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Europe: Scottish Attitudes toward Drugs, Drug Users Harsh and Getting Harsher, Annual Poll Finds

Scottish public opinion is taking a harder line toward drug use and drug users, according to the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2009. Support for marijuana legalization has declined by half since 2001, while attitudes toward heroin users are harsh, and support for harsh punishments is stronger than support for harm reduction measures.

The poll comes after several years of a full-blown Reefer Madness epidemic in the United Kingdom press, where sensational assertions that "cannabis causes psychosis" have gained considerably more traction than they have in the US. It also comes as Scotland confronts an intractable, seemingly permanent, population of problem heroin users and increasing calls from Conservatives to treat them more harshly.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, support for marijuana legalization rose in Scotland, as if did throughout the UK, reaching 37% by 2001. Last year, it was down to 24%. The decline was especially dramatic among young people, with 62% of 18-to-24-year-olds supporting legalization in 2001 and only 24% last year.

Support was down even among people who have used marijuana. In 2001, 70% supported legalization; now only 47% do. Similarly, attitudes toward pot possession also hardened among the Scots public. In 2001, 51% agreed that people should not be prosecuted for possessing small amounts for personal use. In 2009, this figure fell to just 34%.

Scots don't have much use for heroin users, either. Nearly half (45%) agreed that addicts "have only themselves to blame," while just 27% disagreed. On the obverse, only 29% agreed that most heroin users "come from difficult backgrounds," while 53% disagreed. People who are generally more liberal in their values, people who have friends or family members who have used drugs, and graduates were all more likely to have sympathetic views toward heroin users.

Fewer than half (47%) would be comfortable working around someone who had used heroin in the past, while one in five would be uncomfortable doing so. Similarly, just 26% said they would be comfortable with someone in treatment for heroin living near them, while 49% said they would not be. Only 16% think heroin use should be decriminalized.

When it comes to policy toward heroin use, Scots were split: 32% wanted tougher penalties, 32% wanted "more help for people who want to stop using heroin," and 28% wanted more drug education. And four out of five (80%) agreed that "the only real way of helping drug addicts is to get them to stop using drugs altogether."

Those tough attitudes are reflected in declining support for needle exchanges, the survey's sole measure of support for harm reduction approaches. In 2001, 62% supported needle exchanges; now only 50% do.

It looks like Scottish harm reductionists and drug reformers have their work cut out for them.

Syringe Exchange Victory Celebration

After 21 years, Congress finally removed language prohibiting the use of federal dollars to fund syringe exchange services. The Coalition is hosting this bipartisan celebration to recognize leaders in Congress, to honor community advocates, and to remind everyone that there is still work to be done to ensure these lifesaving services are fully implemented. Confirmed honorees and members of congress attending: • Representative José Serrano (NY) • Representative Barbara Lee (CA) • Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL) • Dave Purchase, The North American Syringe Exchange Network • The Harm Reduction Coalition The celebration will be held following a noon rally for World Hepatitis Day. Hors D’oeuvres will be served Please RSVP to gsmith@drugpolicy.org.
Date: 
Wed, 05/19/2010 - 4:00pm - 7:00pm
Location: 
E Capitol St NE & 1st St NE, Room HC-5
Washington, DC 20001
United States

Feature: Obama's First National Drug Strategy -- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A leaked draft of the overdue 2010 National Drug Strategy was published by Newsweek over the weekend, and it reveals some positive shifts away from Bush-era drug policy paradigms and toward more progressive and pragmatic approaches. But there is a lot of continuity as well, and despite the Obama administration's rhetorical shift away from the "war on drugs," the drug war juggernaut is still rolling along.

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sign of the leaker?
That doesn't quite jibe with Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) director Gil Kerlikowske's words when he announced in April 2009 that the phrase "war on drugs" was no longer in favor. "Regardless of how you try to explain to people it's a 'war on drugs' or a 'war on a product,' people see a war as a war on them. We're not at war with people in this country."

The leak was reported by long-time Washington insider and Newsweek columnist Michael Isikoff, who mentioned it almost off-handedly in a piece asserting "The White House Drug Czar's Diminished Status." Isikoff asserted in the piece that the unveiling of the strategy had been delayed because Kerlikowske didn't have the clout to get President Obama to schedule a joint appearance to release it. His office had been downgraded from cabinet level, Isikoff noted.

That sparked an angry retort from UCLA professor Mark Kleiman, a burr under the saddle to prohibitionists and anti-prohibitionists alike for his heterodox views on drug policy. In a blog post, Kleiman seemed personally offended at the leak, twice referring to the leaker as "a jerk," defending the new drug strategy as innovative if bound by interagency politics, and deriding Isikoff's article as "gossipy."

Kleiman also suggested strongly that the leaker was none other than former John Walters on the basis of an editing mark on the document that had his name on it. But Walters has not confirmed that, and others have point out it could have been a current staffer who is using the same computer Walters used while in office.

On the plus side, the draft strategy embraces some harm reduction programs, such as needle exchanges and the use of naloxone to prevent overdoses, although without ever uttering the words "harm reduction." There is also a renewed emphasis on prevention and treatment, with slight spending increases. But again reality fails to live up to rhetoric, with overall federal drug control spending maintaining the long-lived 2:1 ration in spending for law enforcement, eradication, and interdiction versus that for treatment and prevention.

The strategy also promotes alternatives to incarceration, such drug courts, community courts and the like and for the first time hints that it recognizes the harms that can be caused by the punitive approach to drug policy. And it explicitly calls for reform of the sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine offenses.

It sets a number of measurable goals related to reducing drug use. By 2015, ONDCP vows to cut last month drug use by young adults by 10% and cut last month use by teens, lifetime use by 8th graders, and the number of chronic drug users by 15%.

