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Incarceration: Federal Judges Order California to Free Tens of Thousands of Prisoners

A panel of federal judges charged with overseeing the California prison system tentatively ruled Monday that the state must release tens of thousands of inmates from its swollen prison population to reduce overcrowding. The three-judge panel said that no other action would improve conditions so awful that inmates regularly commit suicide or die from lack of proper medical care.
CDCR secretary Matthew Cate responds to the court order (
The state must present a plan to bring inmate numbers down within two to three years, the judges said. They suggested a target of 108,000 to 121,000 inmates from the current California prison population of around 158,000. That would mean that somewhere between 36,000 and 50,000 prisoners would be freed.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Services year end 2007 report, some 34,000 drug offenders were imprisoned in the Golden State. That figure includes some 1,500 marijuana or hashish offenders.

"There are simply too many prisoners for the existing capacity," they wrote in the 10-page order. "Evidence offered at trial was overwhelmingly to the effect that overcrowding is the primary cause of the unconstitutional conditions that have been found to exist in the California prisons."

The San Francisco-based panel said it may hold more hearings before making the decision final. It suggested the state could reduce the prison population by the amount required through changes in parole and other policies without endangering the public safety.

Reducing the size of the nation's largest state prison system "could be achieved through reform measures that would not adversely affect public safety, and might well have a positive effect. This is particularly true considering that California's overcrowded prison system is itself, as the governor, as well as experts who have testified before the Court, have recognized, a public safety hazard," the judges said.

The order came quickly after the judges heard two days of closing arguments last week. The judges said they hoped to force the state to either reach a settlement with attorneys for the inmates who brought the lawsuit or to act on its own to rectify the situation. Previous negotiations had failed to achieve a settlement, leading to a two-week trial in November and December.

"Obviously, the governor and I strongly disagree with the panel's conclusions and our response will be based on how best to protect the public from a court-ordered release of inmates," said CDCR Secretary Michael Cate said in a statement.

But the judges said California largely brought the problem on itself, and that savings from reforms could help pay for reentry services for the expected flood of ex-inmates. "California, like most other states, is in the throes of an unprecedented economic crisis," the panel noted. State law enforcement, courts, and rehabilitation services are stretched tightly in the state's $42 billion budget deficit crisis.

The judges pointed out that the CDCR has projected it could save $800 to $900 million a year by sending fewer parolees back to prison on technical violations and by increasing good time for inmates who take classes and vocational programs. "It appears from these figures that the State could easily fully fund all the community rehabilitative and other programs... without expending any funds other than those regularly provided in the prisons budget," the judges wrote.

This is not a done deal yet, but we could be seeing the beginning of the end of California's massive over-incarceration binge. Too bad it's taking an intervention by the federal courts to wean the state of its addiction to mass imprisonment.

Afghanistan: US Commander Orders NATO to Kill All Opium Dealers -- NATO Balks

According to the German news magazine Der Spiegel, top NATO commander in Afghanistan, US Gen. John Craddock, has issued a "guidance" allowing NATO troops "to attack directly drug producers and facilities throughout Afghanistan." But other NATO commanders do not want to follow that order, leading to a rift at the top of the allied war machine over who is a legitimate military target.
the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
NATO has reluctantly embraced an expansion of its mission from fighting the Taliban and related insurgents to going after drug trade participants linked to the insurgents. But Gen. Craddock's directive broadens the mission to include any drug traffickers or drug production facilities.

According to the document, a copy of which Der Spiegel says it has, NATO troops can now use deadly force against drug traffickers even when there is no proof they are engaged in armed resistance to NATO/US troops or their Afghan government allies. But that's not what NATO countries bargained for in October, when they agreed to allow NATO soldiers to attack opium traffickers linked to the Taliban.

It is "no longer necessary to produce intelligence or other evidence that each particular drug trafficker or narcotics facility in Afghanistan meets the criteria of being a military objective," Craddock wrote. The alliance "has decided that [drug traffickers and narcotics facilities] are inextricably linked to the Opposing Military Forces, and thus may be attacked."

Gen. Craddock sent his directive on January 5 to Egon Ramms, the German leader at NATO command in the Netherlands, and David McKiernan, commander of the NATO peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. But both commanders rejected it, arguing that the order is illegitimate and violates the laws of war. McKiernan sent a classified letter from Kabul claiming that Craddock was trying to create "a new category" in the rules of engagement that would "seriously undermine the commitment ISAF has made to the Afghan people and the international community... to restrain our use of force and avoid civilian casualties to the greatest degree predictable."

The topic of civilian deaths at the hands of NATO and US troops in Afghanistan is an increasingly prickly one with the people and government of Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai has complained loudly and frequently about repeated US air strikes killing civilians. NATO was forced this week to defend itself by arguing that it had only killed 97 civilians last year, compared to nearly 10 times that by the Taliban.

It is unclear how the conflict between the NATO allies will be resolved. But if Craddock has his way and NATO declares open season on the drug trade, there will be a true drug war in Afghanistan. In a country where the drug trade accounts for around half the gross national product and where members of the government and independent warlords as well as the Taliban have a hand in the trade, it is difficult to see how that will help win hearts and minds.

Feature: The Kids Are Alright -- The SSDP 10th International Conference

Buoyed by this month's election results and jazzed by the prospects for change with a new administration in Washington, some 450 student activists converged on the University of Maryland campus in College Park last weekend to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) at the group's annual international conference.
first evening gathering (photo courtesy
Hosted by University of Maryland SSDP, traditionally one of the national group's staunchest chapters, the conference saw students come from across the nation and at least two foreign countries for three days of education, training in effective activism, and hands-on lobbying on Capitol Hill. Among the attendees were representatives of Canadian SSDP, buoyed by their own national conference, the organization's second, attended by 250 people earlier this month.

