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The Top Ten Domestic US Drug Policy Stories of 2011 [FEATURE]

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We can put 2011 to bed now, but not before looking back one last time at the good, the bad, and the ugly. It was a year of rising hopes and crushing defeats, of gaining incremental victories and fending off old, failed policies. And it was a year in which the collapse of the prohibitionist consensus grew ever more pronounced. Let's look at some of the big stories:

Progress on Marijuana Legalization

Last year saw considerable progress in the fight for marijuana legalization, beginning in January, when Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) got President Obama to say that legalization (in general) is "an entirely legitimate topic for debate," and that while he does not favor it, he does believe in "a public health-oriented approach" to illicit drugs. Before the LEAP intervention, which was made via a YouTube contest, legalization was "not in the president's vocabulary." While we're glad the president learned a new word, we would be more impressed if his actions matched his words. Later in the year, in response to "We the People" internet petitions, the Obama White House clarified that, yes, it still opposes marijuana legalization.

In June, Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Ron Paul (R-TX) made history by introducing the first ever bill in Congress to end federal marijuana prohibition, H.R. 2306. It hasn't been scheduled for a hearing or otherwise advanced in the legislative process, but it has garnered 20 cosponsors so far. Sadly, its lead sponsors are both retiring after this term.

Throughout the year, there were indications that marijuana legalization is on the cusp of winning majority support among the electorate. An August Angus Reid poll had support at 55%, while an October Gallup poll had it at 50%, the first time support legalization has gone that high since Gallup started polling the issue. A November CBS News poll was the downside outlier, showing support at only 40%, down slightly from earlier CBS polls. But both the Angus Reid and the Gallup polls disagreed with CBS, showing support for legalization trending steadily upward in recent years.

Legalization is also polling reasonably -- if not comfortably -- well in Colorado and Washington, the two states almost certain to vote on initiatives in November. In December, Public Policy Polling had legalization leading 49% to 40% in Colorado, but that was down slightly from an August poll by the same group that had legalization leading 51% to 38%.

In Washington, a similar situation prevails. A January KING5/SurveyUSA poll had 56% saying legalization would be a good idea and 54% saying they supported marijuana being sold at state-run liquor stores (similar to what the I-502 initiative proposes), while a July Elway poll had 54% either definitely supporting legalization or inclined to support it. But by September, the Strategies 360 Washington Voter Survey had public opinion evenly split, with 46% supporting pot legalization and 46% opposed.

The polling numbers in Colorado and Washington demonstrate that victory at the polls in November is in reach, but that it will be a tough fight and is by no means a sure thing. "Stoners Against Proposition 19"-style opposition in both states isn't going to help matters, either.

Oh, and Connecticut became the 14th decriminalization state.

Medical Marijuana Advances…

In May, Delaware became the 16th state to enact a medical marijuana law. Under the law, patients with qualifying conditions can legally possess up to six ounces of marijuana, but they cannot grow their own. Instead, they must purchase it from a state-licensed compassion center. That law will go into effect this year.

Meanwhile, New Jersey and Washington, DC, continue their achingly slow progress toward actually implementing existing medical marijuana laws. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie (R) finally got out of the way and okayed plans for up to six dispensaries, but early efforts to set them up are running into NIMBY-style opposition. In DC, a medical marijuana program approved by voters in 1998 (!) but thwarted by Congress until 2009 is nearly at the stage of selecting dispensary operators. One of these months or years, patients in New Jersey and DC may actually get their medicine.

And late in the year, after the federal government rejected a nine-year-old petition seeking to reschedule marijuana, the governors of Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington formally asked the Obama administration to reschedule it so that states could regulate its medical use without fear of federal interference. As the year came to an end, Colorado joined in the request for rescheduling.

…But the Empire Strikes Back

Last year saw the Obama administration recalibrate its posture toward medical marijuana, and not for the better. Throughout the year, US Attorneys across the country sent ominous signals that states attempting to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries could face problems, including letters to state governors not quite stating that state employees involved in regulation of the medical marijuana industry could face prosecution. That intimidated public officials who were willing to be intimidated, leading, for example, to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) delaying his state's medical marijuana program, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee (I) to kill plans for dispensaries there, and Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) to veto key parts of a bill there that would have regulated dispensaries.

Then the feds hit hard at Montana, raiding dispensaries and growers there, even as the state law was under attack by conservative Republican legislators. Now, Montana medical marijuana providers are heading to federal prison, and the state law has been restricted. What was once a booming industry in Montana has been significantly stifled.

