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Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction," by Dr. Gabor Maté (2010, North Atlantic Books, 468 pp., $17.95 PB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer/Editor

In the revised edition of his prize-winning Canadian best-seller, Vancouver's Dr. Gabor Maté has made an important contribution to the literature on drug use and addiction. For more than a dozen years, Maté has been a staff physician for the Portland Hotel Society in Vancouver's infamous Downtown Eastside, home to one of the hemispheric largest, most concentrated populations of drug addicts. The Portland is unique -- once just another shoddy Skid Row SRO, under the management of the Society it is now both a residence for the hardest of the hard-core and a harm reduction facility.

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As a medical resident at the Portland, Maté has seen it all. The first section of "Hungry Ghosts" is filled with descriptions of his patients and their lives. Much of this is quite literally horrendous: Coked-out women turning tricks in alleys for their next rock and contracting syphilis; suicidal, opiate-addicted women refusing HIV treatments; mentally ill and alcoholic men dying young of liver cancer from Hepatitis C infections; people strung out on crack scrabbling at pieces of gravel on the sidewalk in the hallucinatory hope it's another rock; multi-addicted men and women, blood oozing from festering sores as they search yet again for a vein to hit, people overdosing and then going right back at it, people overdosing and dying.

And yet, despite the misery they are in and the wrecks that are their lives, they keep on using. "Hungry Ghosts" is an extended meditation on why. The second chunk of the book is devoted in particular to addressing that question. Maté offers an extended tour of the latest research into the disease model of addiction, with succinct and understandable (to the layperson) explanations of reward circuits in the brain, dopamine and serotonin flows, and all that good neuro-bio-pharmacological stuff so beloved of NIDA grantees. Repeated use of a substance indeed "rewires" the brain, creating pleasure circuits demanding to be fulfilled and pleasure deficits demanding to be fixed... with that next fix.

But unlike the NIDA people, with what I consider to be their neuro-bio-pharmacological determinism and reductionism, Maté goes a step further. He points out, accurately enough, that no matter what substance we're talking about, only a fraction of users, typically between 10% and 20%, become addicts. The "chronic relapsing brain disease" model may have some utility, but it fails to explain why some people are susceptible to addiction in the first place and others are not.

Maté noticed something about his downtrodden, strung-out clientele in Vancouver. They were almost universally abused as children, and at best, neglected. And I mean abused: Not spanked too hard, but raped, beaten, raped again, exploited, sent into foster care, literally spit on by their parents. It's very ugly.

One story especially sticks with me. A First Nations woman whose mother lives on the Downtown Eastside was given up at birth by her addicted mother, and sent to live with relatives, several of whom repeatedly sexually molested her in especially disgusting ways. She grew up an angry, depressed kid who turned to drugs and drink early. Tired of her life, she saved up $500 when she was 14 and ran away to Vancouver to find her mother. She did find her mother -- too bad for her. Mommie dearest promptly shot her up with heroin, spent the $500 on drugs for herself, then turned her out to turn tricks on the street. And you wonder why this woman prefers a narcotized bliss?

Maté doesn't just rely on anthropology and anecdote. He takes the reader instead into an extended look at the research on early childhood development and identifies messed-up childhoods as the key indicator of future substance abuse (as well as many other) problems. It doesn't have to be as extreme as some of these cases, but Maté makes clear that a nurturing early up-bringing is absolutely vital to the development of mentally and emotionally stable human beings.

Maté also has a startling confession to make: He, too, is an addict. The good doctor has been fighting a lifelong battle with his addiction to... wait for it... buying classical music CDs. He has behaved just like a junkie, he admits, spending thousands of dollars on his habit, lying to his wife, neglecting his kids, even leaving in the middle of medical procedures to run and score the latest Vivaldi. He's suffered the same feelings of compulsion, guilt, disgust, and self-denigration as any other addict, even if he doesn't have the scars on his veins to show for it.

At first glance, Maté's claim almost seems ludicrous, but he's making an important point: Addiction is addiction, whether it's to heroin or gambling, cocaine or shopping, he argues. The process of changes in the brain is the same, the compulsion is the same, the negative self-feelings are the same. We don't blame playing cards for gambling addiction or shopping malls for shopaholism; similarly, drugs are not to blame for drug addiction -- our own messed up psyches are the root of the problem.

And that leads to another important point: Those hollow-eyed addicts are like the rest of us, they are a dark mirror on our own inner problems, and most of us have some. (I'm reminded of a cartoon I once saw of a man sitting by all alone in an empty auditorium under a hanging banner saying, "Welcome to the convention of children of non-dysfunctional families.")

This is important because it stops us from dehumanizing drug addicts. They are not "the other." They are us, different only in degree. They deserve caring and compassion even if it is tough and seemingly fruitless work. Maté chides himself for falling from that saintly pedestal on occasion, and good for him.

Not surprisingly, Maté is a strong advocate of harm reduction and a harsh critic of prohibitionist drug policies and the US war on drugs in particular. By grinding drug users down even further, prohibition serves only to make them more likely to seek solace in chemical nirvana. It's almost as if prohibition were designed to create and perpetuate drug addiction.

In the final chapters of "Hungry Ghosts," Maté offers a glimmer of hope for beating drug addiction (or gambling addiction or sex addiction or whatever your particular compulsion is). It is a tough path of self-awareness and spiritual practice. I don't know if it will work -- I haven't tried it myself -- but it is important to remind ourselves that addiction is not necessarily a hopeless trap with no escape.

This is good, strong, compassionate, highly informed reading. I heartily recommend this book to anyone with an interest in addiction, addiction treatment, early childhood development, or drug policy. Thanks, doc.

