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Feature: Drug War a Devastating Failure, Scientists and Researchers Say in Vienna Declaration

A decade ago, scientists, researchers, and AIDS activists confronted a sitting president in South Africa who denied that AIDS was caused by HIV. They responded by declaring at the 2000 Durbin AIDS conference that the evidence was in and the matter was settled. Now, with the Vienna AIDS conference coming up later this month, they are at it again -- only this time the target is the war on drugs.
HCLU-organized demonstration outside UN anti-drug agency, former SSDP executive director Kris Krane inside cage (
Their weapon is the Vienna Declaration, an official conference statement authored by experts from the International AIDS Society, the International Center for Science in Drug Policy, and the British Columbia Center for Excellence in HIV/AIDS. The document is a harsh indictment of the global drug war that calls for evidence-based policymaking. It demands that laws which criminalize drug users and help fuel the spread of AIDS be reformed.

The authors of the Vienna Declaration want you to sign on, too. You can do so at the web site linked to above.

"The criminalization of illicit drug users is fueling the HIV epidemic and has resulted in overwhelmingly negative health and social consequences. A full policy reorientation is needed," they said in the declaration.

Arguing there is "overwhelming evidence that drug law enforcement has failed to meet its stated objectives," the declaration lays out the consequences of the drug war:

  • HIV epidemics fueled by the criminalization of people who use illicit drugs and by prohibitions on the provision of sterile needles and opioid substitution treatment.
  • HIV outbreaks among incarcerated and institutionalized drug users as a result of punitive laws and policies and a lack of HIV prevention services in these settings.
  • The undermining of public health systems when law enforcement drives drug users away from prevention and care services and into environments where the risk of infectious disease transmission (e.g., HIV, hepatitis C & B, and tuberculosis) and other harms is increased.
  • A crisis in criminal justice systems as a result of record incarceration rates in a number of nations. This has negatively affected the social functioning of entire communities. While racial disparities in incarceration rates for drug offenses are evident in countries all over the world, the impact has been particularly severe in the US, where approximately one in nine African-American males in the age group 20 to 34 is incarcerated on any given day, primarily as a result of drug law enforcement.
  • Stigma towards people who use illicit drugs, which reinforces the political popularity of criminalizing drug users and undermines HIV prevention and other health promotion efforts.
  • Severe human rights violations, including torture, forced labor, inhuman and degrading treatment, and execution of drug offenders in a number of countries.
  • A massive illicit market worth an estimated annual value of US $320 billion. These profits remain entirely outside the control of government. They fuel crime, violence and corruption in countless urban communities and have destabilized entire countries, such as Colombia, Mexico and Afghanistan.
  • Billions of tax dollars wasted on a "War on Drugs" approach to drug control that does not achieve its stated objectives and, instead, directly or indirectly contributes to the above harms.

"Many of us in AIDS research and care confront the devastating impacts of misguided drug policies every day," said Julio Montaner, president of the International AIDS Society and director of the BC Center for Excellence in HIV/AIDS. "As scientists, we are committed to raising our collective voice to promote evidence-based approaches to illicit drug policy that start by recognizing that addiction is a medical condition, not a crime," added Montaner, who will serve as chairman of the Vienna conference.

"There is no positive spin you can put on the war on drugs," said Dr. Evan Wood, founder of the International Center for Science in Drug Policy. "You have a $320 billion illegal market, the enrichment of organized crime, violence, the spread of infectious disease. This declaration coming from the scientific community is long overdue. The community has not been meeting its ethical obligations in terms of speaking up about the harms of the war on drugs."

Stating that governments and international organizations have "ethical and legal obligations to respond to this crisis," the declaration calls on governments and international organizations, including the UN to:

  • Undertake a transparent review of the effectiveness of current drug policies.
  • Implement and evaluate a science-based public health approach to address the individual and community harms stemming from illicit drug use.
  • Decriminalize drug users, scale up evidence-based drug dependence treatment options and abolish ineffective compulsory drug treatment centers that violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • Unequivocally endorse and scale up funding for the implementation of the comprehensive package of HIV interventions spelled out in the WHO, UNODC and UNAIDS Target Setting Guide.
  • Meaningfully involve members of the affected community in developing, monitoring and implementing services and policies that affect their lives.
  • We further call upon the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, to urgently implement measures to ensure that the United Nations system -- including the International Narcotics Control Board -- speaks with one voice to support the decriminalization of drug users and the implementation of evidence-based approaches to drug control.

