When we look back it is amazing how fast the time flies. It has already been over a year since Michael Jackson died, over six months since Haiti earthquake, eighty six days since the Gulf oil disaster began and almost two years since Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. And it is only three and a half months left until the mid-term elections on November 2, 2010 when California voters will decide whether to end the senseless marijuana prohibition and the destructive war that the United States government wages against its own people, the infamous and tragic "drug war".
While Cannabis freedom activists and their supporters lead this new Civil Rights struggle, while the DEA and its prohibitionist allies do everything they can, often resorting to the unimaginable theatrics, to prevent the sick people from gaining access to medicinal Cannabis in State after State, while politicians engage in their usual long-winded grandstanding aimed at showing that it is "I and not the next person" who is the "toughest" on drugs, it is certainly interesting to see where exactly does scientific community stand on all these issues and how it envisions moving forward from this artificially created "dead-end".
With these considerations in mind, the Drug Policy Alliance and California Society of Addiction Medicine organized a one day Conference on July 8, 2010 in Los Angeles that was hosted by the California Endowment Center for Healthy Communities, and which included not just physicians, but policy makers, law enforcement officials, therapists, administrators and politicians. As it is clear to everyone by now that current drug policies are ineffective and unsustainable, the Conference participants made it their goal to examine what they aptly called "A Public Health and Safety Approach to Drug Policy". This new approach can only be achieved, in the words of Dr. Barry Zevin of Waddell Health Center in San Francisco, by "doing what works". "If something does not work and we keep doing it, what can we expect", said Dr. Zevin, clearly referring to the old, rigid "abstinence-based", disciplinarian approaches to drug treatment that were prevalent in addiction treatment until recently, and are still advocated by some authorities, but which proved ineffective in reducing drug use, despite being quite congenial to the "well-being" of what the Conference participants exposed as the "prison-industrial complex" in the United States.
One of the more memorable presentations at the Conference was that by Fatima Trigueiros, Senior Adviser to the Executive Board of the Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction in Portugal. Mrs. Trigueiros told the participants that the proposal to decriminalize drug possession for "personal use" was being discussed in Portugal since 1976 and, as usual, the right-wing parties in Parliament were against it, while more left-leaning politicians were for it, until the personal possession of "illegal substances" in the amounts of up to ten days supply was finally decriminalized in 2001.
Just like in the United States, the "right-wingers" in Portugal had predicted an "Armageddon" of an exploding drug use that would follow the decriminalization of drug possessions for "personal use". However, as Mrs. Trigueiros pointed out, since the decriminalization of such "possessions" the drug use in Portugal actually DROPPED by 10%, and the new legislation proved so successful as to presently command the support of all political parties in Parliament, a situation "quite rare for any European Parliament". As opposed to the dire predictions of the opponents of this legislation, Portugal has not become a "drug tourism" destination in Europe, while the rates of HIV infection and other conditions prevalent among addicts, and particularly among injection drug users, actually decreased.
Mr. Donald MacPherson, former Drug Policy Coordinator of the City of Vancouver shared that jurisdiction's experience with decriminalization of substance use, harm reduction approach to drug problem, and more rational drug policies that have been operational in the City of Vancouver. A supervised injection facility has been functioning in Vancouver for 25 years. While something like this is beyond "controversial" in the United States, this facility has helped many previously "hopeless" injection drug users to initiate their journey to recovery, or at least to a more manageable lifestyle, as they are able to make a gradual transition from dangerous practices of using dirty needles and other "equipment", strongly associated with disease transmission, to a potentially life-saving contact with treatment and social services, and to do so without fear of being "busted" or having to lie, as is the usual routine in more "traditional" settings. This is, basically, the essence of a "harm reduction" approach to addiction treatment, the approach that gives us an opportunity to "meet patients where they are", instead of insisting on their being where the "abstinence-based" approach advocates want them to be, something that is unrealistic and largely ineffective.