Prohibition: Kansas Becomes First State to Ban Synthetic Cannabinoid Blends Such As K2, Spice

Kansas Gov. Mark Parkinson signed into law Tuesday HB 2411, which adds certain synthetic cannabinoids to the state's list of controlled substances. The bill is aimed directly at products containing a mixture of herbs and a powdered synthetic cannabinoid, JWH-018, which was isolated by a Clemson University researcher more than a decade ago. The products are sold under a variety of names, including Spice and K2. Kansas thus becomes the first state to ban K2, although a handful of localities in the region have already done so. A similar bill is working its way through the legislature in neighboring Missouri, and one is about to be introduced in Georgia. And, as law enforcement across the country jumps on the bandwagon, expect similar prohibitionist efforts to pop up in other states. Users report a marijuana-like high from using the blends. Although some adverse reactions have been reported, the number is small compared to the reported massive sales of the products. Under the new law, which goes into effect upon publication in the state register, possession of K2 becomes a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a $2500 fine. That's the same potential punishment as awaits someone busted for small-time marijuana possession in the Jayhawk State. “This legislation has received overwhelming support by Kansas law enforcement and the legislature,” said Parkinson in a signing statement. “It will help improve our communities by bettering equipping law enforcement officers in addressing this issue and deterring Kansans from drug use.” The governor is certainly correct about who supported the bill. Testifying for it were representatives of the Kansas County and District Attorneys Association, the Kansas Association of Chiefs of Police, the Kansas Sheriffs Association, the Kansas Peace Officers Association, and the Kansas Board of Pharmacy.
Localização: 
Wichita, KS
United States

Feature: Mexico Conference Calls for New Direction in Drug Policy, Says Prohibition Has Failed

On Monday and Tuesday in Mexico City, political figures, academics, social scientists, security experts, and activists from at least six countries came together for the Winds of Change: Drug Policy in the World conference sponsored by the Mexico City-based Collective for an Integrated Drug Policy (CUPHID). Coming as Mexico's war on drugs turns bloodier by the day, the conference unsurprisingly concluded that current prohibitionist policies are a disaster.

"The principal conclusion is that we need a more integrated drug policy based on prevention, scientific evidence, and full respect for human rights," summarized CUPHID president Jorge Hernandez Tinajero. "It remains clear that, yes, there exist alternatives to the current strategy."

In a press release after the conference, CUPHID emphasized the following points:

  • The so-called war on drugs has failed and, without doubt, we need "winds of change" to advance toward alternative policies to address the problematic of drugs across the globe.
  • The prohibitionist paradigm has been ineffective, and furthermore, for the majority of countries it has implied grave violations of human rights and individual guarantees, discrimination, and social exclusion, as well as an escalation of violence that grows day by day, ever broadening the scope of impunity for organized crime.
  • Drugs are never going to disappear. Thus, a more realistic drug policy should focus on minimizing the harms associated with drug use -- overdoses, blood-borne diseases like HIV/AIDS, and violence. This concept is known as "harm reduction," and must be the backbone of any drug policy.

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Colombia Cesar Gaviria, former President of Colombia, on left (courtesy comunidadsegura.org)
The conference opened Monday morning by putting its star power on display. In its opening session, former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, who, as a member of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy coauthored a report a year ago with former Brazilian President Henrique Cardoso and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo denouncing drug prohibition as a failed policy, returned to the theme. Noting that as president of Colombia in the 1990s, he had been a firm supporter of prohibition, Gaviria said he had changed his tune.

"With the passing of time, prohibitionism, in which I believed, has demonstrated itself a failure," he told an attentive crowd jammed into a conference room of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in upscale Colonia Napoles. The attendant human rights abuses were a big reason why, he said.

"You have to be very careful in the matter of human rights," Gaviria said. "The issue of militarization is so risky because militarization of the struggle against the drug trade, even though it may seem necessary and imperative at a given time, almost always veers into violations of human rights."

Militarization is an especially prickly issue in Mexico, where President Calderon has deployed tens of thousands of soldiers in the war against drug trafficking organizations. While the military has failed to stop the so-called cartels or reduce the violence -- it has, in fact, increased dramatically since the military was deployed three years ago -- it has generated an increasing number of human rights complaints. According to the official National Commission on Human Rights, more than 1,900 complaints alleging abuses by the military -- ranging from harassment, theft, and illegal entry to torture, murder, and disappearances -- were filed in Mexico last year.

Referring specifically to the Mexican situation, Gaviria added: "In the long run, one of the things that most delegitimizes public policies against drugs is when human rights are violated."

Gaviria's comments sparked a quick reply from Deputy Carolina Viggiano of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), who called Calderon's decision to send in the military "the worst mistake" of his administration and one that was likely to ruin the prestige of the Mexican military by the time his term ends in three years.

While arguing that organized crime must sometimes be fought with extreme measures, such as anti-mafia laws and integrated counterintelligence operations, Gaviria also said that at some point, governments have to bring the traffickers in from the cold, perhaps by agreeing to let them plead guilty to offenses with short prison sentences. "Not 40 or 50 years in prison, but maybe eight or 10, and then the person can say, 'I'm done with this, I confess my crimes, I'll do my time, and that's that.' That is a solution with the justice system, not through militarization," he said.

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Jorge Castañeda
If Gaviria was looking for reconciliation with the traffickers, his co-panelist former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda was a bit more provocative. He suggested that Mexico needs to go back to the "good old days" of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), at least when it comes to dealing with drug trafficking organizations.

The PRI, of course, ruled Mexico in a virtual one-party state for 70 years before being defeated by Vicente Fox and the conservative National Action Party (PAN) in the 2000 elections. It was widely (and correctly) seen as not fighting the drug trade so much as managing it.

Given the bloody mess that is the Mexican drug war today, perhaps it is time to return to a quiet arrangement with the cartels, Castañeda suggested. "How do we construct a modus vivendi?" he asked. "The Americans have a modus vivendi in Afghanistan," he noted pointedly. "They don't care if Afghanistan exports heroin to the rest of the world; they are at war with Al Qaeda."

Castenada's comments on Afghanistan rang especially true this week, as American soldiers push through poppy fields in their offensive on Marja. The US has made an explicit decision to arrive at a modus vivendi with poppy farmers, although it still fights the trade by interdiction and going after traffickers -- or at least those linked to the Taliban.

Casteneda also came up with another provocative example, especially for Mexican leftists in the audience. "We had a modus vivendi with the Zapatistas in Chiapas," he noted. "We also pretended they were real guerrillas with their wooden rifles. We created a liberated zone, and the army respected it, and it's still there. But it is a simulation -- the army could eliminate it in 90 seconds."

