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Year from Hell II: The Top Ten International Drug Policy Stories of 2020 [FEATURE]

As we wave an eager goodbye to 2020 in the rearview mirror, it's time to assess the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to drug policy and drug reform at the international level. As in other realms of human behavior, the coronavirus pandemic is inescapable, but even as the pandemic raged, drug policy developments kept happening. Here are the biggest world drug policy stories of 2020:

The Coronavirus Pandemic and the World of Drugs

As with virtually every other aspect of human affairs, the year's deadly coronavirus pandemic impacted the world of drugs, from disruptions of drug markets and anti-drug policing to drug trafficking groups as social distancing enforcers, fallout on efforts to reform drug policies, and beyond.

Early on, there were reports that Mexican drug traffickers were raising wholesale meth and fentanyl prices because of disruptions in the precursor chemical supply, and that pandemic lockdowns had disrupted the cocaine supply chain, driving down the farmgate price for coca and endangering the livelihoods of nearly a quarter-million coca-producing families in the Andes.

But some things couldn't be disrupted: Just a day after closing its famous cannabis cafes in response to the pandemic, the Dutch reopened them as the government was confronted with long lines of people queuing up to score after the ban was initially announced. In France, the price of hashish nearly doubled in a week as increased border controls due to the pandemic put the squeeze on. By midyear, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported pandemic-related border closures, lockdowns, and flight shortages were making drugs more expensive and difficult to obtain around the world.

Those same drug organizations struggling with the pandemic took on roles normally assumed by government in some countries. In Mexico, the Gulf Cartel and Los Viagras handed out food to poor families in Tamaulipas and the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel did the same in Guadalajara, spurring President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to acknowledge their efforts and implore them to knock it off and just stay home. Instead, the Sinaloa Cartel locked down the city of Culiacan, its home base, and patrolled the streets in heavily armed convoys to enforce a curfew. In Brazil, Rio de Janeiro drug gangs enforced social distancing and handed out cash and medications as the government of rightist authoritarian populist President Jair Bolsonaro was largely absent and in denial about coronavirus. In Colombia, with the government missing in action, drug gangs and armed groups enforced lockdown orders, even killing people who didn't comply, according to Human Rights Watch.

Some countries took positive steps to ameliorate these effects of the pandemic. In Great Britain, the government agreed to hand out methadone without a prescription to those already receiving it and shortly later began allowing monthly buprenorphine injections for heroin addicts. In Canada, British Columbia early on moved to increase a "safe supply" of drugs that registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses to prescribe, make more medications available, and expand eligibility to people who are at risk of overdose, including those who may not necessarily be diagnosed with a substance use disorder. The province followed that move by lowering barriers to prescription medications, increasing the supply of opiate maintenance drugs and even dispensing some of them via a unique vending machine. By providing a safe supply of legal drug alternatives, the province hoped to lower a sudden spike in drug overdose deaths that coincided with the coronavirus outbreak in Vancouver.

Not everybody let a measly little coronavirus get in the way of their drug war. In Colombia, President Ivan Duque ordered a nationwide lockdown in March, but exempted coca eradicators and launched a major offensive against small producer coca farms. And Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte let his drug war rage on in the midst of the pandemic despite imposing a national partial lockdown in March. At least nine people were killed by unknown gunmen in Cebu Province alone. "Reports of drug-related killings continuing amid the lockdown order are deeply concerning, but not surprising," said Rachel Chhoa-Howard of Amnesty International. "The climate of impunity in the Philippines is so entrenched that police and others remain free to kill without consequence." In September Human Rights Watch noted the pace of acknowledged drug war killings by police had doubled. Duterte has also threatened to have the police and military shoot people who violate quarantine.

The coronavirus also wreaked havoc with drug reform initiative signature gathering campaigns in the US, preventing several marijuana legalization and one drug decriminalization initiative from qualifying for the ballot this year, and played a role in delaying marijuana legalization in Mexico when its Senate shut down in the spring because of the pandemic.

UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs Votes to Remove Cannabis from Most Restrictive Drug Schedule

In an historic move on December 2, the 53 member states of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), the UN body charged with setting drug policy, voted to remove cannabis from Schedule IV of the United Nations' drug classification system as they met in Vienna. Cannabis was both a Schedule I and a Schedule IV drug under the international drug treaties. Schedule I includes "substances that are highly addictive and liable to abuse or easily convertible into those (e.g. opium, heroin, cocaine, coca leaf"), while Schedule IV includes Schedule I drugs with "particularly dangerous properties and little or no therapeutic value" (e.g. heroin, carfentanil).

The vote removing cannabis from Schedule IV means the global anti-drug bureaucracy now recognizes the therapeutic value of cannabis and no longer considers it "particularly liable to abuse and to produce ill effects." With medical marijuana legal in dozens of countries in; one form or another, the ever-increasing mountain of evidence supporting the therapeutic uses of cannabis, not to mention outright legalization in 15 American states Canada and Uruguay, with Mexico about to come on board, this decision by the CND is long past due, but nonetheless welcome.

The UN Common Position on Drug Policy Gains Traction

Change at the United Nations comes at a glacial pace, but it can and does come. The shift away from punitive, law enforcement-heavy approaches to drug use has been building for years and picked up steam at the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs in 2016 and advanced further with the adoption of the UN Common Position on Drug Policy in 2018.

That approach, which seeks to get all the UN agencies involved in drug policy, public health, and human rights on the same page, explicitly calls for the decriminalization of drug use and possession for personal use. Among the position's directions for action is the following: "To promote alternatives to conviction and punishment in appropriate cases, including the decriminalization of drug possession for personal use, and to promote the principle of proportionality, to address prison overcrowding and overincarceration by people accused of drug crimes, to support implementation of effective criminal justice responses that ensure legal guarantees and due process safeguards pertaining to criminal justice proceedings and ensure timely access to legal aid and the right to a fair trial, and to support practical measures to prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and torture."

At least 30 countries have instituted some form of drug decriminalization (although in many it is only marijuana that has been decriminalized), and the Common Position is providing breathing space for others that may be inclined to take the plunge. In 2020, the US state of Oregon broke ground by becoming the first state to decriminalize the use and possession of all drugs, and just a few hundred miles to the north and across the Canadian border, the city council of Vancouver, British Columbia, voted to decriminalize and seek an exemption from the federal government to do so.

Decriminalization could also be around the corner in Norway, where a proposal first bruited in 2017 could pass some time next year. And Ghana (see below) has also effectively decriminalized drug use and possession. With a more consistent message from the UN, which the Common Position represents, we can expect further progress on this front in years to come.

The Philippine Drug War Faces Increasing Pressure

Four years into the government of Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines remains embroiled in a bloody war on drug users and sellers, but is facing increasing pressure from human rights groups, domestic critics, and international institutions over mass killings that are believed to now total more than 30,000. In a June report, the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights said that tens of thousands of people had been killed in President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody war on drug users and sellers amid "near impunity" for police and the incitement of violence by top officials. The report said that rhetoric may have been interpreted as "permission to kill."

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called for independent investigations into the killings and said her office was ready to help credible domestic Philippine or international efforts to establish accountability. Two months later, during the 45th session of the UN Human Rights Council, Bachelet called for an end to the policies and rhetoric that led to abuse and killings. She acknowledged some small steps taken by the Duterte government but warned "there is clearly an urgent need to revoke the policies that continue to result in killings and other human rights violations, to bring to justice the perpetrators, and to halt the use of rhetoric inciting violence against people who use or sell drugs."

In October, Duterte said he accepted responsibility for drug war killings, but only those acknowledged by police, not the thousands committed by shadowy vigilantes. That same month, global civil society groups including StoptheDrugWar.org (the publisher of this newsletter) and Movement for a Free Philippines launched the Stand for Human Rights and Democracy campaign to keep the pressure on. The campaign launch included an "Autocrat Fair" demonstration outside Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC; and an accompanying video, "Trump and Duterte -- Allies in Violence." An event organized by StoptheDrugWar.org on December 22 discussed the role of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The pressure on the Duterte government only heightened at year's end, when the ICC's Office of the Prosecutor issued a report saying there was "reasonable basis to believe" Filipino forces committed crimes against humanity in Duterte's drug war. That leaves one stage left in the Office's "preliminary examination," admissibility. For the ICC to have jurisdiction, prosecutors must show that the Philippine justice system lacks a legitimate or capable response to the killings. Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has promised a decision will be by mid-2021, when her term ends, over whether to seek authorization from the court to open a formal investigation. She has also pointedly warned that the court's resources fall badly short of what's needed to carry out their mission, which affects how cases are prioritized, and may affect whether the new prosecutor initiates cases.

