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Feature: US Drug Policies Flawed and Failed, Experts Tell Congressional Committee

The US Congress Joint Economic Committee yesterday held a historic hearing on the economic costs of US drug policy. The hearing, titled Illegal Drugs: Economic Impact, Societal Costs, Policy Responses, was called at the request of Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), who in his opening remarks described the all-too-familiar failure of US drug policy to accomplish the goals it has set for itself. It was the second hearing related to incarceration that Webb has convened under the auspices of this committee.

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Jim Webb at 2007 incarceration hearing (photo from sentencingproject.org)
"Our insatiable demand for drugs" drives the drug trade, Webb pointed out. "We're spending enormous amounts of money to interdict drug shipments, but supplies remain consistent. Some 86% of high schoolers report easy access to marijuana. Cocaine prices have fallen by about 80% since the 1980s," the freshman senator continued. "Efforts to curb illegal drug use have relied heavily on enforcement. The number of people in custody on drug charges has increased 13-fold in the past 25 years, yet the flow of drugs remains undiminished. Drug convictions and collateral punishments are devastating our minority communities," Webb said.

"Our current policy mix is not working the way we want it to," Webb declared. "The ease with which drugs can be obtained, the price, the number of people using drugs, the violence on the border all show that. We need to rethink our responses to the health effects, the economic impacts, the effect on crime. We need to rethink our approach to the supply and demand of drugs."

Such sentiments coming from a sitting senator in the US in 2008 are bold if not remarkable, and it's not the first time that Webb has uttered such words:

In March of last year, he told George Stephanopoulos on the ABC News program This Week: "One of the issues which never comes up in campaigns but it's an issue that's tearing this country apart is this whole notion of our criminal justice system, how many people are in our criminal justice system more -- I think we have two million people incarcerated in this country right now and that's an issue that's going to take two or three years to try to get to the bottom of and that's where I want to put my energy."

In his recently-released book, A Time to Fight, Webb wrote: "The time has come to stop locking up people for mere possession and use of marijuana," "It makes far more sense to take the money that would be saved by such a policy and use it for enforcement of gang-related activities" and "Either we are home to the most evil population on earth, or we are locking up a lot of people who really don't need to be in jail, for actions that other countries seem to handle in more constructive ways."

Still, drug reformers may be impatient with the level of rethinking presented at the hearing. While witnesses including University of Maryland criminologist Peter Reuter, author of "Drug War Heresies," and John Walsh, director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) offered strong and familiar critiques of various aspects of US drug policy, neither of the words "prohibition" or "legalization" were ever uttered, nor were the words "tax and regulate," and radical alternatives to current policy were barely touched upon. Instead, the emphasis seemed to be on adjusting the "mix" of spending on law enforcement versus treatment and prevention.

The other two witnesses at the hearing, Kings County (Brooklyn), New York, Assistant District Attorney Anne Swern and community coordinator Norma Fernandes of the same office, were there to talk up the success of drug court-style programs in their community.

[The written testimony of all four witnesses is available at the hearing web site linked above.]

"US drug policy is comprehensive, but unbalanced," said Reuter. "As much as 75% of spending goes to enforcement, mainly to lock up low-level drug dealers. Treatment is not very available. The US has a larger drug problem than other Western countries, and the policy measures to confront it have met with little success," he told the committee.

Reuter said there were some indications policymakers and the electorate are tiring of the drug war approach, citing California's treatment-not-jail Proposition 36, but there was little indication Congress was interested in serious analysis of programs and policies.

"Congress has been content to accept rhetoric instead of research," Reuter said, citing its lack of reaction to the Office of National Drug Control Policy's refusal to release a now three-year-old report on drug use levels during the Bush administration. "It's hardly a secret that ONDCP has failed to publish that report, but Congress has not bothered to do anything," he complained. "We need more emphasis on the analytic base for policy."

But even with the paltry evidence available to work with, Reuter was able to summarize a bottom line: "The US imprisons too many people and provides too little treatment," he said. "We need more than marginal changes."

"US drug policies have been in place for some time without much change except for intensification," said WOLA's Walsh, noting that coca production levels are as high as they were 20 years ago. "Since 1981, we have spent about $800 billion on drug control, and $600 billion of that on supply reduction. We need a stiff dose of historical reality as we contemplate what to do now," he told the committee.

With the basic policies in place for so long, some conclusions can now be drawn, Walsh said. "First, the balloon effect is real and fully relevant today. We've seen it time and time again, not just with crops, but also with drug smuggling routes. If we want to talk about actually reducing illicit crops and we know eradication only leads to renewed planting, we need to be looking for alternatives," he said.

"Second, there is continuing strong availability of illicit drugs and a long-term trend toward falling prices," Walsh said, strongly suggesting that interdiction was a failed policy. "The perennial goal is to drive up prices, but prices have fallen sharply. There is evidence of disruptions in the US cocaine market last year, but whether that endures is an open question and quite doubtful given the historical record," he said.

"Third, finding drugs coming across the border is like finding a needle in a haystack, or more like finding lots of needles in lots of different moving haystacks," he said. "Our legal commerce with Mexico is so huge that to think we can seal the borders is delusional."

