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Feature: 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conferences Opens Amid Optimism in Albuquerque

Hundreds, possibly more than a thousand, people poured into the Convention Center in downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico, as the Drug Policy Alliance's 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference got underway yesterday. Set to go on through Saturday, the conference is drawing attendees from around the country and the world to discuss dozens of different drug reform topics. (See the link above for a look at the program.)
screening of near-final version of the next Flex Your Rights film, 10 Rules for Dealing with Police
This is the second time DPA has brought the conference to the distant deserts of the Southwest. In 2001, DPA rewarded libertarian-leaning New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (R) for becoming the highest ranking elected official in the US to call for ending drug prohibition by bringing the conference to his home state. Since then, the ties between DPA and New Mexico have only deepened.

As DPA New Mexico office head Reena Szczepanski explained at the opening plenary session, the Land of Enchantment is fertile ground for drug reform. "Back in 1997, when drug policy reform was little more than a twinkle in the eye, New Mexico passed a harm reduction act mandating the Department of Health to give out clean syringes for people with HIV/AIDS," she noted. "Then, when Gov. Johnson said it was time to end the war on drugs, DPA very wisely immediately opened an office here. In 2001, we passed the overdose prevention act, allowing for the distribution of naloxone. Then we passed opting out on the federal welfare ban, we passed asset forfeiture reform, we passed the 911 Good Samaritan Act -- saving somebody's life is more important than busting them for small amounts of drugs."

But wait, there's more. "Thanks to Gov. Bill Richardson, we became the 12th state to have legal access to medical marijuana for seriously ill people," Szczepanski continued. "We're working on treatment instead of incarceration, we're working to end the war on drugs in New Mexico and this country. This is a very special place for drug policy reform."

New Mexico is also right next store to one of the drug war's bloodiest battlegrounds: the mean streets of Ciudad Juarez, just across the Rio Grande River from El Paso, Texas, which in turn in borders New Mexico. More than 2,200 people have died in prohibition-related violence in Juarez this year alone.

That violence just across the river inspired El Paso City Councilman Beto O'Rourke to turn a motion expressing sympathy for El Paso's sister city into one that also asked for an open and honest debate on ending drug prohibition. The resolution passed the city council by a unanimous vote, only to be vetoed by the mayor. Then, as the council scheduled an override vote, the pressure came down.

"Each of us on the council got a call from Rep. Silvestre Reyes, our congressman and a very powerful figure," O'Rourke told the crowd Thursday. "He told us if we went forward with this, it will be very hard to get your district the federal funding you need. That's a powerful threat, since we rely on federal funding to deliver basic services. It was enough to get four members to change their votes."

While the resolution was defeated, the debacle opened the door for serious debate on drug policy in El Paso and generated support for ending prohibition as well, O'Rourke said. "Our local Students for Sensible Drug Policy chapter came out very strongly and helped organize a global policy forum in El Paso. I received hundreds of calls, letters, and emails of support from around the country and the world," O'Rourke related to sustained applause.

If Councilman O'Rourke was a new face, Ira Glasser is a familiar one. Former executive director of the ACLU and president of the DPA board of directors, Glasser told the crowd he was more optimistic about the prospects for change than ever before.

"Today we stand on the brink of transformative progress," he said. "I have never said that before. We can almost touch the goals we have sought, the unraveling of the so-called war on drugs, which is really a war on fundamental freedoms and constitutional rights, on personal autonomy, on our sovereignty over our minds and bodies, a war against people of darker skin color."

Just as Jim Crow laws were the successor to the system of slavery, said Glasser, so the drug war has been the successor to Jim Crow. "It's no accident that after the civil rights revolution ended with the passage of the last federal civil right law in 1968, Richard Nixon was elected on the southern strategy against progress on civil rights," he noted. "Within months of taking office, Nixon declared the modern war on drugs."

Glasser wasn't the only one feeling uplifted. "I am feeling good, better than ever before," said DPA executive director and plenary keynote speaker Ethan Nadelmann. "The wind is at our back. We are making progress like never before. We have to move hard and fast. Historically speaking, there are moments when everything comes together," drawing a pointed comparison with the successful temperance movement that managed to get alcohol banned during Prohibition. But Prohibition generated its own counter-movement, he said, again drawing a pointed parallel.