There have also been raids directed at providers in Colorado, Michigan, Oregon, and Washington, but California has been the primary target of federal attention in the latter half of the year. Since a joint offensive by federal prosecutors in the state got underway in October, with threat letters being sent to numerous dispensaries and their landlords, a great chill has settled over the land. Dispensary numbers are dropping by the day, the number of lost jobs number in the thousands, and the amount of tax revenues lost to local jurisdictions and the state is in the millions. That's not to mention the patients who are losing safe access to their medicine.

It's unclear whether the impetus for the crackdown originated in the Dept. of Justice headquarters in Washington or with individual US Attorneys in the states. Advocates hope it will stay limited mainly to states that are not effectively regulating the industry, and a coalition in California has filed a ballot initiative for 2012 that would do just that. Either way there is plenty of pain ahead, for patients and for providers who took the president's and attorney general's earlier words on the subject at face value.

Synthetic Panic

Last year, Congress and state and local governments across the land set their sights on new synthetic drugs, especially synthetic cannabinoids ("fake marijuana") and a number of methcathinone derivatives ("bath salts") marketed for their stimulating effects similar to amphetamines or cocaine. Confronted with these new substances, politicians resorted to reflex prohibitionism, banning them as fast as they could.

Some 40 states and countless cities and counties have imposed bans on fake weed or bath salts or both, most of them acting this year.

At the federal level, the DEA enacted emergency bans on fake weed -- after first being temporarily blocked by retailers -- and then bath salts until Congress could act. It did so at the end of the year, passing the Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2011. The bill makes both sets of substances Schedule I drugs under the Controlled Substances Act, which will pose substantial impediments to researching them. Under the bill, prison sentences of up to 20 years could be imposed for the distribution of even small quantities of the new synthetics.

But the prohibitionists have a problem: Synthetic drug makers are responding to the bans by bringing new, slightly different formulations of their products to market. Prosecutors are finding their cases evaporating when the find the drugs seized are not the ones already criminalized, and retailers are eager to continue to profit from the sales of the new drugs. As always, the drug law enforcers are playing catch-up and the new drug-producing chemists are way ahead of them.

The Drug War on Autopilot: Arrests Hold Steady, But Prisoners Decline Slightly

overcrowded Mule Creek State Prison, CA
Last year saw more evidence that drug law enforcement has hit a plateau, as 2010 drug arrests held steady, but the number of prisoners and people under correctional supervision declined slightly.

More than 1.6 million people were arrested for drug offenses in the US in 2010, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report 2010, and more than half of them were for marijuana. That's a drug arrest every 19 seconds, 24 hours a day, every day last year. The numbers suggest that despite "no more war on drugs" rhetoric emanating from Washington, the drug war juggernaut is rolling along on cruise control.

Overall, 1,638,846 were arrested on drug charges in 2010, up very slightly from the 1,633,582 arrested in 2009. But while the number of drug arrests appears to be stabilizing, they are stabilizing at historically high levels. Overall drug arrests are up 8.3% from a decade ago.

Marijuana arrests last year stood at 853,838, down very slightly from 2009's 858,408. But for the second year in a row, pot busts accounted for more arrests than  all other drugs combined, constituting 52% of all drug arrests in 2010. Nearly eight million people have been arrested on pot charges since 2000.

The vast majority (88%) off marijuana arrests were for simple possession, with more than three-quarters of a million (750,591) busted in small-time arrests. Another 103,247 people were charged with sale or manufacture, a category that includes everything from massive marijuana smuggling operations to persons growing a single plant in their bedroom closets.

An analysis of the Uniform Crime Report data by the University of Maryland's Center for Substance Abuse Research added further substance to the notion that drug enforcement is flattening. The center found that the arrest rate for drug violations has decreased for the last four years, but still remains more than twice as high as rates in the early 1980s. The all-time peak was in 2006.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that for the first time since 1972, the US prison population in 2010 had fallen from the previous year and that for the second year in a row, the number of people under the supervision of adult correctional authorities had also declined.

In its report Prisoners in 2010, BJS reported that the overall US prison population at the end of 2010 was 1,605,127, a decrease of 9,228 prisoners or 0.6% from year end 2009. The number of state prisoners declined by 0.8% (10,881 prisoners), while the number of federal prisoners increased by 0.8% (1.653 prisoners). Drug offenders accounted for 18% of state prison populations in 2009, the last year for which that data is available. That's down from 22% in 2001. Violent offenders made up 53% of the state prison population, property offenders accounted for 19%, and public order or other offenders accounted for 9%.

In the federal prison population, drug offenders made up a whopping 51% of all prisoners, with public order offenders (mainly weapons and immigration violations) accounting for an additional 35%. Only about 10% of federal prisoners were doing time for violent offenses. Overall, somewhere between 350,000 and 400,000 people were doing prison time for drug offenses last year.

