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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: 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: MA Init Passes Two Hurdles, Feds Ease Docs' Buprenorphine Limits, More... (7/6/16)

It's a two-fer for Bay State legalizers today, the feds move to ease the opioid problem, Italy's top anti-Mafia and anti-terrorism prosecutor comes out for marijuana legalization, and more.

It looks like they will be voting on marijuana legalization in Boston in November. (regulatemassachusetts.org)
Marijuana Policy

Massachusetts Legalization Initiative Turns in Final Batch of Signatures. The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Tuesday handed in some 25,000 signatures to comply with a final signature gathering requirement before its legalization initiative can appear on the November ballot. Proponents only need 10,971 valid voter signatures for the measure to qualify for the ballot. The campaign already successfully completed a larger signature gathering campaign in the spring, but had to do a second round under state law after the legislature refused to act on the initiative petition.

Massachusetts Supreme Court Okays Legalization Initiative for Ballot… With Changes. The state's Supreme Judicial Court Wednesday ruled that the legalization initiative from the Massachusetts Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol can appear on the November ballot. But the court also massaged the language of the title -- changing it from "Marijuana Legalization" to "Legalization, Regulation, and Taxation of Marijuana" -- and the summary language that will appear on the ballot. The new summary reads as follows: "A YES VOTE would allow persons 21 and older to possess, use, and transfer marijuana and products containing marijuana concentrate (including edible products) and to cultivate marijuana, all in limited amounts, and would provide for the regulation and taxation of commercial sale of marijuana and marijuana products." (Changes highlighted in bold).

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Feds Raise Patient Limits for Buprenorphine Docs. The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has nearly tripled the number of opioid-addicted patients who can be prescribed buprenorphine by a single doctor. Under old rules, doctors were limited to treating 100 patients; now, the cap has been set at 275. The drug is used to help wean people off heroin and prescription opioids.

International

Italy's Anti-Mafia Prosecutor Says Legalize "Soft Drugs." As the Italian parliament prepares to take up marijuana legalization later this month, the country's top anti-Mafia and anti-terrorism prosecutor, Franco Roberti, has endorsed the proposal, calling for the legalization of "soft drugs" as a means of redirecting police resources and weakening the finances of terrorist groups. Under prohibition, he said, "cannabis production is one of the main financing sources of terrorists. If we want to give a blow to the Mafia and the Taliban, we must remove this extraordinary financing channel from illegality."

Bolivia's Coca Crop is Under Control, UN Says. Bolivia has brought the number of acres under coca cultivation down to 50,500, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported Tuesday. Since farmers are allowed to plant 50,000 acres to supply the country's traditional and industrial coca market, that means that only 1% of production is destined for the illicit market. Cocaine continues to be exported through Bolivia, the agency said, but it coming from Peru.

Canada Will Move to Legalize Marijuana Next Year

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, elected last fall, campaigned on a promise that his Liberal government would legalize marijuana. Now, we're getting an idea of just when that is going to happen.

Speaking at the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem Wednesday, Canadian Health Minister Jane Philpott said the government will introduce legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana in spring 2017.

"Our approach to drugs must be comprehensive, collaborative, and compassionate. It must respect human rights while promoting shared responsibility. And it must have a firm scientific foundation. In Canada, we will apply those principles with regard to marijuana," she said.

"To that end, we will introduce legislation [to legally regulate marijuana] in spring 2017 that ensures we keep marijuana out of the hands of children and the profits out of the hands of criminals. While this plan challenges the status quo in many countries, we are convinced it is the best way to protect our youth while enhancing public safety."

Canada's is a parliamentary system, which generally means that if the government introduces a bill, it becomes law. There could be unforeseen bumps in the road, but it appears all but certain that the land of the maple leaf is soon going to become the land of the pot leaf, too.

In the meantime, government officials, including legalization point man former Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair, are emphasizing that until the law changes, marijuana remains illegal except for medicinal purposes. After a Canadian Supreme Court decision in March, medical marijuana users will be able to grow their own, a right that was taken away by the previous Conservative government.

But within a couple of years, any adult Canadian should be able to join them.

New York, NY
United States

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.]

Chronicle AM: NE Pot Politics, DEA Drug Plane Scandal, FL Forfeiture Reform Signed, More.... (4/1/16)

Marijuana politics is hopping in New England, decrim goes into effect in Tampa, the DEA gets raked for wasting tens of millions on an anti-drug plane that never flew, Florida's governor signs an asset forfeiture reform bill, and more.

