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Portuguese Drug Reformers Look Beyond Decriminalization [FEATURE]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portugal

Canadian Coalition Calls for Injection Site for Drug Users

Location: 
Montreal, QC
Canada
Saying the billions spent on the war on illegal drugs have done nothing other than fuel the transmission of HIV and hepatitis C, a coalition of Quebec addiction support centers is calling for the creation of a supervised injection site for drug users in Montreal.
Publication/Source: 
The Gazette (Canada)
URL: 
http://www.montrealgazette.com/health/Group+calls+injection+site+drug+users/3902154/story.html

Half of Canadians Say Legalize Marijuana

Exactly 50% of Canadians support legalizing marijuana, according to poll results released Monday by Angus-Reid Public Opinion. Some 44% oppose legalization, with 6% undecided. 

Support for legalization has declined slightly when compared to Angus-Reid polls in 2008 and earlier this year. In both those polls, support for legalization was at 53%. But the difference is within the poll's +/- 3.1% margin of error.

Support for pot legalization was highest in Manitoba and Saskatechewan (61%), British Columbia (54%), and Ontario (51%). Support was weakest in Alberta (45%).

The poll also asked about support for legalizing drugs other than marijuana. In no case was support for legalizing hard drugs higher than 10%. 

The poll also queried respondents on whether Canada has a "drug problem" and how serious it is, as well as their positions on several drug policy-related government proposals. Slightly more than a third (37%) thought Canada has a drug abuse problem that affects the whole country, while 41% thought the drug abuse problem was reserved for "specific areas and people." Only 11% thought Canada did not have a serious drug problem, and 10% had no opinion or didn't know.

When it came to policies, there was strong (81%) support for a National Anti-Drug Strategy, including a national youth awareness campaign to keep kids off drugs. But the Conservative government's push against harm reduction measures, such as needle exchanges and Vancouver's safe injection site was supported by only 35% of respondents and its scrapping of the previous Liberal government's pot decriminalization proposal was supported by only 33%.

But somewhat paradoxically, while half of Canadians support pot legalization and nearly as many (47%) support the Liberal decriminalization plan, nearly two-thirds (64%) support the Conservatives' bill to impose mandatory minimum sentences on people growing as few as five pot plants, as well as people convicting of selling other drugs. That number may, however, be an artifact resulting from the question design, which conflated "marijuana grow operators" and "drug dealers."

It appears that marijuana is indeed related to schizophrenia--at least in the Canadian political psyche.

UN Drug Czar: "Drug Use Is a Health Problem, Not a Crime"

Location: 
Afghanistan
On his first visit to Afghanistan since assuming duties as UNODC Executive Director in September, Mr. Yury Fedotov visited Jangalak Treatment Center, in Kabul, Afghanistan, last week. The center offers treatment and follow up care for recovering drug users. "Drug use is a health problem, not a crime", said Mr. Fedotov. "Drug users are affected by a disease - addiction - and instead of punishment, what they need is treatment, care and social integration. They should not be stigmatized, repressed or further marginalized. Like all people, they deserve to be treated humanely. I believe in placing a strong emphasis on safeguarding health, human rights and justice", he added.
Publication/Source: 
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (Austria)
URL: 
http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/frontpage/2010/November/putting-people-first-unodc-executive-director-visits-drug-treatment-centre-and-womens-prison-in-afghanistan.html?ref=fs1

Iowa Drugs Appeal Case Headed to Supreme Court

Location: 
IA
United States
Two attorneys say they'll take an Iowa case before the nation's highest court next week that could alter how federal judges sentence convicts after appeals. The issue is if judges can weigh a convict's efforts at rehabilitation while an appeal is pending.
Publication/Source: 
Chicago Tribune (IL)
URL: 
http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-ap-ia-methdealer-suprem,0,1450079.story

Heroin Drought Causing Problems in England

A scarcity of heroin in England is leading to a growing number of drug overdoses and poisonings as users ingest dope cut with other substances by dealers trying to stretch supplies, The Guardian reported this week. Scene watchers there are calling it the worst drought in years.