"Now, we're in another moment," Nadelmann said. "We're hurting with the recession, state budgets are hemorrhaging. More and more people are realizing we can't afford to pay for our prejudices, we can't continue to be the world's largest incarcerator."

But it's not just the economy that is opening the window, he continued. "What's happening in Mexico and Afghanistan, where illicit drugs are ready sources of revenues for criminals and political terrorists, that has people thinking. We have two major national security problems causing people to think afresh."

Nadelmann had a suggestion: "Ending marijuana prohibition is a highly effective way of undermining that violence," he said. "Until we end it, buy American."

Just after the opening plenary session ended, 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 Regulation, 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 its new video, 10 Rules for Dealing with Police. The screening of the self-explanatory successor to Flex Your Right's 2003 "Busted" 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."

The conference, of course, continued Thursday afternoon and will go through Saturday, but your reporter was busy getting this week's Drug War Chronicle ready to go. Come back next week for fuller reports on the 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference.

Europe: In Opinion Poll, Romanians Reject Marijuana Legalization

Last month, a Romanian presidential committee recommended decriminalizing the possession of "soft" drugs, implementing needle exchange programs, and legalizing prostitution. A poll this month suggests the committee and President Traian Băsescu have some work to do in winning over the Romanian public -- at least on the drugs issue.
Traian Băsescu
According to a poll conducted by eResearch Corporation, an Angus-Reid affiliate, only 34% of Romanians agree with decriminalization, while 59% oppose it.

Băsescu came to power in 2004 as head of the Alliance for Truth and Justice, a coalition consisting of the Democratic and National Liberal parties, and vowed to institute reforms in the former communist satrapy. His Presidential Committee for the Analysis of Social and Demographic Risk was part of that pledge.

"Drug abuse needs to be discouraged, but with the adequate difference made between soft drugs and hard drugs, especially the ones injected such as heroin, which have devastating negative effects," the report said. But the report also called for "disincrimination (sic) of drug consumption -- but not of trafficking -- to bring consumers to the surface."

According to another eResearch poll, Romanians are going for bringing sex work in from the cold. That poll found that 56% supported legalizing prostitution, while only 37% opposed it.

Feature: Busted for Handing Out Clean Needles -- The Mono Park 2 Fight Back in California's Central Valley

Hit hard by a double whammy of drought and economic slowdown, California's Central Valley has become a hotbed of methamphetamine and other injection drug use. Now, the dusty town of Modesto, in Stanislaus County, has become a focal point in the statewide and nationwide battle over how to help injection drug users. Last week, two volunteers at an unsanctioned needle exchange were in court in Modesto hoping to reach a plea bargain after they were arrested in April for handing out syringes. Now known as the Mono Park 2, they're looking at serious jail time for trying to save lives.
mobile needle exchange/clinic site in nearby Fresno
The deal was supposed to be that Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager would drop drug paraphernalia possession charges against exchange volunteers Kristy Tribuzio and Brian Robinson if they agreed to quit handing out needles until there was a legal program in place. But that didn't happen. Instead, at the last minute, the DA rejected the plea deal. Another hearing is set for November 9. If the DA and defense attorneys cannot reach agreement then, the case will go to trial.

The case has its genesis in longstanding efforts to win official approval for a needle exchange in Modesto. California law allows for needle exchanges, but only as a local option. The county board of supervisors must declare a health emergency in order for needle exchanges to operate legally.

In a 2008 report, Containing the Emerging Threat of Hepatitis through a Syringe Exchange Program (begins on page 22), the Stanislaus County Civil Grand Jury recommended the county authorize syringe exchanges and implement them either directly or through a community based contractor. The effort also had the support of county public health officials, including Public Health Department, the Advisory Board for Substance Abuse Programs, the Local AIDS Advisory Implementation Group, and the Hepatitis C Task Force, who cited a high incidence of Hepatitis C. They cited research indicating that needle exchanges reduced the spread of blood-borne diseases, brought injection drug users into contact with public health workers, and did not result in increases in drug use.

But despite the input from the public health community and the grand jury report, the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors a year ago voted unanimously against allowing needle exchanges. In so doing, they heeded their own prejudices and those of law enforcement over science-based policies and the advice of the public health community.

County Sheriff Adam Christianson and DA Fladager both spoke out against needle exchanges, saying they would enable drug users to continue their addiction. Fladager said needle exchanges sent the wrong message to young people and encouraged them to think the county would take care of them if they become addicted.