And in yet another provocative comment on the theme, Casteneda suggested that somebody may already have arrived at a modus vivendi with the Sinaloa Cartel -- a suggestion that is getting big play in Mexican newspapers these days. "Why is it that of the 70,000 drug war prisoners in Mexico, only 800 are Chapo Guzman's men?" he asked. "Many people think the government has made a deal with the Sinaloa cartel. I don't know if it's true."

The Mexican government was forced Wednesday to deny such claims, a clear sign they are getting wide circulation.

Peruvian drug policy analyst Ricardo Soberon told the conference that while Latin America has been a loyal follower of the UN's and the US's prohibitionist drug policy discourses, it was time for something new. "The UN anti-drug paradigm is broken," he said. "We have to change the paradigm. We have to offer something other than prohibition and the criminal justice system, but what? A regulated market? What does that mean? What we need in any case are policies that are fundamentally based on human rights and deal with it from a public health viewpoint."

Human rights and the drug war remained a key theme of the conference on its second day, with Luis Gonzalez Placencia, president of the Federal District (Mexico City) Commission on Human Rights, and Monte Alejandro Rubido, Subsecretary for Human Rights for the Secretariat of Public Security, speaking and being grilled by the audience.

"The violent and militaristic policy against drugs generates more violence and has produced more dead," said Placencia. "We have to consider whether this anti-drug policy has become counterproductive," he added.

But Rubido, a federal functionary, stood fast, saying the Calderon government remained firm in its commitment to keep drugs criminalized. Far from being a failure, the strategy is working, he said, to hoots and groans from the crowd. "It is achieving good results," he said.

During a question and answer session that followed the pair, Rubido was raked over the coals by questioner after questioner, but remained stolidly unshakable in his support for current policy.

"How many people has marijuana killed and how many has the policy of repression killed?" asked one conference-goer, but Rubido just smirked in silence.

"People have consumed drugs forever," said Haydee Rosovsky, the former head of Mexico's national commission on addiction, from the floor, as she called out the bureaucrats. "You functionaries have to come out like Gaviria and Zedillo, and not wait until you are ex-functionaries."

National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) researcher Luis Astorga presented graphs showing which party governs which Mexican states and which coastal and border municipalities and how they appear to be affiliated with different blocs of cartels. "The PRI governed states on the Gulf Coast are where the cocaine flows," he said, "and the PRI controls most border municipalities."

That is the province of a bloc of cartels consisting of the Gulf (los Zetas) and Juarez cartels and the Beltra Leyva breakaway from the Sinaloa cartel, Astorga suggested, while taking pains to say his research is only "a work in progress." On the other hand, the ruling National Action Party (PAN) controls the northwest states of Baja California, Sonora, and Sinaloa, playground to the Sinaloa, and La Familia cartels, and breakaway factions of the Tijuana cartel. Echoing Casteneda, Astorga suggested it might be time for a "pax mafioso," although he admitted it would be difficult to find political cover for such a move.

Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance briefed the crowd on the US medical marijuana experience at event organizers' request, although he expressed bemusement at the issue's relevance to Mexico and its drug war and labored to make a useful connection.

"Medical marijuana provided the angle of attack that broke the marijuana policy logjam in the United States," he noted. "What Mexico needs is to find some sort of similar issue, some sort of similar angle. Perhaps the best approach is to argue that by legalizing marijuana we can deprive the cartels of a significant income stream," he suggested.

The Mexico City conference this week is just one more indication that the cracks in the wall of drug prohibition in Latin America are spreading. But while the drug reform movement in the hemisphere has some big names behind it, it is still going to take on the ground, grass roots organizing in countries across the hemisphere to move forward. The conference in Mexico City helped lay the groundwork for that, at least in Mexico.

Legalization: So Say They Now -- US and Mexican Officials Say No to Debating It

Representatives of the US and Mexican governments meeting at the US-Mexico Bi-national Drug Demand Reduction Policy Meeting in Washington, DC, this week took pains to make clear that neither government is prepared to consider drug legalization. Although legalization wasn't on the meeting's agenda, both Gil Kerlikowske, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), and Mexican Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova Villalobos felt impelled to denounce it.

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status quo at all costs (follow top link above for video)
"Legalization isn't a subject under discussion under the Obama administration under any circumstances," said Kerlikowske. Such proposals do not hold up "under the thinnest veil of scrutiny," he said. "The reasons for this are multiple: There is no evidence that legalization would reduce the violence or benefit the economy."

"In Mexico," said Villalobos, "and I want to emphasize this in a firm manner, there is a clear consensus to maintain the criminalization of the cultivation, transportation, possession, commerce, or use of substances identified as dangerous in the international conventions. We are convinced that the legalization of the use of drugs is not only dangerous and distant, but unviable in practical terms. Drugs aren't dangerous because they're illegal, they're illegal because they're dangerous," he added, stealing a hoary trope that is a favorite of UN Office on Drugs and Crime head Antonio Maria Costa.

But the consensus of which Villalobos spoke is badly tattered. The rejection of drug legalization comes amidst a rising clamor for a rethink of prohibitionist drug policies. The calls for change are growing increasingly loud south of the border, where Mexican President Felipe Calderon's militarization of the drug war has led to growing public dismay with its bloody death toll, accusations of human rights abuses by the military, and the campaign's inability to have an noticeable impact on the so-called drug cartels.

On Monday, Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox, once again called for debating legalization. "We need to end the war," he said. "It's time to debate legalizing drugs," he said, adding, "Then maybe we can separate violence from what is a health problem."

Similarly, at a conference in Mexico City this week, academics, attorneys, and activists joined former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria in calling for drug legalization. (See related story here.)

The officials also took some flak from north of the border. "The only solution to the current crisis is to tax and regulate marijuana," said Aaron Houston, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project. "Once again, Mexican and US officials are ignoring the fact that the cartels get 70% of their profits from marijuana. It's time to face the reality that the US's marijuana prohibition is fueling a bloodbath in Mexico and the United States."

Congress has approved a three-year $1.4 billion anti-drug aid package for Mexico and Central America, and this year the Obama administration is seeking an additional $310 million in anti-drug aid for Mexico.

