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Poland Approves Drug Decriminalization -- Sort Of [FEATURE]

With President Bronislaw Komorwski signing into law late last month an amendment to the country's harsh, decade-old drug laws, Poland has taken a step in the direction of the decriminalization of drug possession. But how much of a difference the new law will make is unclear at this point, and it won't go into effect for another six months. The new law also increases sentences for some drug distribution offenses.

21st Century Warsaw. Now, if Poland can just move its drug laws into the 21st Century. (Image via Wikimedia.org)
Under the old law, possession of even the smallest quantity of illegal drugs could lead to a three-year prison sentence. Under the amended drug law, people would still be arrested, but prosecutors will have the option of not charging people for personal drug possession if the quantity involved is small, if it is a first offense, or if the person is drug dependent.

It is one thing to have the law on the books, but whether prosecutors will take advantage of it remains to be seen. The experience in other European countries that have enacted similar laws suggests that they will have to be prodded.

Also unclear at this point is just what will constitute a "small" amount of drugs for personal use. That is an issue that is now being contested. In a sign of how volatile the issue is, demonstrators demanding a 30 gram figure for marijuana, the ability to grow at home, and amnesty for pot prisoners, clashed last weekend with police in Warsaw just days after the president signed the new law. Nearly 30 people were arrested on drug charges, and police were attacked with eggs and empty beer bottles.

The protest was called by the Free Hemp Initiative, and police estimated some 6,000 people attended. Demonstrators shouted slogans and waved banners with exhortations such as "Plant It, Smoke It, Legalize It!" on them. Organizers managed to cool down the crowd after the violence broke out by reminding people of their nonviolent stance.

Activists are planning to both push prosecutors to use the new law and to try to open up discussion around the personal use threshold in a bit to push further in the direction of real decriminalization.

Polish and international experts cautioned about making too much of the reform. "While this is only a small change, it is nevertheless a step in the right direction," said the International Drug Policy Consortium.

The reform "seems quite modest and even marginal," Dr Mateusz Klinowski, Chair of Legal Theory at the Jagiellonian University's Department of Law and Administration, told the Krakow Post. "Though the amendment doesn't seem to be a major breakthrough, at least it creates hope of future reforms," he added. "The first step has been taken and now it is public opinion and non-governmental organizations which have to advocate rational solutions and efficient law that will be aimed primarily at prevention and treatment, rather than at penalizing possession."

In  commenting on the new law, Justice Minister Krysztof Kwiatkowski demonstrated that the old mentality or at least the old politics is still strong in the halls of power. While he confirmed that prosecutors must now investigate each drug possession case to see if it qualifies for dismissal, his rhetoric was that of prohibition.

"We have increased the criminal responsibility for those who sell death, in order to provide for more effective prosecution," he said. "Police should concentrate on the pursuit of drug dealers and not drug addicts. We should focus on providing treatment for such people."

Even this limited progress on reforming Poland's drug laws came only after years of delay. A team of experts appointed by the former justice minister had drawn up the amendments more than two years ago.

Polish politicians were also the object of a concerted civil society campaign to liberalize the drug laws. Celebrity chef Robert Maklowicz created a Facebook video, Cook Our Children a Better Future, arguing for reform, while at the same time, 71 Polish artists sent an open letter to the Sejm seeking a review of Polish drug policy.

Former Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, and renowned international human rights expert Wiktor Osiatyński also joined the fray, signing a January open letter coordinated by Krytyka Polityczna, an influential group of liberal thinkers. Over 100 organizations from Poland and worldwide recently signed a petition coordinated by the Polish Drug Policy Network. A video by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union was viewed by nearly 50,000 people.

While for many advocates the reforms don't go far enough, they are at least a step in the right direction. Now it will be up to activists and civil society to continue prodding politicians to keep moving toward more civilized drug policies.

Warsaw
Poland

New Zealand Commission Urges Drug Law Reform

The New Zealand Law Commission Monday urged a broad overhaul of the island nation's drug laws to bring them into the 21st Century. The call came as the commission unveiled its review of the country's drug laws in a report, Controlling and Regulating Drugs: A Review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975.

