Harm Reduction

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Chronicle AM: ME to Vote on Legalization, AK "Pot Cafes," AL Passes CBD MedMJ, More... (5/2/16)

Lots of Maine news today, Alaska could see "pot cafes," a New Hampshire asset forfeiture bill gets gutted under police pressure, and more.

Coming to Maine?
Marijuana Policy

Alaska Marijuana Draft Regulations Include Pot Cafes. Alaska could become the first legalization state to actually allow social marijuana smoking in designated businesses. The state's Marijuana Control Board has crafted draft regs that would allow users to toke up inside retail stores. The draft regs are now awaiting public comment. While "public" marijuana use is banned, the regs create an exemption for retail stores to seek an "onsite consumption endorsement" to their licenses. Stores with that endorsement could then set aside an area for people to consume marijuana.

California GOP Opposes AUMA Legalization Initiative. The state Republican Party voted at its convention over the weekend to oppose the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA) marijuana legalization initiative. "We must not turn this plague loose on our children and the people of California," said Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber, who also called marijuana an "entry-level" drug that leads to addiction. California Democrats have endorsed the initiative.

It's Official: Maine Will Vote on Legalization in November The final obstacle to a popular vote was removed last Friday, when state legislators punted on their chance to act on the citizen legalization initiative, opting instead to send the question to the voters instead. Earlier, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which organized the state's legalization initiative had to go to the courts to force recalcitrant state officials to properly count all the signatures, and they did so.

Vermont House Takes Up Marijuana Legalization Today. The House is considering legalization today, albeit in a roundabout fashion. One House committee rejected the legalization measure, Senate Bill 241, while another amended it to legalize possession and personal cultivation, but not regulated, legal marijuana commerce. The Senate responded by pasting SB 241 into another bill, House Bill 858, which the House is considering today. Stay tuned!

Medical Marijuana

Alabama Passes CBD Medical Marijuana Bill. Both houses of the legislature have now approved "Leni's Law," which would allow people with seizure disorders or other debilitating medical conditions to use CBD cannabis oil to treat their ailments. Gov. Robert Bentley (R) is expected to sign the bill into law.

Connecticut Medical Marijuana Expansion Bill Passes Legislature. A bill that would allow children with certain debilitating medical conditions to use medical marijuana has passed out of the legislature after a final Senate vote last Friday. Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) is expected to sign House Bill 5450 into law.

New Hampshire's First Dispensary Opens. The Sanctuary Alternative Treatment Center opened in Plymouth last Saturday. It's the first dispensary in the state to open for business. It only took nearly three years after the state's medical marijuana law was approved for this to happen.

Asset Forfeiture

New Hampshire Asset Forfeiture Bill Scaled Back Under Police Pressure. The state Senate last Thursday stripped a provision from an asset forfeiture reform bill that would have directed funds seized by police to the state's general fund rather than to the agency that seized them. The move came after police chiefs said not letting them keep the goodies would "handcuff" them.

Oklahoma Governor Signs Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill. Gov. Mary Fallin (R) last Thursday signed into law a bill that will allow people whose property is subject to asset forfeiture to recover attorney fees when they challenge the seizures. The new law goes into effect November 1.

Drug Policy

Maine Decriminalizes Drug Possession, Moves to Adopt Pre-Arrest Diversion Program. Last Thursday, a bill that would make simple drug possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony passed into law without the signature of Tea Party Gov. Paul LePage. The bill, LD 1554, decriminalizes the possession of up to 200 milligrams of heroin. Earlier this month, the legislature also approved a bill that would fund Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) programs, which have proven successful in Seattle and other cities.

Harm Reduction

Maine Legislature Overrides Governor's Veto of Overdose Reversal Drug Bill. The legislature voted last Friday to override gubernatorial vetoes of LD 1457 and LD 1552, which would allow access to naloxone without a prescription and provide public funding for needle exchange, respectively. Gov. Paul Le Page had claimed "naloxone does not save lives, it merely extends them until the next overdose" and complained that the $70 cost would not be repaid.

International

Canada Supreme Court Throws Out Mandatory Minimums for Drug Traffickers. In a decision last Friday, the high court ruled mandatory minimums for repeat drug offenders are unconstitutional. The case is R. v. Lloyd.

Chronicle AM: CT Opioids Bill Passes House, CA Drug Sentence Reduction Bill Killed, More... (4/26/16)

DC marijuana activists scored a White House meeting, Montana medical marijuana patients catch a temporary break, hemp states could be protected from federal interference, Canada just says no to decrim ahead of pot legalization next year, and more.

A Connecticut bill would provide broader access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

White House Staffers Meet With DC Marijuana Activists. Adam Eidinger and Nikolas Schiller of the DC Cannabis Campaign met with White House staffers Monday and urged them to commit the administration to a marijuana policy summit at the White House. They didn't get any answers from the staffers, but Eidinger said they did get "a lot of nods, a lot of smiles."

Nebraska and Oklahoma Try Again to Derail Colorado's Pot Legalization. After being turned away by the US Supreme Court in their bid to overturn marijuana legalization in Colorado, the two neighboring states have asked to be added to another case at the US 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver brought by opponents of legalization. The case consolidates two separate lawsuits brought by a group of county sheriffs and the owners of a rural property, and now, Nebraska and Oklahoma hope it will include them, too.

Medical Marijuana

Iowa CBD Medical Marijuana Expansion Bill Killed. A Republican-backed bill to expand the number of ailments for which Iowans could use CBD cannabis oil was defeated in the House Monday. Democrats said the proposal did not go far enough, while some Republicans objected to any effort to legalize marijuana, medicinal or otherwise. The bill was defeated 61-36.

Montana Supreme Court Delays Enforcement of Medical Marijuana Rollback. The state high court said it will delay enforcement of its February ruling dramatically rolling back the state's medical marijuana program. The court said its ruling would now not go into effect until August 31. Montana activists and medical marijuana industry spokesman have said the rollback would force the closure of dispensaries and leave patients in the lurch. Supporters are also working on an initiative campaign to put a revamped medical marijuana system before the voters in November.

Hemp

Senate Committee Approves Amendment to Block Federal Interference With Hemp. Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) offered an amendment to the Senate Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill that would prevent the federal government from interfering with implementation of state hemp laws, and the Appropriations Committee passed it last Friday. More than half the states have laws allowing farmers to cultivate hemp, but they faced the prospect of the DEA taking action against them. That will end if the amendment survives the rest of the appropriations process.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Connecticut House Passes Comprehensive Opioid Bill. The House Monday unanimously approved House Bill 5053, which would widen access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone, put a seven-day cap on first-time opioid prescriptions, strengthen the prescription monitoring program, provide a release from liability for Good Samaritans who administer naloxone, and add staffing for emergency medical care and the Alcohol and Drug Policy Council. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Sentencing

California Bill to Reduce Drug Sentences Fails. A bill to repeal sentencing enhancements for certain drug offenses died in the Senate Monday after some senators warned that it would favor drug dealers. The measure, Senate Bill 966, filed by Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), would have repealed a law that adds three years in prison for people convicted of drug distribution offenses if they have previously been convicted on similar charges. All Republican members voted against it, as did three Democrats, while five more Democrats abstained. The bill lost 18-16.

International

Canada Will Not Decriminalize Marijuana Possession Ahead of Legalization. The Liberal government has made it clear that it will not move to end marijuana possession arrests ahead of its push to legalize marijuana, which it said it will undertake next year. "The current provisions of the CDSA [Controlled Drugs and Substances Act] regarding marijuana will remain in place until they are replaced by new legislation that will legalize and strictly regulate marijuana, Ian McLeod, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice, said. "Marijuana will not be decriminalized prior to legalization."

Chronicle AM: NE Ends Civil Asset Forfeiture, New England Pot Politics, Mexico Marijuana Reforms, More... 4/25/16

Marijuana policy is keeping state houses busy in New England, Nebraska becomes the 10th state to end civil asset forfeiture, Maine's Tea Party governor vetoes a Naloxone bill, Mexico's president expands marijuana reforms, and more.

Marijuana Policy

DC Marijuana Activists Meet Today With White House. Two members of the DC Cannabis Campaign (DCMJ) were set to meet with Obama administration officials at the White House today. DCMJ head Adam Eidinger said he had been requesting a "Bud Summit" with Obama's leading drug advisors for years, but had no response until his group demonstrated in front of the White House on April 2. "This is an opportunity for the White House to meet with serious and committed cannabis activists and hear our case for why it's in President Obama's best interest to work with the attorney general to fully remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act," DCMJ co-founder Nikolas Schiller said in a statement.

Connecticut Legalization Bill Dies. There will be no marijuana legalization in Connecticut this year. Rep. Juan Candelaria (D-New Haven), sponsor of the legalization bill, withdrew it last Wednesday after first attempting to add it as an amendment to a related bill. The bill had been declared dead earlier in the session, and Candelaria's move last week was a last ditch effort to keep it alive.

Illinois Decriminalization Bill Advances. A bill that would decriminalize the possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana was approved by the Senate last week. A similar measure was approved by the legislature last year, only to be vetoed by Gov. Bruce Rauner (R). This year's bill lowers the decrim limit from 15 grams to 10 grams, making it a bit more palatable to the governor. A spokesman for Rauner said he was "encouraged" that legislators heard his concerns and would be monitoring the bill's progress. The bill now goes to the House.

New Hampshire Decriminalization Bill Dies. The Senate voted last week to kill House Bill 1631, which would have decriminalized the possession of up to half an ounce of marijuana. This is the seventh time the House has approved decriminalization, only to see it shot down by the Senate. New Hampshire is the only state in New England that has not decriminalized small time pot possession. This year, the legislation ran up against concern over heroin and prescription opioid abuse. "We are in a war, and the last thing we need is to tell our citizens it is OK to use a little marijuana or any other illegal substance," said Sen. Gary Daniels (R-Milford).

