Fear and loathing surrounds decriminalisation

Exploring the "failing" drug war, from the Netherlands to Mexico and California to Connecticut
Al Jazeera
Saturday, June 18, 2011

"The war on drugs has failed," said a recent report compiled by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which comprised a former UN secretary-general, former presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, a former US Secretary of State and a host of public intellectuals, human rights activists and politicians.

The well-credentialed group wrote the 24-page report[English/Spanish] describing exactly why and how they came to the conclusion that the "War on Drugs" has failed, and what to do, in terms of policy, to redeem the damage they say it has caused.

The report states: "The implementation of the war on drugs has generated widespread negative consequences for societies in producer, transit and consumer countries," arguing that the drug war has caused massive illegal movement of capital, the loss of many lives and a negative perception of drug users "who are stigmatised, marginalised and excluded".

Alternately, the Commission supports "experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organised crime and [to] safeguard the health and security of their citizens," or, in short: decriminalisation.

But key players in the "war", namely the United States' largest drug enforcement and policy agencies, see things very differently, arguing that current policy is comprehensive and successful.

"The Obama strategy is a balanced strategy that relies on prevention, treatment and law enforcement to reduce drug use and its consequences," Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesperson for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the US' domestic drug policy department, told Al Jazeera.

"Marijuana use is associated with fatal drug-driving accidents, emergency room admissions and mental illness" including psychosis and schizophrenia, he said - saying that research by the US National Institutes of Health supported this.

"The criminal justice system is one of the most important tools to refer non violent drug users into treatment instead of jail," Lemaitre affirmed.

Taking a more direct line, Dawn Dearden, a spokesperson for the US Drug Enforcement Agency told Al Jazeera: "Legalising narcotics will not make life better for our citizens, ease the level of crime and violence in our communities nor reduce the threat faced by law enforcement officers."

The DEA continues to argue the importance and successes of the drug war - despite increases in consumption of opiates (34.5 per cent), cocaine (27 per cent), and cannabis (8.5 per cent) during the ten years to 2008, according to research presented in the Global Commission's report.

Citing a decrease in drug use among high school-aged youth between 2001 and 2008, and stating that "the number of new marijuana users and cocaine users continues to steadily decrease," Dearden argues that the global drug war has made "significant progress ... in fighting drug use and drug trafficking".

Martin Jelsma, a researcher with the Transnational Institute (TNI) in the Netherlands, who wrote working papers for the Commission and contributed to their findings, disagrees - telling Al Jazeera that enforcement agencies such as the ONDCP and DEA "have the wrong impression that we're dealing with a choice between a war on drugs or a free market".

"A drug-free world is an illusion," said Jelsma. "We need to shift policy priorities towards 'managing' the drugs market in such a way that it brings the least possible damage to consumers and society as a whole."

'Weed Card'

While hard decriminalisation might be difficult to imagine, the door for "soft drugs", such as marijuana, has been cracked open for decades, most famously in the Netherlands.

New policy initiatives in several US states are jumping on the Dutch bandwagon, but in May, the Netherlands announced a marijuana policy shift.

According to the Amsterdam-based Netherlands Tourism and Convention Board, at least seven per cent of tourists who visit the city go exclusively for easy access to cannabis, which is served up in "coffee shops" offering long menus of high-inducing options.

But the country is set to introduce a "Weed Card" for cannabis users, which will make it illegal for coffee shops to sell the herb, either in its fresh or processed forms, to anyone without one. The card will be restricted to Dutch residents aged 18 and over.

Opponents say that the policy shift will contribute to a currently non-existent black market for the drug, and that the country's tourist market will shrink.

Janneke Hendrikx, a spokesperson for the Netherlands Tourism and Conventions Board told Al Jazeera that the organisation will "regret a possible reduction of foreign tourists by introducing the weed pass".

'Headless corpses'

But tourism is not at the front John Gibler's mind. Gibler is an investigative journalist and author of To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War.

Greatly contrasting the Dutch experience with marijuana, Gibler has explored the drug war's reality in the world's most violent border region, and he strongly supports decriminalisation.

"People in Amsterdam aren't stuffing headless bodies in the trunk of a car, or hanging dead bodies from bridges," he tells Al Jazeera, an image seen far too often in Mexico.

Al Jazeera's Faultlines explores the violent effects of the 'War on Drugs' on the Mexico-US border region

The city of Juarez, on the border of El Paso, Texas, sees about 3,000 murders every year - no thanks to tight drug policies, says Gibler.

"Illegality has done nothing to stop [the violence], but has done the opposite - fuelling it by creating the profit margins associated with that much wealth," he told Al Jazeera.

Charles Bowden, an investigative journalist and author of Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields, told Al Jazeera's Faultlines : "If you want to know one of the biggest causes of death in Mexico, it is the American drug prohibition."

"Al-Qaeda couldn't do to Juarez what the US government's done," he added.

Beyond sky-high murder rates, Gibler told Al Jazeera that border violence stemming from the drug war has an ugly and much deeper reach.

"The rate of almost every other kind of violent crime in Mexico has shot up, which is because of two things. On the one hand it's the drug trafficking organisations expanding into other areas. On the other hand, it's a result of this overwhelming climate of impunity, where people think that they can get away with it; and so many times, the cops are actually or tangentially involved [in the murders]."

In a country where, according to a confidential 2010 report turned over to the Mexican Senate by the Attorney General, only five per cent of murders are investigated, "it issues a kind of post-mortem death sentence, [where] anyone who ends up dead on the street corner is guilty of their own murder", said Gibler.

Given the level of violence, decriminalising small-scale possession or even sales would probably not affect a major difference in Mexico's border region.

Alternatively, Gibler suggests all-in parameters for curbing violence.