Similarly, in its report Correctional Population in the US 2010, BJS reported that the number of people under adult correctional supervision declined 1.3% last year, the second consecutive year of declines. The last two years are the only years to see this figure decline since 1980.

At the end of 2010, about 7.1 million people, or one in 33 adults, were either in prison or on probation or parole. About 1.4 million were in state prisons, 200,000 in federal prison, and 700,000 in jail, for a total imprisoned population of about 2.3 million. Nearly 4.9 million people were on probation or parole.

America's experiment with mass incarceration may have peaked, exhausted by its huge costs, but change is coming very slowly, and we are still the world's unchallenged leader in imprisoning our own citizens.

Federal Crack Prisoners Start Coming Home

Hundreds of federal crack cocaine prisoners began walking out prison in November, the first beneficiaries of a US Sentencing Commission decision to apply retroactive sentencing reductions to people already serving time on federal crack charges. As many as 1,800 federal crack prisoners were eligible for immediate release and up to 12,000 crack prisoners will be eligible for sentence reductions that will shorten their stays behind bars.

The releases come after Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act in August 2010, which shrank the much criticized disparity between mandatory minimum sentences for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1. After Congress acted, the Sentencing Commission then moved to make those changes retroactive, resulting in the early releases beginning in November.

Despite the joyous reunions taking place across the country, the drug war juggernaut keeps on rolling, and there is much work remaining to be done. Not all prisoners who are eligible for sentence reductions are guaranteed to receive one, and retroactivity won't do anything to help people still beneath their mandatory minimum sentences. A bill with bipartisan support in Congress, H.R. 2316, the Fair Sentencing Clarification Act, would make Fair Sentencing Act changes to mandatory minimum sentences retroactive as well, so that crack offenders left behind by the act as is would gain its benefits.

And the Fair Sentencing Act itself, while an absolute advance from the 100:1 disparity embodied in the crack laws, still retains a scientifically unsupportable 18:1 disparity. For justice to obtain, legislation needs to advance that treats cocaine as cocaine, no matter the form it takes.

But even those sorts of reforms are reforms at the back end, after someone has already been investigated, arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced. Radical reform that will cut the air supply to the drug war incarceration complex requires changes on the front end.

Also in November, the US Supreme Court announced that it will decide whether the Fair Sentencing Act should be applied to those who were convicted, but not sentenced, before it came into effect -- the so-called "pipeline" cases. The decision to take up the issue came after lower courts split on the issue. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the issue in June.

Drug Testing the Needy

drug testing lab
With state budgets strained by years of recession and slow recovery, lawmakers across the country are turning their sights on the poor and the needy. In at least 12 states, bills have been introduced that would require people seeking welfare or unemployment benefits to undergo drug testing and risk losing those benefits if they test positive. Some Republicans in the US Congress want to do the same thing. In a thirteenth state, Michigan, the state health department is leading the charge.

The race to drug test the needy appears to be based largely on anecdotal and apocryphal evidence. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Hailey (R), to take one example, cited reports that a nuclear installation there couldn't fill vacancies because half the applicants failed drug tests, but had to retract that statement because it was nowhere near to being true. In Florida, where welfare drug testing was briefly underway before being halted by a legal challenge, 96% of applicants passed drug tests, while in an Indiana unemployment drug testing program, only 2% failed.

While such legislation appeals to conservative values, it is having a tough time getting passed in most places, partly because of fears that such laws will be found unconstitutional. The federal courts have historically been reluctant to approve involuntary drug testing, allowing it only for certain law enforcement or public safety-related occupations and for some high school students. When Michigan tried to implement a welfare drug testing program more than a decade ago, a federal appeals court ruled that such a program violated welfare recipients' right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

That ruling has served to restrain many lawmakers, but not Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) and the Florida legislature. Scott issued an executive order to drug test state employees, but had to put that on hold in the face of threatened legal challenges. The state legislature passed and Scott signed a bill requiring welfare applicants and recipients to undergo drug testing or lose their benefits.

But the ACLU of Florida and the Florida Justice Institute filed suit in federal court to block that law on the grounds it violated the Fourth Amendment. In October, a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction preventing the state from implementing it. A final decision from that court and decisions about whether it will be appealed are eagerly awaited.

Marking 40 Years of Failed Drug War

Drug War 40th anniversary demo, San Francisco
June 17 marked forty years since President Richard Nixon, citing drug abuse as "public enemy No. 1," declared a "war on drugs." A trillion dollars and millions of ruined lives later, a political consensus is emerging that the war on drugs is a counterproductive failure. The Drug Policy Alliance led advocates all across the country in marking the auspicious date with a day of action to raise awareness about the catastrophic failure of drug prohibition and to call for an exit strategy from the failed war on drugs. More than 50 events on the anniversary generated hundreds of local and national stories.

