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Feature: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly -- New York Rockefeller Drug Law Reform on the Verge of Passage

A week ago today, New York Gov. David Paterson (D) and state Assembly and Senate leaders announced they had reached an agreement on reforming the state's draconian Rockefeller drug laws. The agreement marked a partial retreat from the reforms envisioned in an Assembly bill passed earlier this year, but still offers a significant improvement over the status quo.

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long road to freedom: 2001 protest of Rockefeller drug laws, Albany (courtesy indymedia.org)
The measure was to have been voted on this week as part of the state's budget bill, but that hasn't happened yet, and that's making advocates nervous. While the consensus among advocates seems to be that the bill doesn't go far enough, most want to see it passed as a step in the right direction.

The Rockefeller drug laws were enacted in 1973 and mandate extremely tough prison sentences for the sale or possession of relatively small amounts of drugs. Although allegedly aimed at "drug kingpins," tens of thousands of people have been imprisoned under them, most of them low-level nonviolent offenders. Currently, some 12,000 people are doing time for drug offenses in New York, and they constitute one-fifth of the prison population. Nearly 90% of them are black or Hispanic.

Partial reforms in 2004 and 2005 did little to halt the imprisonment juggernaut. While providing some relief for some drug offenders, those reforms resulted in even more people being sent to prison on drug charges than before.

"While much more moderate than the reform bill passed by the Assembly last month, this proposal constitutes an important step forward in developing more effective drug policies based in public health and safety," said Gabriel Sayegh, project director with the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "The legislature and governor should have made the proposal even more expansive, for instance by returning discretion to judges in every drug case, not only low-level cases. We believe, though, that this bill constitutes real reform, and should be enacted."

Under the tripartite agreement, the Rockefeller reform bill would:

  • Return judicial discretion in low-level drug law cases;
  • Expand treatment and reentry services;
  • Expand drug courts;
  • Allow for approximately 1,500 people incarcerated for low-level nonviolent drug offenses to apply for resentencing;
  • Increase penalties for drug "kingpins";
  • Increase penalties on adults who sell drugs to young people.

In the reforms of 2004 and 2005, people serving A-level felonies -- the most serious -- were able to apply for resentencing, but not those serving B-level felonies, who constitute the bulk of Rockefeller prisoners. While the resentencing option would now be open for some 1,500 B-level offenders, that means that more than 10,000 New York drug war prisoners would remain without recourse.

The bill would also allow judges to divert some low-level drug offenders into drug treatment or other alternatives to imprisonment, but only if they convince judges they are addicts. Given that incarceration costs three times as much as treatment, the state stands to save millions if judges exercise that sentencing discretion.

"As a former prisoner under the Rockefeller drug laws, I support this legislation because it will rescue many of the prisoners who fell through the cracks of the prior reforms," said DPA's Anthony Papa. "This proposal will give people convicted of low-level drug offenses a chance to be reunited with their families and become productive tax paying citizens like myself."

"If this becomes law, it will be a big step forward," said Caitlin Dunklee of the Correctional Association of New York and coordinator of the Drop the Rock campaign. "This is the first major reform of the Rockefeller drug laws since their enactment. It dismantles mandatory minimum sentencing in a meaningful way. It also allocates money for alternatives to incarceration and drug treatment," she said.

But the package doesn't include everything reformers sought, Dunklee conceded. "It does leave intact some harsh mandatory minimum sentences for low level drug offenses and will lead to the incarceration of future low-level drug offenders -- about half of them will face mandatory minimums. Also, the retroactivity provisions are too limited; fewer than 1,500 of the more than 10,000 behind bars for drug offenses will be eligible to apply," she said. "We have family members asking when their loved ones are coming home, but very few are going to get out early."

"It's a lukewarm reform," said a disappointed Randy Credico of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Social Justice, long a key player in the Rockefeller repeal movement and now preparing to challenge Sen. Charles Schumer in next year's elections. "New York's criminal justice system needed a giant enema, and all the politicians did was pass gas."

"This proposal is a step forward," said Alan Rosenthal, an attorney with the Center for Community Alternatives, a New York organization that works on alternatives to imprisonment. "It is in the tradition of modest reform coming on the heels of the 2004 and 2005 reforms," he said. "It captures some of the same features, allows some resentencing as those did, but still leaves us with a pretty overbearing structure, and although a lot of attention is paid to treatment versus punishment, it still leaves an awful lot of room for punishment and a lot of people stuck in prison. From my perspective, I would give kudos to the legislators who supported this, but would certainly give fair warning to the public that there is still a lot of work to be done."

Rosenthal pointed out that while the reform would allow judges to exercise discretion, that doesn't mean they will. "Most judges come from a prosecutorial background," he noted. "It's not likely that they have an enlightened view of how counterproductive and destructive prison can be. At this point, I don't think things are going to look much different from when the DAs had the discretion. This will be a tiny spigot, and those judges are going to be trying to figure out who is worthy and who is not, who might look more dangerous because of class, skin color, or ethnicity. That sort of potential for coloring judicial decisions leaves us still needing broader reform and a broader understanding of how to deal with these issues."

Whether such partial reforms should be supported is a thorny question, said Rosenthal. "It is difficult to sit there and know that a smaller percentage than we would like are going to benefit, but it's also difficult to say we're going to hold out for everything knowing that if we do, some people are going to suffer under the yoke of imprisonment," he said. "The downside is the public impression that all that needs to be done has been done. Those still left in prison and their family members who are not getting any relief will understand there is more work to do, but the problem will be our ability to blow air into the balloon of public concern."

