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 Top Ten Reform Victories

by Kendra E. Wright, VP Common Sense for Drug Policy

With the daily struggles associated with cannabis club lawsuits, mass arrests, the spread of AIDS and Hepatitis C, it is important to reflect upon our successes. In 1997, the drug policy reform movement made great strides toward opening the debate and moving the world toward a more pragmatic drug policy. Reviewing the Top 10 news stories of the year illustrates our progress.

1. Physicians and medical institutions show growing support for reform.

  • The two gold standards of American medicine support methadone reform. The National Institutes of Health joins the Institute of Medicine in support of widespread methadone availability.
  • The American Medical Association endorses needle exchange and medical marijuana.
  • Editor of the New England Journal of Medicine Jerome Kassirer challenges federal policy on medical marijuana.
  • Leading doctors successfully sue the federal government over medical marijuana policy.
  • The Physicians Leadership Council on National Drug Policy, made up of the elite in medicine, is created and urges public health approaches to drug control.

2. The African American community's support for reform grows.

  • Leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus call for an end to the needle exchange federal funding ban.
  • Prominent African Americans including US Representative Maxine Waters, Henry Louis Gates of Harvard University, Ronald Hampton of the National Black Police Association and Ramona Edelin of the National Urban Coalition draw attention to the disparity in the crack vs. powder cocaine sentencing laws and call for a reduction in the penalties for crack to be equal with those of cocaine.

3. Drug policy reform makes progress worldwide.

  • In England, the campaign for cannabis decriminalization picks up speed with support from the Sunday Independent. Leading businessman, doctors, musicians and others join the effort.
  • In France, Lionel Jospin is elected Prime Minister after saying he supports decriminalization of marijuana. Three cabinet ministers come out for reform and France moves toward making marijuana available as a medicine.
  • In Switzerland, citizens vote for reform in a landslide. Research in Switzerland shows heroin maintenance works. In particular, the study showed dramatic declines in crime rates.
  • Canada moves forward on marijuana with a court decision favoring medical marijuana use and statements by leading police and other officials supporting reform.

4. Hollywood gets behind medical marijuana.

  • A special episode on Murphy Brown features the main character using medical marijuana to relieve nausea caused by chemotherapy treatments for her breast cancer. After DEA Director Tom Constantine threatens the television program's producers, they re-air the show one month later.

5. More judges come out for reform.

  • Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, Judge Juan Torruella
  • U.S. District Court Judge Kane in Colorado
  • U.S. District Court Judge John Curtain in New York
  • Superior Court Judge James Gray, a friend of reform, decides to take a sabbatical from the bench to run for US Congress.

6. George Soros makes the cover of Time magazine.

  • Due in large part to his high profile drug policy-related philanthropy including $1 million to needle exchange, $25 million for reforms in Baltimore, general support to drug policy reform organizations and support of medical marijuana initiatives in California and Arizona, George Soros is featured in Time.

7. Innocent US citizen's death prompts reevaluation of US drug policy and border patrol.

  • Widespread media attention of the Esequiel Hernandez shooting death by US Marines on the Mexican border resulted in a withdrawal of military troops from the border and a reevaluation of the use of military troops in domestic law enforcement and border patrol.

8. US voters stand up to legislatures trying to reverse reforms.

  • In Oregon, signatures are gathered to challenge recriminalization of marijuana.
  • In Arizona, signatures are gathered to challenge a legislative attempt to undo the medical marijuana initiative passed in 1996.

9. Opponents of medical marijuana back down.

  • Attorney General Lungren endorses Senator John Vasconcellos' medical marijuana reform bill.
  • Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey funds research on medical marijuana at the Institute of Medicine.
  • NIDA approves AIDS research on medical marijuana.
  • NIH hosts scientific conference on medical marijuana which concludes with broad support for medical use and further research on medical use.

10. Feel-good drug prevention programs did not go without criticism.

  • Research showing DARE fails our nation's children was published and reported on by major news media.
  • For the first time, in response to the Monitoring the Future Study, parents spoke out against the drug war in an organized way. ABC's March Against Drugs received widespread critical coverage which resulted in ABC publicly admitting that they would think twice about doing another such propaganda campaign (how will they handle Clinton's 1998 $175 million Partnership for a Drug Free America advertising campaign?).

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