(renamed "Drug War Chronicle" effective issue #300, August 2003)
Issue #200, 8/24/01
"Raising Awareness of the Consequences of Drug Prohibition"
TABLE OF CONTENTS
David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 8/24/01
As we prepare this 200th issue of our newsletter, I find myself reminded of a complaint lodged a few years ago by an old friend and fellow believer in the cause: Our e-mails always contain so much bad news. Not that he blamed us, of course; the grimness of the topic is a reflection of the extremity of the drug war itself. The Week Online with DRCNet is just the messenger.
More recently, though, my friend told me he was encouraged: The news isn't always all bad anymore. Some of the news we report is actually good. And he's not the only one to make that observation. Though in some ways things are unquestionably getting worse -- the prison population, for example, rose again last year, and the Ecstasy and OxyContin hysterias are certainly discouraging -- in other ways things are improving or starting to improve, or at least getting worse more slowly than in the recent past.
Sometimes a news item is neither bad nor good, but just there. It might be interesting, it might be revealing, it might be funny or make a point. One event in the latter categories took place in New Orleans a few years ago: A marijuana plant somehow took root and sprung up out of a crack in the stairs at the foot of the local courthouse.
It wasn't really good news or bad news, though it brought some cheer to workers in the city's tourist-oriented party economy. It did make a point, in a humorous way, about the futility of the government's attempt to wipe out use of the plant through force of law. A similar incident in Israel made the international Jewish press, after authorities discovered that an unknown gardener had apparently planted a marijuana patch inside a traffic median dividing a busy street -- again illustrating the ubiquity of the plant's human use despite legal sanctions applying to it around the world.
A recent event in Colorado took the "random marijuana" phenomenon to a new level. Last week, a knee-high marijuana plant was found growing in the backyard of the Denver mansion of Gov. Bill Owens. Media outlets, as well as the governor's own staff, had a field day making marijuana-based headlines or jokes. "Yard Has Gone to Pot" at the governor's mansion, wrote the Denver Post. "Was it Pot Found at Governor's Joint," asked the LA Times. A spokesman for the governor called the story "planted" and a "joint effort" by his political opponents. All in all it was almost as bad as the spate of "Agony of Ecstasy" headlines that appear almost routinely in papers around the country these days.
Yet what was a laughing matter for the governor's staff and the media, could just as easily have torn a person or family's lives apart if the plant had been spotted in some other backyard. Indeed, Fred Hopson, a medical marijuana patient in Colorado's Park County, and his partner Shannon Scott, faced possible incarceration and forfeiture of their home to the government last year, after an eight-person SWAT team stormed their house at 5:30 one morning. The camouflaged, helmeted paramilitaries pointed rifles with gun lights in their faces, made them get out of bed naked and threatened to explode a grenade in their basement.
But at least Hopson and Scott are alive. In 1999, a 45-year-old Mexican immigrant from northeast Denver named Ismael Mena, was shot and killed by a SWAT team. The police had obtained a warrant to search for cocaine, but they broke into the wrong house, Mena's, while he was sleeping, and the tragedy unfolded from there.
So while the pot plant in the governor's backyard was neither good news nor bad news, it would almost certainly have led to bad news, maybe even deadly, if spotted elsewhere. The fact that no armed or legal threat was leveled at the hard-line drug warrior governor, illustrates the sickening double standard that exempts the rich or powerful, for the most part, from the drug war's excesses, but subjects the ordinary or unlucky to the Stalinist tactics of an out of control drug war police state. At least that is the point that this story highlighted for me.
Tonight DRCNet and friends will celebrate this 200th issue milestone at the Velvet Lounge, a fine establishment on the U Street strip in Washington, DC. For despite all the bad news that we report in the Week Online's bits and bytes each Friday, the good news is there too; at a minimum, the level of opposition to the drug war and the ability of our movement to be heard is growing by leaps and bounds. The sustained growth of our subscriber base is one example of this: Over 21,000 readers get the Week Online, and not a day goes by without more signing up and signing on.
You, our readers, therefore, are a part of the good news, and we hope you won't forget that -- and we thank you for living with the bad news these past four years since the publication was launched, and the nearly eight years since the founding of this list itself. But also remember the thousands more taken from their homes and their lives, each day that the drug war is allowed to rage unchecked. And continue to read, and continue to speak, until it ends.
The number of federal drug prosecutions per year nearly tripled between 1984 and 1999 and the amount of time convicted drug offenders served more than doubled, according to a report released Sunday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Federal prosecutors charged 29,306 people with drug offenses in 1999, compared to 11,853 in 1984. The average prison stay for federal drug offenders jumped from 2 ½ years in 1984 to 5 ½ years in 1999, the last year for which statistics are available.
Citing a litany of new laws beginning with the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which abolished federal parole, and the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, which instituted mandatory minimum sentencing for many drug offenses, the report's author, BJS statistician John Scalia, wrote: "During the 1980s and 1990s changes in Federal criminal law and policy had a substantial effect on the processing of Federal offenders -- particularly drug offenders."
That's putting it mildly. More than two-thirds of all federal prisoners -- some 68,000 people -- are doing time on drug charges. By 1999, drug defendants were more likely to be found guilty, more likely to be sent to prison (up from 72% during 1984 to 89% during 1999), more likely to get a longer sentence (up from 62 months to 74 months), and more likely to serve a higher percentage of their sentences (up from 48% to 87%). Nearly two-thirds of federal drug offenders were sentenced under mandatory minimum laws, the report noted.
In announcing the report, Attorney General John Ashcroft crowed about success in fighting "the scourge of drugs," but distorted the report's findings in some of his comments. "Tougher federal drug laws are making a real difference in clearing major drug offenders from our nation's streets," he said. "Federal drug offenders are predominantly hard-core criminals with prior arrest records who are convicted for drug trafficking, not first-time nonviolent offenders charged with drug possession."