"All of the challenges we are faced with in Stanislaus County, the gangs, methamphetamine, crimes, all have elements of drug addiction," Christianson said. "A syringe exchange program enables people to continue with their drug addiction."
used syringes collected by exchange -- they might otherwise have been discarded in public places
Noting that Hep C was not a big issue for the county because most patients are covered by insurance, Supervisor Bill O'Brien also objected on bizarre moral grounds. "Then there's the human issue. Giving a drug user a clean needle is not the best thing for him. Illegal drug use has a risk, and making it safer promotes it," he said.

Supervisor Jim DeMartini thanked the grand jury for the report, but then dismissively added, "Like many well-intentioned programs that don't work out, this will never work out and deliver the benefits promised."

Too bad the sheriff, the DA, and the county board don't agree with the nation's drug czar. "Needle exchange programs have been proven to reduce the transmission of blood-borne diseases," Gil Kerlikowske told Congress during confirmation hearings earlier this year. "A number of studies conducted in the US have shown needle exchange programs do not increase drug use. I understand that research has shown these programs, when implemented in the context of a comprehensive program that offers other services such as referral to counseling, healthcare, drug treatment, HIV/AIDS prevention, counseling and testing, are effective at connecting addicted users to drug treatment."

Given the knowledge base about the effectiveness of exchanges and the evident human need for them in Modesto, needle exchange advocates were not content to simply roll over and die. Instead, they created an unauthorized needle exchange in the city's Mono Park, also known as needle park by residents because of the used needles littering the ground there. The program was publicized and went along on a low-level basis without a hitch until April, when, after an elaborate undercover sting, police swooped down and arrested the exchange volunteers.

Kristi Tribuzio just happened to be volunteering with the needle exchange the day the bust went down. Now, she's one of the defendants. "There was a direct need for this, and when I found out there was an existing exchange -- I saw a flyer on a telephone pole -- I asked how is this happening?" she said. "I got involved; I was just going out there for the people. An undercover cop came up and did an exchange, and then, a little later eight to 10 undercover officers drove up with a drug dog and arrested us. It was pretty harsh and crazy," she recalled.

"Looking back, Brian and I think it was maybe naive of us to just go out there and do something that was helping people in line with other syringe exchange programs," said Tribuzio. "We didn't understand what the consequences could be."

Now, she and Robinson face up to a year in jail for violating the paraphernalia law. For Tribuzio, there were other consequences, including the loss of her contract position with the Stanislaus County drug and alcohol education and prevention program. "I was laid off two days after I was arrested. Because I was a contract worker, they didn't need a reason to fire me, and no official reason was given. Ironically, my employer supports needle exchange," she said. "Maybe that's why they laid me off instead of firing me for cause. Now, at least, I can get unemployment."

Tribuzio had previously worked as a substitute teacher, but she can't do that now, either. "I'm getting an MA in education, and I have a teaching credential, but my credential is now suspended," she said. "Imagine, a teacher in San Francisco could be doing just what I did, and there would be no problem."

That's because needle exchanges have been authorized by the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors, just as they have in most large California cities. But in more conservative locales, like the Central Valley, the fight is more difficult, and therein lies the problem -- and the solution -- said one prominent harm reductionist.

"What we need is to get legislation authorizing syringe exchanges on a statewide level rather than our current system, which requires that they be authorized by local authorities," said Hilary McQuie, Oakland-based Western director of the Harm Reduction Coalition. "Requiring local authorization means we have to deal with 54 jurisdictions instead of just one, and the politics makes it really difficult in conservative places like Fresno or Modesto. It will be really difficult to get syringe exchange approved in Modesto without a statewide mandate," she said.

Short of that, needle exchange advocates need to carefully lay the groundwork beforehand, she said. In that respect, the Modesto needle exchange perhaps suffered from political naivete. "The effort with the grand jury in Modesto was done in good faith, but the grand jury finding required a response from the Board of Supervisors within three months," she noted. "They hadn't really lined up their support with the Board, and the Board ended up voting against it. That was problematic."

While personally difficult for Tribuzio and Robinson, the battle over needle exchanges in Modesto has moved the issue forward locally and stirred support from around the country and the world. A Mono Park 2 Defense Committee has formed to back them. At last week's hearing, more than a dozen supporters were present in court, and the pair had letters of support from some 35 public health and harm reduction organizations here and abroad.