"This is a great initiative," enthused Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "It is the most significant effort to date by the sponsors of the global AIDS conference to highlight the destructive impact of the global drug war. It is nicely coordinated with The Lancet to demonstrate legitimacy in the medical community. And it is relatively far reaching given that the declaration was drafted as a consensus statement."

"This is aimed at politicians, leaders of governments, the UN system, and it's aimed at housewives. We are trying to do basic education around the facts on this. There are still politicians who get elected vowing to crack down on drugs," said Wood. "While the declaration has a global aim and scope, at the end of the day, the person who is going to end the drug war is your average voter, who may or may not have been affected by it," he said.

"This was needed a long time ago," said Wood. "The war on drugs does not achieve its stated objectives of reducing the availability and use of drugs and is incredibly wasteful of resources in locking people up, which does little more than turn people into hardened criminals," he said.

The authors are hoping that an official declaration broadly endorsed will help begin to sway policy makers. "It will be interesting to see what kind of support it receives," said Wood. "Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper has endorsed it, and we have a 2008 Nobel prize winner for medicine on the web site. There are high level endorsements, and more are coming. Whether we touch a nerve with the news media remains to be seen. I am hoping it will have a big impact since this is the official conference declaration of one of the largest public health conferences on the planet."

"We have reached a tipping point in the conversation about drugs, drug policy, drug law enforcement, and the drug war," said Stamper, now a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "More and more, science has found its way into the conversation, and this is one step to advance that in some more dramatic fashion. I've heard much from the other side that is emotional and irrational. This is one effort to create even more impetus for infusing this dialogue on drug policy with evidence-driven, research-based findings."

That the AIDS conference is being held in Vienna adds a special fillip to the declaration, Wood said. "Vienna is symbolically important because it is where the infrastructure for maintaining the global war on drugs is located," said Woods, "and also because of the problems in Eastern Europe. In Russia, it's estimated that one out of every 100 adults is infected with the AIDS virus because Russia has not embraced evidence-based approaches. Methadone maintenance therapy is illegal there, needle exchanges are severely limited, the treatment programs are not evidence-based, and there are all sorts of human rights abuses around the drug war."

With the AIDS conference set to open July 18, Wood and the other authors are hoping the momentum will keep building up to and beyond. "It is my hope that now that the Vienna Declaration is online, large numbers of people will come forward and lend their names to this effort," he said.

The Vienna Declaration is one more indication of just how badly drug war orthodoxy has wilted under the harsh gaze of science. It's hard to win an argument when the facts are against you, but as the declaration notes, there are "those with vested interests in maintaining the status quo." The declaration should make their jobs that much more difficult and bring progressive approaches to drug policy that much closer.

Marijuana: California Decriminalization Bill Headed for Assembly Floor Vote

Possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is already quasi-decriminalized under a decades-old state law, but now, a bill that would complete that process has passed the state Senate and on Tuesday was approved by the Assembly Public Safety Committee. The bill will now go for an Assembly floor vote and, if passed, will then head for the governor's desk.
Mark Leno
Under current law, people caught with an ounce of less of pot are charged with a misdemeanor, even though they are subject to a fine of no more than $100. The bill, SB 1449, would maintain the maximum $100 fine, but would downgrade the offense from a misdemeanor to a civil infraction.

The bill was introduced by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), and passed the committee on a 4-1 vote with no discussion.

Similar measures have been introduced at various points over the years and have passed the Senate three times, only to fail in the Assembly. This time around, sponsors are hopeful that, given the cost savings in the bill (no court costs), the state's ongoing budget crisis, and the support of prosecutors and the court system, the Assembly will finally approve the measure.