In dozens of cities across the land, activists, drug war victims, and just plain folks gathered to commemorate the day of infamy and call for an end to that failed policy. Messages varied from city to city -- in California, demonstrators focused on prison spending during the budget crisis; in New Orleans, the emphasis was on racial injustice and harsh sentencing -- but the central overarching theme of the day, "No More Drug War!" was heard from sea to shining sea and all the way to Hawaii.

The crowds didn't compare to those who gather for massive marijuana legalization protests and festivals -- or protestivals -- such as the Seattle Hempfest, the Freedom Rally on Boston Commons, or the Ann Arbor Hash Bash, or even the crowds that gather for straightforward pot protests, such as 420 Day or the Global Marijuana March, but that's because the issues are tougher. People have to break a bit more profoundly with drug war orthodoxy to embrace completely ending the war on drugs than they do to support "soft" marijuana. That relatively small groups did so in cities across the land is just the beginning.

Congress Reinstates the Federal Ban on Funding Needle Exchanges

Two years ago, after years of advocacy by public health and harm reduction advocates, the longstanding ban on federal funding for needle exchanges was repealed. Last month, the ban was restored as the Senate took the final votes to approve the 2012 federal omnibus spending bill.

It was a Democratic-controlled House and Senate that rescinded the ban two years ago, and it was House Republicans who were responsible for reinstating it this year. Three separate appropriations bills contained language banning the use of federal funds, and House negotiators managed to get two of them into the omnibus bill passed Saturday.

A Labor-Health and Human Services appropriations bill including the ban on domestic use of federal funds for needle exchanges and a State Department bill including a ban on funding for needle exchange access in international programs both made it into the omnibus bill.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, American Public Health Association, and numerous other scientific bodies have found that syringe exchange programs are highly effective at preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases. Eight federal reports have found that increasing access to sterile syringes saves lives without increasing drug use.

Needle exchange supporters said restoring the ban will result in thousands of Americans contracting HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C or other infectious diseases next year alone.

US Drug War Deaths

As far as we know, nobody has ever tried to count the number of people killed in the US because of the war on drugs. We took a crack at it last year, counting only those deaths directly attributable to drug law enforcement activities. The toll was 54, including three law enforcement officers.

Most of those killed were shot by police, many of them while in possession of firearms (some in their own homes) and some of them while shooting at police. Some were shot in vehicles after police said they tried to run them down (why is it they never were merely trying to get away?). But not all died at the hands of police -- several died of drug overdoses from eating drugs while trying to evade arrest, several more died from choking on bags of drugs they swallowed, one man drowned after jumping into a river to avoid a pot bust, and another died after stepping in front of a speeding semi-trailer while being busted for meth.

People were killed in "routine traffic stops," SWAT-style raids, and undercover operations. Hardly any of those cases made more than a blip in local media, the two exceptions being the case of Jose Guerena, an Iraq war vet gunned down by an Arizona SWAT team as he responded to his wife's cry of intruders in his own home, and the case of Eurie Stamps Sr., a 68-year-old Massachusetts man accidentally shot and killed by a SWAT team member executing a warrant for small-time crack sales.

Our criteria were highly restrictive and absolutely undercount the number of people who are killed by our drug laws. They don't include, for instance, people who overdosed unnecessarily because they didn't know what they were taking or medical marijuana patients who die after being refused organ transplants. Nor do they include cases where people embittered by the drug laws go out in a blaze of glory that wasn't directly drug law-related or cases, like the four men killed last year by Miami SWAT officers during an undercover operation directed at drug house robbers.

The toll of 54 dead, then, is an absolute minimum figure, but it's a start. We will keep track again this year, and look for a report on last year's numbers in the coming weeks.

In Conclusion...

Last year had its ups and downs, its victories and defeats, but leaves drug reformers and their allies better placed than ever before to whack away at drug prohibition. This year, it looks like voters in Colorado and Washington will have a chance to legalize marijuana, and who know what else the new year will bring. At the least, we can look forward to the continuing erosion of last century's prohibitionist consensus.


 

Congress Votes to Restore Needle Exchange Funding Ban

Two years ago this week, after years of advocacy by public health and harm reduction advocates, the long-standing ban on federal funding for needle exchanges was repealed. On Saturday, it was restored as the Senate took the final votes to approve the 2012 federal omnibus spending bill.

It was a Democratic-controlled House and Senate that rescinded the ban two years ago, and it was House Republicans who were responsible for reinstating it this year. Three separate appropriations bills contained language banning the use of federal funds, and House negotiators managed to get two of them into the omnibus bill passed Saturday.