"It is illogical, at best, to continue throwing money at this failed policy," Houston said. "The government will never eliminate the demand for marijuana, but it can put an end to the monopoly drug cartels currently hold on America's largest cash crop. Lifting marijuana prohibition would take away the cartels' largest source of income and the main reason for the horrifically brutal violence perpetrated by rival drug groups."

But if Washington and Mexico City just whistle loudly enough as they walk past the graveyard, perhaps they can continue to ignore the rising clamor just a while longer.

Feature: UN Anti-Drug Agency Complains Latin American Decriminalization Trend Undermines Prohibition Regime

In its annual report on countries' compliance with the global drug prohibition regime, released Wednesday, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) challenged the trend toward the decriminalization of drug possession in Latin America, saying it undermines the three international treaties that define the international framework for drug prohibition. Critics were quick to strike back, saying the INCB was overstepping its boundaries.

Under the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the 1988 UN Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, the INCB is charged with being the "nattering nanny" of the global prohibition regime. It "identifies weaknesses in national and international control systems and contributes to correcting such situations."

Its powers are primarily rhetorical, and it used them in the annual report to lash out at creeping decriminalization in the Western Hemisphere:

The Board notes with concern that in countries in South America, such as Argentina, Brazil and Colombia (and in countries in North America, such as Mexico and the United States), there is a growing movement to decriminalize the possession of controlled drugs, in particular cannabis, for personal use. Regrettably, influential personalities, including former high-level politicians in countries in South America, have publicly expressed their support for that movement. The Board is concerned that the movement, if not resolutely countered by the respective Governments, will undermine national and international efforts to combat the abuse of and illicit trafficking in narcotic drugs. In any case, the movement poses a threat to the coherence and effectiveness of the international drug control system and sends the wrong message to the general public.

Brazil quasi-decriminalized drug possession in 2006 (drug users are still charged, but cannot be sentenced to jail terms), a series of Argentine court decisions in recent years culminating in a Supreme Court decision last year has decriminalized marijuana position (and implies the looming decriminalization of the possession of any drug), and Mexico last year decriminalized the possession of small amounts of drug for personal use. In addition, possession of small amounts of marijuana has been decriminalized in 13 US states.

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The "influential personalities" to whom the INCB critically referred, include former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Colombian President Carlos Gaviria, and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, who, as members of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy last year issued a report highly critical of the US-led war on drugs in the region. That report called on the US to decriminalize marijuana possession and treat drug use as a public health -- not a criminal -- matter. To that list could be added former Mexican President Vicente Fox, who just this week reiterated his call for a debate on drug legalization (See related story here.)

While the former presidents have yet to respond to the INCB's critique, non-governmental organizations working in the field have come out swinging. They accuse the INCB of overstepping its bounds and attempting to block necessary and desirable drug law reforms.

"There are too many consumers and small-time drug offenders overcrowding Latin American jails. This is not only inhumane, it also means justice systems are diverting their scarce resources and attention away from big traffickers," said Pien Metaal, Drugs and Democracy Program Researcher for the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute (TNI). "Part of the overcrowding problem stems from disproportionate prison sentences for nonviolent offenders."

Decriminalization has not been shown to increase drug use. Portugal decriminalized the possession of all drugs for personal use nine years ago, and its usage rates are squarely in the middle of European averages. Similarly, the Dutch experience with de facto personal legalization has not led to Dutch usage rates outside the European norm, nor are marijuana usage rates in American states where it is decriminalized substantially different from those where it is not.

John Walsh, head of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), criticized the INCB for "reminding" governments that the treaties require that drug possession be criminalized. "Apparently it's the INCB that needs reminding, both about the limits of its own role and about what the treaties actually require," said Walsh. "Not only does the INCB lack the mandate to raise such issues, the INCB misreads the 1988 Convention itself, asserting an absolute obligation to criminalize drug possession when the Convention explicitly affords some flexibility on this matter."

Walsh noted that while the 1988 Convention requires each party to "establish as a criminal offence [...] the possession, purchase or cultivation of narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances for personal consumption," an article within the convention explicitly states that such laws are subject to each country's "constitutional principles and basic concepts of its legal system." Thus, he argued, countries have "a certain latitude" within the global prohibition regime to reform their drug laws.

"In the case of the Argentine Supreme Court ruling, it is arrogant interference by the INCB to question the judgment of the highest judicial authority of a sovereign State. The INCB has neither the mandate nor the expertise to challenge such a decision," said Martin Jelsma, TNI Drugs and Democracy Program Coordinator.

The INCB also expressed its concern about medical marijuana in Canada:

Canada continues to be one of the few countries in the world that allows cannabis to be prescribed by doctors to patients with certain serious illnesses. […] Until 2009, cannabis could be either obtained from a Government supplier or grown in small amounts by the patient, or a person designated by the patient, with the sole limitation that only one patient could be supplied by a licensed supplier. In 2009, following court decisions stipulating that that approach unjustifiably restricted the patient's access to cannabis used for medical purposes, the Government increased the number of cultivation licenses a person could hold from one to two. The Government intends to reassess the program for controlling medical access to cannabis. According to article 23 of the 1961 Convention, a party to the Convention, if it is to allow the licit cultivation of cannabis, must fulfill specific requirements, including the establishment of a national cannabis agency to which all cannabis growers must deliver their crops. […] The Board therefore requests the Government to respect the provisions of article 23.

But as with the case of the decriminalization decision by the Argentine Supreme Court, the Canadian courts were acting within their "constitutional principles and basic concepts of its legal system."

And in the US:

While the consumption and cultivation of cannabis, except for scientific purposes, are illegal activities according to federal law in the United States, several states have enacted laws that provide for the 'medical use' of cannabis. The control measures applied in those states for the cultivation of cannabis plants and the production, distribution and use of cannabis fall short of the control requirements laid down in the 1961 Convention. The Board is deeply concerned that those insufficient control provisions have contributed substantially to the increase in illicit cultivation and abuse of cannabis in the United States. In addition, that development sends a wrong message to other countries.

