Tuesday, September 24, 2013

New publication launched: 'Ending the War on Drugs: How to win the debate in Latin America'

and MUCD were pleased to launch the latest publication from our joint Latin American Programme for Drug Policy Reform in Mexico City yesterday.

Ending the War on Drugs: How to win the debate in Latin America'  is the product of a series of workshops and consultations with experts across the region, and builds on Transform's 2007 book 'After the War on Drugs: Tools for the Debate'.

It is a guide to making the case for drug policy and law reform in Latin America from a position of confidence and authority, with a particular focus on the issue of legal regulation of currently illegal drug markets, something that is now core to the debate in the region. It is for every policymaker, media commentator, and campaigner who not only recognises that the ‘war on drugs’ is a counterproductive failure that is creating catastrophic unintended consequences, but who also wants to convince others to back reform.

It will equip you with the constructive arguments, different approaches and nuanced messaging needed to address the concerns and interests of diverse audiences. This will enable you to not just win the argument, but make the new allies needed to turn the current unparalleled momentum for reform into concrete policy change nationally and internationally. Although the book is tailored to Latin America, the arguments it lays out are relevant for drug policy reformers globally.

Print copies are currently only available in Spanish. The English translation is coming soon, but if you can't wait, a pre-publication draft is available from info@tdpf.org.uk 

Here are some images from the launch event in Mexico City:

 Book launch Panel: Armando Santacruz (MUCD), Josefina Ricaño de Nava (president MUCD), Steve Rolles (Transform, co-author), Sergio Sarmiento (Journalist), Lisa Sanchez (MUCD/Transform, co-author) 
 Lisa Sanchez presenting the book

 Sergio Sarmiento

“Transform/MUCD's Ending the War on Drugs: Making the Case in Latin America workshop in Mexico about how to argue for drug law reform in general, and legal regulation in particular, was invaluable. It should be rolled out globally to advocates of drug law reform, and all policymakers considering change. This education is vital to bring about a smooth and effective transition in drug policy.” 
Ambassador Edgar Guitérrez Girón, Special Mission on Drug Policy Reform for the Republic of Guatemala, 2013

“The time has come to discuss new approaches to dealing with the problems of drugs in the Americas. A new approach should try and take away the violent profit that comes with drug trafficking… If that means legalising, and the world thinks that's the solution, I will welcome it.” 
President Santos of Colombia, 2012

Photography by Mario Hernández

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The world's most draconian drug policies

The last few weeks have been marked by several positive developments in drug policy around the world.
  • The Uruguayan Parliament passed a groundbreaking bill that, subject to Senate approval later this year, will make Uruguay the first country in the world to legally regulate the production and sale of cannabis under government monopoly. 
  • In the United States, Attorney General Eric Holder announced changes in the Justice Department’s sentencing policy so that certain low-level, non-violent drug offenders; "will no longer be charged with offences that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences."
  • The US Federal Government also indicated it will allow individual states to proceed with marijuana legalization, as long as they ensure production and supply are well regulated, including restricting access to minors, and preventing excess production being sold into states that have not legalized.
These important advancements come at a time when the heavy-handed tactics of the war on drugs are being increasingly questioned. Nevertheless, for many governments the punitive war on drugs approach continues to be used to justify a wide range of distressing and unacceptable acts that directly breach their international human rights obligations. From the use of the death penalty for drug offences, to compulsory drug detention centres, arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings, the state of drug policies is, in many countries, draconian to say the least. 

Below is a selection of the most oppressive practices around the world. They highlight the urgent need for a global shift away from criminal justice-led drug policies towards those centred around health that support rather than punish. They also underline that this shift needs to happen not just for marijuana, but for all drugs.

1. China

Official numbers regarding death sentences and executions performed in China are a state secret, and so not readily available. Nevertheless, it is widely believed that China performs more executions than the rest of the world put together. 

Moreover, the conviction rate is nearly 100%, so if someone is accused of a crime that is punishable by the death penalty, they are almost certain to receive that sentence. According to Amnesty International, defendants often face trials where the court has already decided a verdict and possibly a sentence, a practice that could explain why many people are sentenced to death after trials lasting less than an hour.