Another $86 million down the drain, thanks to the DEA and it's flightless anti-drug plane.
Marijuana Policy

Maine Marijuana DUID Bill Killed. The House voted unanimously and without debate Thursday to kill LD 1628, which would have set a standard of 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood to prove a driver was impaired on marijuana. The smack down of the bill came after concerns were raised that there wasn't science to support the limit. The effort is now dead at least until next year.

Connecticut Hearing on Marijuana Legalization Set for Next Week. State Reps. Juan Candelaria (D-New Haven) and Toni Walker (D-New Haven) are hosting an information hearing on legalization next week. Candelaria is the lead sponsor of a legalization bill, House Bill 5209. The session is set for next Tuesday afternoon at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.

Vermont House Hears Testimony on Legalization Bill. More than 50 people testified about Senate Bill 241 at a hearing at the statehouse Thursday night. The marijuana legalization bill has already passed the Senate and has the support of Gov. Peter Shumlin (D). The first House committee vote on the bill is expected next week. If the bill passes, Vermont will be the first state to have legalized marijuana through the legislative process.

Vermont Libertarian Party Calls for Legalization Bill to Include Home Cultivation. The party says "the absence of a home growing provision will limit the bill's chances to decrease the black market" and that "legalization of marijuana is NOT all about tax revenue." The party also says that legal home cultivation "will allow Vermonters to develop their cannabis cultivation skills to support an artisan cannabis industry." The legalization bill originally contained a provision for allowing up gardens of up to 100 square feet per household, but that was stripped out after powerful politicos objected.

Decrim Goes Into Effect in Tampa, Volusia County. Marijuana decriminalization ordinances approved by governing bodies in Tampa and Volusia County, Florida, earlier this year are now in effect. In Tampa, people caught with 20 grams or less will face only a $75 ticket; in Volusia County, it's 20 grams and a $100 fine.

Asset Forfeiture

Florida Governor Signs Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill. Gov. Rick Scott (R) Friday signed into law a bill designed to reform civil asset forfeiture in the state. The bill, Senate Bill 1044, had been approved unanimously by both houses. It will require the seizing agency to make a "probable cause" determination that there is "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" that the seized goods were used in a crime.

Tennessee House Approves Civil Asset Forfeiture Reporting Bill. The House unanimously approved House Bill 2176, which will require annual reporting on law enforcement agency property seizures. The Senate is expected to vote on the measure in coming day.

Law Enforcement

DEA Spent $86 Million for Anti-Drug Plane It Never Used. The DEA procured the plane seven years ago to fly surveillance and counter-narcotics missions in Afghanistan and spent $86 million to upgrade it with surveillance capabilities -- four times the initial estimated cost -- but the plane has never left the ground and will likely never fly in Asia, the Justice Department's inspector general said in a scathing report. "Our findings raise serious questions as to whether the DEA was able to meet the operational needs for which its presence was requested in Afghanistan," the review said. The plane could be ready to fly next year, but the DEA pulled out of Afghanistan last year.

Sentencing

Petitioners Urge Senate Leader Mitch McConnell to Allow Vote on Sentencing Bill. Sentencing refom activists handed in more than 30,000 petitions to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) Tuesday demanding that he allow the Senate to vote on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (Senate Bill 2123). The bill would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses and give judges greater discretion to sentence below the guidelines.

International

IDPC Reviews What Was and Wasn't Gained at the CND. The International Drug Policy Consortium last year elaborated five main "asks" it was seeking at the looming UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs, and now, in the wake of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) meeting in Vienna last month, produced a sort of scoresheet on the progress made. It's a worthy read.

Chronicle AM: New AP Poll Has 61% for Pot Legalization, PA MedMJ Bill Not a Done Deal Yet, More... (3/25/16)

Sixty-one percent of respondents said "legalize it" in a new AP poll -- sort of -- Vermont's pro-legalization governor attacks the Massachusetts legalization initiative, a Georgia CBD bill dies, a drug war justice caravan begins heading from Central America to the UN in New York, and more.

Marijuana Policy

New AP Poll Has Record Support for Legalization. A new survey released today from the Associated Press and University of Chicago has a whopping 61% saying they support marijuana legalization. But there is some nuance in the poll. Some 24% of legalization supporters said it should be available "only with a medical prescription," and 43% said there should be "restrictions on purchase amounts." About a third of legalization supporters said there should be no restrictions.

