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View from the Ground – Harm reduction, drug policy and the law in the Maghreb: focus on Morocco and Algeria

View from the Ground – Harm reduction, drug policy and the law in the Maghreb: focus on Morocco and Algeria

Khalid Tinasti, Geneva
Global Drug Policy Observatory, Swansea University
October 2016

As WordPress doesn’t allow referencing, full PDF with references available here: khalid_blog-maghreb-drug-policy_final

Introduction:

The Maghreb countries, part of the Arab Maghreb Union, are Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia and form the largest part of North Africa. These countries are currently in the centre of the boiling issues of the world including terrorism, human trafficking and drug trafficking. These countries are large consumers and producers of plant-based and synthetic l psychotropic substances, Morocco being the largest cannabis producer in the world in 2014. But when it comes to discussing the issue of drug use, the legal response to it, and its impact on society, the debate focuses on ideological issues of morality and the rejection of illicit drugs, as data on the prevalence of drug use and the patterns of the use in these countries are missing.

The Maghreb is also part of the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa), which is one of the two regions in the world in which new HIV infections are increasing (with Eastern Europe and Central Asia) and largely driven by drug injection. In 2014, the region has seen HIV infections related to drug injection represent 28% of all new infections, and this represents a minimum since it is based only on often incomplete data submitted by governments. The region is also home to an estimated 630,000 people who inject drugs. This blog will analyze the current situation in two major countries of the region, Algeria and Morocco, which have chosen different approaches to drugs, and compare the outcomes of their policy choices. The blog will finally highlight the current drug policy reform discussions in both countries.

The current official drug prevalence:

Morocco is the country with the most widely available data in the region, with an estimated injecting population of 3000 to 4000 according to the Ministry of Health. Drug injection is concentrated in the North and East of the country, in the transit regions that export cannabis to Algeria and Spain, and import amphetamines (mainly from Algeria) and heroin (mainly from Spain). The country is also the first Arab country, and the second in Africa, to have introduced methadone substitution therapy in six centers in 2011. Furthermore, it is among the two only countries that have a national harm reduction policy in the Arab world, the other being Lebanon. The prevalence of HIV in the general population is of 0.14% (0.1%-0.2%), and mainly concentrated among key affected populations, with people who inject drugs (PWID) representing 10.17% of this total. The country has introduced methadone therapy in prisons as a pilot project , but the author has been informed that the experiment will be extended to five penitentiary centers throughout the country in the coming months.

In Algeria, the situation of PWID or people who use drugs without injection is undocumented. There is no official data on the prevalence of drug use in the country, but it is known that cannabis is the most widely used substance in the country and its use has doubled in the course of two years, between 2012 and 2014. PWID living with HIV represents 1.1% of those tested in 2014, for a prevalence rate among the general population of less than 0.1%. In 2014, a study by the National Office on Drugs and Addiction (Office national de lutte contre la drogue et la toxicomanie) showed that the number of people who use drugs (PWUD) is 250.000, while simultaneously independent research by the FOREM (Fondation nationale pour la promotion de la santé et le développement de la recherché), a non-governmental organization, estimated PWUD to be one million people in the country. A 2006 study on the number of PWID in developing countries reveals that Algeria is the second highest burden country in all North Africa following Egypt, with a number of PWID reaching 40,961.

The two neighboring countries, the largest demographically in the region, hegemons politically and dynamic economically, are at odds largely due to their conflict on the Western Sahara, Morocco claiming its territorial integrity includes the said territory, while Algeria hosts and supports, diplomatically and financially, the separatists. The conflicting relationship between the two countries is also represented in the cooperation against drug trafficking, where they accuse each other of knowingly enriching their respective black markets of illicit drugs. Publicly and through official press conferences, Algeria accuses Morocco of the impact of the large amounts of cannabis being smuggled by the Rif traffickers, while Morocco reminds Algeria that it is one of the largest producers of psychotropic substances that flood the Moroccan black market.

The narcotic laws and drug use:

The laws in Algeria and Morocco punishing drug use and possession are harsh, as they are in the rest of the African and MENA regions. The Algerian law (Law No. 04-18 of 25 December 2004) imposes incarceration between two months to two years in addition to a fine from five to fifty thousand Dinars (fifty to five hundred US dollars) or one of the two sentences for personal use or possession. For a similar offence, a Moroccan convict will face imprisonment of between two months and one year in addition to a fine (Dahir No. 1-73-282 of 21 May 1974), or one of the two sentences. Meanwhile, the Moroccan law remains the least harsh policy in the region. In 2014, 31% of the cases treated by tribunals in the country were related to illicit drugs.

The Algerian narcotics law differs highly from its Moroccan counterpart since it gives precedence to prevention over punishment, as it states preventive and treatment measures before penal judgments. It makes treatment the basis of the legal response to drug use, and sanctions are not enforced if and until the treatment is refused. In addition, returning to treatment when necessary is not prevented even in cases where the treatment decision was previously refused (Article 9 of the law). Sanctions on drug consumption have been reduced for the following reasons: First, punishment for possession or consumption would be imprisonment of between two months and two years. This is a lighter sentence than lockup or hard labor and indicates that drug consumption or possession for personal consumption is considered a misdemeanor rather than a felony; second, the law authorizes the judge to choose between imprisonment and a fine and does not force him to combine the two and third, the judge’s authority to determine the sanction provides some autonomy as to whether imprisonment or a fine is chosen, as there are large differences between the minimum and the maximum limits.

These parameters of the law, that are presented as a prioritization of public health over punishment in drug policy, are still problematic as they allow for the institutionalization of mandatory treatment. According to Article 7 of the law, the examining magistrate or juvenile judge may order detoxification, accompanied by medical surveillance and rehabilitation for “any drug user whose condition requires these measures”. The court’s judicial authority, in this case the specialized judicial authority, may also rule exemption from sanctions (Article 8). According to Article 9, incarceration and fines shall only be applied to anyone who refrains from executing the decision to undergo detoxification. The law as it is today gives judges the power to decide on medical conditions and how they should be treated. Despite every effort, it is still difficult to find data on how many people are diverted from tribunals to treatment centers in both countries.