The 2010 goals of a 15% reduction reflect diminishing expectations after years of more ambitious drug use reduction goals followed by the drug policy establishment's inability to achieve them. That could inoculate the Obama administration from the kind of criticism faced by the Clinton administration back in the 1990s when it did set much more ambitious goals.

The Clinton administration's 1998 National Drug Control Strategy called for a "ten-year conceptual framework to reduce drug use and drug availability by 50%." That didn't happen. That strategy put the number of drug users at 13.5 million, but instead of decreasing, according to the 2008 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse and Health, by 2007 the number of drug users was at 20.1 million.

While Clinton took criticism from Republicans that his goals were not ambitious enough -- Newt Gingrich said we should just wipe out drugs -- the Bush administration set similar goals, and achieved similarly modest results. The Bush administration's 2002 National Drug Control Strategy sought a 25% reduction in drug use by both teenagers and adults within five years. While teen drug use declined from 11.6% in 2002 to 9.3% in 2007, then drug czar Walters missed his goal. He did less well with adult use almost unchanged, at 6.3% in 2000 and 5.9% in 2007.

The draft strategy, however, remains wedded to law enforcement, eradication, and interdiction, calls for strong federal support for local drug task forces, and explicitly rejects marijuana legalization. It also seeks to make drugged driving a top priority, which would be especially problematic if the administration adopts per se zero tolerance measures (meaning the presence of any metabolites of a controlled substance could result in a driver's arrest whether he was actually impaired or not).

Still, while the draft strategy is definitely a mixed bag, a pair of keen observers of ONDCP and federal drug policy pronounced themselves fairly pleased overall. While still heavy on the law enforcement side, the first Obama national drug strategy is a far cry from the propaganda-driven documents of Bush era drug czar John Walters.

The Good

"This is somewhat of a surprise, because for the first time they have included reducing the funds associated with the drug war in their strategy, although not in a big way, they're calling for reform of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, and they are calling for the reform of laws that penalize people," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "This is the first time they've included anything recognizing that some of our policies are creating harm," he added.

"The stuff about syringe exchange and naloxone for overdose prevention is pretty good. It's the first time they've embraced any part of harm reduction, even though they don't use that name," Piper noted.

"I'm also impressed with the section on alternatives to incarceration," said Piper. "They basically said most drug users don't belong in jail, and a lot of dealers don't, either. It's still wedded to the criminal justice system, but it's good that they looked at so many different things -- drug courts, community courts, Operation Highpoint (warning dealers to desist instead of just arresting them as a means of breaking up open-air drug markets), programs for veterans. They seem interested in finding out what works, which is an evidence-based approach that had been lacking in previous strategies."

The Status Quo

"Drug war reformers have eagerly been waiting the release of President Obama's first National Drug Control Strategy," noted Matthew Robinson, professor of Government and Justice Studies at Appalachian State University and coauthor (with Renee Scherlen) of "Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics: A Critical Analysis of Claims Made by the ONDCP." "Would it put Obama's and Kerlikowske's words into action, or would it be more of the same in terms of federal drug control policy? The answer is yes. And no. There is real, meaningful, exciting change proposed in the 2010 Strategy. But there's a lot of the status quo, too," he said.

"The first sentence of the Strategy hints at status quo approaches to federal drug control policy; it announces 'a blueprint for reducing illicit drug use and its harmful consequences in America,'" Robinson said. "That ONDCP will still focus on drug use (as opposed to abuse) is unfortunate, for the fact remains that most drug use is normal, recreational, pro-social, and even beneficial to users; it does not usually lead to bad outcomes for users, including abuse or addiction," he said.

"Just like under the leadership of Director John Walters, Kerlikowske's ONDCP characterizes its drug control approaches as 'balanced,' yet FY 2011 federal drug control spending is still imbalanced in favor of supply side measures (64%), while the demand side measures of treatment and prevention will only receive 36% of the budget," Robinson pointed out. "In FY 2010, the percentages were 65% and 35%, respectively. Perhaps when Barack Obama said 'Change we can believe in,' what he really meant was 'Change you can believe in, one percentage point at a time.'"

There is also much of the status quo in funding levels, Robinson said. "There will also be plenty of drug war funding left in this 'non-war on drugs.' For example, FY 2011 federal drug control spending includes $3.8 billion for the Department of Homeland Security (which includes Customs and Border Protection spending), more than $3.4 billion for the Department of Justice (which includes Drug Enforcement Agency spending), and nearly $1.6 billion for the Department of Defense (which includes military spending). Thus, the drug war will continue on under President Obama even if White House officials do not refer to federal drug control policy as a 'war on drugs,'" he noted.

The Bad

"ONDCP repeatedly stresses the importance of reducing supply of drugs into the United States through crop eradication and interdiction efforts, international collaboration, disruption of drug smuggling organizations, and so forth," Robinson noted. "It still promotes efforts like Plan Colombia, the Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, and many other similar programs aimed at eradicating drugs in foreign countries and preventing them from entering the United States. The bottom line here is that the 'non war on drugs' will still look and feel like a war on drugs under President Obama, especially to citizens of the foreign nations where the United States does the bulk of its drug war fighting."

"They are still wedded to interdiction and eradication," said Piper. "There is no recognition that they aren't very effective and do more harm than good. Coming only a couple of weeks after the drug czar testified under oath that eradication in Colombia and Afghanistan and elsewhere had no impact on the availability of drugs in the US, to then put out a strategy embracing what he said was least effective is quite disturbing."

"The ringing endorsement of per se standards for drugged driving is potentially troubling," said Piper. "It looks a lot like zero tolerance. We have to look at this also in the context of new performance measures, which are missing from the draft. In the introduction, they talk about setting goals for reducing drug use and that they went to set other performance measures, such as for reducing drug overdoses and drugged driving. If they actually say they're going to reduce drugged driving by such and such an amount with a certain number of years, that will be more important. We'll have to see what makes it into the final draft."