For both SSDP veterans and newcomers alike, the conference provided opportunities for networking, inspiration, and education. For some of the younger attendees, it was an eye-opener.

"I didn't realize how many people were involved in this," said SSDP national office intern Ericha Richards, a freshman at American University. "It's exciting!"

Jimmy Devine of Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire has been attending for several years, but still found plenty to get excited about. "It's always good to come to national, to see what the other chapters have been up to, and to meet old friends," he said. "And we're always looking for new ideas to take back with us."

On Friday, led by Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) lobbyist Aaron Houston, the students spent the morning polishing up on lobbying basics, then visited with representatives or their staffers to push for reductions in the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. Students reported mixed results, but that's no surprise, and even with representatives on the wrong side of the issues, lobbying is part of changing minds -- and votes.
Rep. Danny Davis (photo courtesy
On Saturday and Sunday, students gathered at the University of Maryland student union for two days of panels and training in activism. Saturday morning, they heard from movement leaders, who described the chances of drug reform at the federal level in coming years with varying degrees of optimism. With the Democratic sweep of the presidency and the Congress, the prospects have improved, but big obstacles remain, the students heard.

"This election was about change," said MPP's Houston. "It's a very exciting time, so why aren't we doing back flips?" he asked. Drug reform may get short shrift in an Obama administration faced with a free-falling economy and foreign crises, Houston answered himself. "We're walking into favorable conditions, but there are a lot of issues facing Obama and the Congress."

But the economic crisis could lead to opportunity, he said. "We have huge economic problems, and this could be the time to start talking about taxing and regulating marijuana. That could generate $10 to $14 billion a year for the federal treasury," he said.

"Change is going to happen," said Adam Wolf of the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. Wolf ticked off an ACLU reform wish list of rescheduling marijuana, ending the government monopoly on growing marijuana for research purposes, ending the selective prosecution of medical marijuana patients and providers, abolishing the crack/powder sentencing disparity, and banning racial profiling.

"I'm hugely optimistic about the prospects for change in Congress," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), citing support for ending the federal funding ban on syringe exchange and reducing or eliminating the crack/powder sentencing disparity among highly placed Democrats. "We are over the hump," the Capitol Hill veteran said. "People are not afraid any more to talk about drug policy, and we have key committee chairs on our side. We will repeal the syringe ban and reduce sentencing disparities," he predicted.
police militarization panel, featuring Reason's Radley Balko, executive director David Borden, SWAT raid victim Mayor Cheye Calvo of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, moderated by Alison Grimmer of Roosevelt University SSDP
But Piper was also looking just a bit further down the road then next year's Congress. The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) comes up for reauthorization in 2010, he noted. Rather than try futilely to eliminate the office, "we can try to shift ONDCP's goals" to a more public health-oriented approach, he suggested.

"Marijuana is more popular than the past three presidents," MPP executive director Rob Kampia told a cheering audience as he recounted this year's victories for medical marijuana in Michigan and decriminalization in Massachusetts.

Student activists took no back seat to the professionals, though, and the breadth of reform efforts by SSDP chapters, and number of campuses leading or helping with them was impressive. Conference-goers got to hear about campus campaigns ranging from establishing safe ride programs (reducing intoxicated driving without exposing students to threat of penalty); good Samaritan overdose policies (neither the student needing medical help nor the student reporting it facing threat of arrest); getting schools to stop calling police into dorms for drug infractions; reforming dorm eviction policies for substance violations; working with ballot initiative campaigns such as those in Michigan and Berkeley; public education efforts; and state lobbying campaign; among others.

One chapter, Kalamazoo College in Michigan, seemed to have done almost everything, and all during its first year. At the annual Awards Banquet, where representatives received the Outstanding Chapter Award, a raft of impressive achievements were listed off in the introduction. Not only did Kalamazoo SSDP get a safe ride program established, and Good Samaritan and not calling police into dorms for minor drug violation policies established. They also went outside the campus to bring together a coalition of community groups, government agencies and law enforcement to get approval for a needle exchange program in the city for the first time.

One highlight of the conference was the Saturday lunch debate between SSDP executive director Kris Krane and Kevin Sabet of Students Taking Action Not Drugs. The back and forth between the two, moderated by Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy, kept the audience rapt -- and scoring the debate like a boxing match.
Krane/Sabet debate, Washington Post's Courtland Milloy moderating
Sabet, in what must have felt like hostile territory, did his best to try to establish "common ground" with drug reformers, citing his support for addressing the crack/powder disparity and qualifying some of drug czar John Walters' policies as "stupid politics." He also cited as models programs like North Carolina's Project HOPE, where probationers and parolees confronted by positive drug tests are not sent back to prison, but are hit with quick, short jail stays. "That's a huge motivation," Sabet argued.

If Sabet was looking for agreement from Krane or the audience, he didn't find much of it. "Our metrics in the war on drugs are wrong," said Krane. "We should be measuring abuse, problem use, infection rates -- not drug use rates," he argued. "You have to get arrested to get treatment, and that's backwards," he said.

Instead of being based on the Holy Grail of reducing drug use, drug policy should have different guiding principles, Krane argued. "First, no one should be punished for using drugs absent harm to others. Second, we should adopt a harm reduction framework, and third, we should adopt a human rights framework."

"Drug use doesn't occur in a vacuum," Sabet retorted. "A lot of drug use is problematic, and some of that can be addressed by dealing with poverty, health care, and homelessness. There is common ground," he tried again.