"We've gotten a ton of support from the harm reduction community," said Tribuzio. "This whole thing has been stressful and overwhelming for us, but they've given us a wealth of training, knowledge, and support, more than we ever expected. We've gotten support from people in other exchanges, and letters of support from around the world. We've also been building alliances with people in the community. Things in the Central Valley are crazy, and we can't turn our heads away in the face of disease. Now, at least, people are paying attention."

While Robinson and Tribuzio wait for their legal problems to be resolved, they continue to work with at-risk communities. "After the bust, we started Off The Streets, and that does everything except for needle exchange," said Tribuzio. "We're doing needs assessments, trying to get our fingers on the pulse of the community, trying to help where we can."

For McQuie, the trials and tribulations of the Mono Park 2 are, sadly, par for the course. "This is how most of the programs got started, doing them illegally, so they're in good company," she said.

Feature: Federal Needle Exchange Funding Ban Battle Continues

Years of effort by harm reductionists, public health authorities, HIV/AIDS researchers and activists, and drug law reformers to undo the more than 20-year-old ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs (NEPs) may come to fruition this year, but there are significant obstacles to overcome. Still, advocates of the reform are cautiously optimistic.

Since 1988, the US government has prevented local and state public health authorities from using federal funds for NEPs, which studies have shown to be effective in reducing HIV infection rates among injection drug users (IDUs) and their sexual partners, promoting public health and safety by taking syringes off the streets, and protecting law enforcement personnel from injuries. NEPS have been endorsed by the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Thomas Frieden, and former Surgeons General Everett Koop and David Satcher, among many others.

Chicago map demonstrating the impact of the
1000-foot rule -- click for larger copies and more
maps of Chicago and San Francisco (courtesy
Dr.Russell Barbour, Center for Interdisciplinary
Research on AIDS, Yale School of Medicine)

Injection drug use accounts for up to 16% of the 56,000 new HIV infections in the US every year -- or nearly 9,000 people. IDUs represent 20% of the more than 1 million people living with HIV/AIDS in the US and the majority of the 3.2 million Americans living with hepatitis C infection.

Still, those numbers could have been higher. In a 2008 study, the CDC concluded that the incidence of HIV among injection drug users had decreased by 80% in the past 20 years, in part due to needle exchange programs. There are today an estimated 185 NEPs operating in 36 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. But they rely on local or private funds, and many of them are failing to meet demand because of lack of funding. While the CDC says that its public health policy goal is 100% needle exchange, current estimates are that only 3.2% of needles used by drug users in urban areas are exchanged for clean ones.

The federal funding ban was first removed in a July 10 vote of the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies. A week later, the full Appropriations Committee approved the bill after voting down an amendment proposed by US Rep. Chet Edwards (D-TX) that would have reinstated the funding ban.

But the Appropriations Committee did approve an amendment dictating that federally funded NEPs could not operate "within 1,000 feet of a public or private day care center, elementary school, vocational school, secondary school, college, junior college, or university, or any public swimming pool, park, playground, video arcade, or youth center, or an event sponsored by any such entity."

A floor amendment by Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) to reinstate the funding ban also was defeated, clearing the way for repeal of the ban to pass the House. But the thousand-foot language remains in the appropriations bill approved by the House, and it's extremely objectionable to reform advocates. The Senate committee working on the issue did not include ending the funding ban, but reform advocates are pinning their hopes on both ending the ban and killing the thousand-foot restriction on the end-game House-Senate appropriations conference committee.

"The Senate has taken up their version of the bill in committee, but hasn't had a full vote," explained Daniel Raymond, policy director for the Harm Reduction Coalition. "At the committee level, the Senate chose not to take any action on the ban. At this point, there is a conflict between the House and the Senate." HRC is lobbying the Senate to repeal the ban, without the restrictions.

"We commend the full House for recognizing that NEPs are essential, effective tools that work in our fight against HIV and hepatitis transmission," said Kevin Robert Frost, chief executive of the Foundation for AIDS Research. "And while the compromise in the bill isn't perfect, we are hopeful that a final bill will reach President Obama's desk without limitations."

