The United Nations' Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) has wrapped up the High-Level Segment portion of its annual meeting in Vienna. The session revealed schisms among countries about future steps on global drug control even as the global drug bureaucrats gave signs of softening in some policy areas, especially around emphasizing public health as opposed to criminalization.
An indication of relaxation came when a key working group of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced the release of groundbreaking recommendations discouraging criminal sanctions for drug use. The Scientific Consultation Working Group on Drug Policy, Health and Human Rights of the UNODC -- which includes Nora Volkow, head of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) -- released the recommendations as the session got underway. The working group recommendations say 'criminal sanctions are not beneficial' in addressing the spectrum of drug use and misuse.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]The meeting ended with a formal joint ministerial statement agreed to at the last minute after months of contentious wrangling, but one where countries failed to agree on a common approach and where certain fractious issues -- such as the use of the death penalty for drug offenses or even the mention of the term "harm reduction" -- were omitted entirely.
Countries critical of the global drug policy status quo, particularly from Europe and Latin America, were joined by an ever-stronger civil society presence at the CND. The message of reform grows ever louder and presages an especially contentious next step, the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs, set for 2016.
It's not just change in the halls of the UN drug bureaucracies, but changes on the ground that are helping to drive the debate. Uruguay and two US state, Colorado and Washington, have legalized marijuana in apparent contravention of the global drug treaties, and Latin American countries in particular have for several years now expressed growing dismay at the drug war status quo.
Uruguay's decision to legalize marijuana commerce was "not a solution to dealing with the world's drug problem," UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) head Yuri Fedotov said just days ago, and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) called the Uruguayan government "pirates" for going up against the UN drug conventions. But the UN drug bureaucrats were singing a slightly softer tune last week in Vienna.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]"My impression from the debates so far is that the prevailing mood is to say no to dismantling the provisions of the conventions, but yes to returning to the original spirit of the conventions: protection of health, welfare, and safety of people," Fedotov said in anodyne remarks at the release of the ministerial statement.
"The provisions of the conventions indeed are flexible, human rights based, and founded on the protection of health. I would like particularly to stress the need of strengthening the public health in a comprehensive, balanced, scientific evidence-based approach, that is very important, and fully consistent with human rights standards," Fedotov continued. "There is also a growing need for every country to move away from compulsory treatments and punitive measures and towards embracing these approaches, including protection against HIV/AIDS, as envisaged by the Conventions."
The ministerial statement itself, a compromise document, for the most part blandly supported the existing international drug control regime, although it, too, signaled a shift toward a more public health-oriented approach, and it obliquely referenced ongoing dissent by noting "the ongoing discussions in some regions on how to address the world drug problem, in light of the current situation and policies, and emphasize the importance of a broad, transparent, inclusive and scientific evidence-based discussion among Member States, with inputs from other relevant stakeholders, as appropriate, in multilateral settings, on the most effective ways to counter the world drug problem consistent with the three international drug control conventions…"
But behind the smooth language of the official statements, there was real anger and dismay at the toll of more than a half-century of global drug prohibition.
"People have been sacrificed in our actions to tackle the drug problem," Colombian Justice Minister Gomez Mendez told delegates. "We call for more effective ways to achieve the objectives stated in international agreements. Alternatives are needed. Drug policies cannot travel at the speed of a telegraph while drug problems develop at the speed of broadband Internet."
[image:3 align:left caption:true]"We should not be driven by ideologies and wishful thinking. We unfortunately know today that the idea of a drug-free world based on the belief that, if we eradicate supply, we will reduce demand, is not achievable. We should look to and evaluate alternative regimes appearing in North and South America and in Europe rather than just be silent about it", said the Czech Republic delegate, echoing the calls for drug policy reform made by not only Colombia, but also Guatemala, Ecuador, Mexico and Uruguay.