With respect to the anti-drug assistance package for Mexico currently being debated in Congress, Walsh had a warning: "Even with US assistance, any reduction in the flow of drugs from Mexico is unlikely." Instead, Walsh said, lawmakers should adjust their supply-control objectives and expectations to bring them in line with that reality.

Changes in drug producing countries will require sustained efforts to increase alternative livelihoods. That in turn will require patience and a turn away from "the quick fix mentality that hasn't fixed anything," Walsh said.

"We can't expect sudden improvements; there is no silver bullet," Walsh concluded. "We need to switch to harm reduction approaches and recognize drugs and drug use as perennial problems that can't be eliminated, but can be managed better. We need to minimize not only the harms associated with drug use, but also those related to policies meant to control drugs."

"It is important to be able to discuss the realities of the situation, it's not always a comfortable thing to talk about," Webb said after the oral testimony. "This is very much a demand problem. I've been skeptical bout drug eradication programs; they just don't work when you're supplying such an enormous thirst on this end. We have to find ways to address demand other than locking up more people. We have created an incredible underground economic apparatus and we have to think hard about how to address it."

"The way in which we focused attention on the supply side has been very much mistaken," agreed Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), who along with Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) were the only other solons attending the hearing. "All this focus on supply hasn't really done anything of any value. The real issue is demand, and prevention and dealing with people getting out of prison is the way to deal with this."

Reuter suggested part of the solution was in increase in what he called "coerced abstinence," or forced drug treatment. Citing the work of UCLA drug policy researcher Mark Kleiman, Reuter said that regimes of frequent testing with modest sanctions imposed immediately and with certainty can result "in a real decline in drug taking and criminal activity."

That got a nod of agreement from prosecutor Swern. "How long you stay in treatment is the best predictor of staying out of trouble or off drugs," she said. Swern is running a program with deferring sentencing, with some flexibility she said. "The beauty of our program is it allows us to give people many chances. If they fail in treatment and want to try again, we do that," she said.

As the hearing drew to an end, Webb had one last question: "Justice Department statistics show that of all drug arrests in 2005, 42.6% were for marijuana offenses. What about the energy expended arresting people for marijuana?" he asked, implicitly begging for someone to respond, "It's a waste of resources."

But no one connected directly with the floating softball. "The vast majority of those arrests are for simple possession," said Reuter. "In Maryland, essentially no one is sentenced to jail for marijuana possession, although about a third spend time in jail pre-trial. It's not as bad as it looks," he said sanguinely.

"There's violence around marijuana trafficking in Brooklyn," responded prosecutor Swern.

WOLA's Walsh came closest to a strong answer. "Your question goes to setting priorities," he said. "We need to discriminate among types of illicit drugs. Which do the most harm and deserve the most emphasis? Also, given the sheer number of marijuana users, what kind of dent can you make even with many more arrests?"

And so ended the first joint congressional hearing to challenge the dogmas of the drug war. For reformers that attended, there were generally thumbs up for Webb and the committee, mixed with a bit of disappointment that the hearings only went so far.

"It was extraordinary," said Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the DC-based Institute for Policy Studies. "They didn't cover some of the things I hoped they would, but I have to give them props for addressing the issue at all."

"Webb was looking for someone to say what he wanted to say with the marijuana question, that perhaps we should deemphasize law enforcement on that," said Doug McVay, policy analyst at Common Sense for Drug Policy, who also attended the hearing. "I don't think our witnesses quite caught what he was aiming for, an answer that arresting all those people for marijuana takes away resources that could be used to fight real crime."

Sen. Webb came in for special praise from Tree. "Perhaps because he's a possible vice presidential candidate, he had to tone things down a bit, but he is clearly not afraid to talk about over-incarceration, and using the Joint Economic Committee instead of Judiciary or Foreign Affairs is a brilliant use of that committee, because this is, after all, a policy with enormous economic consequences," Tree said. "Webb is clearly motivated by doing something about the high levels of incarceration. He held a hearing on it last year, and got the obvious answer that much of it is related to drug policy. Having heard that kind of answer, most politicians would walk away fast, but not Webb, so I have to give him credit."

Reversing the drug war juggernaut will not be easy. The Congressional Joint Economic Committee hearing Thursday was perhaps a small step toward that end, but it is a step in the right direction.

Feature: Vancouver's Safe Injection Site Fights for Its Life -- Again

The only officially-sanctioned safe injection site in North America, Vancouver's InSite will have to close its doors June 30 if the Canadian federal government does not extend its exemption from Canada's Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. But while the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made no secret of its distaste for the program, it has very strong community, local, provincial, and international support, and its supporters are now engaged in a strong campaign to ensure its continued existence.

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InSite (courtesy Vancouver Coastal Health)
Situated on Hastings Street in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, home to one of the hemisphere's largest concentrations of hard drug users, InSite has operated since 2003, when it was granted a three-year exemption by the then Liberal government. With the advent of Conservative government, with its ideological opposition to programs that "encourage" or "facilitate" drug use, InSite's continued existence has been shaky. Twice, the Conservatives have granted the program temporary 18-month exemptions, saying that more research on its efficacy was needed.

But now, after five years of monitoring and evaluation, the results are in: According to peer-reviewed scientific studies, InSite increased the use of addiction treatment services, increased the use of detox services, reduced needle sharing, led to improvement in neighborhood public order and quality of life, resulted in no increase in drug-related crime, prevented overdose deaths, and helped reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS among drug injectors.