Although in 2011 China removed 13 mostly economic crimes from the list for which the death penalty can be handed down, but drug offences such as trafficking remain on the list.

The “treatment” of suspected drug users in China also presents a grim picture. In theory, the country's Anti-Drug Law of June 2008 ended the programme of sentencing alleged drug users to Re-Education Through Labour. In reality though, it effectively expanded the previous 6-12 months sentence to a minimum of 2 and sometimes 3 years in drug detention centres instead. The law also allows for a period of up to four years of unspecified “community based rehabilitation”, in practice allowing for up to 7 years of incarceration. The detainees are routinely beaten, forced  to work up to 18 hours a day without pay and denied medical or drug dependency treatment. Detention takes place without trial and the Anti-Drug Law gives the police rather than medical professionals the power to determine the “addiction” and need for detention without any legal process or even evidence of current drug use. A 2009 UNAIDS report estimates that at any given time approximately 500,000 people are undergoing drug detention in China.

2. Iran

The 2011 Amendments to the Anti-Narcotic Law of the Islamic Republic of Iran introduces; “the death penalty for trafficking or possessing more than 30 grams of specified synthetic, non-medical psychotropic drugs, and for recruiting or hiring people to commit any of the crimes under the law, or organising, running, financially supporting, or investing in such activities, in cases where the crime is punishable with life imprisonment”.

In 2011 80% of the 676 executions performed in Iran were of drug offenders. Only 9% of people executed for drug charges were fully identified. The soaring number of arrests for drug trafficking in recent years is in part due to international assistance to halt the flow of drugs from Afghanistan, but also because the drug laws are used to sentence political opponents of the regime. Public executions also seem to be on the rise with a four-fold increase between 2010 and 2011. 
Drug traffickers usually come from the most disadvantaged sectors of society, members of ethnic minorities and foreign nationals, mostly Afghans trying to escape poverty by working as drug mules. A lack of transparency makes getting hard numbers on those facing execution impossible to obtain, but comments by Iranian officials suggest  there may be 4,000 Afghans alone on death row for drug trafficking. According to Amnesty International; "Most - if not all - of those condemned to death for drugs offences have faced grossly unfair trials", or have never even seen the inside of a court at all. 

Although Iran, having a serious national drug problem, with more than 2 million users, has made some progress in decriminalising and providing some forms of treatment for drug users, the number of people on death row for drug trafficking offences remains staggering.

3. Viet Nam

Like in China, Vietnamese death penalty statistics are also considered a state secret. Yet reports state that in 2011 69 people were sentenced to death, 27 of them for drug smuggling. Just five executions have been officially reported.

Viet Nam also has a wide and expanding network of compulsory drug detention centres that in practice have nothing to do with treatment and constitute forced labour camps. Refusal to work, violating rules or not meeting quotas results in punishment that often amounts to torture.  
In 2000 there were 56 centres across the country, a number that increased to 123 in 2011. It is estimated that over 390,000 people passed through those centres between 2000 and 2010.    

Along with this increase came an expansion of the length of detention, from a minimum of three months to one year as of 2000, to four years of supposed drug treatment according to the provisions of a law passed by the National Assembly in 2009. The detention centres stem from a tradition of “re-education through labor” camps for drug users and sex workers established after 1975, and formed part of the governmental campaign to eradicate “social evils” including drug use that gained momentum in the mid-1990s. 

In detention “treatment” involves working six days a week processing cashews, sewing garments, manufacturing garments and other items and working in construction. Both unpaid work, and work for a fraction of the Vietnamese minimal wage is common. What is more, the centres often deduct food, lodging and “managerial fees” from the pay, and upon release people sometimes find themselves indebted to the centres. The law also states that children aged 12-18 who are addicted to drugs can be detained in the centres for up to two years and are also required to work. Legal regulations require that all drug addicts must report their dependency to the local authorities or their workplace, and register for obligatory “detoxification”. Families are also required to report their relatives for drug addiction to the authorities. The vast majority of detainees are heroin users.    

