Friday, October 28, 2011

Stop the Violence: Cannabis prohibition, organized crime, and gangs

Stop the Violence BC (British Colombia, Canada) is a new coalition of academics, past and present members of law enforcement, and the general public, concerned about the links between cannabis prohibition in BC and the growth of organized crime and related violence in the province.

Check out the new website here

New animated short video explaining the issues and introduing the new organisation:

From the website:

What is Stop the Violence BC’s objective?

Stop the Violence is an educational campaign seeking to improve community safety by broadening the public’s understanding of the link between cannabis prohibition and gang violence. Guided by the best available scientific evidence, Stop the Violence BC is calling for cannabis to be governed by a strict regulatory framework aimed at limiting use while also starving organized crime of the profits they currently reap as a result of prohibition.

Why are you calling for the regulation of cannabis?

Using regulatory tools proven effective at reducing tobacco use will undercut the huge profits cannabis driving violent organized crime in BC. Not only that, cannabis regulation may also improve community health by making cannabis harder for young people to access, lessening cannabis grow-op associated property damage, and freeing up law enforcement resources to focus on criminal activity where law enforcement can reduce harm.
This initiative is being launched with a new report that 'outlines the links between cannabis prohibition in BC and the growth of organized crime and related violence in the province. The report also defines the public health concept “regulation” and seeks to set the stage for a much needed public conversation and action on the part of BC politicians'.

Click image to read:

Thursday, October 27, 2011

New feature documentary: 'Cocaine Unwrapped'

Transform is pleased to support the upcoming release of new feature documentary 'Cocaine Unwrapped' directed by Rachel Seifert. Below is the film trailer, and a description of the film - followed by details of the upcoming preview screenings in Liverpool (Nov 1st)and London (Nov 10th), and the public  premiere on Nov 29th. We have also included a video of a recent episode of Cinepolitics in which Steve Rolles from Transform discusses the film.


Film description from the film makers Dartmouth films;

"This film is the story of cocaine – from production to consumption, as it journeys from the USA to the countries of Latin America. Between scenes we hear from the Western consumers who are unaware of the reality of the trade which their consumption supports. Major Neill Franklin was a police officer for 33 years on the streets of Baltimore. As he drives around the now devastated, boarded up and frequently deserted streets of his community he explains how the decline of industry pushed many heads of households into illegal drug dealing. Incredibly, as he describes how a drugs deal is done on the streets, we see one played out in front of our eyes. Streets where once it was fun to live are not now safe – even in the daytime. Drawing on his experience as a law enforcement officer, Franklin is certain that the USA’s drug policies need to change.

In Columbia 140,000 members of the police are fighting the war on drugs – one of them, Lieutenant Jose Castro takes us on an operation to manually eradicate a coca plantation which, as the country’s vice president explains, is a key part of the war against drugs, which in his country is tied up with paramilitary and criminal gangs. But for Maria, a small farmer in the Tumaco region, the indiscriminate aerial spraying kills not just her coca but her chocolate, banana and yucca plants. As local community leaders explain, the programme causes ill health, economic stagnation and massive displacement of the population. Cesar Gavira, president of Columbia from 1990-94, believes that the social damage caused by the war against
drugs is “terrible….it destroys the lives of people who are not criminals and who are just trying to survive.”

Bolivia is taking a different approach. As president Evo Morales explains, coca leaf in its natural state is not cocaine – it is just a leaf. But for twenty years, until 2005, with the support of the USA the Bolivian government waged a war against coca growers, causing death and destruction. This all changed when Morales was elected president and allowed farmers to grow limited amounts of coca, as we hear from Lucio, a local farmer. At the meeting of the Chapare Coca Growers Union the local co-ordinator Tomas Rejas urges his members to support the government policy of reducing overall production, switching to other crops. And at the Windsor tea factory we see how coca tea is made for the consumer market – but a market which Bolivia cannot exploit because the UN Vienna Convention limits its export. Bolivia not, however, a cocaine free country, as we see when we join the Bolivian anti-drug police as they discover – and destroy – a cocaine factory in the jungle.
As Bolivia abandoned the war against drugs, Mexico stepped it up. We arrive in Cuidad Juarez as the police discover the body of yet another victim of the internecine battle between the drugs gangs. A local journalist, Luis, explains how the level of violence has escalated in recent years, showing the rows of graves already dug to bury the victims. We hear of violence and intimidation from both former gang members and lawyers. As Sanho Tree, of the Institute for Policy Studies explains, the government intervention destabilised the illegal trade, sparking the escalating war in which, as opposition senator Carlos Navarette claims, has led to the corruption of the police and state. Attorney General Medina Mora is convinced that the government is doing the right thing to create peace and security but points out that there would be no problem is there was no demand.