Marijuana: Miami Beach Decriminalization Initiative Campaign Gets Underway

A group that wants to decriminalize marijuana possession in Miami Beach kicked off its campaign with a Wednesday night press conference. The next day, workers were hitting the Art Deco streets of the famed resort town to begin gathering signatures. They are aiming at putting the measure, which would amend the city charter, on the November ballot.

Organized by the Florida Campaign for Sensible Marijuana Policies, which is also organizing local decrim initiatives in Tallahassee, Orlando, Jacksonville Beach, and Atlantic Beach, the measure would allow Miami Beach police to issue a citation for a civil infraction instead of processing a misdemeanor marijuana possession arrest for small amounts of pot. The amendment would also increase the discretion of the state attorney to permit a plea to a civil infraction where appropriate.

Marijuana possession up to 20 grams would still be a misdemeanor under state law, and as they have done elsewhere, local police could ignore the will of the voters and continue to charge people under state law if the initiative passes.

The amendment needs some 4,400 valid signatures to make the November ballot. Thanks to a donation from a local film production company, it has the money to pay signature-gatherers, and organizers said they plan to far exceed the required number.

"The sum total effect of 72 years of marijuana prohibition and more than twenty million arrests since 1965 is that marijuana is now the largest cash crop in the United States and probably the most economically valuable agricultural commodity produced in the State of Florida. According to a recent report by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron, Florida spends $573,366,000 annually on wholly ineffectual efforts to eradicate marijuana, a substance that every objective study has determined to be far less harmful than alcohol," said Ford Banister, chairman of the committee.

Banister said he is convinced Miami Beach is progressive enough to pass such a measure. "We are confident that the progressive and enlightened citizens of Miami Beach will agree that it's time we stop driving people to drink with excessive penalties for the use of a far safer substance," he said. "And if they do not yet know how much safer marijuana is than alcohol and the savings garnered by ending a failed policy, we will be working hard to educate them over the course of this campaign."

Florida is one of the bastions of Reefer Madness. It's high time somebody started pushing in the opposite direction in the Sunshine State.


I have posted before Anon. No longer. I am unafraid and sick (literally) of doctors, afraid of politicians and police, making my pain and the pain of those I love worse because of greed, social status or whatever other stupid reason they want to give for why they must protect us from Ourselves. It wasn't long ago when we could get anything we wanted in liquid form via catalogues, etc. In fact, in many states, not long ago you could still get liquid codeine in small doses by signing a form, etc. But, you know how pharmacies got around this? They stopped keeping it in stock. This is just the beginning of what I have to say. I want you to stay tuned to the stories I have to tell you.

Marijuana: Detroit Possession Legalization Initiative Approved

A municipal initiative that would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by adults is headed for the November ballot. The Coalition for a Safer Detroit announced this week that the Detroit Elections Commission had certified its petitions.

The initiative would amend the city's controlled substance statute by adding the words: "None of the provisions of this article shall apply to the use or possession of less than 1 ounce of marihuana, on private property, by a person who has attained the age of 21 years."

The coalition turned in more than 6,000 signatures to put the initiative on the ballot. The initiative is now before the Detroit City Council, which has 30 days to pass it into law or it goes automatically before the voters in November.

"We met the proper number of signatures and we met all the legal standards," initiative organizer and medical marijuana patient Tim Beck told the Detroit Free Press. "There will be no legal challenge to keep it off the ballot. I'm very confident. People in Detroit have a serious understanding that priorities need to be reordered in respect to law enforcement. We need to focus on violent crime and guns. We just can't afford this any longer."

Beck knows his initiatives. He was the moving force behind the successful Detroit medical marijuana initiative in 2004.

Europe: Scottish Attitudes toward Drugs, Drug Users Harsh and Getting Harsher, Annual Poll Finds

Scottish public opinion is taking a harder line toward drug use and drug users, according to the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2009. Support for marijuana legalization has declined by half since 2001, while attitudes toward heroin users are harsh, and support for harsh punishments is stronger than support for harm reduction measures.

