Announcements 3/26/99

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  1. New Report Finds One Million Americans Incarcerated for Non-Violent Offenses
  2. IOM Findings Strengthen Administrative Challenge to Repeal Marijuana's Prohibitive Status
  3. ALERT: Support California Syringe Decriminalization Bill
  4. American Pharmaceutical Association Adopts Syringe Deregulation Position
  5. Vancouver Needle Exchange Study Clarifies Previous Study's Results
  6. Newsbriefs
  7. Rolling Back the Tide

1. New Report Finds One Million Americans Incarcerated for Non-Violent Offenses

Marc Brandl, [email protected]
A report released March 25th by the Justice Policy Institute entitled "America's One Million Nonviolent Prisoners" ( found some startling facts about whom America is imprisoning. According to the report, racial disparities in who gets incarcerated continues to grow while female prisoners continue to grow at the fastest rate. Increasingly those incarcerated are serving time for non-violent, primarily drug related offenses.

Vincent Schiraldi, who co-author of the report, spoke at a press conference today and told the reporters, "People think prisons are being built and sentencing laws are being passed to keep the Jack the Rippers of the world off the street, but increasingly, those prisons are being filled with 'the gang that couldn't shoot straight.'" Among some of the more eye-opening statistics the report finds is that the non-violent prison population in the US now exceeds the population of Wyoming and Alaska and three times the size of the violent and nonviolent prisoner populations of the entire European Union, which has a combined population 100 million people larger than the United States.

Minority communities continue to be the largest segment of the population locked up for nonviolent offenses. The report finds African Americans are incarcerated at eight times the rate of whites, and Hispanics at three and a half times the rate of whites. Because of the growing number of nonviolent inmates, the number of violent prisoners doing time has declined from 57% of the general prison population in 1978 to 47% in 1997. The report also analyzed the cost of incarceration and found America spent $24 billion dollars last year on the local, state and federal level incarcerating nonviolent offenders.

The report puts most of the blame for America having such a large jail population on mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA), speaking at a press conference on disparities in sentencing guidelines for crack and powder cocaine stated, "Mandatory minimum sentences are one of the great ills of the criminal justice system. To take away judicial discretion is unfair and works against people on the receiving end of these sentences."

The report is the latest in a long line of studies done by the Justice Policy Institute studying the consequences of mass incarceration in the United States, and can be found online at

2. IOM Findings Strengthen Administrative Challenge to Repeal Marijuana's Prohibitive Status

(reprinted from the NORML Weekly News,

March 23, 1999, New York, NY: Determinations released last week by the Institute of Medicine that marijuana holds medical value and has a low potential for abuse supports an administrative petition that seeks to remove marijuana's classification as a Schedule I prohibited drug.

Petitioners Jon Gettman, former NORML National Director, and Trans High Corporation, publisher of High Times Magazine, announced last week that the IOM findings back their administrative effort to reclassify marijuana. "The IOM findings support [our] petition to the DEA demanding the reclassification of marijuana from a Schedule I drug like cocaine and heroin to a lower classification consistent with its therapeutic potential and relative harmlessness," said NORML Legal Committee member Michael Kennedy, attorney for the petitioners.

By definition, all Schedule I drugs must have a "high potential for abuse" and "no currently accepted medical use in treatment." In contrast, the IOM report found that "few marijuana users develop dependence," and called the drug's withdrawal symptoms "mild and short-lived." IOM researchers further determined that there is no evidence marijuana acts as a gateway to harder drug use, and summarized, "Except for the harms associated with smoking, the adverse effects of marijuana use are within the range of effects tolerated for other medications."

Gettman and Trans High Corporation filed an administrative petition with the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1995, arguing that marijuana lacks the requirements necessary for classification as a Schedule I or Schedule II drug. Last year, the DEA requested the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to conduct a "scientific and medical valuation of the available data and provide a scheduling recommendation" for marijuana and other cannabinoid drugs. That recommendation is still pending.

3. ALERT: Support California Syringe Decriminalization Bill

California readers are urged to contact their assemblymembers in support of AB 518. According to the HIV Advocacy Network, the bill, introduced by assemblymembers Kerry Mazzoni (D-Marin) and Kevin Shelly (D-SF), would amend California state law that prohibits distribution of syringes without a prescription in order to provide legal protection to needle exchange projects operating within certain parameters outlined in the bill. Under AB 518, needle exchange programs would be established only in jurisdictions that choose to enact them and would be designed and implemented with input from the communities in which they are established. Syringe prescription laws drive up the spread of HIV by reducing the availability of sterile syringes, thereby increasing syringe sharing among injection drug users.

