November 27, 2009 – Europe has yet to come up with a unified approach to medical marijuana. The Dutch will tell you it is legal to use the drug to treat certain illnesses; while the Swedish don’t recognize any medical use for cannabis at all.

“European policy is not really changing at all and I don’t think this issue is even on the European agenda. The topic is too controversial and too political,” said Catherine Sandvos, a legal expert for the Hague-based Cannabis Bureau, a Dutch national agency aimed at providing high-quality cannabis for medical purposes.

Ms. Sandvos’s native Netherlands has led Europe when it comes to legalizing medical marijuana, which it treats separately from marijuana legally available at one of Amsterdam’s famous coffee shops. The Dutch police stopped enforcing laws against marijuana in 1976 following an overall tolerance policy in the country. “It’s hard when you try to explain to outsiders that it is illegal to grow cannabis in the Netherlands, but that it is tolerated to buy it,” she says.

But those who buy the drug on the streets are not getting the quality severely ill patients would need. The Dutch government set up the Cannabis Bureau — the only institution of its kind in the continent — in September 2003.

“The state realized that so many people wanted to use cannabis, so it said ‘why not give it to them via prescription instead of them accessing the drug illegally,’ ” Ms. Sandvos added.

The Cannabis Bureau ensures that patients who have a prescription from a doctor are getting marijuana that has been tested to make sure it doesn’t contain any pesticides or bacteria. Not only does the Cannabis Bureau sell cannabis across all pharmacies in the Netherlands through a prescription, but it also distributes the drug to Italy, Finland and Germany through the Ministry of Health of each country. According to the agency’s data, it sells around 100 kilos of cannabis every year.

The situation couldn’t be more different in the U.K., where it is unlawful to self-medicate cannabis regardless of the disease people suffer from. In 2005, Barry Quayle and Reay Wales, who were both afflicted by serious and chronic conditions, found no relief in prescription drugs and turned to cannabis to alleviate their pain. But a U.K. court ruled against them.

“The whole debate in relation to the use of cannabis for medical purposes is highly politicized,” said Daniel Godden, an associate solicitor for Hodge Jones & Allen LLP in London. Those who say marijuana is relatively safe can face severe political consequences. Last month, Professor David Nutt, the British government’s chief drug adviser, was removed from his post after he said the drug was less harmful than alcohol.

Favorable views toward cannabis face opposition from some local politicians and international lobbying groups. Jorgen Sviden, director of Stockholm-based European Cities Against Drugs, which represents 261 cities in 30 countries, isn’t convinced of the drug’s medical qualities.

“In principle, we don’t have an argument against cannabis as a treatment, but we haven’t seen any scientific evidence that provides a convincing argument for its medical use,” he said. “If in the future we come across proof that cannabis is a good treatment, then this is good.”

Some initiatives have managed to stay away from the political debate, however. The U.K. happens to be home to GW Pharmaceuticals PLC, which manufactures a drug based on marijuana extract — Sativex. Although it has some ingredients that derived from the actual drug, it has been treated by the U.K.’s regulators as a medicine like any other as it doesn’t contain the psychotropic substances marijuana does. The company is preparing to launch the drug into other parts of Europe, in partnership with Germany’s Bayer AG and Spain’s Almirall SA.

GW is hoping to sell its product, which will treat the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, across all countries in Europe but has initially filed for a license in the U.K. and Spain so far. Paul Cuddon, an analyst with KBC Peel Hunt in London, says he expects the drug to win approval in both countries in the first half of 2010 and then the firm will file for individual approval in each country.

“I’m not anticipating any legal problems in the rest of Europe at all,” Mr. Cuddon added. “This is a treatment that is highly different from raw cannabis and it has undergone rigorous chemical trials.”

Other countries have tough stances, however. Ireland, for example, doesn’t recognize marijuana as a drug with medical benefits. This means that manufacturing, producing, selling or possessing cannabis is unlawful for any purpose. The Ministry of Health is the only government branch that can grant an exception, but a spokesman said it never has.

Noel McCullagh, 34, has learned this the hard way. An Irish citizen, Mr. McCullagh lives in the Netherlands, where he uses cannabis medication to treat the severe effects of his muscular dystrophy. However, Irish authorities have warned him that he will be arrested if he enters his native country in possession if cannabis-based treatment.

In Sweden, the law doesn’t recognize the cannabis to have any medical use.

