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The Movement to Expunge Marijuana Convictions in Legalization States Picks Up Steam [FEATURE]

Fri, 05/18/2018 - 21:47

special to Drug War Chronicle by Houston-based investigative journalist Clarence Walker, newswriter74@yahoo.com

As marijuana legalization spreads into various states, some are allowing people who'd been previously been convicted of possession of a small amount of pot to clear their records.

[image:1 align:left caption:true]They have their convictions either wiped off their record forever under state expungement laws or, in some cases, have low-level felony marijuana convictions be reduced to misdemeanors. In another variation, a marijuana conviction can be sealed from public view pursuant to a court order under a state's nondisclosure law.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, over 574,000 American citizens were charged with simple possession in 2016.

"It really makes sense to not burden these people with a lifelong criminal record," Kate Bell, a lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project in Maryland, recently told the Washington Post.

Approximately 12 more states are considering marijuana legalization this year, with possibly more hopping on the express train as the continuing quest for marijuana legalization continue to roll down the tracks at full speed, making 2018 a pivotal year in the ever-growing movement to convince lawmakers to legalize pot in all 50 states.

"With over 60 percent of Americans now supporting the full legalization of marijuana for adults, the momentum behind marijuana law reform will not only continue but increase as we head into 2018," said NORML executive director Erik Altieri.

[image:2 align:right caption:true]People with prior marijuana convictions face a harsh reality when it comes to becoming a productive member of society with a criminal record. A simple marijuana conviction carries adverse consequences by diminishing a person's access to employment and higher education, military induction denial, and a person can even be denied access to fair housing, particularly apartment rentals.

Recently at least 4,900 Californians petitioned the courts to have their prior marijuana convictions expunged off their criminal record.

Washington state legalized marijuana in 2012, yet many convicted citizens have been burdened with criminal records for simple misdemeanor pot convictions while slick wealthy investors make a killing selling legal weed. Moving to redress the injustice, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced in February that the city will toss several hundred low-level misdemeanor marijuana cases.

"The war on drugs ended up being a war on people who needed help, who needed opportunity and who needed treatment," Durkan told a news conference at the time.

Similarly, prosecutors in San Francisco will throw out thousands of marijuana-related convictions dating back to 1975. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon said earlier this year his office will dismiss and seal 3,038 misdemeanor convictions from before the state's legalization of marijuana went into effect, with no action necessary from those convicted.

The moves make perfect sense. What else should happen to convictions for a victimless crime when that victimless behavior is now no longer a crime? American University Law Professor Jenny Roberts has an idea.

"If you've made a legislative determination that this is no longer criminal; why would you want to continue to have people feeling the ramifications of something that people going forward will no longer have to suffer?" she asked.

[image:3 align:left caption:true]In many states that have legalized marijuana, lawmakers are moving in the same direction.

"Since this is now the law of Nevada, it's important we allow folks who have made these mistakes in the past to have their records sealed up," said Nevada Assemblyman William McCurdy, a Democrat who proposed a bill on the issue.

Oregon state law now allows people who'd been convicted of an ounce of marijuana or growing up to six marijuana plants to have their record sealed now that marijuana is legal.

But in Colorado, some lawmakers fought against the proposal. For example, the legislature considered a bill in 2014 to allow citizens to petition the courts to seal their criminal records for old convictions, but the bill died in committee after facing stiff opposition from prosecutors. The Colorado District Attorneys Council opposed the bill because, they argued, it allowed low-level drug dealers to wipe their records clean.

"There were many cases of (drug) distribution that were pleaded down to low-level (possession) felonies," said council executive director Thomas Raynes.

"The bill creates a horrible precedent by retrofitting criminal sanctions for past conduct every time a new law is changed or passed," objected Carolyn Tyler, spokeswoman for Republican Attorney General John Suthers.

This year, Colorado passed a less controversial law focused specifically on misdemeanor possession.

Nevada also suffered a mild setback. Governor Brian Sandoval (R) vetoed McCurdy's bill requiring judges to seal records and vacate judgments for marijuana offenses that are now legal.

"To the extent there are individuals suffering under criminal records for conduct now legal in Nevada, those cases are best handled on a case-by-case basis," Sandoval wrote in his veto statement. "Given other reforms to the sealing and expungement process in Nevada, a marijuana-specific law wasn't necessary," Sandoval added.