More than nine out of ten federal drug convictions in 1999 were for trafficking, but that is about all Ashcroft got right. According to the report, one-third of federal drug offenders had never been previously arrested, and two out of three had no prior felony convictions. Of that minority of drug offenders with previous convictions, 32% had only prior drug convictions. Fewer than 10% of all drug offenders convicted in 1999 had previous violent felony convictions. Misrepresentations notwithstanding, according to the BJS statistics, 90% of people convicted on federal drug charges in 1999 were nonviolent offenders and two-thirds of those convicted were first felony offenders. Nine out of ten first-timers (92%) went to prison anyway.
Crime experts also challenged Ashcroft's claim that "drug laws are making a real difference." Northwestern University criminologist James Alan Fox told the Associated Press that the increase in federal drug prosecutions is only getting the tip of the iceberg. "We are devoting a tremendous amount of money and resources to this relentless war on drugs, which is not winnable," he said.
Carnegie Mellon University criminologist Alfred Blumstein seconded Fox's opinion. "The problem (with punitive responses) is that they do not take you very far," he told the Washington Post. "The drug market is demand-driven, and so you have to deal with that through prevention and treatment."
In its critique of Ashcroft's spin on the report (http://www.sentencingproject.org/news/news.html#newdrug), the Sentencing Project noted that while the Attorney General claimed that "[f]ederal law enforcement is targeted effectively at convicting major drug traffickers," the BJS report showed that only 0.6% of all referrals were for persons charged with operating a continuing criminal enterprise, the most sophisticated and elaborate drug peddling operations. More than three times as many people were referred for simple drug possession, the nonprofit group noted.
Among other findings in the report:
"It's clear to me that more federal judges and prosecutors have voted with their feet on sentence length," Indiana University law professor Frank Bowman III told the Washington Post. Bowman, coauthor of "Quiet Rebellion? Explaining Nearly a Decade of Declining Federal Drug Sentences," added: "They are saying that they don't think drug sentences need to be as long as they are to accomplish their aim."
But, as the BJS report makes clear, even if drug sentencing mania has peaked, more people are going to federal prison on drug charges and serving more time than they did 15 years ago. The US remains in the grip of crack-engendered drug war hysteria.
("Federal Drug Offenders, 1999 With Trends, 1984-1999," can be found at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/fdo99.htm online.)
As it attempts to prosecute the US-led war against drug production and trafficking in Colombia, the government of President Andres Pastrana is faced with a new political brushfire in the Colombian congress. Inspired by rising protests against the fumigation of coca and opium crops as a key part of Plan Colombia, Colombian legislators this week introduced bills calling for an end to fumigation, the normalization of small drug crops, and the outright legalization of the Colombian drug trade under a state monopoly.
While the chances of a legalization or decriminalization bill becoming law are low, in part because of the dominant role of the US in shaping Colombian drug policy, the introduction of such bills is a clear signal of eroding support for Plan Colombia within the Colombian political class.
Opposition Senator Vivianne Morales on Monday introduced two bills. The most far-reaching bill would legalize the production, distribution and consumption of drugs within a state monopoly. According to Morales, her bill would provide restrictions on the advertising, public use, and distribution of drugs to minors.
The bill would "prohibit the advertising of these types of drugs," she told El Tiempo (Bogota), "and neither would it permit the sale to minors, and it would establish a distinction between addicts and occasional users," she said.
"For consumers, the bill would prohibit certain activities, such as driving under the influence of drugs. Persons who involve minors would be sentenced to prison," Morales noted. "The bill asks that resources that today are invested in prohibition and repression be instead invested in prevention, education, and medical treatment."
The second bill introduced by Morales would decriminalize the cultivation of drug crops by small producers. Under the bill, fields of less than 3 hectares (7.4 acres) would be considered legal. "As happened in Peru and Bolivia," said Morales, "small illicit crops would be destined only for scientific, therapeutic and medical uses."
The bill would also prohibit aerial spraying of drug crops, a practice that has generated loud protests across Colombia and among environmentalists worldwide.
Morales' small cultivation bill is paralleled by one introduced by Senators Rafael Orduz and Juan Manuel Ospina, which also calls for decriminalization of small drug plots, but places a great emphasis on alternative crop development.
"We believe that the small cultivator is the link that the government must assist, and not treat them like criminals," Orduz told El Tiempo. "Success is not the number of hectares fumigated, but the number of families who escape poverty," he said.
Senator Ospina added that alternative development is indispensable but will not come in a short time. "We must learn from experience," he told El Tiempo, "and it is important to recognize that we cannot change the conditions for alternative crops in a day. We must not forget that to fumigate is not to eradicate."
The government must create an alternative development fund, the senators said. Such a fund could buy drug crops from peasants and bring them into an alternative crop scheme, they added. "With this fund, we are looking to provide a sense of decriminalization, without taking into account the size of the crop," Ospina said.
In explaining her legalization bill, Morales told El Tiempo "prohibitionist policies" feed the drug trade. "I think that prohibition is the grand ally of the traffickers," she said, "and behind this scourge is a bureaucratic business. For example, 14 US government entities survive by the war on drugs." But Morales did not stop there. "It is calculated that the drug business in the United States produces $400 billion, of which 87.5% stays in US banks," she said. "That indicates that the drug economy is the locomotive of the legal economy," she concluded.
Such comments did not sit well with Interior Minister Armando Estrada, who told El Tiempo the government already opposed such an initiative.
Senators Orduz and Ospina are also preparing a letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, which will ask him to create a commission to evaluate global anti-drug policies. The two senators have traveled to other Andean nations seeking broader support for their initiative, El Tiempo reported.
