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Feature: Winds of Change Are Blowing in Washington -- Drug Reforms Finally Move in Congress

Update:Needle exchange legislation was passed by the full House of Representatives on Friday afternoon.

What a difference a change of administration makes. After eight years of almost no progress during the Bush administration, drug reform is on the agenda at the Capitol, and various reform bills are moving forward. With Democrats firmly in control of both the Senate and the House, as well as the White House, 2009 could be the year the federal drug policy logjam begins to break apart.

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US Capitol, Senate side
While most of the country's and the Congress's attention is focused on health care reform and the economic crisis, congressional committees are slowly working their way through a number of drug reform issues. Here's some of what's going on:

  • A bill that would eliminate the notorious sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine by removing all references to crack from the federal law and sentencing all offenders under the current powder cocaine sentencing scheme passed its first subcommittee test on Wednesday. This one was bipartisan -- the vote was unanimous. (See related story here)
  • The ban on federal funding for needle exchanges has been repealed by the House Appropriations Committee, although current legislation includes language barring exchanges within 1,000 feet of schools. Advocates hope that will be removed in conference committee. (Update:Needle exchange legislation was passed by the full House of Representatives on Friday afternoon.)
  • The Barr amendment, which blocked the District of Columbia from implementing a voter-approved medical marijuana law, has been repealed by the House.
  • Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank's marijuana decriminalization bill has already picked up more cosponsors in a few weeks this year than it did in all of last year.
  • Virginia Sen. Jim Webb's bill to create a national commission on criminal justice policy is winning broad support.
  • The Higher Education Act (HEA) drug provision (more recently known as the "Aid Elimination Penalty"), which creates obstacles in obtaining student loans for students with drug convictions, is being watered down. The House Education and Labor Committee Wednesday approved legislation that would limit the provision to students convicted of drug sales and eliminate it for students whose only offense was drug possession. (See related story here.)
  • The "Safe and Drug Free Schools Act" funding has been dramatically slashed in the Obama administration 2010 budget.
  • Funding for the Office of National Drug Control Policy's youth media anti-drug campaign has been dramatically slashed by the House, which also instructed ONDCP to use the remaining funds only for ads aimed at getting parents to talk to kids.

"All the stars are now aligned on all these issues," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "I've never felt so optimistic about drug policy reform in DC."

Looking into his crystal ball, Piper is making predictions of significant progress this year. "I have a strong sense that the Barr amendment and the syringe funding ban will be eliminated this year. The Webb bill will probably be law by December. There's a good chance that HEA reform and the crack sentencing reform will be, too. If not, we'll get them done next year," he said.

"Things are heating up like I've never seen before," Piper exclaimed. "It's like a snowball rolling downhill. The more reforms get enacted, the more comfortable lawmakers will be about even more. Cumulatively, these bills represent a significant rollback in the drug war as we know it."

Former House Judiciary committee counsel Eric Sterling, now head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, was a bit more restrained. Congress is just beginning to come around, and there are dangers ahead, he said.

"We're seeing windows being opened where we can feel the first breezes of spring, but it's not summer yet," Sterling said. "There are people asking questions about drug policy more broadly, there is more openness on Capitol Hill to thinking differently. Liberals are not as afraid they will be attacked by the administration. The climate is changing, but my sense is we're still at the stage where members of Congress are only beginning to take their shoes off to put their toes in the water."

What progress is being made could be derailed by declining popularity of Democrats, the drug reform movement's failure to create sufficient cultural change and a stronger social base to support political change, and the return of old-style "tough on drugs" politics, Sterling warned.

"People need to be aware that as unemployment continues to rise, Democrats will be feeling afraid of repercussions at the polls," he said. "If the economic stimulus does not seem to be generating jobs, if there is a widespread sense of trouble in the country, the drug issue can easily be recast as a bogeyman to distract people. Members of Congress could start talking again about 'fighting to help protect your families.' Those old ways of thinking and talking about these issues are by no means gone," Sterling argued.

That is why he is concerned about building a social base to support and maintain drug reform. "The drug reform movement needs to create cultural change to support political change, and I fear we haven't done enough of that," he worried.

Sterling also warned of a possible reprise of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the emergence of a parents' anti-drug movement helped knock drug reform off the agenda for nearly a quarter-century. The administration's effort to defund the Safe and Drug Free Schools Act in particular could spark renewed concern and even a reinvigorated anti-drug mobilization, he said.

"The administration says the Safe and Drug Free Schools program hasn't demonstrated its effectiveness and grant funds are spread too thin to support quality interventions, which may well be true," he said. "But little dribs and drabs of that get spread around the states, and that means a lot of people could be mobilized to fight back. The parents' community and prevention professionals will mobilize around these issues with renewed vigor," he predicted.