"Since 1961, due to a rigid and narrow interpretation of the UN drug conventions, there has been one single means to control the use of cannabis -- criminalization has been imposed, "said Diego Canepa, representative of the delegation of Uruguay. "We have don't have a magic recipe, but we are trying to find a way out and snatch the market away from traffickers. We have a responsibility to represent our citizens, and not to take the challenge and act accordingly would be an unforgivable error."
The Mexican delegation said that health policies should be encouraged instead of the criminalization of drug use and that a thorough review of the international drug strategies is required. The delegation of Guatemala highlighted that "the revision of the UN drug conventions is needed and that the Latin American hemispheric debate is ongoing."
"The failure of present drug policies has generated questions from governments, policy-makers, intellectuals and civil society organizations from across the region," said the Ecuadorian delegation. "Many voices are calling for a change in paradigm in the understanding and approach to the drug phenomenon."
Even the US delegation was sounding eerily reformist. Acting Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) head Michael Botticelli called for continuing down "the path of criminal justice reform" and cited recent Obama administration moves to minimize mandatory minimum drug sentences.
But the call for reform came most loudly in the person of Eliot Ross, representing the International Network of People Who Use Drugs, who noted that human rights law and drug control law continued to be inconsistent, and called for a comprehensive overhaul of the treaties and amnesty for drug prisoners.
Changing the global drug control system for the better is agonizingly slow work -- it's been 16 years since hundreds of global intellectuals signed an open letter in The New York Times calling on the last UNGASS on Drugs to begin to adopt fundamental reforms. But, under the weight of rising pressure, the creaky machine is starting to move.
"We derive hope from the fact that, contrary to earlier CND meetings, there are now countries openly condemning prohibition as the basic answer to drug problems," said ENCOD (the European NGO Council for Just and Effective Drug Policies). "More than ever, not just governmental but UNODC officials see the writing on the wall. Instead of insisting on the need to create 'a drug free world', they refer to the need to protect people and societies from the damages of drugs and drug trafficking. We continue to urge governments to put these words into action and steadily direct their policy towards legal regulation as the only way to reduce harms and increase public safety. We hope for and expect major change at the 2016 UNODC meetings in New York. Prohibitionary drug laws are the problem. Removing them is the solution."
In a theatrical jab at prohibitions gone by, ENCOD activists reprised the strange saga of the Coffee Sniffer Brigade, a group of disabled soldiers who had to enforce the ban on coffee roasting and brewing that was imposed by the Prussian King Frederick the Great in the second half of the 18th Century. Delegates reacted first with reservation, then with support, the activists reported.
"The remaking of the system is happening before our eyes. For decades governments used the United Nations to push a one-size-fits-all approach," said Joanne Csete, deputy director of the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program. "The dissent we're seeing today is the deconstruction of the international drug war."
"This is the beginning of a serious re-think on drug control," said Ann Fordham, executive director of the International Drug Policy Consortium. "Billions of dollars have been wasted, millions of people have been criminalized, thousands of lives have been lost and the drug cartels carry on getting richer. Given this reality, the charade of a global consensus on drugs is now unacceptable, and some governments have found the courage to speak out."
Alaska state agencies complain that legalization will cost money (and they want some of it), Vermont cops complain the governor is soft on pot, federal prosecutors complain about reforming mandatory minimums, and more. Let's get to it:
[image:1 align:left caption:true]Marijuana Policy
California Cannabis Hemp Initiative Dead for 2014. The number of active marijuana legalization initiatives in California has dropped to one after the California Cannabis Hemp Initiative failed to qualify for the ballot by its signature-gathering deadline. That leaves only the Marijuana Control, Legalization & Revenue Act, which, barring a miracle, isn't going to make the ballot, either. It needs 504,000 valid voter signatures by April 18, but only has 10,000. The big money is waiting for 2016 in California.
