oD Drug Policy Forum: Front Line Report - Week of August 2, 2010

We lead this week the US House of Representatives passing two significant pieces of legislation meant to begin reforming the thoroughly broken US criminal justice system.
Charles Shaw
2 August 2010

We lead this week with two historic legislative developments in the US. Please parson the sarcasm, but it appears Congress was inspired last week to engage in a bit of rational thinking and actually do their jobs for once when they passed two significant pieces of legislation meant to begin reforming the thoroughly broken US criminal justice system. 


On July 27th The U.S. House of Representatives passed bipartisan legislation to create a national commission to study the U.S. criminal justice system and make recommendations for reform. The bill passed under an expedited process that presumes unanimity unless a member of Congress objects. No member objected.

The bill comes at a time that the United State's growing prison population – fueled by the war on drugs - is becoming a political issue. The United States ranks first in the world in per capita incarceration rates, with just five 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of the world's prisoners.  Roughly 500,000 Americans are behind bars any given night for a drug law violation.  That is ten times the total in 1980, and more than all of western Europe (with a much larger population) incarcerates for all offenses.

Across the country – from California to Texas to New York – legislatures, and in some cases voters, are passing legislation to divert offenders to treatment instead of jail, reform mandatory minimum sentencing, and treat drug use more as a health issue instead of criminal justice issue.  These efforts – motivated by concerns for saving taxpayer money, reducing racial disparities, and showing more compassion for people struggling with substance abuse problems - are gaining steam.

The House bill is identical to a bill in the U.S. Senate introduced by Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA). That bill has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and will most likely be voted on in the full Senate sometime this year. Sen. Webb (D-VA) has said, "either we have the most evil people in the world or we are doing something wrong with the way we approach the issue of criminal justice." And "the central role of drug policy in filling our nation's prisons makes clear that our approach to curbing illegal drug use is broken."

On Friday, July 30th, the House passed legislation reducing the two-decades-old sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. The Senate passed an identical bill in March and the legislation is now heading to President Obama, who supports the reform effort. ["allegedly" supports reform ~CS]

Before the changes, a person with just five grams of crack received a mandatory sentence of five years in prison. That same person would have to possess 500 grams of powder cocaine to earn the same punishment. This discrepancy, known as the 100-to-1 ratio, was enacted in the late 1980s and was based on myths about crack cocaine being more dangerous than powder. Scientific evidence, including a major study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, has proven that crack and powder cocaine have identical physiological and psychoactive effects on the human body.

The 100-1 ratio has caused myriad problems, including perpetuating racial disparities, wasting taxpayer money, and targeting low-level offenders instead of dangerous criminals. African Americans comprise 82 percent of those convicted for federal crack cocaine offenses but only 30 percent of crack users, and 62 percent of people convicted for crack offenses were low-level sellers or lookouts.

It remains to be seen if Obama will keep his word and follow through with these reforms. His record is not the best, and when it comes to drug policy, he's outright lied. 

(Sources: Drug Policy Alliance, Huffington Post)

To view the full text of H.R. 5143: National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2010

Here's a summary of this historic week from David Borden of the Drug War Chronicle:

It was a really big week in Washington, DC for drug policy reform, with medical marijuana becoming legal here, with a bill to do a big review of the criminal justice system passing the House, and with some long-awaited though partial reform to the infamous crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity passed and heading to the president's desk.

  • national-mall-washington-dc.jpg

    National Mall, Washington, DC

    Congress, before going on recess, after almost 25 years of criticism finally enacted a reform, though only partial, to the infamous crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity.
  • Medical marijuana is now legal in Washington, DC. Well, sort of. The Congressional review period for the local initiative legislation that enacted this has expired, which means it's clear to go. The city council still has some work to do before the regulations go into effect and before dispensaries can actually open, but it's happening.
  • A companion bill to Sen. Jim Webb's legislation to convene a National Criminal Justice Commission has passed the House of Representatives.

Word also has it that the ONDCP's ad campaign, which research has demonstrated to be ineffective, is finally getting zeroed out, but we'll have more on that later. Also from Washington, the Veterans Administration is now allowing veterans with authorization to use medical marijuana under state law to do so without getting thrown out of VA pain treatment programs. Nationally, marijuana legalization polls continue to shift in our direction, and the latest poll on California's Prop 19 marijuana legalization initiative is encouraging.

(Source: Drug War Chronicle)


Film One: Everyone’s at it - AUGUST 2ND, 8PM

Film Two: The Life and Death of a Dealer - AUGUST 9TH, 8PM

Film Three: Birth of a Narco-state  (director : Monica Garnsey) - AUGUST 16TH, 8PM

(Film Three, director Monica Garnsey) 

Photography and Production by Sasha Djurkovic

Editors: Brand Thumim, Paul Carlin

This three-part series presented and directed by Angus Macqueen examines the global story of our drugs policies from the streets of Edinburgh to the poppy fields of Afghanistan, from consumption to demand to supply – concluding that  the war on drugs is more harmful than the drugs themselves. 

