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Chronicle AM: Seattle Safe Injection Site Progress, Philippines Drug Killings Inquiry, More... (8/23/16)

A Seattle heroin task force has endorsed safe injection sites, the Philippine Senate is holding hearings on the ongoing massacre of alleged drug users and sellers, Colombia coca growers are protesting over unfulfilled crop substitution promises, and more.

Vancouver's InSite drug consumption room. Something similar could be coming to Seattle. (vcha.ca)
Marijuana Policy

Arkansas Attorney General Rejects 2018 Legalization Initiative Wording, Again. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has again rejected the wording of a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana. The proposal is from Mary Berry of Summit. Rutledge wrote Monday that the proposal has ambiguities around licensing and the role of various state agencies in overseeing legal marijuana commerce. Berry successfully submitted a similar proposal for this year, the Arkansas Cannabis Amendment, but it failed to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Guam Senator Reintroduces Marijuana Legalization Referendum Bill. Sen. Sixto Igisomar has redrafted what was formerly a medical marijuana bill and turned it into a full-on legalization bill. The new version, Senate Bill 19-106, is now before the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare. If approved by the legislature, the measure would then go before the voters.

Harm Reduction

Seattle Heroin Task Force Endorses Safe Injection Sites. The Heroin Task Force empanelled by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine has endorsed open safe injection sites for drug users. The task force is now working on formal recommendations on how it might work and the legal challenges it could face. Those recommendations are expected next month.

International

Philippine Senators Open Hearing on Drug War Killings. The Senate Justice Committee opened an inquiry Monday into the killings of more than 1,800 alleged drug users and sellers during an ongoing crackdown spurred by President Rodrigo Duterte. Committee chair Sen. Leila de Lima said she was worried by the killings and that police and vigilantes could be using the crackdown "to commit murder with impunity." National Police Chief Ronald de la Rosa, who said he did not condone extrajudicial killings, took heat for failing to stop vigilante killings. "This is like anarchy," said Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV. "It's continuing under your watch."

Colombia Coca Growers Say Government Not Living Up to Crop Substitution Promises. Coca growers in Putumayo province have been protesting for the past month, saying the government is eradicating coca crops without providing substitute crops as promised. Clashes between riot police and protestors have left at least one farmer dead, with dozens others injured.

Chronicle AM: Second AR MedMJ Init Should Qualify, Philippine Death Toll Doubles, More... (8/22/16)

Marijuana reform foes in Arizona and Missouri go to court to try to block initiatives, a second Arkansas medical marijuana initiative is poised to qualify for the ballot, Duterte's festival of death continues apace, and more.

Arkansans could have two chances to vote for medical marijuana in November. (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Arizona Legalization Foes Appeal to State Supreme Court to Block Initiative. Even though a state superior court judge last week ruled that their challenge to the Prop 205 legalization initiative made no legitimate claims, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit have vowed to take their case to the state Supreme Court.

Medical Marijuana

Second Arkansas Initiative Should Qualify for Ballot. There's already one medical marijuana initiative on the ballot, the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act, but there could be another. Backers of the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment handed in additional signatures last Friday after they came up short in the original round of petitioning. The amendment needed 84,589 valid voter signatures, but only came up with 72,000 valid ones on July 8. Being so close, however, qualified the amendment for a second round of signature gathering, and it has now handed in another 35,000 raw signatures, meaning it should now qualify. If both initiatives appear on the ballot and both pass, the one with the most votes will become law.

Missouri DAs Seek to Block Medical Marijuana Initiative Campaigns Challenge on Invalidated Signatures. A dozen state prosecutors have filed legal action to block the New Approach Missouri medical marijuana initiative from getting on the ballot. The group is challenging official signature counts that say it came up short, but the DAs argue that that isn't the real issue. They argue that the state cannot put on the ballot issues that would result in laws in conflict with US law.

International

Duterte's Philippines Drug War Death Toll Doubles to 1800. The number of people killed in President Rodrigo Duterte's campaign against drug users and sellers has now reached 1,800, police said Monday. Police said they had killed more than 700 drug offenders, while more than 1,000 killings were carried out "outside police work." The UN has called on Manila to end the extra-judicial killings, but Duterte has responded by saying he could quit the UN.

Mexico Police Accused of Massacring 22 Suspected Cartel Members. The deaths of 22 alleged cartel members in a May 2015 incident at a ranch in Michoacan was not a gun battle, but a mass execution, the country's human rights commission declared last Friday. The commission said police killed the men, then moved bodies and planted guns to support the official account that there had been a shoot-out. "The investigation confirmed facts that show grave human rights violations attributable to public servants of the federal police," said the commission president, Luis Raul Gonzalez Perez. National Security Commissioner Renato Sales, who oversees the federal police, rejected that charge, and did so at a press conference called before the commission had finished its own.

Chronicle AM: Duterte Lashes Out at UN, CA MJ Arrests Haven't Gone Away, More... (8/18/16)

Despite what's been called "de facto legalization," California has arrested a half million for pot in the last decade; Tennessee's Music City moves toward decriminalization, a Montana anti-medical marijuana initiatiive has come up short, and more.