Beyond the debate of marijuana’s use, Dr. Willem Scholten, of the World Health Organization, believes patients should have access to high-quality medicine. So if cannabis has medical attributions, “there needs to be a system in place to ensure that patients get their medicine without any contamination and that they get the same content every time.”

Despite the radically different approaches in Europe, some believe the continent will eventually adopt it as a medical treatment.

“I can imagine European citizens will eventually think cannabis is a good medicine and that it should be accessible to people who suffer from serious pain as a result of HIV, multiple sclerosis or other grave illnesses,” said Brendan Hughes, senior legal analyst of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction in Lisbon. By JAVIER ESPINOZA. Source.


Aug 28, 2009 | LISBON – The evidence from Portugal since 2001 is that decriminalisation of drug use and possession has benefits and no harmful side-effects.greenwald_whitepaper

IN 2001 newspapers around the world carried graphic reports of addicts injecting heroin in the grimy streets of a Lisbon slum. The place was dubbed Europe’s “most shameful neighborhood” and its “worst drugs ghetto”. The Times helpfully managed to find a young British backpacker sprawled comatose on a corner. This lurid coverage was prompted by a government decision to decriminalise the personal use and possession of all drugs, including heroin and cocaine. The police were told not to arrest anyone found taking any kind of drug.

This “ultraliberal legislation”, said the foreign media, had set alarm bells ringing across Europe. The Portuguese were said to be fearful that holiday resorts would become dumping-grounds for drug tourists. Some conservative politicians denounced the decriminalisation as “pure lunacy”. Plane-loads of foreign students would head for the Algarve to smoke marijuana, predicted Paulo Portas, leader of the People’s Party. Portugal, he said, was offering “sun, beaches and any drug you like.”

Yet after all the furor, the drug law was largely forgotten by the international and Portuguese press—until earlier this year, when the Cato Institute, a libertarian American think-tank, published a study of the new policy by a lawyer, Glenn Greenwald.* In contrast to the dire consequences that critics predicted, he concluded that “none of the nightmare scenarios” initially painted, “from rampant increases in drug usage among the young to the transformation of Lisbon into a haven for ‘drug tourists’, has occurred.”

Mr Greenwald claims that the data show that “decriminalisation has had no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal”, which “in numerous categories are now among the lowest in the European Union”. This came after some rises in the 1990s, before decriminalisation. The figures reveal little evidence of drug tourism: 95% of those cited for drug misdemeanours since 2001 have been Portuguese. The level of drug trafficking, measured by numbers convicted, has also declined. And the incidence of other drug-related problems, including sexually transmitted diseases and deaths from drug overdoses, has “decreased dramatically”.

There are widespread misconceptions about the Portuguese approach. “It is important not to confuse decriminalisation with depenalisation or legalisation,” comments Brendan Hughes of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which is, coincidentally, based in Lisbon. “Drug use remains illegal in Portugal, and anyone in possession will be stopped by the police, have the drugs confiscated and be sent before a commission.”

Nor is it uncommon in Europe to make drug use an administrative offence rather than a criminal one (putting it in the same category as not wearing a seat belt, say). What is unique, according to Mr Hughes, is that offenders in Portugal are sent to specialist “dissuasion commissions” run by the government, rather than into the judicial system. “In Portugal,” he says, “the health aspect [of the government’s response to drugs] has gone mainstream.”

The aim of the dissuasion commissions, which are made up of panels of two or three psychiatrists, social workers and legal advisers, is to encourage addicts to undergo treatment and to stop recreational users falling into addiction. They have the power to impose community work and even fines, but punishment is not their main aim. The police turn some 7,500 people a year over to the commissions. But nobody carrying anything considered to be less than a ten-day personal supply of drugs can be arrested, sentenced to jail or given a criminal record.

Officials believe that, by lifting fears of prosecution, the policy has encouraged addicts to seek treatment. This bears out their view that criminal sanctions are not the best answer. “Before decriminalisation, addicts were afraid to seek treatment because they feared they would be denounced to the police and arrested,” says Manuel Cardoso, deputy director of the Institute for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Portugal’s main drugs-prevention and drugs-policy agency. “Now they know they will be treated as patients with a problem and not stigmatised as criminals.”

The number of addicts registered in drug-substitution programmes has risen from 6,000 in 1999 to over 24,000 in 2008, reflecting a big rise in treatment (but not in drug use). Between 2001 and 2007 the number of Portuguese who say they have taken heroin at least once in their lives increased from just 1% to 1.1%. For most other drugs, the figures have fallen: Portugal has one of Europe’s lowest lifetime usage rates for cannabis. And most notably, heroin and other drug abuse has decreased among vulnerable younger age-groups, according to Mr Cardoso.

