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Australia: Western Australia Premier Vows to Roll Back Marijuana Reforms, Reenergize Drug War

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Demagogue Rising: Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett
Leading a Liberal-National Party coalition government, Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett is introducing legislation this week to roll back reforms to the state's marijuana laws. Passed by an earlier Labor government in 2003, the changes decriminalized the possession of up to 30 grams of pot and allowed for the growing of up to two plants without fear of arrest and prosecution.

In a media statement Sunday and another one Monday, the "tough on crime" premier gave clear notice he was cracking down on pot and other drug offenders, and was willing to extend police powers to do so. He said he would introduce legislation to repeal the state's Cannabis Control Act of 2003 and to amend the 1981 Misuse of Drugs and Youthful Offender Act.

"The Liberal-National Government is committed to tackling both the demand and supply sides of the illicit drug problem through strong law enforcement policies, education and rehabilitation," Barnett said. "Cannabis is not a harmless or soft drug. Research continues to show that cannabis can lead to a host of health and mental health problems including schizophrenia, and can be a gateway to harder drugs," he maintained, treating highly controversial and discredited claims as if they were fact.

According to Premier Barnett, his legislation will:

  • Prosecute those in possession of more than 10g of cannabis.
  • See subsequent offenses for possession being prosecuted as criminal offences.
  • Prosecute people for cultivating even one or two cannabis plants.
  • Extend the ban on the sale of pot-smoking implements to minors to include everyone.
  • Increase the fine for selling smoking implements to $5,000 for sale to adults and $10,000 for sale to minors. Corporate entities could be fined up to five times those amounts.

Barnett also wants to "reform" the Cannabis Infringement Notice Scheme (CIN), or ticketing and fines for decriminalized amounts, by replacing it with a Cannabis Intervention Requirement Scheme (CIRS) that would require anyone ticketed to attend "drug education" classes. It would also mandate that anyone who failed to pay his fine would be prosecuted, something that has not been the case under the current law.

Barnett's scheme would also allow for the criminal prosecution for marijuana possession of juveniles after two decrim tickets and adults after one. The current law has no such measures.

There's more to come, Barnett promised. "The next steps will be to amend legislation to enable courts to impose a harsher sentence on dealers who sell or supply illicit drugs to children, irrespective of the location of the sale or supply," he said. "Further amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1981 will provide offenses for exposing children to harm or to the danger of serious harm from the manufacture of illegal drugs, such as amphetamines, or the unlawful cultivation of illegal hydroponically-grown plants. The government will also move to ban the sale of drug paraphernalia, including cocaine kits."

But, he said Monday, he's going to start by soon introducing legislation to allow police to stop and search anyone without probable cause. The police commissioner would designate certain "stop and search" zones with advance public notice, especially in entertainment areas.

"Police will have the right to go up to anyone they wish to and introduce a stop and search power," Barnett said. "It will not be an invasive search; it will be comparable to the sort of search and screening that takes place for any citizen getting on an aeroplane."

Australia: West Australia Premier Vows to Roll Back Marijuana Reforms, Reenergize Drug War