Although nearly a million people have been arrested for marijuana crimes in California during the past decade, according to Drug Policy Alliance, California courts only received 1,506 petitions from applicants requesting their marijuana conviction be sealed or expunged.

DPA further reported that more than 78,000 convictions qualify to be set aside in Oregon, yet few are seeking expungement. Oregon courts only received approximately 388 requests for set-asides in cases involving marijuana in 2015, with 453 in 2016, and 365 requests in 2017.

Courts are more likely, though, to reject petitioners with extensive criminal histories including violent crimes like murder, kidnapping, sexual assaults, money laundering and crimes involving large amount of drugs.

Marijuana is now legal in nine states and the District of Columbia, and medical marijuana in 29 states. The following states are preparing marijuana offense expungement legislation:

California

Assembly Bill 1793, introduced by Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-18th District), seeks to enact legislation that would allow the "automatic expungement or reduction of a prior cannabis conviction for an act that is not a crime as of January 1, 2017." Under Proposition 64, residents of California are now allowed to possess and purchase up to 1 ounce of marijuana and cultivate no more than six plants for personal use. The voter-approved measure, in addition to legalizing adult-use consumption, cultivation, and distribution -- allows individuals convicted of past criminal marijuana possessions to petition the courts to have those convictions expunged. An expensive and time-consuming venture for most individuals, the automatic expungement of records would be mandated by the passage AB-1793.

Massachusetts

H.2785, authored by Rep. Aaron Vega (D-5th District), and cosigned by 25 other elected officials, would allow for the expungement of "records of marijuana arrest, detention, conviction and incarceration." Marijuana use in Massachusetts was first decriminalized in 2008, with the voters approving medical marijuana just four years later in November 2012. Officially legalized for adult use on Nov. 8, 2016, residents are still waiting for their first recreational dispensary to open.

New Jersey

S.830, sponsored by Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-22nd District), would not only legalize the personal possession and use of small amounts of marijuana by those over the age of 21, the bill also allows a person convicted of a prior marijuana possession to present an application for expungement to the state's Superior Court.

Vermont

H.865, sponsored by Maxine Grad (D), Tom Burditt (R), Chip Conquest (D), would allow a person to file a petition with the court requesting expungement or sealing of the criminal history related to a conviction if "the person was convicted of an underlying offense for which the underlying conduct is no longer prohibited by law or designated as a criminal offense."

Categories: Latest News

Marijuana's Midwest Breakthrough: Michigan to Vote on Legalization in November [FEATURE]

Wed, 04/25/2018 - 16:55

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

The Midwest could soon see its first state end marijuana prohibition. State officials in Michigan announced Tuesday that a marijuana legalization initiative has enough valid voter signatures to appear on the November ballot. Polls in the state suggest it will win.

[image:1 align:left]That would be a major breakthrough for legal marijuana. So far, legalization has been limited to West Coast, Rocky Mountain, and New England states, but a victory in Michigan this fall would free the weed in a major Midwest state. Legal marijuana would no longer be limited to the country's fringes, but would have a home in the heartland, and that would lay the groundwork for a more rapid erosion of pot prohibition at the state level.

There's a chance some other state could beat Michigan to the punch -- there are legislative efforts still alive in several states -- but legalizing weed at the statehouse has proven to be a frustrating, years-long task. With a ballot initiative, voters accomplish as much (if not more and better) in one fell swoop.

It's not absolutely official yet -- the state Board of Canvassers is set to formally certify the count on Thursday -- but the Board of Elections announced Monday that it counted 277,370 valid voter signatures, nearly 10% more than the 252,523 required to be approved for the ballot.

The initiative, the Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act, would:

  • Legalize the possession and sale of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana for personal, recreational use and up to 10 ounces at home.
  • Legalize the cultivation of up to 12 plants, as well as the fruits of the harvest.
  • Tax marijuana sales at a rate of a 10% excise tax at the retail level as well as a 6% sales tax. The estimated revenues from the taxes are at least $100 million.
  • Split those revenues with 35% going to K-12 education, 35% to roads, 15% to the communities that allow marijuana businesses in their communities and 15% to counties where marijuana business are located.
  • Allow communities to decide whether they'll permit marijuana businesses.
  • Restrict purchases of marijuana for recreational purposes to 2.5 ounces, but an individual could keep up to 10 ounces of marijuana in their homes.
  • Allow the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA), and not the politically appointed licensing board that will regulate the medical marijuana side of the issue, to regulate and license marijuana businesses, ranging from growers, transporters, testers and dispensaries.
  • Set up three classes of marijuana growers: up to 100, 500 and 2,000 plants.