Sayegh defended the partial reform as the best that could be achieved. "Our job as advocates is to fight like hell to get the most we can get done. We are committed to that. After a hundred years of prohibition and drug wars, anyone who thinks we can accomplish the extraordinary and impossible in one legislative package is dreaming. We need to make the impossible possible and the possible inevitable, and that implies a process. We are here for the long haul," he vowed.

It may be a long haul. "A lot of people I talk to who are not involved in drug policy have told me they thought this was taken care of in 2004 and 2005," said Nicolas Eyle of ReconsiDer: Forum on Drug Policy, an upstate drug reform group. "It will be the same thing again with this bill, but we still have long sentences, we have a kingpin proposal that sounds like it will fit your normal street corner drug crew, so we'll end up with these retail dealers doing 15-to-life. This bill is a step in the right direction, but it's only a baby step," he said.

Likening the Rockefeller repeal movement to the antebellum Abolitionist movement, Credico said the battle against slavery did not settle for half-measures. "The criminal justice system is the new slave power," he said, "and just like the Jim Crow laws, the drug laws will continue to be used to jail, convict, imprison, and disenfranchise people on a massive level. Everyone -- judges, DAs, defense attorneys, corrections officers, court officers, probation and parole officers, upstate politicians and contractors -- depends on these drug cases to stay busy and keep the prisons filled."

The coerced treatment provisions of the reform package are misguided, Credico said. "The drug reform community wants to use the false language of it's a health issue, but these people aren't sick addicts; they're dime bag desperados, the guys retailing on the street corners. Now, they're going to have to plead guilty and convince judges they're addicts," he argued. "If they can't prove they're addicts, they can still go to jail, and they'll be doing one to nine years. This at a time when we have black youth unemployment in the city at 65%. What else are they supposed to do?"

Like Credico, Dunklee was critical of the provision making only people who convince judges they are addicts eligible for diversion in B-level offenses. "This sets up a distinction between people addicted or not," she said, "and only people who are deemed substance dependent will be eligible for diversion. Those people who maybe don't need treatment, but could instead be helped in other ways will be facing mandatory minimum prison terms. We object strongly to that."

Addressing the increased sentences for "kingpins" and people who sell drugs to minors in the final bill, Dunklee said it was a sop to prosecutors. "Gov. Paterson wanted to avoid appearing soft on crime, so he endorsed sentencing enhancements for people the public demonizes," she said. "When the public hears about selling drugs to minors, they think about the guy in the trench coat in the school yard, not the 21-year-old selling to the 17-year-old. The judges will not be able to look at the circumstances of each case, and the young man will go to jail for a long time, but that's not what the public has in mind."

For Dunklee and Drop the Rock, the battle is not over. "We're not going out of business, we're going to keep the coalition intact," she said. "This partial reform has the potential to take the air out of the movement, but we are going to assess how to continue. Our people are committed to full repeal, and we are open to the possibility of broadening our agenda to include prison downsizing. We are going to be figuring out how to respond to the reforms and the new political climate," she said.

But, given that at this writing, the long-delayed final passage of the bill has not yet occurred and given that the Senate Democrats have a razor thin majority, this ex post facto analysis of the 2009 Rockefeller law reforms may be premature. "The bill hasn't passed yet," cautioned Sayegh. "Of course, they will pass a budget bill, but the question is what is going to be included in it. Right now, there are a number of legislators and prosecutors and rags like the Daily News putting out garbage. There is a lot of opposition to this provision, so we can't take its passage for granted. We're almost there, but we're not there yet," he said.

Feature: The Boston Ibogaine Forum -- from Shamanism to Cutting Edge Science

special to Drug War Chronicle by Doug Greene, assisted by Kevin Franciotti

On a cold and clear Presidents Day weekend, dozens of treatment professionals, underground providers, patients, researchers and entheogenic enthusiasts gathered at Boston's Northeastern University for the Boston Ibogaine Forum, the 2009 installment of the annual ibogaine conference, sponsored the Northeastern Students for Sensible Drug Policy (which is also hosting the Northeast SSDP Regional conference on April 3-5), the National AIDS Brigade, and Cures Not Wars.

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conference panel, Dana Beal at podium
Ibogaine is considered the 'active' compound in the Tabernanthe iboga plant, used for centuries as a healer, teacher, and catalyst for ceremonies by the Bwiti people indigenous to what is now the Central-west African republic of Gabon. But the versatile plant has remained virtually unknown in the West, where it has a very different history.

Researcher Howard Lotsof, PhD, addicted to heroin and methadone, discovered the anti-addictive action of ibogaine in 1962. Given a capsule of pure ibogaine HCL by a trusted friend who was familiar with chemistry, Lotsof was simply seeking a new high. He was astonished when coming out of this difficult experience 36-opiate-abstinent hours later to realize he had no physical craving for opiates, and even more remarkably, had experienced very little of the agonizing physical symptoms normally associated with opiate withdrawal.

Although other early research was undertaken in the 1960s, ibogaine's eventual acceptance as anti-addiction agent in the West was tied to Lotsof's remarkable personal story. Off opiates, Lotsof turned with enthusiasm toward ibogaine and other psychedelics, running trials in the mid-1960s before going to prison under new federal drug laws banning the psychedelics at the end of the decade. For another two decades, Lotsof and ibogaine as addiction treatment wandered in the wilderness, his research supported by groups such as Cures Not Wars.

It was only in 1989 that Lotsof made significant contacts with mainstream researchers, who undertook their own pioneering researches. In the years between then and now, thanks to the missionary efforts of Lotsof and his supporters, ibogaine has ever so slowly become of greater and greater interest to addiction researchers and others.

Valentine's Day morning found ibogaine aficionados at the movies for Facing the Habit, a 2007 film featuring heroin users who succeed -- or fail -- to kick their habit through ibogaine treatments. Next up was ibogaine's most prominent advocate, the mustachioed Cures not Wars co-founder and Yippie! Dana Beal, who brought conference attendees up to speed on the latest research on ibogaine's anti-addictive properties, including its ability to regenerate dopamine pathways in the brain through its activation of glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor GDNF. This exciting research had a panel of its own later in the day featuring Roman Paskulin, founder and director of Slovenia's Open Mind Institute and Dr. Tracy Blevins.

Beal was followed by a panel of ibogaine treatment providers discussing the special safety challenges involved in treating multiple addictions to different drugs, including Drs. Anwar Jeewa and A.R. Gani, of the groundbreaking residential treatment center Minds Alive in Durban, South Africa, Dr. Bruno Rasmussin of Brazil, and long-time provider Rocky Caravelli.

Next up was one of the most interesting presentations of the conference, by Justin Kirkland, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Obiter Research on the company's efforts to develop more cost-effective methods of synthesizing 18 Methoxycorinaridine 18-MC, an ibogaine analog with fewer side effects and greater potential for treating methamphetamine and nicotine dependence. The day's events closed with McLean Hospital's Dr. Carl Anderson discussing ibogaine, dream states and fetal R.E.M.

Sunday started with another ibogaine documentary, the Dutch Rites of Passage, followed by SSDP Northeastern's Arielle Torra presenting on the subjective experiences of patients treated at Dr. Deborah Mash's Healing Transitions Institute for Addiction clinic on St. Kitts.

The first scheduled panel of the day addressed the controversial use of ibogaine for other indications, including hepatitis C (HCV). Former New Mexico Department of Health Harm Reduction Coordinator Phillip Fiuty and Rocky Caravelli confirmed the existence of HCV patients whose conditions have improved and even cleared the virus without interferon treatment. Caravelli also described positive effects on herpes, MS and asthma. Jason Farrell, founder and former executive director of Positive Health Project and currently CEO of Harm Reduction Consulting Services, Inc., suggested a collaborative study by clinics in South Africa, Mexico and Brazil tracking the viral loads of HIV/HCV patients for six months to a year.

Next, former High Times and drugwar.com writer and editor Preston Peet gave dramatic personal testimony on ibogaine's efficacy in managing chronic pain by drastically cutting opioid tolerance.

The liveliest panel of the conference came up next, featuring Patrick Kroupa -- a pioneer hacker and long-time activist whose multiple roles include High Priest of the Sacrament of Transition, an Eastern European based iboga religion -- Dr. Deborah Mash, Peet, and Lenny of the New York City ibogaine support group comparing ibogaine to more conventional treatments, such as 12-step cold turkey, methadone taper, buprenorphine and ultra-rapid opiate detox (UROD). UROD -- the direct injection of the opiate blocker naltrexone under benzodiazepine sedation -- was denounced by all panelists as ineffective and inhumane.

The next panel, comparing the anti-addictive effects of ibogaine to other entheogens, featured Harvard Assistant Professor of Psychiatry John H. Halpern and Jon Harrison, the principal investigator for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies ibogaine outcome study at Pangea Biomedics in Playas de Tijuana, Mexico. Halpern compared ibogaine's effectiveness to other entheogens sometimes given as treatment modalities for drug addiction, most notably peyote use in the possible treatment of alcoholism among the Native American population, and the sacramental use of ayahuasca among American members of the Santo Daime and UDV churches.

This observational case study is examining changes in substance use in 30 individuals seeking ibogaine-based addiction treatment, and is intended to gather information to evaluate whether ibogaine-assisted therapy helps opiate-dependent people stop using opiates or practice moderated use after the therapy. Twelve-month follow-up data is being collected from participants in the study to examine whether ibogaine-assisted therapy facilitates improvements in quality of life that result in decreased harms associated with chronic or mismanaged opiate use. The study has received Institutional Review Board approval from the California Institute of Integral Studies and has enrolled 11 of the 30 subjects. For many months, MAPS had no success in raising funds for the study, but received its first significant donation at the conference, and by March 2nd, had raised all the funds for the study.

Halpern, who's published some of the only research on peyote use by Native Americans, surprised the crowd by revealing that the National Institute on Drug Abuse had so constrained his research that he wasn't allowed to directly study peyote's manifest anti-addictive effects. He also had no data on receptor-mediated anti-addictive effects, ascribing it all to "psychedelic glow."

Sunday's program closed with Makky, Boston University Professor of Classical Studies Carl Ruck and Beal discussing shamanic scenes in South America vs. Africa, a possible iboga role in the ancient world, and the dangers of "The Mushroom and the Cross" approach offending fundamentalists, respectively.

Presidents Day opened with a roundup of the international ibogaine scene. Venezuelan Drs. Rosaria Dávalos and Zulema Medrano described great progress in promoting ibogaine treatments, but also obstacles due to continued deference to the US. Drs. Jeewa and Gani gave details on their residential treatment center. Australian treatment provider Jason Chamon described a smaller, informal treatment scene -- clandestine in Australia, legal in New Zealand. De Loenen finished up, appearing live via Skype to contrast the more relaxed attitudes in Spain and Portugal with a forum in Holland on arrhythmia in ibogaine patients.