"We urge Congress to recognize both the benefit and cost-savings of syringe exchange programs, and the research that NEPs do not have detrimental impact on communities," said Marjorie Hill of Gay Men's Health Crisis, which has just released yet another study demonstrating NEPs' effectiveness in decreasing the transmission of blood-borne diseases. "For too long, we have allowed ideology to drive public health policy. It is time to remove the federal funds ban for syringe exchange and remove the harmful 1,000 feet restriction," added Hill.

"The House bill, as it stands, still puts ideology before science by limiting how federal funds can be used for NEPs," Frost said. "But we have time to fix the legislation, and I'm hopeful that the full US Congress will realize the importance of allowing local elected and public health officials to make their own decisions about how to address their HIV and hepatitis epidemics."

"I believe that the president, the Senate, and the House all want to do the right thing and they're trying to figure out how to do it," said Bill McColl of AIDS Action. "If they follow their own rhetoric about science- and evidence-based HIV/AIDS prevention policy, then they will remove the thousand-foot restriction," he said.

"The thousand-foot provision is a backdoor means of reinstating the funding ban," McColl continued. "There is almost no urban environment in which it would allow needle exchanges to operate. There are no currently existing needle exchanges that would be able to get federal funding, so it just doesn't make sense to change the policy that way. Drug policy groups have gone and literally shown Congress maps of what would be excluded. They've got letters from mayors and police saying this is not a workable provision. Again, Congress and the president know what the science is."

In addition to eliminating federally-funded needle exchanges in vast swathes of the urban landscape, the thousand-foot rule would have other insidious effects, said McColl. "Having that rule would have undesirable side effects, in that it would separate needle exchange from other public health services. Our AIDS program does testing in areas with lots of drug use -- that's where we need to be testing, and that's where we want the population to have clean syringes. With federal funding available and with the thousand-foot rule, prevention services will be driven away from needle exchanges."

Alice Bell, prevention project coordinator for Prevention Point Pittsburgh, already lives with geographical restrictions. "We have a local regulation that specifies 1,500 feet from schools only, not all the other restrictions in the current language of the federal bill. We have to move our main needle exchange site because the building we're in is being sold, and we're having trouble finding a good place. Any federal restrictions would make it even tougher," she said.

Bell wants the federal funding ban ended, but worries that the thousand-foot rule would put a crimp in her efforts. "We still want it. We need the federal funding. Our program is expanding, but we can't really expand our exchange service because we don't have money for needles. The toughest thing is always getting money for needles. Ending the federal funding ban would make a huge difference to us."

Federal funding becomes even more significant when coupled with economic hard times and budget problems at the state and local level, Bell noted. "We're mostly funded through foundations and private donations, and we've begun getting some state and county money for overdose prevention and HIV prevention, but the needle exchange -- the core of what we do -- is the toughest to get funded."

"The Senate will most likely go along with the House in conference committee," said Drug Policy Alliance director of national affairs Bill Piper. "They will probably take a bunch of appropriations bills and put them in a massive omnibus spending bill. It is far from clear that there will be a ban in what comes out of the Congress."

But the thousand-foot rule has to go, he said. "A lot of groups have been lobbying really hard on the thousand-foot issue," Piper noted. "It would be an effective ban is many cities. Here in DC, for example, the only place you could do a needle exchange program would be down at the docks on the Potomac. The strategy is to convince the conference committee to either take that out or come up with something better."

Advocates are lobbying hard right now, said the Harm Reduction Coalition's Raymond. "Right now, we're doing a push to make sure the Senate is educated about the issue and ask the leadership to get on board with House's action to address the ban," he said. "The House version has the thousand-foot restriction, so we're also making the arguments about why that's not workable and needs to be redone. We've been circulating maps showing its impact to House members who are focused on the issue. This restriction goes far beyond any reasonable desire to balance public health with other interests. When that provision was thrown in at the last minute, its effects hadn't really been thought out," he argued.

"We keep up the work in reaching out to Congress on both House and Senate side," said Raymond, "and we're also asking the White House to show some leadership and urge the Senate to address the federal ban. We don't want this issue to get lost in the shuffle, we're calling on everyone in the community to make our voices heard and reaching out to our elected officials."

It may take awhile to get settled, said Piper. "The entire appropriations process is messed up, and a lot of will depend on if, when, and how the Senate deals with health care," he explained. "Supposedly, they will get the appropriations bills done by the end of October, but I think that's a fantasy. Last year, they didn't even do this year's appropriations bills until March."

