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Feature: Marijuana Legalization Legislation in the Works in Portugal

Portugal has been the subject of a lot of attention lately over its decriminalization of drug possession. Although decriminalization has been in place for eight years now, it is only this year that it has caught the world's attention. The success of Portugal's approach was the subject of a piece by Salon writer Glenn Greenwald commissioned by the Cato Institute that was widely read and commented on earlier this year, and last week it earned kind words from a most unexpected place: the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which could find little to complain about for its 2009 World Drugs Report.

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But Portugal isn't resting on its laurels, and at least one political party there is preparing to take the country's progressive approach to drug reform to the next level. The Leftist Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda) is preparing legislation that would legalize the possession, cultivation, and retail sales of small amounts of marijuana, as well as providing for regulated wholesale cultivation to supply the retail market.

The Bloc is also now actively encouraging the participation of ENCOD, the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies, in developing new drug laws. The alliance comes too late to influence the marijuana bill, but will provide an entree for drug reformers in the process in future drug legislation, or even revising the current marijuana bill if it does not make in through parliament this year.

"The contacts between ENCOD and the Bloc were arranged by common activists and members," explained ENCOD steering committee member and Portuguese law student, journalist, and activist Jorge Roque.

Under the draft bill, a copy of which was made available to the Chronicle, marijuana consumers could purchase "the amount needed for the average individual for a 30-day period," as determined by the existing decriminalization law, or 15 grams of hashish and 75 grams (almost three ounces) of marijuana. The average daily dose is a half-gram of hash and 2.5 grams of pot. Individuals would be allowed to grow up to 10 plants, and could possess the 30-day amount as well as up to 10 plants.

The draft bill calls for licensed retail sales outlets authorized by municipal councils. Such retail establishments would not be allowed to sell alcohol or allow it to be consumed on the premises, would not be allowed within 500 meters of schools, and would not be allowed to have gambling machines. No one under 16 would be allowed to enter, nor would people adjudged to be mentally ill.

The draft bill prohibits advertising, but requires that packaging for marijuana products intended for retail sale clearly reveal the source, the amount, and a statement giving the World Health Organization's position on the effects and risks of consumption.

The bill also provides for the Portuguese National Institute of Pharmacy and Medicine to license the wholesale cultivation of marijuana to supply the retail trade. And it provides for an excise tax on cannabis sales to be determined during the budgetary process.

People who traffic in marijuana outside the parameters set down in the draft would face four to 12 years in prison for serious offenses, and up to four years for less serious offenses. Licensed retailers or wholesalers who breach the regulations could face imprisonment for up to three months or a fine of up to 30 days' minimum wage.

The bill's immediate prospects are uncertain. The Leftist Bloc is a small party, holding only eight seats in the 230-seat parliament. But the government is controlled by left-leaning parties, and the Bloc has a reputation as a "hip" party in the vanguard of political change in the country.

"Honestly, at first I thought this would never pass, but with time and after discussing this with the deputies, I am much more optimistic," said Roque. "Of course, the Left Bloc alone cannot get it passed, but as usual, they provoke the debate of ideas, and then, since they are seen as an intelligent and humane group, they can pick up support among other political parties."

While it is too late for ENCOD to influence this legislation, the group can still play a role in the debate, said ENCOD coordinator Joep Oomen. "ENCOD could contribute with information on the need to make consistent moves and no half-measures, as has been the case before with the decriminalization of possession. Portugal should learn from the experiences in the Netherlands. Here liberal cannabis policies that have proven successful during more than 30 years are now in danger of being abolished because of the pressure of Christian parties who continue blaming these policies for problems that in fact are caused by prohibition," he said.

Oomen was alluding to Holland's "backdoor problem," where the sale of marijuana is tolerated, but there is no provision for legally supplying Dutch cannabis cafes. That has led to the growth of organized crime participation in the pot business in Holland.

"It is quite simple," Oomen said. "When you allow people to use, you should allow them to possess, and if you allow them to possess, you should allow them to cultivate, produce, buy or sell. If you only go halfway, and refuse to regulate the first necessary element in the process (cultivation or production) you create more problems than solutions."

For Roque, Portugal's experience with decriminalization was critical in laying the groundwork for the legalization bill. "Decriminalization helped us lose the taboos and break the fear of being persecuted for drugs, and Portugal nowadays is much more ready to move forward," said Roque.

One big remaining taboo is the UN drug conventions, but neither Oomen nor Roque appeared to be very concerned about them. "Portugal does not need to openly challenge the UN conventions," said Oomen. "As long as the new bill is aiming at regulating cultivation of cannabis for personal use, it cannot be considered as a violation of international conventions, which leave it up to national authorities to deal with the status of drug use."

Roque was a bit more combative. "The international conventions and the Lisbon treaty don't provide solutions in these matters, and the UN conventions were ratified by the specific will of one country," said Roque. "When the UN conventions don't present any solutions that are good for the national interest, only a stupid country will follow them forever."

Now, Portugal can put the conventions and their interpretation to the test, if its parliament so chooses.

Marijuana: Barney Frank Introduces Federal Decriminalization Bill

In a press release last Friday, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) announced he has introduced a bill that would decriminalize the possession and not-for-profit transfer of small amounts of marijuana. It was the second marijuana bill of the week for Frank, who a couple of days earlier introduced the Medical Marijuana Protection Act.

