Colorado pot looms large at UN drug summit

Colorado pot looms large at UN drug summit

By Luke Vargas   
Participants observe a moment of silence at the opening of the General Assembly’s special session on the World Drug Problem. April 19, 2016. UN Photo/Manuel Elias
Participants observe a moment of silence at the opening of the General Assembly’s special session on the World Drug Problem. April 19, 2016. UN Photo/Manuel Elias

As some campaigners decry a lack of global reform, others cite Colorado ‘anarchy’ and appeal for more enforcement assistance.

UNITED NATIONS (Talk Media News) – When veteran Maryland police officer Neill Franklin learned his friend and colleague had become the latest victim of the war on drugs, his views on law enforcement’s anti-drug strategies changed in an instant.

The year was 2000, and Maryland State Trooper Ed Toatley was attempting to buy cocaine in an undercover operation in Washington D.C when a mid-level drug dealer eager to nab Toatley’s cash and drugs shot him point blank.

“It was that violence that made me wake up and pay attention to all the violence that was occurring around me, around us, because of the failed policies of drug selling,” Franklin told Talk Media News on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly’s Special Session on drugs (UNGASS) in New York. “This is the nature of the business. Selling, buying illegal drugs is dangerous because it’s prohibited, because it’s driven underground.”

Franklin now serves as the director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group representing police officers who believe the criminalization of drugs is at the heart of a nationwide crime problem. When Franklin became LEAP’s director in 2010, he recalled that his law enforcement colleagues were “coming at me hot and heavy.”

That reaction reminded him of the prevailing sentiment surrounding Toatley’s death, when Franklin said fellow officers wanted more than anything to commit more intensely to fighting the drug trade.

“At the hospital that night where Ed was laid out and dying, there were literally a couple hundred cops there,” he said. “And you could hear them, friends of Ed, you could hear them: ‘We’re just gonna go out there, we’re gonna push harder, we’re really gonna drive this thing home, we’re just gonna do a much better job at it and put an end to this.’

“That was in the year 2000. Here we are 16 years later and things have gotten progressively worse.”

The 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health supports that assessment, revealing not just an increase in marijuana use, but a more worrisome increase in heroin use and addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse recently said it believes “an estimated 1.9 million people in the United States suffered from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain medicines in 2014, and 586,000 suffered from a heroin use disorder.”

Not even historically high numbers of domestic drug arrests and drug seizures are altering that pattern.

Asked whether the American law enforcement community is changing its views on the war on drugs, Franklin replied, “all you gotta do is look at my Facebook page,” Franklin said.

Global reform push gathers steam

Evolving attitudes toward the war on drugs are gathering steam outside of the U.S., too.

This week’s UNGASS summit is being held at the request of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, counties that have each voiced calls for drug policy reform, despite having long featured in U.S.-funded anti-drug campaigns.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said in a television interview on Tuesday that, “the prohibitionist approach has been a failure,” while Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto conceded before the U.N. General Assembly that, “the system based essentially on prohibition called the ‘war on drugs’ that began in the 70’s has not inhibited the production, trafficking or the consumption of drugs in the world.”

Neto cited the toll that cartel violence has had on the Mexican population and he made headlines by endorsing the legalization of medical marijuana in Mexico and an increase “the amount of marijuana that can be considered for personal use, for the purpose of not criminalizing consumers.”

But while the remarks by Santos and Peña attracted widespread coverage in the Latin press and in sympathetic American outlets, the prevailing sentiment inside the U.N. this week has been much more skeptical toward reform.

David Evans, an advisor to the Drug Free America Foundation, thought Nieto missed the point by invoking drug war violence as a reason to change underlying drug policies.

“It’s really a problem, I think, endemic to Mexico and their law enforcement problem,” he told TMN. “They’re trying to blame it on us, but look, they grow Vancouver Gold mairjuana in Canada and we don’t see a lot of Canadians killed in drug violence up there. So I think it’s more of an issue of their culture.”

Evans is something of a celebrity among those gathered at the U.N. who oppose the push to decriminalize or legalize drugs. During a short walk within U.N. headquarters he was repeatedly approached by supporters who wished to engage him in conversation. At another point he eagerly pressed his case to U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy while America’s top doc waited by a bank of elevators.

Back in studio, Evans launched into a well-honed pitch designed to question the rosy image of marijuana promoted by what he calls a “big money” pot lobby.

“We are up against a very well-financed marijuana industry,” he said. “They’re very slick, they’re very persuasive.”

The drug debate in America wasn’t always like this, Evans recalled. In a bipartisan denunciation he blamed both Presidents George W. Bush and Obama for creating a climate that allowed marijuana groups to flourish, to the extent that they now represent a politically powerful industry capable of lobbying state and local governments.

“I only thing that I would say to people is, just be aware that when you hear about legalization of marijuana that there’s big money behind this. Be cynical, use your head and evaluate it properly.”

One highly visible group during this week’s U.N. summit is George Soros’ Open Societies Foundation (OSF), which sponsored among many other events, a pop-up Museum of Drug Policy on Park Avenue and  media briefings with global policymakers in run up to the event.

For Evans and Pamela McColl, the leader of Smart Approaches to Marijuana Canada, OSF is the big money boogeyman of drug reform.

“I just came from a seminar. It was all Open Society, it was all George Soros people, and I almost burst into tears,” she said. “It was appalling.”

