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The Top Ten Drug Policy Stories of 2012 [FEATURE]

In some ways, 2012 has been a year of dramatic, exciting change in drug policy, as the edifice of global drug prohibition appears to crumble before our eyes. In other ways it is still business as usual in the drug war. Marijuana prohibition is now mortally wounded, but there were still three-quarters of a million pot arrests last year. The American incarceration mania appears to be running its course, but drug arrests continue to outnumber any other category of criminal offense. There is a rising international clamor for a new drug paradigm, but up until now, it's just talk.

The drug prohibition paradigm is trembling, but it hasn't collapsed yet -- we are on the cusp of even more interesting times. Below, we look at the biggest drug policy stories of 2012 and peer a bit into the future:

1. Colorado and Washington Legalize Marijuana!

Voters in Colorado and Washington punched an enormous and historic hole in the wall of marijuana prohibition in November. While Alaska has for some years allowed limited legal possession in the privacy of one's home, thanks to the privacy provisions of the state constitution, the November elections marked the first time voters in any state have chosen to legalize marijuana. This is an event that has made headlines around the world, and for good reason -- it marks the repudiation of pot prohibition in the very belly of the beast.

And it isn't going away. The federal government may or may not be able to snarl efforts by the two states to tax and regulate legal marijuana commerce, but few observers think it can force them to recriminalize marijuana possession. It's now legal to possess up to an ounce in both states and to grow up to six plants in Colorado and -- barring a sudden reversal of political will in Washington or another constitutional amendment in Colorado -- it's going to stay that way. The votes in Colorado and Washington mark the beginning of the end for marijuana prohibition.

2. Nationally, Support for Marijuana Legalization Hits the Tipping Point

If Colorado and Washington are the harbingers of change, the country taken as a whole is not far behind, at least when it comes to public opinion. All year, public opinion polls have showed support for marijuana legalization hovering right around 50%, in line with last fall's Gallup poll that showed steadily climbing support for legalization and support at 50% for the first time. A Gallup poll this month showed a 2% drop in support, down to 48%, but that's within the margin of error for the poll, and it's now a downside outlier.

Four other polls released this month
demonstrate a post-election bump for legalization sentiment. Support for legalization came in at 47%, 51%, 54%, and 57%, including solid majority support in the West and Northeast. The polls also consistently find opposition to legalization strongest among older voters, while younger voters are more inclined to free the weed.

As Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown put it after his survey came up with 51% support for legalization, "This is the first time Quinnipiac University asked this question in its national poll so there is no comparison from earlier years. It seems likely, however, that given the better than 2-1 majority among younger voters, legalization is just a matter of time."

Caravan for Peace vigil, Brownsville, Texas, August 2012
3. Global Rejection of the Drug War

International calls for alternatives to drug prohibition continued to grow ever louder this year. Building on the work of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy and the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the voices for reform took to the stage at global venues such as the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, in April, the International AIDS Conference in Washington in July, and at the United Nations General Assembly in September.

While calls for a new paradigm came from across the globe, including commissions in Australia and the United Kingdom, this was the year of the Latin American dissidents. With first-hand experience with the high costs of enforcing drug prohibition, regional leaders including Colombian President Santos, Guatemalan President Perez Molina, Costa Rican President Chinchilla, and even then-Mexican President Calderon all called this spring for serious discussion of alternatives to the drug war, if not outright legalization. No longer was the critique limited to former presidents.

That forced US President Obama to address the topic at the Summit of the Americas and at least acknowledge that "it is entirely legitimate to have a conversation about whether the laws in place are doing more harm than good in certain places" before dismissing legalization as a policy option. But the clamor hasn't gone away -- instead, it has only grown louder -- both at the UN in the fall and especially since two US states legalized marijuana in November.

While not involved in the regional calls for an alternative paradigm, Uruguayan President Mujica made waves with his announcement of plans to legalize the marijuana commerce there (possession was never criminalized). That effort appears at this writing to have hit a bump in the road, but the proposal and the reaction to it only added to the clamor for change.