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Barney Frank
Titled the Personal Use of Marijuana By Responsible Adults Act of 2009 (H.R. 2943), the bill would remove federal criminal penalties for the possession of less than 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) and for the not-for-profit transfer of up to one ounce. The bill would not change marijuana's status as a Schedule I controlled substance, would not change federal laws banning the growing, sale, and import and export of marijuana, and would not undo state laws prohibiting marijuana.

"I think John Stuart Mill had it right in the 1850s," said Congressman Frank, "when he argued that individuals should have the right to do what they want in private, so long as they don't hurt anyone else. It's a matter of personal liberty. Moreover, our courts are already stressed and our prisons are overcrowded. We don't need to spend our scarce resources prosecuting people who are doing no harm to others."

"Congressman Frank's bill represents a major step toward sanity in federal marijuana policy," said Marijuana Policy Project director of government relations Aaron Houston. "The decades-long federal war on marijuana protects no one and in fact has ruined countless lives. Most Americans do not believe that simple possession of a small amount of marijuana should be a criminal matter, and it's time Congress listened to the voters."

As of the middle of this week, the bill had five cosponsors: Reps. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), Ron Paul (R-TX), Jared Polis (D-CO), and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee. No word yet on any hearings.

Ten states have already decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Those states are California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, and Oregon. In an eleventh, Alaska, the possession of up to an ounce in one's home is not just decriminalized, it's legal.

Feature: UN Drug Czar Attacks Legalizers -- Legalizers Say "It's About Time"

As the world marks the end of the first century of drug prohibition -- the first international anti-drug convention was signed in Shanghai in 1909 -- the global anti-drug bureaucracy finds itself on the defensive. Faced with a rising chorus of critics, the bureaucracy fought back this week as the United Nations Office on Crime and Drugs (UNODC) issued its World Drugs Report 2009. That the UNODC finally feels compelled to confront -- instead of ignore -- its critics is a sign of progress.

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HCLU demonstration at March '09 UN drug summit, Vienna
In addition to its usual quantifying of marginal changes in drug production and consumption levels and exhortations to try harder to fight the drug menace, this year's report was remarkable for its preface, penned by UNODC head Antonio Maria Costa, and, in a reversal of tone if not policy, some approving mention of Portugal's eight-year-old experiment with decriminalization.

On decriminalization in Portugal the report noted that:

Portugal is an example of a country that recently decided not to put drug users in jail. According to the International Narcotics Control Board, Portugal's "decriminalization" of drug usage in 2001 falls within the Convention parameters: drug possession is still prohibited, but the sanctions fall under the administrative law, not the criminal law. Those in possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use are issued with a summons rather than arrested. The drugs are confiscated and the suspect must appear before a commission. The suspect's drug consumption patterns are reviewed, and users may be fined, diverted to treatment, or subjected to probation. Cases of drug trafficking continue to be prosecuted, and the number of drug trafficking offenses detected in Portugal is close to the European average.

These conditions keep drugs out of the hands of those who would avoid them under a system of full prohibition, while encouraging treatment, rather than incarceration, for users. Among those who would not welcome a summons from a police officer are tourists, and, as a result, Portugal’s policy has reportedly not led to an increase in drug tourism. It also appears that a number of drug-related problems have decreased.

The report then goes on to say that "while incarceration will continue to be the main response to detected traffickers, it should only be applied in exceptional cases to users." Combined with Costa's "people who take drugs need medical help, not criminal retribution," in the preface, it suggests that the UNODC would not oppose decriminalization, but the report doesn't say that. Instead, it advocates for drug courts and drug treatment.

When it comes to legalization, in the preface, Costa acknowledged his anti-prohibitionist critics and attempted to confront their arguments. His comments are worth quoting at length:

"...Of late, there has been a limited but growing chorus among politicians, the press, and even in public opinion saying: drug control is not working. The broadcasting volume is still rising and the message spreading. Much of this public debate is characterized by sweeping generalizations and simplistic solutions. Yet, the very heart of the discussion underlines the need to evaluate the effectiveness of the current approach. Having studied the issue on the basis of our data, UNODC has concluded that, while changes are needed, they should be in favor of different means to protect society against drugs, rather than by pursuing the different goal of abandoning such protection.
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Several arguments have been put forward in favor of repealing drug controls, based on (i) economic, (ii) health, and (iii) security grounds, and a combination thereof.

The economic argument for drug legalization says: legalize drugs, and generate tax income. This argument is gaining favor, as national administrations seek new sources of revenue during the current economic crisis. This legalize and tax argument is unethical and uneconomical. It proposes a perverse tax, generation upon generation, on marginalized cohorts (lost to addiction) to stimulate economic recovery. Are the partisans of this cause also in favor of legalizing and taxing other seemingly intractable crimes like human trafficking? Modern day slaves (and there are millions of them) would surely generate good tax revenue to rescue failed banks. The economic argument is also based on poor fiscal logic: any reduction in the cost of drug control (due to lower law enforcement expenditure) will be offset by much higher expenditure on public health (due to the surge of drug consumption). The moral of the story: don't make wicked transactions legal just because they are hard to control.