Not so quick, Krane replied, arguing that drug use should be treated as a public health problem, not the purview of law enforcement.

"Drug trafficking is not a public health problem, it's a law enforcement problem," Sabet countered.

"Drug trafficking is a prohibition problem, not a law enforcement problem," Krane retorted to cheers from the crowd.
David Guard and Pete Guither prepare for ''Elevator Arguments'' panel
After the spirited back and forth between Sabet and Krane, attendees were treated to an address by Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL), who zeroed in on racial disparities in drug law enforcement. "One of the most egregious aspects of our drug policy is the racial inequity," he said, reeling off the now familiar statistics about African-Americans sucked into the drug war incarceration machine and urging support for re-entry and rehabilitation efforts for prisoners. "If we can reduce crime and recidivism, if we can help these prisoners, if we can train and educate them, we are helping all of America," Davis said.

Davis, too, pronounced himself optimistic. "There is a sense of hope that we can develop a sane policy in the way we treat drugs," he told the students, "but you have to stay engaged and involved. You have to believe change is not only possible, it's inevitable."

If Saturday was a day of panelists and speechifying, Sunday was for getting down to nuts and bolts as the young activists attended a plethora of sessions hosted by more experienced veterans. Students heard presentations on best practices for chapter organizing, fundraising, making quick reform arguments, networking, working the media, and working with youth communities, and looking beyond campus reform, among others. And the lunch session was a working one, with activists dividing up geographically and deciding on locations for regional conferences to be held in the spring.

From its beginning with a handful of students in the Northeast in 1998 outraged by the Higher Education Act's drug provision, SSDP has grown to an international organization with 140 campus chapters in the US, as well as Canada, the United Kingdom and Nigeria. With all they learned at this year's conference, the newest generation of drug reform activists is now headed back home to spread the message and the movement to the next generation.

Visit the Drug WarRant blog for Pete Guither's seven-part series of live-written reports from the conference.

UMD SSDP window, Stamp Student Center

Southeast Asia: Thai Government in New Drug Crackdown

The government of Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat announced a new anti-drug offensive last week aimed at a resurgent methamphetamine market and an enduring market in opium and heroin. Somchai said the new 90-day offensive could be seen as a continuation of the 2003 anti-drug campaign led by then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
2003 protest at Thai embassy, DRCNet's David Guard in foreground
A Thai government commission investigating Thaksin's war "to make Thailand drug-free" found that nearly 3,000 people were killed, many of them not involved in the drug trade. While no criminal convictions have been handed down, it is widely assumed that most of those killed were executed by police anti-drug death squads.

Somchai said his government would take measures to prevent more killings, but like his predecessor, tried to pin the killings on "slayings among suspected drug dealers," not the extrajudicial execution of drug dealers. That isn't exactly building confidence among Thai drug users and sellers or among the human rights community, which strongly criticized Thailand over the 2003 murder spree.

"The prime minister says that this time around killings will not be tolerated, but the government said the same thing last time," said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, in a Wednesday news release warning that more abuses could lie ahead. "Somchai's credibility is at stake here."

After Thaksin was deposed last year, the government of General Surayud Chulanont appointed a special committee chaired by former Attorney General Khanit na Nakhon to investigate the extrajudicial killings that took place in 2003 as part of the "war on drugs." After five months of inquiries, the committee provided findings that 2,819 people had been killed between February-April 2003.

Many of those killed had been blacklisted by police or local authorities as suspected drug dealers. Police officers were suspected to have been involved in many of the attacks, particularly as many were killed soon after being summoned to police stations for questioning. For example, a 42-year-old grocery shop owner, Somjit Khayandee, was shot dead execution style in her house in Petchburi province on February 20, 2003, three days after she had been summoned to the police station. Local police told Somjit's relatives that her name was on their blacklist.

Police and other anti-drugs units in Thailand have sweeping powers and rarely face punishment for abuses and misconduct. The sense that officials will not be held accountable for their actions is so strong that abusive officials have sought promotion, fame, and financial rewards from the suffering of their victims.

"Many of the same people suspected of killings and other abuses in the last 'war on drugs' remain in positions of authority," Adams said. "The government should prosecute and discipline those involved in previous abuses and institute reforms before asking the police to mount another campaign. Otherwise, more people are likely to be killed."

While Thai authorities said they were going to concentrate on drug dealers, they also said drug users caught up in the net would participate in rehabilitation programs at military bases or be sent to prison. But given Thailand's poor record with respect to coerced drug treatment, that is not good news. Since 2003, thousands of people have been coerced into rehabilitation centers run by security forces without a clinical assessment that they are indeed drug dependent. Many have been held for extended periods of time -- usually 45 days -- in prison-based facilities, even if they are later referred to outpatient treatment. "Rehabilitation" is often provided by security personnel, with military drills a mainstay of the "treatment" provided.

Such coerced treatment has the effect of driving drug users away from seeking treatment or even government-sponsored health care services, Human Rights Watch said. With an estimated 40-50 percent of drug users in Thailand HIV-positive, this may keep drug users from accessing lifesaving HIV-prevention services and treatment.

"Forcing drug users into badly designed rehabilitation programs is incompatible with international standards requiring fully informed consent to treatment," Adams said. "Furthermore, fear of prosecution and harsh treatment will drive them away from seeking health care services that are theirs by right and that could actually help them."

Thailand's latest war on drugs is looking a lot like a war on drug users. That's a shocker.

