As 2009 winds to a close, we review the global year in drug policy. There were a number of events of global significance -- the trend toward decriminalization of drug possession in Europe and Latin America, the slow spread of heroin maintenance therapy, the frontal assault on global prohibitionist orthodoxy at the UN -- as well as new developments in ongoing drug-policy related struggles from the poppy fields of Afghanistan to the cannabis cafes of Amsterdam.
This review can't cover everything -- it's a big world, and there's a lot happening in drug policy these days. Among the items worth at least mentioning in passing: Israel's embrace of medical marijuana, Canada's flirtation with mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana growers (still in process, and amended to be less harmful by the Canadian Senate), the continuing resort to the death penalty for drug offenses in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, the bemusing link between cannabis and schizophrenia apparently at work only in some Commonwealth countries, the Andean drug war (unchanged in its essential outlines this year), and the rise of poor West African nations as favored smugglers' destinations.
What about Mexico? There is one glaring omission here, but there is a reason for that: In the third year of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's offensive against the so-called drug cartels, the violence is more intense and destabilizing than ever. What is happening in Mexico is certainly a drug policy-related phenomenon of global significance, but this year, with more than a billion US dollars in the anti-drug aid pipeline, beefed up border security, official acknowledgement that insatiable American appetites play a crucial role, and growing public and political concern about the violence on the border, we will examine the Mexican drug war in the context of US domestic drug policy issues. Look for it to be among the Top 10 domestic drug policy stories in our feature next issue.
With that as a caveat, here are this year's biggest global drug policy developments:
Afghanistan: War on Drugs, Meet War on Terror
Eight years after the US and NATO forces invaded and occupied Afghanistan, driving the Taliban from power, the Taliban have returned with a vengeance, fueled by revenues from the country's primary cash crop: opium. Western estimates of Taliban income from the poppy and heroin trade are in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually, which buys a lot of shiny new weapons for the resurgent insurgents.
This year has been the bloodiest yet for Western occupiers, with 495 US and NATO forces killed this year, according to iCasualties.org. Part of the uptick in violence can be attributed to the Taliban's opium wealth, but the decision by US and NATO forces to move aggressively into the Taliban's eastern and southern heartlands, especially Helmand and Kandahar provinces, has also led to increased fighting and higher casualties.
In June, President Obama, adhering to his election campaign vows if not the wishes of his some of his most ardent supporters, moved to directly confront the drug trade, sending 20,000 troops into Helmand to take on the Taliban and allied traffickers. But while that looked like more of the same, just weeks later, the US announced a major shift in its anti-drug policy in Afghanistan when US envoy Richard Holbrooke announced the US would no longer participate in poppy eradication campaigns. That was a startling, reality-driven break from previous US policy in Afghanistan, as well as with current US policies against coca production in Colombia and Peru.
Instead of persecuting poverty-stricken opium-growing peasants, the US and NATO would concentrate on drug manufacturers and traffickers, but only those linked to the Taliban -- not those linked to the corrupt and illegitimate (after this fall's fraudulent election fiasco) regime of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The US beefed up the in-country DEA contingent and even came up with a "hit list" of some 50 Afghan traffickers linked to the Taliban.
This fall, fighting has been intense in southern and eastern Afghanistan, as well as across the border in Pakistan, and now, the first of President Obama's promised 30,000-troop escalation is headed precisely for Helmand, where one of its first assignments will be to take and hold a major Taliban trafficking center. The war on drugs and the war on terror will continue to collide in Afghanistan, but now, at least, the imperatives of the war on terror have forced a historic shift in US anti-drug policy, at least in Afghanistan.
Latin American Leaders Call for a Drug Policy Paradigm Shift
In February, a blue-ribbon panel of Latin American leaders, including former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, and former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria issued a report and statement saying the US-led war on drugs has failed and it is time to consider new policies, particularly treating drug use as a public health matter and decriminalizing marijuana possession.
The report, Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift, is the work of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, which also includes prominent writers Paulo Coelho, Mario Vargas Llosa, Sergio Ramírez and Tomás Eloy Martínez as well as leading scholars, media members and politicians.
Latin America is the leading exporter of both cocaine and marijuana. As such, it has faced the ravages of heavy-handed American anti-drug interventions, such as Plan Colombia and earlier efforts to destroy the Bolivian coca crop, as well as the violence of drug trafficking organizations and politico-military formations of the left and right that have grown wealthy off the black market bonanza. And while the region's level of drug consumption has historically been low, it is on the rise.
"The main reason we organized this commission is because the available evidence indicates the war on drugs is a failed war," said Cardoso at a February press conference in Rio de Janeiro to announce the report. "We need a different paradigm to cope with the problem of drugs. The power of organized crime is undermining the very foundations of democracy in some Latin American countries. We must acknowledge that these policies have failed and we must break the taboo that prevents us from discussing different strategies."