Others have argued that, following legalization, a health threat (in the form of a drug epidemic) could be avoided by state regulation of the drug market. Again, this is naive and myopic. First, the tighter the controls (on anything), the bigger and the faster a parallel (criminal) market will emerge -- thus invalidating the concept. Second, only a few (rich) countries could afford such elaborate controls. What about the rest (the majority) of humanity? Why unleash a drug epidemic in the developing world for the sake of libertarian arguments made by a pro-drug lobby that has the luxury of access to drug treatment? Drugs are not harmful because they are controlled -- they are controlled because they are harmful; and they do harm whether the addict is rich and beautiful, or poor and marginalized.

The most serious issue concerns organized crime. All market activity controlled by the authority generates parallel, illegal transactions, as stated above. Inevitably, drug controls have generated a criminal market of macro-economic dimensions that uses violence and corruption to mediate between demand and supply. Legalize drugs, and organized crime will lose its most profitable line of activity, critics therefore say. Not so fast. UNODC is well aware of the threats posed by international drug mafias. Our estimates of the value of the drug market (in 2005) were groundbreaking. The Office was also first to ring the alarm bell on the threat of drug trafficking to countries in West and East Africa, the Caribbean, Central America and the Balkans. In doing so we have highlighted the security menace posed by organized crime, a matter now periodically addressed by the UN Security Council. Having started this drugs/crime debate, and having pondered it extensively, we have concluded that these drug-related, organized crime arguments are valid. They must be addressed. I urge governments to recalibrate the policy mix, without delay, in the direction of more controls on crime, without fewer controls on drugs. In other words, while the crime argument is right, the conclusions reached by its proponents are flawed. Why? Because we are not counting beans here: we are counting lives. Economic policy is the art of counting beans (money) and handling trade-offs: inflation vs. employment, consumption vs. savings, internal vs. external balances. Lives are different. If we start trading them off, we end up violating somebody's human rights. There cannot be exchanges, no quid-pro-quos, when health and security are at stake: modern society must, and can, protect both these assets with unmitigated determination. I appeal to the heroic partisans of the human rights cause worldwide, to help UNODC promote the right to health of drug addicts: they must be assisted and reintegrated into society. Addiction is a health condition and those affected by it should not be imprisoned, shot-at or, as suggested by the proponent of this argument, traded off in order to reduce the security threat posed by international mafias. Of course, the latter must be addressed, and below is our advice.

First, law enforcement should shift its focus from drug users to drug traffickers. Drug addiction is a health condition: people who take drugs need medical help, not criminal retribution. Attention must be devoted to heavy drug users. They consume the most drugs, cause the greatest harm to themselves and society -- and generate the most income to drug mafias. Drug courts and medical assistance are more likely to build healthier and safer societies than incarceration. I appeal to Member States to pursue the goal of universal access to drug treatment as a commitment to save lives and reduce drug demand: the fall of supply, and associated crime revenues, will follow. Let's progress towards this goal in the years ahead,and then assess its beneficial impact on the next occasion Member States will meet to review the effectiveness of drug policy (2015).

Second, we must put an end to the tragedy of cities out of control. Drug deals, like other crimes, take place mostly in urban settings controlled by criminal groups. This problem will worsen in the mega-cities of the future, if governance does not keep pace with urbanization. Yet, arresting individuals and seizing drugs for their personal use is like pulling weeds -- it needs to be done again the next day. The problem can only be solved by addressing the problem of slums and dereliction in our cities, through renewal of infrastructures and investment in people -- especially by assisting the youth, who are vulnerable to drugs and crime, with education, jobs and sport. Ghettos do not create junkies and the jobless: it is often the other way around. And in the process mafias thrive.

Third, and this is the most important point, governments must make use, individually and collectively, of the international agreements against uncivil society. This means to ratify and apply the UN Conventions against Organized Crime (TOC) and against Corruption (CAC), and related protocols against the trafficking of people, arms and migrants. There is much more our countries can do to face the brutal force of organized crime: the context within which mafias operate must also be addressed...

To conclude, transnational organized crime will never be stopped by drug legalization. Mafias coffers are equally nourished by the trafficking of arms, people and their organs, by counterfeiting and smuggling, racketeering and loan-sharking, kidnapping and piracy, and by violence against the environment (illegal logging, dumping of toxic waste, etc). The drug/crime trade-off argument, debated above, is no other than the pursuit of the old drug legalization agenda, persistently advocated by the pro-drug-lobby (Note that the partisans of this argument would not extend it to guns whose control -- they say -- should actually be enforced and extended: namely, no to guns, yes to drugs).

So far the drug legalization agenda has been opposed fiercely, and successfully, by the majority of our society. Yet, anti-crime policy must change. It is no longer sufficient to say: no to drugs. We have to state an equally vehement: no to crime. There is no alternative to improving both security and health. The termination of drug control would be an epic mistake. Equally catastrophic is the current disregard of the security threat posed by organized crime."

While Costa's preface can only be read as an attack on the anti-prohibitionist position (while essentially calling for decriminalization of drug use), it also marks an engagement with the anti-prohibitionists. And they are ready to engage right back at him.