The Jamaican National Ganja Commission appointed last year by Prime Minister PJ Patterson has finished its work. Last week, after months of hearings across the island nation, the commission recommended the decriminalization of ganja (marijuana) for personal use by adults and in religious rituals. Foreshadowing a heavy-handed political intervention in Jamaican domestic affairs, US embassy officials in Kingston quickly declared that the US would oppose any such move and threatened Jamaica with decertification.
Between 20% and 40% of Jamaicans smoke the weed, including members of the Rastafarian faith, who use it as a sacrament, and ganja's "reputation among the people as a panacea and a spiritually enhancing substance is so strong it must be regarded as culturally entrenched," the commission found.
"The overwhelming majority share the view that ganja should be decriminalized for personal, private use," the commission reported. "The prosecution of simple possession for personal use itself diverts the justice system from what ought to be a primary goal, namely the suppression of the criminal trafficking in substances, such as crack cocaine, that are ravaging urban and rural communities with addiction and corrupting otherwise productive people."
Prosecuting people simply for possessing marijuana is "unjust" and discredits the legitimacy of the Jamaican legal system, the commission said.
Composed of scientists, public health experts, and academics, and chaired by University of the West Indies head of the Faculty of Social Sciences Dr. Barry Chevannes, the commission also recommended an intensive education and prevention program be created, that Jamaican law enforcement increase its efforts to thwart large-scale ganja growing and prevent trafficking of other drugs, and that Jamaica proactively seek diplomatic support for its position. Decriminalization would not bring Jamaica into violation of international anti-drug treaties, the commission said.
Prime Minister Patterson has yet to comment on the call to decriminalize, but one of his aides, Ralston Smith told the Associated Press: "My gut feeling is that the commission's recommendations will be followed."
Such changes will require parliamentary approval and will demand amending the Dangerous Drugs Acts of 1984 and 1996.
The idea is already gaining more support. The National Council on Drug Abuse (NCDA) and the Medical Association of Jamaica (MAJ) have both come out in favor of decrim since the report was issued last week. "The Council is going along with the general feeling throughout the world that you should not be deemed a criminal for smoking a spliff," NCDA chairman Dr. Charles Thesiger told the Jamaica Gleaner. "The dilemma now is for the lawmakers to decide how to draft a law which can balance decriminalizing ganja use with other aspects of the laws about ganja."
MAJ president Dr. Winston Dawes told the Gleaner his association believes private, personal use of ganja should not be a criminal offense despite the harmful consequences of smoking it. "We will, however, continue to educate people about the harmful effects of smoking in general, and if they want to go ahead and use the 'poison' then that is up to them," he said.
The commission didn't go far enough for high-ranking People's National Party member Paul Burke. "It is a welcome step, but it is far short for a country where tens of thousands of people use ganja," he told Knight Ridder News Service. Burke, who is a member of the National Alliance for Legalization, added: "Ganja offenses have clogged up the court system for years and diverted police from the real problems, which are crack and cocaine. That's the real threat to Jamaica."
But if Jamaica attempts to implement ganja decrim, there is another threat looming over the northern horizon: the US government. The US embassy in Kingston wasted no time making its position clear, and that was just a taste of the pressure to come from Washington if Jamaica moves toward decriminalization.
"The US administration opposes the decriminalization of marijuana use," embassy spokesman Michael Koplovsky told the Gleaner the day after the report was released. Then he threatened Jamaica if it went ahead despite US opposition. "The US government will consider Jamaica's adherence to its commitments under the 1988 UN Drug Convention when making its determination under the annual narcotics certification review."
Certification is an annual stamp of approval unilaterally placed on countries by the United States if it determines that they are adequately complying with US drug war objectives. Widely loathed in Latin America, where it is viewed as an arrogant American imposition, the certification law cuts off aid to countries that fail US standards and instructs US representatives at international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, to vote against loan packages for such countries.
The US comments prompted an angry response from sociologist Dr. Dennis Forsythe, who in 1997 won a landmark court case acknowledging his right to use and possess ganja for religious purposes. Saying that decriminalization would "satisfy a basic need of the Jamaican people," Forsythe denounced the US decertification threat as a hypocritical attack on Jamaica's sovereignty.
"This is a domestic affair. It is a recommendation for self-help, not to export ganja, so we are not imposing it on anybody," he told the Gleaner. "The commission's recommendation is in keeping with the sentiments of the Jamaican people. If America is so much for democracy, then to deny us certification because of this is in flagrant breach of such principles," he said.
Vancouver appears closer than ever to becoming the first North American city with a working safe injection room, a place where intravenous drug users can inject their drugs in a safe and secure environment as well as receive other services based on harm reduction principles. The governmental machinery of Canada -- the city of Vancouver, the province of British Columbia and the Canadian federal government -- is grinding slowly in that direction, but organized drug users and their supporters in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside will act on their own if no official action comes soon.
The gritty Vancouver neighborhood is home to the continent's most flagrant hard drug scene, with users and dealers creating a constant crowd whose epicenter is the corner of Main and Hastings. Although the city has okayed harm reduction programs, including an active needle exchange program, and is now embarking on a drug court program, the scene continues to thrive, the neighborhood continues to suffer from petty thefts, break-ins, prostitution, and the use of alleyways as shooting galleries and bathrooms. And the junkies continue to fall prey to the police, diseases such as AIDS and Hepatitis C, and overdose.
"We've had a hundred fatal overdoses in Vancouver alone this year," said Dean Wilson of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (http://www.vandu.org). "Not having a safe injection site is criminal," he told DRCNet. "Law enforcement can't do it. The police come in and do a big bust and everyone vanishes for about 24 hours, but then it's business as usual. If the government fails to act, we will do it ourselves before November 1," Wilson vowed.
Provincial prime ministers from across Canada will meet on September 13 to discuss safe injection sites, and Wilson hopes that meeting will prod the British Columbia provincial government to act. "The provincial government is the weak link now," he said. "We've got strong local support with Mayor Philip Owen and we've got good support from the Liberal federal government. Health Minister Alan Rock is open to us."
"We would like to do it with government support and government funding, we would like it to be like Frankfort, with a full range of services," said Wilson, "but if we have to open up in a storefront, we will do it. Right now we have eight people kicking in $150 a month each for a space, and we will open for limited hours with volunteers. We want to reduce the harm to the users and to the community at large," he said. "We'll run a tight ship, there won't be a bunch of drug dealers outside the door even if I have to run them off myself, it will be a place where people can use in a safe and dignified way. We'll have information in front, peer-to-peer counseling. We'd like to do methadone and detox, but we have to get the doors open," he explained.
Even though Wilson anticipates few legal hassles in the event of an unauthorized opening -- "The Vancouver police quietly support us," he claimed -- he emphasized that the planned action was not an official VANDU action, but that of "concerned drug users and non-using friends."
Wilson and other safe injection site advocates got some heavy-gauge ammunition earlier this week when the Canadian Medical Association Journal (http://www.cma.ca/cmaj/), the country's premiere medical publication, published two studies of Vancouver hard drug users calling for the inauguration of the rooms now. The journal's editors also gave a ringing endorsement of the recommendations, calling for serious consideration of safe injecting rooms.
The two studies examined hospital utilization and costs and needle-sharing practices among Vancouver injection drug users, and they found that their subjects fill scarce hospital beds and emergency room space at huge cost, suffer a high number of overdoses, and continue to share needles despite the existence of needle exchange programs.
In the hospital use study, St. Paul's Hospital internal medicine specialist Dr. Anita Palepu tracked 598 injection drug users over three years and found they accounted for 2,763 emergency room visits and 495 actual hospital admissions. Nearly all those visits were medical problems caused by unsafe injection practices, with the most common reasons for admission being abscesses and pneumonia caused by bacteria-bearing needles, the study found.
"Those numbers are very high, especially when you consider most of these people are in their early to mid-30s," Palepu told reporters at a press conference announcing the research results. "There is a segment of society that will always misuse drugs. But they are not necessarily horrible people. It is important to treat them as human beings," she said. "Safe injection sites are an investment to prevent medical problems that we would otherwise end up paying for downstream."
Martin Schechter, head of the University of British Columbia's Department of Health Care and Epidemiology, authored the study of needle-sharing practices among Vancouver drug users. He found that 28% of his subjects had shared needles within the previous six months and that "expansion of the needle exchange program alone will not be sufficient to eliminate" this risky behavior. Schechter identified several factors linked with needle sharing. Being refused access to needles at pharmacies, requiring help to inject drugs, having a mental illness diagnosis, reusing needles, and frequent cocaine or heroin injection were all identified as associated with needle sharing among the 962 injection drug users studied since 1996. (More than 10% of them, 124, have died since the study began.) Schechter also identified problems with police as contributing to needle sharing, as well as other behaviors that raise public order and safety concerns, such as injecting in public or failing to safely dispose of used needles.
"Given the high prevalence of HIV risk behaviors, overdoses, and other health-related concerns that persist in Vancouver, it is crucial to evaluate whether the European experience with safer injection rooms can be replicated in Canada," Schechter concluded.
The Canadian Medical Association Journal editorialists, for their part, went a bit further than Schechter, calling outright for safe injection rooms. The editorial warned that there was no easy solution to severe drug problems within Canada. "But we can make the lives of people with drug addictions a little better and the neighborhoods a little safer," ran the editorial. "Supervised injection rooms are a logical next step, one that combines the merits of realism and compassion."
The studies have provoked extensive press coverage and editorial comment in Canada, most of it favorable toward safe injection rooms. For VANDU's Wilson, it can't come soon enough. "There's always a new batch of kids on the street," he said. "It brings tears to my eyes. But we have a real chance here in Vancouver, because we have educated our users. We have 120 people showing up for our general membership meetings, and they all say working with us is the most incredible experience they've ever had."
Wilson also has his eye on the big picture. "We will have a safe injection site, and Vancouver will be the test case for North America. With our proximity to the border and the United States, the Americans are very scared. If we can do it, then Baltimore will have to do it, Portland will have to do it."
As a loyal soldier in the government's drug war, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Dr. Alan Leshner has done his very best to scare the bejesus out of past, current, and potential MDMA (ecstasy) users. Leshner's efforts are part and parcel of the federal government's campaign to stir up panic about the feel-good drug's growing popularity. For example, Leshner is the man seemingly glued to the infamous, lurid "before and after" brain scan image of an Ecstasy user now widely reproduced on postcards, flyers and various government anti-drug web sites.
Never mind that, as reported in the British medical journal Lancet in 1998, the image comes from the brain of a long-term poly-drug user who took ecstasy hundreds of times, hardly the profile of the typical ecstasy user. As the federal government confronts rising ecstasy use, its response has been to wage war on the substance and its consumers, and if science must bow before the imperatives of future victory, so be it.
Leshner also organized last month's "MDMA/Ecstasy Research: Advances, Challenges, Future Directions" conference, held at NIDA on July 19 and 20. As assiduously as Leshner had stacked the scientific deck, however, he can't have been too pleased with the way the conference played out, nor the coverage it got. At the conference itself, speaker after expert speaker who actually studied real human behavior (as opposed to rats or serotonin receptors, for example) got up to denounce NIDA's and the federal drug control bureaucracy's effort to repress and demonize the drug out of existence. Instead of focusing on punishment and eradication, the social scientists said, authorities should undertake harm reduction measures that recognize ecstasy's popular acceptance.
And the only coverage the conference got was a critical op-ed piece by The Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation's Marsha Rosenbaum that appeared in San Francisco and San Diego newspapers, and a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association titled "Ecstasy Experts Want Realistic Messages." The JAMA article detailed the harm reduction stance of the social scientists but failed to even mention the clinical and neurological research presented.
It wasn't supposed to be that way. From the get-go, the conference was explicitly designed to focus on the "pathologies" of MDMA. No advocates of the drug's therapeutic uses were invited to present evidence, and the social scientists, tucked away in one session, were so effectively quarantined that Rosenbaum failed to notice them. NIDA advertised the conference as focused on "Ecstasy-induced risk behaviors, long-term behavioral consequences, cardiovascular and brain toxicology, drug interactions, patterns of abuse, perceptions of risk, and implications for prevention and treatment research."
Leshner himself set the conference's agenda in his welcome to the delegates. "The latest research shows that Ecstasy, despite its name, is not a harmless 'party' drug. In the short term, Ecstasy can cause dramatic changes in heart rate and blood pressure, dehydration, and a potentially life-threatening increase in body temperature," he said. "In the longer term, research shows that Ecstasy can cause lasting changes in the brain's chemical systems that control mood and memory. This conference provides us with an important opportunity to examine the latest scientific findings on Ecstasy and identify areas requiring additional research."
The conference indeed provided numerous studies along the lines of "Degeneration in Brain Following Binge Stimulants: All Dopaminergics Induce Degeneration in Fasciculus Retroflexus, but MDMA Also Includes Degeneration in Oral Pontine Serotonin Terminals" and "Are the Psychological Problems Associated With Regular MDMA Use Reversed by Prolonged Abstinence?" As Rosenbaum noted in her op-ed piece, however, the demonstration of actual harms to actual human functioning from ecstasy was lacking. "Claims of brain damage that fuel the government's 'Just Say No' message dominated," wrote Rosenbaum, "but the bulk of evidence at the conference produced far more questions than answers. The single most consistent message coming out of the research was that we need much more research," she noted. (Rosenbaum gracefully failed to note the utter predictability of that message.)
But a handful of researchers, including anthropologist Robert Carlson, social epidemiologist Patricia Case, and anthropologist-sociologist Claire Sterk, all of whom reported on field studies of ecstasy users, urged authorities to undertake harm reduction measures for ecstasy users. The researchers told their audience such measures should include providing water at raves, offering drug purity-testing to avoid contaminants and substitute drugs, and encouraging peer-led education programs.
"A lot of [ecstasy users] make clear decisions, despite the known or unknown risks, that the benefits outweigh those risks," said Case, the director of Harvard University's urban health program, who spent hundreds of hours researching drug use among New York City's gay community.
Carlson said that exaggerated anti-drug messages such as the before and after brain scan image do not work, and suggested less extreme education and prevention campaigns. "Ecstasy is seen as relatively benign," said Carlson, an addiction researcher at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. "Prevention messages are not getting across, and something needs to be done," he said.
"We need to stop exaggerating the negative consequences and stop using extreme cases," said Sterk. "I'm not saying there aren't consequences, I am saying we don't know what they are." Sterk, a professor of behavioral sciences at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health had an idea that would drive Leshner wild. "We'd be better off having a campaign poster that says, 'Ecstasy can make you feel really good. It increases your sensory awareness. It makes you feel music.' It's okay to acknowledge that," said Sterk, "and then have a big comma and say, 'but there are consequences.'"
"We know people will continue to use," Sterk continued. "What we can do right away is come up with appropriate, targeted messages to reduce the risk."
(Visit http://www.nida.nih.gov/Meetings/MDMA/MDMAIndex.html to read the conference agenda, as well as research abstracts and biographies.)
Sloganeering often makes for good politics but poor policy. "Zero tolerance" is one such example; "three-strikes-you're-out" is another. A new report from The Sentencing Project examines California's "three-strikes" law seven years and 50,000 prisoners after its enactment.
"Aging Behind Bars: 'Three Strikes' Seven Years Later" concludes from a wide range of data that that the law has not contributed to the reduction of crime in California, but has increased the number and severity of sentences for nonviolent offenders, who now make up two-thirds of the state's second and third "strike" sentences, carrying sentences of 25 years to life.
Three-strikes, according to the report, is rapidly expanding an aging and costly prison population, while other jurisdictions, including New York, Massachusetts, Washington, DC and New Jersey, have seen similar crime rate declines without instituting three-strikes laws.
"Aging Behind Bars" also presents examples of extreme sentencing disparities, for example:
Former Arkansas congressman, Clinton impeachment manager, and federal prosecutor Asa Hutchinson was sworn in Monday as head of the US Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA, the nation's lead federal anti-drug law enforcement agency, helps shape as well as enforce US drug policy, and Hutchinson takes over at a time when the agency and the drug war it prosecutes are under increasing attack.
In remarks to reporters shortly before being sworn in, Hutchinson attempted to strike the pose of enlightened drug warrior. He vowed a greater emphasis on rehabilitation and drug treatment programs, saying they are "the new approaches that we ought to be open to" -- but only within the context of coerced treatment. Using Robert Downey, Jr., the actor whose professional success was seemingly unimpaired by his widely-publicized drug use (as opposed to being arrested for his drug use), as a poster child for coerced drug treatment, Hutchinson said, "Mr. Downey Jr. in California has gone through rehab because it started with law enforcement."
But Hutchinson, a drug court advocate, is leery of the new California law under which Downey is receiving drug treatment instead of prison time. "We need to watch the California experiment. I think it's a strong statement by the population there that people want to take a look at treatment for nonviolent drug users rather than incarceration," Hutchinson conceded. But he saw two "difficulties" with Proposition 36, the "treatment not jail" initiative passed last November and in effect since July 30. The program lacks mandated drug testing, he said, and the state may lack the treatment facilities to meet demand.