4. Mexico's Drug War: The Poster Child for Drug Legalization

Mexico's orgy of prohibition-related violence continues unabated with its monstrous death toll somewhere north of 50,000 and perhaps as high as 100,000 during the Calderon sexenio, which ended this month. Despite all the killings, despite Calderon's strategy of targeting cartel capos, despite the massive deployment of the military, and despite the hundreds of millions of dollars in US aid for the military campaign, the flow of drugs north and guns and money south continues largely unimpeded and Mexico -- and now parts of Central America, as well -- remain in the grip of armed criminals who vie for power with the state itself.

With casualty figures now in the range of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars and public safety and security in tatters, Calderon's misbegotten drug war has become a lightning rod for critics of drug prohibition, both at home and around the world. In the international discussion of alternatives to the status quo -- and why we need them -- Mexico is exhibit #1.

And there's no sign things are going to get better any time soon. While Calderon's drug war may well have cost him and his party the presidency (and stunningly returned it to the old ruling party, the PRI, only two elections after it was driven out of office in disgrace), neither incoming Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto nor the Obama administration are showing many signs they are willing to take the bold, decisive actions -- like ending drug prohibition -- that many serious observers on all sides of the spectrum say will be necessary to tame the cartels.

The Mexican drug wars have also sparked a vibrant and dynamic civil society movement, the Caravan for Peace and Justice, led by poet and grieving father Javier Sicilia. After crisscrossing Mexico last year, Sicilia and his fellow Mexican activists crossed the border this summer for a three-week trek across the US, where their presence drew even more attention to the terrible goings on south of the border.

5. Medical Marijuana Continues to Spread, Though the Feds Fight Back

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have now legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes, and while there was only one new one this year, this has been a year of back-filling. Medical marijuana dispensaries have either opened or are about to open in a number of states where it has been legal for years but delayed by slow or obstinate elected officials (Arizona, New Jersey, Washington, DC) or in states that more recently legalized it (Massachusetts).

None of the newer medical marijuana states are as wide open as California, Colorado, or Montana (until virtual repeal last year), as with each new state, the restrictions seem to grow tighter and the regulation and oversight more onerous and constricting. Perhaps that will protect them from the tender mercies of the Justice Department, which, after two years of benign neglect, changed course last year, undertaking concerted attacks on dispensaries and growers in all three states. That offensive was ongoing throughout 2012, marked by federal prosecutions and medical marijuana providers heading to federal prison in Montana. While federal prosecutions have been less resorted to in California and Colorado, federal raids and asset forfeiture threat campaigns have continued, resulting in the shuttering of dozens of dispensaries in Colorado and hundreds in California. There is no sign of a change of heart at the Justice Department, either.

6. The Number of Drug War Prisoners is Decreasing

The Bureau of Justice Statistics announced recently that the number of people in America's state and federal prisons had declined for the second year in a row at year's end 2011. The number and percentage of drug war prisoners is declining, too. A decade ago, the US had nearly half a million people behind bars on drug charges; now that number has declined to a still horrific 330,000 (not including people doing local jail time). And while a decade ago, the percentage of people imprisoned for drug charges was somewhere between 20% and 25% of all prisoners, that percentage has now dropped to 17%.

That decline is mostly attributable to sentencing reforms in the states, which, unlike the federal government, actually have to balance their budgets. Especially as economic hard times kicked in in 2008, spending scarce taxpayer resources on imprisoning nonviolent drug offenders became fiscally and politically less tenable. The passage of the Proposition 36 "three strikes" sentencing reform in California in November, which will keep people from being sentenced to up to life in prison for trivial third offenses, including drug possession, is but the latest example of the trend away from mass incarceration for drug offenses.

The federal government is the exception. While state prison populations declined last year (again), the federal prison population actually increased by 3.1%. With nearly 95,000 drug offenders doing federal time, the feds alone account for almost one-third of all drug war prisoners.