4. Cambodia and Laos

Compulsory drug detention centres are also prevalent in neighbouring Cambodia and Laos. The Government of the Lao People’s Republic declared that it aims to make the country “drug free” by 2015. Achieving this goal includes village militias detaining drug users, and family members being encouraged to report each others drug use.

In both countries these centres have very little to do with treatment, and are often used as dumping grounds for individuals deemed as “undesirable”. People locked up include drug users (casual, past or in genuine need of treatment), the homeless, beggars, street children, sex workers and people with mental disabilities or illness. In both countries the majority of detained users use amphetamine type stimulants, with some addicted to heroin. The vast majority are sent to the centres by the authorities, with large numbers detained at the request of their families, who are often required to pay for “treatment”. 

In 2011 in Laos Human Rights Watch reports mention at least eight drug detention centres throughout the country, with the biggest one - Somsanga located in the capital Vientiane.

According to data from 2010 Cambodia has 11 centres, and in 2008 about 25% of detainees were under 18. Abuse in detention reported by former detainees included beatings, torture, being shocked with electrical batons, rapes, whipping with twisted electrical wire, being coerced into giving blood, and forced labour, often directly benefiting the centre staff.

5. Thailand

This video gives a powerful account of the  struggle of Thai drug user activists and  the 2003  war on drugs launched by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, that entailed almost 3000 extra judicial killings. In 2007 an official investigation found that over 50% of the victims had no connection to drugs whatsoever.

Since 2003, thousands of people in Thailand have been forced into drug “treatment” detention centres run by security forces, where human rights abuses are rife.

6. Saudi Arabia

As the International Harm Reduction Association's Death Penalty for Drug Offences report states, in the first six months of 2012 there were at least 45 executions in Saudi Arabia, at least 16 of them for drug offences including a minimum of 3 for cannabis. It is known that foreigners, a lot of them from Pakistan, are disproportionately sentenced to death.

7. Singapore and Malaysia

Executions for drug offences still take place in Singapore and Malaysia, although these countries have lately seen a push to reconsider the mandatory death sentence for drug trafficking. Nevertheless, 2 people were executed for drug offences in Singapore in 2011 and in Malaysia in the same year 83 people (including 22 foreigners) were given a death sentence for drug offences although no executions were carried out.

8. Russia

There are an estimated 1.8 million injecting drug users in Russia - one of the highest levels in the world. About a decade ago 100,000 people in Russia were HIV positive, by 2012 that number had jumped to over 1 million. Russia is at the epicentre of the fastest growing HIV epidemic in the world - yet the response of its authorities includes restricting precisely the kind of harm reduction measures that have been proven to work all over the globe including needle exchange programs, and opposition to the use of methadone and buprenorphine as well as attacks on NGOs providing crucial assistance to drug users, such as the Andrey Rylkov Foundation.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

The end of cannabis prohibition - beyond the tipping point

The first system of state government regulated production and supply of cannabis for non-medical use came one step closer this week, with the publication by the Washington State Liquor Control Board of its latest draft rules for the production and supply of marijuana. (See below for highlights)

These proposed new rules appear to meet the requirements laid down by US Attorney General Eric Holder in his recent announcement that the Federal Government will allow individual states to proceed with marijuana legalization, as long  they ensure production and supply are well regulated, including restricting access to minors, and preventing excess production being sold into states that have not legalized.

Transform welcomes the broad thrust of Washington State's regulations which, are in line with what we have been calling for, including in our book After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation, and in our forthcoming publication How to Regulate Cannabis: A Practical Guide.

We also find the detail fascinating, shaped as it is by a combination of the requirements of the wording of the ballot initiative that voters passed; existing federal and state regulatory frameworks and laws they must accommodate and comply with, for example on packaging, advertising, intoxicants etc; the Federal Government's specific requirements; and last but not least, the rapidly changing US political and cultural landscape too.