Kasia Malinowska, the Director of the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program, staunchly defended OSF’s expenditures, saying “there is nothing in what we do which is intended to actually support the [cannabis] business industry.”

“And also, we are incredibly critical of the cannabis industry,” she said, referring to it as “something of a runaway train” in the U.S.

“I think the big debate that we have for ourselves is whether the cannabis industry is going to become a force for the good.”

Evans was unimpressed by that defense, and he equated the marijuana lobby with the tobacco lobby before it.

“I ask people when I give talks: how many of you think the tobacco industry is going to look out for your family’s best interest?” he said. “Nobody raises their hand. Then I say, how many of you think that the big marijuana industry is going to be any different than the big tobacco industry?”

“The same con job, [the] same routine is going on with the marijuana industry right now,” he said, citing their promotion of a product that he claims to be “highly addictive, highly psychoactive and very destructive, especially to young brains.”

The Colorado example

In an event billed as a global discussion on drug policy, Colorado is receiving an unusually large share of attention at the U.N. this week, and the state’s experience after legalizing marijuana for recreational use in 2014 is invoked by drug reform proponents and opponents alike.

One firsthand account of the law’s impacts came from Mary, a Denver-area high school English teacher.

Mary (not her real name) spoke to TMN on condition of anonymity, citing her school’s policy on discussing student drug use.

“Every day I walk through my building and I can smell pot, daily, and it wasn’t like that five years ago,” she said.

“How do you walk into a classroom and it reeks of pot and you just go, ‘well, let’s get going kids,” Mary asked. “That’s becoming more of the norm.”

In the halls of the U.N. this week, she said hearing popular accounts of Colorado as a drug success story left her confused.

“I talked to some people earlier today, and their perception is that Colorado is this golden state of success around marijuana legalization. And that’s absolutely not the case, at all. It’s not even close.”

Diane Goldstein, a former Lieutenant Commander of California’s Redondo Beach Police Department, said Colorado’s example “is not perfect,” but that “the control and regulation of adult consumption has cut the cartel marijuana market by like 30%.”

Goldstein is another member of LEAP’s Board of Directors, and she applauded Colorado’s reforms for freeing up law enforcement to engage in activities that have a more meaningful impact on local communities.

“We should’t be assessing our communities based on crime rates. We should be assessing communities on how much crime we solve.”

But that argument did little to soothe Mary’s concerns. While her state’s policy shift may have reduced the number of adults breaking the law for possession of marijuana, she said it’s created a new class of lawbreakers: her students.

U.N. not shifting course

Activists are likely to argue for years whether Colorado’s reforms are rebalancing police priorities and reducing the harmful impacts of criminality or endangering the state’s youth, but one thing is clear: the U.N. system is not ready to endorse global reform.

While he was glad the word “legalization” is no longer unusual to hear in the hallways of the U.N., Franklin said UNGASS was shaping up to be a disappointment.

“Unfortunately, we still have those countries that have a lot of influence who are still pushing the hardline global prohibition policy,” he said.

A draft of the UNGASS outcome document – which required global consensus and was highly influenced by countries with conservative drug policies such as Russia, China and Pakistan – calls for more robust “measures to prevent and significantly and measurably reduce or eliminate the illicit cultivation of opium poppy, coca bush and cannabis plant…including through eradication.”

Another portion of the agreement calls for enhancing “the capacity of law enforcement and criminal justice agencies in forensic science in the context of drug investigations, including the quality and capacity of drug analysis laboratories to gather, preserve and present forensic evidence to effectively prosecute drug-related offenses.”

To Franklin, that recommendation means doubling down on law enforcement’s focus at precisely the wrong time, especially for communities with little trust in the police.

“Currently we have federal grants, millions upon millions of dollars that go to local law enforcement for the enforcement of drug policies,” he said. “Imagine if we were to move that money from the enforcement of drug policies, to where we’re analyzing more rape kits, which tens of thousands of them are currently sitting on shelves not being analyzed by our labs, and so these rapes aren’t being solved.”

“But if we just confiscate some drugs from somebody, they take precedent. They go to the labs and we’re going to find out which drugs those are.”

Asked what he thought of the U.N. summit, Evans was upbeat.

“It’s very encouraging. The majority of the world, by far, is on our side, in terms of not supporting legalization. The United States is a minority in the world right now.”

In particular, Evans applauded remarks by the Werner Sipp, the President of the International Narcotics Control Board, who condemned those countries who, “defy the international consensus upon which international cooperation depends” by legalizing drugs for non-medical uses.

“I think that’s proper,” Evans said. “I’m a patriot. I love my country, and I hope the world helps us by condemning us to get back on track.”

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    1. The drug war was the pipe dream of men who have long since died. It has become a quasi-religion, a belief system that has attracted many adherents within law enforcement and the justice system, to speak from ignorance or bigotry. Those who make their bones from this policy, (and yes, the cemetery is overflowing) cannot now back down from their prior pronouncements, they dare not jeopardize their reputation, their legacy, by now embracing the truth that drug war is a horrendous mistake.

      • The drug war was the pipe dream of men who have long since died. It has become a quasi-religion, a belief system that has attracted many adherents within law enforcement and the justice system, to speak from ignorance or bigotry. Those who make their bones from this policy, (and yes, the cemetery is overflowing) cannot now back down from their prior pronouncements, they dare not jeopardize their reputation, their legacy, by now embracing the truth that drug war is a horrendous mistake.

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