President Obama could exercise his pardon power by granting clemency to drug war prisoners, but it is so far a power he has been loathe to exercise. An excellent first candidate for presidential clemency would be Clarence Aaron, the now middle-aged black man who has spent the past two decades behind bars for his peripheral role in a cocaine deal, but activists in California and elsewhere are also calling for Obama to free some of the medical marijuana providers now languishing in federal prisons. The next few days would be the time for him to act, if he is going to act this year.

7. But the Drug War Juggernaut Keeps On Rolling, Even if Slightly Out of Breath

NYC "stop and frisk" protest of mass marijuana arrests
According to annual arrest data released this summer by the FBI, more than 1.53 million people were arrested on drug charges last year, nearly nine out of ten of them for simple possession, and nearly half of them on marijuana charges. The good news is that is a decline in drug arrests from 2010. That year, 1.64 million people were arrested on drug charges, meaning the number of overall drug arrests declined by about 110,000 last year. The number of marijuana arrests is also down, from about 850,000 in 2010 to about 750,000 last year.

But that still comes out to a drug arrest every 21 seconds and a marijuana arrest every 42 seconds, and no other single crime category generated as many arrests as drug law violations. The closest challengers were larceny (1.24 million arrests), non-aggravated assaults (1.21 million), and DWIs (1.21 million). All violent crime arrests combined totaled 535,000, or slightly more than one-third the number of drug arrests.

The war on drugs remains big business for law enforcement and prosecutors.

8. And So Does the Call to Drug Test Public Benefits Recipients

Oblivious to constitutional considerations or cost-benefit analyses, legislators (almost always Republican) in as many as 30 states introduced bills that would have mandated drug testing for welfare recipients, people receiving unemployment benefits, or, in a few cases, anyone receiving any public benefit, including Medicaid recipients. Most would have called for suspicionless drug testing, which runs into problems with that pesky Fourth Amendment requirement for a search warrant or probable cause to undertake a search, while some attempted to get around that obstacle by only requiring drug testing upon suspicion. But that suspicion could be as little as a prior drug record or admitting to drug use during intake screening.

Still, when all the dust had settled, only three states -- Georgia, Oklahoma, and Tennessee -- actually passed drug testing bills, and only Georgia's called for mandatory suspicionless drug testing of welfare recipients. Bill sponsors may have been oblivious, but other legislators and stakeholders were not. And the Georgia bill is on hold, while the state waits to see whether the federal courts will strike down the Florida welfare drug testing bill on which it is modeled. That law is currently blocked by a federal judge's temporary injunction.

It wasn't just Republicans. In West Virginia, Democratic Gov. Roy Tomblin used an executive order to impose drug testing on applicants to the state's worker training program. (This week came reports that only five of more than 500 worker tests came back positive.) And the Democratic leadership in the Congress bowed before Republican pressures and okayed giving states the right to impose drug testing requirements on some unemployment recipients in return for getting an extension of unemployment benefits.

This issue isn't going away. Legislators in several states, including Indiana, Ohio, Texas, and West Virginia have already signaled they will introduce similar bills next year, and that number is likely to increase as solons around the country return to work.

9. The US Bans New Synthetic Drugs

In July, President Obama signed a bill banning the synthetic drugs known popularly as "bath salts" and "fake weed." The bill targeted 31 specific synthetic stimulant, cannabinoid, and hallucinogenic compounds. Marketed under brand names like K2 and Spice for synthetic cannabinoids and under names like Ivory Wave, among others, for synthetic stimulants, the drugs have become increasingly popular in recent years. The drugs had previously been banned under emergency action by the DEA.

The federal ban came after more than half the states moved against the new synthetics, which have been linked to a number of side effects ranging from the inconvenient (panic attacks) to the life-threatening. States and localities continue to move against the new drugs, too.

While the federal ban demonstrates that the prohibitionist reflex is still strong, what is significant is the difficulty sponsors had in getting the bill passed. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) put a personal hold on the bill until mandatory minimum sentencing requirements were removed and also argued that such efforts were the proper purview of the states, not Washington. And for the first time, there were a substantial number of Congress members voting "no" on a bill to create a new drug ban.