Will Auckland become more like Oakland? It will if the Law Commission has its way. (Image via Wikimedia.org)
The Law Commission is an independent, but government-funded, body whose mission is to review areas of law that need developing or reforming and to make recommendations to parliament. It was asked by the then Labor government in 2007 to review the drug laws.

The commission called for steps toward legalizing medical marijuana, decriminalizing drug possession and small-time drug dealing, and doing away with drug paraphernalia laws. In response to the arrival of new synthetic drugs, it called for the reversal of current policy, which allows them until they are proven dangerous, and its replacement with a policy that bans them until they are proven safe.

The review calls for clinical trials on medical marijuana "as soon as practicable" and said medical marijuana patients should not be arrested in the meantime. "Given the strong belief of those who already use cannabis for medicinal purposes that it is an effective form of pain relief with fewer harmful side effects than other legally available drugs, we think that the proper moral position is to promote clinical trials as soon as practicable. We recommend that the government consider doing this."

People caught with drugs for personal use should be "cautioned" instead of arrested, the report said. "We recommend that a presumption against imprisonment should apply whenever the circumstances indicate that a drug offense was committed in a personal use context," the review said.

There should also be a statutory presumption against imprisonment for small-time drug dealing, the review said. ''We consider that the supply by drug users of small amounts of drugs with no significant element of commerciality ("social dealing") is entirely different from commercial dealing.''

Get rid of drug paraphernalia laws, the review said. ''We are not aware of any evidence that existence of the offense itself deters drug use."

The report highlights four key recommendations:

  • A mandatory cautioning scheme for all personal possession and use offences that come to the attention of the police, removing minor drug offenders from the criminal justice system and providing greater opportunities for those in need of treatment to access it.
  • A full scale review of the current drug classification system which is used to determine restrictiveness of controls and severity of penalties, addressing existing inconsistencies and focusing solely on assessing a drug's risk of harm, including social harm.
  • Making separate funding available for the treatment of offenders through the justice sector to support courts when they impose rehabilitative sentences to address alcohol and drug dependence problems.
  • Consideration of a pilot drug court, allowing the government to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of deferring sentencing of some offenders until they had undergone court-imposed alcohol and/or drug treatment.

"There are adverse social consequences from a distinctly punitive approach to lower level offending," Law Commission head Grant Hammond told the New Zealand Herald. "Quite large numbers of young New Zealanders receive criminal convictions -- which might subsist for life -- as a result of minor drug offenses. This is a disproportionate response to the harm those offenses cause. More can be done through the criminal justice system to achieve better outcomes for those individuals and for society at large."

The review won plaudits from Green Party leader Metiria Turei. "Current drug law is 35 years out-of-date and is hurting our families," she said. "Too many resources are directed into criminalizing people rather than providing them with the medical help they most need. The Law Commission's report recognizes this and seeks to redress it by adopting a harm reduction approach for dealing with personal drug use by adults. This new approach, if adopted, will actually save money enabling greater resources to be directed into health services for breaking the cycle of drug abuse and addiction. It will also free police to tackle more serious crime."

But Bob McCoskrie, director of the tough-on-drugs group Family First found little to like in the review. "A weak-kneed approach to drug use will simply send all the wrong messages that small amounts of drug use or dealing aren't that big a deal -- the completely wrong message, especially for younger people," he warned. "A cautioning scheme will simply be held in contempt by users, and fails to acknowledge the harm done by drug use which is undetected. The report is correct to call for better treatment facilities for addiction and mental illness, but a zero-tolerance approach to the use of drugs combined with treatment options is a far better solution."

A spokesman for the governing center-right National Party said the government welcomed the report, but needed time to study it.

Auckland
New Zealand

Poland Edges Toward Drug Decriminalization

In the Polish Sejm (parliament) April 1 members voted to amend their draconian, decade-old drug laws. The move is designed to draw a distinction between users and dealers, and could result in no charges being filed against users, but slightly stiffer penalties for dealers and people holding large quantities of dope.

Warsaw skyline (image via wikimedia.org)
Under the current law, people possessing even the smallest amounts of illegal drugs can be sentenced to up to three years in prison. The amendment would enable prosecutors to avoid bringing charges against people holding small amounts of drugs who have not been previously convicted of a drug crime. Prosecutors would also make a determination on whether a person is drug dependent, and could order treatment in lieu of prosecution and imprisonment.