Film One: Everyone’s at it  - explores the taboos against talking about drugs honestly:  the police fail to control supply (in Scotland seizing just 1% of the heroin consumed),  criminals make money, demand only increases – with the advent of synthetic drugs like GBL, banning and policing are becoming ever more random. When will we come up with an honest policy our children can believe in which faces the issues and realities head on?

Film Two: The Life and Death of a Dealer -  Thomas looks, through the life and death of one dealer in New York, at the social costs of the Drugs War – where the use of law and order to deal with a health issue has created a cycle of crime and punishment that addresses none of the real issues. It also creates ghettoes in our main cities – often racially defined. Human Rights Watch has established that all races in the US  drugs in equal numbers, yet over 80% of those imprisoned are Black or Latino. (The story is no different in Britain.)

Film Three: Birth of a Narco-State - We are told British soldiers are dying in Afghanistan fighting an ideological enemy in the War of Terror. Film Three shows how the illegality of drugs  - and our war on drugs - is fuelling a long-term civil war: Western demand for heroin and the huge monies it generates  not only finances warlords on both sides, it is corrupting the very government we are fighting to protect. The film engages with those working to establish some sort of order – in the face of overwhelming odds. We are creating another Colombia or Mexico but now, with the war on Islamic extremism – welcome to the world’s first Narco-Theocracy.


 The more things (appear to) change, the more they stay the same.

The odds of getting a death sentence for killing a white person is about three times higher than for killing an African American with the race of the defendant virtually irrelevant, according to a new study out of North Carolina that echoes earlier findings on capital punishment.

Researchers Michael Radelet of the University of Colorado and Glenn Pierce of Northeastern University in Boston combed through three decades of death sentences for the study, to be published next year in the North Carolina Law Review.

The study will be used in capital appeals, according to an article in the Daily Camera of Boulder, Colorado. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that statistical evidence of racial bias could not be considered in individual cases, but states could pass their own legislation to do so. North Carolina has 159 people now awaiting execution. As Brittany Anas reports:


Leading up to the study, legislators in North Carolina had raised concern about the racial disparities of those on death row -- but there was no hard evidence…. The state became the second in the nation, following Kentucky, to allow murder suspects and those already on death row to present statistical evidence of racial bias. The law is intended to make sure that the race of the defendant or victim doesn't play a key role in sentencing. The study by Radelet and Pierce is the first to be released since North Carolina passed the Racial Justice Act.

(Source: Forensic Psychology in the News)



17 Nov 2010, London, UK
Participants will discuss the evidence base for drug and alcohol recovery models and what the implications are for therapeutic interventions. Using examples of best practice the Conference will explore how drug treatment systems can gear up for the increased demand for recovery options from the public, the political support for recovery options, and how to make this possible within the economic climate. For more information, visit the conference website.

IDPC and Transform Drug Policy Foundation co-hosted the Drug Policy Networking Zone – a busy and dynamic space that was shared with the Harm Reduction and Human Rights Networking Zones. The key message of the Drug Policy Networking Zone was a call to consider the costs of the dominant approach to drug control both in monetary and human terms. The week-long event included panel discussions put together by IDPC members such as Release, the Malaysian AIDS CouncilIntercambios and the Correlation Network, and other partners such as the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, the International Doctors for Healthy Drug Policies and the International Center for Science in Drug Policy. Discussions were lively and varied and involved topics as diverse as law enforcement and harm reduction, advocacy strategies, reform of the UN Drug Control Conventions and the possibilities for a regulated drugs market. IDPC launched the Drug Policy Guide in two sessions and was proud to disseminate the newly published Russian version of the Guide. See Transform’s photo blog of the zone.

The European Harm Reduction Network (EuroHRN) was recently launched to reduce the health and social harms related to drugs and the policy environment, by promoting the human rights and health of people who use drugs through collective advocacy, research and information exchange. To join please go to the EuroHRN website or email [email protected].

The Transnational Institute (TNI) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) have launched a new website to provide up-to-date analysis of trends in drug policy reform and videos that show the human face of drug laws’ collateral damage in Latin America.

The Centro de Investigación 'Drogas y Derechos Humanos' (CIDDH) has developed a webpagein which the organisation intends to provide a virtual analytical, graphical and cartographic tour of the various locations involving cocaine trafficking in the Andes Region.

This discussion paper promotes a health-oriented approach to drug dependence. It outlines a model of referral from the criminal justice system to the treatment system that is more effective than compulsory treatment, which results in less restriction of liberty, is less stigmatising and offers better prospects for the future of the individual and the society. Read the paper.

Drawing upon independent evaluations and interviews conducted with 13 key stakeholders in 2007 and 2009, this paper critically analyses the criminal justice and health impacts against trends from neighbouring Spain and Italy. It concludes that contrary to predictions, the Portuguese decriminalisation did not lead to major increases in drug use. Read the paper.

In August 2009, the Argentina Supreme Court declared legislation criminalising drug possession for personal consumption as unconstitutional. This TNI briefing discusses the background of that decision, the small steps taken since, but argues that there is still much to do before a genuine reform agenda can be implemented. Read the paper.