A Labor-Health and Human Services appropriations bill including the ban on domestic use of federal funds for needle exchanges and a State Department bill including a ban on funding for needle exchange access in international programs both made it into the omnibus bill.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, American Public Health Association, and numerous other scientific bodies have found that syringe exchange programs are highly effective at preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases. Eight federal reports have found that increasing access to sterile syringes saves lives without increasing drug use.

Needle exchange supporters said restoring the ban will result in thousands of Americans contracting HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C or other infectious diseases next year alone.

"The federal syringe funding ban was costly in both human and fiscal terms -- it is outrageous that Congress is restoring it given how overwhelming and clear the science is in support of making sterile syringes widely available," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Make no mistake about it -- members of Congress who supported this ban have put the lives of their constituents in jeopardy."

They should pay a political price, Piper said. "We may have lost this battle, but we have just begun to fight," said Piper. "The Republicans who insisted on restoring the ban, and the Democrats who didn’t fight hard enough to oppose it, will be responsible for thousands of Americans contracting HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C. We will make sure Americans know which members of Congress care about their health and well-being and which do not."

Washington, DC
United States

Email from Rep. Jose Serrano on Reinstatement of Federal Syringe Exchange Funding Ban

(The following statement from Rep. José Serrano (D-NY), sponsor of 2009 legislation that repealed the ban on federal funding of syringe exchange, was distributed on email lists that we monitor. It expresses his thoughts regarding the ban's reinstatement in Congressional legislation this week.)

Dear friends and allies:

We had a large setback on our goal of allowing life-saving syringe exchange programs to operate freely and with full funding from all levels of government without restrictions. The FY2012 funding package that was passed today contained multiple policy riders that expressly prohibit federal funding for syringe exchange programs. We were able to preserve DC’s right to carry out syringe exchange with their local funding, which is very important and would have been a tremendous blow to have lost. But the overall picture remains bleak with regard to federal funding.

We had so much success in recent years as we first removed the ban on DC conducting syringe exchange, and then the full federal ban. As I said at those moments, we were only able to achieve these long-overdue policy changes because of the years of advocacy, education, organizing and hard work that you all carried out. Now we’ve taken a step backwards, and will have to begin some of that work all over again.

Like you, I feel frustrated at moving backwards. But also like you, I know that we have the power of facts, science and experience on our side in this debate. We will have to begin to re-engage and re-start our push to educate those who don’t understand the lifesaving power of syringe exchange programs.

I look forward to continuing to work with you on this vital issue. We cannot rest it seems until we’ve ended all prohibitions on syringe exchange and also ended the debate on it for good. Too many lives are at stake: We must continue this fight.

Sincerely,


José E. Serrano

Breaking: Congress Votes to Kill People

Earlier this week we alerted our email subscribers and web site readers that Republicans in Congress were pushing to reinstate the only recently repealed syringe exchange funding ban. Lifted two years ago as part of the FY 2010 budget bill, the ban had prevented states from making their own decisions as to whether to use federal AIDS grant funding to support needle exchange programs. As most if not all aspects of the drug issue demonstrate, when Republicans talk about state and local control, they don't sincerely mean it, at least not as a group. (The libertarian-minded Ron Paul initially supported the ban, but changed his view and helped repeal it years later.)

Not that the ban's reinstatement can be blamed solely on Republicans, certainly not in the Democratically-controlled Senate. It happened in part because Democrats did not make it a priority to keep it from happening.

Congress's action this week means misery and death for large numbers of people. As the eight federal reviews of the research on this issue demonstrate, needle exchange programs reduce the spread of HIV without increasing the use of drugs. According to the Harm Reduction Coalition, needle sharing by injection drug users accounts for 8,000 new cases of HIV and 15,000 new cases of Hepatitis C each year. Of course the diseases spread from them to other people on occasion, including people who have no involvement in illegal drug use. As HRC points out, New York City has seen a 75% reduction in new HIV cases as a result of instituting such programs, according to a 2005 study.

So let's be clear; the evidence is overwhelming. In fact, even the studies cited by opponents of needle exchange actually support needle exchange, if you take the time to read them. Reinstituting the federal ban will have the effect of defunding many programs, and the science is clear that this means more infections and more needless of life. It won't save the federal government any money, because it doesn't affect the total amount of funding in the Ryan White program. All it does is make the program less effective at accomplishing its goals. And of course, health care costs will only grow because expensive AIDS and Hepatitis treatments will be needed for more people. Sadly, expressing the drug war ideology through deadly legislating seems to be more important for certain members of Congress than any of that. On the bright side, at least they didn't reinstate the old ban on the District of Columbia spending its own funds on needle exchange programs.