Rhode Island Poll Has Support for Legalization at 55%. A new Brown University Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy poll has two-thirds (67%) supporting medical marijuana and a solid majority (55%) in favor of marijuana legalization. This as a legalization bill has been stalled this year. "I know public officials are being very thoughtful and careful on this issue," pollster James Morone said. "But it's hard to see in the long run how legalization won't happen because there is so much strong support among young people. But I would emphasize 'in the long run.' I think anytime you have voters under 44 years old supporting something by 72 percent, it's just a question of time," he added. "Like same-sex marriage around the country, it's being driven by the demographics around the country. It's the exact same dynamic."

Vermont Legalization Bill Amended. The state's legalization bill, Senate Bill 241, faces an uncertain fate after the House Ways and Means Committee approved it, but only after amending it to allow residents to grow and possess small amounts of pot, but not to allow regulated sales. Another House committee had rejected legalization, and a third House committee now has it under consideration. If the House manages to pass some version of the bill, it will have to be reconciled with the version passed earlier by the Senate.

Medical Marijuana

Senate Appropriations Committee Votes to Prevent DEA from Undermining State Medical Marijuana Laws. The committee voted last week 21-8 to approve an amendment offered by Senator Mikulski (D-MD) to protect state medical marijuana laws from federal interference by the Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Administration. After decades of inactivity on marijuana reform, Congress has moved at lightning pace to advance marijuana reform in recent years. Last week the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to allow Veterans Administration doctors to recommend marijuana. The Committee approved similar amendments last year as well as an amendment to allow state-legalized marijuana businesses to access banks and other financial services. The Mikulski amendment is expected to pass the full Senate as well as the House. Similar amendments were passed by Congress last year and the year before.

DEA Approves Colorado-Funded Study on Marijuana and PTSD. The DEA gave the go-ahead for the ground-breaking study last week. It's the first time the agency has given permission to use raw marijuana in a controlled clinical trial for PTSD. Enrollment in the study could begin as early as next month. The study is one of nine funded by historic grants from the Colorado Health Department, which are in turn funded by medical and legal marijuana fees and tax revenues.

Connecticut House Approves Medical Marijuana for Kids. The House voted overwhelmingly last week to expand the state's four-year-old medical marijuana program to include children. The bill also includes a provision to create a Board of Physicians to review requests for new ailments to be added the list of qualifying conditions, which currently lists 17 diseases or syndromes. The bill now goes to the state Senate.

Asset Forfeiture

Nebraska Latest State to Institute to Abolish Civil Asset Forfeiture. Last week, Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) signed into law LB 1106, which eliminates civil forfeiture in the Cornhusker State. The bill had passed the legislature a week earlier on a vote of 38-6. Nebraska becomes the 10th state to eliminate civil asset forfeiture. Now, if Nebraska cops want to seize cash and property, they must first obtain a criminal conviction. The bill also imposes some limits on state law enforcement participation in the federal "equitable sharing" program, under which police can end run state laws directing where seized assets go by turning the busts over to the feds, who in turn give back 80% of the value of seized goods to the arresting agency.

Harm Reduction

Maine Governor Vetoes Bill Seeking to Increase Access to Life-saving Overdose Antidote Naloxone. Gov. Paul LePage last week vetoed the bill last week, arguing that "naloxone does not truly save lives; it merely extends them until the next overdose." Every state in the nation, with the exception of five, have either passed or are in the process of passing naloxone access legislation, and thirty states currently allow for sales of the overdose antidote without a prescription. The bill, LD 1547, could still be revived, though. On Friday, the legislature will take up all bills vetoed by Le Page, including LD 1547. Two-thirds votes in both the House and the Senate would be needed to override the veto.

International

Mexican President to Push Broader Marijuana Decriminalization, Medical Marijuana. President Enrique Pena Nieto used his speech before the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs last week to call for decriminalizing up to an ounce of marijuana and legalizing the medicinal use of the plant. Currently, only up to five grams is decriminalized. "We Mexicans know all too well the range and the defects of prohibitionist and punitive policies, and of the so-called war on drugs that has prevailed for 40 years," Pena Nieto said. "Our country has suffered, as few have, the ill effects of organized crime tied to drug trafficking. Fortunately, a new consensus is gradually emerging worldwide in favor of reforming drug policies," he said. "A growing number of countries are strenuously combating criminals, but instead of criminalizing consumers, they offer them alternatives and opportunities."

Chronicle AM: Open Letter to UN Head Urges Global Drug Policy Changes, PA to Become 24th MedMJ State, More... (4/15/16)

Global celebrities and political figures call for change at the UN, Maine's pot legalization initiative remains alive, Pennsylvania is now set to become the 24th medical marijuana state, and more.

Medical marijuana is coming to Pennsylvania. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Maine Won't Appeal Judge's Ruling to Recount Invalidated Signatures. Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said Wednesday he won't appeal a judge's ruling that overturned his decision to invalidate a marijuana legalization initiative. This doesn't mean that the initiative from the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol is now qualified for the ballot, but it does mean that state officials will have to review thousands of signatures in threw out last month, including some 17,000 invalidated because they came from a notary whose signature on petition sheets supposedly didn't match his signature on file. If those signatures are found to be valid, the initiative qualifies. It handed in 99,000 and only needs 61,000 valid signatures to get on the ballot.