The measure passed the lower house
on a vote of 258 to 159, with six abstentions. It must still be approved by the upper house and signed into law by the president.

Progress on reforming Poland's drug laws came only after years of delay. A team of experts appointed by the former justice minister had drawn up the amendments more than two years ago.

The Sejm was also the object of a concerted civil society campaign to liberalize the drug laws. Celebrity chef Robert Maklowicz created a Facebook video, Cook Our Children a Better Future, arguing for reform, while at the same time, 71 Polish artists sent an open letter to the Sejm seeking a review of Polish drug policy.

Former Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, and renowned international human rights expert Wiktor Osiatyński also joined the fray, signing a January open letter coordinated by Krytyka Polityczna, an influential group of liberal thinkers. Over 100 organizations from Poland and worldwide recently signed a petition coordinated by the Polish Drug Policy Network.

For many advocates, the proposed reforms don't go far enough. There is also concern that the quantity guidelines for determining what constitutes personal use have yet to be set. But there are also rumblings of discontent from the other side of the issue. "Which mafia did you support today?" asked conservative Law and Justice Party member Beata Kampa.

[Editor's Note: Kampa's comment presumably was made without irony, but is actually highly ironic. While decriminalization without a legal supply won't undo the mafias, it is prohibition of drugs that allows mafias to earn illicit drug profits.]

Warsaw
Poland

Did You Know? Marijuana Use in Decrim States, on DrugWarFacts.org

DrugWarFacts.org, a publication of Common Sense for Drug Policy (CSDP), is an in-depth compilation of key facts, stats and quotes on the full range of drug policy issues, excerpted from expert publications on the subjects. The Chronicle is running a series of info items from DrugWarFacts.org, and we encourage you to check it out.

Did you know that US states which did not decriminalize marijuana in the '70s saw larger increases in its use than states which did decriminalize?

"In California and Ohio, surveys before and after decriminalisation showed that cannabis use increased, but not at a greater rate than in US states which had not decriminalised cannabis. Single (1989) also reviewed data from two large US national surveys of drug use in the 1970s that compared rates of cannabis use in states which had and had not decriminalised cannabis. He found that the prevalence of cannabis use increased in all states, with a larger increase in those states which had not decriminalised (Single, 1989)."

(Department of Health and Aged Care (Canberra, Australia), "Cannabis Expiation Notice Scheme on levels and patterns of cannabis use in South Australia: evidence from the National Drug Strategy Household Surveys 1985–1995," May 1998, via the DrugWarFacts.org Marijuana chapter.)

Follow Drug War Chronicle for more important facts from DrugWarFacts.org over the next several weeks, or sign up for the DWF new facts RSS feed. To see last week's DWF Drug War Chronicle blurb, click here.

Common Sense for Drug Policy is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to reforming drug policy and expanding harm reduction. CSDP disseminates factual information and comments on existing laws, policies and practices.

California Legislature Passes Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

Just hours before the state's legislative session ended Tuesday, the California Assembly voted to approve SB 1449, Sen. Mark Leno's bill to fully decriminalize simple marijuana possession. The bill passed the Senate in June and now goes to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk.

The vote was 43-33 and largely along party lines. Democrats supported the bill 40-8, while Republicans opposed it 23-2.

Under current California law, possession of less than an ounce of pot is punishable by no more than a $100 fine, but is still a misdemeanor. That means people busted for a joint or a half-bag must be arrested, booked, and appear in court, and they get a criminal record. It also means meaningless work for the police and the courts.

Marijuana possession is the only California misdemeanor with a set maximum fine and no possible jail time. The Leno bill changes the offense to an infraction, meaning no arrest, no booking, no court appearance, and no criminal record.

"The penalty for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is a fine of $100, with no jail time," Leno said on introducing the bill. "If the penalty is $100, with no jail time, that is an infraction. That is not a misdemeanor."

Keeping simple possession a misdemeanor has had "serious unintended consequences," the San Francisco Democrat said. "As the number of misdemeanor marijuana possession arrests have surged in recent years, reaching 61,388 in 2008, the burden placed on the courts by these low level offenses is just too much to bear at a time when resources are shrinking and caseloads are growing."