The poll comes after several years of a full-blown Reefer Madness epidemic in the United Kingdom press, where sensational assertions that "cannabis causes psychosis" have gained considerably more traction than they have in the US. It also comes as Scotland confronts an intractable, seemingly permanent, population of problem heroin users and increasing calls from Conservatives to treat them more harshly.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, support for marijuana legalization rose in Scotland, as if did throughout the UK, reaching 37% by 2001. Last year, it was down to 24%. The decline was especially dramatic among young people, with 62% of 18-to-24-year-olds supporting legalization in 2001 and only 24% last year.

Support was down even among people who have used marijuana. In 2001, 70% supported legalization; now only 47% do. Similarly, attitudes toward pot possession also hardened among the Scots public. In 2001, 51% agreed that people should not be prosecuted for possessing small amounts for personal use. In 2009, this figure fell to just 34%.

Scots don't have much use for heroin users, either. Nearly half (45%) agreed that addicts "have only themselves to blame," while just 27% disagreed. On the obverse, only 29% agreed that most heroin users "come from difficult backgrounds," while 53% disagreed. People who are generally more liberal in their values, people who have friends or family members who have used drugs, and graduates were all more likely to have sympathetic views toward heroin users.

Fewer than half (47%) would be comfortable working around someone who had used heroin in the past, while one in five would be uncomfortable doing so. Similarly, just 26% said they would be comfortable with someone in treatment for heroin living near them, while 49% said they would not be. Only 16% think heroin use should be decriminalized.

When it comes to policy toward heroin use, Scots were split: 32% wanted tougher penalties, 32% wanted "more help for people who want to stop using heroin," and 28% wanted more drug education. And four out of five (80%) agreed that "the only real way of helping drug addicts is to get them to stop using drugs altogether."

Those tough attitudes are reflected in declining support for needle exchanges, the survey's sole measure of support for harm reduction approaches. In 2001, 62% supported needle exchanges; now only 50% do.

It looks like Scottish harm reductionists and drug reformers have their work cut out for them.

Marijuana: Weed War Breaks Out Among Philly Politicos

We recently reported on the move by new Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams to treat marijuana possession cases more leniently. That didn't sit well with his predecessor, hard-line prosecutor Lynne Abraham, who used a US Senate committee hearing Monday to attack Williams for the move, which was also supported by two Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices. The Williams camp has responded in kind.
Independence Hall, Philadelphia
"Local gangs and marijuana growers everywhere are positively overjoyed" at the new policy, Abraham claimed. "'Welcome to Philadelphia, Light Up a Joint' may just be our new slogan."

The new policy, under which people caught with small amounts of marijuana would be charged with summary offenses instead of misdemeanors, would give a break to serious criminals, she argued. "They are the same criminals who ruin the city's neighborhoods by aggressive, destructive conduct, engage in shoot-outs, commit violent crimes to support their habits, and they intimidate or kill witnesses," Abraham said.

"These people arrested for 20 to 30 grams of pot are not first-time offenders for the most part," she said. "They frequently are the repeat offenders who have committed untold numbers of crimes and have been arrested dozens of times."

But Abraham wasn't done yet. "The marijuana market is into the billions. Now we are going to encourage its growth," she continued. "Just think of all those Customs officers on the US-Mexico border trying to stem the tide of marijuana mules, who now will be welcomed to bring their product into Philadelphia. The drug cartels who import pot from Mexico are thrilled," she asserted.

"Hyperbole," is how Williams' top aide, First Deputy District Attorney Joseph McGettigan described Abraham's assault. Abraham misrepresented the policy shift and provided a distorted description of those arrested in minor pot busts, he said. "I would see no evidence that the de minimus users of marijuana are significant contributors to this supposed Wild West violence," he said.

Chris Goldstein, a leader of Philadelphia NORML who lobbied city officials for the change, said he was "stunned" by Abraham's remarks. "This is a joke," he said. "It's like a fusillade of falsehoods here." Most pot is domestically grown, he said, and most smokers posed no threat to anyone. "This is a false characterization of the marijuana users of Philadelphia," Goldstein said. "The vast majority of the marijuana smokers are law-abiding citizens who are working every day to contribute to this city."