"The UN drug czar is talking out of both sides of his mouth. On the one hand he admits global drug prohibition is destabilizing governments, increasing violence, and destroying lives," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "But on the other hand he offers facile arguments dismissing the need for serious debate on alternative drug policies. The report erroneously assumes that prohibition represents the ultimate form of control when in fact it represents the abdication of control," Nadelmann added.

"The world's 'drug czar,' Antonio Maria Costa, would have you believe that the legalization movement is calling for the abolition of drug control," said Jack Cole, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and a retired undercover narcotics detective. "Quite the contrary, we are demanding that governments replace the failed policy of prohibition with a system that actually regulates and controls drugs, including their purity and prices, as well as who produces them and who they can be sold to. You can't have effective control under prohibition, as we should have learned from our failed experiment with alcohol in the US between 1920 and 1933."

LEAP wants to keep the conversation going, and it wants citizens around the world to let the UNODC head know what they think. "We're asking people to go to http://www.DrugWarDebate.com, where they can send a message to the world 'drug czar' to educate him about the effects of policies he is supposed to be leading on," said Cole. "Now is the time for action. It's clear that prohibitionists are concerned about reformers' rapidly growing political clout when they attack us on page one of their annual report but didn't even mention us in last year's."

After ignoring anti-prohibitionist critics for years -- the legalization movement wasn't even mentioned in last year's report -- the global anti-drug bureaucracy has come out swinging. Costa has made his best case for smarter, better drug prohibition, and his arguments deserve to be addressed seriously.

But as successful nonviolent social movement leader Mohandas Gandhi famously observed: "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win." It appears that the anti-prohibitionist struggle is now in its penultimate stage.

Marijuana: Connecticut Decriminalization Bill Dead in Water Following Arrest of Activist

A bill that would have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana is effectively dead after it was filibustered by a key opponent in the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday. With an early afternoon deadline for committee action Tuesday, Sen. Toni Boucher (R-New Canaan) railed against the bill until the deadline had passed.

"This legislative body is proposing to take a substance that is proven to be unhealthy and dangerous and illegal -- schedule one drug, still so at the federal level -- putting us in direct contrast. And slap the hand of one who uses it just like another parking ticket," Boucher said. "This is just a minor step in a long progression," she added, calling marijuana a gateway drug.

The bill, SB 349 would have made the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana an infraction with a maximum $250 fine. It was supported by the legislature's Democratic leadership and the advocacy groups Efficacy and A Better Way Foundation.

While the bill appeared poised to pass last week, Boucher garnered some sympathy and attention after an officer in the newly formed Connecticut state NORML chapter got himself arrested for allegedly threatening her in an email message. Chapter vice-president Dominic Vita, a 28-year-old veteran of the Iraq war who testified in favor of the bill earlier this year, sent an e-mail in which he said he was about to "go postal" on Boucher. He was arrested on disorderly conduct charges Friday.

While national NORML quickly closed down the Connecticut chapter, the incident had fellow Republicans rallying to Boucher's defense. Connecticut NORML did not play a leading role in pushing for marijuana reform in the state -- it was only a month old -- but the incident was grist for the media mill over the weekend.

In comments posted to a local talk show host's blog, family members of Vita said he showed "poor judgment" in venting his feelings in that manner in an e-mail, but criticized the media's portrayal of it. Vita intended the e-mail to go to a friend and colleague, they explained, but accidentally used "reply" instead of "forward," sending it to the state's legislative "bill-tracker" reporting service instead. The e-mail was written in reaction to an unfavorable amendment Boucher had filed to the decrim bill, which Vita felt would prevent patients from benefiting from it. The staff person who received the e-mail forwarded it to the Capitol Police.

The talk show host, Shelly Sindland, wrote that she was "shocked" and that Vita had been "very articulate and polite" when he appeared on her show.

Latin America: Argentine Appeals Court Throws Out Ecstasy Case, Says Pills Were for "Personal Use"

Continuing their slow crawl toward the effective decriminalization of drug possession, the Argentine courts have again thrown out a drug case, ruling it should not be prosecuted because the drugs were for "personal use." The case is only the latest in a line of cases dating back to 2006 where Argentine courts have declared the country's drug laws invalid when it comes to possessing small amounts of drugs.

In the present case, a young Argentine was arrested at a rave in Buenos Aires as he purchased 15 Ecstasy tablets for himself and seven comrades. The trial judge ordered that the case move forward because he found that the young man had bought the drugs either to sell them or to use himself.

But the Federal Court of Appeals for Buenos Aires overruled the trial judge, saying "it was not possible to discard the possibility that the narcotics were for personal use." Citing a 2006 Supreme Court ruling that it was the burden of the state "to demonstrate unequivocally that the drugs were not for personal use," the appeals court held that the portion of the country's drug law regarding drug possession must be declared unconstitutional.

Similarly, in late March, Buenos Aires judges threw out the case of two people arrested for growing pot plants. In that case, too, the judges found that the portion of the law punishing people with jail time for growing plants for personal use was unconstitutional. According to the judges, "the quantity and the circumstances that surrounded this case allow them to affirm that the cultivation or sowing of marijuana was for personal consumption."

While the lower courts are not shy about declaring portions of the drug law unconstitutional, it is the Argentine Supreme Court that is the ultimate arbiter. But the decisions from the lower courts are piling up.