The findings of on-the-ground research:

To face this complex situation, in countries that produce large quantities of illicit drugs, consume heavily and carry the burden of epidemics related to drug injection, non-governmental organizations on the ground have started researching the situation and gathering evidence. The Association de Lutte contre le Sida (ALCS) in Morocco has launched on-the-ground research as early as 1996 in the Northern provinces of the country to map the injection drug use, and respond to the HIV situation. At the time, drug injection has been found to be limited. A 2003 national survey on mental health and addiction, with a sample of 6000 people over 15 years old, has shown that cannabis is the most widely used substance with a prevalence rate of 3.94%, the age of first use was decreasing, and the prevalence of heroin was of 0.02%. In 2006, with the changing nature of drug use and the spread of HIV through drug injection as transmission mode, the Ministry of Health launched situational studies on drug injection, in order to establish the first harm reduction national plan. The first action was to launch needle and syringe programmes, followed by methadone treatment. The harm reduction programme includes several advances, such as the inclusion of civil society in the delivery of services, the dispensing of harm reduction training, and the delivery of services during the night hours. For instance, the ALCS delivers through its mobile unit a needle exchange programme in three cities in the Rif. Nevertheless, the programme faces tremendous challenges, be it within the harsh legal environment or through the obstacles for the scaling up the services delivery.

In Algeria, and as stated earlier, data and monitoring of current drug policies is missing. The Association de Protection Contre le Sida (APCS) has reached out to the Moroccan ALCS to conduct a rapid diagnostic mission to map the drug situation in the capital city Algiers. For this research, 43 PWUD were interviewed, of which 5 were women, 62% were students or unemployed at the time of the qualitative interview, and represented 6 communes of the capital city. The findings concluded that outside of the squats in the Blida neighborhood, drug injection remains a personal activity, that it concerns all ages and all socio-professional categories of society. Regarding PWID, 70% injected Subutex (buprenorphine) and 30% heroin, and poly-consumption was the most shared behavior of the study participants (100%). 33% of those interviewed were incarcerated at some point in their lives, and up to 5 times for some, and for over 25% the imprisonment resulted of a simple possession offence. The study finally has shown that PWID do not access the services they need, since pharmacists refuse to sell them clean syringes, increase substantially their price, or do not have a stock in remote areas. Finally, only the national hospital of Blida offers rehabilitation and abstinence based programmes which are limited in number and do not respond to the needs of PWID.

This first study highlights the situation in Algiers, and is being currently used to advocate for drug policy and harm reduction reform with the Algerian authorities and civil society. In a consultation entitled “the role of civil society in harm reduction” held in Algiers on September 26-27, 2016 attended by the author, the representative of the Office national de lutte contre la drogue et la toxicomanie, the drug control organ under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister, announced that the country will open the first methadone induction service in Algiers in the coming months. No details were given. Moreover, NGOs collaboration between the two countries is in vivid contrast with the non-cooperation of the states on the drugs issue.

Conclusion:

Algeria and Morocco share the same languages (Berber and Arabic), similar colonial historical patterns, and the longest border for both countries. They also share the drug production, use and trafficking since they both produce large amounts of plant-based (Morocco) or manufactured (Algeria) illicit drugs; they share the same trafficking routes from the Sahara or from the Middle East towards Europe; and cannabis is the most used substance in both countries. Nevertheless, the countries have taken different public policies to respond to drugs. Morocco, a traditional and large producer of cannabis, faced with a heroin crisis in the 2000s developed the first harm reduction strategy in North Africa. Algeria, where heroin injection has not been seen as a health crisis until recently, has focused its efforts on the rehabilitation of PWUD.

khalid_blog-maghreb-drug-policy_finalAfter years of designing drug policies, mainly focused on eliminating drugs and curbing the HIV infections among PWID, drug policy reform is becoming a mainstream discussion in Morocco. The political parties PAM and Al Istiqlal have introduced parliamentary bills to legalize the medical and industrial use of cannabiskhalid_blog-maghreb-drug-policy_final. In Algeria, the debate still focuses on the issues related to trafficking and illicit production, and the announcement of a methadone service has been recurrent since 2015 without details on the location or the conditions required to enroll PWID in need of this service.

 

View From the Ground: Bocas del Toro; Drugs in Paradise

By Alastair Smith, Panama

Following exploratory fieldwork in the rural coca growing fields of Colombia, GDPO followed the cocaine supply chain to Panama. Most recently, time spent on the Northern Caribbean coast soon revealed the permeation of drug trafficking into the already complex socioeconomic context that many perceive as paradise.

Paradise

Paradise of Bocas del Toro (MandingA 2013)

First impressions of Bocas del Toro – the name of both the 7,000+ person settlement on Isla Colon, just off the north eastern seaboard of Panama, but also the wider surrounding Province – largely confirm its international reputation as an accessible tropical ‘paradise’. With sympathetic afternoon light, the final leg of the 1-hour flight from Panama City reveals aqua marine water lapping at golden sands backed by lush green forests. Once established in the area, other widely talked about attractions of Bocas quickly emerge. There is a wealth of outdoor activities. Many international tourists, largely backpackers, and domestic visitors come to enjoy the Caribbean Sea: to scuba dive and snorkel, surf the notorious waves of Playa Bluff, or to take things a little easier with sunbathing and guided tours to spot the charismatic wildlife.

Party goers in one of Bocas' bars open late into the morning

Party goers in one of Bocas’ bars open late into the morning (Taken by Author 2015)

Another attraction of Bocas del Toro for many, and particularly backpackers, is undoubtedly the opportunity to mix Salsa and Reggaeton music, with low cost national beers and regional rum cocktails, as they enjoy the party life offer on Isla Colon (primarily in BocasTown) and the surround islands. Many of the bars and clubs in Bocas town are right on the water: making it very possible to ‘live the dream’ of enjoying beers in a hammock, dancing off the alcohol, and when things get a little too hot back-flipping off the dock into the cooling sea.

In this hedonistic environment, it is seemingly easy to forget the volumes of boat traffic and not think about the dubious quality of the sea water while enjoying a midnight swim. Another undercurrent in the town is the availability cocaine and cannabis. Sellers freely mix in the nightlife with various degrees of subtly in communicating their offerings. During the day, it is unusual to walk the length of town without being offered ‘weed’ – sometimes as a follow up to the initial list proposal of taking a boat tours to the beach – although there is little menacing about time spent in Bocas, and disinterest is well-accepted by opportunistic sellers.