Filipino President Rodrigo "The Punisher" Duterte (theinfluence.org)
Marijuana Policy

California Saw Half a Million Marijuana Arrests in the Last Decade. And you thought pot was virtually legal there already. A new report from the Drug Policy Alliance shows that far from "de facto legalization," tens of thousands of Californians are still getting arrested for marijuana offenses each year. Even though the state decriminalized pot possession in 2011, thousands are still arrested for marijuana misdemeanors each year, and the burden of arrests falls disproportionately on blacks, Latinos, and youth.

Report Finds West Virginia Could Make Millions By Legalizing Marijuana. The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy released a report Thursday saying that if the state legalized marijuana and taxed it at 25% of its wholesale price, the state could collect an estimated $45 million a year. And if just 10% of marijuana users living within 200 miles of the state came to buy legal weed there, the state could make $194 million a year. It would also save most of the $17 million a year it currently spends enforcing pot prohibition.

Nashville Moves Toward Marijuana Decriminalization. Tennessee's second largest city (less than a thousand people fewer than Memphis) is headed for decrim. The city council Tuesday gave its initial approval to a measure that would make possession of up to an ounce a civil infraction punishable by a $50 fine. It's not a done deal yet, though, and the police are grumbling. Stay tuned.

Medical Marijuana

Possible Arizona Pot Legalization Spurs Rush for Medical Marijuana Licenses. More than 750 people or groups have submitted applications for 31 medical marijuana dispensary licenses to be awarded in October. Medical marijuana license holders will get first crack at new adult use licenses if the Prop 205 legalization initiative passes.

Montana Anti-Medical Marijuana Initiative Fails To Qualify for Ballot, But Challenges Signature Shortfall. An initiative seeking to repeal the state's medical marijuana law has failed to qualify for the November ballot after coming up short on valid signatures. The Safe Montana campaign claims the state improperly rejected or lost signatures and has filed suit to challenge the state's decision. Meanwhile, the I-182 initiative, which would rebuild the state's largely gutted medical marijuana program, has already qualified for the ballot.

International

Philippines President Duterte Slams "Stupid" UN Criticism of Drug War Killings.President Duterte, who has presided over hundreds of drug war killings since assuming office just weeks ago, has pushed back against criticism of his policies by the United Nations. ""Here comes the UN, easily swayed, and coming with a very stupid proposition,"Duterte said in a speech on Wednesday at an event for police officers also attended by foreign diplomats. "Why would the United Nations be so easily swayed into interfering in the affairs of this republic?" Duterte has ordered police not to hesitate to kill and even urged ordinary citizens and communist rebels to join in the war against drugs. Drug users are "not viable human beings," he said.

Chronicle AM: Clinton Renews Rescheduling Call, Kerry Gets MX Human Rights Letter, More... (8/12/16)

The DEA's refusal to reschedule marijuana yesterday elicits reactions from Hillary Clinton and DC activists, a California bill to tax medical marijuana farmers dies in committee, Secretary of State Kerry gets a letter from Congress urging him to prioritize human rights when it comes to financing Mexico's drug war, and more.

DC activists are set to give the White House an earful after the DEA refused to reschedule marijuana.
Marijuana Policy

In Wake of DEA Decision, Hillary Clinton Reiterates Call for Rescheduling Marijuana. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will move to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II substance, her campaign said in a statement after the DEA rejected reclassification Thursday. "As president, Hillary will build on the important steps announced today by rescheduling marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule II substance. She will also ensure Colorado, and other states that have enacted marijuana laws, can continue to serve as laboratories of democracy," senior Clinton advisor Maya Harris said.

In Wake of DEA Decision, Emergency Demonstration at the White House Tonight. Washington, DC, DCMJ legalization activists are gathering in front of the White House tonight at 8:20 PM to protest the DEA's refusal to move marijuana from Schedule I, the same schedule as heroin. "Here we are, 43 years and millions of marijuana arrests later, and we being told that cannabis is still as dangerous as heroin. WHAT THE HELL?!?!" organizers wrote on Facebook. "The Obama Administration's DEA thinks Americans should go to jail for a non-toxic plant. WE THINK OTHERWISE!"

Medical Marijuana

California Medical Marijuana Tax Bill Dies in Committee. A bill that would have imposed a tax on commercial medical marijuana growers has been killed in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Assembly Bill 2243 would have imposed a tax of up to $9.25 per ounce of marijuana buds, $2.75 for pot leaves, and $1.25 for immature pot plants. The panel killed the bill after patient advocates said it would impose a burden on patients.

International

Canadian Medical Marijuana Patients Will Be Able to Grow Their Own. Health Canada said Thursday that medical marijuana patients will be able to grow limited amounts for themselves or have a caregiver do so. The move comes as the government attempts to comply with a federal court ruling that struck down the previous Conservative government's ban on patients growing their own. Patients would also still have the option of buying from one of 34 producers licensed by the federal government.

