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Harm Reduction: Pittsburgh Needle Exchange Wins Health Board Approval for Continued Operation

Prevention Point Pittsburgh, the sole needle exchange provider in the Pittsburgh area, is one step closer to being allowed to continue to operate after the Allegheny County Board of Health Wednesday approved regulations formalizing its operation. The exchange program had come under attack in April, when county council members questioned its legality in what was in large part a bureaucratic spat between the council and the health board.

"We're incredibly pleased," Renee Cox, executive director of Prevention Point Pittsburgh, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Thursday. "All in all, it's worked out well. It does grant us a little more permanency now that we have formal regulations."

It was a bumpy ride, though. After county council members complained in April, the health board in May drafted regulations that would have required people exchanging needles to give their names and other identifying information and would have banned "secondary exchanges," where people pick up needles and then distribute them to others not in the program. The board heard those complaints.

"They restored anonymity of exchangers, which is absolutely fundamental to the operation of the needle exchange," Cox said. "They also allowed for secondary exchange, which will expand the reach of this small program."

The new regulations must still be approved by the county council.

Feature: Vancouver's Safe Injection Site Gets Only Limited Continuing Exemption

Insite, Vancouver's pioneering safe injection site, won a reprieve from the Conservative government of Prime Minister Steven Harper last Friday -- but only a limited one. The site's three-year exemption from Canada's drug laws was set to expire next week, and the Harper government had dallied for months on whether it would re-approve the controversial harm reduction experiment. Supporters, including the city of Vancouver, the current and two former mayors, local activists, researchers from around the world, and Canadian politicians had sought a renewal of the three-year exemption, but the Harper government instead announced it would renew the exemption only through December 2007.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/insite1.jpg
InSite (courtesy Vancouver Coastal Health)
In an announcement last Friday afternoon -- seemingly timed to make the story vanish during a three-day holiday weekend news dump -- Health Minister Tony Clement said the results of the first three years of Insite's operation raised new questions that must be answered before the Harper government would make a decision about the long-term future of Insite or approve any other safe injection sites in Canada.

"Do safe injection sites contribute to lowering drug use and fighting addiction? Right now the only thing the research to date has proven conclusively is that drug addicts need more help to get off drugs," Minister Clement said. "Given the need for more facts, I am unable to approve the current request to extend the Vancouver site for another three and a half years."

Clement's remarks reflected the Harper government's ideological antagonism toward harm reduction practices in general and any form of dealing with drug users that does not involve abstinence in particular. "We believe the best form of harm reduction is to help addicts to break the cycle of dependency," Clement said, "We also need better education and prevention to ensure Canadians don't get addicted to drugs in the first place."

Although Insite and Vancouver Coastal Health, the government entity charged with operating the site, have produced reams of research showing that the site has reduced drug overdoses, attracted users at risk to HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C, increased the number of users seeking treatment or counseling, and reduced needle sharing -- all without leading to increases in crime or drug use -- the Health Ministry insists it wants more.

"We looked at research put out by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and others," Health Ministry spokesman Erik Waddell told Drug War Chronicle. "We want more research done to show that this form of harm reduction will actually help addicts get off drugs."

While Minister Clement and the Harper government are calling for more research on the efficacy of Insite, they aren't willing to pay for it. The federal government had been sponsoring research at Insite to the tune of $500,000 a year, but Waddell said that had come to an end. "We will not be providing any additional funding for research," he said.

That was news to Vancouver Coastal Health and supporters of Insite. "We hadn't heard that," said Viviana Zanocco, spokeswoman for Vancouver Coastal Health. "We're still trying to get in touch with them and waiting for details," she told Drug War Chronicle. "Still, we are pleased the extension has been granted, even though it's not for the 3 ½ years we requested."

"It's good news that the exemption has been extended and they didn't close it down," said Gillian Maxwell of Insite for Community Safety, a coalition created to help ensure the site's continued existence. "Insite is staying open because of the broad support for it and the depth of research carried out that shows what is has already achieved," she told the Chronicle.

But Maxwell also complained that the Harper government is moving the goalposts. "They have raised the bar on us," she said. "We have a harm reduction program that helps people get into treatment, but now the Harper government wants it to show it helps people stop taking drugs. We can never get everyone to stop taking drugs. This means we have a lot of work to do to protect Insite."

Maxwell said she was shocked but not surprised by the Health Ministry's refusal to fund the additional research it calls for. "They are ideologically opposed to this, so they try to make it as difficult as possible. They may think things should be a certain way, but reality and the research say otherwise."

