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Europe: Battle of the Swiss Drug Referenda

Swiss voters will have a clear choice on their drug policy preferences as they head to the polls on November 30. They can put their seal of approval on reforms approved by parliament in March, or they can vote for an abstinence-promoting referendum submitted by rightist parties that last week announced they had gathered the 50,000 signatures necessary to put their proposal on the ballot.

In March, the parliament backed a proposal that would decriminalize the use and possession of small amounts of drugs. The proposal would also permit the use of psychoactive drugs, including heroin, for scientific or therapeutic purposes.

That's too much for the uber-conservative Federal Democratic Union and Swiss People's Party, who filed the referendum challenging the proposal. The proposed law is too liberal, they said. Opposition from the People's Party has helped block drug reforms before in Switzerland. Later this year, we will see if the Swiss still find them persuasive.

Europe: Scottish Parliament Think-Tank Calls for Prescription Heroin, Safe Injection Sites, Legalized Marijuana

A think-tank established by the Scottish parliament and tasked with looking at new approaches to drug policy has issued a report calling for radical changes in the way Scotland deals with the damage of drug and alcohol use. Parliament asked the think-tank, the Scottish Futures Forum, to determine how the country could cut the damage in half by 2025.

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Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness, Scotland (photo from Sam Fentress via Wikimedia)
The forum's report, Approaches to Drugs and Alcohol in Scotland: A Question of Architecture, landed like a stink-bomb in the middle of the ongoing Scottish debate over drug policy, which in recent months has been dominated by calls for a renewed "tough" approach to drug use and trafficking. It recommended that all substance use, including legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco, should be subsumed under a single policy dominated by a public health approach and was harshly critical of over-reliance on the criminal justice system to reduce the harms caused by substance use.

"Historically, we have seen, in particular, drug use mainly as a justice issue," the report noted. "This is mistaken and alcohol and drugs should be seen predominantly as a health, lifestyle and social issue to be considered along with smoking, obesity and other lifestyle challenges. The current level of enforcement activity tackling low level use of illegal drugs may not be the most effective deployment of enforcement resources and is likely to fail in reducing drug and alcohol related damage by half by 2025. It should be recognized that sending people to prison for low-level alcohol and drug-related crime is unproductive and probably unsustainable."

Instead of current policies, Scotland should shift to evidence-based policies emphasizing a public health approach, the forum said. Such policies would include consideration of safe injection sites to reduce the spread of infectious disease, prescribing of heroin to addicts, and the taxation and regulation of marijuana. More resources should go to prevention and treatment of substance abuse, as opposed to law enforcement, the forum said.

The Scottish government was not pleased, and a spokesman ruled out any quick establishment of safe injection sites. "There are complex legal and ethical issues around consumption rooms that cannot be easily resolved," the spokesman said. As for prescribing heroin, Scotland will "wait and see" how pilot programs in England are working out, he said.

Scottish Conservatives were appalled, with Tory leader Annabel Goldie calling safe injection sites "shooting galleries" and saying they and marijuana legalization were ideas out of the past.

But Liberal Democrats were more open. Their spokeswoman, Margaret Smith, said: "Drugs misuse is a global problem and if other countries have developed new and radical solutions, then it is sensible to consider them for use in Scotland."

Latin America: More Argentine Courts Throw Out Drug Possession Charges

In April, judges in Argentine federal courts in the province of Buenos Aires threw out drug possession charges against two young men arrested at a 2007 electronic music festival, saying they were unconstitutional. Last week, more Argentine courts weighed in, with a group of judges echoing that ruling as they considered the case of a young man arrested for marijuana possession.

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2006 ''Million Marijuana March'' demonstration, Rosario, Argentina
The judges dismissed the charges, saying that criminalizing drug possession without showing harm to others violated the Argentine constitution. "Criminalization will only apply in cases where the possession of narcotics for personal consumption represents a danger for the public health of others," the judges announced, according to a report from the Associated Press.