The initiative was put together by the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, a combined effort of veteran state activists and the ACLU of Michigan and national drug reform groups, including the Marijuana Policy Project and the Drug Policy Alliance. It was built on the back of a 2016 initiative campaign that came up just short on signatures.

The initiative looks well-positioned to win in November, riding as it does pot's ever-increasing wave of popularity. A February poll had support for legalization in Michigan at 57%, while a March poll came in at 61%. Those are the kinds of polling numbers initiative and referendum experts like to see at the beginning of the campaign because they suggest that even with the inevitable erosion of support in the face of opposition attacks, the measure still has a big enough cushion to pull off a victory.

Support for legalization has also seeped into the state Democratic Party, with all four Democratic gubernatorial candidates now behind it. Ditto for the state attorney general race, with both Democrats now embracing legalization.

No mainstream Republicans have embraced the initiative, but there have been reports that state GOP politicians are now considering passing a legalization bill in the legislature in a bid to blunt voter turnout in what they fear could be a Blue Wave election. They worry that the chance to vote for marijuana could produce an electorate more likely to throw them out of office.

They may well be right. The day after election day, Michigan could wake up to both legal marijuana and a Democratic majority in the state house and/or senate. Wouldn't that be something?

Categories: Latest News

Trump Cuts the Legs Out from Under Sessions' War on Weed [FEATURE]

Mon, 04/16/2018 - 03:04

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

President Trump last week signaled a dramatic turnaround in administration marijuana policy, telling Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner that the Justice Department would not go after state-legal marijuana in Colorado and that he would support moves to address the contradiction between legal marijuana states and federal prohibition.

[image:1 align:right caption:true]That puts Trump in line with his own campaign statements that marijuana should be a states' rights issue, but at odds with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has been a staunch opponent of marijuana legalization and who has explicitly told federal prosecutors they are free to go after the legal marijuana industry. Sessions, who is much abused by Trump for failing to protect him from the Mueller investigation, now finds himself on the outs on pot policy, too.

And Trump didn't even bother to tell Sessions he was about to cut the legs out from under him, an almost unprecedented slight from a president to his attorney general.

Gardner, a Republican up for reelection in a pot-friendly state, had placed a hold on Justice Department nominees since Sessions rescinded the Obama-era policy in January and announced the apparent policy shift with a Friday afternoon press release after a phone call with Trump earlier in the week.

"Since the campaign, President Trump has consistently supported states' rights to decide for themselves how best to approach marijuana," Gardner said. "Late Wednesday, I received a commitment from the President that the Department of Justice's rescission of the Cole memo [Obama-era guidance] will not impact Colorado's legal marijuana industry. Furthermore, President Trump has assured me that he will support a federalism-based legislative solution to fix this states' rights issue once and for all."

Gardner said Trump's comments had convinced him to remove his remaining holds on Justice Department nominees, and that he would continue to work on a bipartisan legislative solution to pass Congress so Trump can "deliver on his campaign position."

"The president did speak with Sen. Gardner yesterday and again today," White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Friday. She said "the president is a firm believer" in states' rights and confirmed Gardner's account of the assurances he received from the president was accurate.

[image:2 align:left caption:true]While Trump is notorious for seat-of-the-pants policy shifts and for lack of follow-through on policy pronouncements, some activist groups were quick to laud the apparent shift.

"Sen. Gardner has done a great service for his constituents by standing up for federalism regarding marijuana policy," said Don Murphy, director of conservative outreach for the Marijuana Policy Project. "Everyone who knew about President Trump's statements on this issue during the campaign was hoping he would uphold those values and support states' abilities to enact laws regulating marijuana for medical or adult use while in office. This news should make states more comfortable implementing their legalization programs. It should also serve as a rallying cry for lawmakers to pass comprehensive legislation that leaves marijuana policy to the states permanently."

Congress renewed spending restrictions that prevent federal interference in state medical marijuana in March, but no such protections exist for states that have regulated marijuana for adults. Trump's statements suggest that the same policy will apply to both medical and adult use providers, but the Dept. of Justice could still legally pursue cases against state-legal adult use operations if federal prosecutors choose to do so.