Marijuana: Pot Continues to Climb in Public Opinion Polls -- Zogby Goes Over 50%

Support for marijuana legalization or decriminalization among the American public continues to climb and may now be a majority position, if a pair of recently released polls are any indication. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released April 30 found that 46% of those surveyed supported "legalizing small amounts of marijuana for personal use," or decriminalization, while a Zogby poll released Wednesday found that 52% supported the legalization, taxation, and regulation of pot.

The 46% figure in the ABC News/Washington Post poll is the highest since the poll first asked the question in the 1980s, and more than double what the figure was just a dozen years ago. Support for decriminalization hovered at around one-quarter of the population throughout the 1980s, and was at 22% as recently as 1997. By 2002, support had jumped to 39%, and now it has jumped again.

When it comes to political affiliation, support for decrim is at 53% for independents, 49% for Democrats, and 28% for Republicans. Since the late 1980s, Democratic support has jumped by 29 points and independent support by 27. Even among Republicans, support for decrim has increased by 10 points.

Support was highest among people reporting no religious affiliation, with 70%, and lowest among evangelical white Protestants, at 24%. People under age 30 supported decrim at a rate of 57%, nearly twice that of seniors, at 30%. People in between the young and the old split down the middle.

The numbers were even better in the Zogby poll. Confronted with a straightforward question about marijuana legalization, 52% of respondents said yes, 37% said no, and 11% were not sure.

The pollsters asked: "Scarce law enforcement and prison resources, a desire to neutralize drug cartels and the need for new sources of revenue have resurrected the topic of legalizing marijuana. Proponents say it makes sense to tax and regulate the drug while opponents say that legalization would lead marijuana users to use other illegal drugs. Would you favor or oppose the government's effort to legalize marijuana?"

The poll was commissioned for the conservative-leaning O'Leary Report and published Wednesday as a full page ad in the Washington, DC, political newsletter The Hill. In that poll, the sample of respondents was weighted to reflect the outcome of the 2008 presidential race, with 54% Obama supporters and 46% McCain supporters.

"This new survey continues the recent trend of strong and growing support for taxing and regulating marijuana and ending the disastrously failed policy of prohibition," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project."Voters are coming to realize that marijuana prohibition gives us the worst of all possible worlds -- a drug that's widely available but totally unregulated, whose producers and sellers pay no taxes but whose profits often support murderous drug cartels," Kampia said. "The public is way ahead of the politicians on this."

Feature: Mexico Decriminalization Bill Passes -- One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

Late last week, both houses of the Mexican Congress approved a bill that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs. The measure is part of a broader bill aimed at small-scale drug dealing and rationalizing Mexico's struggle against violent drug trafficking organizations.

The bill was sponsored by President Felipe Calderón, but support for it from his ruling National Action Party (PAN) has dwindled. Still, most observers who spoke to the Chronicle this week think he will sign the bill.

The Mexican Congress passed similar legislation in 2006, but then President Vicente Fox refused to sign it after hearing protests from the Bush administration. This time, though, there has not been a peep out of Washington either for or against the bill.
Among the bill's main provisions:

  • Decriminalizes "personal use" amounts of drugs;
  • Recognizes harm reduction as a guiding principle;
  • Does not require forced drug treatment for "personal use" possessors;
  • Recognizes traditional cultural drug use;
  • Allows states and municipalities to prosecute small-time drug dealing ("narcomenudeo"), an offense which currently is handled exclusively by federal authorities;
  • Allows police to make drug buys to build cases.

The amounts of various drugs that are decriminalized for personal use are:

  • opium -- 2 grams
  • cocaine -- ½ gram
  • heroin -- 1/10 gram
  • marijuana -- 5 grams
  • LSD -- 150 micrograms
  • methamphetamine -- 1/5 gram
  • ecstasy -- 1/5 gram

The measure comes in the midst of ongoing high levels of violence as President Calderón attempts to crack down on Mexico's wealthy, powerful, and bloody-minded drug trafficking organizations -- the so-called cartels. Approximately 10,000 people have died in prohibition-related violence in Mexico since Calderón called out the armed forces against the cartels in early 2007. The multi-sided confrontation pits the Mexican state against the cartels, the cartels against each other, and even factions of the same cartel against each other.

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discussion growing: Feb. '09 drug policy forum held by Mexico's Grupo Parlamentario Alternativa (grupoparlamentarioalternativa.org.mx/node/227)
The US backs Calderón's war on the cartels, allocating $1.4 billion over three years for Plan Mérida. President Obama reiterated his commitment to the Mexican drug war during a visit to the country last month.

The measure also comes against a backdrop of increasing drug use levels in Mexico and increasing concern about the problems associated with that drug use. In recent years, the cartels have figured out that their home country is also an increasingly lucrative market for their wares. Now, if you travel to the right neighborhoods in virtually any Mexican city, you can find storefront retail illegal drug outlets.

"This looks like one step forward, two steps back," said Isaac Campos Costero, an assistant professor of history at the University of Cincinnati and visiting fellow at the University of California at San Diego's Center for US-Mexican Studies. "If we're talking about reducing the crisis of violence in Mexico, I don't think this bill does anything good, and may even exacerbate it. It won't reduce demand, and at the same time it seeks to prosecute small-time dealers more energetically."