This TNI paper discusses the “substance-oriented approach” Dutch authorities implemented to to scare off potential small-scale cocaine smugglers. The focus was on the drugs, rather than the couriers, and on incapacitating the smuggling route, rather than deterrence by incarceration. Read the paper.

This Eurasian Harm Reduction Network position paper is based on an evidence-informed approach and promotes the respect, observance and protection of human rights. Read the paper in English and Russian.  

(Source: IDPC)


Robert Perkinson, Soros Fellow and author of Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire, reviews for the New York Times the new book by Tom Feiling. 

The Drug Enforcement Administration Museum and Visitors Center may be America’s most uninspiring attempt at war commemoration. Its low-budget displays, stuffed into a sterile building near the Pentagon, strive for a good-versus-evil story line but exude uncertainty. Snapshots of officers atop piles of impounded narcotics fail to convey the urgency of battle. Confiscated drug paraphernalia showcase wily ingenuity as much as social menace. But across the Potomac, next to Congressional Cemetery, rises a more fitting tribute to the “war on drugs”: Washington’s city jail, through which 18,000 inmates pass each year, 89 percent of them black and three-quarters of them incarcerated for nonviolent of fenses. With its X-shaped towers surrounded by razor wire, the sprawling complex devours resources but, most criminologists agree, does comparably little to protect the public. It stands as a monument to punitive government bloat.

An impassioned and wide-ranging if occasionally jumbled survey of “the white trade” and its enemies, Feiling’s book (published last year in Britain as “The Candy Machine”) begins with the extraction of the ancient coca leaf’s most potent alkaloid, cocaine, in the mid-19th century. Possessing wondrous qualities — a pharmaceutical company boasted that cocaine could “make the coward brave, the silent eloquent, and render the sufferer insensitive to pain” — the product swept the globe as an additive to medicine, wine (Ulysses S. Grantwas an early quaffer) and, of course, Coca-Cola, whose red and white colors, Feiling writes, pay homage to the Peruvian flag.


How the White Trade Took Over the World

By Tom Feiling

351 pp. Pegasus Books. $27.95.

Now four decades old, America’s drug war, initiated in its modern form by Richard Nixon, has burned through $1 trillion and helped make the United States the most locked-down country on earth. Yet victory still recedes from view. In 1970, some 20 million Americans had experimented with illegal drugs; by 2007, 138 million had. While drug purity has increased, street prices over the long term have dropped — precisely the opposite trajectory promised by drug warriors. Small wonder that a growing number of skeptics, from George Will to George Soros, have called for a serious change of course.

With a new regime in Washington, led by a president who admits to having used cocaine in his youth and a drug czar who rejects martial metaphors, this is a good time to look back on America’s first “war without end” and its pre-eminent target, as the documentary filmmaker Tom Feiling does in “Cocaine Nation.”

(continue reading)


Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year smuggling drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed nearly 25,000 people (the Mexican attorney general put the death toll at 24,826 on earlier this month), with a death toll of nearly 8,000 in 2009 and over 6,000 so far in 2010. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest of dozens of high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference.Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war:

(Source: Drug War Chronicle)


  • California Senator Looks to Double Punishment for Pot Brownies


Fire Dog Lake reported last week:

"The Senate could vote on a bill in just a few days that needlessly DOUBLES the federal fines and jail time for pot brownies. Pushing a bill to double the penalties for medical marijuana products like brownies is a waste of time for the US Senate and the country. With Congress finally taking important steps to reduce the prison population, it just doesn’t make sense to fill up those same prisons by doubling penalties for marijuana brownies. At a time when Congress is taking important steps trying to reduce the prison population, Senator Dianne Feinstein is trying to increase those numbers for... marijuana brownies.  

This isn't just stupid; it's dangerous."


Dianne Feinstein is a big opponent of Prop 19, the California initiative that would legalize marijuana in the state. Her bill aims to fan the flames of hysteria around marijuana legalization. She wants to distract from the real reasons for legalization: ending our failed war on marijuana, fighting the Mexican drug cartels, and providing critical tax revenues to cash-strapped cities.

(Source: Fire Dog Lake)


Thousands of families live off the cultivation of cannabis in this region that stretches more than 11,000 square miles. The growing of cannabis is commonly referred to as "the culture of kif," (kif is a term for the dried bud of the female marijuana plant). Farmers say the area's harsh climate makes it impossible to grow anything else.

Although it is illegal to cultivate cannabis, it remains one of Morocco’s most lucrative sources of income. Morocco is estimated to have grown 53,000 tons of cannabis in 2005, according to the most recent figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Most of the marijuana is processed into hashish. European countries complain that Morocco is the prime source of the cannabis smuggled into their territories.

The Moroccan government claims to be cracking down on hashish production in accordance with several international treaties.

Since 2003, Morocco has received $28 million euros from the European Union to eradicate the cultivation of cannabis. In addition the United States has given $43 million, between 2005 and 2012, to help farmers find new crops to replace marijuana.


(Source: Global Post)


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData