Bryan Epis is once again a medical marijuana martyr. This week, Epis, the first California medical grower convicted by the feds, was returned to federal prison to serve eight more years of a 10-year sentence imposed in 2002. He had been out on appeal, but his appeals have run out.
While elected officials on both sides of the board dismiss legalization of the drug trade, Mexico continues to pay the price. Another 137 people were killed in prohibition-related violence there this week.
He's back! San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano has reintroduced his groundbreaking marijuana legalization and regulation bill. Last session, it became the first legalization bill anywhere in the US to win a legislative committee vote. Maybe this time it will go further. If not, voters may take matters into their own hands in November.
It was just a meeting about reducing drug demand, but both the Mexican and the US governments felt compelled to speak out against drug legalization. First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you...
First it was New York Senate Republicans blocking action on medical marijuana. Then last year, Senate Democrats managed to blow themselves up, indirectly preventing a bill from passing. Will 2010 be the year? Medical marijuana is moving in both the Assembly and the Senate.
MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org, part of the ProCon.org family, is an in-depth web site presenting information and views from a variety of perspectives on the medical marijuana issue. The Chronicle is running a series of info items from ProCon.org over the next several weeks, and we encourage you to check it out.
"Colorado Congressman Fights Back Against DEA's Medical Marijuana Raids," "New Synthetic Marijuana Products: Are They Medicine?," "Opponents of Medical Marijuana Should Just Give Up," "Pot Wars -- Battlefield California," "Employment Discrimination Against Medical Marijuana Patients Must End," "Federal Policy on Medical Marijuana is Still a Confusing Mess."
On Monday and Tuesday in Mexico City, political figures, academics, social scientists, security experts, and activists from at least six countries came together for the Winds of Change: Drug Policy in the World conference sponsored by the Mexico City-based Collective for an Integrated Drug Policy (CUPHID). Coming as Mexico's war on drugs turns bloodier by the day, the conference unsurprisingly concluded that current prohibitionist policies are a disaster.
"The principal conclusion is that we need a more integrated drug policy based on prevention, scientific evidence, and full respect for human rights," summarized CUPHID president Jorge Hernandez Tinajero. "It remains clear that, yes, there exist alternatives to the current strategy."
In a press release after the conference, CUPHID emphasized the following points:
The so-called war on drugs has failed and, without doubt, we need "winds of change" to advance toward alternative policies to address the problematic of drugs across the globe.
The prohibitionist paradigm has been ineffective, and furthermore, for the majority of countries it has implied grave violations of human rights and individual guarantees, discrimination, and social exclusion, as well as an escalation of violence that grows day by day, ever broadening the scope of impunity for organized crime.
Drugs are never going to disappear. Thus, a more realistic drug policy should focus on minimizing the harms associated with drug use -- overdoses, blood-borne diseases like HIV/AIDS, and violence. This concept is known as "harm reduction," and must be the backbone of any drug policy.
Colombia Cesar Gaviria, former President of Colombia, on left (courtesy comunidadsegura.org)
The conference opened Monday morning by putting its star power on display. In its opening session, former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, who, as a member of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy coauthored a report a year ago with former Brazilian President Henrique Cardoso and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo denouncing drug prohibition as a failed policy, returned to the theme. Noting that as president of Colombia in the 1990s, he had been a firm supporter of prohibition, Gaviria said he had changed his tune.
"With the passing of time, prohibitionism, in which I believed, has demonstrated itself a failure," he told an attentive crowd jammed into a conference room of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in upscale Colonia Napoles. The attendant human rights abuses were a big reason why, he said.
"You have to be very careful in the matter of human rights," Gaviria said. "The issue of militarization is so risky because militarization of the struggle against the drug trade, even though it may seem necessary and imperative at a given time, almost always veers into violations of human rights."