Leading a Liberal-National Party coalition government, West Australia Premier Colin Barnett is introducing legislation this week to roll back reforms to the state's marijuana laws. Passed by an earlier Labor government in 2003, the changes decriminalized the possession of up to 30 grams of pot and allowed for the growing of up to two plants without fear of arrest and prosecution. In a media statement Sunday and another one Monday, the "tough on crime" premier gave clear notice he was cracking down on pot and other drug offenders, and was willing to extend police powers to do so. He said he would introduce legislation to repeal the state's Cannabis Control Act of 2003 and to amend the 1981 Misuse of Drugs and Youthful Offender Act. "The Liberal-National Government is committed to tackling both the demand and supply sides of the illicit drug problem through strong law enforcement policies, education and rehabilitation," Barnett said. "Cannabis is not a harmless or soft drug. Research continues to show that cannabis can lead to a host of health and mental health problems including schizophrenia, and can be a gateway to harder drugs," he maintained, treating highly controversial and discredited claims as if they were fact. According to Premier Barnett, his legislation will: • Prosecute those in possession of more than 10g of cannabis • See subsequent offences for possession being prosecuted as criminal offences. • Prosecute people for cultivating even one or two cannabis plants. • Extend the ban the sale of pot-smoking implements to minors to include everyone. • Increase the fine for selling smoking implements to $5,000 for sale to adults and $10,000 for sale to minors. Corporate entities could be fined up to five times those amounts. Barnett also wants to "reform" the Cannabis Infringement Notice Scheme (CIN), or ticketing and fines for decriminalized amounts by replacing it with a Cannabis Intervention Requirement Scheme (CIRS) that would require anyone ticketed to attend "drug education" classes. It would also mandate that anyone who failed to pay his fine would be prosecuted, something that has not been the case under the current law. Barnett's scheme would also allow for the criminal prosecution for marijuana possession of juveniles after two decrim tickets and adults after one. The current law has no such measures. There's more to come, Barnett promised. "The next steps will be to amend legislation to enable courts to impose a harsher sentence on dealers who sell or supply illicit drugs to children, irrespective of the location of the sale or supply," he said. "Further amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1981 will provide offences for exposing children to harm or to the danger of serious harm from the manufacture of illegal drugs, such as amphetamines, or the unlawful cultivation of illegal hydroponically-grown plants. The Government will also move to ban the sale of drug paraphernalia, including cocaine kits." But, he said Monday, he's going to start by soon introducing legislation to allow police to stop and search anyone without probable cause. The police commissioner would designate certain "stop and search" zones with advance public notice, especially in entertainment areas. "Police will have the right to go up to anyone they wish to and introduce a stop and search power," Barnett said. "It will not be an invasive search; it will be comparable to the sort of search and screening that takes place for any citizen getting on an aeroplane."
Localização: 
Perth, WA
Australia

Marijuana: Boston Freedom Rally Draws 30,000 -- No Arrests, Some Tickets, in Wake of State Decrim Vote

The 20th annual Boston Freedom Rally brought an estimated 30,000 people to Boston Common on Saturday, September 19, to support the reform of marijuana laws. That would make the Freedom Rally the second largest marijuana reform event in the country, behind only the Seattle Hempfest.

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2009 Boston Freedom Rally (Scott Gacek on bostonfreedomrally.com)
All afternoon, tens of thousands of people sat in the sun, listening to speakers extolling the virtues of cannabis and calling for its legalization and bands rocking out for the cause. At 4:20pm, a massive cloud of marijuana smoke rose from the Commons as the crowd celebrated the stoner holiday (or time of day).

Sponsored by MassCann, the Bay State affiliate of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the Freedom Rally had in some past years been marred by arrests for pot-smoking. In a previous article, Drug War Chronicle predicted that the rally would see "numerous arrests -- if police behavior in the past is any indicator." That was an overstatement -- our apologies to MASSCANN for it. 2007 did see 53 arrests at the Freedom Rally, according to Boston Police -- one of them of NORML founder Keith Stroup. But even that number, while significant, was a fraction of a percent of the attendees. Last year, the number of possession busts was down to just six.

And this year there were none. Massachusetts residents voted to decriminalize marijuana possession last November, and so all the police could do this year was issue tickets with a maximum fine of $100, which they did to 136 people. Three others were arrested for marijuana distribution, and another three on unspecified charges.

Still, participants and organizers of the festival alike lauded the relative freedom of living in a decrim state, while decrying the presence of undercover officers who, apparently randomly, would select members of the crowd to be searched and hassled. On its web site, Freedom Rally organizers have asked that people who were ticketed or searched by police contact them.

Stay tuned for Chronicle coverage of the Massachusetts decriminalization law and of the movement in Massachusetts.

Feature: NORML Annual Conference Meets in Atmosphere of Hope, Determination, and Exhilaration

Riding a wave of enthusiasm about increasing prospects for marijuana law reform, hundreds of people poured into the Grand Hyatt Hotel in downtown San Francisco last Thursday for the 38th annual national conference of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). By the time it ended with a Saturday night NORML benefit, the conference had left most attendees even more energized than when they arrived.