Congresspersons Sign Letter to Secretary of State Kerry Urging That US Prioritize Human Rights in Mexico. Some 68 members of Congress have signed onto a letter urging Kerry to make human rights a priority in US relations with Mexico. The letter expresses concern over the "27,000 unresolved cases of people who have disappeared in Mexico since 2007, and the slow pace of reforms in the military, law enforcement and justice sectors," as well as the persistent use of torture in criminal investigations. It calls for US support for the ongoing investigation and search for the 43 disappeared students from the Ayotzinapa rural teachers' college. And it reiterates the need for accountability and justice in the cases of grave abuses committed by Mexican security forces in Oaxaca and Tlatlaya. The letter comes as the State Department is reviewing the Mexican government's compliance with human rights conditions attached to US anti-drug funding.

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org"s lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Chronicle AM: UN Agencies Condemn Philippine Killings, Huge Danish Consumption Room Opens, More... (8/4/16)

UN drug agencies join civil society in condemning Philippine drug war killings, the world's largest drug consumption facility opens in Copenhagen, the California marijuana legalization initiative sues to have "false and misleading" ballot arguments removed, and more.

The Copenhagen drug consumption room covers a thousand square meters. (Nanna Gotfredsen, Sune Kehlet)
Marijuana Policy

California Prop 64 Campaign Sues to Disallow "False, Misleading" Ballot Arguments. The Prop 64 marijuana legalization campaign filed a lawsuit in state superior court in Sacramento Thursday seeking to have what it calls false or misleading statements submitted by opponents removed from ballot arguments. Ballot arguments appear in the voter information guide. The campaign wants the judge to reject or amend a number of arguments, including one that claims children will be exposed to edibles advertising and one that claims Prop 64 will remove consumer protections, among others. All legal questions around ballot arguments must be settled by August 15.

Medical Marijuana

Arkansas Poll Has Support for Medical Marijuana at 58%. A new poll of likely voters has a healthy majority for medical marijuana, with 58% saying they support it. Voters will have a chance to signal that support at the polls in November, when the Arkansans for Compassionate Care initiative will appear on the ballot. A second medical marijuana initiative, the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Amendment, is still trying to qualify for the ballot and has received an extension to gather more signatures after coming up just short last month.

New Jersey Legislature Passes Bill to Make PTSD a Qualifying Condition. The Senate Tuesday gave final approval to Assembly Bill 457, which would allow people with PTSD to use medical marijuana. The bill now goes to Gov. Chris Christie (R), who has not indicated whether he will sign or veto it.

International

UN Drug Agencies Join Chorus of Critics of Philippines Drug Killings. In a statement Wednesday, UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) executive director Yuri Fedotov said he joined UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in "condemning the apparent endorsement of extrajudicial killings" of alleged drug users and dealers in the country under the new administration of President Rodrigo "Death Squad" Duterte. "[Extrajudicial killing] is illegal and a breach of fundamental rights and freedoms," he said. "Such responses contravene the provisions of the international drug control conventions, do not serve the cause of justice, and will not help to ensure that 'all people can live in health, dignity and peace, with security and prosperity,' as agreed by governments in the outcome document approved at the UN General Assembly special session on the world drug problem," he said. The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) likewise expressed its concern later the same day. In a written statement, the self-described "quasi-judicial" agency that monitors compliance with the drug conventions wrote that "should these reports prove accurate, this would constitute a serious breach of the legal obligations to which the Philippines is held by the three UN drug control conventions and by the corpus of international legal instruments to which the country has adhered."

World's Largest Drug Consumption Room Opens in Copenhagen. The drug consumption room is 1,000 square meters and includes space for both drug injecting and smoking. It is partially funded by the city of Copenhagen. Users at the site will also be able to engage with medical and social welfare services.

Chronicle AM: Filipino Drug War Killings Raise Global Alarm, Legal Pot for Deficit, More... (8/2/16)

Civil society responds as the death toll mounts in the Philippines, Massachusetts politicians endorse pot legalization, a new study finds national legalization could bring in $12 billion a year for the feds, and more.

Filipino President Rodrigo "The Punisher" Duterte (theinfluence.org)
Marijuana Policy

Study: Legal Marijuana Could Bring $12 Billion a Year to Federal Tax Coffers. A new study from the American Economic Association says the federal government could harvest up to $12 billion annually in tax revenues if marijuana were legalized nationwide. The revenue estimate is based on a 25% federal tax on retail pot sales.

Alaska Pot Board Member Fired, Alleges Governor Trying to "Subvert" Legalization. Gov. Bill Walker (R) has fired Marijuana Control Board member Bruce Schulte, and Schulte says it's because Walker and allies are trying to delay implementation of a voter-approved marijuana industry. "There's an underlying agenda to subvert the process, to delay the implementation of a legalized marijuana industry," Schulte said. "It doesn't look like the State of Alaska is really serious about making this happen." A replacement for Schulte has not been announced. Alaska approved marijuana legalization in November 2014.

Arkansas Attorney General Rejects 2018 Legalization Initiative. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has rejected an initiative proposed by Mary Berry of Summit to legalize marijuana in the state. Rutledge said there were ambiguities in the text that need to be addressed. That initiative was aimed at 2018. A 2016 initiative from Berry, the Arkansas Cannabis Amendment, was approved for signature gathering, but failed to make the ballot.

