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The Republican House and Drug Reform: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly [FEATURE]

Last week, a resurgent Republican Party retook control of the US House of Representatives, giving the Democrats a drubbing the likes of which has not been seen for decades. The Democrats lost 61 seats, seeing their side sink to 189 seats to the Republicans' 240. They needed 218 to take over again.

The change in control of the House has some serious drug policy implications. There's bad news, but maybe also some good news.

Reform measures passed in the current Congress, such as repealing the bans on federal funding of needle exchange programs and implementation of the Washington, DC, medical marijuana program, could see attempts to roll them back. And pending reforms efforts, such as the battle to repeal the HEA student loan provision, are probably dead. Reform friendly Democratic committee chairs, who wield considerable power, have been replaced by hostile Republicans.

But the incoming Republicans made slashing the deficit and cutting the federal budget a winning campaign issue for themselves, and will be looking for programs they can cut or eliminate. That could open the door to hacking away at programs that support the ongoing prosecution of the drug war, but it could also open the door for cuts in prevention and treatment programs.

As the Chronicle noted here earlier this week, it's not just Tea Party types who want to wield the budget ax. The mainstream conservative Heritage Foundation issued a report just before election day laying out a whopping $434 billion in federal budget cuts, including eliminating the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the drug task force-funding Justice Assistance Grant (JAG, formerly the Byrne grant program) program, and the Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities state grant program.

"Budgetary issues is where I'm most optimistic," said Bill Piper, veteran national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Given the fiscal climate, there could be real cuts in the federal budget. Next year is probably an unprecedented opportunity to de-fund the federal drug war. These new Republicans are a different breed—anti-government, anti-spending, pro-states' rights, and some are proven to be prone to bucking the leadership. If the Republican leadership votes to preserve the drug war, they may rebel," he said.

"We can go after the Byrne grant program," Piper enthused. "That's a very important deal. If we can cut off drug war funding to the states, the states won't be able to afford their punitive policies anymore. During the recession in the Bush administration, when the administration was cutting money to the states, a lot of states passed reform measures because they couldn't afford to lock people up. This time, the federal government has been bailing out state criminal justice systems, but if we can cut or eliminate Byrne grants, the states won't have money for their drug task forces and imprisoning people. Then they will have to consider reforms like cutting sentences and making marijuana possession an infraction."

"Sentencing reform on budgetary grounds is possible," said Kara Gotsch, director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project. "From our perspective, that is a way to reduce government spending. If you want to reduce drug war spending, you reduce costs by investing in prevention and substance abuse programs. That will be part of our talking points, but the reality is, to be successful they're going to have to be bipartisan."

Eric Sterling, former House Judiciary Committee counsel and current head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation was less sanguine than either Piper or Gotsch about the urge to cut the deficit leading to progress in drug reform. "The prospect of saving money leading to criminal justice and drug policy reform is remote," said Sterling. "In state legislatures where they have to balance the budget, everyone recognizes what has to happen. But in Congress, they know there is still going to be a deficit."

Sterling also questioned just how different the Republican freshman class will be from traditional Republicans. "That's a big question mark," he said. "They are younger and bring with them different experiences about drug policy or marijuana in particular, but most of these men and women won by using traditional themes that most incumbent Republicans used, too. I think for them, cracking down on drugs and crime will have more value than trying to save money by funding diversion or correctional programs that aren't about harsh punishment."

But Piper remained upbeat. "Next year is probably an unprecedented opportunity for the movement to defund the drug war. The stars are aligning. A lot of tax groups are already on record for cutting some of these programs," he noted. "Given the fiscal climate, we could see considerable cuts in the federal budget. The type of Republicans coming into office, as well as Obama's own need to show he can practice fiscal discipline, means a real chance to cut or eliminate some of those programs," he said. "The down side is that funding for prevention and treatment is likely to come under fire, too."

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) -- no friend of drug reform.
While budget battles will be fought in appropriations committees, criminal justice issues are a different matter. One of the most striking changes  comes in the House Judiciary Committee, where pro-drug reform Democrats like chairman John Conyers (D-MI) and Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security chair Bobby Scott (D-VA) are being replaced by the likes of Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who will head the Judiciary Committee. Smith, a conservative old school drug warrior, was the only congressman to speak up against passage of the bill to reduce the disparity in crack and powder cocaine sentences.