Gathering under the slogan "Yes, We Cannabis" and sensing a fresh breeze blowing since the inauguration of President Barack Obama, conference organizers, speakers, and attendees spent three days in sessions devoted to medical marijuana issues, the prospects for legalization in California (and beyond), the change in public attitudes around marijuana, what parents should tell kids about pot, and much, much more.

The conference was California-centric, but understandably so. Not only was a California city the host for the conference, the Golden State's constantly mutating medical marijuana industry is creating an omnipresent and accessible distribution system, and California is now the home of four competing marijuana legalization initiative campaigns and a similar effort in the state legislature.

In between (and sometimes during) sessions, the pungent odor of pot smoke hung in the air over the Hyatt's outdoor patio as patients medicated and non-patients just plain got high. Hippie attire abounded, but in contrast to the stoner stereotypes, there were plenty of people in suits and ties toking away, too.

At least three newsworthy items came out of the conference:

  • At a Saturday press conference, Oaksterdam University head Richard Lee, the leading proponent of the legalization initiative most likely to actually make the November 2010 ballot -- because it has Lee's financial backing -- announced the formal beginning of signature gathering for the Regulate, Control, and Tax Cannabis Act, which would allow California cities and counties the local option to legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and a 25-square foot garden. Accompanied by former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, "Marijuana Is Safer" author Mason Tvert, and fellow initiative proponent Jeff Jones, Lee also announced the measure's endorsement by former state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, who is running for mayor of Oakland.
  • State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-SF), author of Assembly Bill 390, which would legalize the possession, growing, and sale of marijuana for people 21 or over, announced Friday that he will hold an informational hearing on his bill. The date is tentatively set for October 28 at the capitol in Sacramento. The current political climate has created a "perfect storm" for marijuana law reform, he said. "It's certainly connected to California's economy, which is in the toilet," he added.
  • Oakland City Council member and medical marijuana supporter Rebecca Kaplan (D) announced Saturday that the city is preparing to issue permits for medical marijuana growing and processing operations and for medical marijuana edibles production. The city already has issued permits to four dispensaries, and voters there this summer approved a dispensary-led initiative to add a special medical marijuana tax on them. "We gave permits for a federal felony for the dispensaries, and they didn't bust them -- even under Bush," she said. "We protected them." And now, Oakland is set to expand those protections to other sectors of the industry.

"There is no doubt that today, Sept. 25, 2009, is the moment of genuine zeitgeist to decriminalizing marijuana in America," said NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre as the conference opened. "This conference represents that we are at that tipping point."

But where the movement goes from here was open to heated and healthy debate. Thursday's sessions, which were devoted primarily to the intricacies of medical marijuana dispensing in California, saw detailed discussion of the minutiae of defining collectives and co-ops and operating within state law and the state attorney general's guidelines, but they also saw calls from some leading voices warning about the medicalization of marijuana.

Dr. Frank Lucido, a leading medical marijuana advocate, while lauding the work of the medical marijuana movement, said the weed should really be treated like an over-the-counter herbal supplement. "This should be out of the hands of doctors and in the hands of herbalists," he argued.

Similarly, Steven DeAngelo of the Harborside Health Center, an Oakland dispensary, pointed out that California's medical marijuana distribution system is creating a situation where "cannabis consumption is part of the mainstream." In a speech delivered at the conference, he argued that effective medical marijuana laws are paving the way for a day where medical recommendations are not required to obtain cannabis legally. "Most over-the-counter drugs are far more harmful than marijuana, but there are no restrictions on them," he said. "Let's not waste medical resources on something that doesn't require them."

But the most heated debates were around what is the best path toward outright legalization in California. With several initiatives and an assembly bill all in play, opinion was deeply divided on whether to wait for the legislative process to work its way, to support the Oaksterdam initiative -- which was almost universally considered the most conservative of the initiatives, but which also has the best chance of making the ballot -- or to support one of the competing initiatives.

Joe Rogosin, one of three Northern California defense attorneys who authored the California Cannabis Initiative, admitted that his initiative lacked the deep pockets of the Oaksterdam initiative, but argued that it was still superior to the Oakland effort. It repeals all state laws forbidding people 21 and over from possessing, growing, or selling marijuana.