Top Massachusetts Politicians Form Anti-Legalization Committee. Governor Charlie Baker (R), Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (D), Speaker Robert DeLeo (D), and a number of other political figures and health care professionals have formed a bipartisan committee, A Campaign For A Safe and Healthy Massachusetts, to oppose the marijuana legalization initiative there. "I’ve met far too many families in Boston and elsewhere where kids have lost their way in school and been shut out of success in the workplace due to addiction and abuse of marijuana," Mayor Walsh said in a release. "Where marijuana is legal, young people are more likely to use it and a vote against legalizing the commercial marijuana industry is a vote to protect our kids and communities."

NORML Endorses Michigan Legalization Initiative. "The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) is pleased to announce our endorsement of the MI Legalize initiative to regulate the adult use, production and retail sale of marijuana in Michigan. MI Legalize, also known as the Michigan Comprehensive Cannabis Law Reform Committee, has collected more than 270,000 signatures in its effort to legalize marijuana via the petitioning process. The grass-roots effort has been collecting signatures from registered voters since June, 2015, and represents the best opportunity to enact a regulatory system in Michigan, a state where it is highly unlikely the state legislature will take any similar action."

Champaign/Urbana to Vote on Legalization Advisory Referendum. The Illinois cities will vote on the advisory measure in the November election. The advisory question will ask voters "Should the state of Illinois legalize and regulate the sale and use of marijuana in a similar fashion to the state of Colorado?"

Medical Marijuana

Senate Committee Approves Veterans Access to Medical Marijuana. The Senate Appropriations Committee passed a bipartisan amendment Thursday, 20 to 10, allowing Veterans Administration (VA) doctors to recommend medical marijuana to their patients in states where medical marijuana is legal. The vote is the second time the U.S. Senate has advanced this issue. The amendment did not make the final appropriations bill last year after narrowly losing in the House.

Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Bill Heads to Governor's Desk. After months of delay in the House, Senate Bill 3 has finally been approved by the legislature and is headed for the desk of Gov. Tom Wolf (D), who supports it. The Keystone State is now set to become the 24th medical marijuana state.

Harm Reduction

Hawaii House Approves Opioid Overdose Reversal Drug Bill. The House has approved a bill to increase access to overdose reversal drugs such as naloxone (Narcan) and provide immunity to those who administer them. The measure is Senate Bill 2392, which has already passed the Senate and now heads for the governor's desk.

International

Open Letter to UN Head Calls for Shift in Global Drug Policy. Over a thousand people, including financier Warren Buffett, US Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), rock star Sting, and the former presidents of Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and Switzerland, among others, have signed an open letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon saying the drug war has failed and calling for a shift in global drug policy away from criminalization and force and toward health  and human rights. The letter comes ahead of next week's UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs.  

Chronicle AM: New Obama Opioid Initiative, DOJ Backtracks on Forfeiture Reform, More... (3/29/16)

The drug czar uses a recycled and updated version of the gateway theory to oppose marijuana legalization, the Justice Department restarts its Equitable Sharing asset forfeiture program, the president announces a new package of initiatives to fight heroin and opioid death and addiction, and more.

Obama has plans for fighting heroin and prescription opioid death and addiction. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Drug Czar Leans On Gateway Theory Variant to Explain Opposition to Legalization. In a hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform last week, Office of National Drug Control Policy head Michael Botticelli reaffirmed the Obama administration's opposition to marijuana legalization, using a familiar, if discredited, argument to do so: "I think the evidence is pretty clear that early use of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana -- often used together -- significantly increases the probability that someone will develop a more significant addictive disorder later in their life," he said. "Early substance use actually effects brain development and predisposes people for more significant vulnerabilities later in their life." That sounds a whole lot like an updated version of the roundly criticized gateway theory.

Hawaii Resolution Seeks Study on Marijuana and Driving. Rep. Cindy Evans (D-North Kona) and 15 other lawmakers have introduced a resolution asking the state health department to study the effect of marijuana on driving. State law bans people from driving under the influence of impairing drugs, but there is no threshold set for marijuana because there is no widespread consensus on what an acceptable level might be.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Obama Announces New Moves to Fight Heroin and Opioid Abuse. In a speech in Atlanta today, President Obama unveiled a package of new initiatives to help stem the tide of death and addiction from prescription and non-prescription opioids. These initiatives are above and beyond the $1.1 billion in new spending he proposed last month. The package includes expanded access to medication-assisted treatment (methadone, buprenorphine) for addicted users, doubling the cap on the number of patients to whom a doctor may prescribe buprenorphine, increasing the number of doctors who can prescribe it, funding an increase in access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan), ensuring that substance abuse and mental health benefits are offered for Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program, and $7 million for the Justice Department to conduct law enforcement operations aimed at heroin distribution.