"With the support of the president, the American public, and mounting evidence that regulating marijuana similarly to alcohol is much preferable to prohibition, there is no reason for Congress to delay any longer," continued Murphy. "There are several pieces of marijuana policy legislation being considered right now, and every one of them should get hearings immediately."

But Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson was more cautious. As the head law enforcement officer in a legal marijuana state, Ferguson is adopting a wait-and-see position.

"I understand President Trump has offered his support for states to have the right to regulate marijuana and for legislation to enshrine this right in law," he said in a Friday statement. "I am cautiously optimistic that the president appears to have heard the will of the people on this issue. But this president has demonstrated a willingness to go back on his word. Until there is a formal agreement protecting Washington's well-regulated marijuana industry, I will continue to stand ready to defend it."

Given this president, that is probably the prudent position.

Categories: Latest News

Four Ways Using Even Legal Marijuana Makes You a Second Class Citizen [FEATURE]

Thu, 04/12/2018 - 00:08

Marijuana is now legal in nine states constituting about one-fifth of the US population, and medical marijuana is recognized in a total of 29 states. That means people in those states can possess and use marijuana without fear of criminal prosecutions (if they have a doctor's recommendation in the medical marijuana-only states).

[image:1 align:left caption:true]But even in legal marijuana states, pot smokers face restrictions that in effect turn them into second-class citizens, unable to do things non-drug users or users of legally sanctioned drugs, such as alcohol, can do, or somehow punished for doing them. While legalizing marijuana is a giant breakthrough, as long as marijuana users face stigma, discrimination, and worse over their choice of substances, the job is only half-done.

Here are four ways even legal marijuana users get screwed:

1. Employment Rights

You may be able to smoke pot legally, but it can still cost you your job. Even in legal marijuana states, legalization laws generally are careful not to intrude on the rights of employers to conduct drug testing for pot and to fire people who test positive -- even if they're not high or impaired at work.

Legal cases in California, Colorado, Montana, and Washington have all upheld the right of employers to fire or refuse to hire workers who test positive for marijuana even if they have a medical marijuana recommendation. But the law is rapidly evolving, and a recent case from Connecticut, a nursing home that refused to hire a medical marijuana patient after he tested positive for THC was ordered to reinstate the job offer.

A thriving economy and growing social acceptance of marijuana may also bring some solace to pot smokers. As Bloomberg noted just last month, we are now seeing a "slow decline in pre-employment drug screening," with some major employers abandoning the practice in the face of a tight job market. That trend, unsurprisingly, is being led by companies in the marijuana legal states. In Colorado, for instance, the percentage of employers using pre-employment drug tests declined from 77% in 2016 to 66% last year.

But still, if you smoked a joint on Friday night, Walmart still doesn't think you're fit to stock their shelves on Monday morning.

2. Gun Rights

If you smoke pot, you can't legally purchase or own a gun. As more states move toward legalization, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) has clarified its Form 4473, the federal Firearms Transaction Record that purchaser must fill out to buy a gun: "Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance?" the form asks.

And just so you stoners get it, ATF has added the following language: "Warning: The use or possession of marijuana remains unlawful under Federal law regardless of whether it has been legalized or decriminalized for medicinal or recreational purposes in the state where you reside."

That means marijuana users who want to legally purchase a weapon have to lie on Form 4473. And that's a federal crime. (Unlikely to be caught and prosecuted, but still.)

In August 2016, a federal appeals court upheld the ban on gun sales to medical marijuana patients. The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that the federal government's ban on gun sales to medical marijuana cardholders does not violate the 2nd Amendment. The decision came in the case of a Nevada woman turned away from a gun shop after obtaining a medical marijuana card. The ruling sets precedent for all nine states in the circuit, including California, Oregon, and Washington.

There have been proactive efforts by law enforcement in a handful of states to, for example, order registered medical marijuana patients to turn in their guns, but those have so far been aborted in the face of loud opposition. In Pennsylvania, the state Health Department is no longer providing the names of patients to law enforcement after newspapers there reported the patients would not be able to buy firearms; in Illinois, regulators removed a rule that would have barred legal gun owners from becoming patients; and in Hawaii, police had to walk back a plan to force patients to hand in their guns.

Still, as long as the federal government maintains marijuana prohibition and as long as ATF considers marijuana a controlled substance, pot smokers' gun rights are at risk. And the NRA doesn't seem to care.