He also authored a bill this fall that would have made it a federal offense for US citizens to plan to commit acts outside the US that would violate US drug laws. While that bill was allegedly aimed at large drug trafficking organizations, it could have made federal criminals out of college students making plans to visit the coffee shops of Amsterdam. He took to Fox News last month to lambaste the Obama administration as insufficiently tough on marijuana law enforcement, a clip he displays on his web site (scroll over the small video screens; the title will pop up).

"The fact that Rep. Smith is going to be the chair will definitely have an impact," said Gotsch. "He was the only vocal opposition to the crack cocaine sentencing reform, and the fact that he is now going to be chair is discouraging. It indicates that he won't be thoughtful about sentencing reforms for low level drug offenders."

"The Democratic committee chairs were good on drug policy and unlikely to advance bad drug war bills," said Piper. "Now, with Conyers and Scott gone and Lamar Smith in charge, we can expect stuff like Smith's foreign drug conspiracy bill to come out of that committee."

"You couldn’t find bigger champions for reform than Scott and Conyers," said Gotsch. "We won't have them as chairs now; that's probably the biggest disappointment to our community."

"Smith has been quite out there in his attacks over the drug issue," said Sterling. "My hunch is that we will take advantage of the political attractiveness of the drug issue to try to have both oversight hearings and legislation that would be embarrassing to Democrats."

And don't expect too much from the Democrats, either, he added. "The Democratic caucus is going to be more reluctant to deal with the drug issue in a progressive way than it has been," said Sterling. "They see it as a distraction from the heart of the message they need to bring to retake power in 2012."

With people like Smith holding key House committee positions, the drug reform agenda is likely to stall in the next Congress. Instead, reformers will be fighting to avoid reversing earlier gains.

"In terms of passing good things, there probably wasn’t a lot more that was going to happen with Democrats before 2012," said Piper. "The important low hanging fruit of overturning the syringe ban, the DC medical marijuana ban, and the crack sentencing bill had already gotten through. We might have been able to achieve repeal of the HEA drug provision, but probably not now."

The drug reform movement's job now will be not only blocking bad legislation, but also fighting to prevent a rollback of drug reform victories in the current Congress, such as the repeal of the bans on syringe exchange funding and implementing the Washington, DC, medical marijuana law, said Piper. 

"They're unlikely to go backwards on crack, but the syringe ban and the DC medical marijuana ban were both repealed with some, but not a lot, of Republican support," he said. "The syringe ban repeal barely passed, and that was in a Congress dominated by Democrats. Will they try to restore the syringe funding ban and overturn DC's medical marijuana program? That's our big fear. Hopefully, we can scrape up enough votes to defeat in the House, or stop it on the Senate side," he said.

Piper also dared to dream of an emerging Republican anti-drug war caucus. "We don't know who these new Republicans all are, but some have probably been influenced by Ron Paul (R-TX)," he said. "If only 10 of them stand up against the drug war, that's a huge opportunity to raise hell in the Republican caucus. Almost a third of Republican voters want to legalize marijuana, and that's an opportunity for us, too. Maybe there will be Republicans we can work with and create a truly bipartisan anti-drug war coalition in Congress. That's a foothold."

For Piper, the future looks stormy and cloudy, but "the silver lining is in appropriations fights and opportunities to organize an anti-drug war movement in the Republican caucus. We just have to play defense on a bunch of stuff," he said. 

"The activist community is going to have to figure out what the recipe for our lemonade is," advised Sterling. "That requires first a redoubled effort at organizing, using themes such as the wise stewardship of the scarce resources we have, and what works and what is effective," he said.

"It also requires mobilizing people not involved in this issue before, whether it's the business community or people who see their rice bowls been broken by the Republican approach," Sterling continued. "Teachers, nurses, people asking how come the part of the public work force this is protected is the police and the police guards. Drug policy reform activists have to think about what are the alliances they can make in this time of public resource scarcity."