Asset Forfeiture

Justice Department Resumes Equitable Sharing Program -- More Money for Cops. The Justice Department has announced it is resuming its program that allows state and local law enforcement agencies to do an end run around state asset forfeiture laws by handing investigations over to the feds. State laws may mandate that seized funds go in the general fund or other specified funds, but under the federal program, 80% of the seized funds go to the seizing law enforcement agency, not the state's general or other specified funds. Law enforcement lobbying groups had been loudly protesting the program's shutdown last fall, claiming they needed the windfalls to do their jobs. Now, the program is back on line.

Harm Reduction

Overdose Reversal Drug Naloxone Has Saved 2,500 Lives in North Carolina. In less than three years, some 2,500 North Carolinians have had their heroin or prescription opioid overdoses reversed by people using naloxone (Narcan), the North Carolina Harm Reduction Center reported today. As of today, the number stands at 2,503. "Through distributing naloxone with NCHRC, I have been able to save the lives of many of my friends, loved ones and peers," says Kendra, a volunteer distributor in Wilmington. "Without this amazing group of people and this life-saving drug, many people who are very close to me may not have had a second chance at life. In the last few months alone I have had close to 100 reversals reported to me personally and many of those people are now in recovery because they were ready to make a change in their lives after overdosing."

International

Mexican Popular Support for Marijuana Legalization Rising, But Still Low. This year's officially-supported debate on marijuana legalization appears to be having an impact. Mexico has never been a legalization-friendly country, and in October, daily polls had support for legalization at only 7%, with 92% opposed. But six months later, after the issue has been publicly debated, pro-legalization sentiment has increased four-fold, to 29%, with opposition dropping to 66%. The trend is in the right direction, but there's still a long way to go.

Chronicle AM: TN Pregnant Women Drug Law Fails, AR Welfare Drug Testing Starting, More... (3/24/16)

An asset forfeiture reform bill moves in New Hampshire, Arkansas and West Virginia advance welfare drug testing, a global commission on public health calls for drug decriminalization, and more.

Medical Marijuana

Louisiana House Committee Approves Bill to Set Up Medical Marijuana Shops. The House Health and Welfare Committee Wednesday approved House Bill 446, sponsored by Rep. H. Bernard LeBas (D-Ville Platte). The bill would create a licensing scheme for the distribution of medical marijuana products. The bill now heads for a House floor vote. It must still be approved by the Senate.

More Michigan Protests Over Dispensary Raids. Dozens of patients, advocates, and supporters took to the steps of the state capitol in Lansing Tuesday to protest a new wave of raids by the Michigan State Police and local narcotics teams. Both state Sen. Coleman Young (D-Detroit) and Rep. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) addressed the crowd.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Kentucky Senate Restores Funding for Heroin Fight. The Senate Wednesday agreed to restore $12 million in funding for anti-heroin efforts that had been proposed by Gov. Matt Bevin (R), but cut by the House last week. House Democrats had slashed the $32 million over two years proposed by the governor to $20 million. Now, the House and Senate will have to thrash out the difference in conference committee.

Asset Forfeiture

New Hampshire House Approves Bill to End Civil Asset Forfeiture. The House Wednesday approved House Bill 636, which would require a criminal conviction before assets could be seized and which would move seized goods from the drug forfeiture fund to the state's general fund. Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) is threatening to veto the bill, saying that because of the state's opioid crisis, this isn't the time to eliminate law enforcement resources.

Drug Policy

Hawaii Lawmakers Take Up Resolution Urging Study on Drug Decriminalization. The House Judiciary Committee today is hearing a resolution, HCR 127, that calls on the state's Legislative Research Bureau to "conduct a study on the feasibility and advisability of decriminalizing the illegal possession of drugs for personal use in Hawaii" so that it "would constitute an administrative or civil violation rather than a criminal offense." If the resolution passes both chambers, the study would be due before year's end to be ready for next year's legislative session. The study would examine Portugal's experience with decriminalization as a possible model for the state.

Drug Testing

Arkansas Welfare Drug Testing to Begin Within Days. The head of the Department of Workforce Services, Daryl Bassett, said Wednesday that the state's welfare drug testing program would get underway within "seven to 10 days." Under the program, all applicants for government aid would be screened for possible drug use and those deemed likely to have been using drugs would have to undergo drug testing. Refusal to take the drug test will result in being denied benefits for six months. Someone who tests positive can continue to receive aid if he follows treatment and recovery plans set by state officials.

West Virginia Governor Signs Welfare Drug Test Bill. Gov. Early Ray Tomblin (D) today signed into law a bill that mandates screening of all welfare applicants for drug use and drug testing those for whom case workers have "reasonable suspicion" of drug use. Applicants who fail drug tests can continue to receive benefits as long as they enroll in drug treatment and job training programs, but a second failed test could mean loss of benefits for up to a year, and a third would earn a lifetime ban.

Harm Reduction

King County Sheriff Says He Would Not Arrest Drug Users Going to Seattle Safe Injection Site. King County Sheriff John Urquhart edged ever closer Tuesday to outright support of a safe injection site in Seattle. "I guarantee you," said Urquhart, "that if you're going into a safe injection site, you will not be arrested by any of my deputies, period." But he was careful to add that while he was "intrigued" by the success of Vancouver's InSite supervised injection facility, he is not yet ready to endorse them for Seattle.