10. Harm Reduction Advances by Fits and Starts, At Home and Abroad

Harm reduction practices -- needle exchanges, safer injection sites, and the like -- continued to expand, albeit fitfully, in both the US and around the globe. Faced with a rising number of prescription pain pill overdoses in the US -- they now outnumber auto accident fatalities -- lawmakers in a number of states have embraced "911 Good Samaritan" laws granting immunity from prosecution. Since New Mexico passed the first such law in 2007, nine others have followed. Sadly, Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the New Jersey bill this year.

Similarly, the use of the opioid antagonist naloxone, which can reverse overdoses and restore normal breathing in minutes, also expanded this year. A CDC report this year that estimated it had saved 10,000 lives will only help spread the word.

There has been movement internationally as well this year, including in some unlikely places. Kenya announced in June that it was handing out 50,000 syringes to injection drug users in a bid to reduce the spread of AIDS, and Colombia announced in the fall plans to open safe consumption rooms for cocaine users in Bogota. That's still a work in progress.

Meanwhile, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs unanimously supported a resolution calling on the World Health Organization and other international bodies to promote measures to reduce overdose deaths, including the expanded use of naloxone; Greece announced it was embracing harm reduction measures, including handing out needles and condoms, to fight AIDS; long-awaited Canadian research called for an expansion of safe injection sites to Toronto and Ottawa; and Denmark first okayed safe injection sites in June, then announced it is proposing that heroin in pill form be made available to addicts. Denmark is one of a handful of European countries that provide maintenance doses of heroin to addicts, but to this point, the drug was only available for injection. France, too, announced it was going ahead with safe injection sites, which could be open by the time you read this.  

This has been another year of slogging through the mire, with some inspiring victories and some oh-so-hard-fought battles, not all of which we won. But after a century of global drug prohibition, the tide appears to be turning, not least here in the US, prohibition's most powerful proponent. There is a long way to go, but activists and advocates can be forgiven if they feel like they've turned a corner. Now, we can put 2012 to bed and turn our eyes to the year ahead.

France to Introduce Supervised Injection Sites

France looks to be the latest European country to embrace the harm reduction practice of providing supervised injection sites for hard drug users, according to France 24 TV. Facilities could be open by year's end, said Health Minister Marisol Touraine.

c client at the supervised injection site in Vancouver (vch.ca)
Since the first supervised injection site opened in the Netherlands in the 1970s, they have since spread to Germany, Luxembourg, Norway, and Spain, and the Danish parliament approved them earlier this year. Supervised injection sites also exist in Vancouver, Canada, and Sydney, Australia.

Supervised injection sites are credited with lowering overdoses, reducing the spread of blood-borne diseases, improving client health and public health, providing entrée to drug treatment and other medical and social services, and reducing public disorder. They have also been linked to reductions in neighborhood crime.

President Francois Hollande campaigned on a promise to establish the first supervised injection sites in the country, and Paris Deputy Mayor Jean-Marie Le Guen endorsed the idea in August. Several French cities are ready to test the practice, Touraine said.

The conservative opposition party UMP criticized the plan, saying in a statement that allowing such facilities "trivializes drug use and legalizes the use of the hardest drugs at the taxpayer's expense."

In moving forward with supervised injection sites, the French government is going against public opinion, but with science. While an August 2010 Ifop poll found 53% supported the sites and 47% opposed them, a similar poll by Ifop last month found only 45% in favor and 55% opposed.

France

Decriminalize Drug Possession, UK Experts Say

In a report six years in the making, the United Kingdom Drug Policy Commission, a non-governmental advisory body chaired by Dame Edith Runciman, has called for a reboot of British drug policy and for decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use.

The report, A Fresh Approach to Drugs, found that the UK is wasting much of the $4.8 billion a year it spends fighting illegal drugs, and that the annual cost to the country of hard drug use was about $20 billion. A smarter set of drug policies emphasizing prevention, diversion, and treatment would be a more effective use of public resources, the report found.