Latin America: Citing Continuing Human Rights Violations, Amnesty International Urges US to Halt Military Aid to Colombia

The human rights group Amnesty International harshly criticized Colombia in a 94-page report issued Tuesday and urged the US to halt military aid to Colombia unless and until it manages to rein in the killings of civilians and other human rights abuses.

The US government has provided more than $5 billion in assistance to Colombia, the vast majority of it military, since the Clinton administration initiated Plan Colombia in 1999. Originally sold as a purely counter-narcotics package, the US assistance has since 2002 morphed into a counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism mission aimed primarily at the guerrilla army of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The FARC supports itself in part through participation in Colombia's coca and cocaine industry.

Washington has lauded Colombian President Álvaro Uribe for taking the fight to the FARC, and Colombia has seen a decrease in kidnappings and an increased sense of security in some big cities. But in the report, Amnesty questioned Uribe's claims that Colombia "is experiencing an irreversible renaissance of relative peace" and "rapidly falling levels of violence."

"Colombia remains a country where millions of civilians, especially outside the big cities and in the countryside, continue to bear the brunt of this violent and protracted conflict," the report says, adding that "impunity remains the norm in most cases of human rights abuses."

According to the report, more than 70,000 people, the vast majority civilians, have been killed in the past two decades of the 40-year-old war between the FARC and the Colombian state, with somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 "disappeared" and another 20,000 kidnapped or taken hostage. Colombia is also the scene of one of the world's worst refugee crises, with between three and four million people forcibly displaced.

And despite Uribe's protestations, for many Colombians, things aren't getting any better. According to the report, 1,400 civilians were killed in 2007, up from 1,300 the previous year. Of the 890 cases where the killers were known, the Colombian military and its ally-turned-sometimes-foe the rightwing paramilitaries were responsible for two-thirds. Similarly, the number of "disappeared" people was at 190 last year, up from 180 the year before.

Colombia's internal refugees didn't fare any better, either. More than 300,000 were displaced last year, up substantially from the 220,000 in 2006. Much of the displacement and many of the killings took place as paramilitaries attempted to wrest control of coca fields from the FARC and its peasant supporters.

In addition to pressure from donor countries, one key to improving the human rights picture is to get the Uribe administration to admit that it is in a civil war. Uribe refuses to do so, instead labeling the FARC belligerents as "terrorists."

"It's impossible to solve a problem without admitting there is one," said Marcelo Pollack, Colombia researcher at Amnesty International. "Denial only condemns more people to abuse and death."

The report also found that despite Uribe's claim that demobilization of the paramilitaries has succeeded, the paramilitaries remain active and continue to commit human rights abuses. Disturbingly, the report concluded that the FARC in the last year has been creating "strategic alliances" with the paramilitaries in various regions in the country as both groups seek "to better manage" the primary source of income, the cocaine trade.

Latin America: Brazilian Cops Kill With Impunity, Moonlight as Drug Gang Executioners, UN Report Says

Brazilian police are responsible for a large number of the 48,000 murders committed in that country each year, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions said in a report issued late last month. Not only do police routinely resort to deadly violence in the course of their work, they also moonlight as death squad killers for a variety of entities, including drug gangs, said Special Rapporteur Philip Alston.

"In Rio de Janeiro, the police kill three people every day," Alston reported. "They are responsible for one out of five killings," he added in a Monday press statement.

Alston's report came after a fact-finding trip to Brazil last year. While there, Alston met with government officials, including police commanders and senior ministers, as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and over 40 witnesses to human rights abuses.

Brazil's murder rate is among the world's highest, and police vigilantism has played a role for years. Police regularly engage in massive sweeps of poor slum neighborhoods, where drug gangs -- the notorious "commandos" -- often have strong influence or even outright control. Alston was particularly critical of the sweeps, or "mega-operations," which have grown increasingly frequent in Rio de Janeiro.

The report examined one such sweep, a June 2007 operation in Complexo do Alemão. In that sweep, more than 1,450 police attacked the slum, killing 19 people, with independent experts concluding that many of the dead had been executed. But for all the violence, police seized only two machine guns, six pistols, one sub-machine gun, and 300 kilos of drugs.

"Local officials claim that these impressive sounding mega-operations are protecting residents from drug gangs, but the operations have hurt ordinary people far more than they have hurt the drug gangs," Alston said.

The report said there has been little or no outcry over police violence in Brazil because people are skeptical that traditional law enforcement measures are working against the drug gangs. But police death squads have also been implicated in the killings of criminal suspects, the homeless, and even street children, with little outcry.

Police criminality in Brazil extends beyond the job, said Alson. "A remarkable number of police lead double lives. While on duty, they fight the drug gangs, but on their days off, they work as foot soldiers of organized crime," he said. "Clearly, the institutions for holding police accountable are broke, but they are not beyond repair. My hope is that the detailed recommendations in my report will provide a starting point for undertaking the necessary reforms."

Feature: Beyond 2008 -- Global Civil Society Tells the UN It's Time to Fix International Drug Policy

Last week, some 300 delegates representing organizations from across the drug policy spectrum met in Vienna for the Beyond 2008 NGO Forum, an effort to provide civil society input on global drug policy. Building on a series of regional meetings last year, the forum was part of an ongoing campaign to reshape the United Nations' drug policy agenda as the world organization grapples with its next 10-year plan.
UN building housing the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, Vienna (interior shot)
In 1998, the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs issued a declaration outlining its 10-year strategy to "eliminate or significantly reduce" the cultivation of marijuana, coca, and opium poppies. "A drug-free world -- we can do it!" was the motto adopted by UNGASS a decade ago. Now, with the 10-year review bumped back to next March, it is clear that the global anti-drug bureaucracy cannot claim to have achieved its goals, and civil society is taking the opportunity to intervene in search of a new, more pragmatic and humane direction in global drug policy.