Pregnancy

Tennessee Law That Allows Assault Charges for Pregnant Drug Users Not Renewed. The state's two-year experiment with arresting pregnant drug users is about to come to an end after the legislature failed to re-authorize the law this week. At least a hundred women have been prosecuted under the program, which has been condemned by human rights, civil rights, and pregnant women's rights advocates.

International

Leading Global Health Commission Calls for Reform of Drug Policies Worldwide. A leading global public health commission is calling for new policies that would transform our approach to drug use, addiction and control worldwide, including the decriminalization of minor and non-violent drug offenses. According to a report released this morning by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and The Lancet, the war on drugs and zero-tolerance policies have undercut public health across the globe and have directly contributed to many of today's most urgent public health crises, while doing little to affect drug markets or drug use. The Johns Hopkins University -- Lancet Commission on Public Health and International Drug Policy calls for worldwide reform of drug policies, including: the decriminalization of minor and non-violent drug use, possession and petty sale; enactment of policies that reduce violence and discrimination in drug policing; increased access to controlled medicines that could reduce the risk of overdose deaths; and greater investments in health and social services for drug users. The report is based on an extensive review by the Commissioners of the published evidence, and on original analyses and modeling on violence, incarceration and infectious diseases associated with drug policies.

Chronicle AM: Pain Pills to Get "Black Box" Warning, FL to Get Syringe Exchanges, More... (3/23/16)

The Vermont marijuana legalization bill gets a first House hearing, it's do or die tomorrow for Georgia CBD legislation, the FDA orders "black box" warnings for quick-acting prescription opioids, Florida's governor has signed a syringe exchange bill into law,and more.

The FDA is mandating a "black box" warning for opioid pain pills. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Arizona Legalization Campaign Has Raised Ten Times More Funds Than the Opposition. According to a new report from the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol has raised $1.1 million for its legalization effort, while the leading group opposing legalization, Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, has raised only $90,000. The legalization campaign needs 150,642 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot. It already has 180,000 raw signatures and says it aims to collect 225,000 to have a nice cushion.

Vermont Legalization Bill Gets House Panel Hearing. The House Judiciary Committee Tuesday heard testimony on the legalization bill, Senate Bill 241, from representatives of state police, prosecutors, and sheriffs. The witnesses said legalization would not end the black market, worried about out-of-state pot tourists driving under the influence, and called for a marijuana DUID law. More hearings are coming.

Dallas City Council Rejects Ticketing Instead of Arresting Pot Possessors. The city council has backed away from a plan to ticket small-time pot possessors after realizing that state law prevents the city from imposing the policy outside of Dallas County. Tiny portion of the city of Dallas extend into neighboring Collin, Denton, Kaufman, and Rockwell counties. The idea had been supported by the police chief and several council members.

Medical Marijuana

Last Chance for Georgia CBD Expansion Tomorrow. The legislative session ends at midnight tomorrow, and lawmakers will have a chance to take up a bill that would expand qualifying conditions for the state's CBD medical marijuana registry. The measure, House Bill 722, was defeated earlier in the session, but lead sponsor Rep. Allen Peake (R-Macon) has added it as an amendment to another bill to try to get it through tomorrow.

Iowa Patients, Supporters Rally in Des Moines. Hundreds of people gathered on the steps of the state capitol Tuesday to urge lawmakers to approve a comprehensive medical marijuana program. "This is not a partisan issue. This is something for the health and safety of our citizens," said Windsor Heights Mayor Diana Willits. "It truly is heartbreaking that legislators are not paying attention to their citizens and their constituents. It's time for everybody to put their political obstacles aside and do what's right in a nonpartisan way." The state passed a 2014 law allowing patients with epilepsy to use CBC cannabis oil, but that law did not provide for manufacturing or distributing the medicine in the state. A bill this year, House File 2384, would establish two grow facilities in the state and allow use of CBDs by patients who suffer from epilepsy, multiple sclerosis or terminal cancer. It is still being debated at the committee level. A recent poll had support for medical marijuana at 78%.

Ohio Medical Marijuana Bill Coming. Sen. Kenny Yuko (D-Richmond Heights) said Tuesday he plans to introduce a medical marijuana bill shortly. Yuko said the legislature needs to act on medical marijuana this spring or see the decision possibly taken out of its hands by the voters. There are at least three medical marijuana initiative campaigns brewing.

Asset Forfeiture

Mississippi Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill Survives Legislative Deadline. Tuesday was the day bills approved by one chamber had to see committee action in the other chamber or die, and House Bill 1410, the Asset Forfeiture Transparency Act, survived. It was approved by the Senate Accountability, Efficiency, Transparency Committee Tuesday afternoon and is now headed for a Senate floor vote. The bill would not end civil asset forfeiture, but require state officials to maintain a searchable database of all cash and property seized by law enforcement.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

FDA Says Opioid Pain Relievers Will Have to carry "Black Box" Warnings. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced Tuesday it will require immediate-release opioids to carry a "black box" warning label alerting users to the risks of misuse, addiction, overdose, and death. The warnings will refer users to the manufacturer's website for details. "Opioid addiction and overdose have reached epidemic levels over the past decade, and the FDA remains steadfast in our commitment to do our part to help reverse the devastating impact of the misuse and abuse of prescription opioids," FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, MD said in a news release. "Today's actions are one of the largest undertakings for informing prescribers of risks across opioid products, and one of many steps the FDA intends to take this year as part of our comprehensive action plan to reverse this epidemic."