The Wild West show that is California's marijuana reality could also energize the anti-reform faction, Sterling said. "For those of us outside California, it's hard to fathom what's going on there. I don't think anyone back East can imagine a dispensary operating every quarter-mile along Connecticut Avenue," he explained. "I ask myself if this is growing in a way that could create a potential powerful reaction like we saw in the 1970s. There has already been a smattering of stories about marijuana use in school by patients. Will there be exposés next fall about medical marijuana getting into the schools, kids getting stoned? People in the movement have to be aware that very real and powerful emotions can be unleashed by these changes," he warned.

Still, "momentum is on our side," Piper said. "Webb's bill has bipartisan support, the sentencing stuff is taking off in a bipartisan way, and the crack bill has the support of the president, the vice-president, the Justice Department, and some important Senate Republicans. That's probably the steepest hill to climb, but I think we're going to do it."

These are all domestic drug policy issues, but drug policy affects foreign policy as well, and there, too, there has been some significant change -- as well as significant continuity in prohibitionist policies. And that situation is exposing some significant contradictions. Here, it is the Obama administration taking the lead, not Congress. The Obama administration has rejected crop eradication as a failure in Afghanistan, yet remains wedded to it in Colombia, and it has embraced the Bush administration's anti-drug Plan Merida assistance package to Mexico.

"The really exciting thing is Afghanistan and special envoy Richard Holbrooke's ending of eradication there," said Sanho Tree, drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies. "That's huge, and it has repercussions for the Western Hemisphere as well. The US can't have two completely divergent policies on source country eradication. On Latin America, I suspect there is a power struggle going on between the drug warriors and the Holbrooke faction. We need a Holbrooke for Latin America," he said.

The media spotlight on Mexico's plague of prohibition-related violence may be playing a role, too, said Sterling. "The mayhem in Mexico certainly created a lot of thinking about how to do things differently earlier this year," he noted. "The media climate has changed, and perhaps that's more important at this stage than the climate inside the Beltway."

But the Mexico issue could cut against reform, too, he suggested. "Where is all that marijuana in California coming from?" he asked. "If someone can make the case that Mexican drug cartels are supplying the medical marijuana market there, that could get very ugly."

As the August recess draws nigh, no piece of drug reform legislation has made it to the president's desk. But this year, for the first time in a long time, it looks like some may. There are potential minefields ahead, and it's too early to declare victory just yet. But keep that champagne nicely chilled; we may be popping some corks before the year is over.

Press Release: Congress and Obama Administration Embrace Major Drug Policy Reform

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: July 22, 2009 CONTACT: Bill Piper at 202-669-6430 or Tony Newman at 646-335-5384 Congress and Obama Administration Embrace Major Drug Policy Reform Crack/Powder Disparity, Syringe Exchange Funding, Medical Marijuana, HEA Reform All Advancing Decades of Harsh and Ineffective Federal Laws Likely to be Dismantled this Year At least four of the worst excesses of the federal war on drugs appear likely to be rolled back this year – the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, the federal ban on the funding of syringe exchange programs, the all-out federal war on medical marijuana, and the HEA AID Elimination Penalty. All four reforms are advancing quickly in Congress. “Policymakers from the President of the United States on down are calling for a paradigm shift so drug use is treated as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Eliminating the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, repealing the ban on federal funding for syringe exchange programs to reduce HIV/AIDS, allowing the District of Columbia to move forward with medical marijuana, and reforming the HEA Aid Elimination Penalty are all examples of pairing action with rhetoric.” The House Crime Subcommittee is expected to pass legislation today eliminating the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity that punishes crack cocaine offenses one hundred times more severely than powder cocaine offenses. Both President Obama and Vice-President Biden have spoken in support of eliminating the disparity. In numerous statements this year, Justice Department officials have called on Congress to eliminate the disparity this year. Last week, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee repealed the 20-year ban prohibiting states from spending their share of HIV/AIDS prevention money on syringe exchanges program to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, and other blood-borne diseases. The full U.S. House takes up the underlying bill later this week. The ban is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans. If the ban is not repealed, as many as 300,000 Americans could contract HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C over the next decade. President Obama called for elimination of the ban on the campaign trail. In legislation last week, the U.S. House repealed a provision of federal law that overturned a medical marijuana law approved by Washington, DC voters, setting the stage for the nation’s capital to make marijuana available to cancer, AIDS, and other patients, possibly as soon as next year. Earlier this year Attorney General Eric Holder declared that the Justice Department would no longer arrest medical marijuana patients, caregivers and providers, even if they violated federal law, as long as they were following the laws of their states. 13 states have legalized marijuana for medical use, but the Bush Administration raided medical marijuana dispensaries and made numerous arrests and prosecutions. In a vote yesterday, the House Education and Labor Committee reformed the HEA AID Elimination Penalty that denies loans and other financial assistance to students convicted of drug law offenses, including simple marijuana possession. Since 1998, more than 180,000 students have lost aid and many, no doubt, have been forced to drop out of college. Although the Obama Administration has not stated where it stands on the underlying law, it has said it wants to remove a question from financial aid applications that ask students if they have ever been convicted of a drug crime. In other drug policy news, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, and Rep. Ron Paul (R- Texas) have introduced bi-partisan legislation to decriminalize possession of marijuana for personal use. Sen. Jim Webb, D-VA, President Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy, has introduced bipartisan legislation to create a national commission to study the U.S. criminal justice system and make recommendations on how to reduce the number of Americans behind bars, with a particular emphasis on reforming drug laws. Almost a third of U.S. Senators are cosponsors of the bipartisan bill and it is expected to pass the Senate sometime this year. “The ice is starting to crack,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “The decades of harsh and ineffective laws that have led to overstuffed prisons and a growing HIV epidemic are starting to be challenged and hopefully soon dismantled.” ###

