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It Was the Best of Times: Drug Reform Victories and Advances in 2006

As Drug War Chronicle publishes its last issue of the year -- we will be on vacation next week -- it is time to look back at 2006. Both here at home and abroad, the year saw significant progress on various fronts, from marijuana law reform to harm reduction advances to the rollback of repressive drug laws in Europe and Latin America. Below -- in no particular order -- is our necessarily somewhat arbitrary list of the ten most significant victories and advances for the cause of drug law reform. (We also publish a top ten most significant defeats for drug law reform in 2006 below.)

Marijuana possession stays legal in Alaska. A 1975 Alaska Supreme Court case gave Alaskans the right to possess up to a quarter-pound of marijuana in the privacy of their homes, but in 1991, voters recriminalized possession. A series of court cases this decade reestablished the right to possess marijuana, provoking Gov. Frank Murkowski to spend two years in an ultimately successful battle to get the legislature to re-recriminalize it. But in July, an Alaska Superior Court threw out the new law's provision banning pot possession at home. The court did reduce the amount to one ounce, and the state Supreme Court has yet to weigh in, but given its past rulings, there is little reason to think it will reverse itself.

Local initiatives making marijuana the lowest law enforcement priority win across the board. In the November elections, lowest priority initiatives swept to victory in Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Santa Monica, California, as well as Missoula County, Montana, and Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Earlier this year, West Hollywood adopted a similar ordinance, and last month, San Francisco did the same thing. Look for more initiatives like these next year and in 2008.

Rhode Island becomes the 11th state to approve medical marijuana and the third to do so via the legislative process. In January, legislators overrode a veto by Gov. Donald Carcieri (R) to make the bill law. The bill had passed both houses in 2005, only to be vetoed by Carcieri. The state Senate voted to override in June of 2005, but the House did not act until January.

The Higher Education Act (HEA) drug provision is partially rolled back. In the face of rising opposition to the provision, which bars students with drug convictions -- no matter how trivial -- from receiving federal financial assistance for specified periods, its author, leading congressional drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder, staged a tactical retreat. To blunt the movement for full repeal, led by the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform, Souder amended his own provision so that it now applies only to students who are enrolled and receiving federal financial aid at the time they commit their offenses. Passage of the amended drug provision in February marks one of the only major rollbacks of drug war legislation in years.

New Jersey passes a needle exchange bill. After a 13-year struggle and a rising toll from injection-related HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C infections, the New Jersey legislature last week passed legislation that would establish pilot needle exchange programs in up to six municipalities. Gov. Jon Corzine (D) signed it into law this week. With Delaware and Massachusetts also passing needle access bills this year, every state in the union now either has at least some needle exchange programs operating or allows injection drug users to obtain clean needles without a prescription.

The US Supreme Court upholds the right of American adherents of the Brazil-based church the Union of the Vegetable (UDV) to use a psychedelic tea (ayahuasca) containing a controlled substance in religious ceremonies. Using the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a unanimous court held that the government must show a "compelling government interest" in restricting religious freedom and use "the least restrictive means" of furthering that interest. The February ruling may pave the way for marijuana spiritualists to seek similar redress.

The Vancouver safe injection site, Insite wins a new, if limited, lease on life. The pilot project site, the only one of its kind in North America, was up for renewal after its initial three-year run, and the Conservative government of Prime Minister Steven Harper was ideologically opposed to continuing it, but thanks to a well-orchestrated campaign to show community and global support, the Harper government granted a one-year extension of the program. Some observers have suggested the limited extension should make the "worst of" list instead of the "best of," but keeping the site long enough to survive the demise of the Conservative government (probably this year) has to rank as a victory. So does the publication of research results demonstrating that the site saves lives, reduces overdoses and illness, and gets people into treatment without leading to increased crime or drug use.

The election of Evo Morales brings coca peace to Bolivia. When coca-growers union leader Morales was elected president in the fall of 2004, the country's coca farmers finally had a friend in high office. While previous years had seen tension and violence between cocaleros and the government's repressive apparatus, Morales has worked with the growers to seek voluntary limits on production and, with financial assistance from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, begun a program of research on the uses of coca and the construction of factories to turn it into tea or flour. All is not quiet -- there have been deadly clashes with growers in Las Yungas in recent months -- but the situation is greatly improved from previous years.