Democratic Rep. Tears Into Pharma Company for Price-Gouging on Overdose Reversal Drug. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) used his opening remarks at a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing on heroin use to rip into Amphastar Pharmaceutical, the manufacturer of the overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan), for trying to profit off the crisis. "We can no longer allow drug companies to keep ripping off the taxpayers for life-saving medications," Cummings said. "Cities all around the country have recognized the need to equip their first responders, police officers and public health officials with naloxone -- a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses in a matter of minutes."

Harm Reduction

Florida Governor Signs Syringe Access Bill. Gov. Rick Scott (R) today signed into law the Miami-Dade Infectious Disease Elimination Act (IDEA Act), which will allow for the creation of needle exchanges.

International

Commission on Narcotics Drugs Meeting Ends, Now on to the UNGASS on Drugs. The 59th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) ended Tuesday in Vienna. The meeting and its outcome document are laying the groundwork for the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs at UN headquarters in New York next month.

Latin America's Largest Medical Marijuana Crop Now Being Harvested. Workers near the city of Colbun in central Chile have begun harvesting some 6,000 marijuana plants destined for 4,000 Chilean medical marijuana patients. The operation is being overseen by the Daya Foundation, which has hired 60 local temporary workers for the job. "It is an important day. We want it to be the first harvest of many more to come in Latin American countries," Ana Maria Gazmuri, president of the Daya Foundation.

Chronicle AM: VT Gov Urges Lawmakers to Pass Legal Pot Bill, House Dems Urge Obama to Stand Tall at UNGASS, More... (3/18/16)

The taxman is happy in Oregon, Vermont's governor would be happy if the House passed the pot bill, New Orleans is a signature away from decriminalizing pot, Wisconsin's governor signs a package of bills to tamp down heroin and pain pill use, and more.

Some House Democrats are calling on President Obama to use the UNGASS on Drugs as a bully pulpit for global drug reform.
Marijuana Policy

Oregon Took in $3.48 Million in Marijuana Taxes in January. Even though legal marijuana is still for sale only through medical marijuana dispensaries, the state still sold an estimated $14 million worth of non-medical weed, resulting in the $3 million-plus funding gift to the state. State officials had predicted the take would be about $1 million.

Vermont Governor Urges House to Pass Legalization Bill. Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) told legislators "the time is now to take a smarter approach to marijuana" in a statement released Friday. "The stakes are important. The bill passed by the Vermont Senate would represent the most careful, deliberate attempt to regulate marijuana in America. Before passing the bill, the Senate took testimony from experts, asked the right questions, and learned lessons from those states that have legalized marijuana already. The result is a bill to create a system which would represent a huge improvement over the status quo….The choice in front of Vermonters and their elected representatives in the next couple of months is whether we want our state to take a rational step to end an antiquated War on Drugs policy that almost everyone agrees has failed. We can take a smarter approach in Vermont and be prepared for whatever other states around us do. But we must have the courage to do it." The House has taken up the legalization bill, Senate Bill 241, this week.  

New Orleans City Council Approves Decriminalization. The council voted unanimously Thursday night to approve an ordinance allowing police to write tickets instead of arresting people caught in possession of small amounts of marijuana. Fines will start at $40 and be capped at $100. The ordinance still needs to be signed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Wisconsin Governor Signs Bill Package Targeting Heroin, Pain Pills. The package signed by Gov. Scott Walker (R) includes Assembly Bill 364, which requires doctors to check a database whenever they fill or refill a prescription for abusable drugs; Assembly Bill 365, which requires police to provide information to the Prescription Drug Monitoring database when they find evidence of prescription drugs being abused or stolen; Assembly Bill 366, which requires pain clinics to be certified by the state; Assembly Bill 367, which requires methadone clinics to provide relapse and other information to the state;  Assembly Bill 658, which makes it a crime to possess a use a masking agent to foil a drug test; and Assembly Bill 659, which streamlines rules for opioid treatment programs.

Drug Policy

House Democrats Urge Obama to Go Big at the UNGASS on Drugs. Fourteen House Democrats have urged President Obama to use the UNGASS as a bully pulpit for a call for substantive global drug reforms and moving away from failed criminalization strategies. Led by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (OR) and John Conyers (MI), the group urged the president to "take full advantage of this timely and powerful event to communicate our progress toward a more effective, science-based approach to drugs to the rest of the world." The Democrats called for Obama himself to deliver the US position before the General Assembly. "That unique platform gives you the opportunity to elevate the 2016 UNGASS on the World Drug Problem and change the way drug policy is approached, not only domestically, but also around the world, establishing the United States’ commitment to a new approach on an international scale," the letter reads.