3. Parental Rights

In both medical marijuana states and full-blown legal pot states, parents have lost custody of their children over their marijuana use. Part of the problem is that marijuana remains federally illegal, turning the pot-using parent into a criminal in the eyes of courts of child protective services workers. Another part of the problem is discrimination and subjectivity about what constitutes "the best interest of the child." If a child protective bureaucracy or even an individual case worker harbors anti-marijuana sentiments, even non-problematic recreational use of pot can be used to take children from the home or deny custody to the offending parent.

Marijuana use is especially likely to pop up in divorces where custody of the child or children is contested. If your spouse griped about your pot-smoking while you were married, be prepared for him or her to try to use it against you in a nasty divorce case. Divorce attorneys warn parents facing this prospect to quit smoking pot now, well ahead of any court dates and court-ordered drug tests.

That's another way pot-smoking parents get hammered. Courts may demand onerous drug testing for months or year or require that visits with children be supervised.

Medical marijuana support groups report hundreds of cases of parents losing custody of their kids, some merely for having registered as medical marijuana patients. But there are small signs of positive change on the horizon: California's Prop 64, for instance, includes a provision saying courts can no longer rescind or restrict a parent's custodial rights solely because they have a medical marijuana recommendation.

That's a start, but we still have a long way to go before pot-smoking parents can rest easy.

4. Housing Rights

You can be kicked out of your home for using marijuana if you are poor and live in HUD, Section 8, or other federally-subsidized housing. Under a 1999 HUD Memorandum Regarding Medical Marijuana in Public Housing still in effect, any activity relating to controlled substances, including even medical marijuana, can get you evicted.

And it doesn't have to be just you. If you live in federally-subsidized housing and your grandson gets caught smoking a joint in the parking lot, you can find yourself tossed out on the street.

Even people who don't live in federally-subsidized housing face problems, especially if they live in rental housing. Landlords can prohibit tenants from using marijuana, and rental apartment industry associations typically counsel their members that "banning the use or possession of marijuana on site does not violate any landlord/tenant or fair housing laws, even when marijuana has been legalized by local ordinance or state statute." Nor, they argue, is allowing the use or cultivation of medical marijuana a "reasonable accommodation" required by law, even if it's been medically recommended.

Marijuana is increasingly legal and accepted, but the progress is uneven, and the battle to be treated like normal citizens remains unfinished.

Categories: Latest News

Seven Occupations That Don't Require You to Take a Drug Test to Get Hired [FEATURE]

Fri, 04/06/2018 - 00:03

Widespread workplace drug testing -- a uniquely American phenomenon -- has generated controversy ever since Ronald Reagan pushed hard for it back in the 1980s. On the one hand, opponents see it as an invasion of workers' privacy protections; on the other, advocates believe it is the best means of preventing injuries that might occur when a worker is intoxicated.

[image:1 align:right]Although workplace drug testing was rare prior to Reagan, 56% of all employers now require pre-employment drug tests, according to Statistic Brain. Some of this is mandated by law: Truck drivers, airline pilots and some other public transport positions face federal drug-testing requirements. But much pre-employment drug testing and random, suspicionless drug testing is not required by law; it is instead the employers' choice.

High levels of drug testing are to be found in industries such as health care, heavy manufacturing and construction, where being impaired on the job can lead to loss of life or limb or endanger the health and well-being of others. But drug testing is also popular in industries with no such apparent risk, such as retail. Whether that guy at the camera counter at Walmart smoked a joint over the weekend probably has no discernible impact on public safety.

Speaking of smoking joints, marijuana is by far the most commonly used illicit drug (though it's now legal in nine states). Positive workplace drug tests for marijuana are on the rise, reflecting broader popular acceptance of the drug, which is also leading some companies to quit testing for pot. In a low unemployment economy, employers may be increasingly reluctant to lose potential workers over a positive test for marijuana.

And some potential workers are reluctant to seek employment at places that are going to subject them to drug testing. Fortunately for them, there are some economic sectors where facing a pre-employment or random at-work drug test is not a real risk -- in fact, it's a rarity. But most of these jobs require a university degree. Like so many things in America, drug testing is a class thing.

That said, if you want to work in a field where you don't have to worry about peeing in a bottle to get or keep a job, here, thanks to Insider Monkey, are some options.