"We don't want people to go to jail for cannabis," Rogosin said. "Unlike Richard's, our initiative actually legalizes cannabis."

While contending camps were fighting over who had the best initiative, other movement members were warning that none of them were likely to pass. Marijuana Policy Project executive director Rob Kampia said that his group would not be devoting substantial resources to the initiatives and would not formally endorse them, but would render what low-budget aid it could if one of them actually makes the ballot.

California NORML head Dale Gieringer was blunt in his assessment of the measures' chances. "I don't expect any of them to pass," he said flatly.

As always, California pot politics is in turmoil, and while circular firing squads are not quite forming, the movement is in danger of shooting itself in the foot if it fails to get behind an initiative that makes the ballot -- or if it does get behind an initiative and that initiative loses badly at the ballot box.

There was, of course, much more going on at the NORML conference. Check out the NORML web site for updates with conference content. And keep an eye on California, because marijuana reform is one hot topic there now.

Law Enforcement: Drug Court Program Needs Serious Reforms, Defense Attorneys Say

Drug courts have spread all across the country since the first one was instituted in Miami 20 years ago by then local prosecutor Janet Reno, but now, the nation's largest group of criminal defense attorneys says they have become an obstacle to cost-effective drug treatment and a burden on the criminal justice system. In a report released Tuesday, America's Problem-Solving Courts: The Criminal Costs of Treatment and the Case for Reform, the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys (NACDL) argued that drug addiction should be considered a public health problem, outside the criminal justice arena.

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drug court
More than 2,100 drug courts are now in operation in the US, the group noted, but they have had no noticeable impact on drug use rates or arrests. Furthermore, the courts, which empower judges and prosecutors at the expense of defendants and their attorneys, too often limit treatment to "easy" offenders while forcing "hard cases" into the jails or prisons.

Minorities, immigrants, and poor people are often underrepresented in drug court programs, leaving them to rot behind bars at taxpayer expense. Drug courts also mean that access to drug treatment comes at the cost of a guilty plea, the group said.

"Today's drug courts have been operating for over 20 years yet have not stymied the rise in both drug abuse or exponentially increasing prison costs to taxpayers," said NACDL president Cynthia Orr. "It is time for both an extensive review of these courts and for the average American to ask themselves: Is our national drug policy working, and perhaps it is a public health concern rather than a criminal justice one?"

In the report, NACDL recommended the following reforms:

  • Treating substance abuse as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice one;
  • Opening admission criteria to all those who need, want and request treatment;
  • Enforcing greater transparency in admission practices and relying on expert assessments, not merely the judgment of prosecutors;
  • Prohibiting the requirement of guilty pleas as the price of admission;
  • Urging greater involvement of the defense bar to create programs that preserve the rights of the accused;
  • Considering the ethical obligations of defense lawyers to their client even if they choose court-directed treatment; and
  • Opening a serious national discussion on decriminalizing low-level drug use.

Latin America: Colombian Supreme Court Rules Drug Possession Not a Crime

Upholding a 1994 ruling from the country's Constitutional Court, Colombia's Supreme Court has ruled that possession of illegal drugs for personal use is not a crime. The ruling came in the case of Ancizar Jaramillo Quintero, who had been arrested, convicted, and imprisoned for the possession of 1.3 grams of cocaine. The court threw out his conviction in July and ordered his immediate release.

In its opinion in the case (available here in Spanish), the court held that drug addiction is a disease, not a vice, and should be treated accordingly. Drug use "generates in a person problems of addiction and slavery that turn one into a sick, compulsive individual deserving of therapeutic medical treatment instead of a punishment," the judges said.

The court also invoked a principal that could be likened to "no harm, no foul." "In the exercise of his personal and private rights, the accused did not harm others," so his conduct "cannot be the object of any punishment," the opinion stated.

Although the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled that possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use was not a prosecutable offense, the government of President Alvaro Uribe is trying to undo that decision with a constitutional amendment. It has already been approved by the lower house and is now before the Colombian Senate.