International

Canada Petition Calling for Full Marijuana Legalization Gaining Steam. A petition asking the Canadian government to fully repeal marijuana prohibition is picking up signatures, especially in British Columbia. There are more than 12,000 signatures so far, more than 5,000 of them from BC. The petition launched by federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May calls for removing marijuana from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, ending police actions against existing storefronts, granting of pardons and expungements of criminal records to pot criminals, and leaving the regulation and taxation of marijuana commerce to the states. The Liberal government has said it is going to legalize it, but it hasn't said how or when. 

Chronicle AM: CDC Urges Docs to Severely Limit Pain Pill Prescribing, NY Rep Wants Safe Injection Sites, More... (3/16/16

Another poll has a national majority for pot legalization, the Vermont legalization bill is now before the House, the CDC urges doctors to really cut back on pain pill prescriptions, a New York assemblywoman wants supervised injection sites, a Mexican governor wants a pilot program of opium cultivation, and more. 

Prepare for physicians to begin tightening up on writing pain pill 'scrips. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Another Poll Has a Narrow National Majority for Legalization. A new national tracking poll conducted by Morning Consult has support for legalization at 52%, with 43% opposed and 5% undecided. That's in line with other major national polls in recent years that generally show support for legalization in the 50s. The most recent Gallup poll had it at 60%.

Massachusetts Sheriffs Oppose Legalization Initiative. More of the usual suspects weigh in against legalization, with the state's sheriffs saying it would destigmatize drug use and make it easier for teens to get their hands on the weed. Last week, the state Hospital Association and leading elected officials, including Gov. Charlie Baker (R), Attorney General Maura Healey (D), and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (D) came out against the initiative from the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Massachusetts.  

Vermont Legalization Bill Now Before House. Senate Bill 241, the pot legalization bill, is now before the House Judiciary Committee. On Tuesday, Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) and Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) introduced the bill to the committee.

Medical Marijuana

Georgia CBD Cannabis Oil Bill Revived. Supporters of House Bill 722, which would expand access to CBD cannabis oil, have resurrected the measure by attaching its language to an old Senate bill. It could go to a House vote as early as today. The bill would expand conditions that qualify for CBD cannabis oil and allow companies outside the state to ship it in. Language that would have allowed in-state marijuana cultivation to produce the oil was stripped out earlier in the House.

More Michigan Medical Marijuana Dispensary Raids. The West Michigan Enforcement Team (WEMET) has raided four dispensaries for allegedly selling medical marijuana to cardholders who were not their registered patients. Two were in Saugatuck, one in Allegan City, and one in Pullman. Twelve other Northern Michigan dispensaries were raided last week.

Ohio Medical Marijuana Campaign Resubmits Initiative. That didn't take long. Last Friday, Attorney General Mike DeWine (R) rejected the Ohioans for Medical Marijuana initiative because of deficiencies in its summary. On Tuesday, the campaign submitted revised language. After 20 days of review by state officials, the campaign will then have until July to gather 306,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

Criminal Justice

Massachusetts Conference Committee Agrees on Ending Driver's License Suspensions for Drug Offenders. House and Senate negotiators announced Tuesday that they had reached agreement on a bill to end the state's long-running policy of automatically suspending for five years the driver's licenses of people convicted of drug crimes. The relic of the 1980s drug war will be officially repealed after the full House and Senate vote on the amended bill. Both houses passed bills, and the conference committee has been ironing out the differences. More than 30 other states have taken similar steps.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

CDC Urges Docs to Reduce Prescribing Pain Relievers. In a move bitterly decried by chronic pain advocates, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Tuesday doctors should only prescribe opioid pain relievers as a last resort. Instead, doctors should urge their patients to try physical therapy, exercise, and over-the-counter medications before using opioids to treat chronic pain. The CDC is recommending not using opioids except to treat cancer and for palliative end-of-life care, using the lowest effective dose of opioids, and limiting prescriptions to three days for short-term pain.

Harm Reduction

New York Assemblywoman Wants Supervised Injection Facilities Statewide. Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan) said Tuesday she will soon introduce a bill to establish the harm reduction facilities. Rosenthal's move comes after Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick hoisted a proposal for such a facility there. "New York, and nearly every other state across the country, is grappling with a heroin and opioid addiction crisis that has grown to epidemic proportions," said Rosenthal, who heads the Assembly's Committee on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, in a statement. "Addiction is a public health crisis, and we must address it as such, with aggressive, community-based solutions that reduce harm and provide access to life-saving treatment services."

International

Mexican Governor Proposes Legalizing Opium Cultivation.  Hector Astudillo, governor of violence-plagued Guerrero, said Monday that legalizing opium cultivation for medical purposes might help reduce the violence in his state and the idea should be considered. "Let's do some sort of pilot scheme," Astudillo, a member of President Enrique Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, said. "Provided it's used for medical issues ... It's a way out that could get us away from the violence there has been in Guerrero," he added.

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.

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