"They took a gratuitous shot at marijuana reform," Piper noted. "It was unfortunate they felt the need to bash something that half of Americans support and to do it in the way they did, listing a litany of Reefer Madness allegations and connecting marijuana to virtually every problem in America. That was really unfortunate."

More Good

There are some changes in spending priorities. "Spending on prevention will grow 13.4% from FY 2010 to FY 2011, while spending on treatment will grow 3.7%," Robinson noted. "The growth in treatment is surprisingly small given that ONDCP notes that 90% of people who need treatment do not receive it. Increases are much smaller for spending on interdiction (an increase of 2.4%), domestic law enforcement (an increase of 1.9%), and international spending (an increase of 0.9%). This is evidence of a shift in federal drug control strategy under President Obama; there will be a greater effort to prevent drug use in the first place as well as treat those that become addicted to drugs than there ever was under President Bush."

Robinson also lauded the Obama administration for more clarity in the strategy than was evident under either Clinton or Bush. "Obama's first Strategy clearly states its guiding principles, each of which is followed by a specific set of actions to be initiated and implemented over time to achieve goals and objectives related to its principles. Of course, this is Obama's first Strategy, so in subsequent years, there will be more data presented for evaluation purposes, and it should become easier to decipher the ideology that will drive the 'non war on drugs' under President Obama," he said.

But he suggested that ideology still plays too big a role. "ONDCP hints at its ideology when it claims that programs such as 'interdiction, anti-trafficking initiatives, drug crop reduction, intelligence sharing and partner nation capacity building... have proven effective in the past.' It offers almost no evidence that this is the case other than some very limited, short-term data on potential cocaine production in Colombia. ONDCP claims it is declining, yet only offers data from 2007 to 2008. Kerlikowske's ONDCP seems ready to accept the dominant drug war ideology of Walters that supply side measures work -- even when long-term data show they do not."

Robinson also lauded ONDCP's apparent revelation that drug addiction is a disease. "Obama's first strategy embraces a new approach to achieving federal drug control goals of 'reducing illicit drug consumption' and 'reducing the consequences of illicit drug use in the United States,' one that is evidence-based and public health oriented," Robinson said. "ONDCP recognizes that drug addiction is a disease and it specifies that federal drug control policy should be assisted by parties in all of the systems that relate to drug use and abuse, including families, schools, communities, faith-based organizations, the medical profession, and so forth. This is certainly a change from the Bush Administration, which repeatedly characterized drug use as a moral or personal failing."

While the Obama drug strategy may have its faults, said Robinson, it is a qualitative improvement over Bush era drug strategies. "Under the Bush Administration, ONDCP came across as downright dismissive of data, evidence, and science, unless it was used to generate fear and increased punitive responses to drug-related behaviors. Honestly, there is very little of this in Obama's first strategy, aside from the usual drugs produce crime, disorder, family disruption, illness, addiction, death, and terrorism argument that has for so long been employed by ONDCP," he said. "Instead, the Strategy is hopeful in tone and lays out dozens of concrete programs and policies that aim to prevent drug use among young people (through public education programs, mentoring initiatives, increasing collaboration between public health and safety organizations); treat adults who have developed drug abuse and addiction problems (though screening and intervention by medical personnel, increased investments in addiction treatment, new treatment medications); and, for the first time, invest heavily in recovery efforts that are restorative in nature and aimed at giving addicts a new lease on life," he noted.

"ONDCP also seems to suddenly have a better grasp on why the vast majority of people who need treatment do not get it," said Robinson. "Under Walters, ONDCP claimed that drug users were in denial and needed to be compassionately coerced to seek treatment. In the 2010 Strategy, ONDCP outlines numerous problems with delivery of treatment services including problems with the nation's health care systems generally. The 2010 Strategy seems so much better informed about the realities of drug treatment than previous Strategy reports," he added.

"The strategy also repeatedly calls for meaningful change in areas such as alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent, low-level drug offenders; drug testing in courts (and schools, unfortunately, in spite of data showing it is ineffective); and reentry programs for inmates who need help finding jobs and places to live upon release from prison or jail. ONDCP also implicitly acknowledges that that federal drug control policy imposes costs on families (including the break-up of families), and shows with real data that costs are greater economically for imprisonment of mothers and foster care for their children than family-based treatment," Robinson noted.

"ONDCP makes the case that we are wasting a lot of money dealing with the consequences of drug use and abuse when this money would be better spent preventing use and abuse in the first place. Drug policy reformers will embrace this claim," Robinson predicted.

"The strategy also calls for a renewed emphasis on prescription drug abuse, which it calls 'the fastest growing drug problem in the United States,'" Robinson pointed out. "Here, as in the past, ONDCP suggests regulation is the answer because prescription drugs have legitimate uses that should not be restricted merely because some people use them illegally. And, as in the past, ONDCP does not consider this approach for marijuana, which also has legitimate medicinal users in spite of the fact that some people use it illegally," he said.

The Verdict

"President Obama's first National Drug Control Strategy offers real, meaningful, exciting change," Robinson summed up. "Whether this change amounts to 'change we can believe in' will be debated by drug policy reformers. For those who support demand side measures, many will embrace the 2010 Strategy and call for even greater funding for prevention and treatment. For those who support harm reduction measures such as needled exchange, methadone maintenance and so forth, there will be celebration. Yet, for those who support real alternatives to federal drug control policy such as legalization or decriminalization, all will be disappointed. And even if Obama officials will not refer to its drug control policies as a 'war on drugs,' they still amount to just that."