Washington, DC
United States

Fraser Health Authority Urged to Push Needle Exchanges Into Hostile Cities

Location: 
Canada
Injection drug addicts are at much greater risk of catching and spreading disease in the Fraser Health region because health authority officials have failed to deliver on the promise of their harm reduction policy, reform advocates charge. They say access to needle exchanges, safe injection sites and methadone clinics is much poorer than in the Vancouver area – largely due to opposition from hostile city councils and police forces who think an abstinence policy is best.
Publication/Source: 
Hope Standard (Canada)
URL: 
http://www.bclocalnews.com/fraser_valley/hopestandard/news/106728428.html

Swiss Drug Policy Should Serve As Model: Experts

Location: 
Switzerland
Switzerland's innovative policy of providing drug addicts with free methadone and clean needles has greatly reduced deaths while cutting crime rates and should serve as a global model, health experts said. Countries whose drug policy remains focused on punishing offenders, including Russia and much of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, should learn from a Swiss strategy based on "harm reduction" that protects both users and communities, they said.
Publication/Source: 
Reuters
URL: 
http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE69O3VI20101025

Cleveland Has Ohio's Only Legal Syringe Exchange Program

Location: 
Cleveland, OH
United States
The Free Medical Clinic of Greater Cleveland runs Ohio's only legal syringe exchange program. Cleveland first allowed syringe exchanges in 1995, when more than 17 percent of new HIV infections were associated with intravenous drug use. Last year, that number had fallen to 3.4 percent, according to the Cleveland Department of Public Health.
Publication/Source: 
The Plain Dealer (OH)
URL: 
http://www.cleveland.com/healthfit/index.ssf/2010/09/cleveland_has_ohios_only_legal.html

A Failed "War on Drugs" Prompts Rethinking on HIV Infections Among Injection Drug Users

Drug policy has focused on a policing approach of prohibition and incarceration, which has contributed to spreading HIV within the injection-drug community. Comprehensive drug reform policies are showing better results. Despite massive investments in drug law enforcement in the past three decades, with much of the international interdiction effort paid for by the U.S. government through assistance to national military and police forces, there is "a general pattern of falling drug prices and increasing drug purity" throughout the world, according to the Vienna Declaration.
Publication/Source: 
Scientific American (NY)
URL: 
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=a-failed-war-on-drugs

New York Governor Signs Needle Exchange Bill

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/used-syringes.jpg
used syringes collected by syringe exchange program -- they might have gotten discarded in public without the program
New York Gov. David Paterson (D) Saturday signed into law a bill, A08396A, that will protect needle exchange participants. Although needle exchanges are permitted in New York, some participants in such programs have been arrested for possession of needles and syringes, while others have been charged with drug possession for residues left in syringes. The new law is designed to address that conflict between public health law and penal law.

The law, also known as the Governor's Program Bill No. 23, will:
 

  • Clarify in the Penal Law that a person does not act unlawfully by possessing a hypodermic needle or syringe if he or she participates in a needle exchange or syringe access program authorized under the Public Health Law;
  • Provide that possession of a residual amount of a controlled substance on a needle or syringe does not constitute a criminal act if the individual is permitted to possess such needle or syringe under the Public Health Law; and
  • Require the Division of Criminal Justice Services to periodically notify law enforcement agencies and prosecutors about the right of individuals to possess syringes under a qualifying public health program and how to verify that a person is participating in such a program.

"The success of needle exchange and syringe access programs has been repeatedly verified to be instrumental in reducing the transmission of blood-borne diseases," Gov. Paterson said. "I proposed this legislation to prevent people from being arrested unnecessarily, thus ensuring that syringe users are not deterred from participating in these important programs."

"I want to commend Governor Paterson for signing this landmark legislation," said Sen. Thomas Duane. "By signing the syringe access legislation, Governor Paterson has once again put New York at the vanguard of a good public health policy that has proven to reduce transmission of HIV and other blood-borne diseases. Furthermore, New York's Penal law now finally conforms with its rational and compassionate health policy."

"Throwing an infected syringe into the gutter, out of fear of prosecution for possession of a trace of substance, is bad for public health and safety," said Assemblyman Richard Gottfried. "Stopping the arrest of drug users for possessing a used needle is a common sense way to protect public health and safety."

"It's important that we encourage drug injectors to utilize our public health programs without fear of arrest," said State Health Commissioner Dr. Richard Daines. "Syringe exchange programs help reduce transmission of HIV and offer access to drug treatment and other services to those most in need. We encourage injectors to return all used syringes so they are not disposed of in a way that would put others at risk."