Militarization is an especially prickly issue in Mexico, where President Calderon has deployed tens of thousands of soldiers in the war against drug trafficking organizations. While the military has failed to stop the so-called cartels or reduce the violence -- it has, in fact, increased dramatically since the military was deployed three years ago -- it has generated an increasing number of human rights complaints. According to the official National Commission on Human Rights, more than 1,900 complaints alleging abuses by the military -- ranging from harassment, theft, and illegal entry to torture, murder, and disappearances -- were filed in Mexico last year.
Referring specifically to the Mexican situation, Gaviria added: "In the long run, one of the things that most delegitimizes public policies against drugs is when human rights are violated."
Gaviria's comments sparked a quick reply from Deputy Carolina Viggiano of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), who called Calderon's decision to send in the military "the worst mistake" of his administration and one that was likely to ruin the prestige of the Mexican military by the time his term ends in three years.
While arguing that organized crime must sometimes be fought with extreme measures, such as anti-mafia laws and integrated counterintelligence operations, Gaviria also said that at some point, governments have to bring the traffickers in from the cold, perhaps by agreeing to let them plead guilty to offenses with short prison sentences. "Not 40 or 50 years in prison, but maybe eight or 10, and then the person can say, 'I'm done with this, I confess my crimes, I'll do my time, and that's that.' That is a solution with the justice system, not through militarization," he said.
If Gaviria was looking for reconciliation with the traffickers, his co-panelist former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda was a bit more provocative. He suggested that Mexico needs to go back to the "good old days" of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), at least when it comes to dealing with drug trafficking organizations.
The PRI, of course, ruled Mexico in a virtual one-party state for 70 years before being defeated by Vicente Fox and the conservative National Action Party (PAN) in the 2000 elections. It was widely (and correctly) seen as not fighting the drug trade so much as managing it.
Given the bloody mess that is the Mexican drug war today, perhaps it is time to return to a quiet arrangement with the cartels, Castañeda suggested. "How do we construct a modus vivendi?" he asked. "The Americans have a modus vivendi in Afghanistan," he noted pointedly. "They don't care if Afghanistan exports heroin to the rest of the world; they are at war with Al Qaeda."
Castenada's comments on Afghanistan rang especially true this week, as American soldiers push through poppy fields in their offensive on Marja. The US has made an explicit decision to arrive at a modus vivendi with poppy farmers, although it still fights the trade by interdiction and going after traffickers -- or at least those linked to the Taliban.
Casteneda also came up with another provocative example, especially for Mexican leftists in the audience. "We had a modus vivendi with the Zapatistas in Chiapas," he noted. "We also pretended they were real guerrillas with their wooden rifles. We created a liberated zone, and the army respected it, and it's still there. But it is a simulation -- the army could eliminate it in 90 seconds."
And in yet another provocative comment on the theme, Casteneda suggested that somebody may already have arrived at a modus vivendi with the Sinaloa Cartel -- a suggestion that is getting big play in Mexican newspapers these days. "Why is it that of the 70,000 drug war prisoners in Mexico, only 800 are Chapo Guzman's men?" he asked. "Many people think the government has made a deal with the Sinaloa cartel. I don't know if it's true."
The Mexican government was forced Wednesday to deny such claims, a clear sign they are getting wide circulation.
Peruvian drug policy analyst Ricardo Soberon told the conference that while Latin America has been a loyal follower of the UN's and the US's prohibitionist drug policy discourses, it was time for something new. "The UN anti-drug paradigm is broken," he said. "We have to change the paradigm. We have to offer something other than prohibition and the criminal justice system, but what? A regulated market? What does that mean? What we need in any case are policies that are fundamentally based on human rights and deal with it from a public health viewpoint."
Human rights and the drug war remained a key theme of the conference on its second day, with Luis Gonzalez Placencia, president of the Federal District (Mexico City) Commission on Human Rights, and Monte Alejandro Rubido, Subsecretary for Human Rights for the Secretariat of Public Security, speaking and being grilled by the audience.
"The violent and militaristic policy against drugs generates more violence and has produced more dead," said Placencia. "We have to consider whether this anti-drug policy has become counterproductive," he added.
