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Feature: Medical Marijuana Victory in South Dakota Court Battle Over Ballot Language

The South Dakota medical marijuana initiative and its organizers, South Dakotans for Medical Marijuana, won an important legal victory last Friday when a circuit court judge ordered state officials to throw out the ballot explanation drafted by medical marijuana foe Attorney General Larry Long (R). Initiative organizers had filed suit challenging Long's ballot explanation as hopelessly biased against the initiative, and in his ruling last Friday, Circuit Court Judge Max Gors of Pierre, the state capital, agreed.

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Can't even be left alone in South Dakota...
Under South Dakota law, the attorney general is charged with writing an "objective, clear, and simple summary" of ballot measures. But Attorney General Long's original didn’t even come close. Before he even got to the ballot summary itself, he decided to change the very name of the measure. Known from the beginning and filed with the state as "An act to provide safe access to medical marijuana for certain qualified persons," Long decided it would be better titled as "An Initiative to authorize marijuana use for adults and children with specified medical conditions." The complete text of his original ballot explanation is as follows:

Currently, marijuana possession, use, distribution, or cultivation is a crime under both state and federal law. The proposed law would legalize marijuana use or possession for any adult or child who has one of several listed medical conditions and who is registered with the Department of Health. The proposed law would also provide a defense to persons who cultivate, transport or distribute marijuana solely to registered persons. Even if this initiative passes, possession, use, or distribution of marijuana is still a federal crime. Persons covered by the proposed law would still be subject to federal prosecution for violation of federal drug control laws. Physicians who provide written certifications may be subject to losing their federal license to dispense prescription drugs.

In his ruling last Friday, Judge Gors ordered Attorney General Long to either rewrite the ballot summary or use language Judge Gors himself drafted:

This initiative will allow persons, including minors with parental consent, with a debilitating medical condition, to grow (not more than six plants), possess (not more than one ounce), and use small amounts of marijuana for medical purposes. "Debilitating medical condition" is defined to include cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, or a chronic, debilitating condition that includes cachexia, wasting syndrome, severe or chronic pain, severe nausea, seizures, including epileptic seizures, severe or persistent muscle spasms, including those caused by spinal injury, multiple sclerosis, Chrohn's Disease, fibromyalgia, or any other medical condition approved by the Department of Health. Certification may be accomplished by submitting medical records to the Department of Health or by submitting a doctor's recommendation. A person may not drive while impaired by marijuana or smoke marijuana anyplace tobacco smoking is prohibited. Growth, possession, and use of marijuana will still be illegal under federal law, but certification is a defense to criminal prosecution under state law.

Sarah Raeburn, a spokesperson for the attorney general's office, told Drug War Chronicle Wednesday that Long had decided to accept the judge's version as is. "That is what we will use," she said. "The only changes were two misspellings that we have corrected."

"We were very pleased with the judge's decision," said Huron attorney Ron Volesky, who argued the case for lead plaintiff Valerie Hanna of South Dakotans for Medical Marijuana, a former army nurse who suffers neurological disorders related to exposure to chemicals during the Gulf War. "We feel it is a victory for fairness at the ballot box. The circuit court put forth a remedy with new language that is fair in its substance," he told the Chronicle.

Volesky, a former state legislator who is the Democratic nominee for attorney general this year, was the perfect man for the job. Not only is he among the few South Dakota politicians interested in medical marijuana -- he introduced a bill that went nowhere in the legislature in 2002 -- he had previous experience challenging Attorney General Long's ballot explanations in 2004.

Plantiff Hanna also pronounced herself gratified. "I'm very happy and pleased with the decision," she told Drug War Chronicle. "It's a good day for sick people in South Dakota."

The Washington, DC-based Marijuana Policy Project, which helped bankroll the signature gathering drive to get the initiative on the ballot, was also pleased. "Thanks to this sensible ruling, South Dakota will now have a fair description of the medical marijuana initiative on the ballot and South Dakota residents can make an unbiased decision about whether they want to protect South Dakota medical marijuana patients from arrest and prosecution for using the medicine that works best for them," MPP spokesperson Rebecca Greenberg told Drug War Chronicle.

Now, with the ballot language issue behind them, South Dakota medical marijuana proponents are turning their attention to winning at the ballot box in November. The socially conservative state will be a tough nut to crack, but organizers are optimistic.

"We will keep pressing forward," said Hanna. "We are reaching out to the press, and I'm contacting clergy members right now. Hopefully, we will find some that have the gumption to stand up publicly, but it's pretty scary to advocate for this here. But I'm really hopeful people will respond positively to this initiative."

"It's time for the people to speak," said Volesky. "When the legislature fails to act, we do have the power of the people through initiative measures and referendums to get past the legislature. Instead of trying to win over a handful of legislators controlled by the administration, the people can make their own decision."

If the campaign is successful, South Dakota will become the 12th state to legalize medical marijuana and the ninth to do so through the initiative process.

Feature: Seattle's Hempfest Going Strong at 15

Seattle's Hempfest turned 15 this year, and attendees at the world's largest marijuana "protestival" basked in the sun, sampled the delectibles, bought glass pipes by the truckload, listened to a stellar lineup of area and touring bands, and some even took in some serious drug policy reform speechifying. With attendance for the two-day annual event estimated at around 150,000 people, the physical space was cramped, but there was plenty of room for partying and politics.

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Hempfest crowd shot (courtesy Hempfest)
Hempfest takes place in Myrtle Edwards Park, a long, narrow strip of land facing Puget Sound just north of downtown Seattle. To the south, the snowy bulk of Mt. Rainier looms. All day Saturday and Sunday, people by the thousands flooded into the park through a pair of narrow entrances only to confront miles of pipe sellers, hemp product hawkers, exotic food booths, various political organizations, and bands playing on multiple stages.

