Pubdate: Sun, 09 Feb 2014
Source: Observer, The (UK)
Copyright: 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited
Author: Kasia Malinowskakah Sempruch
Note: Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch is the director of the Open Society 
Global Drug Policy Program

We Must Not Be Left Behind in the Global Drugs Debate


Never did I think I would find myself agreeing with Texas governor 
Rick Perry on drug policy. But when the darling of Tea Party 
Republicans argued in favour of reducing prison populations and 
against federal obstruction of Washington and Colorado's alternative 
marijuana policies, I found myself applauding the three-term governor.

"After 40 years of the war on drugs, I can't change what happened in 
the past," Perry said at the World Economic Forum in Davos. "What I 
can do as the governor of the second largest state in the nation is 
to implement policies that start us toward a decriminalisation and 
keep people from going to prison and destroying their lives, and 
that's what we've done over the last decade."

When liberals, libertarians and Tea Party Republicans find themselves 
nodding in unison on drug law reform, it's fair to say that the 
issue's time has come. The drug policy ground is shifting in the US 
and fast. Every month, more Americans favour taxing and regulating 
marijuana, new ballot initiatives are launched and the status quo 
appears more outdated.

Last April, Pew Research Centre found that "for the first time in 
more than four decades of polling on the issue, a majority of 
Americans [favour] legalising the use of marijuana". The 52% of 
people who support the legalisation of marijuana use reflect an 11% 
increase from 2010. A few months later, Gallup released a poll that 
revealed 58% of Americans support legalisation.

As the debate generates steam, it is becoming increasingly more 
sophisticated. On the rare occasions that pundits revive tired Reefer 
Madness narratives, they are largely mocked or simply ignored. 
Colorado and Washington may seem like quirky experiments to some, but 
these states will not be alone for long. It is expected that 
marijuana will be on the ballot in 2014 in Alaska and the people of 
Oregon appear poised to approve a tax-and-regulate system this year. 
One poll found that 57% of likely voters in Oregon support marijuana 

California also remains a possibility; a recent poll showed 55% 
favoured legalisation (with only 31% supporting "strict enforcement 
"). This survey was a more modest estimate compared with an October 
poll that found "nearly two-thirds of voters (65%) support a proposal 
to legalise, regulate and tax marijuana in California for adults".

Poll numbers are not lost on lawmakers. The regulation of marijuana 
has so far been led by voters but sooner or later legislatures could 
pass reforms on their own. All of this amounts to an unprecedented 
opportunity to fix a system that is recognised as broken by the 
highest levels of government.

Eric Holder, the head of the US Justice Department, said last 
October: "As the so-called 'war on drugs' enters its fifth decade, we 
need to ask whether it, and the approaches that comprise it, have 
been truly effective... Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, 
criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens 
too many communities. And many aspects of our criminal justice system 
may actually exacerbate these problems, rather than alleviate them."

Such statements are a far cry from the typical political pandering we 
are used to on the issue of drugs and reflect a searing recognition 
of the destruction that drug-related mass incarceration has wreaked 
on American communities.

The apparent appetite for change is also reflected in the Department 
of Justice's "trust but verify" approach to Washington and Colorado. 
The agency indicated that the federal government would allow the 
regulated cannabis markets to proceed as long they respected eight 
enforcement priorities. The priorities are in many ways commonsense 
criteria, including prevention of sales to minors, assurances that 
criminals do not profit from the trade and that markets are 
restricted to licit channels.

President Obama's comment that "I don't think [marijuana] is more 
dangerous than alcohol" represented yet another turning point in the 
discourse on marijuana policy.

The difficulty is that drug policy is bigger than marijuana reform. 
The fact that the US Congress prohibits federal funding of 
life-saving needle exchanges is shocking to most European countries 
that are focused on public health. It is also baffling to most 
international observers how there are people in US prisons serving 
life sentences for lowlevel drug offences. While the "Lazarus drug" 
naloxone is gaining acceptance, the US is still a long way from 
introducing interventions such as supervised consumption rooms.

Nevertheless, with respect to public health approaches, there seems 
to be a shift in consciousness.

The tragic death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman from an apparent 
overdose was met with considerable soul-searching. Many commentators 
and media asked: "What could have been done to prevent this?" There 
was an implicit (and often explicit) recognition that punitive drug 
policies drive people into the shadows and that sensible reforms 
would save lives.

I dearly hope that just as some jurisdictions had the audacity to 
lead on marijuana reform, they will find equivalent courage to learn 
from services and policies that have been tried in other countries. 
These include Portugal's decriminalisation success, Switzerland's 
pioneering heroin maintenance programmes or German supervised 
consumption rooms.

I don't doubt the US is capable of making tremendous strides. After 
seeing the sea change in attitudes over the past three years, I 
believe much greater progress is possible.

Why are all these changes so important internationally? Because their 
impact goes far beyond the lives of people living within the US. For 
decades, it has been exporting its war on drugs to Latin America and 
the Caribbean. In many countries in these regions, drug control is 
carried out by militaries and prisons are full of poor men and women 
who rely on the drug economy to meet their most basic needs. Quality 
drug treatment is scarce and HIV is now spreading among people who 
use drugs. The urgency for reform is great. But the more things 
change in the US, the greater the space will be for others to speak 
out loudly in favour of reforms (which many have been whispering for decades).

This is an unprecedented moment and Europe must do its part to 
support Latin American and Caribbean countries in their push for 
serious drug war options.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom