug tourism" problem resulted in the announcement by the mayors of Roosendaal and Bergen op Zoom that they would close all the coffee shops in their towns by September. In May, the mayors of the eight towns in the border province of Limburg announced coffee shops would be "members only." In August, the Dutch government announced it was providing more than $200,000 for a pilot "members only" program in the border town of Maastricht. Court challenges from coffee shop owners have so far failed to stop any of this.

Meanwhile, in Amsterdam, an urban renewal plan unveiled in May called for a reduction in coffee shops there from 226 to 192, with a 50% reduction in the number of coffee shops in the central Red Light District. But just last week, Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen fought back, saying that national coffee house policy should not be based solely on border "drug tourism" concerns, that he opposed the "members only" option, and that he rejected a ban on coffee houses within 250 yards of schools.

Holland's marijuana coffee shops have been around for more than 30 years now, but as was made clear this year, they will continue to be a battle front between the forces of Dutch conservatism and Dutch liberal pragmatism.

Heroin Maintenance Continues to Spread

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maintenance programs can make heroin addiction cleaner and safer
This year saw a continuation of the slow spread of heroin maintenance programs for severely addicted users unamenable to other forms of drug treatment. At the beginning of the year, permanent or pilot heroin prescription programs were in place in Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland.

Denmark joined the club in February and Germany came aboard in June. These moves come after Switzerland voted in a popular referendum last year to move from a pilot to a permanent heroin maintenance program, based on favorable results from the pilot program.

Canada is about to join the club, too. After the success of the three-year North American Opiate Maintenance Initiative (NAOMI) in Vancouver, Canadian researchers are moving forward with SALOME (the Study to Assess Long-term Opiate Maintenance), a pilot heroin maintenance program set for Vancouver and Montreal. But as of late last month, Montreal's participation was a question mark after Quebec authorities said they would not pay their share of program costs.

Despite lingering political distaste for heroin by prescription, the body of evidence demonstrating its efficacy -- in terms of users' quality of life, public health, and public safety -- continues to grow. There has even been some discussion of bringing a heroin maintenance pilot program to the US. Dr. Peter Reuter, the renowned University of Maryland drug policy expert, authored a study this summer about the possibility of a pilot program in Baltimore.

There is an old saw about not being able to turn an ocean liner on a dime. That's certainly true when it comes to changing drug policies for the better at the national or international level. But each year, it seems that more progress is being made. Let's see what 2010 brings.

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