1. Management Positions

These relatively well-paying professional gigs tend to have drug testing levels approaching absolute zero. On the high end, if you can call it that, were general managers (1.8%) and project managers (1.6%), but office managers, business managers, and retail managers all came in under 1%, with event managers besting them all at a minuscule 0.01%. Average pay for these positions ranged from the mid-40s for retail and office managers to more than $70,000 for project managers. Ironically, the administrative assistant position, which can be an excellent entry-level job for people seeking careers as managers, is more likely to be subject to drug testing than any managerial position. Still, it's only 1.9% of administrative assistants.

2. Personal Services

You're not going to get rich in these jobs, but you're not likely to get drug tested, either. Because of the transient nature of jobs in these careers or because many people in these fields are self-employed, gig economy workers just don't get that drug test scrutiny. Cosmetologists, hairstylists and fitness trainers all face testing less than 1% of the time, while pet groomers and massage therapists come in under 3%. These jobs have median pay ranging from around $25,000 to $30,000.

3. Information Technology

These are the fields that are stereotypically the domain of the nerdy stoner. You wouldn't expect employers in the industry to turn down a budding genius because he gets high at home, and you would be right. Only 3% of web designers and IT consultants face the empty cup, and fewer than 3% of Java developers and front-end developers do. While not quite as drug testing-free as cosmetologists or pet groomers, IT workers make a lot more money. On the low end, web designers are pulling in a median $48,000, while pay is around $70,000 for the other positions listed.

4. Marketing

Those bright, shiny people trying to make us buy stuff are also largely exempt from drug testing, especially on the bottom rungs. Only 0.3% of marketing assistants are subject to pre-employment drug screens, and only 3.8% of marketing coordinators. The former positions average $36,000 a year, while the latter average $41,500.

5. Real Estate, Insurance and Financial Services

These white-collar jobs are all unlikely to see drug testing requirements. Fewer than 3% of loan processors and insurance agents face the prospect of peeing in a cup to win a job, while a minuscule 0.5% of real estate agents do. Real estate agents are also the highest paid in this group, averaging $47,000, while both loan processors and insurance agents come in at under $40,000.

6. Bartender

People whose job it is to mix and sell legal psychoactive substances are very unlikely to be tested for illegal ones. With only 3.2% of employers demanding pre-employment drug tests, bartenders are the least likely of restaurant and bar workers to be tested. Chefs face testing at a rate of 6.2%, while 4% of hostesses are likely to face it. The median salary for bartenders is $29,240.

7. Creative White Collar

Neither graphic designers nor copywriters are likely to face a pre-employment drug test. A big reason is that many of these are freelance gigs: No boss = no drug test. But even when working for employers, drug testing is unlikely in these fields. Copywriters came in at 3.2%, while graphic designers were at 3.9%.

Categories: Latest News

Culture Shock: American Activists Confront Compassionate Portuguese Drug Policy [FEATURE]

Wed, 04/04/2018 - 19:56

The American activists couldn't wrap their heads around it. Sitting in a dingy office in a nondescript building in central Lisbon, they were being provided a fine-grained explanation of what happens to people caught with small amounts of drugs in Portugal, which decriminalized the possession of personal use amounts of drugs 17 years ago.

[image:1 align:left caption:true]The activists, having lived the American experience, wanted desperately to know when and how the coercive power of the state kicked in, how the drug users were to be punished for their transgressions, even if they had only been hit with an administrative citation, which is what happens to people caught with small quantities of drugs there.

Nuno Capaz was trying to explain. He is Vice Chairman of the Lisbon Dissuasion Commission, the three-member tribunal set up to handle people caught with drugs. He had to struggle mightily to convince the Americans that it wasn't about punishment, but about personal and public health.

"The first question," he explained, "is whether this person is a recreational user or an addict."

If the person is deemed only a recreational user, he may face a fine or a call to community service. If he is deemed an addict, treatment is recommended -- but not required.

"But what if they don't comply?" one of the activists demanded. "Don't they go to jail then?"

No, they do not. Instead, Capaz patiently explained, they may face sanctions for non-compliance, but those sanctions may be little more than a demand that they regularly present themselves to a hospital or health center for monitoring.

In a later hallway conversation, I asked Capaz about drug users who simply refused to go along or to participate at all. What happens then? I wanted to know.

Capaz shrugged his shoulders. "Nothing," he said. "I tell them to try not to get caught again."

Welcome to Portugal. The country's low-key, non-headline-generating drug policy, based on compassion, public health, and public safety, is a stark contrast with the US, as the mind-boggled response of the activists suggests.