Don't give up and don't think that it's over. The ban got repealed once, and it will get repealed again. In the meanwhile, here are a few of the statements about the event that have come to my attention since yesterday. (Feel free to link more in the comments section.)

Congress to Restore Federal Syringe Exchange Funding Ban as Part of 2012 Spending Package

Drug Policy Alliance

www.drugpolicy.org

For Immediate Release: December 16, 2011
Contact: Tony Newman or Bill Piper

Congress to Restore Federal Syringe Exchange Funding Ban as Part of 2012 Spending Package

Ban on Allowing States to Use HIV Prevention Money on Life-Saving Syringe Programs was Overturned in 2009 After 20-Year Struggle

Reinstatement of Ban will Lead to Thousands of New HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C Cases Annually

As part of the 2012 spending package being voted on today, Congress is restoring a ban on using federal funding for syringe exchange programs that reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, and other infectious diseases. The ban, enacted in the 1980s and repealed in 2009, was largely responsible for hundreds of thousands of Americans contracting HIV/AIDS directly or indirectly from the sharing of used syringes. Advocates warn that restoring the ban will result in thousands of Americans contracting HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C or other infectious diseases next year alone.

“The federal syringe funding ban was costly in both human and fiscal terms – it is outrageous that Congress is restoring it given how overwhelming and clear the science is in support of making sterile syringes widely available,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Make no mistake about it – members of Congress who supported this ban have put the lives of their constituents in jeopardy.”

House Republicans passed restrictive language in three separate appropriations bills, and succeeded in getting two of three bans in the current House-Senate compromise omnibus for Fiscal Year 2012 being voted on today. In addition to the overarching ban on domestic use of federal funds contained in the Labor-HHS spending bill, House republicans also succeeded in imposing a ban on use of State Department funds for syringe access in international programs. In large parts of the world the HIV/AIDS epidemic is being driven by injection drug use. The international syringe funding ban will mean the global HIV/AIDS epidemic will continue to grow.

The existing federal syringe exchange policy, signed into law by President Obama in December of 2009, allows states and local public health officials to use federal funds for syringe access, in consultation and with the consent of  local law enforcement. The policy change is widely credited with having prevented thousands of new cases of HIV and Hepatitis C, thereby saving many lives and improving public health and safety.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, American Public Health Association, and numerous other scientific bodies have found that syringe exchange programs are highly effective at preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases. Increasing the availability of sterile syringes through exchange programs, pharmacies and other outlets also helps injection drug users obtain drug education and treatment. Eight federal reports have found that increasing access to sterile syringes saves lives without increasing drug use.

“We may have lost this battle, but we have just begun to fight,” said Piper. “The Republicans who insisted on restoring the ban, and the Democrats who didn’t fight hard enough to oppose it, will be responsible for thousands of Americans contracting HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C. We will make sure Americans know which members of Congress care about their health and well-being and which do not.”

###

ALERT: Don't Let Congress Backslide on Needle Exchange

Dear drug policy reformer:

One of the most important actions taken by Congress in recent years was the lifting of a ban on the use of federal AIDS grants to support needle exchange programs. We have just learned that as part of the end-of-year Congressional spending package, Republicans are pushing hard to reinstate the ban. If they succeed, it won't reduce federal spending -- this is entirely about the choices state and local officials get to make with the funds that they have -- but it will kill people by promoting syringe sharing by injection drug users and the resulting spread of deadly diseases like Hepatitis and HIV, in turn driving up health care costs related to those diseases.

Please call the White House to urge President Obama to stand firm on this issue and not allow the needle exchange funding ban to be reinstated. The White House comment line number is (202) 456-1414. Here is a sample script for your phone call: "My name is _______. I live in <CITY, STATE>. Thank you for your past support of syringe exchange. I support maintaining current language that allows local officials to make their own decisions to use federal and local Washington DC funds for Syringe Exchange. Please do not allow the Senate or House to change the current law in the Fiscal Year 2012 Appropriations negotiations. Thank you."

Please also make the following calls to Congress:

  1. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV): (202) 224-3542
  2. Senate Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin (D-IL): (202) 224-2152
  3. Charles Schumer, chair of Senate Democratic Policy Committee (D-NY): (202) 224-6542
  4. Your Own Two Senators: (202) 224-3121 for the Congressional Switchboard or look up your Senator's numbers at senate.gov

    Sample script for phone calls to the Senate: "My name is _______. I live in <CITY, STATE>. I support maintaining current language that allows local officials to make their own decisions to use federal and local Washington DC funds for Syringe Exchange. Please do not change the current law in the Fiscal Year 2012 Appropriations negotiations. Thank you."
  5. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA): (202) 225-4965

    "Thank you for your past support of syringe exchange. "My name is _______. I live in <CITY, STATE>. I support maintaining current language that allows local officials to make their own decisions to use federal and local Washington DC funds for Syringe Exchange. Please do not change the current law in the Fiscal Year 2012 Appropriations negotiations. Thank you."