While the short term extension of the exemption is better than shutting down the facility, said Maxwell, it could well signal that the Harper government will try to shut it down permanently later on. "They didn't feel confident enough to try to close it down now, but they have already made it clear they favor a three-pillar, not a four-pillar, approach. They have little use for harm reduction, and I think they believe that 16 months from now there will have been another election and they will have a majority and then they can shut it down."

Representatives of Insite and the Vancouver city drug policy office were on vacation this week and unavailable to comment.

Ann Livingston of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) predicted months ago that the Harper government would seek an interim solution. "I guess I was right," she told Drug War Chronicle. "I know these guys, and they don't want to let us mount a campaign. If they had said no outright, that would have been great, we could have really mobilized."

But Livingston and VANDU are not just sitting back and waiting for December 2007. The group filed a lawsuit late last month seeking an injunction to keep the site open and charging the Harper government with discriminating against people with diagnosable illnesses like drug addiction. "Criminalizing a group of people who are addicted to drugs is blocking them from health care, and that's a Charter right," she said. "The lawsuit will continue."

The lawsuit also charged that Insite does not need an exemption from the Canadian drug laws and even if it does, the government has provided no application process. "The staff at Insite doesn't handle drugs, so they shouldn't need an exemption," Livingston argued. "If they are going to argue that they do need a permit, they have to tell us how to do that. Right now there is no application process; it's all at the whim of a minister."

The safe injection site has survived one execution date, but the would-be executioners in Ottawa are still sharpening their axes. Fortunately for Insite, it has a lot of friends and a proven track record. This battle is going to continue for awhile.

Reformers Call for a “New Bottom Line”

For Immediate Release: September 7, 2006 Contact: Tony Newman (646) 335-5384 OR Bill Piper (202) 669-6430 New Government Survey Shows Illegal Drug Use Rates Holding Steady; Drug War Critics Point to Overwhelming Failure Death, Disease, Incarceration, Drug Availability All Up at Price Tag of $40 Billion+ Annually Reformers Call for a “New Bottom Line” That Focuses on Reducing the Harms of Both Drug Abuse and the War on Drugs; Offer Concrete Steps to Save Lives The federal government’s latest estimates of the number of Americans who use illegal drugs finds that illegal drug use rates are holding steady overall. While government officials find reason to be optimistic in some areas, they also find reasons to be pessimistic in others. For instance, fewer teens are using marijuana, but more young adults are using cocaine and illegal prescription drugs. The nation’s largest drug policy reform organization, the Drug Policy Alliance, is urging policymakers to look beyond drug use rates. "What matters most is not whether drug use rates go up or down, but whether the death, disease, crime and suffering associated with both drugs and drug prohibition goes up or down,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “The war on drugs continues to cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars every year with nothing to show for it except broken families, overflowing jail cells and increasing drug overdoses.” Despite spending hundreds of billions of dollars and incarcerating millions of Americans, experts acknowledge that drugs remain cheap, potent and widely available in every community. Meanwhile, the harms associated with drug abuse – addiction, overdose and the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis – continue to mount. Add to this record of failure the collateral damage of the war on drugs – broken families, racial disparities, wasted tax dollars, and the erosion of civil liberties – and critics claim that it is foolish and irresponsible to claim success. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, if the government were serious about the health and welfare of its citizens, it would immediately take the following steps:
  • Make appropriate drug treatment available to every person who seeks it, including methadone maintenance - which has been proven to be the most effective treatment for heroin dependence.
  • Make sterile syringes readily and legally available through pharmacies and syringe exchange programs in order to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS. The United States is alone among advanced industrialized western nations in refusing to provide a penny for such programs, which save lives without increasing drug use.
  • Stop incarcerating citizens for drug possession, repeal federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, and return sentencing discretion to judges.
  • Stop wasting money and scarce law enforcement resources on marijuana, and allow states to tax, regulate, and control marijuana through legal, regulated markets if they choose. This would eliminate unregulated, criminal markets; generate tax revenue; make better use of scarce law enforcement resources; and allow state policymakers to regulate marijuana’s potency, establish age controls, and control marijuana’s use and availability. “The government’s current approach to drugs, with its drug free rhetoric and over-reliance on punitive, criminal justice policies costs billions more each year yet delivers less and less,” said Piper. “It’s time for a new bottom line in drug policy, one that focuses on reducing the harms associated with both drug abuse and the war on drugs.” ###
Location: 
United States

Health Board Okays Needle Exchange

Location: 
Pittsburgh, PA
United States
Publication/Source: 
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
URL: 
http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/06250/719683-114.stm

Canadian Federal Government Demands More Research on Safe Injection Site, But Won't Pay For It

The Canadian federal government -- relatively hostile to harm reduction measures like safe injection sites since the Conservative Party took power in the last elections -- will not fund further research for Vancouver's InSite safe injection site, Health Ministry spokesman Eric Waddell told the Drug War Chronicle this afternoon. That was news to the site's operator, the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, whose spokesperson Viviana Zonacco said she had not been informed of that aspect of the ministry's decision.