Part of the reason for the level of supply is the demand of international tourists and more permanent life style migrants willing to pay higher prices than local consumers. However, Bocas del Toro is also well supplied with drugs as one of the recognized points of refuge for traffickers making the journey up the EasternCoast from Colombia to North America

Originally founded as a settlement of concentrated population by foreign banana producers, the region remained disconnected from administration in Panama City due to a lack of a reliable road connection: and therefore, the centralized government administration has lacked a presence in many respects. The archipelago is also composed of some highly remote islands that fall well beyond almost all government services and authority: and as in many cases across the world, the lack of state institutions supports the trafficking of drugs.

IMG_3880

View of coastal geography from the air (Author 2015)

Despite limited resources, local law enforcement officers in Bocas confirm that they have been involved in interdiction operations in partnership with central authorities and the US Coast Guard: furthermore, these operations have yielded high powerboats used by the traffickers that are then repurposed for local counter narcotics operations. Discussions with the local police support existing knowledge that traffickers use the inland water ways of the Panamanian coast to evade the authorities during the day, and then make their staged journeys under the cover of night (UNODC 2012). In some cases it is believed that small shipments of drugs are consolidated in Panama before being moved on (UNODC 2012). Local testimony also identified that during chases, traffickers will jettison quantities of drugs in attempts to bribe the police.

It is through a combination of these mechanisms that trafficked drugs enter the Bocas economy. The availability of drugs then provides relatively easy returns for those willing to become involved. This option is especially attractive so some due to the poor quality of education, high levels of poverty and general limitations on livelihood opportunities in the Bocas region. Despite Panama’s average national economic growth of 7.2% between 2001 and 2013, of the mainly indigenous population of the Bocas del Toro province, 25% are classified as poor and 11% as extremely poor (Omar and Moreno 2014). Many of these people live on subsistence agriculture and fishing on outer islands. There is therefore a potentially strong pull incentive to become involved in the distribution of drugs. In this case, as was found in Colombia, rural development will likely be as important an anti-trafficing policy as strengthening governance capacity for interdiction operations.

In conclusion, while the vast majority of visitors to Bocas del Toro find their expectations of fulfilled, the reality is that the international trafficking of drugs is playing into a complex socioeconomic situation, which many of the ‘poor’ permanent residents might well not accept as ‘paradise’. Again, genuine investment in enhancing the life opportunities of those currently motivated to support drugs distribution will likely contribute to a reduction in the global trade in narcotic drugs.

Sources

Omar, A. and V. Moreno ( 2014). Pobreza e Indigencia. Panama, Ministerio de Economia y Finanzas.

UNODC (2012). Cocaine from South America to the United States. Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean A Threat Assessment. Vienna, United Nation Office on Drugs and Crime.

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Has the US just called for unilateral interpretation of multilateral obligations?

by Rick Lines And Damon Barrett

[Dr Rick Lines and Damon Barrett are the Chair and Director of the International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy, University of Essex]

This post was originally published here

These are interesting times for drug law reform, which, as it gathers pace, is asking important questions of international law. A UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs is set for 2016just as national reforms are challenging international treaties that form the bedrock of a global prohibition regime that has dominated since the turn of the twentieth century. States parties to the three UN drug control conventions must now confront the legal and political dilemmas this creates. This is the situation in which the US now finds itself following cannabis reforms in various states that are at odds with these treaties. The State Department has issued its official position in this regard, one that stretches and boundaries of interpretation and raises other serious questions for international law.

In an October statement Ambassador William Brownfield set out that position in the form of the ‘four pillar’ approach the United States will now follow in matters of international drug control. While the four pillars, set out below, have prompted much discussion and debate among those working on drug policy issues, attention among international lawyers has been rare. This is something of an important gap given the implications of what the US suggests:

  1. Respect the integrity of the existing UN drug control conventions.
  2. Accept flexible interpretation of those conventions.
  3. Tolerate different national drug policies…[and] accept the fact that some countries will have very strict drug approaches; other countries will legalise entire categories of drugs.
  4. Combat and resist criminal organisations, rather than punishing individual drug users

Internationally, the four pillars have emerged in the context of efforts, led primarily by Latin American States, to open discussions on the future of the international drug control regime, and look at alternatives to the current and destructive prohibitionist paradigm.  Domestically, it comes in the context of successful referenda to legally regulate cannabis in several US states.

Both of these are welcome developments. The international drug regime is long overdue for reform, and the cannabis referenda will produce many positive criminal justice, health and social outcomes in those US states adopting them. However, domestic cannabis law reform places the United States in a compromised position within the coming debates on the future shape of the international drug control regime.

By permitting legal markets in recreational cannabis, the United States is in breach of both the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the 1988 Convention on Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. This is an awkward position for the US, which for over 100 years has been both the driving force behind the international drug control regime, as well the regime’s de facto policeman. Admitting the breach threatens both a system the US wishes to protect, as well as its own influential role within it. Rectifying the breach domestically requires trampling on State-level democratic ballot initiatives. To its credit the Obama Administration has said via a memorandum from Deputy Attorney General James Cole it will respect and not interfere with the outcomes of those referenda.

The four pillars are a response to this legal and diplomatic conundrum. To justify its contention of treaty ‘flexibility’ – allowing, for example, its legal cannabis market – the US engages in some interesting, if problematic, legal gymnastics. As explained in an earlier speech of Brownfield’s in March:

[I]f it is a living document and they are living documents [the UN drug control conventions], living means you are allowed to adjust your interpretation as the world changes around you, the world in 1961 was a different place from the world in 2014 and we the governments and members states of the UN system should be permitted to interpret with that degree of flexibility as we move in to the 21st century.

Using the language of treaties as living documents – more commonly known as dynamic or evolutive interpretation – Brownfield attempts to paint cannabis legalisation in the US as something other than the breach it obviously is, in the process raising a number of international legal concerns.

Dynamic interpretation is well established in international human rights law, particularly the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights. But, as described by the International Law Commission in 2006, it is an approach ‘much more deeply embedded in human rights law than in general international law’, suggesting that its application in the context of international drug control law must be considered cautiously. This is not to suggest that dynamic interpretation is not evident in other regimes, and it indeed has been used by the International Court of Justice, the European Court of Justice and the Appellate Body of the World Trade Organization in various cases.

The drug treaties are suppression conventions. They form part of the body of transnational criminal law, not international human rights law. However, we accept that, for a variety of reasons it is legitimate to apply a dynamic interpretive approach to elements of international drug control law, particularly where drug control engages human rights. However, there are clear problems with the US’s use of this approach.