Please email us to let us know what phone calls you've made -- especially if the staffers who take your phone calls offer any indication as to what their bosses' intentions are. Thank you for your taking action.

California Gov. Brown Signs Needle Access Bills

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has signed into law a pair of bills that will expand access to clean needles and help prevent the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C infections in the state. The move is winning him kudos from drug reformers and public health advocates.

Badly needed needle exchanges could be coming to more CA counties under a bill just signed by Gov Brown. (wikimedia.org)
The first bill, Senate Bill 41, sponsored by Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), makes legal the sale of syringes at pharmacies without a prescription. An earlier pilot program allowing such sales had been in effect in some counties and has proven effective at reducing needle-sharing, but most counties did not participate. Now, once the bill goes into effect on January 1, people will be able to buy syringes without a prescription at pharmacies statewide.

The second bill, AB 604, sponsored by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), allows the California Department of Public Health to authorize new needle exchange programs after consultation with local public health and law enforcement. Currently, needle exchange programs are only authorized after county officials declare a public health emergency, and the political will to do that has been lacking in some counties. This bill allows public health officials to take the initiative instead of waiting for elected officials. It, too, will go into effect on January 1.

"I am directing the department to administer AB 604 in a constrained way, working closely not only with local health officers and police chiefs, but with neighborhood associations as well," said Gov. Brown in his signing statement. "I believe that AB 604 can reduce the spread of communicable diseases and the suffering they cause and, at the same time, respect public safety and local preference."

"This is a huge victory for public health and common sense," said Laura Thomas, Deputy Director of California for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Now all Californians will have the same access to proven, effective HIV and hepatitis C prevention. This gives drug users the tools that they need to protect their health and that of their partners, children, and communities, as well as protecting the California taxpayer from the cost of HIV and hepatitis C infections."

Sacramento, CA
United States

Scottish Needle Exchange Conference

Scottish Needle Exchange Conference

'Working Together'

Stirling Highland Hotel, Stirling, Scotland 

WEDNESDAY 9TH NOVEMBER

 

The conference is the inaugural Scottish Needle Exchange Conference held to support the implementation of the first national needle exchange contract.

The primary aim of the conference is to communicate on a Scottish wide basis, trends within the needle exchange arena, and to support best practice, working together.

Visit http://www.snxc.org for further information.

Date: 
Wed, 11/09/2011 - 8:30am - 5:00pm
Location: 
Stirling, STG
United Kingdom

Chronicle Book Review: Drugs and Drug Policy

Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Mark Kleiman, Jonathan Caulkins, and Angela Hawken (2011, Oxford University Press, 234 pp., $16.95 PB)

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/drugs_and_drug_policy.jpg
Mark Kleiman isn't real popular among the drug reform set. The UCLA professor of public policy is no legalizer, and even though he's too much of an evidence-minded academic to be a wild-eyed drug warrior, he still seems to have an unbecoming fondness for the coercive power of the state. Kleiman, who gets top-billing over coauthors Jonathan Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon and Angela Hawken at Pepperdine, also ruffles reformers' feathers with unnecessary snideness and snark.

But I watched Kleiman address Students for Sensible Drug Policy conventions a couple of times, and I thought it was a good thing, a very useful jolt to the group-think that can grip any gathering of congregants committed to a cause. I thought having the students have to hear the arguments of a leading academic thinker on drug policy who, while not "the enemy," was not especially saying what the average SSDPer wanted to hear, was salubrious for their critical thinking skills. I still think so.

In Drugs and Drug Policy, Kleiman and his coauthors continue with the occasional jibes aimed at the drug reform movement, at times reach conclusions at odds with my own, but also serve up a surprisingly chewy work of drug policy wonkery in delicious bite-size chunks. The innovative format, something like a series of FAQs organized within broader chapters -- "Why Have Drug Laws?" "How Does Drug Law Enforcement Work?" "What Treats Drug Abuse?" "Can Problem Drugs Be Dealt With at the Source?" -- allows us to unpack that all-encompassing monster called "drug policy" one subset at a time, and for that achievement alone, is worthy of praise. That it manages to cover so much ground in a paltry 234 pages is all the more laudable.

Overall, Drugs and Drug Policy is smart, reasonable, and thoughtful. It wants policies based on evidence and it advocates for some intelligent alternatives to current policies. It recognizes the utility of needle exchanges, safe injection sites, and opiate maintenance, even as it complains that "harm reduction" has been hijacked by legalizers. It explains that most people who use drugs -- even those diagnosable as suffering from substance abuse disorders -- will quit using drugs themselves without recourse to treatment. And it even allows that drug use can have beneficial effects, even if it doesn't do so until the seventh chapter.