The INCB also again went after Bolivia, which enshrined the coca leaf in its constitution as part of its cultural heritage in 2008 and which has called for coca to be removed from the 1961 Single Convention. The tone, however, was a bit softer than last year, when it reprimanded Bolivia over coca production, coca chewing, and other traditional uses of the Andean plant:

The Board wishes to remind the Governments of all countries concerned, in particular the Government of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, that unless any further amendments to the 1961 Convention are put into effect, the use or importation of coca leaf from which cocaine has not been extracted, for purposes other than those allowed under the 1961 Convention, constitutes a breach of obligations under the Convention.

"The INCB again shows itself to be out of touch with reality by demanding that Bolivia stamp out coca use, also wrongfully prohibited in the Conventions," said TNI's Pien Metaal. "The controversies around Article 3 of the 1988 Convention and the erroneous treatment of the coca leaf in the 1961 Convention are two examples of why the drug control treaty system, including the role played by the INCB, needs to be revised."

Along with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the INCB is the bureaucratic backbone of the global prohibition regime. That it continues to work to uphold the prohibitionist principles of the regime is no surprise. That it is now subject to increasing criticism and attack in the face of the myriad failures of global drug prohibition is no surprise either.

Feature: El Paso City Council Passes Resolution Criticizing Drug War, But Only After Killing Marijuana Regulation Language

A year ago, dismayed at the violence rocking its sister city of Ciudad Juárez just across the Rio Grande River, the city council in the remote Texas border city of El Paso unanimously passed a resolution calling for serious consideration of ending drug prohibition, only to see it vetoed by Mayor John Cook. Then, after heavy-handed warnings from US Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX) and the city's delegation in the state legislature that such a resolution could threaten the city's funding, the city council backed down, failing to override Cook's veto.

With those votes and the controversy surrounding them, El Paso was thrust into -- and helped ignite -- a national debate on the country's drug policies. This week, the El Paso city council returned to the issue when, led by Councilmembers Beto O'Rourke and Steve Ortega, it considered a resolution calling for a "comprehensive examination of our country's failed War on Drugs," and advocating for "the repeal of ineffective marijuana laws" and their replacement with taxed, regulated, and controlled marijuana production, sales, and consumption for adults.

The resolution also called for an immediate meeting between Mexican President Felipe Calderon and US President Obama to address prohibition-related violence in Mexico, rejected the "militaristic" approach of Plan Merida, the three-year, $1.4 billion anti-drug assistance scheme for Mexico and Central America, called for that aid to be tied to strict human rights reporting requirements, and called for any additional aid to Mexico to be aimed at improving the country's "social, educational, and economic development."

"It's up to us to act and make some tough decisions and do some uncomfortable things," said O'Rourke, as he urged his colleagues to support the resolution.

"The fuel to the fire in Juárez is the profits of a black market," said Councilwoman Susie Byrd, explaining why she supported the marijuana regulation language.

But not all the council members were in accord. "We didn't talk about demand reduction. We didn't talk about prevention, and we didn't talk about treatment," said Councilman Carl Robinson, explaining his vote against the resolution.

The public also joined in the debate, with University of Texas-El Paso political science professor Tony Payan refreshing the council's member about the city's historic role in marijuana prohibition. "It was the first city council a hundred years ago that passed the first resolution forbidding the use of marijuana," he said. "One hundred years later we've come full circle, and now we're debating 100 years of a failed policy."

"We've got this war that's cost us billions of dollars in Iraq and there's a huge problem next, right next door!" said El Paso resident Eric Contreras.

"It is time to change the laws because drug prohibition is a failed policy," said El Paso resident Richard Newton, a retired veteran US Customs agent and member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). "The bottom line is that the reason you have cartels in Juárez fighting each other is to sell drugs in the United States. They sell drugs because they can make money. Get rid of the money and you get rid of the cartels."

Not everyone was on board, however. "Quit calling it our sister city. No one wants a disease-riddled prostitute as a sister," said El Paso resident Armando Cardoza. [Ed: That was rude.]

After debating the resolution on Monday, the council voted, arriving at a 4-4 tie vote. Once again, Mayor Cook swooped in to block reform, even in the form of a resolution. His vote against the resolution broke the tie.

But that wasn't the end of it. The council then amended the resolution by dropping the paragraph referring to marijuana regulation and unceremoniously passed the amended resolution on a 6-2 vote. O'Rourke was one of the no votes, saying that regulating marijuana was an integral part of his approach.

Still, the El Paso city council has gone on record as condemning current US drug policies and demanding a shift to a smarter, more humane approach to drug sales and use. And it has clearly called on the US government to take a smarter, more humane approach to the drug violence just across the river in Juárez.

When asked what is was about El Paso that made it amenable to passage of such a resolution critical of the drug war, LEAP's Newton mentioned the city's unique location. Tucked into the triangular tip of far West Texas, El Paso not only borders bloody Ciudad Juárez, with its daily prohibition-related killings, but it also borders New Mexico, a state that has been a leader in drug policy reforms, ranging from medical marijuana to passing the country's first Good Samaritan drug overdose law to working with the Drug Policy Alliance on methamphetamine prevention and education programs.

"This is a strange city for Texas," Newton continued. "The state is very Republican, but there aren't any Republicans in El Paso. Bush didn't carry El Paso County. Silvestre Reyes has not had a Republican run against for several elections now. I wouldn't say El Paso is especially liberal or progressive, but it is Democratic."

Last year, Mayor Cook and Congressman Reyes pulled the plug on the resolution, but there is no sign yet that we will see a repeat this year. That would be progress, even if O'Rourke lost his marijuana regulation language. And he and the rest of the council still have three years to make up for city council's 1913 vote to criminalize marijuana. The city was a leader then; it can be a leader once again, only this time in the right direction.

Marijuana: It's Pot Week in Providence as Rhode Island Solons Introduce Decrim Bill, Ponder Prohibition

It's been a big week for marijuana at the statehouse in Providence, with lawmakers Tuesday introducing a decriminalization bill and hearing testimony on the effects of marijuana prohibition Wednesday. Also this week, the state Department of Health held the final round of public comment on proposed rules for the state's new medical marijuana compassion center program.