The international ibogainesters were followed by a panel on ibogaine's role in harm reduction, featuring Jason Farrell, Phil Fiuty and Cures not Wars cofounder and veteran drug policy activist Doug Greene. Farrell stressed the need for ibogaine treatment providers to be careful about whom they treat to minimize risks, citing a recent case in Netherlands where a patient refused to stop alcohol use before a treatment and had a seizure and then two days of arrythmia. At the same time, he urged greater availability of ibogaine treatment, advising potential providers to get a space and cots and "just do it." Greene praised ibogaine as the most libertarian option for drug treatment, and called on the drug policy reform movement to center its efforts on marijuana and ibogaine.

The conference closed with a panel that included the National AIDS Brigade's Jon Stuen-Parker discussing his lawsuit against the federal government for inattention to crack and heroin. MAPS founder and President Rick Doblin then gave the attendees a road map to promote ibogaine to state and federal policymakers, while Dana Beal suggested a letter from members of Congress to President Obama's forthcoming DEA Administrator.

This was the first ibogaine conference to be streamed live on the Internet, with twice as many people often logged-on as were in the room. Although speakers and attendees alike were frustrated by the conference's uneven pacing and complete disregard of the announced, reaction to the content of the conference was generally positive. Jason Farrell said: "It was a very impressive conference that opened my eyes to the serious, international work that's being done on ibogaine. It's unfortunate that it didn't get the news coverage it deserved."

Long-time drug policy reform activist Valerie Vande Panne said: "It's good to see ibogaine getting the research and recognition it deserves. Clearly, it has been beneficial in a holistic, dignified, and humane way to the lives of many who considered themselves addicts ready for a life change."

Rick Doblin said: "Many of the speakers were fascinating and had lots of experience and important information to share, and the future of ibogaine is bright. The clinics are moving toward more of an above-ground, responsible medical model and are realizing the importance of aftercare programs. I'm not sure where resources would come from for clinical studies to make ibogaine legal in the US -- that may be a stretch too far for NIDA, even under Obama. While I don't see commercial drug development happening in the near term in the US, or anywhere else, there will be more prospective research at the clinics which will, over time, build support for more clinical studies."

Streaming video of the conference can be found here.

Feature: Meeting in Vienna, UN Commission on Narcotics Drugs Prepares to Head Further Down Same Prohibitionist Path, But Dissenting Voices Grow Louder

The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) met this week in Vienna to draft a political statement and plan of action to guide international drug policy for the next decade. The statement largely affirms existing prohibitionist policies and ignores harm reduction, as the CND has done it the past. [Editor's note: The draft statement had not been formally approved as of press time, but is likely to be approved as is.]

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Vienna International Center, home of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime
The political statement is supposed to evaluate the implementation of the previous political declaration and action plan approved by the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) in 1998. At the 1998 session, UNGASS adopted the slogan "A Drug-Free World -- We Can Do It" and launched a "campaign" to wipe out all drug crops -- from marijuana to opium to coca -- by 2008.

But while the international community continues to slide down its century-old prohibitionist path regarding non-medicinal drug use and sales, it is encountering an increasing amount of friction. The United States, as leader of the hard-liners, continues to dominate the debates and set the agenda, but an emerging bloc of mainly Latin American and European countries is expressing deep reservations about continuing the same policies for another decade.

The atmosphere in Vienna this week was circus like, complete with street protests, as national delegations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other interested parties heatedly debated what an increasingly vociferous minority called a "failed" approach to the issue. Debate was particularly intense about the inclusion of harm reduction in the political statement -- a position rejected by the US delegation, led by outgoing acting drug czar Edward Jurith.

The drug summit came as the UN, the CND, and the countries pushing the prohibitionist hard-line have come under repeated attack for essentially maintaining the status quo. On Tuesday, the European Commission issued a report that found while in the past decade policies to help drug users and go after drug traffickers have matured, there was little evidence to suggest that the global drug situation had improved.

"Broadly speaking the situation has improved a little in some of the richer countries, while for others it worsened, and for some of those it worsened sharply and substantially, among which are a few large developing or transitional countries," an EC media statement on the report said. "In other words, the world drugs problem seems to be more or less in the same state as in 1998: if anything, the situation has become more complex: prices for drugs in most Western countries have fallen since 1998 by as much as 10% to 30%, despite tougher sentencing of the sellers of e.g. cocaine and heroin in some of these markets."

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SSDP's Kris Krane, caged as part of HCLU demonstration at UN (drogriporter.hu/en/demonstration)
Current anti-drug policies also came under attack from a growing coalition of NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, the International Harm Reduction Association, the European NGO Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD), and the International Drug Policy Consortium, as well as various NGOs from the US, Brazil, Canada, and England, among others, all of whom were in Vienna for the meeting. Human Rights Watch urged the CND to undo a decade of neglect, while the English group Transform Drug Policy Foundation called for a moratorium on global strategic drug policy setting, a review of the consequences of prohibitionist policies, and a commission to explore alternatives to the failed war on drugs.

"Every state that signs up to the political declaration at this commission recommits the UN to complicity in fighting a catastrophic war on drugs," said Danny Kushlick, policy director for Transform. "It is a tragic irony that the UN, so often renowned for peacekeeping, is being used to fight a war that brings untold misery to some of the most marginalized people on earth. 8,000 deaths in Mexico in recent years, the destabilization of Colombia and Afghanistan, continued corruption and instability in the Caribbean and West Africa are testament to the catastrophic impact of a drug control system based upon global prohibition. It is no surprise that the declaration is unlikely even to mention harm reduction, as it runs counter to the primary impact of the prevailing drug control system which, as the past ten years demonstrate, increases harm."

