A Virulent Outbreak of Rational Thought

Two UK based organizations are charting a course through the miasma of international drug policy by publishing detailed road maps for legalization. It invites the question: Where are the Americans?
Charles Shaw
20 May 2010

Perhaps because the scale of the UK crisis is measurably lower than in the States, and thus more manageable, two UK-based drug policy organizations have been able to craft individual  frameworks for reform and regulation that are garnering a lot of attention, and inspiring activists and reformers across the pond.

The International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), a global network of NGOs and professional networks that specialize in issues related to the production and use of controlled drugs, recently published the first edition of their Drug Policy Guide aimed at national policymakers. This visionary group was initiated by the vanguard Beckely Foundation and is being managed by Release, a UK legal advisory group for drugs and human rights that provides free & confidential counsel to public and professional policymakers. IDPC received funding and assistance from the European Commission's Drug Prevention & Information Programme.

The Drug Policy Guide "brings together global evidence and best practices on the design and implementation of drug policies and programs at national level" by showcasing "a growing number of policy and program options available to address the harms that are associated with drug markets and drug use."

The IDPC operates from five fundamental principles:

  1. Drug Policy Decisions Should be More Informed by the Best Available Evidence
  2. Drug Policies Should Shift Focus and Priority from Reducing the Scale of the Drug Market to Reducing its Negative Consequences
  3. Efforts to Reduce the Supply of Drugs Should Not Focus on the Punishment of Growers
  4. Efforts to Reduce the Demand for Drugs Should Not Focus on The Punishment Of Users
  5. The UN System Should Develop a More Co-ordinated and Cohesive Approach to Drug Policy Issues

Their library contains over 200 publications on international drug policy produced by IDPC, their members and other relevant organizations. 

Over at the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, a "charitable think tank" that advocates regulation over prohibition, they have crafted "specific models of regulation for each main type and preparation of prohibited drug, coupled with the principles and rationale for doing so" and put them together into a 200 page powerhouse document called, After the War on Drugs: A Blueprint for Regulation.

Released last November to much fanfare at an event at the House of Commons, the Blueprint has since been adopted by many American drug policy reformers as the only tangible road map to legalization. Entire cases of the Blueprint were sent to the DPA's International Drug Policy Reform Conference in New Mexico with the intention of reaching reformers from around the nation. Perhaps emblematic of the reticence of American policymakers to embrace regulation, the cases were held up at customs and did not get cleared until after the conference.

Dan Linn, the director of the Illinois Cannabis Patients Association and Illinois NORML, who is also the lead lobbyist for a medical cannabis law in the State of Illinois, currently in the State Assembly, ended up with a case of the Blueprint and eagerly handed them out to all his colleagues.

"As the title states, this is a real 'blueprint,'" Linn said in a phone interview. "People want to see this happen, but some folks have a harder time envisioning how these substances can potentially be regulated and distributed in a legal setting. Cannabis is of course easy to figure out, you can grow it your yard, but psychedelics or cocaine present more difficult challenges for a legal system of regulation. The Blueprint does an amazing, unprecedented job, really, of showing how this can be done in a legitimate manner that is also safe for the non-user."

LEAP's (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) director Jack Cole called the Blueprint, "truly groundbreaking. In years to come we'll look back at prohibition, and the only question we'll ask is why it lasted so long."

The aim of the Blueprint for Regulation is the aim of Transform's overall mission, which is to "dismantle prohibition and regulate the illicit market" which they assert will have the following results:

    •    Restoration of human rights and dignity to the marginalised and disadvantaged.
 Only a few decades ago problematic drug users were treated in the UK for what they were - people desperately in need of help. Prohibition turns the majority of those without substantial private means into criminal outcasts, throwing yet more obstacles in the way of effective treatment, reducing access to employment, housing, personal finance, and achieving a generally productive and healthy life.

    •    A substantial decrease in the largest cause of acquisitive crime, gun crime and street prostitution.
 As with alcohol prohibition in the US, drug prohibition has gifted the market to organised criminals. The deregulated market leads to extortionate street prices that in turn result in very high levels of acquisitive crime and street prostitution amongst low income dependent users, and violent 'turf wars' over control of the lucrative trade. The Home Office estimates that over half of all property crime is related to fundraising to buy illegal drugs, and police have identified illegal drug markets as the key engine behind the UK's burgeoning gun culture.