It is a good day when, in some small way, the imperatives of public health are not sacrificed on the altar of the drug war. Saturday was a good day for New York.

Albany, NY
United States

Feature: Drug War a Devastating Failure, Scientists and Researchers Say in Vienna Declaration

A decade ago, scientists, researchers, and AIDS activists confronted a sitting president in South Africa who denied that AIDS was caused by HIV. They responded by declaring at the 2000 Durbin AIDS conference that the evidence was in and the matter was settled. Now, with the Vienna AIDS conference coming up later this month, they are at it again -- only this time the target is the war on drugs.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/vienna2009demo1.jpg
HCLU-organized demonstration outside UN anti-drug agency, former SSDP executive director Kris Krane inside cage (drogriporter.hu/en/demonstration)
Their weapon is the Vienna Declaration, an official conference statement authored by experts from the International AIDS Society, the International Center for Science in Drug Policy, and the British Columbia Center for Excellence in HIV/AIDS. The document is a harsh indictment of the global drug war that calls for evidence-based policymaking. It demands that laws which criminalize drug users and help fuel the spread of AIDS be reformed.

The authors of the Vienna Declaration want you to sign on, too. You can do so at the web site linked to above.

"The criminalization of illicit drug users is fueling the HIV epidemic and has resulted in overwhelmingly negative health and social consequences. A full policy reorientation is needed," they said in the declaration.

Arguing there is "overwhelming evidence that drug law enforcement has failed to meet its stated objectives," the declaration lays out the consequences of the drug war:

  • HIV epidemics fueled by the criminalization of people who use illicit drugs and by prohibitions on the provision of sterile needles and opioid substitution treatment.
  • HIV outbreaks among incarcerated and institutionalized drug users as a result of punitive laws and policies and a lack of HIV prevention services in these settings.
  • The undermining of public health systems when law enforcement drives drug users away from prevention and care services and into environments where the risk of infectious disease transmission (e.g., HIV, hepatitis C & B, and tuberculosis) and other harms is increased.
  • A crisis in criminal justice systems as a result of record incarceration rates in a number of nations. This has negatively affected the social functioning of entire communities. While racial disparities in incarceration rates for drug offenses are evident in countries all over the world, the impact has been particularly severe in the US, where approximately one in nine African-American males in the age group 20 to 34 is incarcerated on any given day, primarily as a result of drug law enforcement.
  • Stigma towards people who use illicit drugs, which reinforces the political popularity of criminalizing drug users and undermines HIV prevention and other health promotion efforts.
  • Severe human rights violations, including torture, forced labor, inhuman and degrading treatment, and execution of drug offenders in a number of countries.
  • A massive illicit market worth an estimated annual value of US $320 billion. These profits remain entirely outside the control of government. They fuel crime, violence and corruption in countless urban communities and have destabilized entire countries, such as Colombia, Mexico and Afghanistan.
  • Billions of tax dollars wasted on a "War on Drugs" approach to drug control that does not achieve its stated objectives and, instead, directly or indirectly contributes to the above harms.

"Many of us in AIDS research and care confront the devastating impacts of misguided drug policies every day," said Julio Montaner, president of the International AIDS Society and director of the BC Center for Excellence in HIV/AIDS. "As scientists, we are committed to raising our collective voice to promote evidence-based approaches to illicit drug policy that start by recognizing that addiction is a medical condition, not a crime," added Montaner, who will serve as chairman of the Vienna conference.

"There is no positive spin you can put on the war on drugs," said Dr. Evan Wood, founder of the International Center for Science in Drug Policy. "You have a $320 billion illegal market, the enrichment of organized crime, violence, the spread of infectious disease. This declaration coming from the scientific community is long overdue. The community has not been meeting its ethical obligations in terms of speaking up about the harms of the war on drugs."