Feature: First Drug User Union Forms in San Francisco

Thanks to the on-the-ground efforts of local harm reductionists and the funding largesse of the Drug Policy Alliance, San Francisco is now the home of only the second drug user union in the United States. The nascent effort is just getting off the ground, but plans to follow in the footsteps of Canada's Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and the New York City VOCAL drug user union affiliated with the NYC Aids Housing Network.

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While self-identified drug user unions are rare in the US, they have a history dating back to the Dutch "junkiebund" of the 1970s. The movement is currently spreading internationally, with affiliates of the International Network of People Who Use Drugs (INPUD) operating in Europe, North America, South America, and Asia. And while medical marijuana patients did not refer to themselves as drug users, they have done similar organizing based on their use of the weed.

"We gave a $35,000 grant to the Harm Reduction Therapy Center to organize drug users in San Francisco, said Laura Thomas, DPA California state deputy director. "It is an annual grant, and future funding depends on HRTC re-applying for the funds. We have funded VOCAL in New York for several years."

DPA sees drug user groups as a key component in efforts to reduce the harms of both drug use and prohibitionist drug policies, said Thomas. "We hope that drug users in San Francisco will have a voice in policy decisions that affect them," she said. "We hope that they will become an active and organized part of efforts to reduce the harm related to both drugs and the war on drugs in San Francisco. The group is still in the process of forming and determining what their priority issues are, so I can't speak for what they are going to be working on."

"While we haven't quite chosen our main campaign, we've been talking about what we would ideally like San Francisco to look like, about having a safe place to inject, and about having a safe place to consume other drugs, too," said Alexandra Goldman, the organizer for the group. "Within a couple of months, we will choose our first official campaign," she vowed.

"We are also interested in working to decrease the stigma, both within and outside the drug using community," Goldman added. "We're trying to work with health care providers to make it a more positive experience. Our people tend to wait until they are very seriously ill because they are not treated very well. In our meetings, I'm hearing about how people don't get the prescribed pain medications they need because the doctors don't like them."

The group has already been active, joining in protests against the city's proposed ordinance barring people from sitting or lying on public sidewalks. Homeless people in neighborhoods like Haight-Asbury have roused the ire of business owners with their presence, but activists say they have no place to go and should not be criminalized.

The SF Drug User Union participation in the sit/lie protests makes sense given that many of its members are homeless and that its meetings are generally being held in homeless drop-in centers in the Tenderloin and the Mission. The group boasts about 25 members, with an emerging core group of 10 or 12, but is looking to expand by working with lower income communities and people involved in local harm reduction networks.

"We plan to be active consumers, giving our opinions and our voice on issues and policies that affect us," said Isaac Jackson, the other paid staffer for the union. "People are already asking us for our expertise."

So who can join the union? Anyone who identifies as a drug user, past or present, organizers said. Defining members in that manner allows people to get active without necessarily outing themselves as current users.

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"There is no piss test to get into this group," said Jackson. "We have heroin users, speed users, people who drink, pot smokers. Some people think pot's not a big issue, but anyone who wants to work with us, we say 'right on.' We support the legalization campaign and we support medical marijuana. That's a success story, and so is needle exchange, and we'll be trying to learn from those."

The only rule at meetings is no drug dealing, said Jackson. "We don't want people to deal drugs at the meeting or endanger other people in the group by that kind of activity, but if people are carrying, so what? Some people have showed up tweaking. We don't want to say they can't come because they're too high. We want people to feel welcome whatever their level of sobriety."

Forming a drug user union in San Francisco has been an idea that's been batted around for at least a couple of years, but it took some cold, hard cash to make it happen. "There were some attempts to organize drug users in the past, and I was involved in those, but they didn't stick because people had other jobs," said Goldman. "But once that Drug Policy Alliance grant came in, I got hired in November and we had our first meetings in February."

"I worked at a small health agency working with homeless people with substance use here in the Tenderloin, and was also working with some people with the Youth Homeless Alliance in the Haight," said Jackson. "A lot of people said we ought to do something like VANDU. We had a conference here a couple of years ago to try to jump-start a safe injection site, but that was mostly health care providers, not drug users."

San Francisco has one of the highest rates of drug use per capita in the country, Jackson noted. "Since there is so much civil disobedience going on already -- the laws are wrong, when you have thousands of people doing something for a long period of time, it's like passive civil disobedience -- there was an opportunity there to give drug users a voice in a more organized way. We're consumers of all these services -- treatment, law enforcement, the whole drug industrial complex -- we're consumers and have no voice. The time was right for it to start here."

San Francisco organizers took advantage of last fall's DPA conference to learn from existing drug user groups on the continent. "I met with Ann Livingston from VANDU and I got in touch with some of the folks from VOCAL," Goldman said. "They work on stuff around syringe exchange, trying to pass statewide ordinances to keep police from hassling people with needles, things like that. And, of course, they're subject to the same ridiculous drug laws we are."

"Drug user groups such as VOCAL in New York, VANDU in Vancouver, and hopefully this group in San Francisco play an important role in drug policy change and ending the war on drugs," Thomas said. "Drug users are usually the people most directly affected by bad drug policies, and the least likely to have a voice in debates. Drug users as active participants in the political process also helps reduce the stigma that is attached to drug use and makes people reconsider their prejudices about what they think 'drug users' are like. The drug policy reform conversation can only benefit from the active participation of drug user groups."

Separate drug user union meetings are taking place every three weeks in the Tenderloin and Mission districts. For more information about joining the union, send an email to sf.users.union@gmail.com.

Harm Reduction: Colorado Bill Would Legalize Needle Exchanges

Colorado is one of just 17 US states that do not allow needle exchanges, but that could change under a bill before the Colorado Senate. The bill, SB 189, would allow local health departments to exchange dirty needles for clean ones in a bid to slow the spread of blood-borne diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C among injection drug users.