Vermont's Pro-Legalization Governor Slags Massachusetts Legalization Initiative. Gov. Peter Shumlin (D), who supports a carefully crafted legalization bill in his own state, is taking pot-shots at the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol initiative next door in Massachusetts. "The [Vermont] bill's approach is in stark contrast to the one proposed in the Massachusetts referendum that will be voted on in November, which would allow edibles that have caused huge problems in other states, smoking lounges, home delivery service, and possession of up to 10 ounces of marijuana. Vermont's bill allows none of that," Shumlin wrote in a blog post on his official webpage. "If Massachusetts moves forward with their legalization bill while Vermont delays, the entire southern part of our state could end up with all the negatives of a bad pot bill and none of the positives of doing the right thing." The Massachusetts folks were not impressed, with initiative campaign manager Jim Borghesani retorting that Shumlin is obsessed with edibles and is "falling into the same exaggerations when it comes to edibles that a lot of people have."

Medical Marijuana

Georgia CBD Expansion Bill Dies on Last Day of Session. A bill that would have made the state's CBD cannabis oil law workable by allowing companies outside the state to ship it into Georgia has died as the legislative session ended. The bill, House Bill 722, was defeated earlier in the session, but sponsor Rep. Allen Peake (R-Macon) managed to add it as an amendment to another bill in a last ditch effort to get it through. That didn't work either.

Pennsylvania State Senators Have Issues With House Version of Medical Marijuana Bill. Key senators are expressing reservations about the medical marijuana bill passed by the House last week and may press for changes that would require another vote by both chambers. It had been hoped that the Senate would simply vote to approve the House bill, but Senate bill sponsor Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) suggested the flaws in the House bill needed to be fixed first.

International

'No More Drug War' Caravan to Visit Five Impacted Countries on way to UN Session in NY. Starting in Honduras on March 28th, the Caravan for Peace, Life and Justice will travel through El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and the United States with the goal of reaching New York City on the eve of the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs beginning on April 19. Made up of a diverse group of people including victims of the drug war, families who have lost relatives to violence or incarceration, human rights defenders, journalists, faith leaders, activists and others, the Caravan will travel through some of the places most affected by the war on drugs with the purpose of giving way to an inclusive, collective and open dialogue on drug policy and creating alternatives to the failed prohibitionist regime.

European Drug Reform Stalwart Joep Oomen Dead at 54

Joep Oomen, a key figure in European civil society drug reform efforts, has died unexpectedly of natural causes at his home in Antwerp, Belgium. He was found by colleagues dead in bed Friday when they went looking for him after he failed to show up for a meeting. He was 54 years old.

Joep Oomen RIP (voc-nederland.org)
A veteran activist with more than a quarter century of organizing under his belt, Oomen was the cofounder of numerous drug reform NGOs, including the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD), the Trekt Uw Plant cannabis cultivation social club in Antwerp, and the Dutch Union for the Abolition of Cannabis Prohibtion (VOC).

Joep's vision of a world without drug war drew his attention beyond Europe's borders as well. He had been active with groups like Mama Coca and Friends of the Coca Leaf in working to see the coca plant treated with the respect it deserves, and had been a steady presence at organizing around the United Nations' international drug prohibition bureaucracy.

"Joep was the kind of activist you only very rarely come across," wrote VOC chairman Derrick Bergman. "He combined a seemingly inexhaustible drive and perseverance with impeccable integrity and transparency. Joep spoke fluent Spanish since his studies in Amsterdam in the eighties, he became half-Flemish in Antwerp, but in the end he was primarily a world citizen. I consider myself lucky to have known Joep and to have worked closely with him for eight years with the VOC and Encod. He was not only a hugely effective and inspiring activist, but also a very dear friend."Oomen was present at many international drug reform conferences, where he shared his knowledge and experience about Europe and eagerly sucked up the latest information from around the world. He was also a key source on European drug policy reforms for this newsletter (Drug War Chronicle), always responsive to our requests for information and clarifying the sometimes murky goings on across the water.

We consider Joep a friend and colleague. We are shocked and saddened by his untimely departure.

He leaves behind a wife, Beatriz, two sons, and a grandson.

Antwerp
Belgium

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. 

Myths, Moralism, and Hypocrisy Drive the International Drug Control System

Julia Buxton is Associate Dean and Professor of Comparative Politics at the School of Public Policy, Central European University, Budapest. Follow her on Twitter: @BuxtonJulia

This article 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.

In April 2016, the international community will convene for the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS). This event, held two years early due to the urgency of the drug situation and intensity of drug-related violence, presents an opportunity to question the fundamentals of international drug policy. Despite overwhelming evidence that a century-long quest to control human behavior and drug markets through international treaties and national legislation has failed, there is little expectation of change. The vested interests in retaining the status quo are significant, with sclerosis legitimized through the recurrent exhortation to improve international co-operation.