For the past several years, the Argentine government has been working on a rewrite of the country's drug laws, but judges there are not waiting for the legislature to do its work. Their rulings are winning the support of constitutional scholars and are in line with the attitudes of the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Aníbal Fernández, the minister of justice, security, and health, has publicly denounced the country's drug laws as a "catastrophe."

"This criterion fits in well with the laws of more civilized nations," Daniel Sabsay, an Argentine constitutional scholar, told Buenos Aires's Clarin newspaper. "I believe that with this, the sense of a broadening of freedom is respected."

Feature: Brazil Appeals Court Rules Drug Possession Not a Crime

At the end of March, a Brazilian appeals court in São Paulo declared that possession of drugs for personal use is not a criminal offense. Several lower courts had previously ruled in the same way, but the ruling from the São Paulo Justice Court's 6th Criminal Chamber marked the first time an appeals court there had found Brazil's drug law unconstitutional as it pertains to simple drug possession.

The ruling came in the case of Ronaldo Lopes, who was arrested with 7.7 grams of cocaine in three separate bags on the night before Carnival began in 2007. Lopes acknowledged that the drugs were his and said they were for his personal use. Lopes was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison as a drug trafficker. But the appeals court judges threw out the trafficking charge since it was based on an anonymous complaint. It then threw out the possession charge, saying it was unconstitutional.

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Psicotropicus banner promoting marijuana (maconha) legalization.
In his opinion in the case, Judge José Henrique Rodrigues Torres said the law criminalizing drug possession for personal use was invalid because it violated the constitutional principles of harm (there is no harm to third parties), privacy (it is a personal choice), and equality (possessing alcohol is not a crime). "One cannot admit any state intervention, mainly repressive and of penal character, in the realm of personal choice, especially when it comes to legislating morality," he said.

The ruling applies only to Lopes, but can be used as a precedent in other court proceedings. There is no word yet on whether the Brazilian government will appeal.

The ruling comes nearly two years after Brazil changed its drug laws to depenalize -- but not decriminalize -- drug possession for personal use. Under that law, drug possession is still a criminal offense, but penalties are limited to fines, fees, education, and community service.

In his opinion, Torres cited earlier decisions by now retired Judge Maria Lúcia Karam, who told the Chronicle this week the appeals court decision was "praiseworthy" and "significant."

"The praiseworthy ruling by a Court of Appeals in São Paulo, proclaiming the unconstitutionality of the Brazilian law that criminalizes drug possession for personal use, is a remarkable moment in Brazil's judicial history," she said. "This is a decision of great significance. This is the first time a Brazilian appeals court has clearly stated that a law that criminalizes drug possession for personal use contradicts the Constitution and the international declarations of human rights. This is the first time that a Brazilian appeals court has clearly stated that drug possession for personal use is a behavior that matters only to the individual, to his or her privacy, and to his or her personal choices. This is the first time that a Brazilian appeals court has clearly stated that the state is not authorized to interfere within this sphere of privacy. This is the first time that a Brazilian appeals court has clearly stated that the individual shall be free to be and to do whatever he or she wants, while behaving in such a way that does not affect any rights of others," Karam said.

The decision should reverberate through the Brazilian courts, said Karam. "This is a real precedent, and it should encourage other Brazilian courts and judges to also accomplish their main mission, that is to guarantee liberty and all other fundamental rights of individuals, to actually respect the Constitution and the international declarations of human rights," she said.

"This is good news," agreed Luiz Paulo Guanabara, head of the Brazilian drug reform group Psicotropicus. "The 2006 drug law reform did away with prison sentences for people possessing illicit drugs for personal use, but under that law, drug users were still criminals who could be penalized by community service or fines and fees. This is an advance," he said.

"Amazing," said Martín Arangurí Soto, a graduate student in political science in São Paulo and Drug War Chronicle's Spanish and Portuguese translator. "The Justice Court of São Paulo is a very conservative court. It was among the ones that banned the marijuana marches at the beginning of this month," he noted. "Does this mean the marijuana march is on next year? They won't be able to argue that it is an 'apology for drug use,' because possessing for personal use is not a crime anymore."