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Rhode Island Senate Chamber
Introduced by Rep. John Edwards (D-Tiverton), HB 7317 would decriminalize the possession of up to one ounce of weed. People caught with less than an ounce would be subject to a $150 fine, but no criminal record. Fines would go to the state general fund if the person is cited by state police, but to localities if cited by local police. Simple possession is currently a misdemeanor with up to a year in jail and a $500 fine.

"This legislation is less about the ongoing debate over the decriminalization of marijuana and more about providing some relief to the taxpayers of this state," Edwards said. "The average cost to keep someone [in prison] is more than $44,000 per year. Rhode Island taxpayers should not be paying to keep someone locked up due to a simple possession charge."

Edwards said his bill would help in three different ways. "First, we wouldn't tie up our criminal courts with these minor offenses. Second, the entity that catches the individual keeps the fine and finally, we save some money by not having to house and feed these individuals at taxpayer expense," he explained.

On Wednesday evening, the state Senate Commission on Marijuana Prohibition held what should be its final hearing -- it was supposed to report back to the General Assembly by last week. Created by a legislative resolution last summer, the commission is charged with undertaking a thorough evaluation of the impact of marijuana prohibition.

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition head Jack Cole, a former undercover narc in New Jersey, told the committee in written testimony that arresting marijuana users is a luxury Rhode Island can't afford. "A tremendous amount of the staff time and funding for law enforcement is wasted arresting nonviolent drug users who hurt no one,'' said Cole. "Let police get back to protecting all of us from violent criminals and child molesters. We will all be much better off.''

Also this week, the state Department of Health held what is likely to be its final hearing on draft regulations for licensing up to three nonprofit "compassion centers," or dispensaries. For the next two weeks, anyone can submit written comments to the department, then it will decide how to proceed. It can file the regulations as is, make minor changes, or make major changes. If the latter, another public hearing must be held.

Once the regulations are filed, they will take effect in 20 days. Then, Rhode Island's more than 1,200 medical marijuana patients will have one more option in addition to growing it themselves or having a caretaker do it for them.

Prohibition: Ban on Spice, BZP Passes Kansas Senate

The Kansas Senate has approved a bill that would ban three synthetic drugs that have effects similar to marijuana and ecstasy. In a 36-1 vote on January 21, the Senate voted to ban a pair of synthetic compounds called JW-018 and JW-073, which are part of a legal smoking blend marketed under names such as Spice or K2, and to ban BZP (benzylpiperazine), a stimulant which is already a Schedule I controlled substance under US federal law.

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''spice'' packet (courtesy wikimedia.org)
A similar measure is working its way through the Kansas House.

The move to criminalize the synthetic drugs came at the behest of Kansas law enforcement, which worried that teenagers were using the substances. But while Spice is sold in Kansas shops, there is little evidence of widespread teen use and even less evidence of any harmful results from it.

Only state Sen. David Haley (D-Kansas City) voted against the bill. He accused his colleagues of "political posturing" and responding to "hysteria for what is by and large a benign substance." Banning relatively safe substances like Spice could be a fool's errand, he said: "As our youth and others continue to search for legal ways to expand their flights of fancy I fear they will encounter more dangerous ways than what we ban here."

But legislators were unswayed by Haley's logic, preferring instead that of state Sen. Jim Barnett (R-Emporia). "It's an imitation drug, but it's still a drug," he said, explaining his vote.

While the synthetic compounds in Spice are arguably legal under US federal law, they have been banned in Austria, Belarus, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, and Sweden. In addition to being banned under US federal law, BZP has been criminalized in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the United Kingdom.

Europe: Russia Bans Salvia, Hawaiian Woodrose, Blue Lotus Flowers, Synthetic Cannabinoids

The Russian government announced Thursday that it has added a number of substances to its controlled substance list and banned their sale. The substances include salvia divinorum, Hawaiian wood rose, Blue Lotus flowers, and 23 different synthetic cannabinoids. Many of the substances are used in "smoking mixes" by users seeking psychoactive effects.

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salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid.org)
The ban had its genesis in a proposal by the Ministry of Public Health and Social Development last month. The ministry proposed tightening controls over the sale and consumption of smoking mixes and submitted its proposal to the government for coordination.

Salvia is already banned in a number of countries, including Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Italy, Japan, Spain, and Sweden. It is not illegal under US federal law, but its sales have been banned or restricted in about a dozen states. Synthetic cannabindoids, marketed under names like "K2" and "Spice" have been banned in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. A move is afoot in the Kansas legislature to ban them there.

The Year on Drugs 2009: The Top Ten US Domestic Drug Policy Stories

As 2009 prepares to become history, we look back at the past year's domestic drug policy developments. With the arrival of a highly popular (at least at first) new president, Barack Obama, and Democratic Party control of the levers of power in Congress, the drug reform gridlock that characterized the Bush years is giving way to real change in Washington, albeit not nearly quickly enough. A number of this year's Top 10 domestic drug stories have to do with the new atmospherics in Washington, where they have led, and where they might lead.

But not all of them. Drug reform isn't made just in Washington. Under our federal system, the 50 states and the District of Columbia have at least some ability to set their own courses on drug policy reforms. In some areas, actions in the state legislatures have reflected trends -- for better or worse -- broad enough to earn Top 10 status.

And Washington and the various statehouses notwithstanding, movement on drug reform is not limited to the political class. Legions of activists now in at least their second decade of serious reform work, a mass media that seems to have awakened from its dogmatic slumber about marijuana, a crumbling economy, and a bloody drug war within earshot of the southwestern border have all impacted the national conversation about drug reform and are all pushing politicians from city councilmen to state legislators to US senators to rethink drug prohibition.

For drug reformers, these are interesting times, indeed. Herewith, the Top 10 domestic drug policy stories of 2009:

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marijuana plants (photo from US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia)
Marijuana Goes Mainstream

Wow. This year has seen the US enter the beginnings of a sea change on policies and attitudes toward the recreational use of marijuana. The first hint that something had changed was the Michael Phelps bong photo non-scandal. When the multiple Olympic gold medal winner got outed for partying like a college student, only one corporate sponsor, fuddy-duddy Kellogg, dumped him, and was hit by a consumer boycott -- and arguably by falling stock prices -- in return. Otherwise, except for a deranged local sheriff who tried fruitlessly to concoct a criminal case against somebody -- anybody! -- over the bong photo, America's collective response basically amounted to "So what?"