As if the nearly two-dozen studies of InSite were not enough, the Conservative government last year commissioned its own study, "Vancouver's INSITE service and other Supervised injection sites: What has been learned from research?," which was released in early April. According to Simon Fraser University criminologist Neil Boyd, who was hired by the government to advise the committee overseeing the study, the research shows that InSite has no apparent negative impacts, has resulted in "modest decreases" in drug use, and has not disturbed public order.

In fact, said Boyd at a press conference announcing his findings, InSite should not only be continued, but the program should be expanded to other locations. "I think our data suggests... the building of additional facilities of a similar kind in neighborhoods where they are needed would yield benefits much in excess of the costs required for such projects," he said.

That's unlikely under the Harper government, which is ideologically opposed to such harm reduction practices and in fact removed funding for them from its anti-drug budget. As Harper put it last October: "Because if you remain an addict, I don't care how much harm you reduce, you're going to have a short and miserable life."

Harper has also scoffed at empirical evidence when it conflicts with his agenda. In a January speech to party faithful, he mocked opponents who cited falling crime statistics in challenging his emphasis on law and order. "They try to pacify Canadians with statistics," said the prime minister. "Your personal experiences and impressions are wrong, they say; crime is really not a problem."

More recently, Health Minister Tony Clement and his underlings have sounded similar themes. Science would not be the only factor in determining whether to continue InSite's exemption, Clement's undersecretary, Winnipeg MP Steven Fletcher told The Canadian Press earlier this month. While the government would make a "rational and thoughtful decision based on science," it must also take into account "the realities of the situation," Fletcher explained. "There's multiple sides to this and they all have to be taken into consideration," said Fletcher.

When pressed in parliament by Vancouver East MP Libby Davies, a staunch InSite supporter, Clement vowed to make a decision before June 30 and responded to her criticism about rejecting the science supporting the program: "We are the government that actually wants more research, that actually commissioned more research because we want to make sure this decision is the right decision for Canada, for addicts and for the community in Vancouver," he said. "That is the decision we have made, more research and more consideration. That is because we are open-minded and we want to make the best decision for Canada and Canadians."

Now, as the June 30 deadline looms, InSite's supporters have mobilized. Already this month, the International Journal of Drug Policy published articles by scientists from around the world condemning the federal government for interfering politically with the site's research, Boyd held his Ottawa press conference, advocates held a rally in a Downtown Eastside park featuring 1,000 white crosses to symbolize the people who didn't die from drug overdoses while injecting at InSite, Vancouver street nurses picketed the office of the Vancouver Police Union, whose president is a leading critic of the site, BC Nurses Association president Debra MacPherson held a press conference to tout the health benefits of InSite, and all three BC civic parties have signaled their joint support of the program.

"We're fully behind the effort to keep InSite open," said David Hurford, director of communications for Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan. "It is part of the solution, not part of the problem, and it is a bottom-up solution from the grassroots. The federal government has said it supports grassroots decision-making, so why should bureaucrats from 3,000 miles away be making decisions for us here?" he asked.

The mayor's office is "working with local stakeholders to help communicate the benefits of InSite," said Hurford. "We wrote to the health minister last week asking him to keep the site open, and at a minimum, to extend the permits until all pending legal issues are heard."

Hurford is referring to a lawsuit pending in the BC courts that challenges Health Canada's jurisdiction over InSite. That suit argues that since under Canadian law, health care is the domain of the provinces, the federal government should not have control over InSite. But that lawsuit will not be settled by the end of next month.

Opposition politicians have also joined the fight. "This government chooses to view harm reduction as nothing more than dirty words, at the expense of protecting the safety and health of Canadians," said Liberal Party public health spokesperson Dr. Carolyn Bennett.

"The results from the InSite project show measurable evidence that it saves lives," said Liberal MP Dr. Hedy Fry, who played a key role in bringing the agreement that allowed InSite to open. "This has won it widespread support not only from experts in Canada but from the international scientific community, from the Vancouver police and from residents of the Downtown Eastside," said Dr. Fry. "It is simply irresponsible to ignore scientifically-based proof of the efficacy of harm reduction programs like this, and base public policy on ideology alone because real people suffer the consequences."

"The Conservative government must stop its unconscionable interference in scientific research on Vancouver's safe injection site," added New Democratic Party MP Libby Davies, who represents the Downtown Eastside. "Medical researchers from the University of British Columbia have revealed that Harper and his team have been suppressing evidence and denying funding to scientists who are looking objectively at the merits of Insite," she said.

"More than 20 medical and academic studies have been published showing the health and social benefits of InSite. We now have both scientific fact and evidence from users in our community that this facility is helping, not hurting the people of our city. The research record shows that Insite saves lives and increases public safety," Davies continued. "Harper doesn't understand that you can't just hide the facts whenever they don't suit your political agenda. We need a change in direction. It's time for this government to make decisions based on evidence instead of ideology -- InSite needs to be kept open."

"What we want is a 3 ½ year renewal of the exemption from the Controlled Substances Act," said Nathan Allen of InSite for Community Safety. "The fact that the Harper government has not granted this renewal shows they are very reluctant to support the community."