Sacramento, CA
United States

Sex Party Wants Drug Use Decriminalised ‎

Location: 
Australia
Sex Party president and Victorian Senate candidate Fiona Patten said the party would push for the decriminalization of personal drug use if it won a seat in Australia's federal parliament. The policy calls for the decriminalization, not legalization, of possession and consumption of drugs for personal use, up to a quantity of up to 14 days' supply for one person.
Publication/Source: 
The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)
URL: 
http://news.smh.com.au/breaking-news-national/sex-party-wants-drug-use-decriminalised-20100810-11wwd.html

Hypocritical Obama and Corporate Media Are Aggressively Undermining Pot Normalization

Hypocritical Obama and Corporate Media Are Aggressively Undermining Pot Normalization http://www.alternet.org/drugs/145713/hypocritical_obama_and_corporate_me...

The Year on Drugs 2009: The Top Ten US Domestic Drug Policy Stories

As 2009 prepares to become history, we look back at the past year's domestic drug policy developments. With the arrival of a highly popular (at least at first) new president, Barack Obama, and Democratic Party control of the levers of power in Congress, the drug reform gridlock that characterized the Bush years is giving way to real change in Washington, albeit not nearly quickly enough. A number of this year's Top 10 domestic drug stories have to do with the new atmospherics in Washington, where they have led, and where they might lead.

But not all of them. Drug reform isn't made just in Washington. Under our federal system, the 50 states and the District of Columbia have at least some ability to set their own courses on drug policy reforms. In some areas, actions in the state legislatures have reflected trends -- for better or worse -- broad enough to earn Top 10 status.

And Washington and the various statehouses notwithstanding, movement on drug reform is not limited to the political class. Legions of activists now in at least their second decade of serious reform work, a mass media that seems to have awakened from its dogmatic slumber about marijuana, a crumbling economy, and a bloody drug war within earshot of the southwestern border have all impacted the national conversation about drug reform and are all pushing politicians from city councilmen to state legislators to US senators to rethink drug prohibition.

For drug reformers, these are interesting times, indeed. Herewith, the Top 10 domestic drug policy stories of 2009:

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marijuana plants (photo from US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia)
Marijuana Goes Mainstream

Wow. This year has seen the US enter the beginnings of a sea change on policies and attitudes toward the recreational use of marijuana. The first hint that something had changed was the Michael Phelps bong photo non-scandal. When the multiple Olympic gold medal winner got outed for partying like a college student, only one corporate sponsor, fuddy-duddy Kellogg, dumped him, and was hit by a consumer boycott -- and arguably by falling stock prices -- in return. Otherwise, except for a deranged local sheriff who tried fruitlessly to concoct a criminal case against somebody -- anybody! -- over the bong photo, America's collective response basically amounted to "So what?"

Post-Phelps it was as if the flood gates had opened. Where once Drug War Chronicle and a handful of other publications pretty much had the field to ourselves, early this year, the mass media began paying attention. Countless commentaries, editorials and op-eds have graced the pages of newspaper and those short-attention-span segments on the cable news networks, an increasing number of them calling for legalization. The conversation about freeing the weed has gone mainstream.

The sea change is also reflected in poll numbers that, for the first time, this year showed national majorities in favor of legalization. In February, a Zogby poll showed 44% support nationwide -- and 58% in California. By late spring, the figures were generally creeping ever higher. An April Rasmussen poll had support for "taxation and regulation" at 41%, while an ABC News/Washington Post poll found 46% supported "legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use." Also in April, for the first time, a national poll showed majority support for legalization when Zogby showed 52% saying marijuana should be "legal, taxed, and regulated." In July, a CBS News poll had support for legalization at 41%.

In October, a Gallup poll had support for legalization at 44%, the highest ever in a Gallup survey. And a few weeks ago an Angus-Reid poll reported 53% nationwide supported legalization. Legalizing pot may not have clear majority support just yet, but it is on the cusp.