We may erroneously think that the "drug war" is becoming less "intense" and less destructive as the time goes on, and its ravages and futility are exposed to the scientific community and to the public at large. But as Pete White, Founder and Co-Director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network has clearly shown, this is, unfortunately, not yet the case. As Pete White told the delegates, if anything, the "drug war" is escalating in the City of Los Angeles where inordinate police manpower and financial resources are devoted to to its ignoble ends. It is not unusual for undercover police officer to say something like this to a homeless person in the "skid row" areas of the city: "Hey, man, I got 20 dollars in my pocket, what have you got for me"? So, a homeless person goes to "get something" for 20 dollars only to find himself in handcuffs upon return, now charged with possession with intent to sell, a much more serious offense which will also make it impossible for him to enter some kind of "diversion" program. These underhanded police actions are fully supported by the "prison-industrial complex", according to Pete White, as those people want more "privatized" jails and prisons, more prisoners, more prison guards, more probation and parole officers, more, more, more... and whose lives they destroy in the process is of very little concern to any of them!
Mr. Jakada Imani, Executive Director of Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, shared the same sentiment as Pete White. As people are rounded up for minor drug possessions, they become second-class citizens, "damned to the life of poverty and exclusion", deprived of most opportunities that others take for granted, locked in misery and despair, as their children are "stuck" in foster homes, with tragic personal consequences and economic burden of such actions benefiting only two groups of individuals: the "prison-industrial complex" and the makers of tobacco and alcohol who would love to keep their "monopoly" on the mind-altering substances in this country.
There was a lively discussion during lunch about marijuana policies, moderated by Stephen Gutwillig, California State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance. Unfortunately, there was what I would only characterize as a certain "ideological split" between Conference organizers, with the DPA fully endorsing Proposition 19 to Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis in the State of California, while California Society of Addiction Medicine adopting what it called a "neutral position" with regard to this important Civil Rights Initiative. Let me state very clearly that California Society of Addiction Medicine does favors decriminalization of possessions for "personal use" and, most definitely, an immediate end of the "drug war", but my personal opinion was (and is) that the National politics have played an important role in its adopted "neutrality" with regards to marijuana Legalization. In this I found myself in complete agreement with Dr. David Bearman of the Academy of Cannabinoid Sciences with whom I was fortunate to make a personal acquaintance. When Dr. Bearman attempted to bring more clarity into discussion by emphasizing the relative safety of Cannabis as compared to ALL other "recreational" substances, he was promptly cut off by Dr. Peter Banys of the UCSF and the San Francisco VA Medical Center under the pretext of "time constraints". I met with the same response from Dr. Barry Zevin when I attempted to introduce the topic of a potential utility of Cannabis in addiction treatment. However, it was very clear from the reactions of most participants that they favor marijuana legalization and support the Proposition 19 on the California ballot this fall.
As our friends from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition Donald MacPherson and Kyle Kazan indicated very clearly, most police departments support the "drug war" and, especially, marijuana arrests because they are beneficial for "departmental funding", all the personal costs and human suffering notwithstanding. As Donald MacPherson stated, "You cannot arrest yourselves out of this problem", so that the rational drug policies must rest on "four pillars" of Science, Compassion, Health and Human Rights". Law enforcement should not make or dominate drug policies, a task that rightfully belongs to addiction treatment professionals and the science that they represent. We must not be like a cat sitting in the litter box and not capable of thinking "outside" that "box".
Dr. Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance made a passionate appeal during the closing Plenary session to end the destructive and futile "drug war" and to pass Proposition 19 legalizing personal marijuana possession by responsible adults in California that is on the ballot this fall. In this he, undoubtedly, resonated with absolute majority of the delegates who rewarded his presentation with a rousing round of applause. As both Dr. Bearman of the Academy of Cannabinoid Sciences and myself agreed in the end, the Conference got better as it progressed, as the majority of speakers and delegates were on the side of ending the "drug war", legalizing Cannabis for personal possession and defeating the "prison-industrial complex" as the sinister entity that threaten our personal liberties as well as effective and scientific methods of dealing with the drug problem in the United States.
After the closing of the official Conference sessions, their was a reception in the courtyard organized by our host, the Endowment Center for Healthy Communities. I used the opportunity to become better acquainted with Dr. David Bearman and was quite happy to conclude that our scientific views on Cannabis as medicine and Cannabis as a recreational substance are one and the same. In the end, the Conference was a remarkable success. It underscored the pressing need for a scientific approach to drug abuse problem, the central role that basic human rights should play in whatever is being done, with the law enforcement not as a "legislator", but as a link in the chain of rational drug policies that are both scientifically sound and practically effective.