"Decriminalisation can't just be at the end point for the users, but it needs to somehow have a regulation package that recognises the entire industry."

Marijuana, a 'gateway drug'

A world away in Connecticut, a US state riddled with Ivy League universities and a murder rate incomparable to Mexico's, marijuana decriminalisation is high on the state's priorities.

In the coming days, the state's governor is set to sign Senate Bill 1014 (SB1014), which would decriminalise small-scale marijuana possession, making it unpunishable to have one ounce (28g) or less of the drug, and punishable by up to $1000 for possession of between one and four ounces.

SB1014 will add Connecticut to a list of 13 other US states where marijuana is decriminalised, and would treat the plant similarly to that state's treatment of alcohol, in that it would be illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to possess marijuana or drive while under its influence.

Cannabis sales, cultivation and trafficking would remain illegal, with punishment unchanged from previous laws.

The law has already passed through the state's legislature, drawing strong support from some state senators and Governor Dannel Malloy, whose desk it is waiting on for a final signature.

But SB1014 has drawn harsh criticism from pro-criminalisation politicians and activists.

Connecticut state senator Toni Boucher told Al Jazeera that decriminalisation of any drug would become a downward spiral.

She said that consequences of "loosening restrictions" on marijuana include "destruction of lives, and the lost opportunities for self fulfillment and lost dreams, and the spiritual losses of lost relationships, lost love and lost hope".

She said she fears "drug users, including marijuana users, may commit murder, or child or spouse or elder abuse, or rape, property damage, assault and other violent crimes under the influence of drugs".

That theory is based on the belief that "marijuana is a gateway drug that ruins lives", as Boucher described to Al Jazeera, citing an article that states that "around nine per cent of those who try cannabis are unable to stop using it, and demand for treatment for cannabis-related problems has increased in recent years in the US and Europe".

The article offers no scientific citations for any of its statistics or claims.

The "gateway theory" says that if someone uses cannabis, their experience will likely lead them into a drug-induced spiral toward "harder" and more addictive drugs, which, it is claimed, lead people to the violent crimes listed above.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy report argues otherwise, saying that, in the Netherlands, where marijuana has been decriminalised for decades, "the percentage of people who inject heroin is the lowest of all EU countries, and there is no new influx of problematic users".

Unconvinced by the gateway theory, Governor Malloy says his support of the law is not based on a vision of drugs flowing freely in the streets and businesses of his state, causing chaos including rape and murder - rather that the "punishment should fit the crime".

"Final approval of this legislation accepts the reality that the current law does more harm than good - both in the impact it has on people's lives and the burden it places on police, prosecutors and probation officers of the criminal justice system," he said.

But opponents of the Connecticut decriminalisation initiative emphasised that people "essentially never" find themselves incarcerated for simple possession of marijuana.

"With, or without the new law, the process has been not to prosecute for small amounts of marijuana," said Boucher.

David Evans, a lawyer and Executive Director of the Drug Free Schools Coalition who was invited by Boucher to testify at the Connecticut state legislature on the issue, told Al Jazeera: "It's just not true that people are being locked up for possession of marijuana. I have never known anybody to go to jail for small possession of marijuana."

Both Evans and Boucher support that idea - that small possession charges should not result in offenders being imprisoned.

Rather, they support Connecticut's status quo, where despite legal regulations requiring harsh punishment of anyone possessing any amount of the illegal substance, they say law enforcement agencies violate their own policies by not incarcerating offenders.

'Cruel and unusual punishment'

Contrast these fears with a reality across the country, in California.

The US Supreme Court decided, on May 23, 2011, that California prisons were overcrowded to the point that they were a physical and mental health risk to those incarcerated.

According to the close 5-4 decision in Brown v Plata [PDF], a sentence resulting in a term in California's prison system is a violation of the US constitution's "cruel and unusual punishment" clause. According to Rebekah Evenson of the Prison Law Project, one of the two co-counsels to Plata, the case was about providing California's prison population "constitutionally adequate healthcare … so you're not essentially charging them with death".

The decision requires that California change the status of about 32,000 non-violent offenders, which would bring the population down to 137.5 per cent of design capacity.

The Supreme Court's dissenting opinions argue the same fears of loosening consequences for non-violent offenders as Boucher did for people who use marijuana, saying that "terrible things [are] sure to happen" [Justice Scalia] and that the decision "will lead to a grim roster of victims" [Justice Alito].

While the above numbers aren't specific to drug-related incarceration, there is clearly a correlation, as 61,388 people were charged with misdemeanour marijuana possession and 208,175 were charged with other non-violent drug-related crimes in California in 2008, according to the Criminal Justice Statistics Center and the Demographic Research Unit.

California is also a state that proposed the decriminalisation of marijuana, a proposition shot down by voters last November.

That initiative would have given the state $1.4bn in tax revenue per year, said California's tax collector, the Board of Equalisation. The board said such a move would also have reversed costs for incarceration, adding up to major potential financial relief for a state in a decade-long budget crisis.

'Legalisation is a non-starter'

While local governments take independent initiatives around drug legality and enforcement strategies, and the Global Commission wants to see the growth of decriminalisation policies, the power behind the "War on Drugs" continues to lie in the hands of agencies aligned with the US government.

Researcher Martin Jelsma, who aided the Global Commission's studies, says he hopes the report will help "break the taboo over talking in a rational manner about alternatives".

"Knowing now [that policy makers] are supported by this distinguished group of international leaders" gives them a chance to "speak out publicly about it", he told Al Jazeera.

But the DEA's Dawn Dearden summed up the US position: "Legalisation is a non-starter for the DEA and the US Department of Justice."

Despite the growing pressure for change, power brokers in the "war" appear inflexible - and global policy looks unlikely to change.