Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Smile, it's Cannabis Camera: Mexico City Residents Questioned About Marijuana Use

Imagine the improbable scene: off camera a young woman places a microphone to the faces of couples and individuals who appear to be enjoying a lazy afternoon. Unaccented Spanish can be heard all around, indicating the people are somewhere in the Americas, probably Mexico. The setting is a sedate plaza, people clutch ice creams, others drink fruit juices or flavored waters. The young woman wanders through the plaza with her camera and mic, asking questions of several couples and a number of individuals:

"Do you know anybody who smokes or consumes marijuana?" she asks.

Though most who respond break a cheeky grin, the substance of the responses vary--some people don't admit to knowing anything about marijuana, others say that their friends who smoke the dried plant are fun, a good laugh, that it doesn't hurt anybody. Still several others suggest that marijuana ruins mental and physical health. Yet another respondent -- none of whom provide their names -- says that the only people he knows who smoke marijuana are foreigners. But even the most tight-lipped respondents have smiles on their faces, or are attempting to hide them.

If you hadn't guessed it already, the location is Mexico City. The specific location is Coyoacan, an old colonial center in the south of the city, originally established as the home of Hernan Cortes in post-conquest, sixteenth century Mexico. Now in the twenty-first century Coyoacan's popular with couples, children, and individuals who want a day out away from the hustle and bustle of downtown, and all without leaving the city. The young woman with the camera and mic represents Colectivo Por Una Politica Integral Hacia las Drogas (CuPIHD), a civil society organization dedicated to finding a sensible solution to the so-called drug war.

CuPIHD's on-camera questioning warrants remark because Mexico is in the grips of a terrifying war between the government and drug cartels. With 23,000 dead, with civilians often in the crossfire, the last thing one would expect are Mexicans willing to share their opinions candidly about drugs. It's especially important to mention that journalists--civilians who also ask questions in public and publish their findings in newspapers and other media--have also been in the front line of the drug war. Mexico is the most dangerous place in the Americas for journalists to do their work. The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) records high levels of violence. Just as recently as the end of June, the IAPA records its outrage over the assassination of two journalists in Guerrero. Asking questions about drugs clearly has it's dangers.

And yet these on-camera respondents do share candidly their opinions about drugs. This means that CuPIHD's video has found an opening in a debate about drugs in a society notoriously conservative about illicit drug use. (Mexicans are mostly unbothered by consumption of licit drugs, such as cigarettes and alcohol.) Take a look at the following chart, which comes from the Mexico City-based polling firm Parametria who conducted a survey in February 2008 about legalization of marijuana and other drugs. The results demonstrate that prevailing opinion in Mexico makes it a difficult place to organize in favor of drug reform.

The large green bar on the top graph represents the 21% of Mexico City residents who are in favor of legalizing marijuana. Nationally, and then in the rest of the states outside of Mexico City, support for marijuana legalization dwindles. And yet, in the bottom graph, which represents for (green) and against (red) legalization of other drugs, far fewer Mexicans support more liberal drugs laws.

But at least with CuPIHD's video there's evidence that it's possible to talk sensibly about drugs in Mexico. And their work may make people think more about the costs--in lives, and to the truth--of prohibition.

Did You Know? The War on Drugs Edition

Check out this great video from the International Centre for Science and Drug Policy. It serves as a quick yet thorough introduction to the War on Drugs. For new SSDP members, watching the video will make them aware of drug war facts. And this new awareness could spark a desire to make a difference, a sentiment common among drug policy reformers.

The video shows that our current drug policies are harmful, ineffective, and counterproductive. The War on Drugs--which set out to reduce drugs' supply and use--has done little to accomplish these goals. After forty years of prohibiting illicit drugs and incarcerating their users, these drugs are readily accessible to youth, more so than legally regulated drugs like alcohol and cigarettes. In a damning indictment of prohibition, rates of drug use have remained mostly constant over the same four decade trajectory.

Such failures evince an ineffective strategy: by creating a profitable black market for drugs, prohibition has increased drug-related violence. Americans have seen this scenario of illegal market formation and escalating violence before, with alcohol's prohibition in the 1920s. Indeed, echoing seventeenth-century Enlightenment penal reformer Cesare Beccaria, Albert Einstein made the following observation during Prohibition:
"Nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced. It is an open secret that the dangerous increase of crime in this country is closely connected with this."
Einstein couldn't foresee the astronomically high rates of incarceration which have followed from prohibition in the war on drugs. Nor could anyone predict the costs upon our education and health care systems, heavy burdens for society that have fallen on drug users and non-users alike. That's why the International Centre for Science and Durg Policy's work helps us understand the unintended, devastating consequences of the War on Drugs.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Vienna Declaration Calls For Reorientation of Illicit Drug Policy

Vienna Declaration is a statement seeking to improve community health and safety by calling for the incorporation of scientific evidence into illicit drug policies. This is the official declaration of the XVIII International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2010) to be held in Vienna, Austria from July 18th to 23rd. The declaration was drafted by a team of international experts and initiated by several of the world's leading HIV and drug policy scientific bodies: the International AIDS Society, the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, and the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.

The declaration states that the criminalization of illicit drug users is fueling the HIV epidemic and has resulted in overwhelmingly negative health and social consequences. These harmful effects include but are not limited to:
  • HIV epidemics fueled by the criminalization of people who use illicit drugs and by prohibitions on the provision of sterile needles and opioid substitution treatment.
  • HIV outbreaks among incarcerated and institutionalized drug users as a result of punitive laws and policies and a lack of HIV prevention services in these settings.
  • The undermining of public health systems when law enforcement drives drug users away from prevention and care services and into environments where the risk of infectious disease transmission (e.g., HIV, hepatitis C & B, and tuberculosis) and other harms is increased.
  • A crisis in criminal justice systems as a result of record incarceration rates in a number of nations. This has negatively affected the social functioning of entire communities. While racial disparities in incarceration rates for drug offenses are evident in countries all over the world, the impact has been particularly severe in the US, where approximately one in nine African-American males in the age group 20 to 34 is incarcerated on any given day, primarily as a result of drug law enforcement.
  • Stigma towards people who use illicit drugs, which reinforces the political popularity of criminalising drug users and undermines HIV prevention and other health promotion efforts.
  • Severe human rights violations, including torture, forced labour, inhuman and degrading treatment, and execution of drug offenders in a number of countries.
  • A massive illicit market worth an estimated annual value of US $320 billion. These profits remain entirely outside the control of government. They fuel crime, violence and corruption in countless urban communities and have destabilised entire countries, such as Colombia, Mexico and Afghanistan.
  • Billions of tax dollars wasted on a “War on Drugs” approach to drug control that does not achieve its stated objectives and, instead, directly or indirectly contributes to the above harms.
It acknowledges and concludes that:

"Basing drug policies on scientific evidence will not eliminate drug use or the problems stemming from drug injecting. However, reorienting drug policies towards evidence-based approaches that respect, protect and fulfill human rights has the potential to reduce harms deriving from current policies and would allow for the redirection of the vast financial resources towards where they are needed most: implementing and evaluating evidence-based prevention, regulatory, treatment and harm reduction interventions."
                To read and sign the Vienna Declaration, please click here. By adding your name to the Vienna Declaration, you will be joining scientists, health practitioners, and other members of the public who all support the implementation of science-based policies to meaningfully improve community health and safety by reducing the toll of drugs globally.