Organized by the Drug Policy Alliance and consisting of members of local and national groups that work with the organization, as well as a handful of journalists, the group spent three days in-country last month seeing what an enlightened drug policy looks like. They met with high government officials directly involved in creating and implementing drug decriminalization, toured drug treatment, harm reduction, and mobile methadone maintenance facilities, and heard from Portuguese drug users and harm reduction workers as well.

The Portuguese Model and Its Accomplishments

They had good reason to go to Portugal. After nearly two decades of drug decriminalization, there is ample evidence that the Portuguese model is working well. Treating drug users like citizens who could possibly use some help instead of like criminals to be locked up is paying off by all the standard metrics -- as well as by not replicating the thuggish and brutal American-style war on drugs, with all the deleterious and corrosive impacts that has on the communities particularly targeted for American drug law enforcement.

Here, according to independent academic researchers, as well as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the European Monitoring Center of Drugs and Drug Abuse, is what the Portuguese have accomplished:

Drug use has not dramatically increased. Rates of past year and past month drug use have not changed significantly or have actually declined since 2001. And Portugal's drug use rates remain among the lowest in Europe, and well below those in the United States.

Both teen drug use and "problematic" drug use (people who are dependent or who inject drugs) have declined.

Drug arrests and incarceration are way down. Drug arrests have dropped by 60% (selling drugs remains illegal) and the percentage of prisoners doing time for drug offenses has dropped from 44% to 24%. Meanwhile, the number of people referred to the Dissuasion Commission has remained steady, indicating that no "net-widening" has taken place. And the vast majority of cases that go before the commission are found to be non-problematic drug users and are dismissed without sanction.

More people are receiving drug treatment -- and on demand, not by court order. The number of people receiving drug treatment increased by 60% by 2011, with most of them receiving opiate-substitution therapy (methadone). Treatment is voluntary and largely paid for by the national health system.

Drug overdose deaths are greatly reduced. Some 80 people died of drug overdoses in 2001; that number shrunk to just 16 by 2012. That's an 80% reduction in drug overdose deaths.

Drug injection-related HIV/AIDS infections are greatly reduced. Between 2000 and 2013, the number of new HIV cases shrank from nearly 1,600 to only 78. The number of new AIDS cases declined from 626 to 74.

"We came to the conclusion that the criminal system was not the best suited to deal with this situation," explained Capaz. "The best option should be referring them to treatment, but we do not force or coerce anyone. If they are willing to go, it's because they actually want to, so the success rate is really high. We can surely say that decriminalization does not increase drug usage, and that it does not mean legalizing drugs. It's still illegal to use drugs in Portugal, it's just not considered a crime. It's possible to deal with these users outside the criminal system."

Dr. Joao Goulao, who largely authored the decriminalization law and who is still General Director for Intervention on Addictive Behaviors -- the Portuguese "drug czar" -- pointed to unquantifiable positives resulting from the move: "The biggest effect," he said, "has been to allow the stigma of drug addiction to fall, to let people speak clearly and to pursue professional help without fear."

They Take the Kids! (with them to treatment)

The American activists know all about fear and stigma. And the cultural disconnect -- between a country that treats drug users with compassion and one that seeks to punish them -- was on display again when a smaller group of the activists met with Dr. Miguel Vasconcelos, the head psychologist at the Centro Taipa, a former mental hospital that now serves as the country's largest drug treatment center.

As Dr.Vasconcelos explained the history and practice of drug treatment in Portugal, one of his listeners asked what happened to drug users who were pregnant or had children.

"They take the kids," Vasconcelos said, smiling. But his smile turned to puzzlement as he saw his listeners react with resignation and dismay.

For the Americans, "they take the kids" meant child protective services swooping in to seize custody of the children of drug-using parents while the parents go to jail.

But that's not what Vasconcelos meant. After some back and forth, came clarity: "No, I mean they take the kids with them to treatment."

Once again, the Americans, caught firmly in the mind set of their own punishing society, expected only the worst of the state. But once again, light bulbs came on as they realized it doesn't have to be like that.

Now that cadre of activists is back home, and they are going to begin to try to apply the lessons they learned in their own states and communities. And although they had some abstract understanding of Portuguese drug decriminalization before they came, their experiences with the concrete reality of it should only serve to strengthen their desire to make our own country a little less like a punitive authoritarian state and bit more like Portugal.

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