Brazil stops imprisoning drug users. Under a new drug law signed by President Luis Inacio "Lula" Da Silva in August, drug users and possessors will not be arrested and jailed, but cited and offered rehabilitation and community service. While the new "treatment not jail" law keeps drug users under the therapeutic thumb of the state, it also keeps them out of prison.

Italy reverses tough marijuana laws. Before its defeat this spring, the government of then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi toughened up Italy's previously relatively sensible drug laws, making people possessing more than five grams of marijuana subject to punishment as drug dealers. The new, left-leaning government of Premier Romano Prodi took and last month raised the limit for marijuana possession without penalty from five grams to an ounce. The Prodi government has also approved the use of marijuana derivatives for pain relief.

Harm Reduction: New Jersey Governor Signs Needle Exchange Bill

New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine Tuesday signed into law the Bloodborne Disease Harm Reduction Act, which will allow up to six municipalities to establish needle exchange programs in an effort to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C. The measure passed both houses of the legislature last week, 13 years after attempts to pass such legislation got underway.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/joncorzine.gif
Gov. Jon Corzine
Now, newspaper reporters will no longer have to use the boilerplate "New Jersey is the only state with neither needle exchange programs or access to needles without a prescription" when writing about AIDS in the Garden State. In addition to the needle exchange bill, the legislature this session also moved on a non-prescription needle sales bill, which passed the Assembly, but didn't get to a vote in the Senate. Proponents expect it to be on the agenda when the legislature gets back to work next year.

Corzine had previously supported the needle exchange bill and his signature was not in doubt. Under the new law, cities interested in starting needle exchange programs must pass an ordinance, and participants must be given referrals for HIV counseling and testing, drug treatment programs, and health and social services. Two cities, Atlantic City and Camden, have already passed such ordinances, and several others have expressed interest.

"Quite simply, this bill will save lives," said Governor Corzine in a statement announcing his signing of the bill. "The science is clear: Needle exchange programs have been proven effective in reducing the spread of HIV and hepatitis C and serve as gateways to treatment."

"Today ends New Jersey's dubious reign as our nation's only hold-out on progressive and common-sense policies that will save lives," said Speaker Joseph J. Roberts, Jr. (D-Camden). "Now we can begin to reverse our state's near-epidemic rates of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C. The needle exchange programs and enhanced access to addiction treatment we authorize today are a glimmer of hope to many who may otherwise have known only death and despair."

"Today we have taken responsibility to help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in this state by making access to clean needles part of our comprehensive strategy to combat this public health epidemic," said Senator Nia Gill, (D-Essex), a Senate sponsor of this legislation.

New Jersey has the highest rate of cumulative HIV/AIDS cases among women, the third highest rate of pediatric HIV/AIDS cases, the fifth highest rate of adult HIV/AIDS cases and a rate of injection-related HIV infection that is nearly twice the national average.

[New Jersey] Governor Corzine Signs Legislation Establishing Pilot Needle Exchange Programs

Location: 
Trenton, NJ
United States
Publication/Source: 
Office of the Governor
URL: 
http://www.state.nj.us/governor/news/news/approved/20061219.html

Feature: New Jersey Legislature Approves Needle Exchange Bill, Governor Will Sign

The New Jersey legislature last Friday passed a bill permitting the creation of needle exchange programs (NEPs) to block the spread of HIV/AIDS and other blood-borne illnesses in up to six Garden State municipalities. Now, health officials in cities including Atlantic City, Camden, Jersey City, Newark and Paterson are preparing to lay the bureaucratic groundwork for getting programs up and running. Atlantic City and and Camden have already passed ordinances allowing for such programs, while officials in the latter three cities are considering similar action.

In a statement released after the vote, Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine said he would sign the bill into law. "The science is clear: Needle exchange programs reduce sharing of contaminated needles, reduce transmission of HIV and hepatitis C and serve as gateways to treatment," Corzine said. "The bottom line is that this program will save lives. I applaud the legislature for getting it to my desk, and I look forward to signing the bill and seeing the program implemented rapidly."

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/niagill.jpg
Sen. Nia Gill, sponsor of Senate needle exchange bill
New Jersey has the nation's fifth-largest number of HIV and AIDS cases. The state ranks first in women with the virus and third in infected children. It is also the only state in the nation with neither needle exchange nor non-prescription access to syringes. (A syringe access bill passed the Assembly, but was not acted on in the Senate this year. Advocates hope for a vote early next year.) In numerous studies, NEPs have been shown to decrease the rate of infection among injection drug users, a leading vector for the disease.