Included in that changing landscape is the fact that cannabis legalisation ballot initiatives significantly increase the number of young voters who make it to the ballot box, something that favours Democratic candidates (by and large).  As a result, with over half of all Americans now supporting marijuana law reform, and 83% saying the war on drugs has been lost, for Democrats at least, cannabis law reform is no longer a third rail issue - it is a vote winner, whether Obama can say so publicly or not. How do the Republicans respond to this? Calling for the Federal Government to stamp all over states rights is not acceptable for most of them, and with even former Presidential Candidate John McCain saying "Maybe we should legalize" marijuana, surely the game is up.

Internationally, these changes combined with a general reduction in international influence means that the US can no longer effectively dictate a global prohibitionist approach to cannabis, as underlined by Uruguay's bold moves. With legislators in many other regions expressing support for Uruguay, or interest in legalizing cannabis in their own cities or countries, it is clear we are not at a tipping point on ending cannabis prohibition. We have passed it.

September 4, 2013

LCB Rulemaking Objective

  • Creating a tightly controlled and regulated marijuana market;
  • Including strict controls to prevent diversion, illegal sales, and sales to minors; and
  • Providing reasonable access to products to mitigate the illicit market.

LCB Role and Responsibility

  • Ensuring public safety is the top priority;
  • Creating a three-tier regulatory system for marijuana;
  • Creating licenses for producers, processors, and retailers;
  • Enforcing laws and rules pertaining to licensees; and
  • Collecting and distributing taxes.


  • December 6, 2012 Effective date of new law
  • September 4, 2013 File Supplemental CR 102 with revised proposed rules
  • October 9, 2013 Public hearing(s) on proposed rules (time and location TBD)
  • October 16, 2013 Board adopts or rejects proposed rules (CR 103)
  • November 16, 2013 Rules become effective
  • November 18, 2013 Begin accepting applications for all three licenses (30-day window)
  • December 1, 2013 Deadline for rules to be complete (as mandated by law)
  • December 18, 2013 30-day window closes for producer, processor and retailer license applications

Proposed Rules Highlights

License Requirements

30-day Window

  • The LCB will open registration for all license types for a 30-calendar-day window (November 18, 2013)
  • LCB may extend the time or reopen application window at its discretion

State Residency Requirement

  •  I-502 requires a three month state residency requirement (all license structure types)

Background Checks

  • Personal criminal history completed by applicant. Risk of license forfeiture if incomplete or incorrect.
  • Fingerprinting of all potential licensees 
  • Background checks of license applicants and financiers

Point System

  • The LCB will apply a disqualifying point system similar to liquor
  • All applicants must disclose all arrests and/or convictions
  • Non-disclosure of arrests regardless of conviction will result in point accumulation

License Limits

  • Licensed entity or principals limited to three producer licenses 
  • Licensed entity or principals limited to three processor licenses
  • Licensed entity or principals limited to three retail licenses. 
  • Multiple-location licensees not allowed to hold more than 33 percent of the allowed licenses in any county or city. 

Production Limits

  • The maximum amount of space for marijuana production is limited to two million square feet.
  • Applicants must designate on their operating plan the size category of the production premises and the actual square footage in their premises that will be designated as plant canopy.

 There are three categories:

  • Tier 1: Less than 2,000 square feet;
  • Tier 2: 2,000 square feet to 10,000 square feet;
  • Tier 3: 10,000 square feet to 30,000 square feet.

The LCB may reduce a licensee’s or applicants’ square footage designated to plant canopy for the
following reasons:

  • If the total amount of square feet for production of all licensees exceeds the two million square feet maximum, the LCB will reduce the allowed square footage by the same percentage.
  • If 50 percent production space used for plant canopy in the licensee’s operating plan is not met in the first year of operation, the board may reduce the tier of licensure.
  • If the total amount of square feet of marijuana production exceeds two million square feet, the LCB may reduce all licensees’ production by the same percentage or reduce licensee production by one or more tiers by the same percentage.

Maximum Allowable Amount on Licensed Location

Producer license

  • Outdoor or greenhouse: 125 percent of its year’s harvest
  • Indoor: six months of its annual harvest

Processor license

  • Six months of their average useable marijuana (plant material); and
  • Six months average of their total production (finished product).