No More Waiting

Dear friends,

We can't miss our chance to dismantle a backwards drug war policy.

Tell your representative to end the syringe exchange funding ban today!

Take Action
Email your representative

Congress let politics trump public health when it banned funding for syringe exchange programs, despite volumes of scientific evidence that these programs save lives and money.

Now, for the first time since the 1980s, you and I finally have the chance to end this backwards ban.

Repealing the ban could come up for a vote in the House THIS WEEK. We can't afford to wait another twenty years, so let's tell Congress to save lives by ending the syringe exchange funding ban now.

Syringe exchange programs reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS by making sterile syringes widely available, but states are banned from using their share of federal HIV/AIDS prevention money on these programs.

Repealing the ban costs no taxpayer money but will save lives.

Tens of thousands of people have contracted HIV unnecessarily since this ban was put in place in the 1980s, and many of them are dead now — all because politicians wanted to "send a message" about drug use.

You can help save lives AND dismantle a hysterical drug war policy. Join me in telling Congress to repeal the syringe exchange funding ban today!

Sincerely,

Bill Piper
Director, Office of National Affairs
Drug Policy Alliance Network
Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

Harm Reduction: House Subcommittee Approves Legislation Eliminating the Needle Exchange Funding Ban

The longstanding ban on use of federal AIDS grant funds to support needle exchange programs will soon be history, if the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services of the House Committee on Appropriations has its way. Led by Rep. David Obey (D-WI), the subcommittee left the language which has imposed the ban these many years out of the new bill. According to Obey's office:

This bill deletes the prohibition on the use of funds for needle exchange programs. Scientific studies have documented that needle exchange programs, when implemented as part of a comprehensive prevention strategy, are an effective public health intervention for reducing AIDS/AIV infections and do not promote drug use. The judgment we make is that it is time to lift this ban and let State and local jurisdictions determine if they want to pursue this approach.

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popular needle exchange logo
The vote followed a protest at the US Capitol in which 26 AIDS activists chained themselves together in the Capitol Rotunda earlier in the day.

President Obama pledged during his primary campaign to eliminate the ban. Legislation allows the president to do so if certain scientific findings are made, specifically that needle exchange programs do not increase community drug use levels, and do reduce the spread of HIV. These findings were made long ago, and the Clinton administration acknowledged them, but declined to eliminate the ban. Earlier this year the Obama administration punted the issue to Congress by including the ban in its budget proposal while verbally expressing support for needle exchange. Whether Obey's subcommittee took action because of administration support, or despite a lack of administration support, I don't know. Perhaps a greater savant than I will enlighten us.

Now the bill heads to the full committee, after which it will go to the floor of the House of Representatives. Drug warriors may try to add the ban back at either stage. Victory also depends on what happens on the Senate side. Assuming the House and Senate do not approve exactly identical Labor and HHS budgets, it will go to a conference committee that includes both Reps and Senators.

Elimination of the ban will neither increase nor decrease the amount of money the federal government spends on AIDS prevention, at least not directly. What it will do is allow state governments who receive federal AIDS grants to choose whether or not to spend some of that money on needle exchange. Those states which are in the habit of using scientific evidence to guide their policies will undoubtedly support needle exchange.