The NGO meeting, which included drug treatment, prevention, education, and policy reform groups, harm reduction groups, and human rights groups from around the world, resulted in a resolution that will be presented to the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) at its meeting next March. At that meeting, the CND will draft the next UN 10-year global drug strategy.

Of the nine regions of the world, only North America sent two delegations. The first, which had met in St. Petersburg, Florida, in January, deliberately excluding harm reduction and drug reform groups, was the "official" delegation, representing hard-line prohibitionist organizations aligned with the Office of National Drug Control Policy, such as the Drug-Free America Foundation and the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA), the California Narcotics Officers Association, and the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

The second North American grouping, which had held its regional meeting in Vancouver in February, included dozens of organizations in drug reform and harm reduction, as well as treatment, prevention, and rehabilitation groups. Among the organizations from the Vancouver meeting that went to Vienna were the ACLU Drug Law Policy Project, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Virginians Against Drug Violence, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the Harm Reduction Coalition, Break The Chains, and the Institute for Policy Studies.

In many ways, the three-day meeting in Vienna was a debate among North Americans, with the NGOs of the other eight regions having largely agreed on a reformist and harm reduction approach. And strikingly, for the first time at a UN event, the prohibitionists found themselves in a distinct minority.

After three days of sometimes heated discussion, the unanimous declaration of the NGOs at Beyond 2008 called for:

  • Recognition of "the human rights abuses against people who use drugs";
  • "Evidence-based" drug policy focused on "mitigation of short-term and long-term harms" and "full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms";
  • The UN to report on the collateral consequences of the current criminal justice-based approach to drugs and to provide an "analysis of the unintended consequences of the drug control system";
  • Comprehensive "reviews of the application of criminal sanctions as a drug control measure";
  • Recognition of harm reduction as a necessary and worthwhile response to drug abuse;
  • A shift in primary emphasis from interdiction to treatment and prevention;
  • Alternatives to incarceration;
  • The provision of development aid to farmers before eradication of coca or opium crops;
  • Acknowledging that young people represent a significant proportion of drug users worldwide, are disproportionately affected by drugs and drug policy, and should be actively involved in the setting of global drug policy.

"We achieved a set of declarations of what the people of the world think drug policy ought to look like," said Graham Boyd of the ACLU Drug Law Policy Project. "We reached a consensus on a set of policies that is really different from what we've seen so far. It's a shift away from interdiction, arrests, and imprisonment, and toward including concepts like human rights and harm reduction."
Fayzal Sulliman (Sub-Saharan African Harm Reduction Network, Stijn Goossens (International Network Of People Who Use Drugs), Kris Krane (Students for Sensible Drug Policy)
"We hammered out a pretty amazing set of suggestions as to where the UNODC and CND should go in the next decade," said Jack Cole, executive director of LEAP. "I thought it was wonderful. This is a consensus document," Cole noted. "While that means anything that everybody couldn't agree on didn't get in, it also means that every single person there agreed with what did get in. That's why I'm so pleased with this. At the end, we were able to agree on some really, really good things."

"I think we accomplished a lot," said Lennice Werth of Virginians Against Drug Violence. "What was really important was where the rest of the world stood, and it was clear from the regional meetings that everyone else mentioned harm reduction and the decriminalization of drug use as goals. By the end of the meetings, the whole world was sitting back and watching as two US factions slugged it out. It became evident that the whole world is seeing the light except for these hard-liners in the States."

"This was a really good reality check for the US prohibitionists," said Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Studies. "They've never been forced to sit in a room with so many people who have evolved so far beyond them. A real wake-up call. And we even got some of them to engage us, and found we had a lot in common. That leaves the hardliners way out in the cold."

"The NGO community is united in insisting that the UN and member states respect the human rights of people who use drugs, and that all drug strategies must be drafted in the spirit of human rights declarations," said Kris Krane, executive director of SSDP. "If adopted by the United Nations, this could have a profound impact in many parts of the world where drug users are routinely treated as subhuman, and subjected to treatment that would be unthinkable even in the context of repressive United States drug policy."

"We achieved some important gains," said Frederick Polak, speaking as a member of ENCOD, the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies. "But the central issue for ENCOD and its 150 organizations is to get alternative drug control policies on the agenda of CND and of individual countries. It is no longer acceptable that alternative policies are simply not discussed by governments, and not at the UN, at least not at the level of policymakers."

In that regard, said Polak, Beyond 2008 did not go far enough. "We made very little progress on actually getting legalization and regulation on the agenda, and only in the sense that most people are aware now that the issue 'hangs in the air' in Vienna," he said.

The haggling between the prohibitionist fringe and the rest of the NGOs not only prevented the adoption of more overtly anti-prohibitionist language, Polak said, it also prevented discussion of additional proposals for alternative drug control policies, including one advanced by ENCOD.

But it is a ways from passing a civil society resolution to seeing it adopted by the global anti-drug bureacracy. Now that Beyond 2008 has crafted its resolutions, the goal is to see that it has some impact on the deliberations of the UN drug bodies next year. That involves not only showing up in Vienna, but also impressing upon national governments that they need to heed what civil society is telling them.

"This was the first quarter in a game that has three quarters left," said Boyd. "But we did well in the sense that until this conference, NGOs didn't really have a place at the table when it came to discussing international drug policy. What this means is that when the nations convene and reassess international drug policy in coming months, they will know that NGOs from all of their countries have really called on them to reassess the direction they're going," he continued.