FBI Refuses to Do Washington State Marijuana Industry Background Checks. The FBI is refusing to do criminal history background checks on people applying for legal marijuana licenses in Washington state, even though it has done such checks in Colorado. The agency has balked for the past year at requests from state officials, and refused to tell the Associated Press why. The state has issued three licenses so far; for those, they relied on background checks by the Washington State Patrol, which would catch in-state criminal convictions, but might miss out-of-state ones.
Alaska Agencies Claim Legalization Will Cost Millions. In a new report, Alaska state agencies said that if the marijuana legalization initiative passes there, it will cost the state between $3.7 million and $7 million to implement and enforce the new law. Included in that figure are law enforcement requests for "at least three additional Alaska State Trooper positions to target the illegal diversion and exportation of marijuana lawfully cultivated in Alaska" and nearly $1.5 million for a media campaign to warn of stoned driving and training for troopers to recognize when a driver is high. The report doesn't address increased tax revenues from legalization.
Vermont Cops Accuse Governor of Being Soft on Pot. The Vermont Association of Chiefs of Police, Vermont Sheriffs Association and the Vermont Police Association said in a press release Friday that they are united against efforts for marijuana legalization and that, while they have previously expressed concern about Gov. Peter Shumlin's (D) "tolerance of marijuana," their concerns had been ignored. They also called marijuana "a gateway drug."
Washington Legislature Approves Sale of Hash and Hash Oil. The state legislature has approved a bill that would legalize the sale of hashish and hash oil at state-licensed marijuana retail outlets.House Bill 2304 now goes to the desk of Gov. Jay Inslee (D).
HHS Gives Go-Ahead for MAPS PTSD Research Study. The federal Department of Health and Human Services granted permission Thursday for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) to purchase research-grade marijuana from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) for its planned study of marijuana for symptoms of PTSD. MAPS notes that this is the first time in the 22 years it has been trying to start marijuana drug research that it has actually won permission to purchase marijuana from NIDA. It's not quite a done deal yet, though; the DEA still as to approve. MAPS said it was "optimistic" DEA would do so.
Florida Poll Shows Strong Support for Initiative. A University of North Florida poll released Monday has the state's medical marijuana amendment initiative well-positioned to win in November. The initiative has already qualified for the ballot. The poll had 74% of registered voters planning to vote for it. Because it is a constitutional amendment, it will need 60% approval to pass.
Iowa Poll Has Support for Medical Marijuana at 81%. In a new Quinnipiac Poll, 81% of Iowa voters said they would support "allowing adults in Iowa to legally use marijuana for medical purposes if their doctor prescribes it." Even among Republicans, 68% agreed. That's in sharp contrast to a recent Iowa Poll that had only 59% supporting "legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes."
Michigan Chamber of Commerce Wants No Jobless Benefits for Fired Medical Marijuana Users. Michigan's leading business group is urging the state appeals court to rule out jobless benefits for people who are fired for using medical marijuana. The move comes as the court weighs the cases of people who sought benefits after being fired for using medical marijuana. Lower court judges have ruled in favor of the workers, who argued that they shouldn't be denied benefits after losing their jobs for using marijuana legally under state law.
Arkansas Medical Marijuana Initiative Has 15% of Necessary Signatures. A signature-gathering campaign to put medical marijuana on the November ballot has collected about 15% of the signatures needed to qualify, Arkansans for Compassionate Care said on Thursday. The initiative is one of two gathering signatures this year. It has until July 7 to hand in 62,000 qualified signatures, and has about 10,000 so far.