Marijuana law reform was also a topic at statehouses around the country this year, although successes were few and far between. At least six states saw decriminalization bills, but only one passed -- in Maine, which had already decriminalized possession of up to 1.25 ounces. This year's legislation doubled that amount. And then there were legalization bills. Two were introduced in the 2009 session, in California and Massachusetts, and two more have been pre-filed for next year, in New Hampshire and Washington. Both the California and Massachusetts bills got hearings this year, and the California bill is set for another hearing and a first committee vote in the Assembly in two weeks. In Rhode Island, meanwhile, the legislature voted this year to create a commission to study marijuana law reform; it will report at the end of January.

And then, finally, there is the excitement and discussion being generated by at least three separate marijuana legalization initiative campaigns underway in California. Oaksterdam medical marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee's Tax Cannabis 2010 initiative has already announced it has sufficient signatures to make the ballot. Time will tell if the others make it, but at this point it is almost certain that voters in California will have a chance to say "legalize it" in November.

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/ventura-dispensary-smaller.jpg
medical marijuana dispensary, Ventura Blvd., LA (courtesy wikimedia.org)
Medical Marijuana: The Feds Butt Out and the Floodgates Begin to Swing Open

During his election campaign, President Obama promised to quit siccing the DEA on medical marijuana patients and providers. In February, new Attorney General Eric Holder announced there would be no more federal raids if providers were in compliance with state law, and pretty much held to that promise since then. In October, the Justice Department made it official policy when it issued a policy memo reiterating the administration's stance.

The new "hands off" policy from Washington has not been universally adhered to, nor has it addressed the issue of people currently serving sentences or facing prosecution under Bush administration anti-medical marijuana initiatives, but it has removed a huge looming threat to growers and dispensary operators and it has disarmed a favored (if intensely hypocritical) argument of medical marijuana foes that such laws should not be passed out of fear of what the feds would do.

Meanwhile, California rolls right along as medical marijuana's Wild West. Like countless other localities in the Golden State, the city of Los Angeles is grappling with what to do with its nearly one thousand dispensaries. The issue is being fought city by city and county by county, in the state courts and in the federal courts. And while the politicians argue, dispensary operators are creating political facts on the ground as their tax revenues go into hungry state and local coffers.

This year also marked the emergence of a medical marijuana industry infrastructure -- growers, grow shops, dispensaries, educational facilities, pot docs -- beyond California's borders, most notably in Colorado, where the dispensary scene exploded in the wake of the removal of the federal threat, and in Michigan, where last year's passage of a medical marijuana law has seen the creation of the Midwest's first medical marijuana industry.

While medical marijuana is legal in 13 states (and now, the District of Columbia), it remains difficult to win victories in state legislatures. There were medical marijuana bills in at least 18 states, but only two -- Minnesota and New Hampshire -- were approved by legislatures, and they were vetoed by prohibitionist governors. Bills are, however, still alive in six states -- Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin -- with New Jersey and Wisconsin apparently best positioned to become the next medical marijuana state. In Rhode Island, which already approved a medical marijuana law in 2007, the legislature this year amended it to include a dispensary system.

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salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid.org)
The Reflexive Prohibitionist Impulse Remains Alive -- Just Ask Sally D

Despite evident progress on some drug reform fronts, a substantial number of Americans continue to hold to prohibitionist values, including a number of state legislators. The legislative response to the popularity of the fast-acting, short-lived hallucinogen salvia divinorum is the best indicator of that.

The DEA has been reviewing salvia for five years, and has yet to determine that it needs to become a controlled substance, but that hasn't stopped some legislators from trying to ban it. Appalled by YouTube videos that show young people getting very high, legislators in 13 states have banned or limited sales of the herb.

This year, four more states joined the list. The good news is that legislators in seven other states where salvia ban bills were introduced had better things to do with their time than worry about passing them.

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drug testing lab
"We Must Drug Test Welfare and Unemployment Recipients!"

In another indication that the drug warrior impulse is still alive and well -- as are its class war elements -- legislators in various states this year continued to introduce bills that would mandate suspicionless drug testing of people seeking unemployment, public assistance, or other public benefits. Never mind that Michigan, the only state to pass such a law, saw its efforts thrown out as an unconstitutional search by a federal appeals court several years back.