While the Harper government has previously said it needed more research to evaluate InSite's efficacy, that dog won't hunt anymore, said Allen. "They've already spent more than $1.5 million studying InSite, they've produced two dozen academic papers, and they've concluded that it has all kinds of positive impacts. We're wondering what questions the government has left to ask," he scoffed. "InSite has undergone the most thorough and well-funded scrutiny of any health clinic in the country."

In the event the government refuses to grant another exemption, Allen said he hoped it would respect provincial authority and local autonomy. "This has been a regional response to a local crisis here in Vancouver. We need to let the people here on the ground do what they need to do. If not, people will die," he predicted bluntly.

The clock is ticking for InSite, but the pressure is mounting on the Harper government. The next few weeks will determine if that pressure is sufficient to overcome the government's ideological opposition to the safe injection site.

Drug Treatment: Idaho Senate Overrides Governor's Funding Increase Veto, Battle Continues

The Idaho Senate voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to override a gubernatorial veto of a bill that would have increased funding for drug treatment and prevention programs. Now, the House must vote to override by a similar "supermajority" to complete the restoration of funding against the wishes of Republican Gov. Butch Otter.

Last week, Otter vetoed line items in two bills that would have provided $16.8 million for Idaho substance abuse programs. The Senate override vote on SB 1458 restores $2.4 million in supplemental funding. But Otter also vetoed $14.4 million in treatment funding for the coming year in HB 608.

The twin vetoes would cut in half the funding for drug courts and treatment for probationers and parolees, as well as some community-based treatment programs. The tussle at the statehouse is the latest round in fighting over how best to continue a three-year, $21 million dollar anti-drug effort originally funded by a federal grant. The federal money ran out last year, and lawmakers replaced it with state funds. Otter complained that the programs were unproven and had been expanded beyond their original scope.

But the state Senate seemed determined to do something other than just pay for more prison cells, and for several senators, Idaho's drug war has hit close to home. "I don't believe there is a family represented in this body who has not been affected by drugs or alcohol or mental health problems at some point," said Sen. Chuck Coiner (R-Twin Falls) in remarks reported by The New West magazine.

Sen. Brent Hill (R-Rexburg), also speaking in support of the override, told of a family member "almost ruined" by methamphetamine. "Her teeth rotted right out of her head," he told his colleagues.

Sen. Lee Heinrich (R-Cascade) said his son had spent two and a half years in prison on drug-related charges. "He could have benefited from this program... I know what these drug-related things can do to families," he added, but then said he would vote against the override because he wasn't sure "we've looked at all the alternatives."

But it was Sen. Dean Cameron (R-Rupert) who was perhaps most perceptive, speaking of a "paradigm shift" among his conservative colleagues. "Doesn't it seem smart to get on the front end of these decisions? Doesn't it seem smart to try to affect them before they become incarcerated, so they don't offend in the first place?" he asked. "Cells alone are not the answer."

At mid-week, the governor was signaling he still sought compromise. "The governor has consistently indicated that he was willing to discuss this issue and reach a compromise as he has on other important issues," he said in a Wednesday statement. But the size of the increase in treatment spending "could not be justified in a year when we are asking so many others agencies, not to mention state workers, to do with less."

Now, the ball is in the House's court.

Internet Users Take a Swing at Anti-drug PSAs

EDITOR'S NOTE: Amanda Brooke Shaffer is an intern at StoptheDrugWar.org. Her bio is in our "staff" section at http://stopthedrugwar.org/about/staff Is the American public getting tired of government lies and exaggerations about drugs? If the ballooning number of anti-drug parodies on the Internet is any measure, it sure seems so. The emergence of YouTube.com and other popular video websites has enabled and emboldened Internet users to express their opinions about the often criticized, government-sponsored anti-drug PSAs through video clips and commentary. The public is busy at work making innovative and bold statements. I attempted to view as many anti-drug parody ads as possible; however, I didn’t expect the search engine on YouTube.com to turn up such a high volume of videos. It soon became quite obvious that the trend of the parody ads is to expose the ridiculousness of the claims made in the anti-drug PSAs. The clip that follows is an anti-drug PSA sponsored by the government. The second is the parody of it produced by an Internet user. http://youtube.com/watch?v=jgJdVEoVbgg, http://youtube.com/watch?v=m6FL0pmJeaE&feature=related Clearly the second clip flat out mocks the first one by completely contradicting the message the government is portraying. Below each video clip is space for viewers to comment. One of the numerous remarks about these two ads resembled something like this, “If I smoke then my dog will talk to me??? Puff, Puff, Pass!” This was just the tip of the iceberg of what users had to say. A study was done on a variety of ads including the above mentioned “dog” ad to determine the effects on the youth of America. Guess what? The results showed an increase of marijuana use in girls aged 12-13 through making drug use by peers appear to be more familiar and acceptable. See: http://newrecovery.blogspot.com/2007/02/12-billion-later-national-youth-... and http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d06818.pdf and http://www.nida.nih.gov/DESPR/Westat/Westat502/ExecSummary502.html Why are we spending our dwindling tax resources on commercials that send the wrong message to their target audience? The anti-drug media campaign creates artistic and abstract ads that are unrealistic, when all Americans really need, and want to see, are commercials that tell them the truth. Another approach the campaign employs is using upbeat and positive messages to attempt to deter youths from using drugs. It is known as “What’s Your Anti-Drug?” This parody clip (http://youtube.com/watch?v=eDXxA0hMo1I) twists the government’s message to expose the fallacy of the marijuana as a “gateway” to harder drugs myth through the line, “Weed is my anti-drug.” It seems that no matter how hard the government works to embed the gateway myth into the public consciousness, those pesky studies that disprove a causal link to using harder drugs keep informing the public of the truth. Many clips I viewed expressed the notion that weed prevented them from using other drugs by satisfying their desires and curiosities. I felt one parody rose above the rest. Not only was it the most viewed parody anti-drug ad I came across, but it had me and all my friends rolling on the floor with laughter. It is an ad featuring our Commander in Chief, President Bush. Bush, known for his binge drinking and cocaine use by a large majority of Americans, is an ideal person to exemplify the long-term consequences of drug abuse. This ad has the right stuff -- a notable figure and a realistic message that is powerful and clear to the viewer. Check it out: http://youtube.com/watch?v=eGgTLMC9GXg. I think it is quite obvious why Americans are taking precious time out of their daily lives to speak out. Simply put, the extremely expensive anti-drug media campaign employed by the government over the last two decades is laughable, and government-funded research continues to conclude that these ads are ineffective at preventing and reducing drug use among youths. Yet, despite the increasing mounds of evidence proving the campaign’s ineffectiveness, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) disputes the critical conclusions of these studies and has the audacity to ask the government for even more money. The good thing is that the ease of accessing these reports, thanks to the Internet, is making it progressively harder for ONDCP to ignore the facts and hide them from the American people. You see, the D.A.R.E. generation has had enough of the lies and distortions, and it’s fighting back with truth and sense.