Nevada Board of Health Approves Dispensary Regulations. The Board of Health gave its approval Friday to rules to regulate new dispensaries. The next and final step is approval by a legislative commission on March 28. A 2013 law allowing dispensaries goes into effect April 1. But even then, there will be a 45-day notice announcing the date applications will be accepted. Once the application period opens, there will only be a 10-day window for accepting them. After the application period closes, the state must make a decision on each application within 90 days of receiving it. And then dispensaries have to grow their supply. Maybe by year's end…
House Passes Bill to Force President to Enforce Federal Drug Laws. The Republican-controlled US House last week passed the Enforce the Law Act (House Resolution 4138), which would allow Congress to sue the president for failing to execute federal laws. While the bill is a broad attack on the Obama administration, one key supporter, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), singled out the "selective non-enforcement" of part of the Controlled Substance Act in medical marijuana and legal marijuana states as a major concern. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said the bill was "dead on arrival" in the Senate.
Nevada County Settles Up in Interstate-80 Cash Seizure Cases. Humboldt County, Nevada, where sheriff's deputies developed a habit of stopping travelers on I-80 and seizing their cash through threats of arrest or impoundment even though no drugs were found, has settled a lawsuit over the practice. Two men from whom thousands of dollars were taken sued and have won their money back and attorneys' fees. The county District Attorney's Office also said Friday it had launched an internal review of the county's "forfeiture program," but that it had seen no evidence of illegal stops or other wrongdoing on the part of Sheriff Ed Kilgore or his deputies. The lawsuits claimed the cash seizures were part of a pattern of stopping drivers for speeding as a pretext for drug busts in violation of the Constitution.
Illinois Bill to Ban Kratom Filed. Rep. Dennis Reboletti (R-Elmhurst) has filed a bill to outlaw kratom, a Southeast Asian herb with psychoactive properties. The plant is not banned federally, although the DEA has it on its list of "drugs of concern." Indiana is the only state so far to have criminalized it, designating its active ingredients as controlled substances. The Illinois bill is House Bill 5526.
Some Federal Prosecutors Oppose Eliminating Mandatory Minimums. Attorney General Holder's move to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for most drug offenders is running into flak from some prosecutors, The Washington Post reported Thursday. They complained that "tough sentencing policies provide a critical tool to dismantle drug networks by getting cooperation from lower-level defendants and building cases that move up the criminal chain of command." The prosecutors spoke out at a hearing of the US Sentencing Commission where Holder endorsed changing federal sentencing guidelines to reduce drug sentences in most cases.
NGOs to Address Inter-American Human Rights Commission on Drug Policy and Human Rights. For the first time, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission has granted an audience to hemispheric civil society groups to address the impact of the war on drugs on human rights in the Americas. The audience will take place in Washington, DC, on March 25. Click on the link to see the impressive list of organizations that will participate.
Jamaican Rastas Want Legal Marijuana Monopoly. The newly formed Westmoreland Hemp and Ganja Farmers Association said licenses to grow and sell marijuana upon legalization should be limited to Rastafarians and other poor people, who have been victimized for decades for cultivating the herb. "We will not stand by and watch anybody outside of Rastafari and grassroots people take over this product. And we make no apology," association President Ras Iyah V declared during his address at the launch of the organisation at the MXIII Lawn in Negril on Sunday night. "We are saying this loud and clear to the Government, we are saying it to society, and we are saying it to the international community. Otherwise, we will take to the streets and turn Jamaica upside down -- and we make no apology. Because we not going take baton lick and brutality and all of a sudden now when the legalization aspect come, a some rich people come tek it ova -- people who used to scoff and scorn at the very mention of the herb name ganja," he added. "The WHGFA's objectives are to make sure that those who have paid the price -- who have been going to jail, going to prison, getting the baton licks, who have been planting the herb and it get cut down by police and soldiers, and yet have been persistent with this product -- that the rights of these individuals are protected."
Mexico Moves to Rein In Anti-Cartel Vigilantes. Leery of having created a Frankenstein monster, Mexican authorities moved last week to put anti-cartel vigilante groups on notice that their illegal tactics will no longer be tolerated. Locals who saw the vigilantes as saviors from cartel extortion and threats now complain of similar behavior from the vigilantes, and the government says it now no longer needs them. Several vigilante leaders have been arrested on murder and other charges.