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.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]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.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]"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."
[image:3 align:left caption:true]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.]
The drug czar uses a recycled and updated version of the gateway theory to oppose marijuana legalization, the Justice Department restarts its Equitable Sharing asset forfeiture program, the president announces a new package of initiatives to fight heroin and opioid death and addiction, and more.
[image:1 align:right caption:true]Marijuana Policy
Drug Czar Leans On Gateway Theory Variant to Explain Opposition to Legalization. In a hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform last week, Office of National Drug Control Policy head Michael Botticelli reaffirmed the Obama administration's opposition to marijuana legalization, using a familiar, if discredited, argument to do so: "I think the evidence is pretty clear that early use of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana -- often used together -- significantly increases the probability that someone will develop a more significant addictive disorder later in their life," he said. "Early substance use actually effects brain development and predisposes people for more significant vulnerabilities later in their life." That sounds a whole lot like an updated version of the roundly criticized gateway theory.
Hawaii Resolution Seeks Study on Marijuana and Driving. Rep. Cindy Evans (D-North Kona) and 15 other lawmakers have introduced a resolution asking the state health department to study the effect of marijuana on driving. State law bans people from driving under the influence of impairing drugs, but there is no threshold set for marijuana because there is no widespread consensus on what an acceptable level might be.
Heroin and Prescription Opioids
Obama Announces New Moves to Fight Heroin and Opioid Abuse. In a speech in Atlanta today, President Obama unveiled a package of new initiatives to help stem the tide of death and addiction from prescription and non-prescription opioids. These initiatives are above and beyond the $1.1 billion in new spending he proposed last month. The package includes expanded access to medication-assisted treatment (methadone, buprenorphine) for addicted users, doubling the cap on the number of patients to whom a doctor may prescribe buprenorphine, increasing the number of doctors who can prescribe it, funding an increase in access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan), ensuring that substance abuse and mental health benefits are offered for Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program, and $7 million for the Justice Department to conduct law enforcement operations aimed at heroin distribution.
Justice Department Resumes Equitable Sharing Program -- More Money for Cops. The Justice Department has announced it is resuming its program that allows state and local law enforcement agencies to do an end run around state asset forfeiture laws by handing investigations over to the feds. State laws may mandate that seized funds go in the general fund or other specified funds, but under the federal program, 80% of the seized funds go to the seizing law enforcement agency, not the state's general or other specified funds. Law enforcement lobbying groups had been loudly protesting the program's shutdown last fall, claiming they needed the windfalls to do their jobs. Now, the program is back on line.
Overdose Reversal Drug Naloxone Has Saved 2,500 Lives in North Carolina. In less than three years, some 2,500 North Carolinians have had their heroin or prescription opioid overdoses reversed by people using naloxone (Narcan), the North Carolina Harm Reduction Center reported today. As of today, the number stands at 2,503. "Through distributing naloxone with NCHRC, I have been able to save the lives of many of my friends, loved ones and peers," says Kendra, a volunteer distributor in Wilmington. "Without this amazing group of people and this life-saving drug, many people who are very close to me may not have had a second chance at life. In the last few months alone I have had close to 100 reversals reported to me personally and many of those people are now in recovery because they were ready to make a change in their lives after overdosing."
Mexican Popular Support for Marijuana Legalization Rising, But Still Low. This year's officially-supported debate on marijuana legalization appears to be having an impact. Mexico has never been a legalization-friendly country, and in October, daily polls had support for legalization at only 7%, with 92% opposed. But six months later, after the issue has been publicly debated, pro-legalization sentiment has increased four-fold, to 29%, with opposition dropping to 66%. The trend is in the right direction, but there's still a long way to go.
Chronicle AM: 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.
[image:1 align:right caption:true]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.
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.
Canada Petition Calling for Full Marijuana Legalization Gaining Steam. A petition asking the Canadian government to fully repeal marijuana prohibition is picking up signatures, especially in British Columbia. There are more than 12,000 signatures so far, more than 5,000 of them from BC. The petition launched by federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May calls for removing marijuana from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, ending police actions against existing storefronts, granting of pardons and expungements of criminal records to pot criminals, and leaving the regulation and taxation of marijuana commerce to the states. The Liberal government has said it is going to legalize it, but it hasn't said how or when.
Chronicle AM: ME Legalizers Sure Over Invalidated Signatures, Civil Society Groups Sign UNGASS Letter, More... (3/10/16)
A South Dakota GOP lawmaker tells the parents of sick kids they should move to another state if they want to use CBD cannabis oil, Maine legalizers are suing over disqualified signatures, the Senate passes a major bill dealing with heroin and opiates, but without funding, and more.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]Marijuana Policy
Maine Legalization Initiative Files Lawsuit Over Disqualified Signatures. The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol today filed a lawsuit in Kennebec County Superior Court challenging a decision by the secretary of state to disqualify more than 17,000 voter signatures because of an issue surrounding one notary's signature. That was enough to knock the measure off the fall ballot, but the campaign says the signatures should be counted because the notary's signature does indeed match the one on file and because the secretary of state acted outside his authority in rejecting the petitions. The court has 30 days to rule.
North Dakota Legalization Initiative Approved for Signature Gathering. Secretary of State Al Jaeger Wednesday approved a marijuana legalization initiative for circulation. Organizers now have until July 11 to gather at least 13,452 valid voter signatures. They say they are aiming at 20,000 to have a cushion.
South Dakota House Kills CBD Cannabis Oil Bill. A bill that would have allowed for the use of CBD cannabis oil was killed in the House Wednesday on a 25-43 vote, with one "no" voter suggesting parents who lobbied for it should move to another state. The measure, Senate Bill 171, had already passed the Senate, and Republican Gov. Dennis Daugard had suggested he would sign it. Rep. Kristin Conzet (R-Rapid City) told people suffering seizure disorders they should move elsewhere. "I don’t like the road that we’re going down at this time," she said. "This is not a bill for South Dakota."