Big News: House Subcommittee Approves Legislation Eliminating the Needle Exchange Funding Ban

popular needle exchange logoBIG NEWS: The infamous ban on use of federal AIDS grant funds to support needle exchange programs will soon be history, if the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services of the House Committee on Appropriations has its way. Led by Rep. David Obey (D-WI), the subcommittee left the language which has imposed the ban these many years out of the new bill. According to Obey's office:
This bill deletes the prohibition on the use of funds for needle exchange programs. Scientific studies have documented that needle exchange programs, when implemented as part of a comprehensive prevention strategy, are an effective public health intervention for reducing AIDS/AIV infections and do not promote drug use. The judgment we make is that it is time to lift this ban and let State and local jurisdictions determine if they want to pursue this approach.
The vote followed a protest at the US Capitol in which 26 AIDS activists chained themselves together in the Capitol Rotunda earlier in the day. President Obama pledged during his primary campaign to eliminate the ban. Legislation allows the president to do so if certain scientific findings are made, specifically that needle exchange programs do not increase community drug use levels, and do reduce the spread of HIV. These findings were made long ago, and the Clinton administration acknowledged them, but declined to eliminate the ban. Earlier this year the Obama administration punted the issue to Congress by including the ban in its budget proposal while verbally expressing support for needle exchange. Whether Obey's subcommittee took action because of administration support, or despite a lack of administration support, I don't know. Perhaps a greater savant than I will enlighten us. Now the bill heads to the full committee, after which it will go to the floor of the House of Representatives. Drug warriors may try to add the ban back at either stage. Victory also depends on what happens on the Senate side. Assuming the House and Senate do not approve exactly identical Labor and HHS budgets, it will go to a conference committee that includes both Reps and Senators. Elimination of the ban will neither increase nor decrease the amount of money the federal government spends on AIDS prevention, at least not directly. What it will do is allow state governments who receive federal AIDS grants to choose whether or not to spend some of that money on needle exchange. Those states which are in the habit of using scientific evidence to guide their policies will support needle exchange.

Tough Times: California Protests Over HIV/AIDS Budget Cuts -- Needle Exchange Funding at Risk, Prop. 36 Funding to Vanish

California's $24 billion budget deficit and the steep cuts proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to reduce it provoked demonstrations by HIV/AIDS activists and harm reductionists last Friday in Los Angeles, Monday in Fresno, and Wednesday in Sacramento calling for the restoration of funding. Late last month, Schwarzenegger announced plans to slice $80.1 million in funding for critical HIV/AIDS services, including totally eliminating general fund support for all State Office of AIDS programs except the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which will lose $12.3 million in general fund support.

The cuts would zero out state funding for harm reduction services through the AIDS office, as well as most of the HIV/AIDS prevention funds that California cities use to provide grants for needle exchange programs. For most of the 40 needle exchanges in the state, those grants provided between 60% and 90% of their total funding.

HIV/AIDS and harm reduction groups have organized a coalition known as Stop the HIV Cuts in a bid to reverse the proposed cuts. In addition to the demonstration in Sacramento, protests were also held Wednesday in San Diego and Palm Springs.

Funding for Proposition 36, the voter-approved 2001 law that requires that low-level drug offenders be sent to treatment instead of jail or prison, is also on the line. Gov. Schwarzenegger wants the legislature to eliminate the $108 million line-item for the program, which enrolls some 36,000 drug offenders in the state.

But that would leave California in a strange bind. Prop. 36 is not a program, but a state law, approved by the voters, who mandated that the legislature fund the program through 2006. It prevents judges from sending Prop. 36-eligible offenders to prison, instead of requiring that they receive treatment. If the state does not provide funding, the burden will shift to counties and municipalities, which will not be able to make up the difference. That means that Prop. 36-eligible offenders may, in the near future, receive neither jail sentences nor treatment.

Feature: Effort to Bring Safe Injection Facility to New York City Getting Underway

Last Friday, more than 150 people gathered at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City for a daylong conference on the science, politics, and law of safe injection facilities (SIFs) as part of a budding movement to bring the effective but controversial harm reduction measure to the Big Apple. Sponsored, among others, by the college, the Harm Reduction Coalition, and an amalgam of 17 different New York City needle exchange and harm reduction programs known as the Injection Drug User Health Alliance (IDUHA), the conference targeted not only harm reductionists but public health advocates and officials, law enforcement, service providers, and the general public.

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John Jay College, NYC (courtesy wikipedia.org)
The Safe Injection Facilities in New York conference aimed to create public awareness of SIFs, provide evidence that they are cost-effective, and start developing a plan for implementing SIFS in New York. As the conference program indicates, organizers relied heavily on experts from Vancouver, where the Downtown Eastside Insite SIF has been in operation -- and under evaluation -- since 2003, to provide the evidence base.

The first SIFs opened in Switzerland in the mid-1980s. Since then, they have spread slowly and there are now 65 SIFS operating in 27 cities in eight countries: Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Australia, Norway, Luxembourg, and Canada. Although advocates have been working for the past year-and-a-half to bring an SIF to San Francisco, that effort has yet to bear fruit.

SIFS are credited with saving lives through overdose prevention, reducing the spread of blood-borne disease, reducing public drug use and attendant drug litter, and creating entryways to treatment and other services for hard-core drug users not ready to abstain. The results reported by the Vancouver delegation on Insite were typical:

  • No fatal overdoses at the SIF.
  • No increase in local drug trafficking.
  • No substantial increase in the rate of relapse into injection drug use.
  • Reductions in public drug use, publicly discarded syringes and syringe sharing.
  • SIF users 1.7 times more likely to enter detox programs.
  • More than 2,000 referrals to counseling and other support services since opening.
  • Collaboration with police to meet public health and public order objectives.

But despite such research results, the United States remains without an operating SIF. The obstacles range from the legal, such as the federal crack house law and its counterparts in many states, to the political and the moral. But for harm reduction and public health advocates, it is the failure to embrace such proven life-saving measures that has the stench of the immoral.

"The reality is that we have people shooting up in unsafe injection facilities as we speak," said Joyce Rivera, executive director of St. Ann's Corner of Harm Reduction and chair of the conference. "The reality is they are not shooting up in a safe, hygienic environment with the possibility of a transition into a range of care. That's what's not happening. As public health advocates, we are saying let's recognize that reality and create those safe facilities. Let these people enter through the portal of public health into a safe environment and start to pace their own change," she said.

"We have to acknowledge the social fact that people are shooting up in unsafe venues," Rivera said. "It's not some esoteric or academic argument. The question is what do we do about it? Public health is supposed to protect the community, and SIFs are a necessary evolution in our public health policy."

"The big issue here is that we know we have about 200,000 injection drug users in the city, and the needle exchange programs only serve a few thousand of them," said Robert Childs of Positive Health Project, one of the members of the IDUAH. "Most of them are getting needles from unregulated needle exchanges, shooting galleries, from friends. That is a large part of why New York City has the most HIV and Hepatitis C cases in the US and one of the highest rates of infection in North America," he said.

"The other big issue is that we're giving injectors the tools to inject, but not a safe space to do it," Childs pointed out. "Many shoot up in the public domain, in the bathrooms at Starbucks or McDonalds or White Castle, in libraries, parks, alleys, phone booths. They leave their syringes in locations that aren't evident to a non-injector, and that's a public health issue."

They also overdose. Drug overdose is the fourth leading cause of death in the city. While it is a tragedy for the victim, overdoses both lethal and non-lethal are also a burden to the city. "Taxpayers have to pay these costs," said Childs. "For an ambulance to respond to an overdose costs between $400 and $1,200, and that's going on many times a day every day."

It's not just ambulances. Failing to address injection drug use under prohibition conditions costs real dollars in other ways as well. Each new diagnosis of HIV in the city comes with a $648,000 price tag for life-long medications and medical care, and even that may be on a low end estimate. A case of hepatitis C often requires $280,000 to $380,000 for a liver transplant; for those cases that do not warrant a liver transplant, treatment costs anywhere from $60,000 to $100,000.

And it's not just taxpayers paying. According to Childs, local businesses, including service providers, spend thousands of dollars a year on plumbing repairs -- from needles disposed of in toilets for lack of biohazard containers.

Now, said advocates, it is time to move forward. The conference was but the opening shot in what will likely be a long and frustrating campaign.

"The conference went very well and it will be a bit of a lift," said John Jay Professor Richard Curtis, who addressed the topic of moving forward from here at the conference. "The evidence is piling up from Sydney and Vancouver and Europe, and that is helping us, too. But this isn't something the health departments and the politicians aren't quickly going to jump on the bandwagon for. We have to give them a push, and if we don't start working on it now, it'll never happen. We didn't get where we are today by behaving ourselves," he added, relating how his own needle exchange effort first faced official opposition before being accepted.

The audience included people from the city and state health departments, Curtis said. "The health officials are all very supportive... unofficially," he said. "They didn't want to be on the agenda, but they say they're supportive. But this is an election year, and that makes it hard for them."

There will be an organizing meeting in two weeks to map out strategy, Curtis said. "We'll see who is willing and able, whether there is an existing agency bold enough to forge ahead or whether we will have to create some alternative organizations. We want to put this issue on the table now."