If the Senate approves the measure, it will mean that the Colombian government is out of step not only with its own judiciary, but increasingly, with the rest of Latin America. Mexico decriminalized drug possession last month, and a few days later, the Argentine Supreme Court issued a decision decriminalizing marijuana possession on the spot and calling into question the criminalization of possession of any drug for personal use. Brazil, Ecuador, and Uruguay are headed down similar paths.

Confused Drug Warrior Thinks Drugs Are Legal in Mexico

It's sad how often opposition to simple reforms is characterized by fundamental factual ignorance. Here's T. Michael Andrews, a former senior policy adviser at the Department of Homeland Security, freaking out about something that hasn't actually happened:

Mexico's recent decision to legalize hard drugs, including methamphetamines, cocaine, LSD and heroin, sends the wrong message to its citizen and to the international law-enforcement community.


Mexico's recent decision sends up the white flag in its commitment to stopping drugs from imploding in its country and says yes to continued trafficking into the United States. [Arizona Daily Star]

The thing is, drugs aren't legal in Mexico. They're just not. This isn't a matter of opinion. All they did was get rid of criminal penalties for possessing (not selling) very small amounts. It's usually referred to a decriminalization and even the U.N. is down with it.

It's possible, of course, that Andrews is merely trying to sensationalize the issue by conflating decriminalization with the more-controversial concept of legalization. But he straight-up insists that "Mexico will now become the vacation destination for all drug users," as though they're on the verge of opening coffeeshops for heroin.

I honestly doubt whether this guy even understands how Mexico's new drug law works, which means the Arizona Daily Star made a bad call by giving him a forum for complaining about it. You can send them a polite note by clicking here.

I'm Upset

You Can Make a Difference

 

Dear friends,

Let Congress know that you support marijuana decriminalization.


Email Congress

I’m upset.

I go to receptions and happy hours in Washington, DC and see politicians kicking back with a glass of beer or wine. Sometimes it’s right after a hearing or press conference where they've just talked about the dangers of marijuana and the need to toughen penalties. So their drug of choice is fine, but anyone who uses a different drug should be sent to jail? Let's call them out on their hypocrisy!

Now is the time to wake them up.  Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) has introduced a bill to decriminalize marijuana. That’s in addition to the other bill he introduced on medical marijuana that we emailed you about last week. Many members of Congress say they agree with Rep. Frank, but most only say so in private. If you want them to say it in public too, please urge your representative to support Rep. Frank’s decriminalization bill. And forward this alert to all your friends and family so they can email Congress too.

The latest polls show rising support for ending marijuana prohibition.  California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has called for a debate on legalizing marijuana.  So has New York Governor David Paterson. The time is right to put pressure on Congress.

No one should lose their freedom simply for what they put into their body, unless they hurt someone else. Passing this bill would be a major step toward dismantling the hypocritical and costly war on drugs.

Thanks for all you do.

Sincerely,

Bill Piper
Director, Office of National Affairs
Drug Policy Alliance Network

 

Feature: Mexico and Argentina Enact Drug Decriminalization

In the last eight days, the decriminalization of drug possession has gone into effect for 150 million Latin Americans. Last Thursday, as part of a broader bill, Mexico (pop. 110 million) decriminalized the possession of small amounts of all drugs through the legislative process. Four days later, the Argentine Supreme Court declared unconstitutional that country's law criminalizing drug possession. While the Argentine case involved marijuana possession, the ruling clears the way for the government to draft a new law decriminalizing all drug possession.

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Latin America map (usaid.gov)
The shift in policies toward drug users in the two countries is a dramatic indication of the seismic shift in drug policy already well underway in Latin America. Colombia's high court declared the law against drug possession unconstitutional in 1994. Brazil has had a version of decriminalization since 2006 -- users cannot be imprisoned, but can be forced into treatment, educational programs, or community service -- and Uruguay now allows judges to determine if someone in possession of drugs intended to use them or sell and to act accordingly. Movement toward decriminalization is also underway in Ecuador.