The share of heroin users who inject the drug has also fallen, from 45% before decriminalisation to 17% now, he says, because the new law has facilitated treatment and harm-reduction programmes. Drug addicts now account for only 20% of Portugal’s HIV cases, down from 56% before. “We no longer have to work under the paradox that exists in many countries of providing support and medical care to people the law considers criminals.”

“Proving a causal link between Portugal’s decriminalisation measures and any changes in drug-use patterns is virtually impossible in scientific terms,” concludes Mr Hughes. “But anyone looking at the statistics can see that drug consumption in 2001 was relatively low in European terms, and that it remains so. The apocalypse hasn’t happened.” Source.

July 3, 2009 – At “The End of the World” I met Maria. Beneath a tent of blankets on a steep bank, surrounded by discarded syringes and blood, she unfolded her foil andeaston_end_world595 proceeded to smoke heroin.

The district in which she lives near Lisbon gained its name and reputation from illegal drugs. But as I sat on a rock and watched her daily ritual, I was aware that Maria is part of an extraordinary and controversial experiment. In almost every other place in the world, what she is doing is crime. Here, though, she can be confident her drug use will not end in prison.

Exactly eight years ago today, on July 1st 2001, Portugal decreed that the purchase, possession and use of any previously-illegal substance would no longer be considered a criminal offence. So, instead of police arresting users, at The End of the World, health and social workers now dispense the paraphernalia of heroin use.

Paula Vale de Andrade told me how her “street teams” have been able dramatically to cut HIV infections and drug deaths since the new law.

“When drug use was a crime, people were afraid to engage with the teams. But since decriminalisation, they know the police won’t be involved and they come forward. It has been a great improvement.”

Many had predicted disaster – that plane loads of “drug tourists” would descend on Portugal knowing that they couldn’t end up in court. But what one politician called “the promise of sun, beaches and any drug you like” simply hasn’t materialised.

In fact, overall drug consumption appears stable or down – government statistics suggest a 10% fall.

Among teenagers, the statistics suggest that the use of every illicit substance has fallen. The table below is from the Cato Institute’s white paper Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies.
Picture 10
I know there is some doubt over the methodology used in compiling some of these data, but what strikes me is that there is absolutely no evidence that drug use has risen.

Drug trafficking remains a serious criminal offence: Portugal hasn’t legalised drugs. But people caught with a quantity of drugs deemed for their personal use (roughly ten days’ supply) are sent to a local dissuasion commission panel.

The one I attended consisted of a social worker and a legal expert and they were looking at the case of Joanna, a heroin addict. The commission has the power to issue fines – while no longer a criminal offence, possession is still prohibited in Portugal – but the user here is addicted to drugs, so a fine is ruled inapplicable. The commission encourages her to go into treatment by offering to suspend other sanctions.

Some remain unconvinced that the new philosophy is working. The police officers I met on patrol in one of Lisbon’s more “notorious” districts question the statistics, particularly the suggestion that decriminalising drugs has caused drug use to fall. There is clearly frustration that people who were villains yesterday are victims today. But there’s also annoyance that in roughly a third of cases, drug users fail to attend the commission hearings when police send them there.

In the eight years since Portugal shocked the world with its drug policy, the idea that users need care not punishment has swept across Europe. In 10 EU countries, possession of some, if not all illegal substances is not generally pursued as a crime. In Britain, while officially the use of banned drugs is a criminal offence, Ministry of Justice figures (cited in UK Focal Point report [908Kb PDF]) show that 80% of people dealt with for possession are given a warning or a caution. Less than 1% – around 1,000 people a year – go to jail.

Picture 11
Portugal’s government is proud of its drugs policy. The prime minister stresses his personal role in its introduction, claiming the results are conclusive and the philosophy is popular.

Some question aspects of the system, but what Portugal’s controversial experiment has demonstrated is that, if you take the crime out of drug use, the sky doesn’t fall in. Source.

July 2, 2009 – In 2001, with the number of HIV-related deaths skyrocketing, Portugal tried a novel approach: try to limit the number of infections that came from shared needles by decriminalizing low-level drug possession. imagesInstead of throwing folks in jail, they began to focus on prevention and treatment. A new study has the early results, and they’re pretty inspiring. From Scientific American:

Five years later, the number of deaths from street drug overdoses dropped from around 400 to 290 annually, and the number of new HIV cases caused by using dirty needles to inject heroin, cocaine and other illegal substances plummeted from nearly 1,400 in 2000 to about 400 in 2006.