Even as Drug War Violence Continues Unabated, Mexico is About to Become the World's Largest Legal Marijuana Market

There is no end in sight to Mexico's bloody drug wars. The year began with the announcement that 2019 was the most murderous year in recent history, with some 35,588 recorded homicide victims. As the year ends, 2020 appears on track to equal or surpass that toll, with the country registering about 3,000 murders a month.

As mass killing after mass killing took place throughout the year, the number of dead wasn't the only thing rising either. In January, the government announced that the number of "disappeared" people in the country was around 61,000, up from an estimated 40,000 in mid-2019. By July, the number of those officially missing had risen to 73,201 as prohibition-related violence ripped through the country.

While President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador came into office in 2018 critical of the role of the military in the drug war, and with a plan to reduce crime and violence by focusing on their root causes, in May he renewed orders keeping the military on the streets for another four years. "His security strategy is not working and that is why he has had to order with this decree for the Armed Forces to support public security," security specialist Juan Ibarrola told the Milenio newspaper at the time.

The following month, Lopez Obrador signaled that perhaps it wasn't security strategy that wasn't working, but drug prohibition. He released a plan to decriminalize drugs, and urged the US to do the same. Mexico's current "prohibitionist strategy is unsustainable," the plan said.

As the drug war chugged along, US-Mexico relations took a hit in October, when DEA agents arrested Mexico's former defense minister in Los Angeles on drug and money laundering charges. Loud protests from Mexico eventually resulted in his release, but in December, Mexican lawmakers chafing at US heavy-handedness voted to restrict the activities of foreign agents in the country.

Even as the drug wars rage, there is significant progress on another drug policy track. As the year comes to an end, Mexico is one vote in the Chamber of Deputies away from legalizing marijuana. The government-supported legalization bill, crafted in response to a ruling from the country's Supreme Court that said marijuana prohibition must end, passed the Senate in November after delays caused by political infighting and shutdowns due to the coronavirus.

Under an order from the Supreme Court, the Congress had until December 15 to act, but the Chamber of Deputies delayed the vote, saying it needed more time to study the bill, and the Supreme Court agreed to grant one more extension, giving the Chamber of Deputies until the end of the next legislative session in April to get the job done. President Lopez Obrador downplayed the delay, calling it a matter of "form not substance." And Mexico is waiting to inhale.

Bolivia display at the 2008 Commission on Narcotic Drugs
Bolivia Returns the Coca-Friendly Movement to Socialism to Power

Long-time Bolivian leader Evo Morales, a former coca growers union leader who won the presidency in 2005 and was reelected twice, was forced from office and fled the country after extended protests in the wake of disputed elections in November 2019. The self-appointed interim right-wing government worked to suppress Morales' Movement to Socialism and harassed harassed coca producers in the name of the war on drugs.

The coca growers stood firm, however mobilizing to blockade roads to protest delays in promised elections. When those elections finally came in October, voters returned the MAS to power, electing Morales' former economics minister, Luis Arce, without the need for a runoff election.

Arce said that while he has no problem with the United States, he will maintain Morales' coca policy, under which legal coca cultivation was allowed, and that he wants to expand the country's industrial coca production.

Colombia, Coca, Cocaine, and Conflict

Four years after the truce between the Colombian government and the leftist rebels of the FARC was supposed to bring peace to the country, peace remains elusive as the rightist government of President Ivan Duque continues to wage war against other leftist rebels, drug traffickers, and coca-growing peasants.

Under pressure from the US, the Duque government began the year by moving to resume the aerial spraying of coca fields. This plan was rejected by state governors, who said they supported alternative development and voluntary crop substitution and wanted President Duque to actually implement the 2016 peace accords.

Instead, the government attempted to pull out of a crop substitution monitoring program with the UN, preventing a pending evaluation of the effectiveness of planned forced coca eradication, although it later backtracked. That prompted coca farmers to call "bullshit" on Duque's duplicity, not only around crop substitution and eradication, but on the government's efforts to downplay a campaign of assassination against coca substitution leaders.