Heroin and Opiates
Senate Overwhelmingly Passes Landmark Opioid Bill – the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA). The measure now goes on to the House. CARA advances a large number of treatment and prevention measures intended to reduce prescription opioid and heroin misuse, including evidence-based interventions for the treatment of opioid and heroin addiction and prevention of overdose deaths.
White House Will Announce Funding to Fight Drug Addiction. Just hours after the Senate passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), the Obama administration said it will announce "a significant federal investment" to help fund its goals. Democrats had tried unsuccessfully to add $600 million in funding to the bill, but were blocked by Republicans.
Florida Poll Finds Strong Support for Ending Civil Asset Forfeiture. A new poll released by Drug Policy Action finds that 84% of registered Florida voters do not think police should be able to seize property from people who have not been convicted of a crime. And two-thirds of those polled said they would be more likely to support a presidential candidate who opposed civil asset forfeiture. The poll comes as an asset forfeiture reform bill, Senate Bill 1044, passed out of the legislature Wednesday and awaits the signature of Gov. Rick Scott (R).
West Virginia House Overwhelmingly Approves Welfare Drug Testing Bill. The bill, Senate Bill 6, would mandate drug testing for any welfare applicant who gives state workers "reasonable suspicion" he or she is using drugs, including having a drug conviction in the previous three years. The bill has already been approved by the Senate, but that body will have to take it up again in concurrence since the House added amendments note voted on in the Senate.
Civil Rights, Health, Faith-Based, Justice Reform Groups Call on Obama to Push to End Global Drug War. More than 225 civil rights, health, faith-based and other organizations sent a letterto President Obama Thursday calling on him to use an upcoming United Nations high-level session on global drug policies to push for a fundamental change in course away from criminalization. The letter was submitted as the UN prepares for its highest level session on drug policy since 1998 – the "UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem,"or UNGASS, scheduled for April 19-21 at UN headquarters in New York. US diplomats and drug and crime officials have played a central role in negotiations over the UNGASS Outcome Document, an official product of the meeting that will impact policy.The sign-on campaign for the letter was coordinated by David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org.
Chronicle AM: US Signals Flexibility on International Drug Reforms, Senate Set to Approve CARA, More... (3/9/16)
In the run-up to UNGASS, the US is signalling some flexibility if other countries want to decriminalize drugs, the Senate is poised to pass a bill to deal with heroin and prescription opiate use, crackdowns could be coming for unpermitted dispensaries in Los Angeles and San Diego, and more.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]Marijuana Policy
Illinois Decriminalization Bill Wins Senate Committee Vote. The Senate Criminal Law Committee voted Tuesday to advance a decriminalization bill, Senate Bill 2228, sponsored by Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago). The bill would drop criminal penalties for possession of less than 10 grams of pot, but also set a limit at which someone can be prosecuted for drugged driving at 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood. A decrim bill was vetoed last year by Gov. Bruce Rauner (R); this one attempts to address his concerns by lowering the amount decriminalized, increasing the fine from $100 to $200, and by lowering the nanogram limit.
Colorado Springs Wants Its Cannabis Social Clubs to Go Away. The city council voted Tuesday night to ban "cannabis consumption clubs" despite overwhelming public support for them at the council before the vote was taken. But it isn't going to happen overnight. The council gave the clubs eight years to shut down. In the meantime, they will have to be licensed by the city and pay for the privilege of doing so.
Los Angeles County to Crack Down on Illegal Dispensaries. The county supervisors voted Tuesday to crack down on dispensaries in unincorporated areas of the county. The county will create a "Medical Marijuana Dispensary Enforcement Team" to shut down and prosecute the unpermitted operations, which have been banned since 2011.
San Diego Licensed Dispensaries Call for Crackdown on Unlicensed Ones. The Association of Cannabis Professionals, which represents licensed dispensaries, is calling on the city to shut down dispensaries operating without a license. There are an estimated 30 unpermitted dispensaries in the city, and the seven licensed ones are claiming they can't compete because of the increased costs they bear to get and stay legal. "The City of San Diego spent nearly four years developing regulations, and our members spent nearly two years, and hundreds of thousands of dollars, to meet the conditions needed to obtain their permits from the City of San Diego,” says Association President Chris Siegel. “But despite having jumped through all of these hoops and costs, in order to do things right, the City continues to allow unpermitted dispensaries to operate with impunity."
Heroin and Prescription Opioids
Senate About to Pass Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. Senators voted 83-6 to advance the bill Monday, setting the stage for a final vote sometime this week. The bill, S 524, is sponsored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and has 42 cosponsors. It would provide support drug treatment, education, and prevention initiatives, and expanded prescription drug monitoring programs.
Iowa Senate Approves Opioid Overdose Reversal Drug Bill. The Senate voted 48-0 Tuesday to approve Senate File 2218, which would allow police, fire departments, EMS programs and others to carry and use naloxone (Narcan), the opioid overdose reversal drug. The bill now goes to the House
Top State Department Official Gives Green Light for Other Countries to Decriminalize Drugs. William Brownfield, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs ("drugs and thugs"), told reporters at the United Nations Tuesday that it was less concerned with how countries attempted to deal with drug problems than with reducing the harms from drug use. "The issue is not precisely whether a government has chosen to decriminalize or not to decriminalize," Brownfield remarked. "It is whether the government is working cooperatively to reduce the harm of a product. A nation can reach its own determination," he added, suggesting that countries should feel free to consider removing penalties for drug use.