Some 42,000 people in the UK are convicted each year of drug possession offenses and another 160,000 given citations for marijuana possession. Arresting, citing, and jailing all those people "amounts to a lot of time and money for police, prosecution, and courts," the report said.

"To address these costs, there is evidence to suggest that the law on the possession of small amounts of controlled drugs, for personal use only, could be changed so that it is no longer a criminal offence. Criminal sanctions could be replaced with simple civil penalties, such as a fine, perhaps a referral to a drug awareness session run by a public health body, or if  there was a demonstrable need, to a drug treatment program. The evidence from other countries that have done this is that it would not necessarily lead to any significant increase in use, while providing opportunities to address some of the harms associated with existing drug laws," the report recommended.

"Given its relatively low level of harm, its wide usage, and international developments, the obvious drug to focus on as a first step is cannabis, which is already subject to lesser sanctions than previously with the use of cannabis warnings. If evaluations indicated that there were no substantial negative consequences, similar incremental measures could be considered, with caution and careful further evaluation, for other drugs," the report said.

But while the commission was ready to embrace decriminalization, it was not ready to go as far as legalizing drug sales.

"We do not believe that there is sufficient evidence at the moment to support the case for removing criminal penalties for the major production or supply offenses of most drugs," it said.

Still, policymakers might want to consider lowering the penalties for growing small numbers of marijuana plants to "undermine the commercialization of production, with the associated involvement of organized crime."

The report also called for a review of harsh sentences for drug offenses, a consistent framework for regulating all psychoactive substances -- from nicotine to heroin -- and for moving the policy prism through which drug policy is enacted from the criminal justice system to the public health system.

But the Home Office, which currently administers drug policy in Britain, wasn't having any of it. Things are going swimmingly already, a Home Office spokesperson said.

"While the government welcomes the UKDPC's contribution to the drugs debate, we remain confident that our ambitious approach to tackling drugs -- outlined in our drugs strategy -- is the right one," the spokesperson said. "Drug usage is at its lowest level since records began. Drug treatment completions are increasing and individuals are now significantly better placed to achieve recovery and live their lives free from drugs. "I want to take this opportunity to thank the UKDPC for its work in this area over the past six years."

United Kingdom

Christie Vetoes New Jersey Good Samaritan Overdose Bill

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) Friday conditionally vetoed the 911 Good Samaritan Emergency Response Act, which would have exempted from criminal prosecution people who participated in or witnessed illegal drug use after the call for help for an overdose victim. The governor vetoed the bill because it would have let drug dealers "off the hook," he said.

Chris Christie is more worried about Bad Samaritans than overdosing drug users. (state.nj.us)
"It's one of these things that sound good in the abstract," Christie told a town hall-style meeting a day earlier in Mount Laurel. "How about if they're not a Good Samaritan? How about if they're the (person) who supplied the drugs? That was my problem with the bill."

Christie said he supported harm reduction strategies, including drug treatment for low-level offenders, but that the Good Samaritan bill as passed was not the right answer.

"What I'm not willing to do is to give is to give people who commit harm to other people a free pass just because they picked up the telephone," he said. "The legislature has got to make the bill better. If they make the bill better, I'll be happy to consider signing it."

His conditional veto means the bill goes back to the legislature, which he has instructed to "study the issue of drug-overdose reporting" for 18 months and recommend "a comprehensive approach."

In the meantime, more and more New Jersey residents are dying of drug overdoses every year. Some 700 died in 2009, 884 in 2010, and about 1,000 last year, according to the state medical examiner.

The bill passed the legislature with bipartisan support earlier this year and is similar to Good Samaritan laws passed in 11 other states.

Trenton, NJ
United States

New Jersey Finds Syringe Exchange Works

In a report released Tuesday, the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services has found that the state's needle exchange program has provided clean needles to nearly 10,000 drug users and gotten more than 2,000 of them into drug treatment. In the report, Health Commissioner Mary O'Dowd concluded that the program is a success and should be continued.