The first is the limits of interpretation itself. The classic approach to dynamic interpretation, as established by the European Court in Tyrer v UK, is a process of broadening or expanding the understanding of an obligation based upon changes in law, evolving social norms or widespread change in State practice. In other words, understanding treaty language in a modern context. There are various examples of this in practice from differing legal regimes.

However, Brownfield suggests that the ‘living’ nature of the drug treaties means that an obligation can legitimately evolve to the point of meaning the exact opposite of what it states, and that somehow the non-medical, non-scientific use of cannabis has evolved from being illegal in international law to being legal. This is an absurdity. The treaties already include a mechanism for the status of individual drugs to change or evolve, and for individual substances can be included in, or removed from, international control with approval of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, a process known as ‘rescheduling’. The Brownfield approach circumvents this, for the obvious reason that such a resolution would never make it through the Commission, and instead posits the ‘living instrument’ idea as the alternative.

However, for this outcome to be legally valid without cannabis being rescheduled, dynamic interpretation would need to alter the understanding of what the term ‘medical and scientific use’ means within the conventions, the only circumstance within the current international regime under which cannabis, and all controlled substances, may be legally manufactured, accessed and used. But Brownfield does not suggest this, for if he did then this evolved understanding of medical and scientific use could reasonably be applied to all drugs under international control, making legal recreational access to all controlled drugs part of the new ‘living’ drug regime. This is clearly a bridge too far for the US.

The second problem is one of interpretive forum. Dynamic interpretation is a judicial approach, utilised by judges or adjudication bodies to balance competing or conflicting interests in arriving at a decision. It is an approach employed by a neutral arbiter to dispute resolution, not a doctrine for States to use to unilaterally change the nature and scope of their own treaty obligations. Indeed, if we are to pursue an evolutive approach, then we also need to look at broader State practice. You can easily count on the fingers one hand the number of countries with a legalised recreational cannabis market, so this approach has clearly not evolved to an extent where legal regulation of the substances within the treaties would be permissible. Even then it is stretching any reasonable interpretation to reverse what the law in fact says. But in any case Brownfield does not suggest that we look to evolving State practice. The four pillars suggest, quite clearly, the acceptance of divergent unilateral interpretations. Whatever one thinks of the drugs treaties, such an approach creates an international minefield. Imagine an international legal order in which individual States are allowed to decide for themselves which treaty obligations apply to them, and in what way.

Here, however, we come to the third major problem, which is that the flexibility the US seeks for itself may not extend to others at all. We have both argued separately that this new US position has little to do with treaty compliance, and is really about maintaining its own central role as global arbiter of drug control, a position which it uses to great influence internationally. Surprisingly, US drug czar Michael Botticelli recently admitted as much in his Senate confirmation hearings, stating that ‘[t]he Four Pillar framework is an effort to stake out a middle ground between those who believe that prosecution and jail is the only approach and those favoring radical changes to the conventions’. In effect, the US denial of its own treaty breach allows it to sit in judgement over the drug reform actions of other States, comfortable in its self appointed role of neutral ‘middle man’ or ‘referee’ of acceptable treaty flexibility, and therefore protecting its own national interests against any ‘radical changes to the conventions’, apart from its own.

To be clear, our concern is not about compliance with bad laws, which these treaties surely are. Our concern is with the potential implications of the State Department’s argumentation. The failed, punitive prohibitionist approach of the international drug control regime must end. It is a regime that causes untold human and societal damage across the globe, and change to this regime is slow yet becoming more inevitable. However, it would be unfortunate to see established rules of international law become collateral damage in the fallout of the end of the war on drugs.

Fatal attraction: Brownfield’s flexibility doctrine and global drug policy reform

This post was first published here at the Huffington Post

A joint contribution by:

Professor Dave Bewley-Taylor
Director, Global Drug Policy Observatory, Swansea University

Martin Jelsma
Coordinator, Transnational Institute Drugs and Democracy Programme

Damon Barrett
Director, International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy

___________________________________

State-level cannabis reforms, which gathered steam this month, have exposed the inability of the United States to abide by the terms of the legal bedrock of the global drug control system; the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. This is something that should force a much-needed conversation about reform to long-standing international agreements. But while ostensibly ‘welcoming’ the international drug policy reform debate, it is a conversation the US federal government actually wishes to avoid. The result is a new official position on the UN drugs treaties that, despite its seductively progressive tone, serves only to sustain the status quo and may cause damage beyond drug policy.

The 1961 Single Convention has been massively influential. Almost every state in the world is bound to prohibit cultivation, trade and possession of cannabis and a range of other substances such as coca and opium for anything but medical and scientific purposes. Wherever you are, your drugs laws are probably modeled on this agreement.

The United States has been a staunch defender of this legal regime. The treaties are central to its foreign policy on drugs, including in Latin America. But at home the government has been clear that it will not trample on the will of voters with regard to cannabis, even though this places it in breach of the 1961 Convention. So the US faces a predicament; a treaty breach it does not wish to admit within a system it wishes to protect.

The response is the new ‘four pillars’ approach, set out by Ambassador William Brownfield (Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement):

Respect the integrity of the existing UN Drug Control Conventions…

Accept flexible interpretation of those conventions…

Tolerate different national drug policies…accept the fact that some countries will have very strict drug approaches; other countries will legalize entire categories of drugs…

Combat and resist criminal organizations

Brownfield’s statement received some positive responses, welcoming it as a breakthrough in drug policy reform. However, its attractiveness is superficial and there are important reasons to be cautious.

For US foreign policy on drugs the four pillars make sense in the short term. Through these pillars, the US can appear to embrace reform discussions while changing nothing of substance. US approaches to Latin America that have dominated US attentions can carry on as before. The US gets to continue to have presence in places it has no business being other than to fight the drug trade – the fourth pillar of this ‘new’ approach.

In addition, in defending the ‘integrity of the treaties’, the US can go on using those treaties as a disciplinary tool against producer and transit nations in the region. Under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, when a country does not fulfill the requirements of the international drugs conventions, the President determines that the country has ‘failed demonstrably’ to meet its obligations, which can lead to sanctions.

Bolivia received such a determination again only a few weeks ago. While explaining the rationale for a more ‘flexible interpretation’ Brownfield said, ‘Things have changed since 1961‘. However, the Presidential Determination on Bolivia stressed that the ‘frameworks established by the U.N. conventions are as applicable to the contemporary world as when they were negotiated and signed by the vast majority of U.N. member states‘.