Feuding between the current and former district attorneys has gone on since 2005, when Williams highlighted a low conviction rate under Abraham when he sought to unseat her in the Democratic primary. Abraham beat back that challenge, but decided not to run for reelection last year. Since taking office, Williams has shaken up the department and taken other steps that implicitly criticize Abraham's tenure.

While Abraham is squawking about Williams' minor reform, Philadelphia lags behind dozens of cities that have passed "lowest law enforcement priority" initiatives and the 13 states that have already decriminalized possession of small amounts of pot.

Marijuana Decriminalization: New Hampshire Bill Defeated in Senate Committee

A bill that would decriminalize the possession of a quarter-ounce or less of marijuana in New Hampshire appears dead this year after the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 5-0 Tuesday not to recommend it. The bill will still go before the full Senate, where it is expected to be defeated on a voice vote.

"It is now clear the bill will not become law this year, but it is also clear the discussion will continue," Matt Simon, director of the New Hampshire Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy, told the North Andover (Massachusetts) Eagle Tribune after the vote.

The bill, HB 1653, passed the House on a 214-37 vote earlier this year. But Senate Judiciary Committee members said the threat of a gubernatorial veto made it dead on arrival because the Senate has other legislation to which to attend.

Simon said the Senate vote was a minor setback and that medical marijuana and decriminalization bills will be back. The legislature already defeated a marijuana legalization bill this year, but will study the tax benefits of legalizing pot this summer.

Feature: Philadelphia to Not Quite Decriminalize Marijuana

People caught with 30 grams (a bit more than an ounce) or less of marijuana in Philadelphia will no longer be charged with criminal misdemeanors, but with summary offenses under a new policy that will go into effect later this month. Fines are expected to be in the $200 to $300 range.
Independence Hall, Philadelphia
But while pot smokers won't face criminal charges, they will still be arrested, handcuffed, searched, detained, and fingerprinted. Then, their cases will be heard by a special "quality of life" court that is already in use for things like dealing with unruly Eagles fans and public drinking.

"We're not going to stop locking people up," Lt. Frank Vanore, a police spokesman, told the Philadelphia Inquirer Monday. Marijuana possession remained illegal, he said. "We're going to stop people for it... Our officers are trained to do that. Whether or not they make it through the charging process, that's up to the DA. We can't control that. Until they legalize it, we're not going to stop."

After the Inquirer ran its story Monday, emphasizing that the policy change would "all but decriminalize" marijuana possession, District Attorney Seth Williams had to issue a statement of clarification:

"We are not decriminalizing marijuana -- any effort like that would be one for the legislature to undertake. The penalty available for these minimal amount offenses remains exactly the same. What we are doing is properly dealing with cases involving minimal amounts of marijuana in the most efficient and cost effective process possible. Those arrested for these offenses will still be restrained, identified and processed by police in police custody. They will still have to answer to the charges, but they will be doing so in a speedier and more efficient process. We want to use valuable court resources in the best way possible and we believe that means giving minor drug offenders the option of getting into diversionary programs, get drug education or enter drug treatment centers. Again we are NOT decriminalizing marijuana, and the penalty for these offenses remains the same."

"It will be charged as a summary offense, but you will still get arrested, booked, and fingerprinted," confirmed Tasha Jamerson, media director for the district attorney's office. "But instead of getting processed as a misdemeanor, it is processed as a summary offense, and you face only one court appearance."

"They are making a policy out of what is the common practice," said Chris Goldstein of Philadelphia NORML, which has been lobbying local officials for reforms. "People arrested for a Class A marijuana possession misdemeanor for less than 30 grams typically pleaded down to disorderly conduct, but it took a court hearing to make that happen. Prosecutors are making a pragmatic choice here; this will save them a lot of time and money."

The policy shift is the result of a collaboration between new District Attorney Seth Williams and a pair of Pennsylvania Supreme Court judges. It is part of an effort to unclog the city's overwhelmed court dockets.

Under Williams' predecessor, former DA Lynne Abraham, police arrested an average of 3,000 people a year for small-time pot possession, about 75% of them black. Last year, the arrest figure jumped to more than 4,700. That figure represents roughly 5% of the city's criminal caseload.