The Health Ministry had funded research on the injection site's efficacy for the past three years to the tune of $500,000 a year. The ministry extended the site's exemption from the country's drug laws for only year instead of three years last Friday—the dead news day before the three-day weekend in Canada—saying that it required further research on how well it worked. But after demanding more research, the Health Ministry doesn't want to pay for it. Go figger.

I learned about this as I was researching an article I will write about the decision for this week's Chronicle. Check it out on Friday.

Location: 
Vancouver, BC
Canada

Swiss Heroin Model Reporting Benefits

Location: 
Publication/Source: 
Swiss Info
URL: 
http://www.swissinfo.org/eng/front/detail/Swiss_heroin_model_reporting_benefits.html?siteSect=105&sid=7032610&cKey=1157366472000

Health Canada Postponing Decision on Vancouver Safe Injection Site

Location: 
Vancouver, BC
Canada
Publication/Source: 
Health Canada
URL: 
http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ahc-asc/media/nr-cp/2006/2006_85_e.html

Drug Users Go to Court to Keep Safe Injection Site Open

Press Release – For Immediate Release, August 31, 2006 Drug Users go to Court to keep Safe Injection Site Open Vancouver – The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) will seek an injunction in BC Supreme Court to prevent the federal government from closing Insite, North America’s first safe injection site. Scientific research in the world’s leading medical journals has established Insite as a success in reducing the harms associated with injection drug use in Canada’s poorest neighbourhood. Despite widespread support however, the Conservative government has refused to confirm that they will renew the permit for the site, due to expire September 12, 2006. A press conference providing details of the lawsuit and injunction application will be held: Friday, September 1, 2006 1pm to 2pm Carnegie Centre Auditorium 410 Main Street, Vancouver VANDU is represented by John Conroy, Q.C., a director of Pivot Legal Society and a well-known senior member of the Bar. ------------------------------------------------------- About Pivot Legal Society Pivot’s mandate is to take a strategic approach to social change, using the law to address the root causes that undermine the quality of life of those most on the margins. We believe that everyone, regardless of income, benefits from a healthy and inclusive community where values such opportunity, respect and equality are strongly rooted in the law.
Location: 
Vancouver, BC
Canada

Feature: Living on Katrina Time -- Lost in Louisiana's Gumbo Gulag

New Orleans resident Pearl Bland was arrested and jailed on drug paraphernalia charges in August 2005, just weeks before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. She pleaded guilty on August 11, and her judge ordered her released the next day for placement in a drug rehabilitation program. Recognizing Bland was indigent, he waived the fines and fees. But Bland was not released the next day. The Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) instead held her because she owed $398 in fines and fees from an earlier arrest. She had one more court hearing in August and a September 20 status hearing was set where in all probability the fines and fees would have been waived.

Pearl Bland never got her September hearing. Instead, once Katrina hit, she joined thousands of prisoners stuck in purgatory. After suffering beatings from her fellow inmates in the OPP as deputies shrugged their shoulders, Bland was evacuated, first to the maximum security state prison at Angola and eventually to a jail in Avoyelles Parish. In June, she desperately contacted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which in turn contacted attorneys with the Tulane University Criminal Law Clinic, who managed to win her release on June 28. Bland wasn’t there for her release hearing, just as she hadn’t been present at four previous hearings in the preceding weeks, because her jailers couldn’t be bothered to deliver her to court.

"Pearl Bland spent 10 months in prisons around the state because of $398 in fines and fees that her judge would most likely have waived if she had ever gotten to court," said Tom Javits, an attorney with the ACLU's National Prison Project. "But because of the storm and the the response to it, she didn’t get her day in court for months, and then only because she sought out help," he told the Drug War Chronicle.

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ACLU report
It would be bad enough if Pearl Bland were a fluke, but sadly, her case is typical of what happened to people unfortunate enough to be behind bars when Katrina hit or to be arrested in the storm's aftermath. As the ACLU National Prison Project and the ACLU of Louisiana documented in their early August report, "Abandoned and Abused: Orleans Parish Prisoners in the Wake of Katrina," thousands of New Orleanians in custody when the storm hit were left on their own as guards fled the rising waters. Since then, those prisoners have been scattered to the winds, left without counsel, abused by guards, and left to rot by a justice system that is seemingly content to forget all about them. And with post-Katrina reconstruction bearing a very heavy law enforcement imprint, they have been joined by thousands more, many of them imprisoned for trivial crimes like spitting on the sidewalk, public drunkenness and simple drug possession.

A year after Katrina, thousands of prisoners have never seen an attorney, never been arraigned, never appeared before a judge. Scandalously, no one has a firm count -- or if they do, they're not telling. "Nobody knows the numbers," said law professor Pamela Metzger, who heads the Tulane Law School Criminal Law Clinic and whose students have been going into Louisiana jails and prisons in search of the Katrina prisoners. "When we ask the district attorney's office to assist us with this, just so people can get lawyers, they say it's not their job. Just since June, my students have been able to track down and get released about 95 people," said Metzger. "But we just have no one of knowing how many are in jail."

When the Chronicle asked ACLU of Louisiana executive director Joe Cook the same question, he had a similar answer. "I don't know what the number is. Ask the district attorney," he said.

The New Orleans district attorney's office did not return repeated calls seeking information on the number of people arrested before or after Katrina who have yet to see a lawyer or have a court hearing. Similarly, and perhaps indicative of the state of affairs at the public defenders office, no one there even answered the phone despite repeated calls. (That's not quite true. On one occasion, a woman answered, but she said she was an accountant and no one else was in the office.)

Published estimates of the number of New Orleans prisoners denied their basic rights to counsel and speedy trial have ranged between 3,000 and 6,000.

Part of the problem is the nearly total collapse of the indigent defender system in the city. It was in terrible shape before the storm hit, and collapsed along with the rest of the criminal justice system in the storm's wake. But while authorities were quick to get law enforcement up and running, it took until June for the criminal courts to begin to operate, and the public defenders' office, which depends on revenue from fines to finance its operations, was running on fumes. Now, nearly three-quarters of the public defenders have simply left even though they are needed to represent about 85% of all criminal defendants in the city.

The situation aroused the attention of the US Department of Justice, which in a report released in April concluded that: "People wait in jail with no charges, and trials cannot take place; even defendants who wish to plead guilty must have counsel for a judge to accept the plea. Without indigent defense lawyers, New Orleans today lacks a true adversarial process, the process to ensure that even the poorest arrested person will get a fair deal, that the government cannot simply lock suspects [up] and forget about them... For the vast majority of arrested individuals," the study found, "justice is simply unavailable."

The situation is also beginning to grate on the nerves of New Orleans judges. In May, Chief Judge of the Criminal District Court Calvin Johnson issued an order requiring everyone charged with traffic or municipal offenses to be cited instead of jailed. The city has "a limited number of jail spaces, and we can’t fill them with people charged with minor offenses such as disturbing the peace, trespassing or spitting on the sidewalk... I’m not exaggerating: There were people in jail for spitting on the sidewalk," he complained.

Last week, another New Orleans criminal court judge, Arthur Hunter, made the news when he threatened to begin holding hearings this week to release some of the prisoners held for months without attorneys or court hearings. That was supposed to happen Tuesday, but it didn't. Instead, Judge Hunter postponed the hearing after prosecutors raised concerns.

While disruptions in the system were inevitable in the wake of Katrina, Tulane's Metzger laid part of the blame on the district attorney's office. "They have made some poor resourcing choices and they are hampered by a sort of knee-jerk response that everything has to be prosecuted to the fullest extent. They are not really looking to clear cases; instead they let people sit without lawyers until they're willing to plead guilty," she said. "It's a form of prosecutorial extortion."

It is not just people who were in jail when Katrina hit, but many of those arrested since who have vanished into the gumbo gulag, said Metzger. "Last week we found a man who had been jailed at the Angola maximum security prison since January. He was picked up for drug possession, his only prior was for marijuana, and he's been sitting in one of the meanest prisons in the country without even seeing a lawyer for eight months," she exclaimed. "We won an order for his release. He was supposed to get out Tuesday, but he's still in jail. We just don’t know how many more there are like him."

The district attorney's office is not only uncooperative, it is downright obstinate, Metzger complained. "We filed a right to speedy trial claim on behalf of a man named Gregory Lewis who had already served 10 months on a drug misdemeanor with a six-month maximum. The district attorney's office fought that, and their motion actually said, and I quote, 'It's not unreasonable to hold alleged drug addicts in jail longer than other people; it allows the deadly drugs to leave their system,'" she said.

The district attorney's office motion referred obliquely to detoxification, which is ironic given that there is now no such facility in New Orleans. "There is not a single detox bed in the whole city," said Samantha Hope of the Hope Network, a group that is seeking private funding to open a treatment and recovery center in the heart of the city. "Most folks in OPP right now are people who couldn’t get access to treatment for an alcohol or drug problem. That's the way it's been since day one," she told the Chronicle. "Rather than criminalize people with an alcohol or drug problem, we need to find a way to give them support. Confronting our money-eating corrections system, our good ol' boy network, and racism, that is hard to do."

The Tulane students have filed some speedy trial cases, but not everyone is fortunate enough to have a Tulane law student working his case so he can file a speedy trial claim. "In order to file a motion for a speedy trial, you have to have a lawyer, and thousands still do not have counsel,' explained ACLU of Louisiana's Cook. "The indigent defense system was broken long before Katrina hit, and now it is just a disaster," he told the Chronicle.

Drug war prisoners make up a significant but unknown number of those doing "Katrina time," said Cook. "It is definitely a significant proportion of them," he said, "but many of them have not even been formally charged. In New Orleans, as in most large urban areas, it's probably safe to say that a plurality of felony arrests are drug-related."

There are solutions, but they won't come easily. "We have to have a public defender's office that is funded with secure, predictable funding," Metzger recommended. "We have to get beyond relying on fines to fund that office. If we had had public defenders, there would have been someone watching to catch the abuses," she said.

"Second, we need to have prosecutors who understand their obligations to the community," Metzger continued. "Their job is not simply to get convictions but to do justice, and what that means will vary according to the individual facts and circumstances. What post-Katrina justice requires is not what justice required before Katrina. If you were living in New Orleans in the fall of 2005 and you weren’t drunk or high, there was probably something wrong with you. Everyone was medicated or self-medicating."

Cook had his own set of recommendations for a fix. "First, we turn up the heat. I just visited the DA this morning and asked him to speed up processing," he revealed. "We want to ensure there is a coordinated emergency evacuation plan for all the prisons and jails and we've asked the Justice Department's civil rights division to look at what happened at OPP and since. Part of that will be looking at why these people didn’t get defense counsel or have their day in court."

Turning up the heat is precisely what one recently formed community group is trying to do. And it's not just the prosecutors and public defender system it is targeting. "The police department has taken a new view of who belongs in the city now, and that view doesn’t include poor black people," said Ursula Price of Safe Streets, Strong Communities, a group organizing people who were in the jail or otherwise brutalized by police. Safe Streets, Strong Communities is running two campaigns, one to strengthen the indigent defender system and one about improving conditions at the jail itself. "They tell our members 'you shouldn’t have come back, we don't want your kind here,'" she told the Chronicle. "Race is an issue, economics is an issue, and our teenage boys are bearing the brunt of it. They are harassed all the time by the police."

It is a matter of choices, said Price. "We have as many cops as before the storm, and half as many people, and we just gave the cops a raise. The city finance department deliberately spends the vast majority of its money on public safety, and then there is nothing left for social services, which are deliberately being sacrificed," she said. "But I'm encouraged because the community is starting to take note. When people found out we were spending half a million dollars a week on the National Guard without it having any impact, they started to get mobilized."

Cook had a full list of needed reforms, ranging from downsizing the jail population by stopping the practice of using it to hold state and federal prisoners, to creating adequate programming for health care and treatment within the jail, to decreasing the number of people held as pretrial detainees. "We need pretrial diversion, bail reform, and cite and release policies to hold down the jail population," he argued. "There needs to be the political will to do this. It's a crime to jail a kid when there is a choice, and there are many other choices. And we ought to be treating drug abuse as a public health issue, not a law enforcement issue."

The prospects look gloomy. "It is going to take enlightened leadership, and I see only a glimmer of hope for that," said Cook. "But we are not giving up. The state juvenile justice system is finally undergoing reforms because of pressure from families and activists, and I think it will take the same sort of effort to fix things at the adult level and here in New Orleans, at the parish level. That is already happening here with the OPP Reform Coalition, the Safe Streets people, and all that."

But there is a long, long way to go in New Orleans.

Feature: Brazilian President Signs New Drug Law -- No Jail for Users

Brazilian President Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva last week signed a bill creating a new drug law in South America's largest and most populous nation. Under the new law, drug users and possessors will not be arrested and jailed, but cited and offered rehabilitation and community service. The new law marks an important shift in Brazilian drug policy, with drug users now being officially viewed not as criminals but as people in need of medical and psychological help.

"A drug user is not a case for the police, he's a drug addict," Elias Murad, the congressman who sponsored the bill, told the Christian Science Monitor after Lula signed the bill into law. "He's more of a medical and social problem than a police problem, and that's the way thinking is going these days, not just here in Brazil but the world over. We believe that you can't send someone who is ill to jail."

"Smoking marijuana is not a crime," agreed Paulo Roberto Uchoa, who heads Brazil's National Antidrug Secretariat. "A drug user is... someone who needs counseling and information. The ones who traffic drugs are the criminals."

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/psicotropicusbanner.jpg
Psicotropicus banner promoting marijuana (maconha) legalization
With 170 million, Brazil has emerged as a major drug market. Marijuana (or "maconha") use is common, and Brazil claims the dubious distinction of being the world's second largest cocaine market, behind the United States. Brazil has traditionally imprisoned drug users, but that is expensive and it raises the risk they will be exposed to and join the country's well-armed and violent drug trafficking gangs or "commands."

Previously, small-time drug possessors faced between six months and two years in prison, but under the new law, they face only one or more of the following: treatment, community service, fines, or suspension of their drivers' licenses. Penalties for drug traffickers and sellers, however, have been increased slightly. Under the old law, dealers face three to 15 years in prison; now they face five to 15. The law also creates a new crime of being a "narcotrafficking capitalist," punishable by between eight and 20 years in prison.

While Brazilian government officials congratulated themselves on their progressive approach, not everyone saw the glass as half full. "Let's not fool ourselves, drug use is still a crime," said Martin Aranguri Soto, a post-graduate political science student studying imprisonment at the Pontificia Universidade Catolica in Sao Paulo (and who also serves as DRCNet's translator). "Yes, the new mantra is that this has shifted from being a police matter to a public health matter," he told Drug War Chronicle. "But people are still being punished for the choices they made, and if they don’t comply with the 'socio-educational measures' the law mentions -- whatever those are -- they can still be imprisoned for six to 24 months. As if they owed society something for using drugs or needed to be 'educated' or 'corrected.'"

And while Brazilian officials are touting the alternative penalties as a better approach, Aranguri Soto suggested their primary motivation was to cool off Brazil's overcrowded and overheated prisons, home to some of the country's toughest drug overlords (who operate from behind bars) and the scene of repeatedly violent rebellions, most recently in May, when more than 160 people were killed in prison riots and street-fighting organized by the drug commands.

"The big argument supporting the alternative penalties is that it will alleviate overcrowding in the prisons," he said. "You also hear rhetoric about avoiding 'moral contamination' -- the same old formula repeated by criminologists for almost 200 years now."

Prosecutor Ricardo de Oliveira Silva, who advocated for the new law, supported Aranguri Soto's contention, telling the Christian Science Monitor the new law could mean judges send one-third fewer people to jail. That would greatly reduce overcrowding, he said.

"This law does not decriminalize drug use," complained Aranguri Soto. "It keeps punishing users, but now it treats them like sick people. It activates therapeutic justice and legitimizes the state's moralizing role when it comes to individual conduct," he argued. "The new law is a trap, a modern, compassionate, healing, therapeutic trap."

Soto and his Brazilian colleagues have now joined a debate that has swirled in US reform circles for years but which intensified with the campaign for, and passage of, California's Proposition 36 in the November 2000 election. A more hopeful view was taken in a 2003 interview with Drug War Chronicle by King County Bar Association Drug Policy Project chief Roger Goodman. "Reform is always two steps forward, one step back," Goodman said, "but now this whole idea of treatment over incarceration has been mainstreamed. It's no longer radical. The next step is government regulation of drugs instead of government regulation of human behavior. That's much more radical."

Either way, Brazil's new law has been a long time coming. First introduced by Congressman Murad in 1991, the bill took five years to pass the lower house and another five years to pass the Senate. It then languished for another five years before the Lula government got around to signing it.

Now, Brazil has taken a half-step forward. The question now is how the new law will be implemented and whether it will serve as a stepping stone to an even more progressive drug policy or an obstacle to an even more progressive drug policy.

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