The public health victory came 13 years after the notion was first proposed in New Jersey and nearly five years after the Drug Policy Alliance made it a key legislative priority in the state. "This is one of the happiest days of my life, the culmination of 4 ½ years of incredibly hard work," said Roseanne Scotti, who, as head of DPA's New Jersey office, has become the most prominent public advocate of needle exchange in the Garden State. "Now we are at the beginning of really being able to prevent injection-related HIV and Hep C infections."

Victory last week didn't come without a fight, complete with accusations of racism and genocide by some of its most vocal opponents. Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) led the opposition, and during final debate on the bill he called it "an experiment" on minorities and compared it to the federal government's Tuskegee experiment in the 1930s, where hundreds of black men were intentionally infected with syphilis without being told or treated. "The end result is the same -- death for a class of minorities and women," Rice said.

But Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex), a sponsor of the bill, accused Rice of using stale arguments and standing in the way of cities that want to enact NEPs. "If Newark doesn't want it, Newark doesn't have to have it," Gill said. "We've crafted the bill so it's permissive -- it would let Camden try to save the lives of its people. Why not let them have a chance to save lives?"

Also opposing the bill was Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington), who said she couldn't vote for it after speaking to the parents of a child who died of a drug overdose. "We're using taxpayer dollars to send people deeper into the abyss," she said.

In the end, public health arguments prevailed, with the Senate approving the bill 23-16, and, moments later, the Assembly approving it 49-27. Supporters had been unsure of the bill's prospects in the Senate before the vote.

"The action we are taking today will save lives," said Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D-Camden) after the votes were counted.

"I'm very pleased," said Atlantic City health officer Ron Cash. "This is an opportunity for the city to use the tools we need to fight HIV/AIDS here."

Atlantic City is ready to go and waiting for the state, Cash told Drug War Chronicle. "The state health department has to produce an application form, and then we will submit a proposal. We could have a program running as early as March, but more likely it will be the middle of next year."

The victory was the result of hard work and a favorable political conjuncture, said Scotti. "This was partly the cumulative result of all the years of work, but we're also in a very good place politically," she said. "We have a governor, a Senate president, and an Assembly speaker who are all behind it, and that's critical. But part of arriving at this point was doing all the work to bring them along."

Scotti's work is not done, she said. "We'll be working on implementation and helping the cities get their programs going. Atlantic City and Camden already have ordinances in place, Newark Mayor Booker has spoken publicly about the need for NEPs, the Paterson health department is very interested, and so is Jersey City."

If the latter three cities join Atlantic City and Camden, that will make five, leaving room for only one more municipality under the new law. If there is interest from more cities, advocates could go back to the legislature, said Scotti. "The more the merrier," she said. "If we get more interest, we will push the legislature to amend the law."

Lawmakers Approve Clean-Needle Bill; Divided Senate and Assembly Approve Program After Emotional Debate

Location: 
Trenton, NJ
United States
Publication/Source: 
Newark Star-Ledger
URL: 
http://www.nj.com/news/ledger/jersey/index.ssf?/base/news-5/116590213783010.xml&coll=1

Harm Reduction: New Jersey Needle Exchange Bill Moves to Final Floor Votes Next Week

After more than a decade of struggle and thousands of preventable HIV/AIDS cases, New Jersey is on the brink of passing the first bill that would allow needle exchanges to take place in the state. After winning a final Assembly committee vote Monday, the measure now advances to final floor votes in the Assembly and the Senate next Monday.

The bill, A1852, the Bloodborne Disease Harm Reduction Act, would allow up to six Garden State municipalities to begin needle exchange programs for injection drug users in a bid to reduce HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C infection rates. It also appropriates $10 million in "seed money" for drug treatment programs.

With legislative action in Maryland and Delaware in recent years, New Jersey is the only state that allows neither needle exchanges nor the non-prescription sale of needles. A bill that would allow for non-prescription needle sales, A2839, has also passed all committee hurdles in both houses and will go to an Assembly floor vote next Monday, but is unlikely to be voted on in the Senate until next year.

Roseanne Scotti, director of the Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey office was guardedly optimistic about the needle exchange bill's chances for passage in e-mails to supporters. While noting that the bill had already passed the Assembly once in 2004 and would probably pick up support in that chamber this time around, the Senate fight will be "very tough."