Boston City Council President to Endorse Massachusetts Legalization Initiative. City Council President Michelle Wu and Councilor Tito Jackson will formally endorse the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol's legalization initiative at a press event at the state capitol tomorrow. Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse endorsed the initiative Monday, becoming the first mayor in the state to do so. Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, Governor Charlie Baker (R), and other high state officials oppose the initiative.

Medical Marijuana

Florida Medical Marijuana Foes Get Big Bucks Donation from Publix Heiress. Carol Jenkins Barnett, heir to the Publix supermarket fortune, has donated $800,000 to Drug Free Florida to fight the Amendment 2 medical marijuana initiative. Jenkins Barnett also donated big time to defeating the medical marijuana initiative in 2014, handing out $500,000 to Drug Free Florida that year.

International

As Philippines Drug War Death Toll Mounts, Rights Groups Demand UN Denounce Killings. More than 700 suspected drug users or dealers have been killed by police or vigilantes since Rodrigo Duterte took office as president less than three months ago, and now civil society is responding. More than 300 human rights and other organizations have signed letters to the International Narcotics Control Board and UN Office on Drugs and Crime urging them to speak out against the extra-judicial violence. "We are calling on the UN drug control bodies to publicly condemn these atrocities in the Philippines. This senseless killing cannot be justified as a drug control measure," said Ann Fordham, executive director of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), which coordinated the letter. "Their silence is unacceptable, while people are being killed on the streets day after day."

Australia's New South Wales Now Allows Doctors to Prescribe Medical Marijuana. As of Monday, New South Wales doctors can write prescriptions for medical marijuana. "People who are seriously ill should be able to access these medicines if they are the most appropriate next step in their treatment," NSW Premier Mike Baird said yesterday.

Beyond UNGASS: Looking Toward 2019 [FEATURE]

The United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs is set for UN Headquarters in Manhattan next week, and civil society and some European and Latin American countries are hoping to make limited progress in moving toward more evidence- and public health-based drug policies. But, knowing the glacial pace of change at the UN and well aware of how little of substance is likely to emerge from the UNGASS, some eyes are already turning to the post-UNGASS international arena.

UNGASS is coming... and then what? (Creative Commons)
Hopes for more forward movement at the UNGASS, always tentative and facing opposition from global drug war hardliners such as Russia, China, and Singapore, were effectively dashed at the run-up meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) meeting last month in Vienna, whose outcome document was described as "quite awful" by leading Canadian drug policy expert Donald MacPherson.

The outcomes document includes some minor progressive movement, but does not challenge the trio of treaties that form the legal backbone of global drug prohibition, while its embrace of "flexibility" emboldens regressive, repressive measures (the death penalty for drug offenses, forced "treatment," criminalization of drug users) in hard line countries, despite being helpful for progressive reforms around the edges of the treaties' prohibition.

MacPherson was one of a handful of international drug policy experts and elected officials who took part in a teleconference last week organized by StoptheDrugWar.org (publisher of this newsletter), a US-based group that has been deeply involved in civil society organizing around the UNGASS. He wasn't the only one looking beyond 2016.

Mexican Senator Laura Angelica Rojas Hernández, chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Organizations, called this year's UNGASS poses "a step" toward examining the objectives of the 2009 Political Declaration and Action Plan on drugs, which will be reviewed in 2019. While the CND outcomes document had good language around the need for embracing multiple approaches, such as public health, human rights, gender, and prevention, it also includes serious shortcomings, she said.

Mexican Senator Laura Angelica Rojas Hernandez (pan.senado.gob.mx)
"There is a lack of recognition of the relative efficacy of demand reduction and harm reduction policies and the absence of an acknowledgement of the high costs that the prohibitionist and punitive approaches have generated," the senator said.

Mexican senators know all too well the high costs of drug prohibition. For the past decade, the country has been battered by brutal prohibition-related violence that has left at least 100,000 dead, tens of thousands more "disappeared," a legacy of human rights abuses by soldiers and police fighting the cartels, and the legitimacy of the state severely weakened.

"The international community should continue to work toward the establishment of indicators that could help measure the impact of drug policies on people's lives and their rights," Rojas said, suggesting this could still happen at the UNGASS.

But she was also looking down the road.

"Something that should be placed on the table in 2019 is a thorough review of the three conventions on drug control that acknowledges the highly detrimental effects of the current approaches," she said. "And we should be more honest about the so-called flexibility of implementation offered by these treaties and acknowledge that there should be a wider range of action for countries to define their own drug policies, taking into consideration their national and cultural context."

Canadian drug policy expert Donald MacPherson (cssdp.org)
Both Rojas and Canada's MacPherson called for some sort of expert mechanism to guide policymakers eyeing the 2019 meeting.

"Organizations and even some governments are beginning to call for a mechanism post-UNGASS to get real with the modernizing of the treaties," MacPherson said, reflecting frustration with the UNGASS process and prospects. "It's really important that UN member states speak strongly for the need for that mechanism, whether it's an expert committee or some other sort of group. And it needs to happen now -- the next three years are critical coming up to 2019. We really do need to have that process in place to [counter] the kind of intransigence of other countries that use the consensus-based model to hold progress ransom."