The determination further expressed the US government’s concern that Bolivia tries ‘to limit, redefine, and circumvent the scope and control‘ for coca under the 1961 Convention, even though that is precisely what the US is doing in the case of cannabis.

The US also objected to Bolivia’s efforts to have traditional uses of coca removed from international control because it challenged the ‘integrity of the treaties’ – the very first pillar above. So which countries’ reforms or interpretations will be deemed tolerable, and which will threaten the integrity of the treaties? Crucially, who decides?

It is clear that a legally regulated market in cannabis is not permissible under the 1961 Single Convention. To deal with this the US, in the second pillar above, has signalled its acceptance of unilateral interpretation of multilateral agreements beyond what those agreements allow for. That is a very serious call beyond cannabis and beyond drug policies. The attempt under the Bush administration to argue that waterboardingwas not a breach of the UN Convention Against Torture and that detainees in the war on terror were not covered by the Geneva Conventions should caution against allowing this kind of unilateral approach.

In reality, beyond the progressive sounding words, the path the Brownfield doctrine set out leads to further US exceptionalism and the ongoing use of the treaties as it sees fit.

But that exceptionalism cuts both ways, and the US has also vital interests, including national security, in holding states to international and bilateral treaty obligations. A recent example demonstrates the risks of failing to take this into account. In July, the US issued a determination that Russia was in violation of obligations of the Inter-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), a bilateral agreement banning the testing of ballistic missiles of a certain range. But if a ‘flexible’, a-la-carte approach is to be permissible under the drug control regime when it suits the US, why should that not apply here?

Why not other important international agreements that matter to so many such asenvironmental protocols setting specific targets, or human rights law and its vital protections? Following the second pillar to the extent the US suggests is a very slippery slope.

The shift to regulated cannabis markets in the US should open the space for a much-needed discussion of treaty reform. The problem at hand is not the treaty breach by the US; the problem is the drug control treaty system itself. Preparations have started for a UN summit on drugs in 2016, the first in almost twenty years, and where a conversation about treaty reform should begin. The Brownfield doctrine is part of US efforts to keep it off the agenda.

For governments, in an effort to avoid political controversy, the four pillars may seem attractive. For those who support drug policy reform they may seem progressive. But this is no win for drug policy reform or progress towards policies grounded in evidence and human rights. To allow the US, for its own ends, to lead us into a politically calculated theatre of adherence simply serves to sustain a regime that is no longer fit for purpose. It is also harmful for the integrity of international law more broadly, from human rights, to security to the environment. The price of allowing the US to avoid its breach of the 1961 Convention, in other words, is too high. And the war on drugs has already cost too much.

 

Country Snapshot: Drugs in Zimbabwe

Africa is witnessing an upsurge in illicit drug trafficking as well as an increase in illicit drug use and the problems associated therewith. Whilst data in the region is sketchy, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) World Drug Report of 2013 estimates that there are 28 million drug users in Africa.  They note that cannabis is the most commonly used drug on the continent with a prevalence rate of 7.5% which is nearly twice the global average.  According to the UNODC, whilst the use of amphetamine type stimulants (ATS), cocaine and opiates are comparable with the global averages (0.9%, 0.4%, 0.3% respectively) there are concerns that opioid use is increasing significantly.  The UNODC estimates that almost 37,000 people in Africa die annually from diseases associated with the consumption of drugs.  However they recognise that data for Africa is weak because data collection on drug consumption in Africa is incomplete.  Gilberto Gerra the chief of drug prevention and health branch at the UNODC says Africa’s rising illegal drug consumption can be attributed to political instability as well as porous borders.

Zimbabwe is also witnessing an increase in problematic drug use among its domestic population along with the related public health issues that accompany certain types drug use.  The substances that are most commonly used in Zimbabwe include alcohol, cannabis, heroin, glue and cough mixtures such as histalix and bron clear.  Cannabis (mbanje) remains the most popular illicit drug mainly because it is grown locally or smuggled in from neighbouring countries like Malawi and Mozambique. In some societies along the Zambezi, mbanje is grown and consumed in large quantities as a way of life and therefore the drug finds their way into other parts of the country.

Drugs also come through Zimbabwe on their way to other countries in the region such as South Africa.  Local Zimbabweans are often used to transport these drugs and rather than being paid in cash, they  are usually paid in drugs which then enter the local market. “When you become a transit country, you are immediately also a consumption country,” Gilberto Gerro of the UNODC concluded

Young people in Zimbabwe have been identified as the most vulnerable section of the population, especially those from poor or unstable backgrounds who may be tempted to see drugs as an escape from life’s troubles.  According to Rudatsikiri et al’s 2009 study of cannabis and glue use amongst school pupils (largely aged between 13 and 15) in Harare, it was found that overall 9.1% of pupils had used the drugs (13.4% of males and 4.9% of females).  Poly-drug user is also a problem amongst vulnerable groups, for example the use of cannabis and glue is commonly associated with cigarette smoking and alcohol use.  Use of these substances is also associated with sexual activity as well as a lack of parental supervision.  In order to make drug intervention programmes more relevant to the local situation, they should be designed to target risk factors within these domains. However, reducing discrimination and violence, and trying to facilitate positive parent-child relationships through social policy may also be worthy targets of intervention which could result in a decrease in adolescent drug misuse.  The study also concluded that illicit drug use among adolescents is associated with poor academic performance, violence and unsafe sexual behaviour as well as increased risks of STIs including HIV/AIDS.  Unsafe sexual practices are a real problem in Zimbabwe where, according to UNAIDS, almost 15% of the population is HIV positive and access to anti-retrovirals (ARVs) is limited by price inflation and corruption.

According to research carried out by the Health Professionals Empowerment Trust in Zimbabwe 50% of admissions to mental institutions have been attributed to substance misuse. The research went on to single out youths as the most affected group of individuals in the country.  In Zimbabwe over 80% of people admitted to mental institutions due to substance misuse disorders are aged between 16 and 40, and most of these are male.

Zimbabwean drug laws do not adequately address issues surrounding drug use/misuse – particularly prevention and treatment. The Dangerous Drugs Act (Chapter 15) in conjunction with the Criminal and Codification Act has not kept up-to-date with current thinking on how to tackle drug-related issues. Furthermore, decent data is lacking. The statistics available often come from small research projects and newspaper articles that do not present a full picture of the nature and extent of the issues at stake.