Among those bands was Los Marijuanos, the bilingual hip-hop group describing themselves as "Mexican pro-pot poets." Los Marijuanos' pro-pot repertoire ranged from Cypress Hill-inspired stylings to remakes of classic ranchera tunes, much to the amusement and sometimes bemusement of the crowd.

While it may take on the appearance of a giant rock concert, Hempfest is at root about legalizing marijuana. In a city like Seattle, where residents approved a "lowest law enforcement priority" initiative in 2003, the battle is half won -- but only half won. Still, the ranks of the pro-marijuana legalization forces are growing, and who better to demonstrate that than the city's former police chief, Norm Stamper?

Stamper, a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, has emerged as a leading police critic of the drug war and certainly warranted the main stage speaking slot (among others) he got. Seattlites who remember Stamper primarily as the head cop during the World Trade Organization riots in 1999 were in for a surprise.

Stamper talked about police officers he knew or commanded who were killed or injured enforcing the drug laws, and he talked about the futility of that policy. "It's laughable when people say we are winning the drug war," he said. "We need to legalize all drugs. Police should be focused on violent crime," he told the crowd.

Stamper wasn't the only big name drug policy reformer attending Hempfest; in fact, it would probably be quicker to name those who were not present. They held forth in the Hemporium, a large tent strewn with carpets, where festival goers could wander in and get a taste of what leaders like Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, Rob Kampia of the Marijuana Policy Project, Keith Stroup, the founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or DRCNet's David Guard are thinking these days.

But the crowds at the Hemporium were small. For most people, Hempfest is a party, a chance to see some bands, and yes, a celebration of cannabis culture, but that doesn't necessarily imply an especially elevated political consciousness. Structured as an all-volunteer event free to the public, Hempfest attracts many whose commitment to the cause could be seriously challenged if they had to pay an entrance fee.

"I'm here for the weed and the bands and the girls, man," laughed one red-eyed, shirtless young man sporting a top hat. "Pot is cool. Hempfest is cool," he told Drug War Chronicle. But when asked if he had put a dollar in one of the ubiquitous donation buckets being toted around by volunteers, he merely shrugged.

Indeed, if there were one constant at Hempfest other than the sweet smell of burning sinsemilla it was the unrelenting call from festival volunteers for donations. With a budget in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, Hempfest relies on its crowd for support, but if the ominous rumblings from Hempfest director Vivian McPeak and the legion of volunteers are to be heeded, the crowd is not coming through with enough dollars to ensure Hempfest will be back next year. Is it time to start charging admission?

Feature: Pain Doctor William Hurwitz to Get New Trial

In a closely watched case with national implications, a federal appeals court has granted a new trial to a well known Northern Virginia pain doctor sent to federal prison for 25 years as a drug dealer. Pain patient advocates and medical associations praised the ruling in the case of Dr. William Hurwitz, who was convicted in late 2004 of 50 counts in a 62-count indictment, including conspiracy to distribute controlled substances.

Hurwitz appealed his conviction, arguing that trial Judge Leonard Wexler erred by not instructing the jury that Hurwitz should not be convicted if he acted in "good faith." Typically in cases where the quality of medical care is in question, such matters are decided by medical boards or civil courts in the form of malpractice suits. Only doctors who are not prescribing in good faith that they are in line with accepted medical practices face criminal charges. In his jury instructions, Judge Wexler removed Hurwitz' only effective defense.

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Dr. Hurwitz in 1996 (photo courtesy Skip Baker)
For federal prosecutors, who pointed to multiple examples of high-dose prescriptions Hurwitz had written and who claimed he should have recognized some of his patients to be addicts or dealers, Hurwitz was nothing more than a Dr. Feelgood, no different from -- or perhaps worse than -- the kid slinging crack on the street corner. But for patient advocates and a growing number of medical professionals, the case was the highest-profile example yet of a Justice Department and DEA creating a chilling climate toward doctors' willingness to treat chronic pain with opioid pain medications.

That is why even though even some questioned Hurwitz's prescribing practices, his appeal nevertheless won the support of professional organizations like the American Academy of Pain Medicine, the American Pain Foundation, and the National Pain Foundation, all of which filed briefs in his support. Also joining the fray was the Drug Policy Alliance, which filed its own brief on behalf of pain specialists.

A three-judge panel in the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond agreed with Hurwitz and his allies in its opinion Monday. The panel held that Judge Wexler had erred when he told jurors they could not consider whether Hurwitz had acted in "good faith" when he prescribed large doses of opioid pain relievers like Oxycontin to patients.

"A doctor's good faith in treating his patients is relevant to the jury's determination of whether the doctor acted beyond the bounds of legitimate medical practice," wrote Judge William Traxler. "The district court effectively deprived the jury of the opportunity to consider Hurwitz's defense." That was a fatal error, the panel held. "We cannot say that no reasonable juror could have concluded that Hurwitz's conduct fell within an objectively-defined good-faith standard," wrote Traxler.

"We are very gratified by this decision," said Dr. Jane Orient, executive director of the libertarian-leaning Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a group that has been in the vanguard of the medical profession on the issue of protecting pain doctors and patients. "Overturning one of these verdicts is something that almost never happens, and we hope it represents a tipping point," she told DRCNet. "We hope that the courts will finally begin to pay attention to the fundamental issues of justice involved here. A doctor is not a drug dealer, and neither is he a policeman. Doctors cannot be held responsible for patient misbehavior."

"I'm delighted," said Dr. Frank Fisher, a California physician originally charged with five counts of murder over his prescribing practices by overzealous prosecutors and state agents, but who was eventually completely exonerated. "This means they will have to let Billy out. The appeals court was absolutely correct in its decision," he told DRCNet.