Such efforts exposed not only public resentment of benefits recipients, but also a certain level of ignorance about the way our society works. A common refrain from supporters was along the lines of "I have to get drug tested for my job, so why shouldn't they have to get drug tested?" Such questioners fail to understand that our system protects us from our government, but not from private employers.

But if welfare drug testing excited some popular support, it also excited opposition, not only on constitutional grounds, but on grounds of cost and elemental fairness. In the four states where drug testing bills were introduced -- Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri and West Virginia -- none of them went anywhere. But even in an era when drug reform is in the air, such bills are a clear sign that there will be many rear-guard battles to fight.

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/prison-overcrowding-even-smaller.jpg
unjust, but also unaffordable
Rockefeller Drug Law and Other State Sentencing Reforms

Reeling under the impact of economic downtowns and budget crises, more and more states this year took a second look at drug-related sentencing policies. Most notable of the reforms enacted at the state level this year were reforms in New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws, which went into effect in October. Under this newest round of Rockefeller drug law reforms, some 1,500 low-level drug offenders will be able to seek sentence reductions, while judges gain some sentencing power from prosecutors, and treatment resources are being beefed up. But still, more than 12,000 will remain in Empire State prisons on Rockefeller drug charges.

New York wasn't the only state to enact sentencing reforms this year. This month, New Jersey legislators passed a bill giving judges the discretion to waive mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. Last month, Rhode Island mandatory minimum reforms went into effect. Earlier this year, Louisiana finally acted to redress the cruel plight of the "heroin lifers," people who had been sentenced to life without parole for heroin possession under an old state law. A new state law cut heroin sentences, but did not address the lifers. As a result, some lifers remained in prison with no hope of parole while more recent heroin offenders came, did their time, and went. Now, under this year's law, the lifers are eligible for parole.

Sentencing reforms are also in the works in a number of other states, from Alabama to California and from Colorado to Michigan. In some cases, reform legislation is in progress; in others, legislators are waiting for commissions to report their findings. In nearly every case, it is bottom-line budget concerns rather than bleeding heart compassion for the incarcerated that is driving the reforms.

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PolitickerMD cartoon about the Berwyn Heights raid
Swatting SWAT

It was only one bill in one state, and all it required was reporting by SWAT teams of their activities, but the Maryland SWAT bill passed this year marked the first time a state legislature has moved to rein in aggressive paramilitary-style policing. More precisely, the bill requires all law enforcement agencies that operate SWAT teams to submit monthly reports on their activities, including when and where they are used, and whether the operations result in arrests, seizures or injuries.

In took an ugly incident involving the mayor of a Washington, DC, suburb to make it happen. Marijuana traffickers sent a load of pot to the mayor's address to avoid having police show up on their doorstep in the event something went wrong, but something did go wrong, and police tracked the package. When the mayor innocently carried the package inside on returning home, the SWAT team swooped, manhandling the mayor and his mother-in-law and killing the family's pet dogs. The cops were unapologetic, the mayor was apoplectic, and now Maryland has a SWAT law. A new bill just filed in Maryland would take it further, requiring police to secure a judge's warrant before deploying a SWAT team.

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shrine to San Malverde, Mexico's ''narco-saint,'' Culiacan, Sinaloa
America Finally Notices the Drug War Across the River

While Congress and the Bush administration got serious about Mexico's bloody drug wars in 2008, passing a three-year, $1.4 billion anti-drug aid package for Mexico and Central America, it was not until this year that the prohibition-related violence in Mexico really made the radar north of the border.

It only took about 11,000 deaths (now up to over 16,000) among Mexican drug traffickers, police, soldiers, and innocent bystanders to get the US to pay attention to the havoc being wreaked on the other side of the Rio Grande. But by the spring, Washington was paying attention, and for the first time, one could hear mea culpas coming from the American side. Mexico's drug violence is driven by demand in the US, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano echoed.

But just because Washington admitted some fault didn't mean it was prepared to try anything different. And while the Mexican drug wars brought talk of legalization -- especially of marijuana -- what they brought in terms of policy was the Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, which is basically mo' better drug war.