The possession, use and trade in drugs is harshly punished in Zimbabwe. Possession of illegal drugs like cannabis and heroin  as well as the recreational use of prescription drugs such as histalix and pethidine can attract a long jail sentences.  Drug trafficking is also treated harshly.  For instance, in a recent case, a South African woman who was arrested at Harare airport trying to smuggle 2 kg of cocaine from Colombia to Zimbabwe was sentenced to 15 years in jail.  Zimbabwe also has a high level of pre-trial detainees – up to 30% of prisoners – meaning that even before being convicted of a crime they are forced to endure harsh conditions in jail.

Jails in Zimbabwe have a shocking reputation: according to the Zimbabwe Association of Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of the Offender (ZACRO), an average of 20 prisoners were dying daily in 2009 due to malnutrition and a 2011 report by Zimbabwe’s parliamentary committee on human rights noted that the lack of toiletries, ablution facilities and the unavailability of water for a long time at some prisons were disturbing and that prisoners’ diets needed improvement.  Furthermore, a 2012 report on human rights by the US Embassy in Harare, also noted that prisoners were being denied access to ARVs and not being tested for HIV/AIDS.  However it’s not just those that are sent to jail that suffer.  According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) there is no provision for opioid maintenance treatments such as buprenorphine or methadone and  there are no needle exchanges in the country.

In 2011 a new organisation – The Zimbabwe Civil Liberties and Drug Network (ZCLDN) – was set up to advocate for effective strategies for addressing problems associated with drug misuse in the country. It is working to advocate for evidence-based drug policies that are embedded in public health, human rights and scientific research.  In order to do this, the day-to-day activities of the ZCLDN include:

  • To research, document and disseminate information on drugs and related issues in Zimbabwe.
  • To engage and contribute to the identification of issues in Zimbabwe relating to dangerous drugs and unlawful drugs.
  • To engage and contribute to programmes to inform and educate persons on drug issues in Zimbabwe.
  • To address issues of governance that negatively impact on the adoption and implementation of science-based drug policies.
  • To train and advise on appropriate systems that seek to improve the management of drug-related issues.
  • To work with other people and organisations in joint consultations and action in matters of common interest.
  • To participate in regional and sub-regional initiatives for the furtherance of the appropriate responses to drug issues and adoption of good democratic governance systems and structures.
  • To ensure that humanitarian and human rights laws that protect the rights of those adversely affected by drugs are enforced.
  • To lobby for inclusion of appropriate drug policies in the decision making structures’ in public affairs.

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This blog was co-written by Wilson Box, Program Executive Director & Board Secretary of ZCLDN.

Time for UN to open up dialogue on drug policy reform and end counter-productive blame-game

tni-gdpoAs the UN International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) launched its annual report on Tuesday, 4 March, amidst an unprecedented crisis in the international drug control regime, leading drug policy reform experts have called on the INCB and related UN institutions to urgently open up a constructive dialogue on international drug policy reform.

Approval of legally regulated cannabis markets in the states of Colorado and Washington and in Uruguay have caused breaches in the UN drug control regime and shakes the foundations of the prohibitionist “Vienna consensus” that has dominated international drug policy for several decades.

Yet rather than seek to learn from or understand the growing political support for alternative drug policies, the UN drug apparatus – and particularly the INCB – has responded mainly with shortsighted hostility and narrow-minded rejectionism. It has refused to countenance any reforms, treating the set of conventions like a perfect immutable constitution rather than a negotiated settlement that needs reforming and modernising as science advances or political and social conditions change. This came to a head recently, when Raymond Yans, President of the INCB denounced Uruguay’s “pirate attitude” for its cannabis regulation laws, causing a diplomatic uproar and raising questions about his position.

A forthcoming report by the Transnational Institute and the Global Drug Policy Observatory to be released in the advance of high-level UN drug policy meetings in Vienna in mid March 2014, tells the hidden story of how the inclusion of cannabis in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs as a psychoactive drug with “particularly dangerous properties” was the result of dubious political compromises, questionable decision-making procedures and with little scientific backing.

Growing numbers of countries such as the Netherlands and Spain, but also states in the U.S. and India have shown discomfort with the UN drug control treaty regime through soft defections, stretching the inbuilt legal flexibility to sometimes questionable limits. The regulated cannabis markets in Uruguay, Washington and Colorado however are clear breaches with the treaty, and mean that a discussion on the need for fundamental reform of the UN drug control system can no longer be avoided.

Martin Jelsma of the Transnational Institute said,

“We are at a tipping point now as increasing numbers of nations realise that cannabis prohibition has failed to reduce its use, filled prisons with young people, increased violence and fuelled the rise of organised crime. As nations like Uruguay pioneer new approaches, we need the UN to open up an honest dialogue on the strengths and weaknesses of the treaty system rather than close their eyes and indulge in blame games. The moral high-ground that Yans claims in name of the Board to condemn such “misguided” policies, are completely out of place and unacceptable.” 

Dave Bewley-Taylor of the Global Drug Policy Observatory said,

“For many years, countries have stretched the UN drug control conventions to their legal limits, particularly around the use of cannabis.  Now that the cracks have reached the point of treaty breach, we need a serious discussion about how to reform international drug conventions to better protect people’s health, safety and human rights.  Reform won’t be easy, but the question facing the international community today is no longer whether there is a need to reassess and modernise the UN drug control system, but rather when and how.” 

 

In July 2013 the Research and Documentation Centre (WODC) of the Netherlands Ministry of Security and Justice asked RAND Europe to provide a multinational overview of cannabis production regimes.  The result of this research was a report that summarises differing cannabis production regimes across the world.  It also analyses official statements and/or legal decisions made about production regimes for non-medical and non-scientific purposes (i.e. recreational use for adults). 

Because GDPO has been following developments in cannabis policy across the world, particularly in the US, we decided it would be worthwhile to summarise some of the key points made in this important piece of research.  The report focuses on four key case studies: Spain, Belgium, the USA and Uruguay.

Spain – “Following several Supreme Court rulings, the possession and consumption of cannabis is no longer considered a criminal offence, and the jurisprudence in the field has tended to interpret the existing legislation in a way that permits ‘shared consumption’ and cultivation for personal use when grown in a private place.”