"California is going to have to invest in that," he told the assembled reporters. "It doesn't do any good to refer drug offenders for treatment if there's not strong programs. I think we need to work with California to make it work."
Hutchinson also wanted to have it both ways on mandatory minimum sentencing. He worried aloud that mandatory minimums "take the discretion away from judges," but said he generally supports the concept. He expressed concern about the crack vs. powder cocaine sentencing disparities, but gave no indication of how he would recommend resolving them.
But if Hutchinson generally trod carefully during his remarks, his remarks on medical marijuana have sparked strong criticisms. Clearly under the influence of federal anti-marijuana policy, Hutchinson claimed that the scientific and medical communities have so far found no legitimate medical uses for marijuana, apparently ignoring a growing body of evidence to the contrary.
"Hutchinson is either unaware of or is ignoring the years-long lawsuit intended to persuade the DEA to reschedule marijuana," the Marijuana Policy Project's (http://www.mpp.org) Rob Kampia told DRCNet. "He is unaware of or ignoring the scientific evidence that was presented in the late 1980s, when DEA administrative judge Francis Young ruled that marijuana should be rescheduled, but was overruled by the agency. He is unaware of or ignoring the Institute of Medicine study," Kampia continued. "We have no confidence that Hutchinson or the DEA actually respects the science on medical marijuana."
But even while leaving such important evidence by the rhetorical wayside, Hutchinson still attempted to portray himself as open-minded. "If they continue to study it," Hutchinson said, "we will listen to them. You have to listen to the medical community in terms of what is legitimate pain medication versus that which is simply a guise for a different agenda," he warned.
Hutchinson told reporters he would enforce the federal ban on medical marijuana distribution, but when pressed by as to just how he would enforce became much more vague. "The question is how do you address that from an enforcement standpoint," he said. "You're not going to tolerate a violation of the law, but at the same time there are a lot of different relationships, a lot of different aspects that we have to consider as we develop that enforcement policy."
"What does that mean?" asked a befuddled Kampia. "If I had to parse those remarks, it sounds like he's saying yes it's illegal, but how we enforce it will vary depending on a number of factors, possibly including quantity, prosecutors' workloads, or how high-profile the person or organization is. But by resorting to that nonsensical statement, he was able to avoid the hard questions," said Kampia. "Such as, 'do you mean that medical marijuana law enforcement is variable, do you mean someone could get investigated because of his or her political views?' Those are the sorts of questions Hutchinson wanted to avoid."
Hutchinson also said he:
Two rallies on opposite coasts last weekend provided a demonstration of both the strength of the marijuana reform movement and the obstacles it still faces. In Seattle, the city's 10th annual Hempfest drew 100,000 people to Myrtle Edwards Park on the waterfront in a virtual civic celebration. Across the country, in Starks, Maine, the 11th annual Hempstock festival managed to draw 2,500 people despite a campaign of harassment by local political figures and law enforcement agencies. In both locations, organizers vow to return next year.
In Seattle, the two-day Hempfest, the nation's largest marijuana rally, went off peacefully with police doing little more than monitoring the swelling throngs of hempsters, potheads, and curious onlookers. Vendors sold hemp products -- from clothes to cat food -- in stands alongside booths selling pipes and bongs and others selling tie-dye t-shirts and silver jewelry. The odor of burning marijuana wafted incessantly through the air, and much of the talk was of changing the marijuana laws.
"Most marijuana smokers, like the rest of America, work hard, pay taxes, raise families, and don't deserve to be treated like criminals," Hempfest director Dominic Holden told an enthusiastic crowd. "The vast majority of marijuana smokers are adults who do so responsibly, without harm to others. It is not our goal to advocate that anyone use marijuana, but to eliminate treating normal Americans like criminals," said Holden.
To that end, Holden is also heading a petition drive to put a local initiative on the Seattle ballot. Initiative 73 would direct the Seattle Police Department and the City Attorney's Office to make arresting and prosecuting adults possessing less than 40 grams of marijuana the city's lowest law enforcement priority. The initiative needs 19,000 signatures to get on the ballot.
The political messages emanating from Hempfest were mixed, if complementary. Activists organizing around drug war POWs, asset forfeiture and shelter for the homeless all took advantage of the crowds to forward their causes, as did environmentally-conscious hemp advocates.
"I believe in the industrial use of hemp," one attendee told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "I believe in deep ecology and treading lightly on the earth, wearing hemp," she said.
While Seattle officials generally cooperated with festival organizers to ensure a smooth, peaceful event, that was not the case with local officials in Maine, where the Maine Vocals (http://www.mainevocals.org), "the state of Maine's vocal cannabis action educators and network," fended off repeated attempts to shut down the 11th Annual Hempstock festival and harass party-goers.
Maine Vocal founder and Hempstock organizer Don Christen came through the weekend unbowed, however. "The event went just fine," he told DRCNet. "The police harassed the hell out of us, but 2,500 or 3,000 people still attended. They arrived coming through police roadblocks, and they left going through police roadblocks."
Incoming traffic was stopped and warned with the following flyer from the state police: "WARNING, ROADBLOCKS. Do not drive under the influence. AVOID ARREST. When you leave, you will be required to pass through roadblocks. Your condition to drive will be checked."
The police presence had an impact, said Christen. "They tried to intimidate people, they had dogs, they looked in cars, and maybe a third of the people just turned around and left," he said. "This is bordering on a conspiracy," he added. "The district attorney's office, the town of Starks, the state police, they are all trying to stop us from being able to operate."