"The international community should examine the possibility of establishing an analysis mechanism as a working group of experts, for example, with a mandate to formulate recommendations aimed at the modernization of the international system of drugs for the 2019 review process," Rojas added. "And from a longer-term perspective, we need to see the creation of a special office within the UN Human Rights Council, to follow up and monitor the respect of human rights in the context of the enforcement of the drug policies."

The UNGASS hasn't even gotten here yet, and interested observers are already looking past it. Welcome to politics at the United Nations where most things happen at a snail's pace. The global drug prohibition consensus may be crumbling, but it is crumbling very slowly at the level of international conventions and institutions. The work continues.

[A follow-up story on prospects for marijuana legalization in Canada and Mexico will highlight remarks during the teleconference by Canadian Member of Parliament Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, Aram Barra of Mexico United Against Crime, and StoptheDrugWar.org executive director David Borden.]

Will UNGASS 2016 Be the Beginning of the End for the War on Drugs?

This article is by Ann Fordham and Martin Jelsma, and is republished from openDemocracy. It is part a series of articles about this April's UNGASS. Further information appears below.

In April 2016, the UN will dedicate, for the third time in its history, a United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) to discuss global drug policy. The UNGASS has the potential to be a ground-breaking moment that could change the course of the international drug control system. However, political divisions and entrenched institutional dynamics have dampened hopes that it will go down in history as the beginning of the end of the war on drugs.

At the joint request of Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala, the General Assembly decided to bring forward the convention of a special session to assess "the achievements and challenges in countering the world drug problem", originally foreseen for 2019 or 2020. The three countries stated at the time that "revising the approach on drugs maintained so far by the international community can no longer be postponed", and the UN needed to exercise leadership to "conduct an in-depth review analyzing all available options, including regulatory or market measures, in order to establish a new paradigm that would impede the flow of resources to organized crime groups". An international meeting had to be convened, "capable of taking the decisions necessary to increase the effectiveness of the strategies and instruments with which the global community addresses the challenges of drugs and their consequences".

Conventional drug control wisdom has put forward the view that stopping the supply of drugs at the source would solve the 'world drug problem', but Latin American countries bear witness to the failure of this approach. Stirred into action by the futility of spending billions of dollars to fight an unwinnable and increasingly violent war on drugs, it is no surprise that political leaders from Latin America have been at the forefront of the drug policy debate. From their perspective, the high human cost in terms of violence, insecurity, mass incarceration and the exacerbation of the social and economic vulnerability of some of society’s most marginalised groups – can no longer be justified as necessary collateral damage in pursuit of eradicating drug markets.

A growing group of Latin American and Caribbean countries are calling for a real discussion on alternative policies. In the meantime, Uruguay has moved to create the world's first national legally regulated cannabis market for recreational use, and similar initiatives have happened in the US at the state level. This opening up of the long entrenched and seemingly immovable discussion on prohibitionist drug control principles is unprecedented and has implications for global policy.

In this context, the UNGASS in April represents a critical juncture, an opportunity for an honest evaluation of global drug policy and how to address the most pressing challenges going forward. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in recognition of this rare and important opportunity, has urged member states to use the 2016 UNGASS "to conduct a wide-ranging and open debate that considers all options."

The UNGASS preparations

The initial discussions to prepare for the UNGASS were fraught with disagreements over many procedural aspects. These included difficult negotiations over the extent to which the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna would lead the process; how to strike the right balance between the UN capitals of Vienna, Geneva and New York in the preparations; how to ensure meaningful involvement of all relevant UN agencies, academia and civil society; and – last but not least – how open the debate should be: should it be restricted to a discussion of how to improve the implementation of the 2009 Political Declaration and the achievement of its targets for 2019, or should the UNGASS be an opportunity to challenge the current global drug control strategy, possibly even questioning its foundation of the three UN drug conventions?

 

These difficult negotiations, which on the surface often appeared to be arguments over procedure, reflected the deep political divisions within the international drug policy debate. The much-revered 'Vienna Consensus' continues to weaken as the divide between some governments becomes increasingly irreconcilable. A growing number of countries now believe that the traditional repressive drug control approach, based on zero-tolerance, has not worked and has led to disastrous consequences for human rights, public health, citizen security and sustainable development, and as a result it has to be modernised.

 

Some countries calling for an open and inclusive debate at the UNGASS questioned whether this could be truly achieved with a process led by the Vienna-based drug control apparatus, given that the CND, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) have all gained quite a conservative reputation over the decades. Conducting all the preparations in Vienna led to a further problem for inclusivity, given that at least 70 member states do not have permanent representation there and would therefore struggle to fully participate in the process. The point of convening an UNGASS, is that by definition all UN member states and the whole UN system should be included on a equal basis, but limiting the political negotiations on the outcomes exclusively to Vienna, means that in practice the countries and UN agencies not represented in Vienna have much less influence on the process.

In the end, the hard fought-over resolution on the procedures decided that the UNGASS "will have an inclusive preparatory process that includes extensive substantive consultations, allowing organs, entities and specialized agencies of the United Nations system, relevant international and regional organizations, civil society and other relevant stakeholders to fully contribute to the process", while the CND "as the central policymaking body within the United Nations system dealing with drug-related matters, shall lead this process", inviting the president of the General Assembly to "support, guide and stay involved in the process".