Bush Drug Treatment, Prevention, and Recovery Budget Cuts Raise Chorus of Criticism

The Bush administration's proposed Fiscal Year 2009 spending for drug treatment, prevention, and recovery includes significant funding cuts for some programs, and that has critics ranging from former federal drug warriors to the treatment and recovery community crying foul. While economic pressures may necessitate a lean budget, say the critics, cutting drug treatment, prevention, and recovery is not the way to do it.

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Bush administration drug strategy report and budget
Overall, substance abuse treatment and prevention funding within the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the main conduit for such funds, will decrease from $2.35 billion this year to $2.27 billion next year. (See details of the SAMHSA budget here.) Other highlights and lowlights of the treatment, prevention, and recovery budgets include:

  • Funding for the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant program would see a small increase to $1.779 billion, but that increase would be earmarked for the most effective existing grant recipients.
  • The Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT) would receive $336.7 million, a decrease of $63 million from FY 2008, and a number of programs would be zeroed out, including the Recovery Community Support Program. Other losers include the Treatment Systems for the Homeless program (cut from $42.5 million to $32.6 million) and the Opioid Treatment Program/Regulatory Activities (cut from $8.9 million to $6 million). But funding for the Access to Recovery grant program would remain unchanged at $99.7 million, and drug court funding would increase from $15 million to $37 million.
  • The Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP) would receive $158 million, a decrease of $36 million from FY 2008.
  • Funding for the Center for Mental Health Services would be cut by $126 million.
  • The Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities (SDFSC) State Grants program, which supports community-based prevention programming through the Department of Education, would receive $100 million, a decrease of $194.8 million.
  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) would receive $1.002 billion, a nearly $1 million increase over FY 2008.
  • The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) would receive $436.68 million, a $0.4 million increase over last year's funding.

"We're very concerned about these cuts and looking forward to working with Congress to restore the funding," said Pat Taylor, executive director of Faces and Voices of Recovery, a national organization advocating for those affected by substance abuse problems. "We're especially concerned about the elimination of the Recovery Community Services Program -- it's the only program that funds community recovery services," she said.

Even though the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) report that accompanied the Bush budget claimed such programs are ineffective, thus justifying their being cut, Taylor said that report was wrong. "We know from the government's own data that these programs are highly effective at a relatively low cost," she said. "Funding has gone to organizations that have leveraged tens of thousands of volunteer hours in communities around the country."

"There's not a lot of money for treatment and prevention as it is," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Bush is also cutting law enforcement," Piper said, referring to proposed cuts in the Byrne Justice Action Grants program, "but we know which one Congress is more likely to restore."

"I've argued for years that it's a gross distortion of resources to deny as much funding as necessary for drug treatment, prevention, and education. That is how we stop the link between drugs and crime," said Robert Weiner, who as public affairs director under drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey frequently earned reformers' ire (on other issues). Weiner added that two-thirds of arrestees test positive for illegal drugs. "If we prevent it on the front side before forcing them into prison, we save literally billions of dollars and make productive citizens out of these people. The federal drug budget needs to be refigured to change its priorities," he said.

Weiner also had harsh words for the current drug czar, John Walters, for failing to protect his bureaucratic fiefdom. Under Walters, the drug budget under the control of ONDCP has declined from $19 billion to $13 billion.

"That's outrageous," Weiner complained. "Walters has his head in the sand and has been ceding authority. The point of his office was to create an overseer to ride herd on drug policy, but instead, Walters has just been a lackey to this politics of fear and terror and homeland security and has given away the store. It's not just individual programs, but an overall ceding of authority, and that's a shame."