But Rubido, a federal functionary, stood fast, saying the Calderon government remained firm in its commitment to keep drugs criminalized. Far from being a failure, the strategy is working, he said, to hoots and groans from the crowd. "It is achieving good results," he said.
During a question and answer session that followed the pair, Rubido was raked over the coals by questioner after questioner, but remained stolidly unshakable in his support for current policy.
"How many people has marijuana killed and how many has the policy of repression killed?" asked one conference-goer, but Rubido just smirked in silence.
"People have consumed drugs forever," said Haydee Rosovsky, the former head of Mexico's national commission on addiction, from the floor, as she called out the bureaucrats. "You functionaries have to come out like Gaviria and Zedillo, and not wait until you are ex-functionaries."
National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) researcher Luis Astorga presented graphs showing which party governs which Mexican states and which coastal and border municipalities and how they appear to be affiliated with different blocs of cartels. "The PRI governed states on the Gulf Coast are where the cocaine flows," he said, "and the PRI controls most border municipalities."
That is the province of a bloc of cartels consisting of the Gulf (los Zetas) and Juarez cartels and the Beltra Leyva breakaway from the Sinaloa cartel, Astorga suggested, while taking pains to say his research is only "a work in progress." On the other hand, the ruling National Action Party (PAN) controls the northwest states of Baja California, Sonora, and Sinaloa, playground to the Sinaloa, and La Familia cartels, and breakaway factions of the Tijuana cartel. Echoing Casteneda, Astorga suggested it might be time for a "pax mafioso," although he admitted it would be difficult to find political cover for such a move.
Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance briefed the crowd on the US medical marijuana experience at event organizers' request, although he expressed bemusement at the issue's relevance to Mexico and its drug war and labored to make a useful connection.
"Medical marijuana provided the angle of attack that broke the marijuana policy logjam in the United States," he noted. "What Mexico needs is to find some sort of similar issue, some sort of similar angle. Perhaps the best approach is to argue that by legalizing marijuana we can deprive the cartels of a significant income stream," he suggested.
The Mexico City conference this week is just one more indication that the cracks in the wall of drug prohibition in Latin America are spreading. But while the drug reform movement in the hemisphere has some big names behind it, it is still going to take on the ground, grass roots organizing in countries across the hemisphere to move forward. The conference in Mexico City helped lay the groundwork for that, at least in Mexico.
In its annual report on countries' compliance with the global drug prohibition regime, released Wednesday, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) challenged the trend toward the decriminalization of drug possession in Latin America, saying it undermines the three international treaties that define the international framework for drug prohibition. Critics were quick to strike back, saying the INCB was overstepping its boundaries.
Under the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the 1988 UN Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, the INCB is charged with being the "nattering nanny" of the global prohibition regime. It "identifies weaknesses in national and international control systems and contributes to correcting such situations."
Its powers are primarily rhetorical, and it used them in the annual report to lash out at creeping decriminalization in the Western Hemisphere:
The Board notes with concern that in countries in South America, such as Argentina, Brazil and Colombia (and in countries in North America, such as Mexico and the United States), there is a growing movement to decriminalize the possession of controlled drugs, in particular cannabis, for personal use. Regrettably, influential personalities, including former high-level politicians in countries in South America, have publicly expressed their support for that movement. The Board is concerned that the movement, if not resolutely countered by the respective Governments, will undermine national and international efforts to combat the abuse of and illicit trafficking in narcotic drugs. In any case, the movement poses a threat to the coherence and effectiveness of the international drug control system and sends the wrong message to the general public.
Brazil quasi-decriminalized drug possession in 2006 (drug users are still charged, but cannot be sentenced to jail terms), a series of Argentine court decisions in recent years culminating in a Supreme Court decision last year has decriminalized marijuana position (and implies the looming decriminalization of the possession of any drug), and Mexico last year decriminalized the possession of small amounts of drug for personal use. In addition, possession of small amounts of marijuana has been decriminalized in 13 US states.