But Kleiman et. al dismiss decriminalization as unlikely to have a big impact on the social fiscal burden of drug law enforcement because, even though it doesn't appear to have much impact on consumption, drug consumers are not, for the most part, filling our prisons -- drug dealers are. While they do concede that not criminalizing otherwise law-abiding citizens could have "significant benefits," they seem to underplay the negative, life-long impact of a criminal drug record on one's life prospects.

In fact, they seem all too comfortable with maintaining the pernicious role of the criminal justice system in drug policy even as they recognize that enforcing the drug laws is "unavoidably an ugly process," with its reliance on snitches, surveillance, and other "intrusive methods" of enforcement. To give them credit, they want smarter drug law enforcement -- concentrating police repression on violent drug dealers while turning a blind eye to discreet dealing, triaging coerced drug treatment spots so they are reserved for the people who could most benefit from them, giving up on interdiction and source country eradication as ineffective -- that might actually reduce the social and fiscal costs of both drug abuse and enforcement, and since drug prohibition isn't going away anytime soon, at least wasting less money on drug war tactics that don't work well should be on the table.

And they reject drug legalization as too scary to experiment with, but seem to imagine it as possible only within a corporate-controlled, heavily-advertised, low-priced scenario similar to that which has accreted around the alcohol industry. Yes, it's probably true that selling cocaine like Coors, would lead (at least initially) to a significant increase in use and problem use, but why does that have to be the only model? A government monopoly similar to the state liquor store model, with reasonable taxes and no corporate pressure to advertise could conceivably allow legalization without the increases in consumption that the authors predict, even though they concede they don't know how large they might be.

Still, when you get to what it is Kleiman et al. would do if they had their druthers, all but the most purist of legalization advocates will find a lot to like. They create three separate lists of recommendations -- a "consensus list" of reforms they think are politically doable now or in the near future, a "pragmatic list" of reforms that would appeal to dispassionate observers but could raise the hackles of moralists, and a "political bridge too far list" of reforms too radical for mainstream politicians to embrace.

The "consensus list" includes expanding opiate maintenance therapy, encouraging evidence-based treatment, early intervention by the health care system, encouraging people to quit on their own (as opposed to being "powerless"), relying less on interdiction, ending the charade that alternative development is drug control, and concentrating drug enforcement on reducing violence and disorder, as well as smarter, more effective coerced treatment in the legal system. If we saw the drug czar's office produce a National Drug Control Strategy with these recommendations, we would consider that a great victory. It ain't legalization, but its headed in a more intelligent, more humane direction.

The "pragmatic list" includes recommendations to lower the number of drug dealers behind bars, not reject harm reduction even if it's been "hijacked," stop punishing former dealers and addicts, reduce barriers to medical research on illegal substances, and be open-minded about less harmful forms of tobacco use.

The authors don't neglect alcohol and tobacco -- the two most widely-used drugs -- and that is really evident in their "political bridge too far" recommendations. The first three items there are aimed squarely at reducing alcohol consumption and its ill effects. They also argue for the legalization of individual or collective marijuana cultivation, a sort of legalization without the market, increased study of the non-medical benefits of drugs, and increasing cigarette taxes in low tax states.

I think Drugs and Drug Policy needs to be read by anyone seriously interested in drug policy reform. It hits almost all the bases, and it's well-informed, provocative, and challenging of dogmatic positions. You don't like the authors' conclusions? Refute them. It'll be good for you.

US Surgeon General Gives Okay for Needle Exchange Funding

Needle exchanges save lives -- ask the Surgeon General (Image via Wikimedia)
In a notice dated last Friday, but posted in the Federal Register Wednesday, US Surgeon General Regina Benjamin has determined that needle exchange programs constitute a form of drug treatment, which means that NEPS can qualify for funding under the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment block grant programs.

"[NEPs] are widely considered to be an effective way of reducing HIV transmission among individuals who inject illicit drugs and there is ample evidence that [NEPs] also promote entry and retention into treatment," Benjamin said in making the determination. "The Surgeon General of the United States Public Health Service has therefore determined that a demonstration syringe services program would be effective in reducing drug abuse and the risk that the public will become infected with the etiologic agent for AIDS."

The use of federal dollars to fund NEPS had been banned for 21 years until 2009, when a Democrat-controlled Congress undid it and President Obama signed the lifting of the ban into law. But moves are afoot in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to put it back in place. The Surgeon General's notice will weaken that effort.

Washington, DC
United States

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