    •    Huge reductions in the non-violent prison population. 
Over half of the UK prison population is made up of dependent heroin and crack users convicted of property crimes to support their habits. Prison has proven to be a hugely expensive and singularly ineffective and inappropriate environment in which to address drug misuse issues.

    •    A "peace dividend" from ending the drug war. 
In a study commissioned by the Home Office, York University estimated the social and economic costs of heroin and cocaine use in 2000 to be between £10.1 and £17.4 billion - the bulk of which are costs to the victims of drug-related crime. Billions currently wasted each year on counter productive enforcement could be freed up to fund drug treatment and education, non drug related policing activities, and other social programmes.

America, sadly, is lagging way behind. At the unveiling of the 2011 Drug Control Strategy last week, Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske vowed that the Obama Administration would now view drug use as a "public health" issue instead of a criminal justice one. Focusing on only one major line item in the budget, a nominal increase in Treatment and Prevention, Kerlikowske cast a net of misleading statements that led to widespread media reporting of a major "policy shift."  The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. For a real critical analysis of the Obama strategy read DPA Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann's April 14, 2010 testimony to Congress.

Conflicting laws and policies at the local, state and federal levels have created a situation in which, for example, states like California can pass  medical cannabis laws, and the Justice Department and DEA can step in and claim federal prohibition supercedes. During the Bush Administration federal raids on medical cannabis clinics were de rigeur. The policy was so unpopular that Barack Obama vowed to end the  raids and honor state laws. It was a bait and switch.

As soon as Obama called off the Feds, a new policy of county, state and local raids on clinics began, in direct contravention of state law. Most of LA's and San Diego's clinics have been raided and closed, amongst blistering tales of police violence and outright robberies masquerading as interdiction raids. There were an estimated 1000 clinics in operation in Los Angeles before the city council passed an ordinance in March capping the number at a paltry 70. The remaining clinics have been exiled to industrial parks in sparsely populated regions due to additional restrictions that prohibit them from opening 1000 feet from any residence, school, park, or place of worship. All of this is happening while Californians prepare to vote in November on whether to tax and regulate cannabis.

Mark Kleiman, an American policymaker and the author of When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment, understands this backlash against the cannabis clinics. He believes that the cannabis reform activists shot themselves in the foot with Prop 215, the first "compassionate use" state law passed in 1996, and ruined their chances for making cannabis legal in November.

"With Prop 215 Californians thought that they were approving a law that would allow terminal cancer and AIDS patients access to medical marijuana," Kleiman told an audience at the recent "Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century" conference held in San Jose.

His lack of a qualifying statement clearly communicated the state of affairs. Regardless of the merits of marijuana as medicine, which are voluminous, no one can argue that the law was not exploited. Instead of a medically contained set of procedures, cannabis clinics that were more like candy stores popped up in strip malls across Southern California, next to the Korean restaurant and your local yoga studio. An entire cannabis-goods industry grew up around it. This whole saga is chronicled in the new documentary, How Weed Won the West by Kevin Booth, the director of American Drug War: The Last White Hope. Although beginning as a well-intentioned expose about the raids on LA cannabis clinics, the film lacks any restraint and halfway through devolves into a self-indugent "stoner movie" replete with cliches and stereotypes. It is a brilliant portrait of the industry as it exists today, but whether Booth realizes it or not, in the end his film does the cause far more harm than good.

Certainly these abuses will be highlighted by the prohibitionists in the upcoming campaign against the California ballot initiative, and it will most definitely portend future battles in this arena. Regardless of the optimism of reformers that decriminalization is right around the corner, it may be that the system remains entrenched not only for economic reasons but against liability as well. When I asked Mark Kleiman directly if he ever saw a day when nonviolent drug offenders might be considered political prisoners because they were imprisoned for lifestyle choices, or that nonviolent offenders might form class action suits to seek reparations for the draconian limitations their convictions gave them, his answer was an unequivocal, "no."

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