The appeals court decision is a victory for Hurwitz and his supporters, but it is only one battle in a larger war over who controls the prescribing of pain medications -- the medical profession or the cops -- and in the meantime, doctors and patients are the casualties.

"They are still harassing and investigating doctors," said Orient. "And that in itself can destroy your practice. There are still doctors languishing in prison because they tried to do their best for their patients and there are still patients having difficulty finding physicians willing to do the pain treatment necessary to make them functional instead of bed-ridden suicidal people in severe pain," she said. "More doctors are aware of the extreme risk they take in getting involved with chronic pain patients. The DEA wants them to treat patients like they were suspected criminals."

Fisher pointed to the case of Dr. Richard Heberle, an Ohio physician, of how devastating even defending oneself from such charges can be. "Look at what happened to Dr. Heberle," he said. "He won, but his practice is ruined, his reputation is ruined, his life is ruined. The only thing worse than winning one of these cases is losing one, or maybe coming down with a bad case of chronic pain."

Feature: SSDP, Drug War Rant Blog Score Media Hit with Attack on DEA Drug-Terror Exhibit

For more than four years -- since the day of the first anniversary of the 9-11 attacks -- the US Drug Enforcement Administration and its museum have hosted an exhibit that attempts to link drugs and terrorism. Known as Target America: Opening Eyes to the Damage Drugs Cause, the traveling exhibition has aroused much grumbling and sneering from people who argue that it is not drugs but drug prohibition that generates the illicit profits sometimes used by violent political groups.

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DEA Targets America flyer
There was some sniping against the exhibit when it played Dallas, Omaha, Detroit, and New York, when two years ago, Patricia Perry, mother of NYC police officer John Perry, who lost his life on 9-11, criticized the exhibit in this newsletter. But it was only when it hit Chicago last week that drug reformers succeeded in hitting back with a carefully planned and well-executed counterattack that managed to generate critical media attention toward the exhibit.

It all started with some home-town concern on the part of Illinois State University theater arts professor and Drug War Rant blog author Peter Guither. After publicizing the exhibit's impending arrival on his blog and creating a new web site, DEA Targets America, the response from readers galvanized Guither, and allies began to arrive. By the time the exhibit hit Chicago last week, activists were on hand to hand out flyers in front of the museum and Guither and Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) had issued press releases in an effort to draw media attention.

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DEA's offensive exhibit
"Back when they first showed this exhibit, I remember thinking is the DEA propagandizing at a science museum?" said Guither. "I grew up with the Chicago Museum of Science and Technology, and I remember thinking my museum would never do that. Then, a couple of years later, I look at the upcoming exhibits and I see the DEA exhibit. This is so clearly propaganda that I had to do something," he told Drug War Chronicle. "I mentioned it on my blog, and one of my readers volunteered to pass out flyers, then I produced the press release and the web site, and then SSDP got involved -- they're a great group! SSDP's Tom Angell helped with the flyer and with getting the press interested, and then it was up to the press to do its job."

"I e-mailed our members in the Chicago area, and we were able to get some people to hand out flyers," said Angell. "We have some good people in the area."

The gambit paid off handsomely with a Washington Post story last Saturday titled "Drug-Terror Connection Disputed." That story, which was also picked up by newspapers in Knoxville, Indianapolis, and Tampa, quoted both Guither and SSDP's Angell, as well as Chicago teacher Jeanne Barr, who is also a member of SSDP. Congressional Quarterly also ran a story about the exhibit mentioning the contention that it is drug prohibition -- not drugs themselves -- that feeds terrorism, and even UPI ran a short piece mentioning the controversy on its international wire, a story that was picked up by the Washington Times.

The stories put the DEA on the defensive, with spokesmen Steve Robertson telling the Post: "We're a law enforcement agency -- we enforce the laws as they are written. Congress makes the laws. People say if we didn't have drug laws there wouldn't be a problem, but there was a problem before and that's why laws were established."

"I think we got the DEA flatfooted," said Guither. "You have that agent saying they just enforce the law, but they're out there lobbying for those laws. I don't think the DEA was ready for this."

"We did a little bit of judo on the DEA," said SSDP's Angell. "We took their message and spun it right back around on them. Reporters were intrigued by what we were saying. On the one hand, we were agreeing with the DEA's main point -- that profits from the black market drug trade can finance terrorism -- but we highlighted the fact that they are leaving out a large part of the story," he told the Chronicle.

"I was disappointed in the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times, though," Angell continued. "They just toed the DEA line. They didn't mention us by name or give us any quotes; they just had a line or two about 'critics say this.'"

Guither said he didn't really expect anything better from the local press. "Since both the Sun-Times and the McCormick Tribune Corporation were sponsors of the exhibit, I didn't expect either paper to do much criticizing. The mere fact that they mentioned critics saying the exhibit is propaganda is a victory in my view."

Activists were careful to target their ire at the DEA, not the Museum of Science and Technology. "We didn't want to protest the museum but the DEA," said Guither. "And we didn't feel like we could get into picking their implied falsehoods apart, so our focus was on the inappropriateness of the DEA connecting drugs to terrorism since it is prohibition that makes drug trafficking and its profits possible. Also, since this is Chicago, we have the whole Al Capone legacy. Mayor Daley invited this exhibit, yet he seems to have missed the whole connection between drug prohibition and alcohol prohibition and how the latter made Al Capone. What we have with this exhibit is a federal agency with a failing scorecard blowing its own horn and linking itself to the war on terror, when it is really the problem."

While the DEA lists no more cities on its traveling exhibit schedule, SSDP will be ready to go if and when the DEA show hits another city. "Since we already have the materials and the press releases, we'll just follow it wherever it goes," said Angell. "If we have people on the ground, we will organize them to pass out materials. They should know we're coming after them. If we annoy them enough, maybe they'll go away one of these days."

"I'm very pleased," said Guither. "This was fun. If we hadn't done what we did, it would have been the standard announcement: Here's a new educational exhibit. Bring your kids to learn about the dangers of drugs and how the DEA is saving you. But because of the work we did here, we've managed to turn this around on the DEA. That feels good."

Feature: Colorado Marijuana Possession Legalization Initiative Makes the Ballot

The Colorado secretary of state announced Wednesday that an initiative that would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for people aged 21 and older has submitted sufficient signatures to make the November ballot. Organized by SAFER Colorado, the group that won a surprise legalization initiative victory last year in Denver, the Colorado Alcohol-Marijuana Equalization Initiative would push the state to the forefront of marijuana law reform by simply changing one sentence in the state statutes.

The announcement came less than two weeks after SAFER Colorado handed in more than 130,000 signatures, well more than the 80,000 needed to qualify for the ballot. The secretary of state's office certified the measure for the ballot based on a statistical sampling of the signatures.

"We are thrilled," said SAFER Colorado's Steve Fox. "We had well more signatures than we needed, and that allowed us to get this quick qualification instead of having the secretary of state going though our petitions line by line," he told Drug War Chronicle.

The initiative, which will be known as Amendment 44 on the ballot, asks voters to vote yes or no on the following question: "Shall there be an amendment to section 18-18-406 (1) of the Colorado revised statutes making legal the possession of one ounce or less of marihuana for any person twenty-one years of age or older?"

Under current Colorado law, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana is a Class 2 misdemeanor punishable by a fine up of to $100. According to legislative staffers who prepared an analysis of the initiative, some 3,700 adults were convicted of simple marijuana possession last year.

Colorado now joins Nevada as states where voters this November will decide whether to radically reform the marijuana laws. In Nevada, the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and its local affiliate, the Committee to Regulate and Control Marijuana are pushing an initiative that would not only legalize possession of up to an ounce, but would also allow for the regulated sales of like amounts.

MPP is not involved in the Colorado effort, but hopes it succeeds, said communications director Bruce Mirken. "This was a little bit of a surprise," he told Drug War Chronicle. "We wish them well. Nobody should underestimate these folks -- they surprised the whole world with their success in Denver last year."

In an odd way, that victory spurred the statewide effort. After the citizens of Denver voted for the ordinance, local law enforcement officials refused to abide by it, instead choosing to prosecute people under the state law. SAFER Colorado wants to take away that option. If the measure passes in November, communities in Colorado that want tougher marijuana laws would have to pass local ordinances and charge offenders under them.

The campaign will continue to emphasize its tried and tested theme that marijuana is safer than alcohol and, at the least, should not be treated more severely. That theme resonated strongly with students at the University of Colorado and Colorado State University, both of which passed non-binding resolutions calling for equalization of penalties, as well as with voters in Denver last fall.

SAFER Colorado campaign director Mason Tvert was right on point Wednesday. "The campaign will highlight the hypocrisy of laws that prohibit the use of marijuana while allowing and even encouraging the use of alcohol, an infinitely more harmful drug," he said in a statement greeting the secretary of state's announcement.

Now it is time to win the election, said Fox. "We are doing some fundraising so we can distribute our materials and get our message out," he said. "We have a lot of fun items -- t-shirts, buttons, stickers -- that are aimed at people who support us but who don't necessarily get around to voting all the time. It is their duty to get out and vote, and we will do what we can to encourage them."

It will be an uphill battle to win in November. In the only polling done so far on the measure, the Denver Post found it losing 51% to 37%. But Fox looked at those figures and found the glass half full.

"We think that's pretty good as we head into this campaign," he said. "If only 51% support marijuana prohibition before we've even really begun to get our message out, we think we have a pretty good chance of winning. Listen, SAFER is the Barry Goldwater of marijuana. Even if we don't win this time, we are saying what should be done with the confidence that people will come around to our position. It is an undeniable truth that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol," he said. "Our campaign is here in Colorado, but this is about ending marijuana prohibition across the country, not just in one state. We are in this to win over the long haul."

One bright spot for the campaign is the lack so far of any organized opposition. "We have a crazy drug warrior lady who is making noise, but she is not a sophisticated opponent," said Fox. "We have seen one outside drug warrior set up an issue committee here in Colorado, and there are rumors that the attorney general is planning to put together an opposition group possibly made up of law enforcement officials, but that hasn't happened yet," he explained. "We hope that the law enforcement community will understand that they are law enforcers, not law makers, and they should let the people decide what the laws will be."

Colorado's official nickname is the Centennial State, but one of its unofficial sobriquets is the Highest State, based on its towering mountains and its average elevation. If Colorado voters approve Amendment 44 in November, undoubtedly many will consider it to be even more deserving of that nickname.

Feature: "Beyond Zero Tolerance" Conference Aims to Provide New Paradigm for Educators

For the past two decades, zero tolerance policies have been the law of the land in high schools across the country. An outgrowth of the federal government's twin concerns over drugs and guns in the schools, such policies are designed to inflexibly punish infractions large or small with suspensions, expulsions and/or referral to law enforcement authorities. But critics of zero tolerance deride it as creating a "school to prison pipeline" and being ineffective to boot. Now educators with a pragmatic approach to student drug use are gearing up for an October conference in San Francisco to present workable, humane, and effective alternatives to the draconian approach popularized in the Reagan administration and still widely embraced in schools across the country.

The Beyond Zero Tolerance conference is set for October 25 and is aimed at teachers, administrators, and school board members, said Marsha Rosenbaum of the Drug Policy Alliance, one of the groups sponsoring the event. Other sponsors include the city and county of San Francisco, the San Francisco Department of Public Health, the San Francisco Medical Society, the Marin County Department of Health and Human Services, and the International Institute for Restorative Practices.

Rosenbaum is not merely another drug reformer; she is an educator, researcher, and leading advocate of more sensible policies for dealing with student drug use. Her Safety First project is a key resource for teachers and administrators seeking more effective means of addressing the issue. Safety First played a key role in laying the groundwork for the October conference.

"This conference is an outgrowth of work we have been doing for some years now," Rosenbaum told Drug War Chronicle. "Three years ago, we convened a statewide task force here in California to come up with a statement about what effective drug education would look like, and we produced a booklet called Beyond Zero Tolerance that combines three elements that hadn't been combined before: drug education that is honest and science-based, approaching the kids in an interactive and participatory manner, and employing restorative practices instead of punishment. We were advocating a process by which students are brought in closer and accepted by the school community after they make amends instead of being suspended, expelled, or otherwise subjected to punishment."

By last fall, it was becoming apparent that the approach was garnering broad interest among educators. "Safety First was getting lots of requests from educators asking us what our approach to drug education at the secondary level would be," said Rosenbaum. "What would it look like? And can you train us on this? We had no idea our approach would resonate so much with educators. This conference is a response to the demand, and it is really aimed at teachers, administrators and school board members. We aim to combine education policy with restorative practices and show educators how they can implement the beyond zero tolerance approach."

"Restorative practices deal with restoring community in an increasingly disconnected world," explained Ted Wachtel, director of the Pennsylvania-based International Institute on Restorative Practices. "People are happier, more productive, more cooperative, and more likely to make positive changes when authority is doing things with them rather than to them or for them. Restorative practices are about recognizing this."

Readers may be more familiar with restorative justice, a movement that began in the 1970s that seeks to put offenders and victims face to face to redress the harm caused rather than merely emphasizing punishment. "Restorative justice is a subset of restorative practices," said Wachtel. "Restorative justice by its nature is reactive, but restorative practices are proactive. These are things you can do in the schools and in the family, you can build social capital and a sense of belonging and connectedness on a proactive basis. That isn't something the justice system can do," he explained.

"Throwing young people out of school for drug offenses and a wide range of other misbehavior is simply not productive," said Wachtel. "It doesn’t work. We treat drug and alcohol offenses as criminal matters when they are really a public health issue. If we are talking about students using drugs or alcohol, we are talking about people who need support and assistance in dealing more effectively with their lives. Throwing them out of school or turning them in to the police does not help change their behavior in a positive way."

The Oakland school district provides an idea of how such programs actually work. For the last nine years, that district has operated a program called Up Front, a harm reduction-based drug education and prevention program in its high schools. Program director Charles Ries will address the conference and explain what the Oakland schools are doing.

"We're a relationship-based, process-oriented group of people who believe that the best treatment and prevention messages must be based on science and accurately reported," Ries said. "We think the only way to help anyone decide what is in his own best interest is to engage him in an exploration of the issues," he told Drug War Chronicle.

Zero tolerance approaches simply don’t cut it, said Ries. "People who actually do this work understand how ridiculous it is to try to indoctrinate young people with propaganda against the dangers of drug abuse. Try that with students these days and you'll get laughed out of town," he said. "There are many educators already adopting an approach similar to ours, but it's under the radar. The problem is not with the practitioners, but with administrators and policymakers who feel pressured by the federal government to comply with its programmatic philosophy that there is no such thing as responsible drug use and the only response is to just say no. Students are not having that, and when they realize we are not coming from that direction, they fall in love with us."

The program appears to be working well, said Ries. "We evaluate it both through the students, who say it is effective and report that it is often the first time they've been able to have honest conversations with adults about drug use, and through outside evaluators. We had one evaluation by the state and another by the school district, and both of them defined the program as exemplary. It's not rocket science. Having honest, respectful relationships with young people helps them listen to what you're saying. You are collaborating with them on what is in their best interest. That's how you change people's lives."

While the conference is set in San Francisco and weighted heavily toward California concerns, its scope is broader, said Rosenbaum. "We're not just aiming at California; this is a national and international event. We recognize there is interest from across the land and we are trying to have some scholarships available. If you are an educator who would like to attend but there is no money, you should inquire with us. What you will take away from this conference is plenty of materials and a solid argument for implementing such an approach in your school or district." For the past two decades, zero tolerance policies have been the law of the land in high schools across the country. An outgrowth of the federal government's twin concerns over drugs and guns in the schools, such policies are designed to inflexibly punish infractions large or small with suspensions, expulsions and/or referral to law enforcement authorities. But critics of zero tolerance deride it as creating a "school to prison pipeline" and being ineffective to boot. Now educators with a pragmatic approach to student drug use are gearing up for an October conference in San Francisco to present workable, humane, and effective alternatives to the draconian approach popularized in the Reagan administration and still widely embraced in schools across the country.

The Beyond Zero Tolerance conference is set for October 25 and is aimed at teachers, administrators, and school board members, said Marsha Rosenbaum of the Drug Policy Alliance, one of the groups sponsoring the event. Other sponsors include the city and county of San Francisco, the San Francisco Department of Public Health, the San Francisco Medical Society, the Marin County Department of Health and Human Services, and the International Institute for Restorative Practices.

Rosenbaum is not merely another drug reformer; she is an educator, researcher, and leading advocate of more sensible policies for dealing with student drug use. Her Safety First project is a key resource for teachers and administrators seeking more effective means of addressing the issue. Safety First played a key role in laying the groundwork for the October conference.

"This conference is an outgrowth of work we have been doing for some years now," Rosenbaum told Drug War Chronicle. "Three years ago, we convened a statewide task force here in California to come up with a statement about what effective drug education would look like, and we produced a booklet called Beyond Zero Tolerance that combines three elements that hadn't been combined before: drug education that is honest and science-based, approaching the kids in an interactive and participatory manner, and employing restorative practices instead of punishment. We were advocating a process by which students are brought in closer and accepted by the school community after they make amends instead of being suspended, expelled, or otherwise subjected to punishment."

By last fall, it was becoming apparent that the approach was garnering broad interest among educators. "Safety First was getting lots of requests from educators asking us what our approach to drug education at the secondary level would be," said Rosenbaum. "What would it look like? And can you train us on this? We had no idea our approach would resonate so much with educators. This conference is a response to the demand, and it is really aimed at teachers, administrators and school board members. We aim to combine education policy with restorative practices and show educators how they can implement the beyond zero tolerance approach."

"Restorative practices deal with restoring community in an increasingly disconnected world," explained Ted Wachtel, director of the Pennsylvania-based International Institute on Restorative Practices. "People are happier, more productive, more cooperative, and more likely to make positive changes when authority is doing things with them rather than to them or for them. Restorative practices are about recognizing this."

Readers may be more familiar with restorative justice, a movement that began in the 1970s that seeks to put offenders and victims face to face to redress the harm caused rather than merely emphasizing punishment. "Restorative justice is a subset of restorative practices," said Wachtel. "Restorative justice by its nature is reactive, but restorative practices are proactive. These are things you can do in the schools and in the family, you can build social capital and a sense of belonging and connectedness on a proactive basis. That isn't something the justice system can do," he explained.

"Throwing young people out of school for drug offenses and a wide range of other misbehavior is simply not productive," said Wachtel. "It doesn’t work. We treat drug and alcohol offenses as criminal matters when they are really a public health issue. If we are talking about students using drugs or alcohol, we are talking about people who need support and assistance in dealing more effectively with their lives. Throwing them out of school or turning them in to the police does not help change their behavior in a positive way."

The Oakland school district provides an idea of how such programs actually work. For the last nine years, that district has operated a program called Up Front, a harm reduction-based drug education and prevention program in its high schools. Program director Charles Ries will address the conference and explain what the Oakland schools are doing.

"We're a relationship-based, process-oriented group of people who believe that the best treatment and prevention messages must be based on science and accurately reported," Ries said. "We think the only way to help anyone decide what is in his own best interest is to engage him in an exploration of the issues," he told Drug War Chronicle.

Zero tolerance approaches simply don’t cut it, said Ries. "People who actually do this work understand how ridiculous it is to try to indoctrinate young people with propaganda against the dangers of drug abuse. Try that with students these days and you'll get laughed out of town," he said. "There are many educators already adopting an approach similar to ours, but it's under the radar. The problem is not with the practitioners, but with administrators and policymakers who feel pressured by the federal government to comply with its programmatic philosophy that there is no such thing as responsible drug use and the only response is to just say no. Students are not having that, and when they realize we are not coming from that direction, they fall in love with us."

The program appears to be working well, said Ries. "We evaluate it both through the students, who say it is effective and report that it is often the first time they've been able to have honest conversations with adults about drug use, and through outside evaluators. We had one evaluation by the state and another by the school district, and both of them defined the program as exemplary. It's not rocket science. Having honest, respectful relationships with young people helps them listen to what you're saying. You are collaborating with them on what is in their best interest. That's how you change people's lives."

While the conference is set in San Francisco and weighted heavily toward California concerns, its scope is broader, said Rosenbaum. "We're not just aiming at California; this is a national and international event. We recognize there is interest from across the land and we are trying to have some scholarships available. If you are an educator who would like to attend but there is no money, you should inquire with us. What you will take away from this conference is plenty of materials and a solid argument for implementing such an approach in your school or district."

Feature: As Fighting Flares in Southern Afghanistan, Support for Licensed Opium Production Grows

American military commanders in Afghanistan Monday officially turned control of the country's restive, opium-rich south to NATO amid increasing rumblings of concern from European politicians -- concern over both rising coalition casualties and the wisdom of trying to prosecute the war on drugs and the counterinsurgency operation against the Taliban and Al Qaeda at the same time. With some 18,500 troops, it will be the biggest mission in NATO history, and one whose outcome is cloudy at best.

This year has seen an upsurge in fighting in Afghanistan, with some 1,700 people killed in the spreading violence so far. Among them are 65 US troops and 35 NATO troops, including three British soldiers killed Tuesday in an ambush in southern Helmand province and two more killed Wednesday. Last year, the bloodiest year yet for coalition forces, saw 129 US and NATO soldiers killed, but this year looks set to be bloodier yet. In the last three months alone, 58 NATO or American soldiers have been killed, 35 in the south. At the rate things are going, these figures will probably be outdated by the time you read this.

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2005 Senlis symposium
It has also, by all accounts, seen an upsurge in opium production, especially in the south. Despite the stirring words of Prime Minister Karzai, who has vowed a holy war against the poppy, eradication efforts are achieving mixed results at best. That is because the Karzai government and its Western backers are confronted by a multitude of factors militating against success.

"The drug fight is continuing, but it is not very effective," said Abdul Raheem Yaseer, assistant director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. "The lack of the government's ability to help farmers find markets and the difficulty of transporting goods on the bad roads are very discouraging. And now the area is suffering from drought," he told DRCNet. "People were optimistic at the beginning of the year that they could sell their produce, so they invested their money, and then the drought came. Now, many of them are saying they can't make back the money they spent, so they are shifting back to opium. They speak openly. They say 'We have families to feed, loans to pay, there is no water, there is no improvement in the roads.'"

Yaseer pointed to several factors hindering the eradication effort. "The drug lords have been benefiting for years, and they fight to keep that revenue going," he said. "The high rises going up in Kabul are all built by drug lords. But some of those drug lords are members of the government, which complicates matters even more. Karzai talks very tough about eradication, but the reality on the ground is quite different. The corruption, along with the lack of support within the government and by the West, allows the drug lords to enjoy a relatively peaceful time."

But if British Lt. Gen. David Richards, the new NATO commander in the south, has his way, the drug traffickers are about to feel the wrath of the West. "I'm convinced that much of the violence is only caused by the drugs-related activities in the south," said Richards at a Kabul press conference Saturday. "The opium trade is being threatened by the NATO expansion into the south and they are going to fight very hard to keep what they have got and a lot of what we are seeing has nothing to do with any ideological commitment" to the Taliban, he said. "Essentially for the last four years some very brutal people have been developing their little fiefdoms down there and exporting a lot of opium to the rest of the world. That very evil trade is being threatened by the NATO expansion in the south. This is a very noble cause we're engaged in, and we have to liberate the people from that scourge of those warlords."

"NATO has three objectives," said Yaseer. "Their first priority is to defeat the insurgency, secondly to win hearts and minds, and third to wipe out the opium." But, he conceded, those goals are contradictory, given Afghanistan's huge dependency on the opium economy. According to the United Nations, opium accounts for somewhere between 40% and 50% of the national economy.

And the attempt to prosecute all three objectives at the same time could well led to a more formal alliance between traffickers and insurgents. The major drug traffickers also align themselves with the Taliban and what Yaseer called "intruders" from Pakistan, referring to agents of Pakistani intelligence, the ISI, who he said work to keep Afghanistan from gaining stability. "The drug lords do not want to be controlled by the Afghan government, so they side with the intruders and the Taliban and share profits with them. These intruders from Pakistan are not helping; they are jeopardizing the efforts against smuggling and to eradicate the poppies. As for the Taliban, they might have religious problems with opium, but they like the money and they cooperate with the growers and traffickers."

"The drug lords and smugglers are as strong militarily as the Taliban and Al Qaeda," said Yaseer. "If they really unite together, the coalition forces will face a big strong resistance."

The command turnover from the Americans to NATO, and the rising death toll among NATO soldiers is beginning to focus the minds of European politicians, some of whom are beginning to call for the adoption of a scheme that would allow the licensed production of opium for the legitimate medicinal market. Formally unveiled last October in Kabul, the proposal from the European security and development think tank, The Senlis Council, has so far attracted only limited support from key decision-makers in Kabul and the capitals of the West.

Last week, Drug War Chronicle reported that some British Conservatives had begun to call for adoption of the Senlis proposal. By the time that report appeared, new calls to adopt the licensing scheme came from the Italian government.

"The Italian government will be a promoter both in Europe and in Afghanistan" of a project to "legally purchase the opium produced in Afghanistan and use it for medicinal purposes," said Italian foreign vice minister Ugo Intini last Friday, as he spoke with journalists at the Italian Senate. The aim is to reduce the illicit trafficking of opium and make opioid pain medications more available to poor developing countries, he said. The lack of opioid pain medications in the developing countries is "profoundly unfair," he added.

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plaque memorializing journalists murdered by Taliban, at hotel where they stayed in Jalalabad
A British Labor Party politician told DRCNet Thursday that he, too, supported the Senlis proposal. "In Helmand, Britain has stopped destroying poppy crops to concentrate on bombing people into democracy and trying to win hearts and minds by using bombs and bullets," said MP Paul Flynn, a staunch opponent of the drug war. "The $40 million paid to the corrupt Karzai government to compensate farmers for crops previously destroyed never reached the farmers. The only sensible way to make progress is to license the farmers to use their poppy crop to reduce the world-wide morphine shortage."

But the idea that the US, which opposes any relaxation of any drug law anywhere on ideological grounds, or the Afghan government, will embrace the proposal is probably mistaken, said Yaseer. "As soon as you hear 'legalize drugs,' all kinds of religious, traditional, and other resistance pops up. One problem here is that the state is too weak. They can’t control it when it is illegal, and they wouldn’t be able to control it if it were legal. There is plenty of opium already without licensing; in the Afghan context, licensing means freedom to grow more."

Instead, said Yaseer, the Afghan government and the West should subsidize the farmers, seek alternative crops, and enable local government to actually establish control on the ground. But that will not be easy, he conceded. In the meantime, the poppies continue to bloom, the drug lords, both within and without the Karzai government, continue to get rich, and NATO soldiers, American soldiers, Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents, and drug trafficker gunmen all continue to fight and die. And civilian Afghan citizens, most of whom would like nothing more than peace and prosperity, are among the biggest losers as the bullets fly and the bombs drop.

visit: DRCNet in Afghanistan

Feature: British Parliamentary Committee Slams Drug Classification Scheme, Calls for Evidence-Based System

The British Parliament's Science and Technology Committee released a report Monday that rips into Britain's current drug classification scheme as "opaque" and urges that it be replaced with a system that is based on scientific evidence and accurately reflects actual harm to drug users and society. The current system is "not fit for its purpose," the scorching report found.

Under the current system, drugs are classified as Class A (heroin, cocaine), B (methamphetamine), or C (marijuana, anabolic steroids), with the Class A drugs considered most harmful and Class C drugs considered least harmful. Class A drugs carry a seven-year prison sentence for possession, Class B five years, and Class C two years. Sales of Class A drugs can earn up to a life sentence, while sales of Class B and C drugs can earn up to 14 years. The British Home Secretary is charged with deciding which drug goes where in the classification scheme based on evidence provided by advisors, who are supposed to weigh the problems caused by various drugs and classify them accordingly.

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ecstasy pills
It hasn’t worked out that way, the committee concluded in its report, aptly titled "Drug Classification: Making a Hash Of It? "There was a lack of consistency in the way some drugs were classified in the A,B,C system and no solid evidence to back-up the view that classification had a deterrent effect," the committee noted dryly as it released its findings. "The Committee was also critical of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the key scientific advisory body on drugs policy, calling its failure to alert the Home Secretary to the serious flaws in the classification system a 'dereliction of its duty.'"

Pointing to the recent review of the 2004 down-classification of marijuana from Class B to Class C against a steady drumbeat of tabloid hyperventilation over its alleged dangers, the committee complained that such reviews gave the impression they were “knee-jerk responses to media storms." The committee also scored the Home Office and ACMD for failing to demonstrate that the current classification system is effective and for failing to invest in research on addiction.

“The current classification system is riddled with anomalies and clearly not fit for its purpose," committee chair MP Phil Willis said in a statement accompanying the report's release. "From what we have seen, the Home Office and ACMD approach to classification seems to have been based on ad hockery and conservatism. It’s obvious that there is an urgent need for a root and branch review of the classification system, as promised by the previous Home Secretary. We all know that the current Home Secretary has other things on his mind, but that’s not an excuse for trying to kick this issue into the long grass."

If Britain wants a rational drug classification system that works, said Willis, it should forget about using it to punish people for taking drugs the government doesn’t like. "The only way to get an accurate and up to date classification system is to remove the link with penalties and just focus on harm. That must be harm not only to the user but harm defined by the social consequences as well," the committee head explained. "It's time to bring in a more systematic and scientific approach to drug classification – how can we get the message across to young people if what we are saying is not based on evidence?"

The report also calls for including alcohol and tobacco in any new drug classification scheme, and suggests they should be classified as more dangerous than ecstasy. It also attacked the government's classification of several drugs. With psychedelic mushrooms, the government reclassified them administratively as dangerous Class A drugs, thus avoiding consultation with the ACMD. That move "contravened the spirit of the Misuse of Drugs Act and did not give the ACMD the chance to consider the evidence properly."

The committee report criticized the ACMD for not speaking out on the mushroom issue, saying its failure to do speak has "undermined its credibility." The report also scolded the ACMD for never getting around to reviewing ecstasy status, which currently mis-classifies it along with the most dangerous and harmful drugs.

Drugscope, a leading British drug policy thinktank, welcomed the committee's call for an overhaul of the classification system. "The Misuse of Drugs Act is over 30 years old and the drug scene in the UK has changed out of all recognition since then," said Drugscope head Marvin Barnes in a statement greeting the report's release. "It also true that some of the decisions about placing certain drugs within the Act, such as ecstasy and fresh magic mushrooms, do not bear much scientific scrutiny. It is important that the Act more accurately matches legal penalties to the overall risk of drugs to society. Such a review was promised by the Home Office in January, but we have heard nothing about it since," Barnes chided.

But Drugscope rejected some of the criticisms leveled against the ACMD in the report. "It may be that the ACMD could have been more proactive regarding drug classification, but their many reports have helped shape the drug treatment system in the UK," Barnes said. "In particular, their recommendation about supplying needles and syringes to heroin users in the 1980s may have saved the UK from a major HIV/AIDS epidemic."

A leading mental health nonprofit, Rethink, used the report's release to clamor for more information about the links between marijuana and mental illness. Rethink’s Director of Public Affairs Paul Corry said: "In any debate about the classification of cannabis, Rethink’s main concern is that the government delivers on its promise to educate the public about the mental health risks of cannabis use," said Rethink public affairs director Paul Corry in a statement Monday. "Rethink is concerned by the lack of progress concerning this critical public health issue. We know that early-age users, long-term users and people with a family history of mental illness are at a high risk of developing psychosis from smoking cannabis – the problem is that they don’t know it because the government has failed to act on its promise," Corry argued.

The British reform group the Transform Drug Policy Foundation also issued a statement welcoming the report. "Transform welcomes the fact that the committee has taken on board the broader critique of the classification system rather than getting bogged down in a pointless debate about why each drug is in a particular class," said Transform information officer Steve Rolles. "The bigger issue at stake here is that the entire classification system is based on drug war ideology, has no scientific basis whatsoever, and does the exact opposite of what it is intended to do. We would like to see this is a prelude to a more significant inquiry into the evidence base for the criminalization of drugs per se.”

Rollins also echoed calls for the Home Secretary to act. "We also hope that the Home Office will now resume the drug classification consultation announced by the then Home Secretary Charles Clarke earlier this year, as specifically recommended by the committee," he said. "The consultation document was ready to be published but seems to have been kicked into the long grass by the new Home Secretary. The Select Committee’s withering critique makes this promised Home Office consultation all the more urgent"

The Tories are using the report to hammer Labor's drug policy and take up the "dangerous marijuana" banner. Shadow Home Secretary Edward Garnier quickly released a statement seeking political advantage. "We will study the Select Committee Report in detail, but what is and has been apparent for some time is the lack of clarity in this government's policy on illegal drugs," Garnier charged. "The downgrading of cannabis sent out the message that it was pretty harmless and will have encouraged youngsters to take it up. It is vital that we have strong and effective measures warning children of the dangers of drugs devoid of any confusion."

Labor so far has been quiet, but Labor MP Paul Flynn told DRCNet he found the committee report a useful palliative for the politicization of drug policy. "Categorizing drugs in 1971 was to be the silver bullet to cut drug use. Then there were 1,000 addicts; now there are 280,000," he noted. "Yet all political parties still cling to this duff bullet by voting in 2005 for the insanity that classified magic mushrooms with heroin and left alcohol and nicotine unclassified. Thanks to the science committee for a whiff of sanity."

With the publication of the committee report, Britain is one step closer to rational, evidence-based drug classification system. The US drug classification system is similarly irrational, placing, for instance, marijuana and LSD in the same category as heroin, but there is no sign of any such scientifically-guided approach here.

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