Indeed, human rights remained a major concern throughout the year, as a UN peace mission condemned a spike in massacres in August, and a month later, the International Crisis Group demanded the government stop the killing of activists. The group said the government must prioritize communities' safety over military operations against armed groups and coca eradication efforts. Human rights were no concern for US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, however, who promised Colombia more anti-drug aid the following month.

On another track, efforts to reform the country's drug laws continue. Bills to legalize marijuana were defeated late in the year, as right-wing factions aligned with Duque killed them. A bill to legalize cocaine was introduced in December, with cosponsor Senator Ivan Marulanda saying the bill would allow a legal cocaine supply for Colombian cocaine users -- use and possession is legal in Colombia -- and that the government could buy up the entire coca crop.

The year ended as it began, with the government still talking about plans to restart aerial fumigation even it claimed it would meet its coca eradication goal. Meanwhile, coca and cocaine production remain at world-leading levels.

Progress in Africa

Attitudes towards drugs and drug users are changing in Africa, and 2020 saw significant advances. It was in July 2019 that health, drug control and population ministers from member states of the African Union met in Cairo to forge a continental action plan for adopting more balanced policies toward drug use.

At that meeting, the Union's Department for Social Affairs called on member states to adopt master plans for drug policy by 2023. Such plans create a national framework for deciding which agencies should deal with illicit drug use in a way that deals with both drug supplies and demand reduction and ensure that not just law enforcement but also treatment and rehabilitation issues are addressed.

Zimbabwe had begun work on its own master plan years earlier -- back in 1999 -- but that effort had stalled until 2016 when, thanks to a civil society group, the Zimbabwean Civil Liberties and Drug Network (ZCLDN), the effort was reignited. The country hasn't passed a reformist master plan yet, but thanks to years of organizing and alliance-building, reform is coming.

In July, ZCLDN and regional ally groups worked with the Ministry of Health and Child Care to draft treatment and rehabilitation guidelines that formally incorporated harm reduction practices, a big step forward. In September, the group brought together civil society groups and the government's inter-ministerial committee charged with creating the master plan, helping to lay the groundwork for the plan to be adopted early in 2021. But first, it has to be approved by the cabinet, the attorney general's office, and then parliament. The work was not finished in 2020, but it is well underway.

Meanwhile in West Africa, Ghana actually passed a major drug reform law, the Narcotics Control Commission bill, in March. It only took five years from the time the bill was first introduced. Drafted with the intent of treating drug use as a public health issue, the law effectively decriminalizes drug possession, replacing prison terms of up to ten years with fines of roughly US $250 to $1,000. The new law also clears the way for the implementation of harm reduction services, which had previously been outlawed. And it allows for the production of low-THC cannabis products, such as industrial hemp and CBD.

The colonial legacy weighs heavy on Africa, but when it comes to drug policy, African nations are beginning to forge their own, more humane paths.

Thanks to a Plant, Afghanistan Becomes a Meth Producer

For years now, Afghanistan has been the world's number one supplier of opium poppies and the heroin derived from it, accounting for about 90% of global production. Now the war-torn country is diversifying, becoming a big-time player in the methamphetamine trade thanks to a plant common in the country and low-tech techniques for using it to make meth.

That plant is ephedra, from which meth's key ingredient -- ephedrine -- is created, and in a November report, the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) warned that while its findings were provisional, "the data reported here on the potential scale of ephedrine and methamphetamine production emanating from this remote corner of Afghanistan, the income it generates and the speed at which it has emerged are both surprising and worrying." The report cited seizures of Afghan meth in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Australia, and tax revenues in the millions for the Taliban.

New Zealand Narrowly Rejects Marijuana Legalization

New Zealand had a chance to become the next country to legalize marijuana but rejected it. Early on, polling suggested that a referendum to legalize marijuana faced an uphill battle, and as early election results came in in October, the polls proved accurate, with the referendum faltering with only 46% of the vote. In the final tally, the margin narrowed, but the referendum still lost narrowly, garnering 48% of votes.

Kiwis were not ready to become the second commonwealth country to legalize marijuana, after Canada, On the other hand, voters approved a referendum to allow voluntary euthanasia for the terminally ill by a margin of two-to-one.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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