"This is going to provide traction for reform of the international drug control system, and the fact that it was a consensus document make it even more powerful," said Tree. "The prohibitionists were so marginalized, they had to consent. Some even opened their ears and listened. We have opened the door for drug policy approaches like harm reduction, public health, regulation, and ending the folly of blaming other countries for our demand."

"Now we need to make sure our voices are heard," said Boyd. "Part of that is just showing up in Vienna, but part of that is speaking to our national government representatives and making sure they're really representing us. In our case, our national government hasn't shown much empathy for the positions we've taken, but we're a democratic society, so I hope they will include our views."

Reformers must also continue to make the case against drug prohibition, said ENCOD's Polak. "The theory of prohibition is that it will diminish drug production, supply and use. Yet in reality it has achieved the exact opposite, and has additionally created violence, corruption and chaos that is now destroying millions of lives. It's safe to say that prohibition theory has been proven false," he said.

"In any other field of policy, alternative methods would be explored, but in international drug policy, consideration of alternative policies is taboo," Polak continued. "With this argument, drug policy activists should try to convince public opinion and politicians in their country that there is an urgent need for a thorough and rational study of alternative drug control policies."

"This could be an exercise in futility," said Werth, acknowledging the slow pace of change at the UN and the uncertainty over whether change will occur at all. "But it doesn't seem like it. The UN moves at a glacial pace, but they know they didn't achieve a drug-free world, and when they move, it will undercut the gang in charge of drug policy in this country."

ACLU Statement to the United Nations: Adopting a Human Rights-Based Global Drug Policy

[Courtesy of ACLU] A decade ago the United Nations (U.N.) issued a declaration outlining its 10-year global strategy to “eliminate or significantly reduce” all illicit coca, marijuana, and opium plants from the earth under the motto, “A drug free world – we can do it!” This week, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) will measure progress in this global “war on drugs” at a meeting in Vienna, Austria. The American Civil Liberties Union will join a diverse coalition of civil and human rights organizations participating in the “Beyond 2008 Forum,” an unprecedented opportunity to review the past decade of international drug policy and to shape its future course. The U.N. convened this forum to provide the non-governmental organization community the opportunity to contribute to the development of future policy, practice, and strategy. For the first time, the international drug strategy will be informed by outside voices – a sensible approach that is commonplace for other issues, but has long been taboo on issues of drug policy. The ACLU seeks an end to punitive drug policies that cause widespread constitutional and human rights violations, as well as unprecedented levels of incarceration. U.S. government insistence on incarceration as a catch-all solution to the misuse of illicit drugs has failed to reduce drug-related harm both at home and abroad, while defying the basic tenets of the U.N.’s Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The global experience of the past 10 years demonstrates that current drug policies have exacerbated – not abated – violence, health epidemics, and civil and human rights violations: * The U.N.’s 2008 World Drug Report announced that illicit coca and opium production are at an all time high. * A 2008 World Health Organization study found that America has higher rates of both cocaine and marijuana use than countries with less punitive drug laws. * The U.S. imprisons 10 times as many people for drug offenses as does the European Union, which has 200 million more inhabitants. * In the U.S., the world’s wealthiest nation, drug overdose rates have tripled since 1990, and drug treatment remains unavailable to over 20 million people in need. * The Centers for Disease Control estimates that in the U.S. injection drug use accounts for 60% of all new cases of hepatitis C, and approximately one-fourth of all new HIV/AIDS cases. * Worldwide, drugs remain the largest source of income for organized crime, and drug-related violence is visibly spiraling out of control in Mexico, Afghanistan, West Africa, and elsewhere. The time has come for the U.S. and the international community to come to terms with the clear limitations of a drug policy principally devoted to supply-side enforcement and incarceration. Some members of the international community have long acknowledged the failure of U.S.-style drug prohibition as a model for global drug policy and have turned toward health-based approaches more in line with the U.N.’s health and human rights mandates. Beyond decriminalizing some adult drug use, several nations like Canada and the Netherlands have begun to experiment with a range of promising harm reduction approaches, such as providing people with drug addictions clean needles and counseling rather than imposing lengthy prison sentences. Such policies recognize that a drug free world is presently beyond reach and focus on minimizing the dangers faced by at risk individuals and society at large. This approach has proven both effective and better aligned with international human rights and public safety mandates. Even within the U.S., support for the global “war on drugs” is waning. The foundational American values of liberty, privacy and limited government power have been severely undermined by drug war tactics. One in 100 adults in the U.S. are behind bars, largely due to drug laws, giving the U.S. the dubious distinction as the world’s leading jailer. With drug use, production and availability remaining steady, the American public is waking up to the reality that over-reliance on enforcement and incarceration is neither good for public safety nor economically sustainable. National public opinion polls bear this out, finding a sizable majority of Americans favor treatment over incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders. With this week’s meeting, the U.N. has the opportunity to move away from the counterproductive policies that have dominated U.S. and, in turn, international drug policy for the past decade. U.N. drug policy has been left to operate in a lonely silo, apparently exempt from the tenets of transparency and accountability that guide other U.N. policy-making bodies. Sadly, where the international drug control regime has conflicted with human rights, systematic discrimination, abusive law enforcement practices, mass incarceration and easily avoidable health epidemics have prevailed. The U.N., and specifically the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), have the power to take a step in the right direction by adopting resolutions acknowledging the Universal Declaration on Human Rights’ centrality to all of the U.N.’s work, and mandating that the U.N.’s drug control bodies adopt a human rights-based approach in accordance with U.N. human rights law. For this step to be effective, however, member states must also make specific resolutions mandating that U.N. drug control policy be conducted in accordance with human rights law. Directives from the U.N. General Assembly to conduct drug control efforts in compliance with human rights norms have been ignored in the past. The CND – the U.N.’s inter-state body that directs international drug policy – has never adopted a resolution with any operational human rights obligations. Meanwhile, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the monitoring body for the U.N. drug control conventions, has openly stated that it will not address human rights. Application of international human rights laws can address many of the flaws and inequalities of the current drug control system. As mandated in the U.N.’s Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and several other treaties, human rights standards hold a greater position of legal authority than drug control treaties. For the U.N.’s drug control system to be consistent with the requirements of its own Charter, human rights must be the starting point, not an after-thought. A human rights-based approach to global drug policy would principally (1) prioritize prevention and treatment of negative health consequences of drug misuse over criminal justice responses and supply-side reduction measures, and (2) require that U.N. bodies measure effectiveness by assessing indicators of drug-related harm, rather than relying solely on drug use and interdiction statistics. Drug-related “harm” includes overdose rates, disease transmission rates, negative drug enforcement consequences as well as individual and communal criminal justice system-related consequences. To succeed, U.N. drug policy bodies must work closely with the World Health Organization and UNAIDS, a joint program of the U.N., to adopt effective strategies for reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS and other diseases. The following specific policy proposals should be implemented in order to align U.N. drug policy with its health and human rights mandates: 1) Reform of the International Narcotics Control Board • Regular, independent evaluations of the INCB must be administered to guarantee accountability. • The INCB must clarify its position on harm reduction and human rights in relation to the U.N.’s overall goals. • The INCB must acknowledge the authority of less rigid interpretations of the drug control treaties. • The INCB must function more openly, and involve civil society in its operations. • The INCB must improve the availability of treatment for chemical dependence, and develop greater expertise on HIV, public health, and human rights. 2) Emphasis on Human Rights from the Committee on Narcotic Drugs • The CND should adopt a resolution acknowledging the Universal Declaration of Human Right’s relevance to all of its work. • Member states must make specific resolutions mandating the U.N. drug control policy be conducted in accordance with human rights law and with the aim of furthering human rights protections. • The CND should adopt a resolution that mandates that all drug control arms of the U.N. adopt a human rights-based approach to their work in accordance with the aims of the U.N. Charter and human rights treaties. 3) Focus on Drug Control-Related Human Rights Violations from U.N. Human Rights Bodies • The U.N. Human Rights Council and other human rights treaty bodies should emphasize in their work greater focus on human rights violations caused by drug control efforts. People and governments throughout the world are increasingly recognizing that the global “war on drugs” does more harm than good. The U.N. must acknowledge this reality and set a new direction in drug policy that respects and upholds the health and human rights of all people. In 1998, at the last U.N. General Assembly Special Session on Drugs then-ACLU executive director Ira Glasser joined former U.N. Chief Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru, Nobel Laureate and ex-Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, economist Milton Friedman, current Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and over 500 prominent academics, scientists, and political leaders, in a letter to then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan stating: “We believe that the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself. Every decade the United Nations adopts new international conventions, focused largely on criminalization and punishment, that restrict the ability of individual nations to devise effective solutions to local drug problems. Every year governments enact more punitive and costly drug control measures… Secretary General, we appeal to you to initiate a truly open and honest dialogue regarding the future of global drug control policies – one in which fear, prejudice and punitive prohibitions yield to common sense, science, public health and human rights.” Ten years later, following the pleas of diverse segments of civil society, that “open and honest dialogue” is finally beginning. But without the U.N.’s adoption of the preceding recommendations, common sense, public health and safety, and, above all, human rights will remain hostage to ineffective and counterproductive drug policies. Universal human rights and global safety from drug-related harm are not mutually exclusive. An honest examination by the U.N. of the past 10 years, informed by diverse voices, and, most importantly, by its own voice within its Charter and human rights mandates, can yield an evolved international strategy recognizing human freedom and dignity as the ultimate goals – not enemies – of global drug policy.