Not all the action took place in the conference hall. Wednesday saw a lively demonstration by NGO groups including Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the drug user group INPUD, ENCOD, and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, among others. Protestors spoke to reporters from jail-like cages, waved signs and passed out pamphlets to delegates forced to run their gauntlet, and decried the harms of drug prohibition. One particularly effective protestor was dressed as a sun-glass wearing, cigar-puffing Mafioso, celebrating that business was good thanks to prohibition.

Even UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) head Antonio Maria Costa, while whistling past the graveyard to insist that progress had been made in the past decade, acknowledged that current global policies have backfired in some ways. Giving the opening address Wednesday, Costa said "the world drug problem has been contained, but not solved" thanks to international anti-drug efforts.

But global drug control efforts have had "a dramatic unintended consequence," he added, "a criminal black market of staggering proportions." The international drug trade is "undermining security and development and causing some to make a dangerous wager in favor of legalization. Drugs are not harmful because they are controlled; they are controlled because they are harmful." Drug legalization would be "a historic mistake," he said.

Even so, Costa painted a dire picture of what prohibition had wrought: "When mafias can buy elections, candidates, political parties, in a word, power, the consequences can only be highly destabilizing" he said. "While ghettoes burn, West Africa is under attack, drug cartels threaten Central America and drug money penetrates bankrupt financial institutions".

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activists from International Network of People Who Use Drugs (INPUD) at demo (drogriporter.hu/en/demonstration)
Not everybody was buying into the UNODC-CND-US position of more of the same. Bolivian President Evo Morales brandished a coca leaf, then chewed it during his address to the delegates to underline his demand that coca be removed from the list of proscribed substances.

"This is coca leaf, this is not cocaine; this is part and parcel of a culture," Morales said. The ban on coca was a "major historical mistake," he added. "It has no harmful impact, no harmful impact at all in its natural state. It causes no mental disturbances, it does not make people run mad, as some would have us believe, and it does not cause addiction."

Neighboring Brazil was also critical. "We ought to recognize the important progress achieved over the last decade," said Brazilian delegate Jorge Armando Felix. "But the achievements have not been accomplished. The aim of a world free of drugs has proven to be unobtainable and in fact has led to unintended consequences such as the increase of the prison population, increase in violence related to an illegal drug market, increase in homicide and violence among the young population with a dramatic impact on mortality and life expectancy -- social exclusion due to drug use and the emergence of synthetic drugs."

Felix also had some prescriptions for UNGASS and the CND. "At this historic moment with the opportunity to reassess the past 10 years and more importantly to think about the challenges to come, Brazil enforces the need for recognition of and moving towards: harm reduction strategies; assessing drug dependence, and HIV AIDS populations; securing the human rights of drug users; correcting the imbalance between investments in supply and demand reduction areas; increasing actions and programs of prevention based on scientific evidence with an emphasis towards vulnerable populations and towards increase of access to and care for problematic or vulnerable drug users; and to the acknowledgment of different models of treatment for the need for increased funding of these efforts."

Brazilian Luiz Paulo Guanabara, head of the NGO Psicotropicus, observed it all with mixed feelings. "Early on, I thought the NGO strategy for harm reduction would not result in anything and that we should aim for drug regulation instead," he said. "And in the end, the term harm reduction is not in the political declaration, but the Beyond 2008 document is very strong and has not gone unnoticed."

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Mafioso-looking activist distributing ''United Nations of Prohibition'' 1,000 note bills with UNODC chief Costa's face on one side, and a thank you from the In Memoriam Al Capone Trust on the other (drogriporter.hu/en/demonstration)
Guanabara had harsh words for both the Americans and the UN. "It seems like the American delegates believe harm reduction is a sin -- or they favor harm increase, so they can lock up more people and have more HIV patients, increase crime, sell more weapons and make money out of the disgrace of others and families' destruction. Their prohibitionist stance is obscene," he declared. "And these guys at the CND understand nothing of drugs and drug use, they are just bureaucrats. To put drugs in the hands of bureaucrats is as dangerous as putting them in the hands of criminals."

But despite the lack of results this time around, Guanabara was thrilled by the participation of civil society. "The civil society mobilization is enormous and intense," he said. "The NGO events around the meeting were the real high-level meetings, not the low-level ones with the bureaucrats at the CND."

While the sentiments from Brazil and Bolivia were echoed by various national delegations, mainly European, and while even the UNODC and the US are willing to give nods to an increased emphasis on treatment and prevention, with the US delegation even going so far as to approve of needle exchanges, at the end of the day, the CND political declaration and action plan represents a stubborn adherence to the prohibitionist status quo.

"Government delegations could have used this process to take stock of what has failed in the last decade in drug-control efforts, and to craft a new international drug policy that reflects current realities and challenges," said Prof. Gerry Stimson, executive director of the International Harm Reduction Association. "Instead, they produced a declaration that is not only weak -- it actually undermines fundamental health and human rights obligations."

American attendee and long-time drug reform activist Michael Krawitz also had mixed feelings. "The slow train wreck that Harry Anslinger started with the 1961 Single Convention is finally grinding to a halt," he said. "The argument here has been a semantic one over harm reduction, but the subtext is much more important, and the subtext is that the treaties were set up to protect public health and are currently being interpreted in such a way as to do the opposite. The declaration wound up being watered down and piled high with reservations. The next five years should prove interesting."

The IHRA and other NGOs called on governments with reservations about the political declaration to refuse to endorse it. That probably will not happen, but some governments have indicated they will add reservations to their approval of the declaration. After a century of prohibition, the first formal cracks are beginning to appear at the center of the legal backbone of global drug prohibition. Given that the dissent has largely appeared only since the last UNGASS in 1998, perhaps this isn't such a bad start.