The goal of needle exchange programs is to reduce harm to injection drug users and the community at large by reducing the spread of blood-borne diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C. According to the report, injection drug users accounted for nearly 40% of new HIV/AIDS cases in the state through 2010.

"Sterile syringe access programs (SAPs) which include drug treatment and behavioral interventions are one model proven to significantly prevent/reduce the transmission of these diseases," the report noted. "These programs have also been shown to facilitate enrollment of IDUs into drug rehabilitation programs."

New Jersey passed a pilot needle exchange law in 2006, and Atlantic City became the first in the state to implement a needle exchange the following year. Camden, Newark, and Paterson came on board in 2008, and Jersey City in 2009.

Those programs saw 9,912 people enrolled between November 2007 and November 2011. Nearly 300,000 clean needles were distributed, with more than 160,000 dirty ones collected. In 2010, the state began providing each program with a nurse, and since then 59 pregnant injection drug users have received prenatal care and drug treatment.

"We are totally thrilled and certainly very grateful to the commissioner for her support," said Roseanne Scotti, head of the Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey office, who faced off against lawmakers, law enforcement, and social conservatives to help push the bill through. "This is a culmination of a 20-year battle, when Senator Wynona Lipman introduced the bill back in 1992."

Trenton, NJ
United States

Colombia Okays Prescriptions for Addicts in Bogota

President Juan Manuel Santos has given the go-ahead to Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro's plan to prescribe otherwise illicit drugs to addicts in the Colombian capital, according to Colombian press reports (and Colombia Reports, the first English-language source with the story). The announcement came after the pair met to discuss the matter last Friday.

Santos and Petro at press conference announcing the initiative (screen shot from Caracol TV)
"We will create physical spaces in the most violent zones of the city where the drug addicts, mostly youth, can get away from being illegal and dependent on the criminal gangs," Petro said after the meeting.

The primary problematic drug on the streets of Bogota is, unsurprisingly, cocaine.

The colorful, left-leaning mayor, who suffered death threats after exposing broad links between the right-wing paramilitaries and Colombian politicians as a senator and who came in fourth in the 2010 presidential elections, first proposed the idea of drug consumption sites last month, but Santos was initially cool to the idea.

"A large part of the violence and crime that still persists in the city derives from the small-scale consumption and trafficking of drugs... We should allow some centers for addicts that provide treatment... where the addict can consume under relative control, without doing damage to society," Petro said when he initially broached the idea.

Santos seemed dubious when he responded days later. "This leap into the dark seems irresponsible to me because one could cause a lot of damage to society, youth and the country," he said.

But Petro appears to have swayed him, confirming after the meeting that the national government had approved his proposal. He needed the government's approval for constitutional reasons, he said.

"The only way to authorize the use of illicit drugs is if it is part of a medical treatment and prescribed by a doctor. We dared to present this proposal publicly, but we could not implement it without permission from the national government."

It's unclear at this point when the plan will be implemented. It's also unclear how the idea of providing addicts prescriptions for their drugs is going to play with the International Narcotics Control Board, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and the US government, but it looks like the Colombian government of President Santos is willing to test the limits. Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, The Netherlands and Canada (in two cities) all have such programs for heroin.

Bogota
Colombia

California Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Bill Signed Into Law

California Gov. Jerry Brown Monday signed into law Assembly Bill 472, the "911 Good Samaritan Bill," aimed at reducing fatal drug overdoses by removing the threat of criminal prosecution for people who seek assistance for people suffering from them. California becomes the 10th state to enact such a law since New Mexico led the way back in 2007.

fatal drug overdose (wikimedia.org)
Sponsored by Rep. Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), the bill received bipartisan support in the legislature and was cosponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance, the ACLU of California, and the Health Officers Association of California.

"This is a great victory for parents. None of us want our kids overdosing on drugs, but as I told the legislature, I'd rather have my kid around to yell at than attend a funeral," said Ammiano. "The young friends of those who overdose shouldn’t hesitate to seek help because they fear arrest. With the Governor's signature, they won't have to."