The "influential personalities" to whom the INCB critically referred, include former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Colombian President Carlos Gaviria, and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, who, as members of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy last year issued a report highly critical of the US-led war on drugs in the region. That report called on the US to decriminalize marijuana possession and treat drug use as a public health -- not a criminal -- matter. To that list could be added former Mexican President Vicente Fox, who just this week reiterated his call for a debate on drug legalization (See related story here.)
While the former presidents have yet to respond to the INCB's critique, non-governmental organizations working in the field have come out swinging. They accuse the INCB of overstepping its bounds and attempting to block necessary and desirable drug law reforms.
"There are too many consumers and small-time drug offenders overcrowding Latin American jails. This is not only inhumane, it also means justice systems are diverting their scarce resources and attention away from big traffickers," said Pien Metaal, Drugs and Democracy Program Researcher for the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute (TNI). "Part of the overcrowding problem stems from disproportionate prison sentences for nonviolent offenders."
Decriminalization has not been shown to increase drug use. Portugal decriminalized the possession of all drugs for personal use nine years ago, and its usage rates are squarely in the middle of European averages. Similarly, the Dutch experience with de facto personal legalization has not led to Dutch usage rates outside the European norm, nor are marijuana usage rates in American states where it is decriminalized substantially different from those where it is not.
John Walsh, head of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), criticized the INCB for "reminding" governments that the treaties require that drug possession be criminalized. "Apparently it's the INCB that needs reminding, both about the limits of its own role and about what the treaties actually require," said Walsh. "Not only does the INCB lack the mandate to raise such issues, the INCB misreads the 1988 Convention itself, asserting an absolute obligation to criminalize drug possession when the Convention explicitly affords some flexibility on this matter."
Walsh noted that while the 1988 Convention requires each party to "establish as a criminal offence [...] the possession, purchase or cultivation of narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances for personal consumption," an article within the convention explicitly states that such laws are subject to each country's "constitutional principles and basic concepts of its legal system." Thus, he argued, countries have "a certain latitude" within the global prohibition regime to reform their drug laws.
"In the case of the Argentine Supreme Court ruling, it is arrogant interference by the INCB to question the judgment of the highest judicial authority of a sovereign State. The INCB has neither the mandate nor the expertise to challenge such a decision," said Martin Jelsma, TNI Drugs and Democracy Program Coordinator.
The INCB also expressed its concern about medical marijuana in Canada:
Canada continues to be one of the few countries in the world that allows cannabis to be prescribed by doctors to patients with certain serious illnesses. […] Until 2009, cannabis could be either obtained from a Government supplier or grown in small amounts by the patient, or a person designated by the patient, with the sole limitation that only one patient could be supplied by a licensed supplier. In 2009, following court decisions stipulating that that approach unjustifiably restricted the patient's access to cannabis used for medical purposes, the Government increased the number of cultivation licenses a person could hold from one to two. The Government intends to reassess the program for controlling medical access to cannabis. According to article 23 of the 1961 Convention, a party to the Convention, if it is to allow the licit cultivation of cannabis, must fulfill specific requirements, including the establishment of a national cannabis agency to which all cannabis growers must deliver their crops. […] The Board therefore requests the Government to respect the provisions of article 23.
But as with the case of the decriminalization decision by the Argentine Supreme Court, the Canadian courts were acting within their "constitutional principles and basic concepts of its legal system."
And in the US:
While the consumption and cultivation of cannabis, except for scientific purposes, are illegal activities according to federal law in the United States, several states have enacted laws that provide for the 'medical use' of cannabis. The control measures applied in those states for the cultivation of cannabis plants and the production, distribution and use of cannabis fall short of the control requirements laid down in the 1961 Convention. The Board is deeply concerned that those insufficient control provisions have contributed substantially to the increase in illicit cultivation and abuse of cannabis in the United States. In addition, that development sends a wrong message to other countries.