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widely-used needle exchange graphic
The bill passed its first legislative hurdle Wednesday, passing out of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee with only two no votes. It now goes before the Senate for a floor vote.

"This is intended to be a public health measure to stop the spread of infectious diseases," lead sponsor Sen. Pat Steadman (D-Denver) told ABC 7 News.

But the bill is generating opposition from solons who fear it will enable drug use. "It does give kind of a wink and a nod towards the use of illegal drugs," said Sen. Kevin Lundberg (R-Berthoud), who opposes the measure. "My common sense says a needle exchange program is a de facto drug legalization and I'm not going to go there. We've got a problem with illegal drugs," he said. "Let's not make it worse by saying maybe, sort of, kind of, you can do it."

"No one's condoning illegal drug use," Steadman retorted. "No one's saying, 'Go have a good time.' What we're saying is, 'Please be safe.'"

Under current Colorado law, groups are allowed to collect used syringes, but not exchange them for clean ones. The only city in the state that allows for needle exchanges is Boulder, which passed a 1989 law exempting some groups from prosecution for doing exchanges.

That doesn't mean there is no needle exchange in Denver, the state's largest city. The Underground Syringe Exchange of Denver (USED) has been doing exchanges since 2008 and has handed out more than 11,000 needles to drug users.

"We remove syringes off the streets of Denver," said USED member Chris Conner. "They wind up in our dumpsters. They wind up thrown away in public bathrooms or discarded in parks," he said. "So this is a public health issue for all of us."

Feature: Drug Czar Gets Grilled on "New Directions in Drug Policy" By Skeptical Solons, Activists, and Academics

Gil Kerlikowske, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), testified on Capitol Hill Wednesday that the Obama administration is seeking "a new direction in drug policy," but was challenged both by lawmakers and by a panel of academics and activists on the point during the same hearing. The action took place at a hearing of the House Domestic Policy Subcommittee in which the ONDCP drug budget and the forthcoming 2010 National Drug Strategy were the topics at hand.

The hearing comes in the wake of various drug policy reforms enacted by the Obama administration, including a Justice Department policy memo directing US attorneys and the DEA to lay off medical marijuana in states where it is legal, the removal of the federal ban on needle exchange funding, and administration support for ending or reducing the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenders.

But it also comes in the wake of the announcement of the ONDCP 2011 drug budget, which at $15.5 billion is up more than $500 million from this year. While treatment and prevention programs got a 6.5% funding increase, supply reduction (law enforcement, interdiction, and eradication) continues to account for almost exactly the same percentage of the overall budget -- 64%--as it did in the Bush administration. Only 36% is earmarked for demand reduction (prevention and treatment).

Citing health care costs from drug use and rising drug overdose death figures, the nation "needs to discard the idea that enforcement alone can eliminate our nation's drug problem," Kerlikowske said. "Only through a comprehensive and balanced approach -- combining tough, but fair, enforcement with robust prevention and treatment efforts -- will we be successful in stemming both the demand for and supply of illegal drugs in our country."

So far, at least, when it comes to reconfiguring US drug control efforts, Kerlikowske and the Obama administration are talking the talk, but they're not walking the walk. That was the contention of subcommittee chair Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and several of the session's panelists.

"Supply side spending has not been effective," said Kucinich, challenging the budget breakdown.

"Supply side spending is important for a host of reasons, whether we're talking about eradication or our international partners where drugs are flowing," replied the drug czar.

"Where's the evidence?" Kucinich demanded. "Describe with statistics what evidence you have that this approach is effective."

Kerlikowske was reduced to citing the case of Colombia, where security and safety of the citizenry has increased. But he failed to mention that despite about $4 billion in US anti-drug aid in the past decade, Colombian coca and cocaine production remain at high levels.

"What parts of your budget are most effective?" asked Kucinich.

"The most cost-effective approaches would be prevention and treatment," said Kerlikowske.

"What percentage is supply and what percentage is demand oriented?" asked Rep. Jim Jordan (D-OH).

"It leans much more toward supply, toward interdiction and enforcement," Kerlikowske conceded.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) was more old school, demanding a tougher response to Mexico's wave of prohibition-related violence and questioning the decision not to eradicate opium in Afghanistan. "The Southwest border is critical. I would hope the administration would give you the resources you need for a Plan Colombia on steroids," said Issa.

"There is no eradication program in Afghanistan," Issa complained. "I was in areas we did control and we did nothing about eradication."

"I don't think anyone is comfortable seeing US forces among the poppy fields," Kerlikowske replied. "Ambassador Holbrooke has taken great pains to explain the rationale for that," he added, alluding to Holbrooke's winning argument that eradication would push poppy farming peasants into the hands of the Taliban.

"The effectiveness of eradication seems to be near zero, which is very interesting from a policy point of view," interjected Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL).

Kucinich challenged Kerlikowske about harm reduction. "At the UN, you said the US supported many interventions, but you said that, 'We do not use the phrase harm reduction.' You are silent on both syringe exchange programs and the issue of harm reduction interventions generally," he noted. "Do you acknowledge that these interventions can be effective in reducing death and disease, does your budget proposed to fund intervention programs that have demonstrated positive results in drug overdose deaths, and what is the basis of your belief that the term harm reduction implies promotion of drug use?"

Kerlikowske barely responded. "We don't use the term harm reduction because it is in the eye of the beholder," he said. "People talk about it as if it were legalization, but personally, I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about whether to put a definition on it."

When challenged by Kucinich specifically about needle exchange programs, Kerlikowske conceded that they can be effective. "If they are part of a comprehensive drug reduction effort, they make a lot of sense," he said.