Latin America: Human Rights a Casualty in Chihuahua's Drug War

Three months after Mexican President Felipe Calderón sent thousands of troops into Ciudad Juárez and other Chihuahua cities and towns to fight drug traffickers in Operation Chihuahua Together, the number of complaints of human rights abuses is increasing and becoming a political issue, according to New Mexico State University's Frontera Norte/Sur (FNS) news service, which monitors Mexican and border press.
poster of assassinated human rights advocate Ricardo Murillo
By the middle of June, some 50 legal complaints had been filed with the attorney general's Ciudad Juárez office, FNS reported. The complaints accuse the army of committing abuses of authority, carrying out illegal detentions, forcibly disappearing citizens, conducting improper searches, and inflicting bodily injuries and damages.

The official Chihuahua's State Human Rights Commission (CEDH) reported an additional 28 complaints about the army in May and 32 more so far this month, mainly from the border town of Ojinaga, across the Rio Grande River from Big Bend National Park in remote West Texas.

CEDH investigator Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson said many of the victims of abuses were small-time dealers and addicts who have been beaten and subject to various forms of torture, including electric shocks, simulated suffocations with plastic bags and razor cuts at army installations. It was a "dangerous pattern," he said, drawing a comparison with Mexico's 1970s Dirty War, when the security forces tortured and disappeared dissidents and suspected leftist guerrillas.

In an incident that stirred outrage, soldiers shot three men to death June 8 at a checkpoint near the town of Cuauhtémoc in the center of the state. While details are unclear, the soldiers reportedly opened fire after the victims' vehicle struck and injured a soldier. One reporter on the scene was forced to the ground by soldiers, while the head of the state human rights commission showed up at the scene but was denied access by the military.