Weiner isn't the only former federal drug warrior taking pot-shots at the Bush administration's drug policy spending priorities. John Carnevale, who served under four different drug czars and helped set federal drug budgets and strategies, ripped into the Bush administration earlier this month with a policy brief charging that it had consistently emphasized the least effective aspects of drug control policy.

According to Carnevale, supply reduction (law enforcement, interdiction, eradication) spending has grown 57% during the Bush years, while demand reduction (treatment, prevention, recovery) spending has increased by only 3%. The ratio between supply reduction and demand reduction spending is about 2:1, near where it has been historically despite repeated claims by federal drug fighters that they are shifting to a more balanced approach.

As Carnevale notes, "Research suggests that treatment and prevention programs are very effective in reducing drug demand, saving lives, and lessening health and crime consequences. It has demonstrated that attacking drugs at their source by focusing on eradication is expensive and not very effective. It has demonstrated that interdiction has little effect on drug traffickers' ability to bring drugs into the United States and on to our street corners where they are sold."

Perversely, however, interdiction funding increased the most during the Bush years, doubling from $1.9 billion in 2002 to $3.8 billion in 2009, while source country funding increased by 50%, law enforcement by 31%, and treatment by only 22%. Spending for drug prevention, on the other hand, actually declined by 25%.

"If research were our guide," wrote Carnevale, "then one would expect the opposite ordering of increases in budgetary resources for drug control. The failure to incorporate research into the budgetary process is a lost opportunity to produce results. The only positive news in this decade is the reduction in youth drug use, a trend which started in the previous decade. Today's discussion of drug policy performance overlooks the fact that adult drug use and rates of addiction remain unchanged in this decade."

The chorus of critics is not just complaining. Led by the treatment and recovery community, moves are afoot in Congress to seek a better mix when it comes to drug policy funding. Look for battles to come in committee hearing rooms and floor votes as advocates seek to restore funding to useful and effective programs.

"These cuts are very shortsighted and I don't think they will stand," said Taylor. "We are working with many allied organizations to support a different budget proposal that we will be distributing on Capitol Hill next week. There is a lot of interest there in moving forward instead of back."

Stop Filling Prisons, California -- Advocates to Take Sentencing Reform Case to Voters

California's prison system is in crisis. With some 172,000 inmates, the state's prison system is second only to the federal system in size, and its budget has ballooned by 79% in the last five years to nearly $8 billion annually. Still, the system is vastly overcrowded and faces two federal class-action suits seeking to cap inmate populations because overcrowding is resulting in the state not delivering constitutionally adequate medical and mental health care.

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overcrowding at Mule Creek State Prison (from cdcr.ca.gov)
In December, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he was considering a plan to release some 22,000 nonviolent inmates early in response to the festering crisis. But that one-shot approach would not deal with the systemic problems and policies that created the prison crisis in the first place.

Now, after years of inaction in Sacramento in the face of the crisis, a well-funded initiative campaign that would result in a seismic shift in California sentencing and prison policies, especially when it comes to drug offenders and those whose offenses are related to their problematic drug use, has gotten underway. Dubbed the Non-Violent Offender Rehabilitation Act (NORA), the initiative would dramatically expand the treatment and diversion options made available under a previous reform initiative, Proposition 36, as well as reform parole and probation programs, and make simple marijuana possession an infraction instead of a misdemeanor.

About 35,000 California inmates, or about 20% of the prison population, are doing time for drug offenses. An unknown number, certainly in the thousands and possibly in the tens of thousands, are doing time for offenses related to their drug use. It is these offenders and their future brethren at whom the NORA initiative is aimed.

Sponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance Network, the lobbying arm of the Drug Policy Alliance and the Santa Monica-based Campaign for New Drug Policies, the people who engineered the successful Prop. 36 campaign, the NORA initiative would:

  • Create a multi-track diversion program for adult offenders. Track I provides for treatment for nonviolent drug possession offenders with a plea held in abeyance during treatment. For those who wash out of Track I, Track II provides Prop 36-style treatment after conviction, with graduated sanctions for probation violations, including eventual jail time. Track III is an expansion of existing drug court programs, with stronger sanctions than the other tracks. Judges would have the discretion to use Track III not only for drug offenders, but for any non-violent offenders whose crimes are linked to their drug use. Track III would be mandatory for those identified as "high-cost offenders" (five arrests in the past 30 months). The initiative would fund the diversion and treatment program at $385 million per year.
  • Create drug treatment programs for youth. NORA would invest about $65 million a year to build a prevention and treatment program for young people where none currently exists.
  • Require California prisons to provide rehabilitation programs to all exiting inmates at least 90 days before release and for up to a year after release at state expense.
  • Allow nonviolent prisoners to earn sentence reductions with good behavior and by participating in rehabilitation programs.
  • Cut parole periods for qualifying nonviolent offenders to between six and 12 months, instead of the current up to three years. Early discharge from parole could be gained with completion of a rehabilitation program.
  • Make simple marijuana possession an infraction (ticketing offense) instead of a misdemeanor.