Post-Phelps it was as if the flood gates had opened. Where once Drug War Chronicle and a handful of other publications pretty much had the field to ourselves, early this year, the mass media began paying attention. Countless commentaries, editorials and op-eds have graced the pages of newspaper and those short-attention-span segments on the cable news networks, an increasing number of them calling for legalization. The conversation about freeing the weed has gone mainstream.

The sea change is also reflected in poll numbers that, for the first time, this year showed national majorities in favor of legalization. In February, a Zogby poll showed 44% support nationwide -- and 58% in California. By late spring, the figures were generally creeping ever higher. An April Rasmussen poll had support for "taxation and regulation" at 41%, while an ABC News/Washington Post poll found 46% supported "legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use." Also in April, for the first time, a national poll showed majority support for legalization when Zogby showed 52% saying marijuana should be "legal, taxed, and regulated." In July, a CBS News poll had support for legalization at 41%.

In October, a Gallup poll had support for legalization at 44%, the highest ever in a Gallup survey. And a few weeks ago an Angus-Reid poll reported 53% nationwide supported legalization. Legalizing pot may not have clear majority support just yet, but it is on the cusp.

Marijuana law reform was also a topic at statehouses around the country this year, although successes were few and far between. At least six states saw decriminalization bills, but only one passed -- in Maine, which had already decriminalized possession of up to 1.25 ounces. This year's legislation doubled that amount. And then there were legalization bills. Two were introduced in the 2009 session, in California and Massachusetts, and two more have been pre-filed for next year, in New Hampshire and Washington. Both the California and Massachusetts bills got hearings this year, and the California bill is set for another hearing and a first committee vote in the Assembly in two weeks. In Rhode Island, meanwhile, the legislature voted this year to create a commission to study marijuana law reform; it will report at the end of January.

And then, finally, there is the excitement and discussion being generated by at least three separate marijuana legalization initiative campaigns underway in California. Oaksterdam medical marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee's Tax Cannabis 2010 initiative has already announced it has sufficient signatures to make the ballot. Time will tell if the others make it, but at this point it is almost certain that voters in California will have a chance to say "legalize it" in November.

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medical marijuana dispensary, Ventura Blvd., LA (courtesy wikimedia.org)
Medical Marijuana: The Feds Butt Out and the Floodgates Begin to Swing Open

During his election campaign, President Obama promised to quit siccing the DEA on medical marijuana patients and providers. In February, new Attorney General Eric Holder announced there would be no more federal raids if providers were in compliance with state law, and pretty much held to that promise since then. In October, the Justice Department made it official policy when it issued a policy memo reiterating the administration's stance.

The new "hands off" policy from Washington has not been universally adhered to, nor has it addressed the issue of people currently serving sentences or facing prosecution under Bush administration anti-medical marijuana initiatives, but it has removed a huge looming threat to growers and dispensary operators and it has disarmed a favored (if intensely hypocritical) argument of medical marijuana foes that such laws should not be passed out of fear of what the feds would do.

Meanwhile, California rolls right along as medical marijuana's Wild West. Like countless other localities in the Golden State, the city of Los Angeles is grappling with what to do with its nearly one thousand dispensaries. The issue is being fought city by city and county by county, in the state courts and in the federal courts. And while the politicians argue, dispensary operators are creating political facts on the ground as their tax revenues go into hungry state and local coffers.

This year also marked the emergence of a medical marijuana industry infrastructure -- growers, grow shops, dispensaries, educational facilities, pot docs -- beyond California's borders, most notably in Colorado, where the dispensary scene exploded in the wake of the removal of the federal threat, and in Michigan, where last year's passage of a medical marijuana law has seen the creation of the Midwest's first medical marijuana industry.

While medical marijuana is legal in 13 states (and now, the District of Columbia), it remains difficult to win victories in state legislatures. There were medical marijuana bills in at least 18 states, but only two -- Minnesota and New Hampshire -- were approved by legislatures, and they were vetoed by prohibitionist governors. Bills are, however, still alive in six states -- Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin -- with New Jersey and Wisconsin apparently best positioned to become the next medical marijuana state. In Rhode Island, which already approved a medical marijuana law in 2007, the legislature this year amended it to include a dispensary system.

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salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid.org)
The Reflexive Prohibitionist Impulse Remains Alive -- Just Ask Sally D

Despite evident progress on some drug reform fronts, a substantial number of Americans continue to hold to prohibitionist values, including a number of state legislators. The legislative response to the popularity of the fast-acting, short-lived hallucinogen salvia divinorum is the best indicator of that.

The DEA has been reviewing salvia for five years, and has yet to determine that it needs to become a controlled substance, but that hasn't stopped some legislators from trying to ban it. Appalled by YouTube videos that show young people getting very high, legislators in 13 states have banned or limited sales of the herb.

This year, four more states joined the list. The good news is that legislators in seven other states where salvia ban bills were introduced had better things to do with their time than worry about passing them.

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drug testing lab
"We Must Drug Test Welfare and Unemployment Recipients!"

In another indication that the drug warrior impulse is still alive and well -- as are its class war elements -- legislators in various states this year continued to introduce bills that would mandate suspicionless drug testing of people seeking unemployment, public assistance, or other public benefits. Never mind that Michigan, the only state to pass such a law, saw its efforts thrown out as an unconstitutional search by a federal appeals court several years back.

Such efforts exposed not only public resentment of benefits recipients, but also a certain level of ignorance about the way our society works. A common refrain from supporters was along the lines of "I have to get drug tested for my job, so why shouldn't they have to get drug tested?" Such questioners fail to understand that our system protects us from our government, but not from private employers.

But if welfare drug testing excited some popular support, it also excited opposition, not only on constitutional grounds, but on grounds of cost and elemental fairness. In the four states where drug testing bills were introduced -- Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri and West Virginia -- none of them went anywhere. But even in an era when drug reform is in the air, such bills are a clear sign that there will be many rear-guard battles to fight.