"This is an incredibly special day for the thousands of California family members who worked so hard and for so long to pass this life-saving bill," said Meghan Ralston, harm reduction manager of the Drug Policy Alliance. "This is just a small first step in reducing the number of fatal overdoses in California, but it's a deeply important one."

Drug overdose deaths are the number one cause of accidental death in California, as in many other states. The new law encourages people to seek emergency health services when they witness an overdose by providing limited protections from charge and prosecution for low-level drug law violations, including possession of small amounts of drugs. Those who sell drugs are not protected under the new law.

"I never go a day without thinking of my son Jeff and I never will," said Denise Cullen, cofounder of GRASP (Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing). "Losing a child to a drug overdose is a tragedy in ways I can't explain, but fighting so hard for him and for all the parents just like me, to get this law passed is really the best possible way I can honor him."

"After forty years of the war on drugs, California is finally righting its priorities by putting saving lives ahead of making petty arrests. The message is loud and clear: call for help in case of an overdose. This is an important step toward better drug and public health policies and it will save lives," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, senior policy advocate for the ACLU of California.

"The physician Health Officers who provide leadership for public health programs in every county are grateful to Governor Brown for partnering with us on this common sense, no-cost approach to saving lives," said Bruce Pomer, executive director of Health Officers Association of California. "It's urgently needed."

Now the task is to get the word out to those populations where it will do the most good. Advocates from dozens of state and local organizations will be working to do just that, both before the new law goes into effect on January 1, and throughout the following year.

Sacramento, CA
United States

Danes Want Heroin Pills for Addicts

In remarks reported by the Copenhagen Post Sunday, Danish Health Minister Astrid Krag announced that she is proposing that heroin in pill form be made available to addicts. Denmark is one of a handful of European countries that provide maintenance doses of heroin to addicts, but to this point, the drug was only available for injection.

Heroin safer in pill form? Danes thinks so. (wikimedia.org)
It is time to offer users a safer choice, Krag said, adding that the pills should be available next year. She said the Danish Board of Health had evidence to believe making heroin available in pill form would reduce the risks of disease and overdose.

"With tablets, we get a tool that lessens the risk of incorrect dosages, injuries and incidences of cancer," she explained. "This will be an improvement of the current system. It clearly needs to be in place by 2013."

The Danish government approved heroin maintenance in 2008, with the first clinic opening in 2010. There are now five of them. A supervised injection site is set to open in the Copenhagen neighborhood of Vesterbro later this year. In the meantime, a mobile injection site is zooming around the neighborhood.

Opposition conservative party spokespersons said they were open to the proposal, but wondered how it would be paid for. But spokespersons for the government Socialistisk Folkeparti said that was just politics.

"It is remarkable that [the conservative opposition] says that financing must be in place before you make a proposal," said Jonas Dahl, health spokesman for the Socialists. "The working procedure has always been that we first get a professional recommendation from the Board of Health and then find the money."

Copenhagen
Denmark

The GOP Platform on Crime and Drugs

With Republican delegates now gone home after their national convention in Tampa, this is as good a time as any to examine their official position on crime and drugs. The 2012 GOP Platform lays it out, and reformers may find a few things to be pleasantly surprised about, at least if elected Republicans actually adhere to their party's official positions.

What may be most significant is what isn't in the platform: Four years ago, the GOP platform had a whole section devoted to the war on drugs. That has vanished this time around.

But reformers still won't find too much to make them smile. In the platform section titled "Justice for All: Safe Neighborhoods and Prison Reform," after the boilerplate language about how "strong families and caring communities supported by excellent law enforcement" are the most effective forces in reducing crime, the Republicans get to it:

"Our national experience over the last several decades has shown that citizen vigilance, tough but fair prosecutors, meaningful sentences, protection of victims’ rights, and limits on judicial discretion can preserve public safety by keeping criminals off the streets," the platform reads. "Liberals do not understand this simple axiom: Criminals behind bars cannot harm the general public. To that end, we support mandatory prison sentencing for gang crimes, violent or sexual offenses against children, repeat drug dealers, rape, robbery and murder... We oppose parole for dangerous or repeat felons…"

But even the GOP, and, more broadly, conservatives are coming to understand that being "tough on crime" is not enough, as evidenced by the formation of the conservative Smart on Crime Coalition, some of whose positions appear to have been incorporated into the platform:

"While getting criminals off the street is essential, more attention must be paid to the process of restoring those individuals to the community. Prisons should do more than punish; they should attempt to rehabilitate and institute proven prisoner reentry systems to reduce recidivism and future victimization," the platform states.