Stating that governments and international organizations have "ethical and legal obligations to respond to this crisis," the declaration calls on governments and international organizations, including the UN to:

  • Undertake a transparent review of the effectiveness of current drug policies.
  • Implement and evaluate a science-based public health approach to address the individual and community harms stemming from illicit drug use.
  • Decriminalize drug users, scale up evidence-based drug dependence treatment options and abolish ineffective compulsory drug treatment centers that violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • Unequivocally endorse and scale up funding for the implementation of the comprehensive package of HIV interventions spelled out in the WHO, UNODC and UNAIDS Target Setting Guide.
  • Meaningfully involve members of the affected community in developing, monitoring and implementing services and policies that affect their lives.
  • We further call upon the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, to urgently implement measures to ensure that the United Nations system -- including the International Narcotics Control Board -- speaks with one voice to support the decriminalization of drug users and the implementation of evidence-based approaches to drug control.

"This is a great initiative," enthused Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "It is the most significant effort to date by the sponsors of the global AIDS conference to highlight the destructive impact of the global drug war. It is nicely coordinated with The Lancet to demonstrate legitimacy in the medical community. And it is relatively far reaching given that the declaration was drafted as a consensus statement."

"This is aimed at politicians, leaders of governments, the UN system, and it's aimed at housewives. We are trying to do basic education around the facts on this. There are still politicians who get elected vowing to crack down on drugs," said Wood. "While the declaration has a global aim and scope, at the end of the day, the person who is going to end the drug war is your average voter, who may or may not have been affected by it," he said.

"This was needed a long time ago," said Wood. "The war on drugs does not achieve its stated objectives of reducing the availability and use of drugs and is incredibly wasteful of resources in locking people up, which does little more than turn people into hardened criminals," he said.

The authors are hoping that an official declaration broadly endorsed will help begin to sway policy makers. "It will be interesting to see what kind of support it receives," said Wood. "Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper has endorsed it, and we have a 2008 Nobel prize winner for medicine on the web site. There are high level endorsements, and more are coming. Whether we touch a nerve with the news media remains to be seen. I am hoping it will have a big impact since this is the official conference declaration of one of the largest public health conferences on the planet."

"We have reached a tipping point in the conversation about drugs, drug policy, drug law enforcement, and the drug war," said Stamper, now a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "More and more, science has found its way into the conversation, and this is one step to advance that in some more dramatic fashion. I've heard much from the other side that is emotional and irrational. This is one effort to create even more impetus for infusing this dialogue on drug policy with evidence-driven, research-based findings."

That the AIDS conference is being held in Vienna adds a special fillip to the declaration, Wood said. "Vienna is symbolically important because it is where the infrastructure for maintaining the global war on drugs is located," said Woods, "and also because of the problems in Eastern Europe. In Russia, it's estimated that one out of every 100 adults is infected with the AIDS virus because Russia has not embraced evidence-based approaches. Methadone maintenance therapy is illegal there, needle exchanges are severely limited, the treatment programs are not evidence-based, and there are all sorts of human rights abuses around the drug war."

With the AIDS conference set to open July 18, Wood and the other authors are hoping the momentum will keep building up to and beyond. "It is my hope that now that the Vienna Declaration is online, large numbers of people will come forward and lend their names to this effort," he said.

The Vienna Declaration is one more indication of just how badly drug war orthodoxy has wilted under the harsh gaze of science. It's hard to win an argument when the facts are against you, but as the declaration notes, there are "those with vested interests in maintaining the status quo." The declaration should make their jobs that much more difficult and bring progressive approaches to drug policy that much closer.

UNODC: The Russians Are Coming

[Update, 6:20pm EST: Peter Sarosi at HCLU just told me Ban Ki-moon has indeed picked Fedotov. Hence I have removed the question mark from the end of the title of this article. :( - DB]

Current head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Antonio Maria Costa is set to end his 10-year term at the end of this month, and according to at least one published report, a Russian diplomat has emerged as the frontrunner in the race to replace him. That is causing shivers in some sectors of the drug reform community because the Russians are viewed as quite retrograde in their drug policy positions.

The report names Russia's current ambassador to the United Kingdom, Yuri Fedotov, as the top candidate to oversee UNODC and its $250 million annual budget. Other short-listed candidates include Spanish lawyer Carlos Castresana, who headed a UN anti-crime commission in Guatemala, Colombian Ambassador to the European Union Carlos Holmes Trujillo, and Brazilian attorney Pedro Abramovay. The final decision is up to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

If Fedotov wins the position, Russia would be in a far more influential position to influence international drug policy, and that is raising concerns because of Russia's increasingly shrill demands that the US and NATO return to opium eradication in Afghanistan, its refusal to allow methadone maintenance and its refusal to fund needle exchange programs even as it confronts fast-growing heroin addiction and HIV infection rates.