Retailer license

  • Four months of their average inventory
  • Licensed Location: 1000 foot Measurement

Distance will be measured along the most direct route over or across established public walks, streets,
or other public passageway between the proposed building/business location to the perimeter of the
grounds of: an elementary or secondary school, playground, recreation center or facility, child care
center, public park, public transit center, library or arcade where admission is not restricted to those
age 21 and older.

Costs and Fees

  • $250 application fee
  • $1,000 annual renewal fee
  • Additional fees for background check and filing for local business license


  • License applicants must submit a signed attestation that they are current on taxes owed to the Washington State Department of Revenue


  • Licensees are required to carry commercial liability insurance.

Public Safety

Producer Structures

  • Rules allow producer operations in secure: indoor and outdoor grows as well as greenhouses


  • LCB will employ a robust and comprehensive traceability system (software) that will trace product from seed/clone to sale.
  • LCB enforcement can match records to actual product on hand 

Background Checks

  • Personal criminal history form
  • Fingerprinting of all potential licensees
  • Background checks of licensees and financiers

Point System

  • LCB will apply a disqualifying point system similar to liquor (exceptions for possession)

Violation Guidelines / Standard Administrative Procedures Act Guidelines

  •  $1,000 criminal penalty for sales to a minor
  • Sets strict tiered system of violation record over a three year period

Group 1 public safety:

  • First violation: 10 day suspension or $2,500
  • Second violation: 30 day suspension
  • Third violation: license cancellation

Local Authority Objections

  • Substantial weight will be given to a local authority during the renewal process based upon chronic illegal activity associated with the licensee’s operation of the premises.

Child Resistant Packaging

  •  Specific requirements for marijuana and marijuana-infused products in solid and liquid forms

Security and Safeguards

  • Alarm and surveillance video camera requirements (including minimum pixels and lockbox 
  • encasement)
  • Strict transportation and record keeping requirements (no third party transport of product)
  • Hours of operation limited to 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 a.m.

Advertising Restrictions

  • Law restricts advertising within 1,000 feet of schools, public parks, transit centers, arcades, and other areas where children are present.
  • May not contain statements or illustrations that are false or misleading, promotes overconsumption, represents that it has curative or therapeutic effects, depicts a child or may be appealing to children
  • All advertising must contain two statements: a: “This product has intoxicating effects and may be habit 
  • forming.” And, b) “Marijuana can impair concentration, coordination, and judgment. Do not operate a vehicle or machinery under the influence of this drug.” 

Limits on Retail Stores

  • Total number or retail outlets limited to 334 statewide
  • LCB to provide advance notice to local authority
  • Per I-502, LCB to determine number of retail outlets per county
  • BOTEC Analysis Corporation provided initial county consumption levels
  • Retail stores allocation proportionate to population and consumption

Behind the Counter Storage

  • No open containers or handling of product
  • Sniff jars with sealed, screened-top lids allowed

Strict Packaging and Label Requirements

  • Limited servings and concentration per package
  • Lot number
  • Warning label
  • Net weight
  • Concentration of THC 
  • Usage warnings (specific warning for ingestible foods/liquids about effect delays)

Upon request

  • Third party lab that tested lot and results
  • All pesticides, herbicides, fungicides found in product

Defined Serving Size

  • Defined serving sizes on marijuana-infused product label
  • 10 mg of THC per serving
  • 100 mg of THC per product
  • A single unit of marijuana-infused extract for inhalation cannot exceed one gram

Transaction Limits on Concentrates (extracts)

  • A single transaction is limited to seven grams of marijuana-infused extract for inhalation

Lab Tested and Approved (monograph)

  • All lots will be tested by independent accredited labs
  • Established and uniform testing standards
  • Quality assurance testing

Store Signage and Product Warnings

  • No minors allowed in stores
  • Required product and usage signs within stores

For more information regarding Initiative 502, please visit the Liquor Control Board website at www.liq.wa.gov.