The grilling of Kerlikowske took up the first hour of the two-hour session. The second hour consisted of testimony from Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann, Brookings Institute foreign policy fellow and drugs and counterinsurgency expert Vanda Felbab-Brown, former ONDCP employee and drug policy analyst John Carnevale, and University of Maryland drug policy expert Peter Reuter. It didn't get any better for drug policy orthodoxy.

"Let me be frank," said Nadelmann as he began his testimony. "We regard US drug policy as a colossal failure, a gross violation of human rights and common sense," he said, citing the all too familiar statistics about arrests, incarceration, the spread of HIV/AIDS, and drug overdose deaths. "All of these are an egregious violation of fundamental American values."

"Congress and the Obama administration have broken with the costly and failed drug war strategies of the past in some important ways," said Nadelmann. "But the continuing emphasis on interdiction and law enforcement in the federal drug war budget suggest that ONDCP is far more wedded to the failures of the past than to any new vision for the future. I urge this committee to hold ONDCP and federal drug policy accountable to new criteria that focus on reductions in the death, disease, crime and suffering associated with both drugs and drug prohibition."

Nadelmann identified four problems with current drug strategy:

  • The drug war's flawed performance measures;
  • The lop-sided ratio between supply and demand spending in the national drug budget;
  • The lack of innovation in the drug czar's proposed strategies;
  • The administration's failure to adequately evaluate drug policies.

"They want to move toward a public health model that focuses on reducing demand for drugs, but no drug policy will succeed unless there are the resources to implement it," said Carnevale. "Past budgets emphasizing supply reduction failed to produce results, and our drug policy stalled -- there has been no change in overall drug use in this decade."

Carnevale noted that the 2011 ONDCP budget gave the largest percentage increase to prevention and treatment, but that its priorities were still skewed toward supply reduction. "The budget continues to over-allocate funds where they are least effective, in interdiction and source country programs."

"The drug trade poses multiple and serious threats, ranging from threats to security and the legal economy to threats to legality and political processes," said Felbab-Brown, "but millions of people depend on the illegal drug trade for a livelihood. There is no hope supply-side policies can disrupt the global drug trade."

Felbab-Brown said she was "encouraged" that the Obama administration had shifted toward a state-building approach in Afghanistan, but that she had concerns about how policy is being operationalized there. "We need to adopt the right approach to sequencing eradication in Afghanistan," she said. "Alternative livelihoods and state-building need to be comprehensive, well-funded, and long-lasting, and not focused on replacing the poppy crop."

"Eradication in Afghanistan has little effect on domestic supply and reduction," said Kucinich. "Should these kinds of programs be funded?"

"I am quite convinced that spending money for eradication, especially aerial eradication, is not effective," replied Carnevale. "The point of eradication in Colombia was to reduce the amount of drugs coming into the US, but I see no such effect."

"We're dealing with global commodity markets," said Nadelmann. "If one source is knocked out, someone else will pop up. What's missing is any sort of strategic analysis or planning. If you accept that these drugs are going to be produced, you need to manage it to reduce the harms."

"The history of the last 20 years of the cocaine and heroin trade shows how much mobility there is in cultivation and trafficking," said Reuter. "What we do has a predictable effect. When we pushed down on trafficking in Florida, that lead to increases in Mexico. The evidence is striking that all we are doing is moving the trade."

Times are changing in Washington. What was once unassailable drug war orthodoxy is not under direct assault, and not just from activists and academics, but among members of Congress itself. But while the drug czar talks the happy talk about "new directions in drug policy," the Obama administration -- with some notable exceptions -- looks to still have a drug policy on cruise control.

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.

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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.

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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.

Congress: Budget Deal Includes Series of Drug Reform Victories

US House and Senate negotiators in conference committee approved the finishing touches on the Fiscal Year 2010 budget Tuesday night, and they included a number of early Christmas presents for different drug reform constituencies. It isn't quite a done deal yet -- this negotiated version of the FY 2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act must now win final approval on both the House and Senate floors. But they are up-or-down, no-amendments-allowed votes -- if the bill passes, it will include the drug reforms.

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US Capitol, Senate side
What the conference committee approved:

  • Ending the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs -- without previous language that would have banned them from operating within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, and similar facilities. (Instead it seems to give local authorities the ability to overrule state or other officials on location choices.)
  • Ending the ban on the use of federal funds for needle exchanges in the District of Columbia.
  • Allowing the District of Columbia to implement the medical marijuana initiative passed by voters in 1998 but blocked by congressional diktat ever since.
  • Cutting funding for the Office of National Drug Control Policy's National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign from $70 million this year to $45 million next year.

In a news release after agreement was reached, this is how the committee described the language on needle exchange:

Modifies a prohibition on the use of funds in the Act for needle exchange programs; the revised provision prohibits the use of funds in this Act for needle exchange programs in any location that local public health or law enforcement agencies determine to be inappropriate.

Its description of the DC appropriations language:

Removing Special Restrictions on the District of Columbia: ...Also allows the District to implement a referendum on use of marijuana for medical purposes as has been done in other states, allows use of Federal funds for needle exchange programs except in locations considered inappropriate by District authorities.

And its language on the youth media campaign:

National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign: $45 million, $25 million below 2009 and the budget request, for a national ad campaign providing anti-drug messages directed at youth. Reductions were made in this program because of evaluations questioning its effectiveness. Part of the savings was redirected to other ONDCP drug-abuse-reduction programs.

Citing both reforms in the states -- from medical marijuana to sentencing reform -- as well as the conference committee's actions, Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann stopped just short of declaring victory Wednesday. "It's too soon to say that America's long national nightmare -- the war on drugs --is really over," Nadelmann. "But yesterday's action on Capitol Hill provides unprecedented evidence that Congress is at last coming to its senses when it comes to national drug control policy."