Major institutional and policy change is required and will ultimately be unavoidable. The treaty system and international drug control institutions stemming from the first international drug conference in 1909 have set us on an orientation within drug policy that does not reflect the dynamics of global drug markets or protect us from drug related harms. Control efforts and resources are skewed toward drugs such as cocaine and heroin, when synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine dominate markets. Enforcement is focused on countries of the global south, when the global north is the world’s key zone for the manufacture and export of illicit substances, and where the bulk of drug trade profits are realized.  

Framed by history

 

From its initiation, the drug control system has responded to the perceived risk from narcotic plants grown in the global south. In 1909, the ‘great powers’ of the day met in Shanghai to discuss controls on opium, a freely traded commodity derived from opium poppy. The result was a seismic market shift, overturning centuries of colonial engagement in opium poppy cultivation in far flung empires of south Asia, and ending the popular use of opium for purposes of pain or pleasure.

The resulting 1912 International Opium Convention of The Hague was the first international drug treaty. It set the intellectual and institutional direction for the drug control system, strategies and approaches that operate today. To put it another way, today we respond to the complex, transnational challenges of HIV/AIDS, internet-based drug sales and international organized crime through a framework devised by imperial powers at a time when women could not vote or wear trousers, when nose size and skin color were seen to determine brain size and civility, and when addiction was understood as a problem of ‘godlessness’.

Over the course of a century, the treaty system has evolved through to the most recent 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, incorporating into the control system a diversity of plants, weeds, shrubs and chemicals deemed “evil” and harmful to the “health and welfare of mankind”. At no point has the United Nations, which administers and oversees the treaty system, reconsidered first principles – as set out in 1912 and institutionalized in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs – that it is desirable or even possible for states to prohibit access to a selected range of intoxicating substances. 

Sovereign states remain locked into the goal of eliminating, or at least significantly curbing the production, distribution and use of drugs. They must cooperate on international control efforts and, in line with the 1961 Single Convention, they are required to treat participation in the drug trade as “punishable offenses when committed intentionally”, and as “serious offenses […] liable to adequate punishment particularly by imprisonment or other penalties of deprivation of liberty”.

A legacy of failure

 

These efforts to control human behavior and to terminate the supply of harmful substances cannot succeed, even if recurrently stepped up, militarized and coercively enforced. According to the latest figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 1 out of 20 people between the ages of 15 and 64 years used an illicit drug in 2013. This is despite punitive national policies to prevent consumption, including by depriving users of illegal drugs of their freedom, access to their children, employment and medical care, and even their right to life.

The use of cocaine, heroin, cannabis and amphetamines remains a ‘global habit’ in a borderless world, configured around a sophisticated, lucrative and innovative transnational market that supplies a diversity of ever cheaper drugs to an estimated 246 million people.  

The 1961 Single Convention looked to eliminate opium use within 15 years, with a 25-year schedule for cocaine and cannabis. In 1998, the UN promoted a “drug-free world”, to be achieved within ten years, and a host of cultivating countries have, over the decades, committed to achieving zero-cultivation of narcotic drug crops. But just as demand reduction targets have never been met, neither have those relating to supply. At over 7,000 tons in 2014, opium production reached its highest level since the 1930s. There was an estimated 120,000 hectares under coca bush cultivation in 2013 (with potential for the manufacture of 662 to 902 tons of cocaine). Meanwhile, as stated in the UNODC’s “World Drug Report 2015”, advances “in cannabis plant cultivation techniques and the use of genetically selected strains have led to an increase in the number of cannabis harvests, as well as in the yield and potency of cannabis”.

As set out by Yury Fedotov, executive director of the UNODC, “we have to admit that, globally, the demand for drugs has not been substantially reduced and that some challenges exist in the implementation of the drug control system”. This acknowledgement has not led to any questioning of mission, or the plausibility of prohibiting access to certain drugs – even with evidence that nine out of ten users are not considered dependent or problematic. Neither has there been engagement with the reality that making certain substances illegal has made them more attractive to produce and supply. Criminalization has converted freely growing plants into billion dollar crops, high profit margins incentivize illicit supply, while the ‘success’ of drug seizures serves only to elevate prices. A utopian goal is being pursued through a strategy that makes it unachievable. 