Police statistics from after the event would appear to back Christen's contention. Festival-goers leaving the event had to run a gauntlet of police who were disposed to arrest, cite or ticket anyone they could for anything they could. Police arrested 25 people leaving the festival for drug possession, drug paraphernalia, and possession of alcohol by a minor, according to the Portland Press Herald. Police said they stopped 1,012 cars at their roadblocks, ticketed 12 speeders, and issued 507 traffic warnings, 60 car defect citations, 19 expired inspection sticker citations, and 21 minor traffic violation citations.
Police also obtained search warrants allowing them to monitor the festival to see the crowd's size and "to use a thermal imaging device from the air to ensure that drug laws are obeyed," the Press Herald reported. The newspaper did not ask and police did not explain how many indoor marijuana grows they expected to bust during the three-day outdoor festival.
The harassment of festival-goers was only the latest round in a long-running feud between Christen and local officials. Starks town fathers unhappy with the event attempted to thwart it by passing a new mass gathering ordinance last year, which Christen has ignored, arguing that his event is "grandfathered" in.
That didn't stop Somerset County David Crook, Christen's nemesis, from calling in the Maine State Police, the Somerset County Sheriff's Office, the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Bureau of Liquor Enforcement to plot strategy against Hempstock. Christen has "thumbed his nose" at the town, Crook complained to the Bangor Daily News. "This is no longer a political festival," said Crook, "and it's not a medical marijuana issue. Starks has attempted to regulate this festival but they have been outgunned and out-financed," Crook added.
Or maybe just outsmarted. Christen obtained a state permit to allow temporary camping for 2,000 people on the property, owned by local farmer Harry Brown. And he challenged the town of Starks to initiate proceedings against Hempstock.
"The town doesn't agree with me on our being grandfathered in, but if they want to fight about it they can take me to court and a judge can decide," said Christen. "It certainly isn't up to David Crook to decide. This is a civil matter. David Crook has sworn to protect my rights and if he doesn't, we'll take him to court, too."
County prosecutors in Maine do not normally attempt to enforce city ordinances, but Crook told the Morning Sentinel he will do so if they "significantly parallel a state law" and "if there is a request from town selectmen."
Christen has a different and less politic view of Crook's motives. "He's doing it because he's an asshole," Christen told DRCNet. "He's involved himself in something he has no right to involve himself in. It isn't up to the district attorney. The town has an obligation to hire its own attorney to enforce town codes."
Christen also rejected Crook's characterization of the festival as "not a political festival." "What is he talking about?" the Hempstock organizer asked. "We had numerous speakers, we talked about legalization, we talked about hemp, about forfeiture laws, and, of course, the police presence. This festival is a good time, but it's not just a good time," Christen said.
As for his legal battle with Crook and the town of Starks, Christen is not going away. "We wish they would just leave us alone and let us operate unimpeded," he said. "The ball is in their court. We are a legal entity and have been around for eleven years. If they think we're going to lie down and give up, they're crazy. They have a problem."
In the wake of Hempstock, the town of Starks has now hired an attorney to pursue its options against the festival, the Press Herald reported this week. Board of Selectmen Chair Cathy Cole told the newspaper the lawyer would review police documentation of crowd and noise violations to see what action could be taken.
In the meantime, Maine Vocals is planning its eighth annual harvest festival at Norridgewock for Labor Day weekend. A festival earlier this summer in Pownal was cancelled after police there told the landowner where the event was to be held that his property could be seized if certain law violations occurred.
And it has two petition drives underway. One would repair the state's medical marijuana law, which has so far been ineffective. A second would put industrial hemp on the ballot. "Now that we've paid the bills, the next festival will be for operating funds for the petition drive. We figure that with $40,000 we could get enough paid petitioners to get the signatures we need," Christen explained.
The required signatures must be turned in by January 2002.
In conjunction with our friends at Students for Sensible Drug Policy, DRCNet is this month offering SSDP t-shirts -- featuring the colorful "What Is Wrong With This Picture" graphic depicting the impact of the drug war on our schools -- free to new and renewing DRCNet members contributing $35 or more. Or, donate $60 or more and also receive SSDP's "Talk To Your Parents About Drugs" t-shirt.
In addition to your DRCNet membership and t-shirt, your contribution will (with your permission) get you a complimentary one-year membership in SSDP, and will support our combined effort to overturn the drug offender/college financial aid ban, an effort that is going into fast mode this month as we try to repeal this bad law once and for all! Please visit http://www.drcnet.org/augustoffer.html to donate by credit card or print out a form to mail in with your donation -- or just send your check or money order to: DRCNet, P.O. Box 18402, Washington, DC 20036 and include a note to let us know it is for this offer.
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Click on the links below for information on these issues and web forms to help you contact Congress:
Oppose New Anti-Ecstasy Bill
Have you or someone you know or know of lost financial aid for college because of a drug conviction? The Higher Education Act Reform Campaign urgently needs to find students in the greater New York City area who fit this description. The need is urgent because some of the most major media outlets in the country are asking for them, and they want to do the stories now!
Please contact DRCNet at (202) 293-8340 or Students for Sensible Drug Policy at (202) 293-4414 if you can help, or e-mail [email protected]. Visit http://www.raiseyourvoice.com for further information on this campaign.
(Please submit listings of events related to drug policy and related areas to [email protected].)
August 24, 4:30-6:00pm, Albuquerque, NM, Drug War Vigil. Sponsored by the November Coalition, in front of the new Bernalillo County courthouse, 400 Lomas Blvd. NW. For further information, call (505) 342-8090.
August 24, 7:00pm, Washington, DC, DRCNet Week Online 200th Issue Party. At the Velvet Lounge 915 U Street NW, featured speaker Kenny "The Real" Kramer, representatives of DRCNet and other drug reform groups, music and more. $7 at the door, 21 and over, say you are there for the DRCNet benefit.