That reformist zeitgeist is perhaps best encapsulated in the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, led by former presidents Cesar Gaviria of Colombia, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, and Enrique Cardoso of Brazil. In its report earlier this year, Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift, the commission called for decriminalization of drug use, especially marijuana, and treating drug use as a public health -- not a law enforcement -- issue. A similar commission got underway in Brazil last week.

"Decriminalization permits a distinction between users and drug traffickers," said John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America. "This allows governments to focus their efforts in reducing the terrible harms caused by the big criminal networks and the violence related to the illicit traffic, instead of repressing users and small-scale dealers."

"What's happened in Mexico and now Argentina is very consistent with the broader trend in Europe and Latin America in terms of decriminalizing small amounts of drugs and promoting alternatives to incarceration and a public health approach for people struggling with drug addiction," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The decision in Argentina reminds me of similar rulings in Colombia more than a decade ago and in Germany before that, and, more generally, what's been going on in the Netherlands, Portugal, and Switzerland. In some cases, there is a legal or constitutional notion about personal sovereignty or autonomy, but there is also a recognition of the failures of the drug war approach vis a vis low-level offenders. There is a kind of human rights element that you see popping up in both contexts," Nadelmann said.

But the devil is in the details. Mexico's decriminalization, for example, comes as part of a broader law aimed at "narcomenudeo," or small-scale drug dealing. In addition to decriminalizing drug possession, the law for the first time allows state and local authorities to arrest and prosecute drug offenders. Previously, such powers had been the sole province of federal authorities. The new law also allows police to make undercover drug buys, a power they did not previously possess. (To read the full text of the law in Spanish, go to page 83 of the Official Daily.)

Under the Mexican law, the amounts of various drugs decriminalized are as follows:

  • opium -- 2 grams
  • cocaine -- 1/2 gram
  • heroin -- 1/10 gram
  • marijuana -- 5 grams
  • LSD -- 150 micrograms
  • methamphetamine -- 1/5 gram
  • ecstasy -- 1/5 gram

For Mexican drug reformers, the law is definitely a mixed bag. The Collective for an Integral Drug Policy, a Mexico City-based reform think-tank, felt compelled to note that while "the law represents certain advances... it could have very negative consequences for the country" because the public health and human rights perspectives are not implicated strongly enough in it.

While the collective applauded the law's distinctions between consumer, addict, and criminal; its rejection of forced drug treatment, its lip service to harm reduction, and its recognition of the traditional, ritual use of some substances, it challenged other aspects of the law. "It focuses on intensifying a military and police strategy that has proven to be a failure," the collective said, alluding to the more than 12,000 people killed in prohibition-related violence since President Felipe Calderon unleashed the military against the cartels in December 2006.

"The law will criminalize a vast group of people who make a living off the small-time dealing of drugs, but who in reality do not consciously form part of organized crime," but who are instead merely trying to make a living, the collective argued. "Imprisoning them will not diminish the supply of drugs on the street, nor will it improve public security, yet it will justify the war on drugs, since the government will be able to boast of the number of people incarcerated with this policy."

"Mexican decriminalization will have no impact whatsoever on the broader issues of drug trafficking and violence," agreed Nadelmann. "From the legal and institutional perspective, this is very, very significant, but in terms of actual impact on the ground in Mexico, that remains to be seen."

The collective also criticized the law's provision allowing police to make drug buys to nab small-time dealers and warned that the small quantities of drugs decriminalized "are not realistic" and will as a consequence lead to "a significant increase in corruption and extortion of consumers by police forces."

University of Texas-El Paso anthropologist Howard Campbell, who has studied the street drug scene across the river in Ciudad Juarez, was more cynical. "It was a good move by the government to make that distinction between users and traffickers, but I'm not sure what the effects of the law will be," he said. "All over Mexico, cops prey on junkies, and one effect of this might be to give low-down junkies a bit of a break from the cops. On the other hand, street-level drug dealing is often controlled by the cops... but if the cops are corrupt and in control, it doesn't really matter what the law says."

Campbell also doubted the new law would have much effect in reducing the prohibition-related violence. "I don't think it will have much initial impact, but still, the overarching importance of this law is symbolic. It shows that governments can revamp their policies, not just keep on working with failed ones," he said.