"That this suggests growing support for decriminalization, reduces the criminality of drug users, embraces harm reduction, and acknowledges cultural uses is a good thing and consistent with what is going on elsewhere in Latin America," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The idea of decriminalization of possession based in part on human rights and public health grounds has gained real traction in the region, which is somewhat surprising given the long preoccupation with drugs and organized crime," he said.

"But there's this other part of it that is all about Calderón's war on the traffickers; it's part and parcel of empowering law enforcement," Nadelmann continued. "There is serious concern that law enforcement has lost the upper hand to the gangsters, and the risk here is that the new law will give police all the more opportunity to go after low-level distributors and addicts who sell drugs to support their habits, while diverting attention from serious violent criminals."

For Mexican drug reformers organized as the Collective for Integrated Drug Policy, while the bill is an advance, its failure to more fully incorporate public health and human rights perspectives runs the risk of creating negative consequences for the country. In a statement released after the bill passed the Congress, the group praised the legislation for distinguishing between consumers, addicts, and criminals, for increasing the amount of marijuana from two grams to five, for acknowledging the role of harm reduction, and for removing the provision that would have required drug treatment for those caught holding.

But the group also expressed its preoccupation with other parts of the bill. "The law only marginally considers the problem of drug consumption and limits itself to legally defining it," the collective noted. "On the other hand, it focuses on intensifying a military and police strategy that has proven to be a failure."

The collective also worried that "the law will criminalize a vast group of people who make a living off small-time drug dealing" who are not cartel members but impoverished citizens. "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 the number of people incarcerated with this policy," the group wrote.

The decriminalization quantities are too small, the group said, and that will lead to problems. "These amounts are not realistic in terms of the drug market (for example, the initiative allows a consumer to have a half-gram of coke, when coke is sold on the streets by the gram), and we thus can anticipate a significant increase in corruption and extortion of consumers by police forces," the statement said.

Jorge Hernández Tinajero, an advisor to Social Democratic Party Deputy Elsa Conde, is also the leader of the collective. "Elsa went to the session and loudly criticized the bill, saying it was not an integrated policy but a new way to make more corruption and put more people in jail, especially women who desperately need to work and earn some money," he recounted. "She said 70% of the women in jail are there because they are small dealers."

"While the bill doesn't go far enough, it at least decriminalizes possession for personal use, and treatment is no longer mandatory if you get caught carrying your personal dose," said Dr. Humberto Brocca, a member of the collective. "Now, you will not have to show that you are an addict and thus a candidate for treatment," he said, referring to current Mexican law, which creates a loophole for addicts in possession of drugs.

"It's a mixed bag," said Ana Paula Hernández, a Mexico City-based consultant on drug policy and human rights. "The headlines will be that drug possession has been decriminalized, but when you look at it more closely, the consequences could be very serious," she said. "Now, state and local authorities will be able to prosecute crimes related to small-scale drug dealing. That would be good if Mexico were a different country, but corruption is so extreme at those levels that giving these authorities these powers could greatly increase their level of involvement in organized crime."

Whether the bill will have any impact at all on the major trafficking organizations who are ostensibly the target of the Mexican government's offensive remains to be seen.

"I don't think this is going to have any impact on the government's war against the cartels," said Hernandez. "For that to happen, we need to have a structural, democratic reform of police forces and the judiciary at the state and municipal level by reallocating resources for prevention and information campaigns on drug use with a risk and harm reduction perspective; and of course by other measures such as real decriminalization."

Brocca, too, foresaw more arrests as a result of the bill, but little impact on the violence plaguing the country. "Yeah, they will sweep up mostly small-timers so the party in power can look good," he said, "but it will probably have no impact whatsoever on the prohibition-related violence."

Whatever action Mexico takes is likely to have little impact on the violence without changes in US drug policies, Campos Costero said. Still, passage of the bill could have an important psychological effect, he said.

"From a symbolic point of view, once this goes into effect and Armageddon doesn't happen and society doesn't crumble, this may help break down attitudes a bit and pave the way for more substantive reforms in the future," said Campos Costero.

The bill could also undercut Mexico's historic opposition to relaxation of the drug laws north of the border. "Mexico has opposed US reform efforts on marijuana in the past, but by passing this bill, Mexico effectively reduces its ability to complain about US drug reform in the future," said Campos Costero. "And that's significant."

But that doesn't mean Mexicans would not raise a stink if the US moved toward radical drug reforms, Campos Costero noted. "For years and years, Mexicans have been hearing condescending remarks from the US about how they're not tough enough on drugs, so if the US were to pursue legalization, the Mexican public would go crazy. They see it as a demand problem, but of course, it's really a policy problem," he said. "If there were more rational drug policies, we could have demand at the same levels, but eliminate these problems."

Hello? Mexico on the Verge on Decriminalizing Drug Possession...

...and nobody north of the Rio Grande seems to have noticed. Last week, I wrote that the Mexican decrim bill had passed the Senate, but on the afternoon before we published that report, the bill also passed the Chamber of Deputies. Now it awaits only the signature of President Calderon. While a Dallas Morning News blogger wrote that it is unclear whether Calderon will sign the bill, it seems likely to me that he will. The bill, after all, was pushed by his ruling PAN party, and unlike 2006, when a similar bill passed only to be vetoed by then President Fox in the face of US threats and bluster, there have been no threats and bluster from Washington this time. And, of course, the situation in Mexico is much worse than in 2006, thanks largely to Calderon's war on the cartels. The bill is not great: The personal use quantities are tiny, and it allows for the states to prosecute low-level trafficking offenses (currently, that is the province of the feds, with the result being that being low-level traffickers are never tried because the federal prosecutors and courts are overwhelmed with serious trafficking cases). But it is decriminalization, and right on our border, not an ocean away, like Portugal. I'll be talking to people on both sides of the border this week about this bill and what it means and I'll have a feature article on it Friday. In the meantime, here's the lone Reuters article on these momentous events:
Mexico passes bill on small-scale drugs possession Fri May 1, 2009 8:39pm EDT MEXICO CITY, May 1 (Reuters) - Mexico's Congress has passed a bill decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs, from marijuana to methamphetamine, as President Felipe Calderon tries to focus on catching traffickers. The bill, proposed by Calderon after an attempt by the previous government at a similar bill came under fire in the United States, would make it legal to carry up to 5 grams (0.18 ounces) of marijuana, 500 milligrams (0.018 ounces) of cocaine and tiny quantities heroin and methamphetamines. The lower house of deputies passed the bill late on Thursday. It already has been approved by the Senate and is expected to be signed into law by Calderon in the days ahead. Mexico's Congress passed a similar proposal in 2006 but the bill was vetoed by Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox, after Washington said it would increase drug abuse. The United States recently pledged stronger backing for Calderon's army-led war on drug cartels, whose turf wars have killed some 2,000 people so far this year in Mexico, as the drug violence is starting to seep over the border. The new bill also allows Mexican states to convict small-time drug dealers, no longer making it a federal crime to peddle narcotics, a move that should speed up those cases. U.S. President Barack Obama praised Calderon's drug war efforts in a visit to Mexico last month and promised more agents and southbound border controls to curb the flow of guns and cash to the cartels. (Reporting Miguel Angel Gutierrez; Editing by Bill Trott)

Latin America: Mexico Senate Approves Bill Decriminalizing Drug Possession

The Mexican Senate Tuesday approved a bill that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs in a bid to undercut Mexican drug trafficking organizations and free police to go after them instead of drug users. The bill was backed by the conservative government of President Felipe Calderón.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/mexicomap.jpg
map of Mexico (from state.gov)
Under the bill, personal use quantities of drugs could be possessed without criminal liability. The quantities include up to five grams of marijuana, a half gram of cocaine, and smaller quantities of drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine.

The bill would also shift the prosecution of low-level drug dealers to the states by making it no longer a federal crime to sell drugs. The federal government currently prosecutes all drug trafficking offenses, but because federal courts are busy trying higher-level drug traffickers, the cases of lower-level offenders rarely get tried.

The Mexican Congress passed a similar measure in 2006 under President Vicente Fox, but Fox vetoed that bill under pressure from the US. Now, after 10,000 deaths in 2 1/2 years of Calderón's drug war, Mexico appears less inclined to heed US demands to not decriminalize -- and given the change of administration in Washington, the US seems less likely to demand Mexico remain a drug war hardliner when it comes to small-time possession cases.

The measure must still pass the Chamber of Deputies. The congressional session was supposed to end Thursday, but there is some chance it will be extended because of the flu emergency in the capital.

"We celebrate that the legislators have agreed with the proposals of the Social Democratic Party," Mexico City PSD leader Razú Aznar told the official news agency Notimex after the vote. "Our platform proposes that we take legislative measures to eliminate criminal charges against addicts and help them into therapy in a voluntary manner and that they be treated by specialists," he said.

But decriminalization is only a first step, said Razú Aznar. "It is clear for the PSD that the regularization of drugs is at this time one of the best alternatives to reduce the profits of organized crime and eradicate the practice of violence."

Decriminalization may only be a first step, but as of this writing, the Mexican Congress has only completed half of that first step.

Feature: Marijuana Reform Approaches the Tipping Point

Sometime in the last few months, the notion of legalizing marijuana crossed an invisible threshold. Long relegated to the margins of political discourse by the conventional wisdom, pot freedom has this year gone mainstream.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/marijuana-plants.jpg
Is reason dawning for marijuana policy?
The potential flu pandemic and President Obama's 100th day in office may have knocked marijuana off the front pages this week, but so far this year, the issue has exploded in the mass media, impelled by the twin forces of economic crisis and Mexican violence fueled by drug prohibition. A Google news search for the phrase "legalize marijuana" turned up more than 1,100 hits -- and that's just for the month of April.

It has been helped along by everything from the Michael Phelps non-scandal to the domination of marijuana legalization questions in the Change.gov questions, which prompted President Obama to laugh off the very notion, to the economy, to the debate over the drug war in Mexico. But it has also been ineffably helped along by the lifting of the oppressive burden of Bush administration drug war dogma. There is a new freedom in the air when it comes to marijuana.

Newspaper columnists and editorial page writers from across the land have taken up the cause with gusto, as have letter writers and bloggers. Last week, even a US senator got into the act, when Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) told CNN that marijuana legalization is "on the table."

But despite the seeming explosion of interest in marijuana legalization, the actual fact of legalization seems as distant as ever, a distant vision obscured behind a wall of bureaucracy, vested interests, and craven politicians. Drug War Chronicle spoke with some movement movers and shakers to find out just what's going on... and what's not.

"There is clearly more interest and serious discussion of whether marijuana prohibition makes any sense than I've seen at any point in my adult lifetime," said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "It's not just the usual suspects; it's people like Jack Cafferty on CNN and Senator Jim Webb, as well as editorial pages and columnists across the country."

Mirken cited a number of factors for the sudden rise to prominence of the marijuana issue. "I think it's a combination of things: Michael Phelps, the horrible situation on the Mexican border, the state of the economy and the realization that there is a very large industry out there that provides marijuana to millions of consumers completely outside the legal economy that is untaxed and unregulated," he said. "All of these factors have come together in a way that makes it much easier for people to connect the dots."

"Things started going white hot in the second week of January," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "We had the fallout from the Michael Phelps incident, the Change.gov marijuana question to Obama and his chuckling response, we have the Mexico violence, we have the economic issues," he counted. "All of these things have helped galvanize a certain zeitgeist that is palpable and that almost everyone can appreciate."

"The politicians are still very slow on picking up on the desires of citizens no matter how high the polling numbers go, especially on decriminalization and medical marijuana," said St. Pierre. "The polling numbers are over 70% for those, and support for legalization nationwide is now at about 42%, depending on which data set you use. Everything seems to be breaking for reform in these past few weeks, and I expect those numbers to only go up."

"It feels like we're reaching the tipping point," said Amber Langston, eastern region outreach director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy. "I've been feeling that for a couple of months now. The Michael Phelps incident sent a clear message that you can be successful and still have used marijuana. He's still a hero to lots of people," she said.

"I think we're getting close now," said Langston. "We have moved the conversation to the next level, where people are actually taking this seriously and we're not just having another fear-based discussion."

"There is definitely momentum building around marijuana issues," said Denver-based Mason Tvert, executive director of SAFER (Safer Alternatives for Enjoyable Recreation), which has built a successful strategy around comparing alcohol and marijuana. "Yet we still find ourselves in a situation where change is not happening. Up until now, people have made arguments around criminal justice savings, other economic benefits, ending the black market -- those things have got us to where we are today, but they haven't been enough to get elected officials to act," he argued.

"The problem is that there are still far too many people who see marijuana as so harmful it shouldn't be legalized," Tvert continued. "That suggests we need to be doing more to address the relative safety of marijuana, especially compared to drugs like alcohol. The good arguments above will then carry more weight. Just as a concerned parent doesn't want to reap the tax benefits of legal heroin, it's the same with marijuana. The mantra is why provide another vice. What we're saying is that we're providing an alternative for the millions who would prefer to use marijuana instead of alcohol."

With the accumulation of arguments for legalization growing ever weightier, the edifice of marijuana prohibition seems increasingly shaky. "Marijuana prohibition has become like the Soviet Empire circa 1987 or 1988," Mirken analogized. "It's an empty shell of a policy that continues only because it is perceived as being huge and formidable, but when the perception changes, the whole thing is going to collapse."

Still, translating the zeitgeist into real change remains a formidable task, said Mirken. "It is going to take hard work. All of us need to keep finding ways to keep these discussions going in the media, we need to work with open-minded legislators to get bills introduced where there can be hearings to air the facts and where we can refute the nonsense that comes from our opponents. Keeping the debate front and center is essential," he said.

Mirken is waiting for the other shoe to drop. "We have to be prepared for an empire strikes back moment," he said. "I predict that within the next year, there will be a concerted effort to scare the daylights out of people about marijuana."

Activists need to keep hammering away at both the federal government and state and local governments, Mirken said. "We are talking to members of Congress and seeing what might be doable. Even if nothing passes immediately, introducing a bill can move the discussion forward, but realistically, things are more likely to happen at the state and local level," he said, citing the legalization bill in California and hinting that MPP would try legalization in Nevada again.

Part of the problem of the mismatch between popular fervor and actual progress on reform is partisan positioning, said St. Pierre. "Even politicians who may be personally supportive and can appreciate what they see going on around them as this goes mainstream do not want to hand conservative Republicans a triangulation issue. The Democrats are begging for a certain degree of political maturity from the reform movement," he said. "They're dealing with two wars, tough economic times, trying to do health care reform. They don't want to raise cannabis to a level where it becomes contentious for Obama."

The window of opportunity for presidential action is four years down the road, St. Pierre suggested. "If Obama doesn't do anything next year, they will then be in reelection mode and unlikely to act," he mused. "I think our real shot comes after he is reelected. Then we have two years before he becomes a lame duck."

But we don't have to wait for Obama, said St. Pierre. "We expect Barney Frank and Ron Paul to reintroduce decriminalization and medical marijuana bills," he said. "I don't think they will pass this year, but we might get hearings, although I don't think that's likely until the fall."

It's not just that politicians need to understand that supporting marijuana legalization will not hurt them -- they need to understand that standing its way will. "The politicians aren't feeling the pain of being opposed to remain," St. Pierre said. "We have to take out one of those last remaining drug war zealots."

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