August 24, 7:00pm, Santa Ana, CA, public meeting of the Coalition Against Violent Crime, featuring Audie Bock and Rudy Escalante speaking on the three-strikes law. At the Southwest Senior Citizens Center, 2201 West McFadden Avenue, contact James R. Benson at (714) 635-0540 or Sam Clauder at (909) 653-3500 for further information.
August 24, 9:00pm, Brooklyn, NY, Screening of "Tulia, Texas, Scenes from the Drug War." At Peter's Car Corp., 265 McKibbin Street, near the L train, Montrose Ave. station, walk three blocks downhill on Bushwick Ave. to McKibbin. For rain updates call (718) 404-3903 ext. 4818, suggested donation $6.
August 28, 9:00pm, New York, NY, Comedy and Music Benefit for the Tulia 46 Relief Fund and the Pacifica Campaign, at Caroline's Comedy Club, 1626 Broadway at 49th St. For further information, contact the William Moses Kunstler Fund at (212) 924-6980 or the Pacifica Campaign at (646) 230-9588.
September 1, 5:00-8:00pm, State College, PA, Demonstration against the war on drugs and other issues, sponsored by the Libertarian Party of Centre County, cosponsored by Pennsylvania NORML. In front of the Jordan Center (near the football stadium), just prior to the Penn State-Miami football game, speakers welcome. For further information, contact the Libertarian Party of Centre County at [email protected].
September 5, 6:30-8:30pm, Oakland, CA, "The Drug War on Trial: Two Judges Speak Out." Forum featuring Judges Vaughn Walker and James P. Gray. At the Independent Institute Conference Center, 100 Swan Way, sponsored by the Independent Institute with the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation. Admission $30 per person, including one free copy of "Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It," or $12 without book, $8 for Independent Institute Associate Members. Call (510) 632-1366 for reservations or info, or e-mail [email protected].
September 8, noon-evening, Melbourne, FL, Grand Opening Birthday Bash at the Florida Cannabis Action Network's Legal Support Office. At 703 E. New Haven Ave. (SR 192 Uptown), featuring music, speakers and more. For further information, to donate to the office or access the legal support staff, contact Kevin Aplin at (321) 726-6656 or Jodi James or Kay Lee at (321) 253-3673 or (321) 255-9790.
September 15, noon-6:00pm, Boston, MA, "Twelfth Annual Fall Freedom Rally." At the Boston Common, sponsored by the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition. For further information call (781) 944-2266, visit http://www.masscann.org or e-mail [email protected].
September 23-26, Philadelphia, PA, International Community Corrections Association 37th Annual Conference, on Reintegration and Re-entry of the Offender into the Family. $350 for conference and pre-conference workshops, reduced rate deadline 8/31. For info, call (608) 785-0200, fax (608) 784-5335 or write to ICCA Annual Conference, P.O. Box 1987, La Crosse, WI 54602.
September 26, 7:00-8:00pm, Albuquerque, NM, November Coalition Wednesday Community Meeting. At the Peace and Justice Center, 144 Harvard SE.
September 27-28, Washington, DC, "National Mobilization on Colombia, featuring workshops, meetings, lobbying and nonviolent demonstrations. Sponsored by the Chicago Religious Leadership Network, Colombia Human Rights Committee, Colombia Support Network, Global Exchange, United Church of Christ and Witness for Peace. Visit http://www.ColombiaMobilization.org for info.
September 28, 4:30-6:00pm, Albuquerque, NM, "Open the Can" Drug War Vigil. At the New Bernalillo Courthouse, 400 Lomas NW.
October 1-3, Ottawa, Canada, "Women's Critical Resistance: From Victimization to Criminalization," at the Government Conference Centre. For information or to submit a presentation proposal, call (613) 238-2422 for information or write to Kim Pate, Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, 701-151 Slater St., Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1P5H3.
October 6-7, Phoenix, AZ, "Freedom Summit," annual libertarian seminar. At the Embassy Suites Hotel, visit http://www.freedomsummit.com for further information.
October 7-10, St. Louis, MO, American Methadone Treatment Association Conference 2001. For further information, e-mail [email protected] or call (212) 566-5555.
October 26-27, Cortland, NY, "Thinking About Prisons: Theory and Practice." At SUNY Cortland, call (607) 753-2727 for info.
October 24, 7:00-8:00pm, Albuquerque, NM, November Coalition Wednesday Community Meeting. At the Peace and Justice Center, 144 Harvard SE.
October 26, 4:30-6:00pm, Albuquerque, NM, "There's Something Fishy About The War on Drugs." At the New Bernalillo Courthouse, 400 Lomas NW.
November 13, 6:00-8:00pm, New York, NY, "Women, Prison and Family." At Audrey Cohen College, 75 Varick St., for information call (212) 343-1234.
November 14-16, Barcelona, Spain, First Latin Conference on the Reduction of Drug Related Harm. For further information, e-mail [email protected], visit http://www.igia.org/clat/ or call Enric Granados at 00 34 93 415 25 99.
March 3-7, 2002, Ljubljana, Slovenia, 13th International Conference on the Reduction of Drug Related Harm and 2nd International Harm Reduction Congress on Women and Drugs. Sponsored by the International Harm Reduction Association, visit http://www.ihrc2002.net or e-mail [email protected] for further information.
May 3-4, 2002, Portland, OR, Second National Clinical Conference on Cannabis Therapeutics, focus on Analgesia and Other Indications. Sponsored by Patients Out of Time and Legacy Emmanuel Hospital, for further information visit http://www.medicalcannabis.com or call (804) 263-4484.
December 1-4, 2002, Seattle, WA, Fourth National Harm Reduction Conference. Featuring keynote speaker Dr. Joycelyn Elders, former US Surgeon General, at the Sheraton Seattle. For further information, visit http://www.harmreduction.org or call (212) 213-6376.
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