A northern bias

 

In policy and implementation, drug control remains overwhelmingly preoccupied with opium poppy and coca leaf. International counter-narcotics efforts and assistance – both military and development – have focused on ‘producer’ states such as Colombia, Bolivia and Peru (coca leaf), Mexico (opium poppy) and south Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Burma and Laos PDR (opium poppy). However, as successive UNODC World Drug Reports demonstrate, opioids and cocaine are not the most widely consumed drugs, or arguably the most dangerous.

Contemporary drug markets, measured in terms of seizures and reported use, are increasingly dominated by synthetic drugs: ‘Amphetamine Type Substances’ (ATS) such as methamphetamine and amphetamine, as well as Ecstasy (MDMA) and a raft of ‘New Psychoactive Substances’ (NPS) of which 450 were reported in 2014. The key manufacture and export zones for these drugs are not the global south, but west and east European countries and north America. Patterns of drug flows are the reverse of the dynamics envisioned in the treaty framework. The old delineation of consumer and producer states no longer exists, and the global north is now the key producer region, including for cannabis.

This raises the more difficult question of accounting for the inconsistent application of counter-narcotics efforts, and the gross inequalities in terms of costs and impacts. An estimated 164,000 people were killed during the counter-narcotics surge of 2007 to 2014 in Mexico, a death toll higher than Iraq and Afghanistan combined. But the thought of militarizing supply control in the Netherlands – a leading producer country – on the level experienced by Mexico, is unconscionable. Why are Colombia, Bolivia and Afghanistan acceptable theaters for violent weaponized counter-narcotic operations, and not Poland or Canada?

Moreover, the lack of high level violence in the drug markets of these northern producer countries signifies that illicit markets can be peaceful. From this perspective, it is the disruptive market interventions, weapons flows and training of paramilitary counter-narcotics units that are the drivers of violence in the global south, not the drug markets themselves. Similarly, in relation to northern interventions, how can it be the case that the EU and US fund cannabis eradication in the global south while legalizing or decriminalizing domestically? 

The north’s deflection of its leading role in the drug trade is institutionalized in the treaty system and international drug control institutions. The result is that we have remarkably little information about the evolving threats to mankind’s ‘health and welfare’ posed by synthetics. As set out in the preface to the 2013 World Drug Report, ATS use “remains widespread globally, and appears to be increasing in most regions”, with crystalline methamphetamine “an imminent threat”. Yet while we have each hectare of coca and opium meticulously researched, there is a paucity of data and information on the manufacture of synthetic drugs, or their consumption. It was not until 2008 that the UNODC launched dedicated ATS analysis through the UNODC Global SMART Program(Synthetics Monitoring: Analyzes, Reporting and Trends), with the aim of generating, analyzing and reporting on the synthetic drug market, and improving global responses to the rise in ATS manufacture, trafficking and consumption.

Drug control is constantly re-legitimized by a moral narrative of protecting health, welfare and security. Yet by downplaying the role of European and North American countries in the drug trade, and the historical salience of synthetic markets by default, the system is creating public health risks, it cannot anticipate change in dynamic markets, and it has an insufficient evidence base for policy. Indicative of this is the acknowledgement in the 2016 World Drug Report that, “the sheer number, diversity and transient nature of NPS currently on the market partly explain why there are still only limited data available on the prevalence of use of many NPS. Those difficulties also explain why both the regulation of NPS and the capacity to address health problems related to NPS continue to be challenging.”

In 2012, the International Narcotic Control Board that monitors treaty enforcement, set out that, “dividing countries into the categories of “drug-producing”, “drug-consuming” or “transit countries” has long ceased to be realistic. To varying degrees, all countries are drug-producers and drug-consumers and have drugs transiting through them.” Despite institutional acknowledgement of market transformations, the new geopolitical realities of the drug trade are not reflected in enforcement activities, in the language of drug control institutions, or in the allocation of resources for research, education, treatment and rehabilitation. These remain concentrated on coca and opium poppy, cocaine and heroin.

From the local to the global level, we are, with some small exceptions, locked into arcane, counterproductive and illogical policies that violate fundamental rights and freedoms, spread disease, exacerbate violence, and which impede development – in the view of other UN agencies. The UNODC, which sits in an institutional silo, uses the benign term “unintended consequences” to refer to the wholly negative impact of counter-narcotics policies and how these are disproportionately borne along stratified racial, class and geographic lines. The myths, Victorian moralism and hypocrisy that frame international drug policy need to be confronted if we are to progress to rights-based interventions that genuinely reduce harm. In other words, drug policies which are fit for the twenty-first century.           

This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organization 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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