About another 2,000 are arrested for marijuana distribution and 2,500 more are arrested for possession of more than 30 grams. Overall, enforcing drug prohibition has resulted in about 18,000 arrests a year in Philadelphia, or nearly one-third of the entire criminal caseload.

"We have to be smart on crime," Williams told the Inquirer. "We can't declare a war on drugs by going after the kid who's smoking a joint on 55th Street. We have to go after the large traffickers."

Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille, one of the two justices who worked with Williams on the policy shift, said summary prosecution was "appropriate" for such a small-time offense. "It's a minor crime when you're faced with major drug crimes." Removing such cases from the criminal courts, he said, "unclogs the system."

"The marijuana consumers of Philadelphia welcome this," said Goldstein. "This is a very progressive thing to do on the part of the city," Goldstein said of the new policy. "I couldn't be happier about this."

Goldstein was much less enthused by the continued arrests policy. "It is completely absurd," he said. "It's harsh. For minor marijuana possession, it's very harsh treatment."

Nor was he convinced that the policy shift would do anything to reduce racially-biased marijuana law enforcement. "If we're paying attention to pot arrests in Philadelphia, we have to note that most are black. There hasn't been a single month when more than 10 white women have been arrested for less than 30 grams. Just go to a Phillies game parking lot. They could arrest a hundred white women in an hour out there," he said.

"At the same time, about 60 black women and 350 black men are getting arrested for it each month," Goldstein continued. "This points to bias in enforcement, and it costs a lot of money. We actually treat marijuana offenders here more harshly than anywhere else in the state, and it costs money. That's why the DA and the Supreme Court can initiate this change -- they're just bringing Philadelphia in line with the rest of the state and the region."

Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey office director Roseanne Scotti, who lives in Philadelphia, had another concern about the policy shift. "My concern is that there could be an incentive to arrest more people, because it will cost the city less to process them," she said. "And the city will make money on fines. We could see net-widening, with even more people getting arrested. If that's the case, are we better off at the end of the day? This will be a time and money saver for the city, but is this really a good thing for people who use marijuana?"

Time will tell.

Marijuana: Another Colorado Town Votes to Legalize It

Voters in the Rocky Mountain town of Nederland, Colorado, voted Tuesday to remove all local penalties for adult marijuana possession. The measure passed with 54% of the vote in an election that also saw voters oust incumbent Mayor Martin Cheshes, who had opposed the ballot measure.

"It's a foolish thing to put on the ballot," Cheshes told the Daily Camera in nearby Boulder before the election. "If it passes, it enhances the reputation of Nederland as a kooky place, which I don't think we need, and if you're a marijuana advocate, it leaves the only penalties in place the state penalties, which are harsher."

Nederland becomes the third Colorado community to vote to legalize marijuana in the past five years. Denver voters did so in 2005, and the ski resort town of Breckenridge followed suit last year.

Under Colorado law small-time marijuana possession is decriminalized. Officials in Denver ignored the will of the voters there and continue to prosecute marijuana possession offenses under state law. But Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett may respond differently.

"I'll pay attention if it passes," he told the Daily Camera before the vote. "Marijuana enforcement is a sensitive issue, and it's important to gauge public sentiment."

"It's time for Colorado's elected officials to recognize that many -- and in some cases most -- of their constituents support an end to marijuana prohibition. Those who fail to do so are the 'foolish' ones, and in some areas it could result in them losing votes," said SAFER executive Mason Tvert.

"Nederland is not the first Colorado locality to express its opinion that marijuana should be legal for adults, and it certainly won't be the last," Tvert said. "More and more Coloradans are beginning to recognize the fact that marijuana is far safer than alcohol for the user and for society, and it's only a matter of time before they decide to stand up against irrational laws that drive people to drink by prohibiting them from making the safer choice."

The southwestern Colorado town of Durango could be the next to vote to legalize it, with organizers working to get an initiative on the local ballot. These votes are laying the groundwork for a probable statewide legalization initiative in 2012. A similar initiative got 44% of the vote in 2006, but recent polls show 50% of Colorado voters now supporting legalization.

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