Please fax your letter of support for AB 518 by March 31 to assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni at (916) 319-2106 and to the assembly Health Committee at (916) 319-2197. Please also fax a copy to the San Francisco AIDS Foundation at (415) 487-3089, and send a copy to DRCNet at (202) 293-8344 (fax) or e-mail to [email protected].

Points for your letter:

  • Support AB 518 (Mazzoni/Shelley).
  • Needle exchange is a proven prevention tool that effectively decreases the number of HIV infections among injection drug users without increasing drug use or criminal activity.
  • Injection drug use continues to be the second leading cause of IV transmission in the state. As of December 1998, over 20,000 AIDS cases had been reported among IDUs in California.
  • Needle exchange is one of the most cost-effective interventions. The cost of a new syringe is as little as 10 cents while the lifetime cost of treating a person with AIDS is over $119,000.
  • Needle exchange programs offer an opportunity to provide prevention counseling and make referrals to medical care, drug treatment, HIV testing and other services.

4. American Pharmaceutical Association Adopts Syringe Deregulation Position

The House of Delegates of the American Pharmaceutical Association adopted the following position at its March 9th meeting this year:

"APhA encourages state legislatures and boards of pharmacy to revise laws and regulations to permit the unrestricted sale or distribution of sterile syringes and needles by or with the knowledge of a pharmacist in an effort to decrease the transmission of blood-borne diseases."

The position is similar to one adopted by the American Medical Association in 1997.

Three articles discussing pharmacies as potential access points for purchase of sterile syringes by injection drug users were published in the January-February 1999 issue of the Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association:

  • Should Pharmacists Sell Sterile Syringes to Injection Drug Users? T. Stephen Jones and Jennifer Taussig.
  • Pharmacy Access to Sterile Syringes for Injection Drug Users: Attitudes of Participants in a Syringe Exchange Program. Benjamin Junge, David Vlahov, Elise Riley, Steven Huettner, Michele Brown and Peter Beilenson.
  • Attitudes and Practices of Pharmacy Managers Regarding Needle Sales to Injection Drug Users. Thomas A. Farley, Linda M. Niccolai, Marianne Billeter, Patricia J. Kissinger and Marcellus Grace.

5. Vancouver Needle Exchange Study Clarifies Previous Study's Results

A study involving clients of the needle exchange program in Vancouver, British Columbia, "should take the wind out of the sails of people who have misinterpreted our previously published studies," according to one of the study's authors.

Previous research by Drs. Julie Bruneau and Martin Schechter has been touted by opponents of needle exchange programs -- from grassroots prohibitionist activists like the Family Research Council and Drugwatch International to politicians like drug czar Barry McCaffrey and certain members of Congress -- as evidence against needle exchange. NEP opponents point to a finding of the study, that injection drug users who use the needle exchange have higher rates of HIV than injection drug users who don't, and argue that needle exchange programs encourage needle sharing by bringing many injection drug users (IDUs) together.

The authors took to the pages of the New York Times last spring, with a letter editor charging that opponents of needle exchange programs had "misinterpreted" their results. Bruneau and Schechter explained that HIV was more prevalent among IDUs who used the program, because the program had succeeded in reaching the population that was the most at risk.

The issue came to a climax in April 1998, when District of Columbia Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus called for Barry McCaffrey's resignation, for going behind the back of his colleagues in the administration and misleading President Clinton on this and related points. The Secretary of Health and Human Services, Donna Shalala, was reportedly on the verge of lifting a Congressional ban on use of federal AIDS grant monies for needle exchange. Coincidentally, Norton made her call as needle exchange practitioners, researchers and advocates were gathered in Baltimore for the annual North American Syringe Exchange Convention.

At a conference in New York City in June 1998, Dr. Schechter described having met with Barry McCaffrey's staff prior to the April incident. Schechter said it was clear that there was an ideological agenda at work and that they weren't truly interested in what the science actually found.

According to the Ottawa Citizen, a study published in the Britain-based AIDS journal now confirms the authors' previous conclusions. Clients of Vancouver's needle exchange program are generally younger than other IDUs, spend more time living on the street and are more commonly involved in the sex trade.

Dr. Schechter told the Citizen, "What we've been able to show in this study is that people who frequently attend NEPs are higher risk. It is what you'd hope for and what you'd expect and that's why they come to NEPs and why they have higher HIV rates."