Not only would NORA mean freedom for thousands of nonviolent drug and drug-related offenders, it would also save California billions of dollars. Prop. 36 is estimated to have saved at least $1.3 billion in five years by diverting offenders to treatment, and the California Legislative Analyst's Office projects that NORA could generate a billion dollars a year in savings for the prison system, as well as obviating the need for a one-time prison-building outlay of $2.5 billion.

Paid canvassers for NORA are already hitting the streets in California. They have until April 21 to gather some 435,000 valid signatures to put the measure on the November ballot. NORA will make that goal, organizers vowed.

"We've just announced this to our members and started gathering signatures," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli of the Southern California office of the Drug Policy Alliance Network. "We're very excited. It looks like the largest sentencing and prison reform in American history will be on the November ballot."

"This is Prop 36 on steroids," said Dale Gieringer, executive director of California NORML. "If it passes, this will lead to a comprehensive rewrite of all of California's laws regarding sentencing, probation, and parole for nonviolent, drug-related offenses. And this is a professional campaign. The measure will be on the ballot in November," he flatly predicted.

"Prop. 36 has been such a success, it has been extensively studied and proven, but the biggest problem is that it isn't big enough," said Dooley-Sammuli. "Combined with the difficulty of getting any prison reform through and of even obtaining adequate funding for existing reforms because of the impasse in Sacramento -- we've seen so many prison reforms die there -- we thought we really needed to put this on the ballot for stable funding, more treatment, and more diversion," she said.

"But NORA is not just about expanding Prop. 36," Dooley-Sammuli was quick to point out. "This is primarily a prison and sentencing reform effort. It brings common sense solutions to the problem of over-incarceration in California, especially the over-incarceration of nonviolent offenders in this state."

"The state has been incredibly reluctant and negligent in addressing the whole problem of nonviolent prisoners," said Gieringer. "Every effort to extricate drug offenders from the prison system has been seen as a political hot potato and has gone nowhere. Sentencing reform is political poison in Sacramento, yet we have this simmering prison crisis here in California."

If the politicians refuse to act, said Gieringer, it is time to take the issue directly to the voters. "This initiative is very justified because of the negligence of California's political class in not dealing with these issues," he said. "In fact, it is overdue, and now we the people have to try to come to grips with the failure of our political leaders to act. And I think we have the public on our side. The polling on this has been very favorable. Most people think nonviolent drug offenses should be handled with treatment, not prison."

"We have federal judges considering whether to take over the entire state prison system," said Dooley-Sammuli. "We don't have solutions coming out of Sacramento. We have very real budget problems that mean we can't afford to keep spending what we are on incarceration. NORA reallocates state spending from incarceration to treatment and rehabilitation, so we will end up with substantial savings over time," she predicted.

Gov. Schwarzenegger's move to release some prisoners early is necessary, but not sufficient, said Dooley-Sammuli. What is needed is not one-shot fixes, but systemic reforms, she said. "NORA is not a one-time opening of the jailhouse gates," said Dooley-Sammuli, "This is about systemic change in our sentencing and parole practices. This is not radical; it's common sense. This is not soft on crime; this is smart on crime. NORA will allow us to get past the politicking and get some solutions."

At this point early in the campaign season, there is no organized opposition, but that is almost certain to change. Too many powerful groups, from prosecutors to prison guards, benefit from the status quo, and fear-mongering on crime issues is a perennial favorite among politicians.

"The question is whether there will be any well-funded political opposition," said Gieringer. "Then there might be a real fight. But we haven't seen an opposition committee form yet. That's the real question mark."

NORA organizers have done their best to blunt opposition at the early stages by bringing potential opponents into the process, said Dooley-Sammuli. "We made many, many efforts to make this a collaborative process by reaching out to a wide variety of stakeholders. This has been a broad effort to bring in as many perspectives and sets of expertise as possible, and we've tried to make friends instead of foes," she said.

Coerced drug treatment is not the best of all possible worlds. But it's difficult to argue that drug law violators are better off in prison than in treatment. The NORA initiative will give California voters a chance to take a giant step in sentencing and prison reform and a small step toward true justice for drug users.

Drug Czar's $2.7 Million Super Bowl Ad Gets Terrible Viewer Ratings

Did you see the Drug Czar's Super Bowl ad last week? The one with a drug dealer complaining that he'd lost all his customers because all the kids are getting high for free by stealing prescriptions from their parents' medicine cabinet? No? Well, don't worry because no one else noticed it either.

USA Today reports that ONDCP's latest ad was rated second-worst out of all 54 ads appearing during the game. Just look how many stupid ads were still vastly more popular than ONDCP's. And the #1 spot was a Budweiser™ ad, of course, which just goes to show how people would rather be offered beer than be encouraged not to eat random pills.

As usual, ONDCP's failure comes at a high cost to everyone, specifically a mind-blowing $2.7 million in tax dollars for 30 forgettable seconds. It's almost as if ONDCP's ad campaign is liquidating its remaining assets after their latest brutal congressional funding slash.

Will Congress now get the message and finally stop subsidizing this embarrassing spectacle? Hopefully so, but for once I almost feel sympathy for the Drug Czar. I've criticized ONDCP for focusing on marijuana despite the fatalities associated with increasing abuse of prescription drugs. This new message is a step in right direction and I'd give 'em the benefit of the doubt if the ad didn’t utterly suck.