Europe: Danish Heroin Maintenance Program to Commence Next Month

Beginning sometime next month, hard core heroin users in Denmark will be able to receive two doses of heroin a day, courtesy of the Danish health system. They will have to go to one of five drug clinics established around the country, where they will be able to inject pharmaceutical grade heroin under a doctor's supervision.

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downtown Copenhagen
The heroin maintenance initiative was approved a year ago by an overwhelming consensus in the Danish parliament. Only one small far-left party opposed it, and not on principle, but because of funding issues. It even won the support of the rightist Danish People's Party, not normally a bastion of progressive ideas.

Denmark thus joins a small but growing number of European countries, including Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Great Britain that have heroin maintenance programs. The goal is harm reduction.

"The aim is to improve their state of health, help them avoid committing crimes and stabilize their lives," Dr. Anne Mette Doms of the Danish Board of Health told the British newspaperThe Guardian. "Quitting altogether is not a realistic option for most of these patients. For them, this will be a chronic treatment, as if you were treating a chronic disease."

Support for such programs is a welcome change, said Preben Brandt, chairman of the Council for Socially Marginalized People. "Five years ago I decided I would not participate in yet another debate on drugs," he told the Guardian. "It was too emotional, with different groups being very aggressive. The counter-argument was always 'you kill people by giving heroin' or 'with this initiative, you are telling people that taking heroin is OK'," he said. "It is very difficult to have a rational debate when you are arguing against beliefs."

But successes in other European countries experimenting with heroin maintenance helped change the atmosphere, said Mads Uffe Pedersen, head of the Center for Alcohol and Drug Research at the University of Aarhus. "The politicians became convinced that it could help those with the most severe drug problems," he said. "You could not argue against the (positive) findings."

"The debate became more practical," agreed Brandt. "It was about what policies worked and which ones did not. It was no longer about morality."

And changing attitudes toward drug users also helped, Brandt said. "Drug addicts in Denmark are less stigmatized. They are no longer perceived as criminals who are a danger to society. They're seen as patients who have a disease they need help with. The new scapegoats in Denmark are the foreigners."

The White House: Obama on Drug Policy

The incoming Obama administration has posted its agenda online at the White House web site Whitehouse.gov. While neither drug policy nor criminal justice merited its own category in the Obama agenda, several of the broad categories listed do contain references to drug and crime policy and provide a strong indication of the administration's proclivities.

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But before getting into what the agenda mentions, it's worth noting what the agenda does not mention: marijuana. There is not a word about the nation's most widely used illicit drug or the nearly 900,000 arrests a year generated by marijuana prohibition. Nor, despite Obama campaign pledges, is there a word about medical marijuana or ending the DEA raids on providers in California -- which doesn't necessarily mean he will go back on his word. It could well be that the issue is seen as too marginal to be included in the broad agenda for national change. With the first raid on a medical marijuana clinic during the Obama administration hitting this very week, reformers are anxiously hoping it is only the work of Bush holdovers and not a signal about the future.

Reformers may find themselves pleased with some Obama positions, but they will be less happy with others. The Obama administration wants to reduce inequities in the criminal justice system, but it also taking thoroughly conventional positions on other drug policy issues.

But let's let them speak for themselves. Here are the relevant sections of the Obama agenda:

Under Civil Rights:

  • End Racial Profiling: President Obama and Vice President Biden will ban racial profiling by federal law enforcement agencies and provide federal incentives to state and local police departments to prohibit the practice.
  • Reduce Crime Recidivism by Providing Ex-Offender Support: President Obama and Vice President Biden will provide job training, substance abuse and mental health counseling to ex-offenders, so that they are successfully re-integrated into society. Obama and Biden will also create a prison-to-work incentive program to improve ex-offender employment and job retention rates.
  • Eliminate Sentencing Disparities: President Obama and Vice President Biden believe the disparity between sentencing crack and powder-based cocaine is wrong and should be completely eliminated.
  • Expand Use of Drug Courts: President Obama and Vice President Biden will give first-time, non-violent offenders a chance to serve their sentence, where appropriate, in the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior.
  • Promote AIDS Prevention: In the first year of his presidency, President Obama will develop and begin to implement a comprehensive national HIV/AIDS strategy that includes all federal agencies. The strategy will be designed to reduce HIV infections, increase access to care and reduce HIV-related health disparities. The President will support common sense approaches including age-appropriate sex education that includes information about contraception, combating infection within our prison population through education and contraception, and distributing contraceptives through our public health system. The President also supports lifting the federal ban on needle exchange, which could dramatically reduce rates of infection among drug users. President Obama has also been willing to confront the stigma -- too often tied to homophobia -- that continues to surround HIV/AIDS.

Under Foreign Policy:

  • Afghanistan: Obama and Biden will refocus American resources on the greatest threat to our security -- the resurgence of al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They will increase our troop levels in Afghanistan, press our allies in NATO to do the same, and dedicate more resources to revitalize Afghanistan's economic development. Obama and Biden will demand the Afghan government do more, including cracking down on corruption and the illicit opium trade.

Under Rural Issues:

  • Combat Methamphetamine: Continue the fight to rid our communities of meth and offer support to help addicts heal.

Under Urban Issues:

  • Support Local Law Enforcement: President Obama and Vice President Biden are committed to fully funding the COPS program to put 50,000 police officers on the street and help address police brutality and accountability issues in local communities. Obama and Biden also support efforts to encourage young people to enter the law enforcement profession, so that our local police departments are not understaffed because of a dearth of qualified applicants.
  • Reduce Crime Recidivism by Providing Ex-Offender Supports: America is facing an incarceration and post-incarceration crisis in urban communities. Obama and Biden will create a prison-to-work incentive program, modeled on the successful Welfare-to-Work Partnership, and work to reform correctional systems to break down barriers for ex-offenders to find employment.