(Eleanor Holmes Norton's statement calling for Barry McCaffrey's resignation can be found online at Substantial information on needle exchange can be found on the Lindesmith Center web site at The North American Syringe Exchange Network can be found online at

6. Newsbriefs

Marc Brandl, [email protected]
San Diego, CA: Steven McWilliams and Dion Markgraaff, who ran the San Diego Cannabis Caregivers Club (medical marijuana provider), pleaded guilty on Tuesday to maintaining a place of distribution for a controlled substance. In exchange for their pleas, local prosecutors have dropped seven more serious felony charges. If convicted the men will face three years in prison each. The two were busted in January of 1998 with eleven marijuana plants at a checkpoint in eastern San Diego county that searches for illegal aliens and drugs that have made it passed the US-Mexico border checkpoint.

Austin, TX: Two drug bills sponsored by state Senator Florence Shapiro (R-Plano) passed the Texas Senate on Tuesday and await consideration in the state House. SB41 mirrors federal legislation that would give dealers a maximum life sentence if use of their illegal products causes loss of life. SB 43 would set up a state wide database of drug overdoses. Two other bills, also sponsored by Shapiro, are expected to come up for consideration in the Senate very soon. SB 42 would allow parents to request drug tests of their children by the public school. SB 44 would prevent 16-17 year olds from checking themselves out of a drug treatment program. The drug legislation is seen as a response to over two dozen young people dying because of heroin overdoses in the affluent community of Plano in the last year.
Drug Policy Forum of Texas,

New Zealand: Earlier this year a government selected panel studying the issue of cannabis policy found that the legal status of cannabis in New Zealand should be reconsidered and that cannabis should be on a par with legal products such as as alcohol and tobacco. Last week the government responded to the findings of the panel by announcing that cannabis will not be legalized or decriminalized and that drug paraphernalia will soon become illegal. The government will also be cracking down on doctors who prescribe too many drugs and will make Ecstasy a schedule A drug, the most prohibitive schedule under New Zealand law.
New Zealand Drug Foundation,

7. Rolling Back the Tide

Adam J. Smith, Associate Director, [email protected]
There comes a time in every wrongheaded crusade that a critical mass of opposition is reached. Excesses that just moments earlier were celebrated are suddenly crass, the "all-clear" sign is taken down, and cries of "full-speed ahead" are widely recognized not as leadership, but as zealotry. It is a time of redemption for those who had already been bucking the tide, a time when their ranks are joined by people who give credibility to their lunacy and justification to their efforts.

This is such a time.

This week, Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY), himself a long-time drug war hawk, held a press conference. Flanked by a dozen of his colleagues as well as representatives of numerous justice organizations, he announced his intention to eviscerate the system of mandatory minimum sentencing at the federal level. Rangel, who is not the type to tilt at windmills, is starting with a bill that will remove first-time crack offenders from the mandatory minimum requirement, and will narrow the sentencing gap between powder and crack cocaine by raising the level at which crack possession merits a five-year prison term.

Rangel also added his name this week as a cosponsor of H.R. 1053, Barney Frank's bill which will repeal a provision of the Higher Education Act of 1998 stripping drug offenders of eligibility for federal education aid.

It begins like this. For the first time in more than two decades, there are serious efforts afoot to roll back drug war legislation. That the names of the people who are joining the effort are surprising is testament to the fact that there has been a monumental shift in the political zeitgeist. The drug war, so recently regarded as sacrosanct, is beginning to look extremely vulnerable.

A couple of hundred miles north of the nation's capital, in New York City, the crowds of people getting arrested in front of One Police Plaza grow larger by the day. Al Sharpton was first, but he has since been joined by ex-mayor David Dinkins, Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, a group of Rabbis, social workers, city council members and others. They are protesting police brutality and seemingly random searches of people of color. And while the drug war itself has not been attacked by the protesters, there is no way around the fact that it is the drug war, in which everyone -- in certain neighborhoods -- is considered a suspect, and law enforcement is asked to do the impossible, that leads to such abuses.

On March 13, even the venerable New York Times editorialized against the drug war. It is now no longer radical to question the status quo. From this day forward, it will no longer be possible to effectively neutralize the voices of reform by calling them "pro-drug" or by intimating that any excess is justifiable in the name of "sending a message to our children." Because, as it turns out, "our children" was never meant to mean everyone's children. And the people whose children are being harmed, and killed, and incarcerated for terms of years and decades, are coming out of the woodwork, and setting their feet, and joining in the task of turning back the tide.

-- END --
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Issue #84, 3/26/99 Announcements | New Report Finds One Million Americans Incarcerated for Non-Violent Offenses | IOM Findings Strengthen Administrative Challenge to Repeal Marijuana's Prohibitive Status | Alert: Support California Syringe Decriminalization Bill | American Pharmaceutical Association Adopts Syringe Deregulation Position | Vancouver Needle Exchange Study Clarifies Previous Study's Results | Newsbriefs | Editorial: Rolling Back the Tide
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