Are you sure that's heroin? Be careful out there, especially in England
The drought is being blamed not on seizures by law enforcement agencies, but on a fungus that has blighted the Afghan opium poppy crop, reducing the size of this year's poppy crop by half. Afghanistan accounts for more than 90% of the world's opium production and likely 100% of the British heroin supply.

"There is a very significant heroin shortage across the UK at the moment," said Gary Cross, head of drug policy for the non-profit group Release.  "It has been going on for some time now, but the last two months have seen stockpiles exhausted."

"I've never known anything like it in 30 years," wrote one long-time heroin user on an on-line forum discussing the shortage.

As dealers and users scramble to grapple with the shortage, users are turning up at hospitals after ingesting adulterated heroin or, in some cases, fake heroin consisting of a powerful sedative, caffeine, and paracetamol, a bulking agent. Some have passed out after smoking or ingesting, while others have reported vomiting, amnesia, and flu-like symptoms.

"This 'heroin drought' appears to be serious and geographically widespread," said Neil Hunt, director of research at KCA, a nationwide community drug treatment service. "Street heroin is in a complete and utter muddle at the moment, and users are collapsing unexpectedly. We need to standardize information about what's out there.

"If people use this intravenously, perhaps on top of alcohol and methadone [the prescribed substitute drug for heroin], it is extremely risky," said Dr. John Ramsey, who runs a drug database at St. George's Medical School in London. "We have had many reports of people overdosing. It's really important that accident and emergency departments understand that they may not be dealing with a 'normal' heroin overdose when people are brought in," he said.

Harm reduction drug agencies are aware of the problem and working to address it. Several of them held an urgent meeting last week to discuss setting up an online warning system to give users notice about contaminated or adulterated drugs.

London
United Kingdom

Kids Will See Laughable Drug Video As 'not4me' (Letter to Editor)

Location: 
Canada
Russell Barth of Educators for Sensible Drug Policy opines that Canada's new "drugsnot4me" campaign video is a total embarrassment due to the over-the-top rhetoric which generates fear rather than educates youth.
Publication/Source: 
The Ottawa Citizen (Canada)
URL: 
http://www.ottawacitizen.com/business/Kids+will+laughable+drug+video+not4me/3846553/story.html

Drug Prohibition Related Cases Clogging Philippine Courts

Location: 
Philippines
Drug prohibition related cases are clogging the dockets of the country’s courts and, as a result, jails are filled with drug suspects. Former Supreme Court Associate Justice Adolf Azcuna and present head of the Philippine Judicial Academy, said, "If you want to restore the drug offenders, you should be improving the places where you help drug addicts recover from their addiction."
Publication/Source: 
Philippine Daily Inquirer (Philippines)
URL: 
http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/inquirerheadlines/nation/view/20101117-303661/Drug-related-cases-clogging-nations-courts

Senior US Appeals Court Judge Says Drug War 'Lost,' Country Should Try Legalizing Marijuana

U.S. federal appeals court judge Judge Juan Torruella says the United States should consider legalizing marijuana and perhaps other drugs as it is a better way to reduce drug abuse and crime.
Publication/Source: 
The Canadian Press (Canada)
URL: 
http://www.google.com/hostednews/canadianpress/article/ALeqM5jfyVtRpH9HS60T2KCmINiiIHujWA?docId=5090089

The Republican House and Drug Reform: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly [FEATURE]

Last week, a resurgent Republican Party retook control of the US House of Representatives, giving the Democrats a drubbing the likes of which has not been seen for decades. The Democrats lost 61 seats, seeing their side sink to 189 seats to the Republicans' 240. They needed 218 to take over again.

The change in control of the House has some serious drug policy implications. There's bad news, but maybe also some good news.