In Ecuador another South American president is taking a different tack than in the past. Rafael Correa, whose father spent three years in an American prison for drugs trafficking, has pardoned and released over 2000 women drugs mules. People like Theresa, who points out that it is not enough just to be let out of prison – there need to projects to help people earn a legal living. Visiting the women in prison we learn how many became mules out of necessity – widowed, with children but without education, this was the only route out of poverty.

Finally we return to the streets of Mexico and Baltimore. In Mexico we see children as young as 10 who have been drawn into a cycle of street living, drug taking and begging. People like Dr Huber Brocca are running a shelter to help get them off drugs but his hope is that the war on drug is replaced by a war on poverty. And in Baltimore we meet prisoner Erik Thompson, a street dealer imprisoned for 25 years – more than some murderers, more than some paedophiles. As Neill Franklin concludes – incarceration is not solving the problem, it is destroying communities. Gil Kerlikowske – President Obama’s drugs “czar” says that in future there will be a more balanced strategy, combining treatment and prevention as well as enforcement. But as the concluding contributions from many of the film’s contributors say: this is a problem of the West – we are the consumers who create the demand."

Cocaine Unwrapped – Preview Screenings

1st November screening at Picturehouse at Fact Liverpool at 6pm.
Tickets available here

10th November screening at Stratford East Picturehouse in London at 8:30pm.
Tickets avaialable here

Cocaine Unwrapped – Public Premiere
29th November screening at Curzon Soho in London (tickets for this not on sale yet)

More information:

Cinepolitics discussion of the Film:

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Majority in US support cannabis legalisation for the first time

An interesting development this week in the US, as support for legalisation of cannabis/marijuana finally achieved a majority - with the latest Gallup national polling showing 50% in favour and 46% opposed. This landmark follows years of growing support for the move despite increasing efforts to undermine the reform campaign by various state and federal agencies - and little support from members of congress or the senate.

It is impossible to tease out precisely what has led to this progressive shift in public opinion. Presumably it has been a combination of factors including:
  • A growing realisation that the more hyperbolic reefer madness propaganda of the past was just that.
  • A demographic shift, as current and former users progressively become a larger part of the electorate, and also move into positions of influence. 
  • Growing disquiet over the human and financial costs of mass arrests for cannabis possession offences, particularly at a time of economic crisis.
  • The success of the California ballot initiative last year in planting in the public's mind the idea that legalisation is probably inevitable, and could mean controlling, regulating and taxing the industry - not a free-for-all
  • The success of decriminalisation models for cannabis possession in a number of US states, and other more far-reaching reforms in Europe (e.g. Dutch coffee shops and Spanish cannabis club models).   
  • The growing US medical cannabis industry demonstrating that a regulated market model can exist without creating significant problems.
  • Increasingly effective and sophisticated campaigning from the reform movement that has pushed the reform arguments into the mainstream public discourse
What is more, these results have even been achieved with a simple 'do you support legalisation: yes/no?' question. When the question is framed as 'legalisation and taxation', or 'legalisation with restricted sales to minors' - support rises even higher.  This points to the importance of being clear about the regulatory models being advocated - rather than just pointing to 'legalisation' - which is a process not an actual policy model, and is frequently misunderstood to mean abandoning all controls.

In any case, US politicians will no longer have the excuse of following (or pandering to) public opinion - rather than showing principled leadership. Support for legalisation could now be an electoral strength rather than a liability, depending on which constituency a politician is targeting - as the breakdown of support below reveals:

Interestingly, in the UK after years of a similar pattern of growing support, we have seen something of a retreat from approaching 50% support, to nearer a third - although it depends how you ask the question. This probably results from more potent indoor grown cannabis (or in the media - 'skunk') becoming increasingly prevalent in the market, and the perception (correct or not) of its increased risk influencing views on whether cannabis more broadly should be legally regulated or not (regulation obviously allows controls on strength potency to be put in place, whilst prohibtion has arguably fuelled the 'skunkification' of the UK market).  The more fevered Skunk related 'reefer madness' media coverage that accompanied the cannabis reclassification saga did not help.

None the less, where the US leads on drugs, the UK follows. If public opinion converts into actual reform - whether at state or federal level - it will be hugely significant for drug policy reform internationally, with a number of Latin American countries already indicating they would have to follow suit.

The hope is that if and when it does happen in the US, they do it properly. There is a concern amongst many European reformers that a US model might be overly commercialised; and that an inadequately regulated cannabis market could lead to some of the same problems with marketing and promotions that we have seen with the alcohol and tobacco industry in the last century, only now beginning to be addressed. In short, if the US move towards cannabis legalisation, that would be great, but if they do it badly, it could end up holding back reform elsewhere.