The Drug Czar: Harm Reductionists, Treatment and Recovery Advocates Come Down on Different Sides of Rumored Ramstad Nomination

Former Minnesota congressman, self-acknowledged recovered alcoholic, and treatment and recovery advocate Jim Ramstad is widely rumored to be in the running for head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), and he is garnering both support and opposition from within the drug reform community, broadly defined.

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Jim Ramstad
It may all be for naught. Ramstad himself has asked the Obama transition team to consider him to head SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a post where his appointment would arguably be less controversial. And President Bush's last-minute appointment Monday of current acting ONDCP deputy director Patrick Ward to replace outgoing drug czar John Walters only muddies the waters further.

While Ramstad has serious credentials on treatment and recovery, his opposition to needle exchange programs spurred drug policy analyst and author Maia Szalavitz to oppose his nomination in an article in the Huffington Post. "Ramstad may be a drug warrior in recovering person's clothing," she wrote, noting that he also opposes medical marijuana.

"While Ramstad has opposed some interdiction efforts and called for more treatment funding, someone who doesn't even believe that addicts have a right to life if they aren't in treatment is not the kind of recovering person that I want representing me as drug czar," Szalavitz, a former injection drug user herself, continued. "That's not change, President Obama -- that's more of the same. Don't make the mistake that Bill Clinton did and install a drug czar who will ignore science and push dogma. While it's great to have a recovering person as an example, just having a disease and talking with others who've recovered the same way you did does not make you an expert. We need someone who knows the science, recognizes that there are many paths to recovery -- and understands that dead addicts can't recover."

Szalavitz wasn't the only alarmed harm reductionist. Psychologist Andrew Tatarsky authored an open letter signed by more than 450 substance use and mental health treatment professionals warning that both SAMHSA and the drug czar's office need leadership that "supports evidence-based policies and that will make decisions based on science, not politics or ideology" and "we have reason to believe that Congressman Ramstad is not that person." In addition to Ramstad's opposition to harm reduction measures, Tatarsky noted that throughout his congressional tenure, Ramstad had failed to take any action on sentencing reform.

A Ramstad nomination also drew concern from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), which noted in a blog post that Ramstad had voted against medical marijuana at every opportunity, voted against needle exchange, and had been appointed to the board of directors of Joe Califano's anti-drug reform propaganda organization, the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA).

But while drug reformers and advocates of science-based policies raised concerns, parts of the treatment community are supporting Ramstad. In a January 11 letter to the Obama transition team, the treatment advocacy organization Faces and Voices of Recovery, a stalwart in many drug policy reform efforts, supported the Ramstad nomination.

"Clearly, the appointment of a person in long-term recovery from addiction to this important position would inspire the millions of Americans and their families who have battled addictions," wrote the group's executive director, Pat Taylor. "Even if Congressman Ramstad were not in recovery, he would be an excellent candidate for the Director of ONDCP. A Member of Congress for 18 years, he is a highly experienced and respected legislator who led the successful battle to require health insurers to cover addiction treatment at parity with other medical conditions. He founded and co-chaired the bi-partisan Addiction Treatment and Recovery Caucus and the Law Enforcement Caucus on Capitol Hill and has been influential in shaping drug policy in countries around the globe. He was a practicing criminal justice attorney for five years and has served on numerous non-profit boards; all of whom have the reduction of the global demand for drugs as part of their mission."

And Ramstad has picked up support from progressive groups like his home state Wellstone Action, the legacy of progressive Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone. In a January 9 letter, the group argued that despite Ramstad's misguided stands on needle exchange and medical marijuana, he still deserved the nomination. "Congressman Ramstad's leadership on policies and programs within the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy will serve President-elect Obama's administration and millions of Americans well," Wellstone Action said.

The reform movement is split on Ramstad, with treatment advocates coming down in favor and harm reductionists and drug law reformers opposed. As addiction skeptic Dr. Stanton Peele noted in the Huffington Post Tuesday: "For Wellstone, the Kennedy's, and many other progressives, the idea of treating substance abusers as disease sufferers is tremendously appealing -- indeed, one thrust of the drug policy reform movement is to shift from incarcerating addicts to treating them! But, for reformers, courting treatment advocates has come a cropper as addiction-as-disease proponents back a man who stands against drug policy reform's basic value of finding new, pragmatic approaches to drugs in America."

The drug reform movement is broad and encompasses many diverse actors. Where they come down on the Ramstad issue reflect philosophical differences as well as institutional interests. Just because we're part of a broader movement doesn't mean we're always going to agree.

Idiot Proposes Lengthy Prison Sentence for George Michael

George Michael’s latest drug arrest has reduced Ross Clark at The Times Online to a sputtering mess. In an embarrassing editorial entitled It's just as wrong to use drugs as it is to sell them, Clark compares drug use to child pornography and calls for casual users to serve long sentences:

With stolen goods, illegal weapons and child pornography, the law is clear: the user is as guilty as the supplier. The police didn't let Gary Glitter off with a little rap on the knuckles and the rest of us didn't shake our heads and say: “Poor Gary, how sad that he has fallen victim to these evil porn dealers.”

He was prosecuted, quite rightly, on the basis that those who provide the market for child porn are implicated in its production. So why then do such different attitudes persist in the case of drugs? If it is wrong to produce and trade drugs, then it is equally wrong to use them.

Clark goes on explain that drug addiction doesn’t happen to intelligent people:

…Among drug users and drug peddlers alike, there are, of course, sometimes mitigating circumstances. If you have been brought up by drug addicts, beaten and abused, it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise if you grow up with a somewhat confused sense of right and wrong.

But none of this applies to George Michael, who is intelligent enough to know that taking crack is not just an issue of personal liberty: there is a clear association between use of the drug and propensity to commit violent crime. If caught with illegal drugs he should be treated to no less a punishment than if he had smuggled them into the country and sold them on the streets.

Dude, chill out. No one wants to spend $250,000 imprisoning a guy for $20 worth of dope. I’m sure you had fun writing this, but do you actually agree with your own idea? Did you know that it costs money to keep people in jail? If you hate drug users so much, do you really want to pay for all their food and clothes and healthcare for 10 years every time we catch one? No you don’t, so shut up before we lock George Michael in your pantry and make you take care him forever.

South Asia: Indian Newspaper Cheers On Anti-Drug Vigilantes

Anti-drug activists in the Orissa state city of Kendrapara attacked and drove off opium addicts near the Balababa Shiva temple recently, garnering sympathy from the newspaper The Statesman for their extra-legal vigilantism.

"Anti-Drug Campaign Successful," read the headline above The Statesman's brief report on the incident, in which, as the paper reported, "a group of youths set afire opium contraband and sent back scores of addicts from the premises of a Hindu temple in the heart of this district headquarters town."

The newspaper approvingly quoted Kumar Choudhury, president of the local Balababa Youth Club, who reported that his youth vigilantes stole more than a kilogram of opium from the addicts. "Later it was set on fire," Choudhury explained.

According to Choudhury, addicts loitering around the temple "were vitiating the serene atmosphere" around the temple and refused to pay heed to his youth group's complaints. So his youths drove them off by force.

"The members of our youth club resolved to restore order in the temple and chase away the addicts. First of all we tried to convince them of the ill effects of opium. But it did not yield result. The addicts did not pay heed to us," a club member said.

As the Statesman put it: "On the auspicious day of Ganesh Chaturthi, the campaign was launched. Using force, the addicts were chased away."

"They are yet to revisit the place, much to the relief of locals and devotees," said Choudhury. "We have put up a notice on the temple wall warning the addicts not to venture into the temple. Luckily their intrusion has stopped since then," he concluded.

Anti-drug vigilantism is not unknown, in India and elsewhere. It has been especially notable in South Africa. But it is not usually condoned by the press.

Southeast Asia: Drug User Group Demonstrates for Legal Drug Use in Jakarta

Indonesia's harsh drug laws have not succeeded in stopping illicit drug use in the Southeast Asian archipelago, and now some of the people those laws are aimed at are speaking out. On Monday, denizens of some of Jakarta's most notorious drug dealing spots were witness to an usual demonstration as two dozen motorcyclists roared through them calling for the legalization of drug use.

According to the Jakarta Post, the bikers were members of a drug user group called the Forum for Victims of Drug Addiction, or Forkon. They stopped in such notorious locales as Baturaja in North Jakarta, Tanah Abang in Central Jakarta, and Manggarai in South Jakarta to hand out fliers making their case.

Drug use should not be a crime, Forkon coordinator Yana told the Post. "It's a disease that needs to be treated, not punished," the 28-year-old said.

Ilicit drugs are easily available in Indonesia, Forkon members said, despite a pair of 1997 laws mandating prison sentences of six months to six years for convicted drug users, and sentences up to the death penalty for trafficking offenses. On Wednesday, Indonesian officials said that they would execute 39 convicted drug traffickers by the end of 2009.

Drug users and even uninvolved people in the neighborhood of a raid are often arrested and subjected to abuses while detained, Forkon members said. One former drug user, Maya, added, "Women also face sexual abuse." Maya said she is conducting research on the physical abuses endured by female drug addicts in detention.

While a drug use legalization demo in Jakarta may come as a surprise to many, it is the second one this year. In late June, Indonesia drug user activists and others used the occasion of the UN's International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking to hold a march in Jakarta where they called for an end to discrimination against people who use drugs, the implementation of laws decriminalizing drug use, and programs to prevent HIV in prisons.

The June protestors asked the Indonesian government to fulfill its mandate to ensure the right to health for all and to provide drug treatment, including medication-assisted treatment. This week's protestors called on the government to change the drug laws. The group said it had urged both the National Commission on Human Rights and the House of Representatives to act.

"We'll continue with our campaign until parliament repeals the 1997 laws," Yana said.

Vancouver Forum for Dialogue: Stigma and Addiction

This event is brought to you by a group of service providers allied against the stigmatization and discrimination of people who live with drug addiction. Stigma is the labeling of people in ‘less-than’ ways that diminishes dignity, promotes shame, and reduces their value in society. In the health care system, stigma creates barriers to responsive and quality service, makes people reluctant to seek help, and affects funding allocation. Stigma limits possibility for the individual, the community, and society as a whole. This is a call to action! We are inviting people who use drugs, those that support them, service providers, hospital staff, community groups, levels of government, and police to a round table discussion. The goal of the discussion is to develop alliances and an action plan designed to expand awareness and decrease the stigma and discrimination associated with drug addiction. Please join us! RSVP to socialworker@shawbiz.ca by Monday, July 21, 2008. We hope to see you there!
Date: 
Mon, 07/28/2008 - 2:00pm - 4:00pm
Location: 
401 Main Street
Vancouver, BC
Canada

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