Reform measures passed in the current Congress, such as repealing the bans on federal funding of needle exchange programs and implementation of the Washington, DC, medical marijuana program, could see attempts to roll them back. And pending reforms efforts, such as the battle to repeal the HEA student loan provision, are probably dead. Reform friendly Democratic committee chairs, who wield considerable power, have been replaced by hostile Republicans.

But the incoming Republicans made slashing the deficit and cutting the federal budget a winning campaign issue for themselves, and will be looking for programs they can cut or eliminate. That could open the door to hacking away at programs that support the ongoing prosecution of the drug war, but it could also open the door for cuts in prevention and treatment programs.

As the Chronicle noted here earlier this week, it's not just Tea Party types who want to wield the budget ax. The mainstream conservative Heritage Foundation issued a report just before election day laying out a whopping $434 billion in federal budget cuts, including eliminating the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the drug task force-funding Justice Assistance Grant (JAG, formerly the Byrne grant program) program, and the Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities state grant program.

"Budgetary issues is where I'm most optimistic," said Bill Piper, veteran national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Given the fiscal climate, there could be real cuts in the federal budget. Next year is probably an unprecedented opportunity to de-fund the federal drug war. These new Republicans are a different breed—anti-government, anti-spending, pro-states' rights, and some are proven to be prone to bucking the leadership. If the Republican leadership votes to preserve the drug war, they may rebel," he said.

"We can go after the Byrne grant program," Piper enthused. "That's a very important deal. If we can cut off drug war funding to the states, the states won't be able to afford their punitive policies anymore. During the recession in the Bush administration, when the administration was cutting money to the states, a lot of states passed reform measures because they couldn't afford to lock people up. This time, the federal government has been bailing out state criminal justice systems, but if we can cut or eliminate Byrne grants, the states won't have money for their drug task forces and imprisoning people. Then they will have to consider reforms like cutting sentences and making marijuana possession an infraction."

"Sentencing reform on budgetary grounds is possible," said Kara Gotsch, director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project. "From our perspective, that is a way to reduce government spending. If you want to reduce drug war spending, you reduce costs by investing in prevention and substance abuse programs. That will be part of our talking points, but the reality is, to be successful they're going to have to be bipartisan."

Eric Sterling, former House Judiciary Committee counsel and current head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation was less sanguine than either Piper or Gotsch about the urge to cut the deficit leading to progress in drug reform. "The prospect of saving money leading to criminal justice and drug policy reform is remote," said Sterling. "In state legislatures where they have to balance the budget, everyone recognizes what has to happen. But in Congress, they know there is still going to be a deficit."

Sterling also questioned just how different the Republican freshman class will be from traditional Republicans. "That's a big question mark," he said. "They are younger and bring with them different experiences about drug policy or marijuana in particular, but most of these men and women won by using traditional themes that most incumbent Republicans used, too. I think for them, cracking down on drugs and crime will have more value than trying to save money by funding diversion or correctional programs that aren't about harsh punishment."

But Piper remained upbeat. "Next year is probably an unprecedented opportunity for the movement to defund the drug war. The stars are aligning. A lot of tax groups are already on record for cutting some of these programs," he noted. "Given the fiscal climate, we could see considerable cuts in the federal budget. The type of Republicans coming into office, as well as Obama's own need to show he can practice fiscal discipline, means a real chance to cut or eliminate some of those programs," he said. "The down side is that funding for prevention and treatment is likely to come under fire, too."

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) -- no friend of drug reform.
While budget battles will be fought in appropriations committees, criminal justice issues are a different matter. One of the most striking changes  comes in the House Judiciary Committee, where pro-drug reform Democrats like chairman John Conyers (D-MI) and Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security chair Bobby Scott (D-VA) are being replaced by the likes of Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who will head the Judiciary Committee. Smith, a conservative old school drug warrior, was the only congressman to speak up against passage of the bill to reduce the disparity in crack and powder cocaine sentences.