The plan didn’t change any of the penalties for dealing. But if you’re caught with less than a 10-day personal stash, instead of going in front a judge, a three-person panel—with at least one judge or lawyer and at least one heath care professional—decide whether you should pay a fine or receive treatment. Though it’s still early, and some experts say the numbers were helped by an overall drop in marijuana use around the world, here’s hoping that Obama’s new drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, takes a good look across the pond. Source.

June 2nd, 2009 – Nicholas Kristof wants to know: Should the U.S. legalize drugs? The influential New York Times columnist posted the question, which is being asked in mainstream s-MARIJUANA-largecircles with increasing frequency, on his Facebook page Saturday evening. Opinions have come pouring in.

“I’m thinking of writing this coming week about whether legalization of drugs makes sense. Any thoughts out there or good resources?” he asked.

Kristof told the Huffington Post he likes to reach out to readers for help when he’s entering into not-entirely-familiar territory.

“It certainly prompted a lot of interesting thoughts, a lot of references to organizations involved, and one organization also reached out by phone to me. Maybe I would have come across the same organization, or maybe not, but on a topic that I don’t know so well it can be a really useful tool,” he said. “I find that on some issues it’s completely useless, but on topics that especially involve experiences that I don’t have, or knowledge that I don’t have, then reaching out actually works pretty well.”

One topic that doesn’t work well with crowd-sourcing, Kristof said is the Middle East. “You get half the people with extreme views on the one side and half the people with extreme views on the other, and it’s all heat and no light. And it’s all arguments that I’ve already heard before,” he said.

Tom Angell, a flak for the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, left Kristof a message after a friend at Students for Sensible Drug Policy alerted him to the query.

“Facebook and other social networking sites like Digg and Twitter have proven to be an essential tool for those of us working to drive the discussion on drug legalization from the political fringes to the upper echelons of the mainstream media in recent months,” he told the Huffington Post in a g-chat.

Angell, if he connects with Kristof, will encounter a receptive audience.

“It’s been a gradual process,” said Kristof about his thinking leading to the decision to confront the issue. “I think that the economy being a particular mess makes me a little more skeptical about spending vast amounts of money incarcerating people on drugs, and then I think the degree to which Mexico has been erupting also has made me wonder.”

Kristof has traveled widely for his reporting and filed stories from a number of war zones. “The Taliban financing itself in part with opium has made me also wonder about the foreign-policy implications of our drug policies. But it’s been something I’ve kind of wondered about and been ambivalent about for a number of years,” said Kristof.

Facebookers who responded to Kristof took his question seriously and largely gave nuanced answers, leaning overwhelmingly in favor of a liberalized policy. His Facebook buds suggested he seek out drug-policy experts Mark Kleiman and Lester Grinspoon, along with Glenn Greenwald, who has recently written about Portugal’s experience with decriminalization.

“If you do legalize marijuana, simultaneously implement strict, VERY strict drunk and high driving laws as well as gun laws to try to tame the negative externalities of marijuana use. I believe that the only possible drug to legalize would be marijuana, but I’m skeptical that our culture could handle it. Iowa sure as heck isn’t Amsterdam,” offered Jacqueline Nalbert Brysacz.

Though many of the posters were personally in favor of reforming drug policy, there was skepticism that the nation could handle legalization, much as Brysacz said.

“I favor legalization/decriminalization in theory, but I wonder how a policy shift of such magnitude would play out in the real world, or if it’s even possible,” wrote Stephen Wittek. “A lot of deeply entrenched interests, opinions, attitudes and beliefs would have to uprooted or steamrolled, and a lot of people would scream bloody apocalypse. Regardless of whether or not it ‘makes sense,’ the question at the heart of issue is ‘Does America have the stomach for legalization?’ And I’m pretty sure the answer is ‘no.'”

Kristof will be following in the wake of Time’s Joe Klein, CNN’s Jack Cafferty, MSNBC’s Pat Buchanan, as well as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, top House Democrat Barney Frank, former Mexican President Vicente Fox and current Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan, all of whom have called for a rational discussion about drug policy that includes legalization.

Look for his column in the next few weeks. And look for something that moves the conversation forward.

“Increasingly, I’m thinking that legalization arguments are stronger and stronger,” said Kristof.

Ryan Grim-Source.