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unjust, but also unaffordable
Rockefeller Drug Law and Other State Sentencing Reforms

Reeling under the impact of economic downtowns and budget crises, more and more states this year took a second look at drug-related sentencing policies. Most notable of the reforms enacted at the state level this year were reforms in New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws, which went into effect in October. Under this newest round of Rockefeller drug law reforms, some 1,500 low-level drug offenders will be able to seek sentence reductions, while judges gain some sentencing power from prosecutors, and treatment resources are being beefed up. But still, more than 12,000 will remain in Empire State prisons on Rockefeller drug charges.

New York wasn't the only state to enact sentencing reforms this year. This month, New Jersey legislators passed a bill giving judges the discretion to waive mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. Last month, Rhode Island mandatory minimum reforms went into effect. Earlier this year, Louisiana finally acted to redress the cruel plight of the "heroin lifers," people who had been sentenced to life without parole for heroin possession under an old state law. A new state law cut heroin sentences, but did not address the lifers. As a result, some lifers remained in prison with no hope of parole while more recent heroin offenders came, did their time, and went. Now, under this year's law, the lifers are eligible for parole.

Sentencing reforms are also in the works in a number of other states, from Alabama to California and from Colorado to Michigan. In some cases, reform legislation is in progress; in others, legislators are waiting for commissions to report their findings. In nearly every case, it is bottom-line budget concerns rather than bleeding heart compassion for the incarcerated that is driving the reforms.

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PolitickerMD cartoon about the Berwyn Heights raid
Swatting SWAT

It was only one bill in one state, and all it required was reporting by SWAT teams of their activities, but the Maryland SWAT bill passed this year marked the first time a state legislature has moved to rein in aggressive paramilitary-style policing. More precisely, the bill requires all law enforcement agencies that operate SWAT teams to submit monthly reports on their activities, including when and where they are used, and whether the operations result in arrests, seizures or injuries.

In took an ugly incident involving the mayor of a Washington, DC, suburb to make it happen. Marijuana traffickers sent a load of pot to the mayor's address to avoid having police show up on their doorstep in the event something went wrong, but something did go wrong, and police tracked the package. When the mayor innocently carried the package inside on returning home, the SWAT team swooped, manhandling the mayor and his mother-in-law and killing the family's pet dogs. The cops were unapologetic, the mayor was apoplectic, and now Maryland has a SWAT law. A new bill just filed in Maryland would take it further, requiring police to secure a judge's warrant before deploying a SWAT team.

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shrine to San Malverde, Mexico's ''narco-saint,'' Culiacan, Sinaloa
America Finally Notices the Drug War Across the River

While Congress and the Bush administration got serious about Mexico's bloody drug wars in 2008, passing a three-year, $1.4 billion anti-drug aid package for Mexico and Central America, it was not until this year that the prohibition-related violence in Mexico really made the radar north of the border.

It only took about 11,000 deaths (now up to over 16,000) among Mexican drug traffickers, police, soldiers, and innocent bystanders to get the US to pay attention to the havoc being wreaked on the other side of the Rio Grande. But by the spring, Washington was paying attention, and for the first time, one could hear mea culpas coming from the American side. Mexico's drug violence is driven by demand in the US, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano echoed.

But just because Washington admitted some fault didn't mean it was prepared to try anything different. And while the Mexican drug wars brought talk of legalization -- especially of marijuana -- what they brought in terms of policy was the Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, which is basically mo' better drug war.

Mexico's drug wars show no signs of abating, and the pace of killing has accelerated each year since President Felipe Calderon sent in the army three years ago this month. The success -- or failure -- of his drug war policies may determine Calderon's political future, but it has for the first time concentrated the minds of US policymakers on the consequences of prohibition south of the border.

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syringes -- better at the exchange than on the street
Congress Ends Ban on Needle Exchange Funding, Butts Out of DC Affairs

After a decade-long struggle, the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs ended this month with President Obama's signature on an omnibus appropriations bill that included ending the federal ban, as well as a similar ban that applied to the District of Columbia. The bill also removed a ban on the District implementing a medical marijuana law passed by voters in 1998.

Removing the funding ban has been a major goal of harm reduction and public health coalitions, but they had gotten nowhere in the Republican-controlled Congresses of the past decade. What a difference a change of parties makes.

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Jim Webb at 2007 incarceration hearing (photo from sentencingproject.org)
Questioning the Drug War: Two Congressional Bills

The US Congress has been a solid redoubt of prohibitionist sentiment for decades, but this year saw the beginning of cracks in the wall. Two legislators, Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) and Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) introduced and have had hearings on bills that could potentially challenge drug war orthodoxy.

Engel's bill, the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act, which has already passed the House, would set up a commission to examine US eradication, interdiction, and other policies in the Western Hemisphere. While Engel is no anti-prohibitionist, any honest commission assessing US drug policy in the Americas is likely to come up with findings that subvert drug war orthodoxy.

Meanwhile, Sen. Webb's National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 comes at the issue from a much more critical perspective. It calls for a top-to-bottom review of a broad range of criminal justice issues, ranging from sentencing to drug laws to gangs and beyond, with an emphasis and costs and efficacy. Webb's bill remains in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but has 35 cosponsors. Webb has already held hearings on the costs of mass incarceration and the economic costs of drug policy, and even more than Engel's bill, the Webb bill has the potential to get at the roots of our flawed national drug policy.

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Sen. Durbin at May hearing on crack sentencing
The Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

The 100:1 disparity in the quantities of crack needed to earn a mandatory minimum federal prison sentence versus the quantities of powder cocaine needed to earn the same sentence has been egregiously racist in its application, with roughly 90% of all federal crack offenders being non-white, and pressure has been mounting for years to undo it. It hasn't happened yet, but 2009 finally saw some serious progress on the issue.

The move to reform the sentencing disparity got a boost in June, when Attorney General Holder said it had to go. The next month, a House Judiciary Committee subcommittee passed the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009. The bill is now before the House Judiciary and Energy and Commerce Committees.

On the Senate side, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced a companion bill in October, the Fairness in Sentencing Act. It hasn't moved yet, but thanks to a decade-long effort by a broad range of advocates, all the pieces are now in place for something to happen in this Congress. By the time we get around to the Top 10 of 2010, the end of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity better be one of the big stories.

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