The whole premise is ridiculous, implying that pharmaceutical diversion is bankrupting the illicit drug market. The last thing anyone needs is a $2.7 million announcement from the Drug Czar that we've basically won the war on illegal drugs and must now simply lock our medicine cabinets and march merrily towards total drug-freedom. Meanwhile, the actual risks associated with prescription drug abuse are ignored entirely. After all, there is a powerful perfectly legitimate industry that markets these drugs on the very same airwaves and you can bet that you'll never hear ONDCP enumerate their dangers with the same vigor they've routinely brought to bear in their towering archive of anti-marijuana propaganda.

So no, there's really nothing surprising or coincidental about the fact that ONDCP's new campaign against pharmaceutical diversion is its most boring to date.
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United States

Drug Treatment: Federal Budget Provides Same Funding or Small Increases for Treatment, Prevention Programs, But Reduces Safe and Drug-Free Grants Program

As part of the half-trillion dollar omnibus appropriations bill approved by Congress this week and expected to be signed shortly by President Bush, drug treatment and prevention funding was approved with small changes from last year. Most treatment and prevention programs saw level funding or small increases, with the exception of the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities grants program, which took a significant hit.

Under the spending measure, drug and alcohol education, prevention, treatment and research programming will receive the following amounts:

  • The Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment (SAPT) Block Grant will receive $1.7587 billion, funding roughly level to FY 2007 and the President's budget request.
  • The Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT) will receive $399.8 million, $895,000 over FY 2007 and $52 million over the President's budget request.
  • The Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP) will receive $194.12 million, a $1.2 million increase over 2007 and $37.6 million over the President's request.
  • The Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities (SDFSC) State Grants program will receive $294.76 million, a cut of $51.7 million from last year's funding but $194.7 million over the President's FY 2008 budget request.
  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) will receive $1.001 billion, $2 million over FY 2007 and $1 million more than the President's budget request.
  • The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) will receive $436.26 million, a $674,000 million increase over last year's funding and approximately $700,000 less than the President's budget request.

While the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities grant program was slashed to just under $300 million, that is still almost $200 million more than the Bush administration requested. Other areas of the federal drug budget changed too -- see feature story this issue for further information.

Congress Just Says No to Anti-Drug Propaganda

It looks like Congress will be giving Drug Czar John Walters a big lump of coal for Christmas this year. A major congressional spending bill slashes funding for anti-drug advertising down to $60 million for next year, a 40% reduction from this year's $99 million. Try as he might to spin the failure of his advertising campaign, the Drug Czar is just going to have to face facts: everyone knows the ads don't work and Congress is on pace to kill the program entirely within a few years.

For those who've been paying attention, it comes as no surprise that Congress is defunding the Drug Czar's propaganda campaign. A report by the Government Accountability Office not only found that the ads are ineffective, but actually concluded that kids who saw them were slightly more likely to try drugs!

Unfortunately, there's nothing you can do to make the Drug Czar understand that his ads are crap. Literally, the simple act of criticizing the ads actually makes him think they're working. Look what he said about this just last week:
I find it somewhat amusing that pro-pot activists lobby every year to cut funding for this program - they must be worried that it's working too well!
Really? So according to the Drug Czar, anyone who opposes the ads is a pro-pot activist who is afraid that they work too well. But in real life, the ad budget is getting torn to shreds by the U.S. Congress because they know the program sucks.
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United States

Africa: NGOs Criticize Emphasis on Cutting Drug Supply, Urge Attention to Demand Reduction

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from across West and Central Africa meeting last weekend in Dakar, Senegal, criticized the United Nations (UN) and West and Central African governments for focusing on reducing the supply of drugs to the extent that they are ignoring demand reduction strategies, according to the UN news service IRIN.

The region has received increasing attention in recent months as a transshipment point for South American cocaine headed for insatiable European markets. It also produces marijuana for local consumption and export to Europe.

While money is beginning to flow into the region in an effort to suppress the drug trade, that money is not being matched with funds for treatment and prevention, said delegates to the meeting, part of a global NGO forum called "Beyond 2008" and coordinated by the Vienna NGO Committee on Narcotic Drugs.

"There is total disequilibrium with regards to the means given to different actors in the fight against drugs," Cheikh Diop, president of the Federation of Senegalese NGOs Fighting against Drugs, told IRIN. "So much money is invested in the fight against drug trafficking or the reduction of supply; but when it comes to reducing the demand -- or the users themselves -- organizations working on this approach have almost no financial means."

"We don't have the means to do what we want to do," said Abdoulaye Diouf, local organizer of the meeting and manager of the Senegalese Jacques Chirac drug information and awareness center.

"The fight against drugs will never succeed solely through repression," the anti-drug federation's Diop said. "How long have we been putting people in jail? And how long has the drug problem continued?"

He said there are few if any treatment facilities available for drug users in West Africa. Poverty-stricken street kids who fall into drugs need to be given alternatives and the general population must be educated about the risks of drug use, he said.

NGOs have become deeply involved in the fight to reduce drug use since the UN General Assembly special session on the global drug problem in 1998, but they complain that they lack resources, as well as training in research, analysis, and marketing. And governments too often ignore them, they said.

"There is almost no collaboration between NGOs and government," Diouf said. "When it comes to planning and implementing activities, NGOs are ignored in many countries."

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