UN special sessions are rare and crucial moments in UN-level policy making and are designed to ensure a coherent UN system-wide response to global problems of major concern to the international community. This has so far been less than optimal in discussions on global drug policy. After initial slow engagement from other key UN agencies, significant contributions have now been made from UNDP, UNAIDS and the WHO. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has also submitted a comprehensive reportthat outlines the most pertinent human rights violations in relation to drug control policies, while the Human Rights Council held a high level panel in September 2015 on the topic of "the impact of the world drug problem on the enjoyment of human rights".

A Civil Society Task Force (CSTF) was convened to ensure the participation of civil society in the process. The CSTF has representatives from every region of the world, as well as representatives of the key affected populations such as people who use drugs and subsistence farmers growing drug-linked crops among others. Initially, formal recognition of the CSTF was challenging – civil society has always had to fight for visibility and access at the CND but over the last year there has been increasing support for this initiative from governments.  A major victory for the CSTF was explicit support from the president of the General Assembly, who presided over an Informal Interactive Stakeholder Dialogue in New York on the 10 February 2016 organised with the CSTF in support of the preparatory process. The calls for progressive policiesbased in principles of harm reduction, of public health and of human rights from global civil society were deafening at the event.

Shifting regional priorities

 

In terms of regional perspectives, as noted above, the impetus for pushing for another UNGASS on drugs followed growing calls for reform from across Latin America at the highest political level. In fact, the previous UNGASS meetings in 1990 and 1998 had been convened in response to similar calls from Colombia and Mexico. Around them, a group of like-minded countries is gradually shaping up around certain positions, including Ecuador, Uruguay and Costa Rica and supported by Brazil and Bolivia on some issues. Caribbean countries have long been largely absent from the debate, not least because discussions have been limited to the CND in Vienna, where few Caribbean countries are represented – although Jamaica has recently joined the chorus of dissent and the discussion on several other islands has intensified.

In terms of European, particularly European Union (EU), engagement, this has been markedly different from Latin America and reflects the fact that Europe has managed to avoid the sharpest edges of a repressive approach to drug control. European countries have not experienced to the same extent, the high human cost in terms of violence, insecurity, and mass incarceration experienced in Latin America.  Of course the context is different, but in addition, many European governments have been pragmatic, have prioritised health care, harm reduction and human rights protection. While in Europe there are some serious issues regarding the criminalisation of people who use drugs and disproportionate sentences for minor drug offences, most European countries have managed to keep a certain distance from the escalation of the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s in the US, Latin America and Asia. At the international level, the leadership that EU governments have shown in this regard has been critical in shifting the drug policy narrative towards public health, harm reduction and human rights principles.

On issues where common positions can be found, the EU can have a strong impact on the global debate. For example, a united EU promoted the principle of proper sequencing with respect to ensuring that subsistence farmers have sufficient access to alternative livelihoods before being forced to abandon their drug-linked crops. The EU has also demonstrated unity and commitment on harm reduction and the removal of death penalty for drug offences, although a global consensus on these issues is not yet in sight.

Unfortunately, there are also crucial areas where a strong European voice has been absent, and the EU has failed to understand or acknowledge the sense of urgency and relevance of this UNGASS. This is clearly the case with regard to the shift in priority that Latin American countries are seeking, to move away from arresting small-time dealers and chasing drug shipments towards reducing drug-related violence, organised crime and corruption instead. In a sense, this is a plea for a harm reduction policy on the supply side: the drugs market will not be “eliminated or significantly reduced” by 2019, and it is time to forget the hollow illusion of a drug-free world.

Instead, government policy could be more sophisticated and focus on mitigating the most harmful aspects of the drug trade through reducing the levels of illicit drug market-related violence, crime, insecurity and corruption. This thinking mirrors similar priority shifts that have previously taken place in Europe under the harm reduction banner, with governments taking a pragmatic approach to reduce the harms associated with drug consumption without necessarily seeking to stop the use of drugs. These harm reduction policies and programmes have significantly reduced drug-related harm such as overdose deaths, and HIV and hepatitis C prevalence among people who inject drugs.

Cannabis policy and UN treaties

 

Another example is the lack of EU engagement in the debate about global cannabis policy developments, the result of the absence of a common EU position on cannabis and huge national policy variations. Demonstrating an ostrich-like denial regarding cannabis policy developments in the Americas but also at local levels within the EU, the EU common position for the UNGASS underscores the need to “maintain a strong and unequivocal commitment to the UN conventions” and that there is “sufficient scope and flexibility within the provisions of the UN Conventions to accommodate a wide range of approaches to drug policy”. In addition, the issue of drug control is a low political priority as the EU currently has it hands full with the refugee crisis and existential threats around the euro and the future of European integration.

A game-changing difference between this UNGASS and the preceding ones is the fact that the position of the US has fundamentally changed. No longer among the hardliners, the US has acknowledged, both at the UN but also more recently domestically, that the over-reliance on incarceration has failed. In August 2013, US Attorney General Eric Holder admitted that mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences were ‘draconian’ and that too many Americans had been imprisoned for too long for no good law enforcement justification. He made it clear that the status quo was unsustainable and damaging. In 2015, President Obama began a process to commute the sentences of around 6,000 federal drug offenders. In early 2016 the congressional task force created to examine overcrowding in the federal prison system, recommended the repeal of federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences. Different legislative initiatives have been tabled, including the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would cut many mandatory minimums for drug offences in half.

The domino effect of cannabis regulation at state level makes the US less sure-footed of condemning other countries for not stringently adhering to a zero-tolerance approach. Cannabis regulation for recreational use is outside of the scope of the current UN treaty framework for drugs, creating a significant problem for the US since it undermines its credibility to continue defending the conventions as they stand. The big question is whether this will lead to the US accepting more flexibility in policy areas that have been explored elsewhere. These include initiatives such as decriminalisation, drug consumption rooms or the regulation of coca in Bolivia, all policy options that the US currently opposes.

UNGASS outcomes: change of course

 

The past several years have seen significant changes in the global drug policy landscape representing a trend towards more humane and proportional responses based on health, human rights and development principles. To some extent, the UNGASS will acknowledge those advances and thereby consolidate the significant change of course that is happening in various regions of the world. Perhaps the most significant advance will be on the issue of access to controlled medicines – an area that has long been de-prioritised in favour of a focus on repressive, law enforcement-led approaches to reduce the illicit drug trade. Most drugs included in the schedules of the UN conventions also have important medical purposes, and several appear on the WHO “List of Essential Medicines”.  However, the availability of opiate painkillers like morphine for example, has been dramatically low in most developing countries due to overly strict regulations reflecting over-riding concerns about diversion and addiction rather than a need to ensure access to pain relief.

Unfortunately, other areas of progress remain stilted. Russia, alongside several Asian and Middle Eastern countries, has played hardball in the negotiations, effectively putting the brakes on the shifting discourse. The negotiations are driven by consensus, making it unlikely that contested policies in the field of harm reduction, or reforms like decriminalisation, despite being widely accepted and propounded by all relevant UN agencies, will be explicitly recommended in the UNGASS outcome document. Likewise, a clear condemnation of the death penalty for drug offences is probably going to be blocked by a small group of countries. The prophecy that allowing the CND to take full control over the UNGASS preparations would undermine progress towards a more system-wide coherent UN drugs policy seems to be being borne out. Negotiations about the UNGASS outcomes have taken place mostly in ‘informal’ sessions in Vienna, dominated by a minority of member states and from which civil society is excluded from participating or even observing.

For the General Assembly, an obvious priority for this UNGASS would be how to align UN drug policy with the recently adopted new global framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but negotiations in Vienna carry on as if they are negotiating another CND resolution. Submissions from other member states, UN agencies and civil society calling for a recognition of the failure of repressive responses and highlighting the need to connect the drugs issue with the agreed UN priorities for the future of the planet have so far not been reflected in successive drafts of the UNGASS outcome document.  The general tone of these drafts is very much ‘business-as-usual’.

At present, few countries are willing to openly acknowledge the existence of structural deficiencies with regard to UN system-wide coherence, the institutional architecture and the legal treaty framework. No easy solutions are available for reforming the foundations of the global control system and consensus will be hard to find, but a continued denial of the reality of the on-going policy trends and the resulting tensions with the treaty system will not make them disappear. In fact, to do so will hinder the much-needed evolution of the UN drug control system and its ability to adapt to the realities of today. Towards this end, it could be helpful if the UNGASS outcome leads to the convening of an advisory group or an expert panel to think through different scenarios for the future evolution of the system, especially in the lead up to the next important moment in 2019 when member states will have to agree a new global action plan on drugs, hopefully more in line with the broader set of UN priority goals for the next decade.

Although it is clear that the so-called ‘Vienna consensus’ has been breaking apart for some time and there is a growing desire to find viable policy alternatives to repression and punishment, there are still powerful countries and entrenched bureaucracies that are staunchly opposed to any kind of reform. The divisions between member states but also between UN agencies on this issue have become too visible to ignore and the UNGASS is a perfect opportunity for an honest assessment of the performance of the international drug control system and the options for a change of course.

Given the high human cost of the damaging approaches pursued to date, many people around the world have high hopes that governments will not squander this opportunity. And yet, to what extent the UNGASS can really live up to these hopes remains to be seen. The latest dynamics in Vienna do not bode well, as bureaucratic machinations, political complacency and exclusion seem to rule the process. The lack of vision, inclusivity and commitment to finding new solutions to many of the challenges that remain must be strongly condemned, especially given the urgency expressed by those countries that called for this moment in the first place.

This article was written by Ann Fordham of the International Drug Policy Consortium and Martin Jelsma of the Transnational Institute. It is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organisation with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights. The partnership coincides with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.

Open Letter in Advance of the UNGASS Calls for Obama to Go Bold

With the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs at UN headquarters in New York City just a little more than a month away, more than 230 civil rights, health, faith-based, and other organizations sent a letter to President Obama Thursday urging him to use the UNGASS on Drugs to make an international push for a fundamental shift in drug policy away from criminalization and toward public health and human rights approaches.

UN headquarters, New York City (Creative Commons)
The signatories form a broad range of groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, AIDS United, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the World Hepatitis C Council, as well as dozens of drug reform and harm reduction nonprofits.

The signatories also include NGOs from around the world, from Accion Semilla Bolivia to the Zimbabwe Civil Liberties and Drug Network. As with the domestic sign-ons, the international groups include dozens of drug reform and harm reduction organizations.

All the signatories are united in calling for the US and President Obama to take "a stronger US stance" in areas like human rights, public health, and development and urging the US to promote the initial steps the UN can take in reforming the international drug conventions that form the legal backbone of the global prohibition regime.

The letter urges the administration to call on the UN to appoint an "Expert Advisory Group," whose mandate would be to study tensions faced by the international drug control regime today, and to recommend options for moving forward. Groups argue that the current US stance toward marijuana legalization and international treaties, which relies in part on continued federal prohibition, is "likely to face shrinking credibility internationally as legalization spreads to more states."

"US agencies have played an important role promoting positive reforms like alternatives to incarceration and people-centered public health drug policies," said David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org, who coordinated the sign-on letter. "Unfortunately, the current US UNGASS stance avoids engaging with a number of contested human rights issues, such as the death penalty for nonviolent drug offenses, and punts on the obvious treaty questions that legalization raises. We think this is unfortunate at a time when real strides are being made in reforming our domestic policies, partly because of President Obama's vision for criminal justice reform. We think the administration has viable options available to take further productive steps on global drug policy too."

The letter calls on the Obama administration to:

  • Acknowledge the ramifications of recent drug reforms, such as marijuana legalization in Uruguay and some US states.
  • Stand up for human rights by calling for an end to the death penalty for drug offenses, reducing racial disparities in drug law enforcement, and respecting indigenous traditions.
  • Craft a people-centered approach to drug policy by explicitly adopting harm reduction practices, such as syringe exchanges, and rejecting the criminalization of peasant farmers and the eradication of their drug crops in favor of sustainable development.
  • Take a stronger stance on criminal justice reforms by moving toward drug decriminalization, urging sentencing reforms around the globe, and treating pregnant women who use drugs as patients, not criminals.
  • Work toward a more open dialog by having key documents finalized at the UNGASS rather than at closed sessions of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna and taking a more inclusive posture toward NGOS and civil society.

We will see next month how much Obama is listening.

Chronicle AM: DC Council Backs Away From Pot Club Ban, RI Gov Wants Patient Tax, More... (2/3/16)

The idea of marijuana social clubs in the nation's capital remains alive, Rhode Island patients face the prospect of seeing their plants taxed, there are medical marijuana advances in Australia and Poland, and more.

Marijuana Policy

DC City Council Backs Away from Pot Social Club Ban. The District of Columbia city council today voted to halt consideration of legislation that would permanently ban adult consumption of marijuana outside the home, and instead moved forward with the creation of a task force to explore the establishment of regulated places where adults can legally consume marijuana in the District. Last week, the council passed an emergency ban on social clubs and it was supposed to make that ban permanent today, but backed off in the face of strong public pressure. Instead, it voted to establish a task force to study the issue.

Medical Marijuana

Rhode Island Governor Wants to Impose Hefty Plant Tax on Patients, Caregivers. Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) has introduced a medical marijuana reform plan that would impose a $150 per plant tax on plants grown by patients and a $350 per plant tax on plants grown by caregivers. The governor says this will help the state raise $8.4 million in new tax revenues. But that tax is based on the administration's position that each plant is worth $17,000, which is nowhere near the case. Patient advocates are not happy.

Drug Testing

Wisconsin Bill Would Make It a Crime to Cheat a Drug Test. State Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay) has introduced a bill that would criminalize the possession, sale, or advertising of chemicals used to create synthetic urine to defeat drug tests. Under current state law, workers can be fired for cheating on drug tests, but face no criminal penalty. The bill would make using synthetic urine to cheat a drug test a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail for users and up to 90 days in jail for sellers or manufacturers. Fourteen other states have similar laws.

International

Human Rights Watch Condemns Tunisia's Drug Laws. The group issued a report this week singling out Law 52, which is says requires courts to impose "cruel, disproportionate, and counterproductive" sentences on drug offenders. The law requires a mandatory minimum one year jail sentence for any illegal drug possession, including marijuana.

Australian State Run Synthetic CBD Trials on Children With Epilepsy. The Victoria state government has authorized a study on 10 children as part of an effort to understand the effects of synthetic cannabinoids on children with epilepsy. The trial is set to get underway in Melbourne this month. The state government has kicked in $150,000 for the trial.

Polish Rapper Files Medical Marijuana Bill. The pioneering Polish rapper known as Liroy is now Polish Member of Parliament Piotr Liroy-Marzec, and on Monday, he presented a draft bill to legalize medical marijuana in the East European country. "This draft crowns everything I've said over the years, especially during the election campaign," said Liroy-Marzec. "I promised people I met who were ill that I would do everything possible to table this draft," he said.

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