Still, AIDS Action's McColl maintains a positive outlook. "I think the members who will be called on to vote on this understand the issues," he said. "I have a pretty good feeling about this. I'm hopeful this is the year."

1000 Feet from Everywhere

One of the articles we are finalizing for publication in Drug War Chronicle tonight deals with needle exchange, and the state of legislation in Congress to end the ban on use by states of federal AIDS funds to support needle exchange programs. A bill has passed the House of Representatives -- good news -- but it includes a provision that would render it nearly useless. This provision would require that needle exchange programs receiving federal funds not operate "within 1,000 feet of a public or private day care center, elementary school, vocational school, secondary school, college, junior college, or university, or any public swimming pool, park, playground, video arcade, or youth center, or an event sponsored by any such entity." I'm not sure how any program could track where all the different such entities decide to hold events. More importantly, the rule would basically prevent needle exchanges from operating at all, because the area encompassed is pretty much everywhere inside any city. Dr. Russell Barbour, at Yale School of Medicine's Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS, has produced several charts that advocates are using now on the Hill, illustrating the impact the provision would have on AIDS prevention efforts in Chicago and San Francisco. He graciously provided them to us. Check them out here: (more below the fold)

A Heroin User in Stockholm

Another video from the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, this time in partnership with the Swedish Drug Users Union. Sweden's government is one of the world's most prohibitionist, but nevertheless has moved toward harm reduction in recent years by expanding needle exchange into a national policy. Previously needle exchange was happening only in two cities in the nation's south. Well, there's still no needle exchange in Stockholm, according to HCLU, it's even hard to get into a methadone maintenance program, and those who do often face negative attitudes from the program's staff. Check out the video below, or here.

Tear It Down, friends!

You Can Make a Difference



Dear friends,

The drug war’s foundation is beginning to crumble thanks to your hard work.

By just four votes, the House last week voted down an amendment that would have upheld the ban on federal funding for syringe exchange programs.  The ban has been in place since the 1980s and is one of the pillars of the drug war. 

With such a close vote, it’s clear that every single email, letter and phone call to Congress played a part in defeating the amendment.  In addition to your emails, we had staff calling congressional offices for days leading up to the vote, and our offices in California, New York, New Jersey and New Mexico organized grassroots efforts to persuade legislators from those states to end the ban. 

You and I are closer than ever to tearing down some of the worst drug war policies.  It’s time for Congress to own up to its mistakes and stop putting politics before public health and sound science.  Help us hold them accountable by making a donation today. 

While this recent victory is exciting, we’re not done yet.  Now we need your support to prepare for upcoming opportunities to dismantle failed drug war policies.

Discriminatory sentencing and mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses could soon be reformed. Congress is also on the verge of repealing both the Barr Amendment, which prevents the District of Columbia from setting its own marijuana policy, and the Higher Education Act drug provision, which excludes students with drug convictions from financial aid.

We need your help to make sure we have the resources to keep the momentum going and win more victories against bad drug war policies.  Your donation will help us keep up the fight to end the drug war.


Bill Piper
Director, Office of National Affairs
Drug Policy Alliance Network


Glorious Kyrgyzstan -- the Best Harm Reduction Program in Central Asia

The Central Asian Republic of Kyrgyzstan sits along a drug trafficking route, and has an estimated 80,000-100,000 drug users, more than half of whom inject drugs. Unlike some countries in the region, Kyrgyzstan has embraced harm reduction strategies such as needle exchange and methadone maintenance. Even prisoners in Kyrgyzstan have access to these programs. By going this route, they have been able to curb the country's HIV epidemic. A new video from the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union -- in Russian, with English subtitles -- tells the story. Check it out:

More Big News: Needle Exchange Legislation Passes US House of Representatives

As I noted here two weeks ago, legislation to repeal the ban on use of federal AIDS funds for needle exchange programs was included in a House subcommittee's health budget bill. The language survived an attempt on the House floor to repeal it, and so has made it through the full House of Representatives. Satisfyingly, the Congressman who tried to delete the language was Mark Souder, who also lost a committee vote on Tuesday to significantly gut his anti-student aid drug law. Souder's pro-AIDS amendment lost 211-218. The flip side is that 49% percent of Congress voted to continue spreading HIV and Hepatitis throughout our communities.
Washington, DC
United States

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.
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.

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