The report garnered considerable attention, not only in the US and Latin America, but worldwide, and it set the tone for a very reformist year in Latin America.
Mexico Decriminalizes Drug Possession
In May, Mexico decriminalized the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs, including up to five grams of marijuana, a fifth-gram of ecstasy and methamphetamine, a tenth-gram of heroin, and a half-gram of cocaine. The new law closely resembled a 2006 decriminalization bill that had passed the legislature only to die in the face of US protests. There were no US protests this time.
With the Mexican government's action, drug decriminalization has now reached the very borders of the US.
But, according to well-placed observers, the Mexican decriminalization is a case of two steps forward, one step back. In addition to decriminalizing possession of very small amounts of drugs, the new law grants drug enforcement powers to state and local police forces that they never had before. That could mean an increase in the arrests and prosecution of retail-level drug sellers. Still, the long-term political ramifications could be helpful; as one observer noted, "the headline will read that Mexico decriminalized drugs."
Argentina Decriminalizes Marijuana Possession, Laws Against Possessing Other Drugs Tremble
While Mexico decriminalized through the legislative process, Argentina is doing it through the courts. In a series of cases dating back to 2006, Argentine judges have grown increasingly skeptical of arguments for criminalizing drug use. In the spring, judges in Buenos Aires threw out marijuana cultivation charges against a defendant, saying the plants were for personal use, and the following month, a federal appeals court threw out ecstasy possession charges against a group of defendants, again saying the drugs were for personal use. In both cases, the courts cited a 2006 Argentine Supreme Court ruling that it was the burden of the state "to demonstrate unequivocally that the drugs were not for personal use." In the ecstasy case, the appeals court held that the portion of the country's drug law regarding drug possession must be declared unconstitutional.
In August, the Supreme Court did just that, using another marijuana possession case to rule that the section of the country's drug law that criminalizes drug possession is unconstitutional.While the ruling referred only to marijuana possession, the portion of the law it threw out makes no distinction among drugs.
Imprisoning people absent harm to others violates constitutional protections, a unanimous court held. "Each individual adult is responsible for making decisions freely about their desired lifestyle without state interference," their ruling said. "Private conduct is allowed unless it constitutes a real danger or causes damage to property or the rights of others. The state cannot establish morality."
"It is significant that the ruling was unanimous," said Martin Jelsma, coordinator of the Drugs and Democracy program at the Transnational Institute, which has worked closely with Latin American activists and politicians on drug reform issues. "It confirms the paradigm shift visible throughout the continent, which recognizes that drug use should be treated as a public health matter instead of, as in the past, when all involved, including users, were seen as criminals."
UN's Global Anti-Drug Bureaucracy Meets Organized Resistance
It wasn't like this a decade ago, the last time the UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs took place. This year, for the first time, the UN's global anti-drug bureaucracy ran into organized resistance when its Committee on Narcotic Drugs (CND) met in March in Vienna. Not only did a large contingent of drug reform, human rights, and public health NGOs show up to challenge global prohibitionist orthodoxy, they were joined by a number of European and Latin American countries showing serious signs of defecting from the half-century old prohibitionist consensus.
In the end, the CND issued a political statement and plan of action that largely reaffirmed existing prohibitionist policies and ignored harm reduction, but with some victories for reformers both substantive and symbolic. For one, the US delegation finally removed its objection to needle exchanges.
But if the global anti-drug bureaucracies ignored their critics in their report, they were impossible to ignore in Vienna. Demonstrations took place outside the meeting hall, and Bolivian President Evo Morales brandished then chewed coca leaves as he demanded that his country's sacred plant be removed from the list of proscribed substances.
Even UN Office on Drugs and Crime head Antonio Maria Costa was forced to publicly acknowledge the failures and unintended consequences of prohibition. In his address opening the session, Costa bravely argued that "drugs are not harmful because they are controlled; they are controlled because they are harmful," but was forced to concede that prohibition had created a dire situation in some places. "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."
All the more reason to challenge prohibitionism and its consequences. After this year, the global anti-drug bureaucracy knows that not only is its long-held consensus under assault, it is beginning to crack.
Czech Republic Decriminalizes Drug Possession, Finally Sets Quantity Limits
Following in Portugal's footsteps, authorities in the Czech Republic voted late last year to decriminalize the possession of "smaller than large amounts" of drugs. But that term was vague, leaving its interpretation up to police and prosecutors and resulting in situations where people like personal marijuana growers were being charged as traffickers.