In Argentina, the situation is less dire and the reform is less ambiguous. On Tuesday, the Argentine Supreme Court, ratifying a series of lower court decisions in recent years, declared that the section of the country's drug law that criminalizes drug possession is unconstitutional. While the ruling referred only to marijuana possession, the portion of the law it threw out makes no distinction among drugs.

The decision came in the Arriola case, in which a group of young men from the provincial city of Rosario were each caught with small amounts of marijuana, arrested, and convicted. Under Argentina's 1989 drug law, they faced up to two years in prison.

But imprisoning people absent harm to others violated constitutional protections, a unanimous court held. "Each individual adult is responsible for making decisions freely about their desired lifestyle without state interference," their ruling said. "Private conduct is allowed unless it constitutes a real danger or causes damage to property or the rights of others. The state cannot establish morality."

"It is significant that the ruling was unanimous," said Martin Jelsma, coordinator of the Drugs and Democracy program at the Transnational Institute, which has worked closely with Latin American activists and politicians on drug reform issues. "It confirms the paradigm shift visible throughout the continent, which recognizes that drug use should be treated as a public health matter instead of, as in the past, when all involved, including users, were seen as criminals."

That paradigm shift has also occurred within the current Argentine government of President Cristina Kirchner, which favors a public health approach to drug use. The government has been waiting on this decision before moving forward with a bill that would decriminalize possession of small quantities of all drugs.

"The declaration of the unconstitutionality of the application of the drug law for marijuana possession is a great advance since it eliminates the repressive arm from a problem that should be confronted with public health policies," said Intercambios, an Argentine harm reduction organization. "Whatever retreat in the application of the criminal law in relation to drug users is positive; not only to stop criminalizing and stigmatizing users, but to permit the advance of educational, social, and health responses that are appropriate for this phenomenon."

Some Argentine harm reductionists warned that while the ruling was of transcendent importance, its real impact would be measured by its effect on the policies of the state. "In the vertical sense, it should oblige all the judges in the country to take heed of this declaration of the unconstitutionality of punishing drug possession for personal use," said Silvia Inchaurraga of the Argentine Harm Reduction Association (ARDA). "In the horizontal sense, it should force all the agencies of the state involved in drug policy to redefine their involvement to guarantee that they do not fail to comply with international human rights treaties subscribed to by the country," she added.

For the Argentine section of the global cannabis nation, it was a happy day. "Wow! This feels like honest good vibrations from the Supreme Court and the government," said Argentine marijuana activist Mike Bifari. "They really do have this new policy of generally being more tolerant and talking about human rights in the drug issue nationally and internationally, instead of that tired old war on drugs."

The Supreme Court decision will pave the way to full decriminalization, he said. "Although this was a marijuana case, the current law is about all types of drugs," said Bifari. "Now we have to wait for the government's scientific committee to come up with a draft of a new drug law, and that will be the government's bill in the congress. We think there are going to be lot of media debates and lots of discussion, and what we will try to do is to occupy all the different cultural spaces and try to advance on issues such as access and medical marijuana."

And so the wheel turns, and the United States and its hard-line drug policies are increasingly isolated in the hemisphere. As anthropologist Campbell noted, "This is happening all over Latin America. You'd think we might be able to do it here, too."

Argentine Supreme Court to Decriminalize Drug Possession Today

The Argentine Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling decriminalizing drug possession for personal use today. The ruling will come in the case of five juveniles arrested with marijuana in the city of Rosario. The case has been under consideration by the high court for almost a year. The Argentine federal government has been reviewing its drug laws with an eye toward abandoning repressive policies toward users and is waiting for this case to be decided to move forward with new legislative proposals. Supreme Court Justice Carlos Fayt told the Buenos Aires Herald that the court had reached a unanimous position on decriminalization, but declined to provide further details. A positive Supreme Court decision on decriminalization would ratify a number of lower court decisions in recent years that have found that the use and possession of drugs without causing harm to others should not be a criminal offense.

Drug War Issues

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