He also authored a bill this fall that would have made it a federal offense for US citizens to plan to commit acts outside the US that would violate US drug laws. While that bill was allegedly aimed at large drug trafficking organizations, it could have made federal criminals out of college students making plans to visit the coffee shops of Amsterdam. He took to Fox News last month to lambaste the Obama administration as insufficiently tough on marijuana law enforcement, a clip he displays on his web site (scroll over the small video screens; the title will pop up).

"The fact that Rep. Smith is going to be the chair will definitely have an impact," said Gotsch. "He was the only vocal opposition to the crack cocaine sentencing reform, and the fact that he is now going to be chair is discouraging. It indicates that he won't be thoughtful about sentencing reforms for low level drug offenders."

"The Democratic committee chairs were good on drug policy and unlikely to advance bad drug war bills," said Piper. "Now, with Conyers and Scott gone and Lamar Smith in charge, we can expect stuff like Smith's foreign drug conspiracy bill to come out of that committee."

"You couldn’t find bigger champions for reform than Scott and Conyers," said Gotsch. "We won't have them as chairs now; that's probably the biggest disappointment to our community."

"Smith has been quite out there in his attacks over the drug issue," said Sterling. "My hunch is that we will take advantage of the political attractiveness of the drug issue to try to have both oversight hearings and legislation that would be embarrassing to Democrats."

And don't expect too much from the Democrats, either, he added. "The Democratic caucus is going to be more reluctant to deal with the drug issue in a progressive way than it has been," said Sterling. "They see it as a distraction from the heart of the message they need to bring to retake power in 2012."

With people like Smith holding key House committee positions, the drug reform agenda is likely to stall in the next Congress. Instead, reformers will be fighting to avoid reversing earlier gains.

"In terms of passing good things, there probably wasn’t a lot more that was going to happen with Democrats before 2012," said Piper. "The important low hanging fruit of overturning the syringe ban, the DC medical marijuana ban, and the crack sentencing bill had already gotten through. We might have been able to achieve repeal of the HEA drug provision, but probably not now."

The drug reform movement's job now will be not only blocking bad legislation, but also fighting to prevent a rollback of drug reform victories in the current Congress, such as the repeal of the bans on syringe exchange funding and implementing the Washington, DC, medical marijuana law, said Piper. 

"They're unlikely to go backwards on crack, but the syringe ban and the DC medical marijuana ban were both repealed with some, but not a lot, of Republican support," he said. "The syringe ban repeal barely passed, and that was in a Congress dominated by Democrats. Will they try to restore the syringe funding ban and overturn DC's medical marijuana program? That's our big fear. Hopefully, we can scrape up enough votes to defeat in the House, or stop it on the Senate side," he said.

Piper also dared to dream of an emerging Republican anti-drug war caucus. "We don't know who these new Republicans all are, but some have probably been influenced by Ron Paul (R-TX)," he said. "If only 10 of them stand up against the drug war, that's a huge opportunity to raise hell in the Republican caucus. Almost a third of Republican voters want to legalize marijuana, and that's an opportunity for us, too. Maybe there will be Republicans we can work with and create a truly bipartisan anti-drug war coalition in Congress. That's a foothold."

For Piper, the future looks stormy and cloudy, but "the silver lining is in appropriations fights and opportunities to organize an anti-drug war movement in the Republican caucus. We just have to play defense on a bunch of stuff," he said. 

"The activist community is going to have to figure out what the recipe for our lemonade is," advised Sterling. "That requires first a redoubled effort at organizing, using themes such as the wise stewardship of the scarce resources we have, and what works and what is effective," he said.

"It also requires mobilizing people not involved in this issue before, whether it's the business community or people who see their rice bowls been broken by the Republican approach," Sterling continued. "Teachers, nurses, people asking how come the part of the public work force this is protected is the police and the police guards. Drug policy reform activists have to think about what are the alliances they can make in this time of public resource scarcity."

Washington, DC
United States

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