Finally, here's a great rant* about this recent development from Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC news.

*I'd take issue with the description of cannabis as 'harmless'

Friday, October 14, 2011

ACMD repeats call for decriminalisation of drug possession

In its submission to the drug strategy consultation last year, the ACMD effectively called for the decriminalisation of drug possession for personal use of all drugs. The term 'decriminalisation' is rather ill-defined, and often misunderstood as either legalisation, or removal/complete repeal of a law. Given this, the ACMD understandably avoided the term - opting instead for diversion, which perhaps more usefully describes what they were suggesting (even if they were also unambiguous about not being 'processed through the criminal justice system'). The wording they used was as follows:
"The ACMD believe that there is an opportunity to be more creative in dealing with those who have committed an offence by possession of drugs. For people found to be in possession of drugs (any) for personal use (and involved in no other criminal offences), they should not be processed through the criminal justice system but instead be diverted into drug education/awareness courses (as can happen now with speeding motor car offenders) or possibly other, more creative civil punishments (e.g. loss of driving licence or passport). If, however, there were other trigger offences (e.g. theft, burglary etc) then the usual test and treatment procedures would occur. Such approaches may be more effective in reducing repeat offending and reducing costs to the criminal justice system.

There should be “drugs awareness” courses to which those found in possession can be referred as a diversion – this would be the equivalent of the apparently successful “speed awareness” courses to which drivers can be referred as a diversion. These could also be available to those being conditionally cautioned where there is evidence of drug use. "
For some reason this didn't attract the attention of the media - somewhat oddly given recent history on arguably less contentious issues such as minor changes in penalties for cannabis possession. The inclusion here of the '(any)' making this a much more significant call in practical terms. Presumably no journalists actually read the whole document (consultations are famously tedious), and with organisations like Transform choosing to let the ACMD manage it as they saw fit, and no press releases emerging, it has remained largely under the radar. The only public sighting was in the recent LibDem drug policy reform motion - but even the considerable media this attracted didn't seem to draw attention to the ACMD call.

The ACMD has now repeated the call in its submission to the Sentencing Council consultation on drug offences. The specific issue of non-criminal sanctions for possession offences was (somewhat absurdly given developments around the world), outside of the remit of the consultation. The ACMD has chosen to include the call (using almost identical text to that included in the strategy consultation submission) in part of their response to the open ended final question: 'Are there any further comments that you wish to make?':
"The ACMD also believe that there is an opportunity to be more creative in dealing with those who have committed an offence by possession of drugs. For people found to be in possession of drugs (any) for personal use (and involved in no other criminal offences), they should not be processed through the criminal justice system but instead be diverted into drug education / awareness courses (as can happen now with speeding motor car offenders) with concomitant assessment for treatment needs (if the person consents), or possibly other, more creative civil punishments (e.g. loss of driving licence or passport). If, however, there were other trigger offences (e.g. theft, burglary etc) then the usual test and treatment procedures would occur. Such approaches may be more effective in reducing repeat offending and reducing costs to the criminal justice system. There should be “drugs awareness” courses to which those found in possession can be referred as a diversion – this would be the equivalent of the apparently successful “speed awareness” courses to which drivers can be referred as a diversion. These could also be available to those being conditionally cautioned where there is evidence of drug use."

Whether anyone notices this time  or if there is a fuss as a result, remains to be seen (it has been reported in the Times and NI stablemate Fox news and is popping up on twitter). It is, on the face of it, a very reasonable proposition, argued with reference to efficacy as you would hope from the Council, and making a useful parallel with the manner in which driving offences are dealt. The call has presumably been informed by growing evidence of such diversion schemes in various Latin American and European countries, most prominently Portugal.

A tweet from the Guardian's Alan Travis notes that the Home Office has stated in response that "We have no intention of liberalising our drug laws"- the standard line they use when any such reforms are mooted (failing to engage with the argument or evidence in any way). This may now prove to be inadequate, given that the call has come from the body of experts appointed by the Home Office under the auspices of the Misuse of Drugs Act, and operating within the Home Office. A ministerial response may be necessary - although neither ACMD statements were directed to a minister specifically.

However this now develops it is a welcome move from the sometimes timid ACMD, and inspiring to see they have not been cowed by the political heat that followed the David Nutt debacle.

Friday, October 07, 2011

UNDP Commission on HIV and the law looks at decriminalisation

The Global Commission on HIV and the Law, convened by the United Nations recently concluded the last of 7 regional dialogues, the high income countries' dialogue held in Oakland, California.