As noted above, there are still two votes to go, and reformers are applying the pressure until it is a done deal. "Hundreds of thousands of Americans will get HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C if Congress does not repeal the federal syringe funding ban," said Bill Piper, DPA national affairs director. "The science is overwhelming that syringe exchange programs reduce the spread of infectious diseases without increasing drug use. We will make sure the American people know which members of Congress stand in the way of repealing the ban and saving lives."

Washington, DC, residents got a two-fer from the committee when it approved ending the ban on the District funding needle exchanges and undoing the Barr Amendment, the work of erstwhile drug warrior turned reformer former Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA). Barr's amendment forbade the District from implementing the 1998 medical marijuana initiative, which won with 69% of the vote.

"Congress is close to making good on President Obama's promise to stop the federal government from undermining local efforts to provide relief to cancer, HIV/AIDS and other patients who need medical marijuana," said Naomi Long, the DC Metro director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "DC voters overwhelmingly voted to legalize marijuana for medical use and Congress should have never stood in the way of implementing the will of the people."

"The end of the Barr amendment is now in sight," said Aaron Houston, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project. "This represents a huge victory not just for medical marijuana patients, but for all city residents who have every right to set their own policies in their own District without congressional meddling. DC residents overwhelmingly made the sensible, compassionate decision to pass a medical marijuana law, and now, more than 10 years later, suffering Washingtonians may finally be allowed to focus on treating their pain without fearing arrest."

Medical marijuana in the shadow of the Capitol? Federal dollars being spent on proven harm reduction techniques? Congress not micromanaging DC affairs? What is the world, or at least Washington, coming to?

Congressional Budget Deal Allows Federal Funding for Needle Exchange and Medical Marijuana in the Nation's Capital

US House and Senate negotiators in conference committee approved the finishing touches on the Fiscal Year 2010 budget Tuesday night, and they included a number of early Christmas presents for different drug reform constituencies. But it isn’t quite a done deal yet--this negotiated version of the FY 2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act must now win final approved in up-or-down, no-amendments-allowed floor votes in the House and the Senate. What the conference committee approved: * Ending the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs--without previous language that would have banned them from operating within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, and similar facilities. * Ending the ban on the use of federal funds for needle exchanges in the District of Columbia. * Allowing the District of Columbia to implement the medical marijuana initiative passed by voters in 1998 and blocked by congressional diktat ever since. * Cutting funding for the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign from $70 million this year to $45 million next year. In a news release after agreement was reached, this is how the committee described the language on needle exchange:
Modifies a prohibition on the use of funds in the Act for needle exchange programs; the revised provision prohibits the use of funds in this Act for needle exchange programs in any location that local public health or law enforcement agencies determine to be inappropriate
Its description of the DC appropriations language:
Removing Special Restrictions on the District of Columbia:...Also allows the District to implement a referendum on use of marijuana for medical purposes as has been done in other states, allows use of Federal funds for needle exchange programs except in locations considered inappropriate by District authorities.
And its language on the youth media campaign:
National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign: $45 million, $25 million below 2009 and the budget request, for a national ad campaign providing anti-drug messages directed at youth. Reductions were made in this program because of evaluations questioning its effectiveness. Part of the savings was redirected to other ONDCP drug-abuse-reduction programs.
Citing both reforms in the states--from medical marijuana to sentencing reform--as well as the conference committee’s actions, Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann stopped just short of declaring victory Wednesday. “It’s too soon to say that America’s long national nightmare – the war on drugs – is really over,” said Nadelmann. “But yesterday’s action on Capitol Hill provides unprecedented evidence that Congress is at last coming to its senses when it comes to national drug control policy.” But, as noted above, there are still two votes to go, and DPA is applying the pressure until it is a done deal. “Hundreds of thousands of Americans will get HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C if Congress does not repeal the federal syringe funding ban,” said Bill Piper, DPA national affairs director. “The science is overwhelming that syringe exchange programs reduce the spread of infectious diseases without increasing drug use. We will make sure the American people know which members of Congress stand in the way of repealing the ban and saving lives.” Washington, DC, residents got a two-fer from the committee when it approved ending the ban on the District funding needle exchanges and undoing the Barr Amendment, the work of erstwhile drug warrior turned reformer former Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA), which forbade the District from implementing the 1998 medical marijuana initiative, which won with 69% of the vote. “Congress is close to making good on President Obama’s promise to stop the federal government from undermining local efforts to provide relief to cancer, HIV/AIDS and other patients who need medical marijuana,” said Naomi Long, the DC Metro director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “DC voters overwhelmingly voted to legalize marijuana for medical use and Congress should have never stood in the way of implementing the will of the people.” "The end of the Barr amendment is now in sight,” said Aaron Houston, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project. “This represents a huge victory not just for medical marijuana patients, but for all city residents who have every right to set their own policies in their own District without congressional meddling. DC residents overwhelmingly made the sensible, compassionate decision to pass a medical marijuana law, and now, more than 10 years later, suffering Washingtonians may finally be allowed to focus on treating their pain without fearing arrest." Medical marijuana in the shadow of the Capitol? Federal dollars being spent on proven harm reduction techniques? Congress not micromanaging DC affairs? What is the world, or at least Washington, coming to?
Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

Feature: Fired Up in Albuquerque -- The 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference

Jazzed by the sense that the tide is finally turning their way, more than a thousand people interested in changing drug policies flooded into Albuquerque, New Mexico, last weekend for the 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference, hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance. Police officers in suits mingled with aging hippies, politicians met with harm reductionists, research scientists chatted with attorneys, former prisoners huddled with state legislators, and marijuana legalizers mingled with drug treatment professionals -- all united by the belief that drug prohibition is a failed policy.

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candlelight vigil outside the Albuquerque Convention Center (courtesy Drug Policy Alliance)
As DPA's Ethan Nadelmann said before and repeated at the conference's opening session: "We are the people who love drugs, we are the people who hate drugs, we are the people that don't care about drugs," but who do care about the Constitution and social justice. "The wind is at our backs," Nadelmann chortled, echoing and amplifying the sense of progress and optimism that pervaded the conference like never before.

For three days, conference-goers attended a veritable plethora of panels and breakout sessions, with topics ranging from the drug war in Mexico and South America to research on psychedelics, from implementing harm reduction policies in rural areas to legalizing marijuana, from how to organize for drug reform to what sort of treatment works, and from medical marijuana to prescription heroin.

It was almost too much. At any given moment, several fascinating panels were going on, ensuring that at least some of them would be missed even by the most interested. The Thursday afternoon time bloc, for example, had six panels: "Medical Marijuana Production and Distribution Systems," "After Vienna: Prospects for UN and International Reform," "Innovative Approaches to Sentencing Reform," "Examining Gender in Drug Policy Reform," "Artistic Interventions for Gang Involved Youth," and "The Message is the Medium: Communications and Outreach Without Borders."

The choices weren't any easier at the Friday morning breakout session, with panels including "Marijuana Messaging that Works," "Fundraising in a Tough Economy," "Congress, President Obama, and the Drug Czar," "Zoned Out" (about "drug-free zones"), "Psychedelic Research: Neuroscience and Ethnobotanical Roots," "Opioid Overdose Prevention Workshop," and "Border Perspectives: Alternatives to the 40-Year-Old War on Drugs."

People came from all over the United States -- predominantly from the East Coast -- as well as South Africa, Australia, Canada, Europe (Denmark, England, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Scotland, and Switzerland), Latin America (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico), and Asia (Cambodia and Thailand).

Medical marijuana was one of the hot topics, and New Mexico, which has just authorized four dispensaries, was held up as a model by some panelists. "If we had a system as clear as New Mexico's, we'd be in great shape," said Alex Kreit, chair of a San Diego task force charged with developing regulations for dispensaries there.

"Our process has been deliberate, which you can also read as 'slow,'" responded Steve Jenison, medical director of the state Department of Health's Infectious Disease Bureau. "But our process will be a very sustainable one. We build a lot of consensus before we do anything."

Jenison added that the New Mexico, which relies on state-regulated dispensaries, was less likely to result in diversion than more open models, such as California's. "A not-for-profit being regulated by the state would be less likely to be a source of diversion to the illicit market," Jenison said.

For ACLU Drug Policy Law Project attorney Allen Hopper, such tight regulation has an added benefit: it is less likely to excite the ire of the feds. "The greater the degree of state involvement, the more the federal government is going to leave the state alone," Hopper said.

At Friday's plenary session, "Global Drug Prohibition: Costs, Consequences and Alternatives," Australia's Dr. Alex Wodak amused the audience by likening the drug war to "political Viagra" in that it "increases potency in elections." But he also made the more serious point that the US has exported its failed drug policy around the world, with deleterious consequences, especially for producer or transit states like Afghanistan, Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru.

At that same session, former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda warned that Latin American countries feel constrained from making drug policy reforms because of the glowering presence of the US. Drug reform is a "radioactive" political issue, he said, in explaining why it is either elder statesmen, such as former Brazilian President Cardoso or people like himself, "with no political future," who raise the issue. At a panel the following day, Castaneda made news by bluntly accusing the Mexican army of executing drug traffickers without trial. (See related story here).

It wasn't all listening to panels. In the basement of the Albuquerque Convention Center, dozens of vendors showed off their wares, made their sales, and distributed their materials as attendees wandered through between sessions. And for many attendees, it was as much a reunion as a conference, with many informal small group huddles taking place at the center and in local bars and restaurants and nearby hotels so activists could swap experiences and strategies and just say hello again.

The conference also saw at least two premieres. On the first day of the conference, reporters and other interested parties repaired to a Convention Center conference room to see the US unveiling of the British Transform Drug Policy Foundation publication, After the War on Drugs: A Blueprint for Legalization, a how-to manual on how to get to drug reform's promised land. Transform executive director Danny Kushlick was joined by Jack Cole of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Studies, Deborah Small of Break the Chains, and DPA's Nadelmann as he laid out the case for moving beyond "what would it look like."

"There's never been a clear vision of a post-prohibition world," said Kushlick. "With this, we've tried to reclaim drug policy from the drug warriors. We want to make drug policy boring," he said. "We want not only harm reduction, but drama reduction," he added, envisioning debates about restrictions on sales hours, zoning, and other dreary topics instead of bloody drug wars and mass incarceration.

"As a movement, we have failed to articulate the alternative," said Tree. "And that leaves us vulnerable to the fear of the unknown. This report restores order to the anarchy. Prohibition means we have given up on regulating drugs; this report outlines some of the options for regulation."

That wasn't the only unveiling Thursday. Later in the evening, Flex Your Rights held the first public showing of a near-final version of its new video, 10 Rules for Dealing with Police. The screening of the self-explanatory successor to Flex Your Right's 2003 "Busted" -- which enjoyed a larger budget and consequently higher production level -- played to a packed and enthusiastic house. This highly useful examination of how not to get yourself busted is bound to equal if not exceed the break-out success of "Busted." "10 Rules" was one of a range of productions screened during a two-night conference film festival.

The conference ended Saturday evening with a plenary address by former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who came out as a legalizer back in 2001, and was welcomed with waves of applause before he ever opened his mouth. "It makes no sense to spend the kind of money we spend as a society locking up people for using drugs and using the criminal justice system to solve the problem," he said, throwing red meat to the crowd.

We'll do it all again two years from now in Los Angeles. See you there!

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