Mexico's drug wars show no signs of abating, and the pace of killing has accelerated each year since President Felipe Calderon sent in the army three years ago this month. The success -- or failure -- of his drug war policies may determine Calderon's political future, but it has for the first time concentrated the minds of US policymakers on the consequences of prohibition south of the border.

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syringes -- better at the exchange than on the street
Congress Ends Ban on Needle Exchange Funding, Butts Out of DC Affairs

After a decade-long struggle, the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs ended this month with President Obama's signature on an omnibus appropriations bill that included ending the federal ban, as well as a similar ban that applied to the District of Columbia. The bill also removed a ban on the District implementing a medical marijuana law passed by voters in 1998.

Removing the funding ban has been a major goal of harm reduction and public health coalitions, but they had gotten nowhere in the Republican-controlled Congresses of the past decade. What a difference a change of parties makes.

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Jim Webb at 2007 incarceration hearing (photo from sentencingproject.org)
Questioning the Drug War: Two Congressional Bills

The US Congress has been a solid redoubt of prohibitionist sentiment for decades, but this year saw the beginning of cracks in the wall. Two legislators, Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) and Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) introduced and have had hearings on bills that could potentially challenge drug war orthodoxy.

Engel's bill, the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act, which has already passed the House, would set up a commission to examine US eradication, interdiction, and other policies in the Western Hemisphere. While Engel is no anti-prohibitionist, any honest commission assessing US drug policy in the Americas is likely to come up with findings that subvert drug war orthodoxy.

Meanwhile, Sen. Webb's National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 comes at the issue from a much more critical perspective. It calls for a top-to-bottom review of a broad range of criminal justice issues, ranging from sentencing to drug laws to gangs and beyond, with an emphasis and costs and efficacy. Webb's bill remains in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but has 35 cosponsors. Webb has already held hearings on the costs of mass incarceration and the economic costs of drug policy, and even more than Engel's bill, the Webb bill has the potential to get at the roots of our flawed national drug policy.

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Sen. Durbin at May hearing on crack sentencing
The Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

The 100:1 disparity in the quantities of crack needed to earn a mandatory minimum federal prison sentence versus the quantities of powder cocaine needed to earn the same sentence has been egregiously racist in its application, with roughly 90% of all federal crack offenders being non-white, and pressure has been mounting for years to undo it. It hasn't happened yet, but 2009 finally saw some serious progress on the issue.

The move to reform the sentencing disparity got a boost in June, when Attorney General Holder said it had to go. The next month, a House Judiciary Committee subcommittee passed the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009. The bill is now before the House Judiciary and Energy and Commerce Committees.

On the Senate side, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced a companion bill in October, the Fairness in Sentencing Act. It hasn't moved yet, but thanks to a decade-long effort by a broad range of advocates, all the pieces are now in place for something to happen in this Congress. By the time we get around to the Top 10 of 2010, the end of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity better be one of the big stories.

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.

The Caribbean: Jamaica Lawmakers Calls for Ganja Decriminalization

A highly placed Jamaican lawmaker called over the weekend for the decriminalization of marijuana possession. Sen. Dennis Meadows, deputy secretary general for the governing Jamaica Labor Party, made the call before parliament Friday and elaborated on it Saturday.

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Dennis Meadows
On Friday, Meadows told the Jamaican Senate that arresting and convicting people for possession of small amounts of marijuana "is only serving to criminalize our already marginalized young men and women, thereby creating a reservoir of hopelessness."

Prosecuting people for possessing a spliff is also a waste of valuable law enforcement resources, he said. "Decriminalization, among other things, will serve to free up the police resources and the already stressed justice system to focus on more serious crimes," Meadows insisted.

Meadows cited the 2001 National Commission on Ganja report, which also called for decriminalization. Although that report was presented to parliament and then Prime Minister PJ Patterson, movement toward decrim withered under loud US protests. Debate on the report should be reopened, Meadows told his colleagues.

On Saturday, Meadows issued a statement reiterating his stance. "What I am advocating is that ganja, at the level of spliffs for private use, be treated similarly to a traffic ticket," Meadows said.

That would be a good start for one of the most marijuana-friendly cultures on the planet. Let's see if the rest of Jamaica's political class is listening.

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