The concerns have crystallized in a campaign to block his appointment, including a Facebook group called We Don't Want A Russian UN Drug Czar!, which is urging people to send an email message to that effect to Secretary General Ki-moon. Group organizers the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union have also produced a video on the subject:

Press Release: Legislation Clarifying Law on Syringe Possession Heads to Gov. Paterson

Voices of Community Advocates and Leaders (VOCAL) | Drug Policy Alliance For Immediate Release: June 29, 2010 Contact: Sean Barry at (646) 373-3344 or Gabriel Sayegh at (646) 335-2264 Life-saving Legislation to Increase Access to Effective Public Health Programs Passes Legislature with Bi-partisan Support Bill Clarifies Confusion, States Clearly that People can Possess Syringes; New Law Should End Harassment by Police, Save Lives by Ensuring Clean Syringe Access and Safe Disposal Advocates Applaud Legislature, Await Governor Paterson’s Signature ALBANY -- Today, the New York State Legislature passed legislation clarifying conflict between the Penal Law and the Public Health Law. Senate Bill 5620-A (Duane) and it’s companion, Assembly Bill 8396-A (Gottfried) builds on 20 years of New York’s commitment to innovative and effective programs that have dramatically reduced the rates of HIV/AIDS and Viral Hepatitis transmission rates among people who inject drugs and their families. New York’s Public Health Law allows people that participate in Syringe Exchange Programs (SEP) and the Expanded Syringe Access Program (ESAP) – a law passed in 2000 that allowed for syringe sales for those over 18 at pharmacies without a prescription -- to possess clean syringes. However, the provision that allows for participants to possess syringes was never put into the Penal Code, which resulted in police harassment of participants, leading to a chilling effect that decreased access to clean syringes and prevented proper disposal of used ones. Since the police carry the Penal Law, and not the Public Health law, they often did not know that possession of syringes in New York was entirely legal. Thus cops would often arrest program participants, leading to a chilling effect around a syringe exchange and reducing participation. The evidence on syringe exchange programs is clear: In New York City, syringe exchange programs (SEPs) have expanded access to clean syringes, leading to a dramatic health benefits: HIV/AIDS transmissions amongst intravenous drug users dropped by 75% between 1990 and 2001. Along with access to clean syringes and safe disposal of used ones, exchanges offer HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C testing, condoms, counseling, and referrals to drug treatment. The clarification of the law—bringing the Penal Law into accordance with the Public Health law – will lead to increased access of these life-saving programs. Hiawatha Collins, a Leader of VOCAL NY-Users Union, a membership-led union of current and former drug users who create and advocate for policies that directly impact them, knows first hand how the police harassment has decreased access to clean syringes and proper disposal of used ones. “I want to thank Assemblymember Gottfried, Senator Duane and Governor Paterson for their leadership in passing this legislation,” Collins said. “They proved their commitment to under-served and diverse communities throughout New York City and State, and relied on the clear evidence that these programs save lives and enhance the health and safety of all New Yorkers. They looked into their hearts and chose to make a commitment to saving lives.” Governor Paterson submitted the same program bill last year that would place the Public Health Law language that allowed for syringe possession into the Penal Code, permit program participants to possess syringes for proper disposal, and create oversight by the Department of Criminal Justice Services to ensure that participants stop getting harassed. The bill passed the Assembly last year and was scheduled for a Senate vote before it was stalled by Senate coup last June. Last week, the Senate passed the legislation with strong bi-partisan support. The Governor’s signature is expected shortly. “This legislation is good for communities, good for cops, and good for New York,” said Evan Goldstein, policy associate at the Drug Policy Alliance. “By clarifying the law on syringe possession, there will be less confusion by cops and communities alike about accessing syringe exchanges, which save New Yorkers tens millions of dollars in health care costs each year while increasing the health of communities. We thank Assemblyman Gottfried, Senator Duane, and Governor Paterson for their leadership on this issue, and we thank the Legislature for their continued effort to address drugs as an issue of public health and safety.”
Location: 
NY
United States

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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