This month, Czech authorities formalized "smaller than large amounts." The new guidelines mean Czechs will suffer neither arrest nor prosecution for up to 15 grams or five marijuana plants, five grams of hashish, 40 magic mushroom segments, five peyote plants, five LSD tablets, four ecstasy tablets, two grams of amphetamine or methamphetamine, 1.5 grams of heroin, five coca plants, or one gram of cocaine.
The new quantity rules go into effect on January 1.
Science vs. Politics in Great Britain
The British Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) is an official body charged with providing evidence-based analysis of drug policy issues for the British Home Office. Tensions between the ACMD and the Labor government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown had been on the rise since it rejected the ACMD's recommendation that marijuana, which had been down-scheduled from a Class B to a Class C (least harmful) drug under Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair, remain at Class C. The government instead up-scheduled it back to Class B.
The ACMD was slighted again in February, when it recommended that ecstasy be down-scheduled from Class A (most harmful) to Class B, only to have the Home Office reject that recommendation the same day. ACMD head Professor David Nutt also drew heated criticism from the Home Office -- as well as Britain's horsey set -- for heretically suggesting that ecstasy was safer than horse-riding. Nutt was forced to apologize for his remarks.
After a relatively quiet summer, the clash between drug science and drug politics exploded anew when Home Secretary Alan Johnson fired Nutt in late October for again criticizing the government's refusal to follow the science-based recommendations of the panel. That firing caused a huge fire storm of protest, including the resignations of at least six ACMD members, and was splashed across newspaper front pages for weeks.
Now, the credibility of the Labor government and its adherence to evidence-based policy-making have been called into serious doubt, as it becomes clear that Home Office drug scheduling decisions are driven by a political calculus, not a scientific one. And if the Home Office thought firing Nutt was going to make him go away, it was sadly mistaken. Nutt is maintaining a high public profile and is vowing to set up his own independent drug panel.
Whither Holland's Cannabis Coffee Shops?
This year has seen the long-running battle over the Netherland's famous cannabis coffee shops continue to escalate. Under the Dutch policy of "gedogen," or pragmatic tolerance, marijuana remains technically illegal in Holland, but the sale and possession of small amounts is tolerated and even regulated.
But that tolerant policy is not a favorite of the conservative coalition national government, and it has created a number of problems. "Drug tourism," as the influx of border town marijuana buyers from more repressive neighboring countries is known, has led to everything from traffic jams to public urination to lurking hard-drug peddlers.
And Holland's halfway approach to marijuana policy -- it does not allow for the regulated provision of marijuana to the coffee houses -- has led to the "backdoor problem," in which coffee shop proprietors must rely on criminal-by-definition suppliers to provide them with their product. That provides additional ammunition for the anti-coffee shop crowd.
The conservative coalition government, however, is split on how best to rein in the coffee shops and has promised not to take action at the national level until after the 2010 elections. That has left the field to local authorities, and they have responded.
In March, the "drug tourism" problem resulted in the announcement by the mayors of Roosendaal and Bergen op Zoom that they would close all the coffee shops in their towns by September. In May, the mayors of the eight towns in the border province of Limburg announced coffee shops would be "members only." In August, the Dutch government announced it was providing more than $200,000 for a pilot "members only" program in the border town of Maastricht. Court challenges from coffee shop owners have so far failed to stop any of this.
Meanwhile, in Amsterdam, an urban renewal plan unveiled in May called for a reduction in coffee shops there from 226 to 192, with a 50% reduction in the number of coffee shops in the central Red Light District. But just last week, Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen fought back, saying that national coffee house policy should not be based solely on border "drug tourism" concerns, that he opposed the "members only" option, and that he rejected a ban on coffee houses within 250 yards of schools.
Holland's marijuana coffee shops have been around for more than 30 years now, but as was made clear this year, they will continue to be a battle front between the forces of Dutch conservatism and Dutch liberal pragmatism.
Heroin Maintenance Continues to Spread
This year saw a continuation of the slow spread of heroin maintenance programs for severely addicted users unamenable to other forms of drug treatment. At the beginning of the year, permanent or pilot heroin prescription programs were in place in Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland.
Denmark joined the club in February and Germany came aboard in June. These moves come after Switzerland voted in a popular referendum last year to move from a pilot to a permanent heroin maintenance program, based on favorable results from the pilot program.
Canada is about to join the club, too. After the success of the three-year North American Opiate Maintenance Initiative (NAOMI) in Vancouver, Canadian researchers are moving forward with SALOME (the Study to Assess Long-term Opiate Maintenance), a pilot heroin maintenance program set for Vancouver and Montreal. But as of late last month, Montreal's participation was a question mark after Quebec authorities said they would not pay their share of program costs.
There is an old saw about not being able to turn an ocean liner on a dime. That's certainly true when it comes to changing drug policies for the better at the national or international level. But each year, it seems that more progress is being made. Let's see what 2010 brings.
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