The objectives of the Commission are to:
  • Analyse existing evidence and generate new evidence on rights and law in the context of HIV, and develop rights-based and evidence-informed recommendations
  • Increase awareness amongst key constituencies on issues of rights and law in the context of HIV, and engage with civil society and strengthen their ability to campaign, advocate and lobby
Part of the focus of the commission's work has been to look at criminalisation of certain lifestyles and activities - including drug use, sex work, and men who have sex with men - and consider the potential impacts of such legal and policy environments in shaping the HIV epidemic and responses to it. It is notable that the idea of decriminalisation of personal drug use (as well as sex work and MSM) is not taboo and is widely supported within the historically pragmatic HIV policy arena. At UN level a number of agencies have made clear statements supporting decriminalisation in this context, including UNAIDS, and the General Secretary Ban Ki Moon;
“I urge all countries to remove punitive laws, policies and practices that hamper the AIDS response… Successful AIDS responses do not punish people; they protect them… We must ensure that AIDS responses are based on evidence, not ideology, and reach those most in need and most affected.”

Michel Sidibé, UNAIDS Executive Director, Joao Gulao, Gill Greer,
Tim Barnett and Festus Mogae (Former President of Botswana) agreeing 
on an anti-discrimination resolution at the Leaders on Discrimination 
session the 18th International AIDS Conference in Vienna, Austria on 
22 July 2010 (image thanks

Transform's senior policy analyst Steve Rolles was invited to join the expert advisory group for the High Income country dialogue, reviewing the background papers on the drugs issue and abstracts from civil society groups for the high income countries region in the run up to the Oakland dialogue.

Perhaps suprisingly, given the key role of policy and law in shaping risk taking behaviours amongst people who inject drugs (most obviously needle sharing), there were disappointingly few submissions from drug policy or harm reduction organisations. Steve was invited subsequently to attend the dialogue, joining - in the drug section of the dialogue - a drug policy activist from Portugal, representatives of  the Drug Policy Alliance, a harm reduction service provider from North Carolina, and a fomer special adviser from the White House ONDCP. The session video will be available online at some point (we will update this post and tweet when that happens).

Civil society groups were joined by Government representatives for the two day dialogue. Two US members of congress were present as were two of the 15 commissioners. 

 Congressman Jim McDermott (Right) among the participants 

Dialogue moderator, BBC World's Nisha Pillai

 Participant Deon Hayward from US based Women with a Vision

Congresswoman (and HIV and the Law Commissioner) Barnara Lee

Transform had the strong sense that the Commission report - expected early next year - will be based soundly on the voluminous evidence it has gathered from around the world on effective responses to HIV - making clear and unambiguous recommendations free from ideology and historic political taboos that have dogged many of these issues. It should be a strong advocacy tool for drug policy in the future - and a yardstick against which governments' drug policy responses in the context of people who inject drugs and HIV can be measured.

Whilst it will not be venturing into issues of regulated drug markets, it is likely to make a clear call for decriminlisation of drug users - and be very supportive of proven harm reduction interventions including needle and syringe programs, opiate substitution therapy (and hopefully heroin prescribing as an option), harm reduction provision in prisons and supervised injecting facilities. 

From the Commission website:
Global Commission on HIV and the Law
Many of the successes in mitigating the causes and consequences of HIV have taken root where laws have been used to protect the human rights of the marginalized and disempowered. For example, in some countries anti-discrimination laws have helped people living with HIV keep their jobs and their homes and look after their families. Laws to protect confidentiality have contributed to increasing confidence in heath systems, encouraging people to learn their HIV status and to access HIV prevention and treatment. Legal guarantees of property and inheritance rights for women and girls have helped to mitigate the social and economic burdens of AIDS. Still in many places across the globe, the legal environment is presenting significant challenges for sustaining and scaling up effective HIV responses. In many countries, laws and policies continue to prevent access to life-saving HIV treatment. Every day people living with HIV and people most at risk, including sex workers, drug users, prisoners, men who have sex with men, and transgender people, suffer stigma, discrimination and violence. Laws and practices that discriminate against women or fail to protect their rights, including the right to be free from violence, make women particularly vulnerable to HIV.
The Global Commission on HIV and the Law will interrogate the relationship between legal responses, human rights and HIV. The Commission shall also focus on some of the most challenging legal and human rights issues in the context of HIV, including criminalisation of HIV transmission, behaviours and practices such as drug use, sex work, same-sex sexual relations, and issues of prisoners, migrants, children's rights, violence against women and access to treatment. The Global Commission on HIV and the Law will develop actionable, evidence-informed and human rights-based recommendations for effective HIV responses that protect and promote the human rights of people living with and most vulnerable to HIV.