Drug law reform is a work in process in Brazil, said Guanabara. "This is a timely decision because the new law is not carved in stone and must be amended to fit social reality. Now we have the chance to quit unjustly criminalizing people for consuming this or that substance or carrying illicit drugs for personal use."

One of the remaining issues to be resolved is what quantity of drugs is considered personal use, said Guanabara. "There is no set quantity to distinguish users from dealers," he explained. "This ruling is notable because the defendant was caught carrying more than seven grams of cocaine. If he had lived in a slum and been detained with that same amount he would have been considered a drug dealer and subjected to the same penalties as someone caught with 10 kilos of cocaine, which is one of the more irrational aspects of our drug laws."

Beyond the impact the ruling could have on the lives of drug users, it also shows how far Brazil has come, said Guanabara. "The drug policy discussion has reached the mainstream in Brazil," he said. "When Psicotropicus was created just a few years ago, the topic was taboo and people who spoke in favor of drug policy reform were regarded as lunatics or advocates against the 'indisputable' crime of possessing, using or selling the forbidden drugs."

Southeast Asia: Vietnam Ponders Drug Decriminalization

The Vietnamese National Assembly is considering legislation that would make drug use an administrative violation -- not a crime. Under current Vietnamese law, drug use is a criminal offense, a violation of Article 199 of the country's criminal code, and is punishable by up two years in prison.

But Truong Thi Mai, chair of the Assembly's Committee on Social Affairs, told a press conference last Friday the committee had recommended scrapping Article 199. "Being addicted to or using drugs should be considered a disease, and should only be subject to administrative fines," Mai said. "We cannot jail hundreds of thousands of drug users, can we?"

In actuality, Vietnam does not typically jail drug users; instead, it confines them in mandatory drug detoxification centers for up to two years, or in some centers, up to five years. Local governments maintain lists of drug addicts in their areas and send them to detox centers at their discretion. Few drug users are actually prosecuted under Article 199, so the impact of a decriminalization move would be mostly symbolic.

Still, that would be a good thing, said Le Minh Loan, a police chief and former director of counter-drug efforts in a province with one of the country's highest heroin addiction rates. "I think it makes sense to drop the article," Loan said. "Few countries in the world sentence drug addicts to prison terms."

Vietnamese drug rehabilitation efforts are not particularly effective, Loan said. "The rate of relapse into drug use is very high."

While Vietnam has harsh laws for drug dealing -- 85 people were sentenced to death last year for drug offenses and nine more so far this year -- those laws have had little impact on drug use in the Southeast Asian nation. Harsh enforcement is not working, said Mai. "Many people have been sentenced to death for trafficking heroin, but heroin trafficking is still rampant," Mai said. "The traffickers know that the laws are strict but they are still trafficking narcotics."

Marijuana: New York City Pot Arrest Capital of the World

Police in New York City arrested more than 39,700 people on marijuana charges last year, and that is no fluke. In the last decade, nearly 400,000 New Yorkers have been arrested for carrying small amounts of marijuana, the vast majority of them black or brown.

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The figures come from a just released report by Queens College sociologist Harry Levine and Breaking the Chains executive director Deborah Small. According to the report, "Marijuana Arrest Crusade," whites constituted only 15% of those arrested, while Hispanics were 31% and blacks made up more than half of all pot arrests, with 52%.

"Racial profiling is a fact of life on the streets of New York City," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, during a news conference at the group's Manhattan headquarters.

New York is among the small number of states that decriminalized marijuana possession in the late 1970s, but that hasn't stopped police from arresting people carrying small amounts of weed and then subjecting them to average 24-hour stays in New York City jails while they await arraignment. Police get around the decrim law by "manufacturing" arrests for "possession in public view," said Levine. Police routinely stop young black and brown men on the streets, force them to empty their pockets, then charge them with the more serious "possession in public view" offense.

Since Big Apple marijuana arrests started going through the roof during the administration of Mayor Rudolf Giuliani, the city has sometimes accounted for one out of 10 marijuana arrests in the entire country. Last year, that figure was lower, with New York accounting for roughly 5% of pot arrests nationwide, still a huge number.

That makes New York City "the marijuana arrest capital of the world," said Lieberman.

In Mexico's Drug Heartland, A Debate on Alternatives to the Drug War Takes Place

About 6:30 local time Wednesday evening, the latest outbreak of Mexican drug war violence occurred in Culiacán, the capital of the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa, long a drug-producing region and home to one of the most feared of the country's drug trafficking organizations, the Sinaloa cartel. Two cartel gunman and two Culiacán policemen died in a series of shoot-outs that broke out when Mexican soldiers and police attempted to arrest suspected narcos, or cartel members.

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shrine to San Malverde, patron saint of the narcos (and others), Culiacan -- plaque thanking God, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and San Malverde for keeping the roads cleans -- from ''the indigenous people from Angostura to Arizona''

The deaths occurred less than a mile from the central Culiacán hotel where a number of intellectuals, academics, and political figures were staying while they were in town for a two-day International Forum on Illicit Drugs organized by the muckraking local newsweekly Ríodoce. The bloody gun battles were poignant punctuation for a conference Tuesday and Wednesday dedicated to seeking alternatives to Mexico's drug war, which has seen nearly 1,000 people killed so far this year, and nearly 4,000 dead since President Felipe Calderón called out the army at the beginning of 2007.

While Calderón and his allies in the Bush administration are seeking a $1.4 billion anti-drug aid package to try to break the back of the cartels by ramping up Mexican military involvement in the fray under the Plan Mérida initiative, the Culiacán conference was dedicated to searching for a different path. Its subtitle was "Plan Mérida and the Experiences of Decriminalization."

Organized by Ríodoce as a response to the violence that appears to be spiraling out of control, the forum brought together leading Mexican drug experts, such as Luis Astorga, head of the UNESCO program studying the economic and social aspects of drugs and the drug trade; Dr. Humberto Brocca, a Mexico City physician who deals with street youth and drug addiction; Ricardo Ravel, a journalist for the Mexico City newsweekly Proceso and author of numerous books on the Mexican cartels; General Francisco Gallardo, the leading proponent of human rights in the Mexican military; Jorge Hernández Tinajero, advisor to Deputy Elsa Conde and founding member of AMECA (the Mexican Assocation for Cannabis Studies), and Carlos Montemayor, a towering figure among the Mexican intelligentsia, among others.

They were joined by Colombian drug specialist Francisco Thoumi, director of the Center for the Study of Drugs and Crime at the University of Rosario in Bogota; and Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the New York City-based Drug Policy Alliance. Also in attendance, albeit briefly, were a number of local political figures, including a former state governor, a member of the state congress, the state human rights coordinator, and the state coordinator for the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). The attendance of the local political figures at the forum's opening session is a sign that, given a massive military presence (about 1,000 more Mexican army troops deployed to Culiacán last week, joining about 2,000 others already working in the state), rising levels of violence, and endemic corruption among law enforcement and political figures, the state's political elite is starting to look for alternatives to even more soldiers, more narcos, and more violence.

"The drug trade has become one of the most complex and important problems facing us today," said Ríodoce publisher Ismael Bojórquez as he opened the conference Tuesday morning in the Torre Académica at the Culiacán campus of the Autonomous University of Sinaloa. "Our efforts to fight it have not produced results. But it is not just a law enforcement problem, it is also a health problem. How do we protect drug consumers? Here today, we are proposing that given the failure of our drug policy, we need to look at alternatives."

[Much of the discussion at the forum focused on Plan Mérida and the militarization of Mexico's drug war. See that discussion here.]

AMECA founder Jorge Hernández Tinajero explained one alternative, the decriminalization of marijuana use and possession, as a first step on a path toward meaningful drug reform in Mexico. "We have a proposal before the congress that would remove criminal penalties for marijuana possession," he explained, arguing that marijuana smokers should be dealt with outside the criminal justice system.

Although conceding that change will come incrementally if at all, Hernández Tinajero also made a broader anti-prohibitionist argument. "It is disingenuous to say that we should rely on the military and police to reduce the supply of drugs," he said. "Who trusts the police? Nobody," he said, to cheers and laughter from the audience.

While the Ríodoce conference marked the first public gathering in Sinaloa to discuss alternatives to the drug war, it is a problem that has been festering for years, said Nery Córdova, a poet and essayist who is a member of the social sciences faculty at Autonomous University of Sinaloa. "We've been discussing this for some time, and not just professionals and academics," he told a rapt audience of students, community members, and other interested parties. "This is a problem that involves millions of people here in Mexico. Prohibition has been very profitable," he noted.

But while prohibition has been profitable for some, it also imposes steep costs on others, Córdova said. "We've seen the army raid thousands of villages, and now, in the mountains hundreds of villages are just vanishing. We have seen massacres of innocents by the military, and at the same time, we have the media telling us that killing a narco is saving the homeland. But the use of institutional force and violence only generates more violence," he said.

"Prohibition has been inefficient and useless," said José Manuel Valenzuela, a professor in the Department of Cultural Studies at the College of the Northern Frontier in Tijuana, and author of award-winning books on popular culture and "narco-culture." "Prohibition corrupts not only the police forces and the army, but also many other spheres of society. We have become accustomed to confronting this in a brutal manner," he said.

There is a better way, said Brocca, citing the experience of Holland. But getting to a better solution, he said, requires looking within. "Blaming drugs obscures real problems," he said. "We fear the truth."

Still, said Brocca, times are changing. "We are used to working in the trenches, and we've been waiting for change to come from above, but this is changing. This decrim bill is the result of a group of us -- political people, doctors, academics, celebrities -- coming together to push for change."

But while panelist after panelist made strong arguments for a paradigm shift in drug policy, it was DPA's Nadelmann, with his energetic public presentation unimpeded by the necessity of ongoing translation, who stole the show and most captivated the crowd.

"The war on drugs is a disaster; it's contrary to common sense, the laws of economics, and human rights," Nadelmann told a rapt audience. "Our policy has resulted in a global prohibition regime that uses the criminal laws with respect to some drugs, but not others. Those decisions were not based on science or medicine; they had less to do with the dangers of various substances than with who was using them," he said, citing the racist history of drug laws in the US and comparing them to the contemporary "hysteria" over the of people from Mexico into the US , an approach that resonated plainly with his Mexican audience.

While various speakers at the forum placed Mexico's drug war within the ambit of American neo-colonialism -- oh, what a difference being outside the US makes! -- Nadelmann disagreed. "It's easy to believe that American drug policy with respect to Mexico is primarily to advance American political, military, and economic interests, or that the real intention is to humiliate Mexico. I think that's mostly false," he said. "What we are seeing is simply the international projection of our domestic psychosis. We are crazy when it comes to drugs, and Mexico must be swept up. It isn't rational, and it doesn't advance our national interest. Our interest is in peace, security, and open markets, and the American drug war does not serve those interests. Our craziness undermines us," he argued.

"What's the alternative? Legal regulation must be on the table. What Mexico is experiencing today reminds of Chicago under Al Capone -- the crime, the violence, the corruption," Nadelmann continued. "These are not the consequences of drugs, but of a failed prohibitionist approach."

About the time Nadelmann was saying those words the latest killings in Culiacán took place. As audience members left the forum, went home, and turned on their televisions, Mexico's narcos, soldiers, and police were busy reinforcing the arguments heard at the Torre Académica.

Latin America: Argentine Court Decriminalizes Drug Possession in Buenos Aires

A federal court in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires Tuesday decriminalized drug possession in the capital in a ruling that could be altered by the country's high court, but which is in line with the position of the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. In issuing its ruling, the federal court threw out thousands of drug possession cases pending in the federal district.

The ruling from the federal court of appeals came in the case of two young people arrested for possession of marijuana joints and ecstasy tablets at an electronic music concert in 2007. In those cases, the court held that the 1989 drug law that punished simple drug possession or consumption is unconstitutional .

Under that law, drug users were seen as the base of a chain that led directly to drug traffickers. But the appeals court held that that law generated "an avalanche of cases against users without managing to ascend the links of the chain to the drug traffickers."

The current government is in favor of reforming drug laws. During a recent UN session, Argentine Justice and Security Minister Aníbal Fernández called the policy of punishing drug users "an absolute failure."

Now, a federal appeals court has ratified that opinion.

How Can We Debate Them if They Don't Even Know What Decriminalization Means?

The Los Angeles Times is publishing a series of debate pieces this week between Saying Yes author Jacob Sullum and Charles Stimson, a former prosecutor and senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Here's the first question:
What's the difference between drug legalization and decriminalization? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
Jacob Sullum's answer is terrific. Charles Stimson's answer begins this way:
Two points: First, there is no difference between decriminalization and legalization. Second, whichever term you want to use, it's a bad idea.

I suppose there is nothing more predictable in the world than the tendency of drug warriors to open their arguments with sweeping and false generalizations. Still, this is just so dumb and wrong that it barely qualifies as an opinion.

We could debate the exact meaning of decriminalization, but it is typically used to describe situations in which penalties are simply reduced, i.e. a fine instead of possible jail time. You can still be taken into custody and subjected to various escalating sanctions. For example, 33,000 people were arrested for possessing small quantities of marijuana in New York City in 2006, despite a decrim policy that's been in effect since 1977. Legalization ends possession arrests and presumably regulates commerce.

It shouldn't be necessary to define commonly used legal terms for a senior legal fellow at a prestigious thinktank, but this is the drug war, and as usual, its supporters can be found creating their own reality in which to debate us.

After getting the opening question wrong, Stimson launches into a series of preposterous claims. He observes that daily wine consumption improves health, while daily marijuana use destroys the mind. He accuses drug-addicted navy sailors of threatening national security. He suggests that some states don't charge people for committing rape. He insists that drug users have too many children out of wedlock.

I can't frickin' wait to hear what he'll say in tomorrow's installment.

[thanks, Scott]

Localização: 
United States

Marijuana: Nebraska Legislature Passes Stiffer Decrim Penalties, Bill Heads to Governor's Desk

The Nebraska legislature Tuesday gave its approval to a measure that will increase the penalties for small-time marijuana possession in the Cornhusker state. Under Nebraska's current marijuana decriminalization statute, in place since 1979, first-time possession of less than an ounce of weed is punishable by no more than a $100 fine, $200 for a second offense, and $300 for a third offense.

Under Legislative Bill 844, the maximum fine for first-time possession of less than an ounce will be $300, $400 for a second offense, and $500 for a third offense. The measure would also increase the maximum penalty for possession of more than an ounce, but less than a pound. Under current law, violators face a $500 fine and up to a week in jail. Under the new law, the fine would remain the same, but the maximum jail sentence would increase dramatically to three months.

The bill was introduced by State Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilbur, who argued that fines should be increased because they are not as stiff as those facing minors caught possessing alcohol. In Nebraska, drinking under 21 can get you 90 days in jail and a $500 fine. The marijuana decrim penalties apply to both minors and adults.

Karpisek's reasoning must have appealed to his fellow legislators. The upward revision of decrim penalties passed on a 40-2 vote.

In 2006, there were 7,416 arrests and citations made for marijuana possession, sale and manufacture, according to the Nebraska Crime Commission. The commission did not break down those figures, but assuming roughly 90% of arrests and citations were for simple possession -- about the national average -- that means the state of Nebraska stands to see its pot fine revenues increase from somewhere around $600,000 a year to $1.8 million.

Nice racket.

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