According to FNS, the Juárez Valley, just outside the city of the same name, has been a hot spot in recent weeks. Long the domain of drug traffickers and other criminals, the area has been the target of numerous army raids lately. The soldiers have netted arrests and loads of drugs, but they are also garnering an ever-lengthening list of complaints about their behavior.

Last Saturday, angry valley residents staged protests outside the office of the Mexican attorney general in downtown Juarez. A woman from the town of Guadalupe Bravo, Josefina Reyes, complained that soldiers raided her house and destroyed property before stealing her cell phone and other goods. "On that day, there were around 25 more searches in which they made off with various people," Reyes said.

While neither the military nor the attorney general's office has responded publicly to the complaints, local elected officials are beginning to. The state congress earlier this month passed a resolution urging the army to punish soldiers involved in abuses, and the head of the congress, Jorge Alberto Gutiérrez Casas has urged the military to open up about the Cuauhtémoc checkpoint killings.

"We are going to demand from the legislative branch that human rights not be violated in a struggle that is focused on organized crime, because what happened at the checkpoint doesn't justify the response of the army members." Gutiérrez said. "The army is one of the institutions which has more prestige and credibility in the eyes of the citizenry, and because of this we must not permit isolated situations to end up discrediting the confidence that society has in them."

Allegations of human rights abuses by the military as it pursues its war on drug traffickers are by no means
limited to Chihuahua. In fact, they seem to follow the military wherever it is deployed as law enforcers. In February, we reported on human rights violations in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and last month, we reported on human rights violations in Sinaloa.

The issue of human rights threatens to scuttle the Bush administration's Mérida Initiative anti-drug assistance package for Mexican and the Central American countries. Some congressional Democrats want to tie the $1.4 billion aid package to human rights and other conditions, a move firmly opposed by Mexico, which is extremely sensitive about its sovereignty when it comes to its northern neighbor. On Monday, President Bush appealed to lawmakers to approve the package "without many conditions."

Meanwhile, the toll from prohibition-related violence continues to soar in Mexico. Since Calderón unleashed the military at the beginning of last year, about 4,000 people have been killed, including nearly 500 police and soldiers. Even in Ciudad Juárez, where the military has been deployed since March, the killing continues to escalate. From January 1 to March 31, 210 people were murdered. Between April one and now, another 276 have been killed.

Latin America: US House Approves Mexico Anti-Drug Aid Bill, But Mexico Balks at Senate Human Rights Conditions

The US House of Representatives Tuesday approved a $1.6 billion, three-year anti-drug assistance plan aimed at helping Mexico and Central American countries fight the region's powerful drug trafficking organizations, but the package is now in doubt after the Mexican government voiced strong objections to provisions in the Senate version of the bill that tie the aid to human rights measures. The version of the bill in the Senate has yet to be approved.
poster of assassinated human rights advocate Ricardo Murillo (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith)
The vote came amidst rising levels of prohibition-related violence in Mexico. Some 4,000 people -- including more than 450 police and soldiers -- have been killed in the drug war since President Felipe Calderón escalated it at the beginning of last year by sending some 25,000 troops and federal police into drug trafficker strongholds. The traffickers have taken time off from fighting among themselves to strike back at government forces, recently assassinating several top federal and municipal police commanders. Last week, traffickers in Culiacán ambushed and killed eight police in one day.

The bill, passed by the House 311-106, would begin to implement the Mérida Initiative, named after the Mexican city where US and Mexican officials sat down last year to hammer out an assistance package. Under that plan, the US funds would go for equipping and training security forces in Mexico and Central America and for improving justice systems in the region. Mexico would get $1.1 billion, while Central American and Caribbean countries would get roughly $400 million. Another $74 million would go to trying to slow the flow of illicit weapons from the US to Mexico.

But while Mexico had been eager to win the aid package, it is balking at the conditions in the Senate bill, which include human rights reviews, judicial reforms, and other issues. The conditions mark a return to "certification," where the US unilaterally determined whether nations where complying with US drug objectives, complained Mexican assistant attorney general for international affairs José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos.
Ríodoce (newspaper) cover -- Sinaloa keeps bleeding. Why more (soldiers)?
"Why don't we tell the Americans to use those [funds] for their own interdiction forces or interception forces... and stop the flow of weapons," Santiago Vasconcelos said in a radio interview cited by the Dallas Morning News. "Rather than giving them to Mexico, they can be used by the Americans to reinforce their Customs service, their Border Patrol, and stop the arms trafficking to our country."

Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora said last week that President Calderón is waiting to see the final version of the bill before making a decision. "The president will very carefully consider what is finally approved, and defending the best interests of Mexico, will make the correct decision, of that we can be sure," he said.

"I think one way or another, it's dead," political commentator Ricardo Alemán told the Morning News. "Mr. Vasconcelos is a very high-ranking police official and has support from the government," Alemán said, adding that Mexican pride is at stake. "Mexicans are very unyielding on this," he said. "First you reduce the amount, and then you put on conditions, so why don't you just keep your money."

A delegation of US senators flew last weekend to Monterrey, Mexico, to meet with Mexican officials in an effort to assuage their concerns, and there are signs they will seek to remove the offensive language from the Senate bill.

"We heard from everyone here the common message that this language has got to be changed," said Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), one of 11 US legislators attending the two-day meeting. "Our friends in Mexico needed to vent and explain how this issue was not handled well," the senator added. "Anything that smacks of certification is a nonstarter."

Now it's time to see if the US Senate will sacrifice Mexican human rights on the altar of the drug war.

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