These legal developments have allowed hundreds of Cannabis Social Clubs (CSC) to be established although they still operate in a legal grey area.  The report identifies a number of conditions that need to be met in order for the Spanish CSC to be considered to “act in accordance with recurring criteria defined in case law.”

  • The CSC must aim to reduce the harms associated with the consumption of cannabis, decreasing for instance the risk of adulteration of the substance.
  • The premises must be closed to the public, and entrance must be only allowed to members (who should be regular consumers of cannabis).
  • The members must only obtain and consume the average quantity of cannabis. The CSC must not allow traffic of cannabis among its members.
  • The cannabis obtained from the CSC by its members is for immediate use on the CSC premises, to prevent others from having access to the substance.
  • There should be no payment/fee for access to the substance, or a limited one.” (pg. 10)

Belgium – “The Belgian CSC ‘Trekt Uw Plant’ (‘Pull Your Plant’) is a non-profit organization initiated in 2006, following the 2005 joint guideline (as issued by the Minister of Justice and the College of Public Prosecutors) which assigned the lowest possible priority to prosecution for possession of up to three grams of cannabis or one cultivated cannabis plant.”  

Trekt Uw Plant allows its members to produce cannabis collectively in closed private spaces in a number of cities (Antwerp, Luik, Brussels and Hasselt) with a ‘one plant per person’ policy.  Since establishing Trekt Uw Plant a number of members have been charged with a variety of offences from possession of cannabis to encouraging drug use, however none of charges have stuck.  The report sets out how Trekt Uw Plant operates:

“Each member pays a contribution for the costs incurred for raising the plants and every two or three months a so-called ‘exchange fair’ takes place in a private space, where members receive the harvest of their own cannabis plant (Trekt Uw Plant, 2013). In August 2013 Trekt Uw Plant consisted of 304 members, with departments in several cities and a medicinal division (Trekt Uw Plant, 2013). Eligibility for membership in Trekt Uw Plant is restricted to adults who live in Belgium, are cannabis users, are informed about the Belgian Drug Law regarding cannabis, support the organisation’s aims, and endorse its statutes and decisions (Trekt Uw Plant, 2006; Plant, n.d.), and membership is open to both non-medical and medical cannabis users (Verbond voor Opheffing van het Cannabisverbod, 2010). The organisation is based on a not-for-profit principle and is financially supported through donations, loans, membership contributions, legacies and other awards (Trekt Uw Plant, 2006).”(pg. 18)  

United States – The RAND report analyses the developments in Washington and Colorado where legal regulation of cannabis was instituted by voter initiatives in November 2012.  The report notes that, “Both states now allow adults aged 21 and older to possess up to one ounce (28.35 grams) of cannabis and larger weights of cannabis-infused beverages and edibles, and Colorado allows home growing (up to 6 plants), but the significant change is the licensing of large-scale commercial cannabis businesses. The initiatives tasked state agencies with developing regimes to license and regulate for-profit cannabis firms.”

In Colorado, the commercial market is regulated by the Marijuana Enforcement Division, operating under the Department of Revenue, and based on the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division, which already regulates the medical cannabis market. Colorado’s regulatory system of production and supply came in to force on 1st January 2014 and it’s estimated that recreational cannabis sales exceeded $5million in the first week alone.  An NBC News survey published on 3rd February indicates that taxes raised from cannabis sales have netted the state $1.24 million in tax revenue in the first month.  It is possible that the sales will not continue at these levels once the novelty has worn off, however Mason Tvert, director of communications for Marijuana Policy Project argues that the so-called “Colorado experiment” will continue to show impressive sales, “obviously this is just the first month of sales and only a fraction of the businesses that are expected to be open are currently operating.”

In Washington where the Liquor Control Board (LCB) is in charge of regulating the industry, no date has formally been stated for the opening of stores but its thought they might be ready for sales by June of 2014. The LCB started accepting applications for licenses on November 18th 2013.

Whilst cannabis is still illegal under federal law, in August 2013 the US Department of Justice issued a memo that set out eight enforcement priorities in the light of the votes in Washington and Colorado:

  • Preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors;
  • Preventing revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels;
  • Preventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states;
  • Preventing state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for
  • the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity;
  • Preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana
  • Preventing drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences
  • associated with marijuana use;
  • Preventing the growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and
  • environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands; and
  • Preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property.

Uruguay – On 31st July 2013 Uruguay’s House of Representatives voted in favour of a bill to regulate the production, sale and use of cannabis.  Details of the bill can be found here (in Spanish).  This bill was then passed to the Senate who approved the bill by 16 to 13 votes on 10th December.  President Mujica signed the bill into law at the end of December with the first sales likely to be in April 2014.

The bill will, “create a new public agency, the Instituto de Regulacion y Control del Cannabis [IRCCA], to issue permits for production by for-profit companies, and maintain registries for users and those who want to (1) grow at home (up to six plants), (2) participate in collectives (between 15 and 45 members who maintain up to 99 plants at any given point) and (3) purchase at pharmacies (up to 40 grams per month produced by licensed companies).”

The RAND report identifies four crucial distinctions between these case studies:

The first is whether the activity pertains only to distribution within cannabis clubs, as in Belgium and Spain, or whether larger scale and overtly for-profit activity is or would be permitted, as in Colorado, Washington and Uruguay. The second distinction pertains to whether government action is undertaken by the national government or by a subnational jurisdiction that has some degree of sovereignty under that country’s constitution.  Uruguay’s situation is the only one that involves a national government passing a law with respect to activity that is clearly meant to be suppressed by the international treaties. The third issue is the role government employees do or do not play in production and distribution. In Belgium and Spain, there is no role. In Colorado and Washington the role is indirect, in the form of licensing and regulating but not participating in the trade. A final distinction pertains to how overt the officially banned but nonetheless tolerated activity can be. In Belgium, if the cannabis clubs are visible in the manner of Trekt Uw Plant, law enforcement may act, albeit perhaps half-heartedly. By contrast, cannabis production and distribution in Uruguay and the United States will involve fully open activities; cannabis business will be registered with, and will pay taxes to, the government.” (pg. xi-x)

As well as reviewing these four case studies, the report also refers to a number of the other countries (or jurisdictions) that have either allowed production of cannabis for medical and scientific purposes (Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, France, Israel, Germany, the United Kingdom and Switzerland) or have had discussions about changing the laws on cannabis production for recreational use (e.g. Chile, Denmark, Portugal and Switzerland and Copenhagen City Council).