"This is a positive development that could put New Jersey back into the mainstream of other states that have approved clean-needle exchanges and other strategies to reduce the transmission of AIDS among drug addicts, their partners and children," said the bill's sponsor, Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr. (D-Camden).

Press Release: World AIDS Day: Advocates Call to Lift Federal Ban on Syringe Exchange - Take Politics Out of HIV Prevention

The Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC), a national health and human rights advocacy group working to reduce drug-related harm, calls on Congress and the Administration to take action on World AIDS Day, December 1, to support syringe exchange programs as a proven, effective strategy to prevent HIV infection.

Extensive research demonstrates that syringe exchange is a highly successful, cost-effective intervention that reduces HIV transmission among injection drug users. Syringe exchange has gained the endorsement of a broad range of prestigious public health, medical and scientific experts and professional associations, and a majority of the American people support syringe exchange programs. Nearly 200 syringe exchange programs operate in the United States.

However, the US government refuses to fund syringe exchange, both domestically and internationally. Congress has maintained a ban on the use of any federal monies for syringe exchange, starving programs of vital resources and contradicting effective public health strategies. Similarly, the White House has vehemently opposed syringe exchange in the global fight against AIDS.

Over a third of AIDS cases in the United States result from shared syringes and sexual transmission of HIV from infected injection drug users to their partners. Similarly, an estimated one third of all HIV cases outside of sub-Saharan Africa stem from injection drug use.

The AIDS epidemic will continue to spread unless government leaders on all level - local, state, federal, and international - embrace and support syringe exchange. In accordance with the World AIDS Day theme of accountability, we demand accountability from Congress and Administration:

  • Strike language in appropriations bills that ban use of federal funds for syringe exchange;
  • Direct the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to allow use of HIV prevention funds for syringe exchange domestically;
  • Instruct the Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator to allow use of HIV prevention funds for syringe exchange internationally.

The Effectiveness of Syringe Exchange as an HIV Prevention Strategy

For this partners' forum, the Global Health Council will bring together experts working on or knowledgeable about HIV prevention through syringe exchange. We will hear both from advocates for syringe exchange and from those who oppose it. This forum will examine evidence of the impact of these programs on HIV transmission and drug use. We will additionally examine the barriers to implementing and scaling up this prevention approach, especially in US programs overseas. Speakers Include: * Chris Beyrer, MD, MPH, Department of Epidemiology, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health * Mathea Falco, President, Drug Strategies * Monica Ruiz, Ph.D., MPH, amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research Moderator: Maurice Middleberg, Vice President, Global Health Council Dec. 7, 2006 12:30 - 2pm Global Health Council 1111 19th Street, NW, Suite 1120 Washington, D.C.
Date: 
Thu, 12/07/2006 - 12:30pm - 2:00pm
Location: 
United States

Harm Reduction: New Jersey Needle Exchange, Needle Access Bills Advance

A bill that would allow up to six New Jersey municipalities to set up needle exchange programs and a companion bill that would permit the sale without prescription of up to 10 syringes at pharmacies passed the Assembly Health and Senior Citzens Committee Thursday. After more than a decade of efforts to win legislation that would allow drug users easier access to clean needles, it now appears the bills have momentum.

New Jersey politicians have begun lining up behind the bills. Before testimony at the committee Thursday, Chairman Herb Conaway (D-Burlington) said bluntly, "This bill is going to pass." Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts and Gov. Jon Corzine have stated publicly they intended to legalize syringe exchange as soon as possible.

During testimony, state epidemiologist Eddy Bresnitz told lawmakers they needed to act now. "We should not be delaying another minute in putting life-saving tools such as syringe exchange programs in the hands of communities desperate to stop the transmission of blood-borne diseases, such as HIV and AIDS," he said. "Syringe exchange programs not only prevent the transmission of blood-borne diseases but also help drug addicts get into treatment.''

The Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey office has been lobbying for the bills for several years now. "We're incredibly grateful for such a resounding vote of support on the part of the committee members," DPA's Roseanne Scotti told the Associated Press after the vote.

New Jersey: Key state Senate panel backs needle exchange (Press of Atlantic City)

Location: 
United States
URL: 
http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com/news/newjersey/nj_politics/story/6837804p-6703884c.html

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