It goes on to endorse state and local initiatives, such as "accountability courts," or the drug court model, and calls for government to work with faith-based institutions to try to divert first-time, nonviolent offenders -- although it doesn't say it wants to divert them from the criminal justice system, just from "criminal careers." The platform does, however, call for supporting state and local initiatives "trying new approaches to curbing drug abuse and diverting first-time offenders to rehabilitation."

The platform of the party of small government and states' rights also laments that federal law enforcement has "been strained by two unfortunate expansions: the over-criminalization of behavior and the over-federalization of offenses," noting that the number of federal offenses has increased by almost 50% since the 1980s.

"Federal criminal law should focus on acts by federal employees or acts committed on federal property -- and leave the rest to the states," the platform says. Then Congress should withdraw from federal departments and agencies the power to criminalize behavior, a practice which, according to the Congressional Research Service, has created 'tens of thousands' of criminal offenses... In the same way, Congress should reconsider the extent to which it has federalized offenses traditionally handled on the state or local level."

There it is, the official platform of the Republican Party this year. One mention of drug dealers, one mention of drug users, no mentions of medical marijuana or marijuana legalization, but some hints that the GOP could live with some experimentation in the states and a smaller federal enforcement arm.

Tampa, FL
United States

California Drug Overdose Prevention Bill Passes

A bill aimed at saving the lives of drug overdose victims by protecting those who would come to their assistance from prosecution on drug charges passed the California legislature Monday on a bipartisan vote of 54-22 in the Assembly. It had already passed the Senate. The vote came days before International Overdose Awareness Day.

fatal drug overdose (wikimedia.org)
In recent years, Californians have been dying of drug or alcohol overdoses at a rate of ten a day, with the number of fatal overdoses increasing by 24% between 2000 and 2006, according to supporting documentation within the bill.

Introduced by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), the bill, Assembly Bill 472, provides that neither the overdose victim nor a person who seeks emergency treatment for him shall be charged with the crime of drug possession or being under the influence of drugs, provided the drugs are for personal use.

Such bills are known as "Good Samaritan" bills and have already been passed nine other states.

In asking his colleagues to vote for the measure, Ammiano noted that more people die from drug overdoses than in car crashes. Fewer would die, he said, if witnesses sought prompt emergency help, but some hesitate for fear of being arrested for their drug use or possession. That argument got through to members of both parties.

"This is not going soft on crime," said Assemblyman Donald Wagner (R-Irvine). While he added that he does not condone drug use, he said it was necessary to "overlook some indiscretions for the greater good."

"It's critically important to save lives," said Assemblywoman Kristen Olsen (R-Modesto). "This bill doesn't condone drug behavior."

"It's not going to encourage underage use," noted Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles). On the contrary, he said, the knowledge that overdose is so life-threatening should encourage users to reevaluate their behaviors.

"It's time we started saving lives in California," said Ammiano.

The bill was lobbied for by the Drug Policy Alliance, and supported by a range of organizations including California Society of Addiction Medicine, California Attorneys for Criminal Justice; California Professional Firefighters, California Association of Alcohol and Drug Program Executives County Alcohol and Drug Program Administrators Association of California, National Council of Alcohol and Drug Dependence of the San Fernando Valley, National Association of Social Workers, Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team, Bay Area Addiction Research and Treatment, Families ACT!, Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing and Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing.

The only group to officially oppose it was the California Sheriff's Association.

The bill now goes to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown (D).

Sacramento, CA
United States

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