This report is a fantastic resource for those anyone interested in the ways that cannabis policy is developing across the globe.

Citation for the report is as follows: Kilmer, Beau, Kristy Kruithof, Mafalda Pardal, Jonathan P. Caulkins and Jennifer Rubin. Multinational overview of cannabis production regimes. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013. http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR510

Uruguay Votes to Become the First Nation to Legally Regulate Cannabis

 The traditional [interdiction] approach hasn’t worked. Someone has to be the first [to try this].  President José Mujica of Uruguay, June 2013

On Tuesday 10th December Uruguay made history by voting to establish a legally regulated system for production and supply of cannabis for recreational purposes.  In November 2012, two US States – Washington and Colorado – voted to legally regulate marijuana for recreational purposes, but the vote in Uruguay makes it  the first country to establish such a system anywhere in the world.

After much debate, on 31st July 2013 Uruguay’s House of Representatives voted in favour of a bill to regulate the production, sale and use of cannabis.  Details of the bill can be found here (in Spanish).  This bill was then passed to the Senate who approved the bill on 10th December.  The bill passed by 16 to 13 votes.  President Mujica is likely to sign the bill into law before the end of 2013 with the first sales likely to be in April 2014.

The new law was proposed in many ways as a response to the increased use within the country of a highly addictive cocaine derivative called ‘paco’ and the fact that the markets for this drug and marijuana are closely connected. Key aims of cannabis regulation are  to separate the markets so that marijuana users are  not exposed to ‘paco’ by dealers and to allow law enforcement officials to concentrate on what is deemed to be a more problematic substance.  It is also intended that the legislation will  reduce the size and impact of the black market in marijuana as well as tackle drug trafficking organisations, particularly those importing the drug from neighbouring Paraguay.

The law will:

  • Create a state-run monopoly of production, distribution and consumption of marijuana
  • Establish a government-run Institute of Regulation and Control of Cannabis  (IRCCA) that will set the price – initially likely to be  $1 a gram in order to undercut the black market – and monitor the impact of the programme.
  • Mean that cannabis will be sold only at licensed pharmacies
  • Allow registered consumers  (Uruguayan nationals only) over the age of 18 to buy up to 40 grams (1.4 oz) of cannabis per month from licensed pharmacies and grow up to 6 plants for personal consumption
  • Allow cannabis clubs to be established for up to 45 members who will be able to cultivate as many as 99 plants.

In seeking to ensure successful passage of the bill, its supporters within the Uruguayan government and civil society groups, have been in communication with their counterparts in Washington and Colorado in order to learn from their experiences.  One of these civil society groups – Regulacion Responsable – created a video in an effort  to help explain the benefits of the new bill to the general public, large sections of which still remain  sceptical of it.

Polls suggest about 60% of the population remains opposed to legal regulation although support has been growing slightly.  Opposition politicians have threatened to call a referendum on the bill but the ruling Frente Amplio (FA) coalition has framed it as an ‘experiment’ and has promised that they are willing to look at any evidence both in support of, and against, the new regulatory regime. 

Uruguay’s groundbreaking new law will be watched by many other countries who are interested in reforming their drug laws.  While no country is currently ready to replicate the Uruguayan model, the historic policy shift will surely send ripples across the international community.  Indeed, operating at odds with the UN drug control treaties that bind parties to the prohibition of non-medical and non-scientific use of cannabis, events in Montevideo have provoked condemnation from both the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). 

The INCB President Raymond Yans said on Wednesday  11th December that he was “surprised that a legislative body that has endorsed an international law and agreements, and a Government that is an active partner in international cooperation and in the maintenance of the international rule of law, knowingly decided to break the universally agreed and internationally endorsed legal provisions of the treaty”.

Both these UN drug control bodies fear for the integrity of prohibition-oriented international drug control framework.  So they should. As Martin Jelsma, Coordinator of the Drugs & Democracy Programme at the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute (TNI) has noted: “The approval of regulation under state control in Uruguay marks a tipping point in the failed war against drugs. The trend is becoming irreversible: the era of a globally enforced cannabis prohibition regime is drawing to a close”.

The Beginning of the End for the Pot Prohibition

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The beginning of the end for the ‘war on weed’ in the US?

A new survey conducted by Rasmussen Reports in August 2013 shows that 82% of Americans think the US is losing the war on drugs. Only 4% of respondents believe the US is winning this war. This survey comes at a sensitive time for US commitment to the ‘war on drugs’ or the ‘war on weed’ at least.

In November 2012 two US states – Washington and Colorado – voted to tax and regulate recreational adult use of cannabis. Earlier this year Pew Research found a majority of the public – 52% – think the drug should be legal. The same poll also found that almost three quarters of Americans – 72% – think that efforts to enforce marijuana laws cost more than they are worth.

Now it seems that even the federal government is having doubts about the benefits of criminalising pot smokers. In August US Attorney General Eric Holder announced that low level, nonviolent drug offenders with no history of ties to gangs or organised crime shouldn’t be charged with offences that carry mandatory minimum sentences.

Also in August CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta (reportedly Obama’s choice for US Surgeon General, though Gupta turned the post down) made a documentary about the medical benefits of marijuana. Gupta argued that the DEA’s insistence that cannabis has “no accepted medicinal use and a high potential for abuse” has little scientific basis and that the American public has been “systematically misled” about cannabis and apologized for his role in this. The White House has refused to comment on Gupta’s documentary and in fact since Obama took office raids on medical marijuana dispensaries have increased.

On 29th of August 2013 the Department of Justice released a memorandum to US attorneys and law enforcement officials noting that whilst they should continue to enforce the federal government’s prohibition on marijuana the main focus in those states that allow some form of cannabis use – either for recreational purposes such as Washington and Colorado – or for medical use should be on eight key areas:

• Preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors;
• Preventing revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels;
• Preventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states;
• Preventing state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity;
• Preventing drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use;
• Preventing the growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands; and
• Preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property

This guidance is an attempt to resolve the tensions between state laws and federal law with regards to cannabis. The commitment to maintaining the prohibition on pot is essential – not least because they are signed up to international treaties such as the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs – however Obama has been open about his own weed smoking as a college student and must find it hard to ignore the shifting public opinion especially when more people voted to tax and regulate pot in Colorado than voted for him.

So the big question many drug law reformers in the US are asking is, ‘Is this the beginning of the end for pot prohibition?’