"We're forming an action group to bring this into New Yorkers' consciousness," said Childs. "The people who do know about -- drug users -- are one of the most stigmatized populations in the city. We are going to a campaign similar to Vancouver about how these people are not bogeymen, but our sons and daughters. We're also trying to organize some media events around it. A group of lawyers will help by challenging some codes. And we'll be trying to work with our legislators and city councilors," he said.

But Curtis and others are not willing to wait forever. "I'm not hopeful that federal crack house laws will end any time soon," he said. "But we started needle exchanges by just doing it. If it has to come to that, we'll have to make them arrest us again. We need to back them into a corner at the very least."

Harm Reduction Coalition Western Coordinator Hilary McQuie has been involved in the ongoing SIF effort in San Francisco. Just because something isn't happening officially doesn't mean it isn't happening, she noted.

"I don't know much about shooting galleries in New York," she said, "but out here, it's no big secret that the bathrooms of service providers, drop-in centers, homeless shelters, soup kitchens are used for shooting up. What people are doing to try to make these current injection spaces safer is perhaps having safe injection instructions, syringe disposal devices, soap and water, things like that," she said. "Also, it's sort of semi-supervised. If someone's in the bathroom and doesn't come out, you can open the door and save them from an overdose. That happens every day in San Francisco."

Obama Claims to Support Needle Exchange, While Telling Congress to Ban it

Can someone please explain to me what this means?


White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said the administration isn't yet ready to lift the ban - but Obama still supports needle exchange.

"We have not removed the ban in our budget proposal because we want to work with Congress and the American public to build support for this change," he said. "We are committed to doing this as part of a National HIV/AIDS strategy and are confident that we can build support for these scientifically-based programs." [Huffington Post]

So they're going to build support for needle exchange by telling Congress to continue the federal needle exchange ban? How's that supposed to work? And what's up with this:
The White House website no longer features the president's support of the program, however. See the before and after here.

"It's hard to imagine how removing mention of support for a proven lifesaving program from the White House website is part of a grand strategy to 'build support' for syringe exchange," said Tom Angell, a spokesman for the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

Exactly. If Obama wants to promote needle exchange, he should consider not making it illegal for the government to support needle exchange.

The administration is arguing that supporting the ban at this time is necessary to avoid politicizing the budget process, yet opposing needle exchange is just as political as supporting it. You're taking a political stance either way, obviously. The only difference is that Obama is choosing the wrong side and lending legitimacy to crazy idiots who oppose needle exchange.

Obama No Longer Supports Needle Exchange Programs That Reduce AIDS

On the campaign trail, Obama made clear statements in support of needle exchange as a proven means of reducing transmission of AIDS and other diseases among drug users. Once in office, the President reiterated his commitment to ending the federal blockade against these life-saving programs:

The President also supports lifting the federal ban on needle exchange, which could dramatically reduce rates of infection among drug users.

That language appeared on the President's own website, until it was ominously removed a couple weeks ago. Today, the President's Budget (pg. 795) formally announces Obama's decision to continue the federal needle exchange ban:

"Notwithstanding any other provision of this Act, no funds appropriated in this Act shall be used to carry out any program of distributing sterile needles or syringes for the hypodermic injection of any illegal drug."

With that one sentence, Obama blatantly violates an important campaign promise and chooses politics over science with thousands of lives on the line. It's just disgraceful, and if he thought no one would notice, he was wrong.  

This isn't a matter of Obama not understanding the issue. He's already said that needle exchange would "dramatically reduce rates of infection among drug users," so it should be unnecessary to further debate that point or dig any deeper into the towering mountain of evidence surrounding the efficacy of needle exchange programs.

Apparently, the President simply isn't willing to spend political capital saving the lives of drug users. If this is all about politics, and I believe it is, then the question that must be asked is why the hell the President thinks needle exchange is a political liability. When Jim Ramstad's name was circulating as potential nominee for drug czar, his opposition to needle exchange was a big factor in sinking his candidacy. Moreover, the newly appointed drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, is known for supporting needle exchange during his tenure as Seattle Police Chief. Maybe Obama should talk to his new drug czar before resurrecting the Bush Administration's failed and fatal policy of opposing harm reduction.

There is simply no serious or credible opposition to implementing proven life-saving programs in the fight against AIDS. Obama's previous statements in support of such programs provoked zero backlash on the campaign trail and obviously didn’t prevent him from becoming President. All he had to do was leave this stupid language out of the budget -- like he said he would -- and no one would even have noticed.

Instead, we're forced to come to terms with the reality that our President is willing to sacrifice human lives based on an ill-conceived perception of political convenience and nothing more.

Please contact the White House to demand that Obama keep his promise to support needle exchange and save lives.

Feature: Meeting in Vienna, UN Commission on Narcotics Drugs Prepares to Head Further Down Same Prohibitionist Path, But Dissenting Voices Grow Louder

The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) met this week in Vienna to draft a political statement and plan of action to guide international drug policy for the next decade. The statement largely affirms existing prohibitionist policies and ignores harm reduction, as the CND has done it the past. [Editor's note: The draft statement had not been formally approved as of press time, but is likely to be approved as is.]

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Vienna International Center, home of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime
The political statement is supposed to evaluate the implementation of the previous political declaration and action plan approved by the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) in 1998. At the 1998 session, UNGASS adopted the slogan "A Drug-Free World -- We Can Do It" and launched a "campaign" to wipe out all drug crops -- from marijuana to opium to coca -- by 2008.

But while the international community continues to slide down its century-old prohibitionist path regarding non-medicinal drug use and sales, it is encountering an increasing amount of friction. The United States, as leader of the hard-liners, continues to dominate the debates and set the agenda, but an emerging bloc of mainly Latin American and European countries is expressing deep reservations about continuing the same policies for another decade.

The atmosphere in Vienna this week was circus like, complete with street protests, as national delegations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other interested parties heatedly debated what an increasingly vociferous minority called a "failed" approach to the issue. Debate was particularly intense about the inclusion of harm reduction in the political statement -- a position rejected by the US delegation, led by outgoing acting drug czar Edward Jurith.

The drug summit came as the UN, the CND, and the countries pushing the prohibitionist hard-line have come under repeated attack for essentially maintaining the status quo. On Tuesday, the European Commission issued a report that found while in the past decade policies to help drug users and go after drug traffickers have matured, there was little evidence to suggest that the global drug situation had improved.

"Broadly speaking the situation has improved a little in some of the richer countries, while for others it worsened, and for some of those it worsened sharply and substantially, among which are a few large developing or transitional countries," an EC media statement on the report said. "In other words, the world drugs problem seems to be more or less in the same state as in 1998: if anything, the situation has become more complex: prices for drugs in most Western countries have fallen since 1998 by as much as 10% to 30%, despite tougher sentencing of the sellers of e.g. cocaine and heroin in some of these markets."

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SSDP's Kris Krane, caged as part of HCLU demonstration at UN (drogriporter.hu/en/demonstration)
Current anti-drug policies also came under attack from a growing coalition of NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, the International Harm Reduction Association, the European NGO Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD), and the International Drug Policy Consortium, as well as various NGOs from the US, Brazil, Canada, and England, among others, all of whom were in Vienna for the meeting. Human Rights Watch urged the CND to undo a decade of neglect, while the English group Transform Drug Policy Foundation called for a moratorium on global strategic drug policy setting, a review of the consequences of prohibitionist policies, and a commission to explore alternatives to the failed war on drugs.

"Every state that signs up to the political declaration at this commission recommits the UN to complicity in fighting a catastrophic war on drugs," said Danny Kushlick, policy director for Transform. "It is a tragic irony that the UN, so often renowned for peacekeeping, is being used to fight a war that brings untold misery to some of the most marginalized people on earth. 8,000 deaths in Mexico in recent years, the destabilization of Colombia and Afghanistan, continued corruption and instability in the Caribbean and West Africa are testament to the catastrophic impact of a drug control system based upon global prohibition. It is no surprise that the declaration is unlikely even to mention harm reduction, as it runs counter to the primary impact of the prevailing drug control system which, as the past ten years demonstrate, increases harm."

Not all the action took place in the conference hall. Wednesday saw a lively demonstration by NGO groups including Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the drug user group INPUD, ENCOD, and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, among others. Protestors spoke to reporters from jail-like cages, waved signs and passed out pamphlets to delegates forced to run their gauntlet, and decried the harms of drug prohibition. One particularly effective protestor was dressed as a sun-glass wearing, cigar-puffing Mafioso, celebrating that business was good thanks to prohibition.

Even UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) head Antonio Maria Costa, while whistling past the graveyard to insist that progress had been made in the past decade, acknowledged that current global policies have backfired in some ways. Giving the opening address Wednesday, Costa said "the world drug problem has been contained, but not solved" thanks to international anti-drug efforts.

But global drug control efforts have had "a dramatic unintended consequence," he added, "a criminal black market of staggering proportions." The international drug trade is "undermining security and development and causing some to make a dangerous wager in favor of legalization. Drugs are not harmful because they are controlled; they are controlled because they are harmful." Drug legalization would be "a historic mistake," he said.

Even so, Costa painted a dire picture of what prohibition had wrought: "When mafias can buy elections, candidates, political parties, in a word, power, the consequences can only be highly destabilizing" he said. "While ghettoes burn, West Africa is under attack, drug cartels threaten Central America and drug money penetrates bankrupt financial institutions".

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activists from International Network of People Who Use Drugs (INPUD) at demo (drogriporter.hu/en/demonstration)
Not everybody was buying into the UNODC-CND-US position of more of the same. Bolivian President Evo Morales brandished a coca leaf, then chewed it during his address to the delegates to underline his demand that coca be removed from the list of proscribed substances.

"This is coca leaf, this is not cocaine; this is part and parcel of a culture," Morales said. The ban on coca was a "major historical mistake," he added. "It has no harmful impact, no harmful impact at all in its natural state. It causes no mental disturbances, it does not make people run mad, as some would have us believe, and it does not cause addiction."

Neighboring Brazil was also critical. "We ought to recognize the important progress achieved over the last decade," said Brazilian delegate Jorge Armando Felix. "But the achievements have not been accomplished. The aim of a world free of drugs has proven to be unobtainable and in fact has led to unintended consequences such as the increase of the prison population, increase in violence related to an illegal drug market, increase in homicide and violence among the young population with a dramatic impact on mortality and life expectancy -- social exclusion due to drug use and the emergence of synthetic drugs."

Felix also had some prescriptions for UNGASS and the CND. "At this historic moment with the opportunity to reassess the past 10 years and more importantly to think about the challenges to come, Brazil enforces the need for recognition of and moving towards: harm reduction strategies; assessing drug dependence, and HIV AIDS populations; securing the human rights of drug users; correcting the imbalance between investments in supply and demand reduction areas; increasing actions and programs of prevention based on scientific evidence with an emphasis towards vulnerable populations and towards increase of access to and care for problematic or vulnerable drug users; and to the acknowledgment of different models of treatment for the need for increased funding of these efforts."

Brazilian Luiz Paulo Guanabara, head of the NGO Psicotropicus, observed it all with mixed feelings. "Early on, I thought the NGO strategy for harm reduction would not result in anything and that we should aim for drug regulation instead," he said. "And in the end, the term harm reduction is not in the political declaration, but the Beyond 2008 document is very strong and has not gone unnoticed."

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Mafioso-looking activist distributing ''United Nations of Prohibition'' 1,000 note bills with UNODC chief Costa's face on one side, and a thank you from the In Memoriam Al Capone Trust on the other (drogriporter.hu/en/demonstration)
Guanabara had harsh words for both the Americans and the UN. "It seems like the American delegates believe harm reduction is a sin -- or they favor harm increase, so they can lock up more people and have more HIV patients, increase crime, sell more weapons and make money out of the disgrace of others and families' destruction. Their prohibitionist stance is obscene," he declared. "And these guys at the CND understand nothing of drugs and drug use, they are just bureaucrats. To put drugs in the hands of bureaucrats is as dangerous as putting them in the hands of criminals."

But despite the lack of results this time around, Guanabara was thrilled by the participation of civil society. "The civil society mobilization is enormous and intense," he said. "The NGO events around the meeting were the real high-level meetings, not the low-level ones with the bureaucrats at the CND."

While the sentiments from Brazil and Bolivia were echoed by various national delegations, mainly European, and while even the UNODC and the US are willing to give nods to an increased emphasis on treatment and prevention, with the US delegation even going so far as to approve of needle exchanges, at the end of the day, the CND political declaration and action plan represents a stubborn adherence to the prohibitionist status quo.

"Government delegations could have used this process to take stock of what has failed in the last decade in drug-control efforts, and to craft a new international drug policy that reflects current realities and challenges," said Prof. Gerry Stimson, executive director of the International Harm Reduction Association. "Instead, they produced a declaration that is not only weak -- it actually undermines fundamental health and human rights obligations."

American attendee and long-time drug reform activist Michael Krawitz also had mixed feelings. "The slow train wreck that Harry Anslinger started with the 1961 Single Convention is finally grinding to a halt," he said. "The argument here has been a semantic one over harm reduction, but the subtext is much more important, and the subtext is that the treaties were set up to protect public health and are currently being interpreted in such a way as to do the opposite. The declaration wound up being watered down and piled high with reservations. The next five years should prove interesting."

The IHRA and other NGOs called on governments with reservations about the political declaration to refuse to endorse it. That probably will not happen, but some governments have indicated they will add reservations to their approval of the declaration. After a century of prohibition, the first formal cracks are beginning to appear at the center of the legal backbone of global drug prohibition. Given that the dissent has largely appeared only since the last UNGASS in 1998, perhaps this isn't such a bad start.

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