The INCB also again went after Bolivia, which enshrined the coca leaf in its constitution as part of its cultural heritage in 2008 and which has called for coca to be removed from the 1961 Single Convention. The tone, however, was a bit softer than last year, when it reprimanded Bolivia over coca production, coca chewing, and other traditional uses of the Andean plant:
The Board wishes to remind the Governments of all countries concerned, in particular the Government of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, that unless any further amendments to the 1961 Convention are put into effect, the use or importation of coca leaf from which cocaine has not been extracted, for purposes other than those allowed under the 1961 Convention, constitutes a breach of obligations under the Convention.
"The INCB again shows itself to be out of touch with reality by demanding that Bolivia stamp out coca use, also wrongfully prohibited in the Conventions," said TNI's Pien Metaal. "The controversies around Article 3 of the 1988 Convention and the erroneous treatment of the coca leaf in the 1961 Convention are two examples of why the drug control treaty system, including the role played by the INCB, needs to be revised."
Along with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the INCB is the bureaucratic backbone of the global prohibition regime. That it continues to work to uphold the prohibitionist principles of the regime is no surprise. That it is now subject to increasing criticism and attack in the face of the myriad failures of global drug prohibition is no surprise either.
Bryan Epis, the first California medical marijuana provider to be prosecuted and convicted for growing marijuana for patients, was sent back to federal prison Monday by a federal judge in Sacramento. Epis had served two years of his sentence before he was released in 2004 by an order of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals.
The now more than 12-year-old case began in 1997, when Epis was arrested for growing at least 100 marijuana plants in the basement of his Chico home. During his trial, Epis testified that he was growing for himself and four other medical marijuana patients, with any excess marijuana going to a medical cannabis buyers' club.
But based on business plans Epis had sketched out to expand on his garden and prosecutors' allegations he was only in it for the money, a jury in Sacramento found him guilty in July 2002 of growing more than 100 plants and conspiracy to grow more than 1,000 plants. He received a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence, in part because his house was within 1,000 feet of a local high school.
Epis served two years in federal prison before winning a ruling from the 9th Circuit that he should be freed pending the resolution of the landmark Raich v. Gonzalez case. Unfortunately for Epis, the US Supreme Court ruled in that case that federal drug laws trump state medical marijuana laws.
Epis was resentenced to 10 years in 2007, but had been free on $500,000 bail pending appeal. But the 9th Circuit decided against him in August, the US Supreme Court declined to review that ruling, and the end came Monday.
Federal prosecutor Samuel Wong, who has been Epis' bête noir since the beginning of the case, didn't let up Monday. He continued to insist that the case had nothing to do with medical marijuana. "As the court knows, this is not a medical marijuana case. That term doesn't ever apply to cases of this scope," Wong charged. "Mr. Bryan Epis grew and distributed large amounts of marijuana even before the law changed in California," he added, although Epis was never charged with that.
Attorney John Balazs, who represented Epis, asked that he be given a surrender date so that he could explore other means of overturning the conviction and sentence. But US District Court Judge Frank Damrell was having none of it. "It's over, Mr. Epis."
Epis was then taken to a holding cell as his girlfriend and daughter wept. If nothing happens to change things, he won't be free again until around 2017.
Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year trafficking illegal drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed over 17,000 people, with a death toll of nearly 8,000 in 2009 and over 1,000 so far in 2010. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest of several high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war:
Monday, February 22
A high-ranking member of the Sinaloa Cartel was captured by federal police in his hometown of Santa Ana, Sonora. Jose Vasquez Villagrana, 40, is a former member of the US Army, in which he served for a year in 1990 before deserting to Mexico once he had obtained US citizenship. He is accused of overseeing the importation of Colombian cocaine to Mexico via Panama and other Central American countries. Once in Mexico, the cocaine was stored at his ranch before being smuggled into the United States.
Tuesday, February 23
Two people were killed in firefights between police and suspected drug traffickers in the state of Coahuila. Seven people were reported wounded in the fighting, which took place in the cities of Piedras Negras, La Laguna and Torreon. The violence began when police attempted to pull over a pickup truck in Piedras Negras, only to be fired at by automatic weapons. One of the gunmen was killed, while a second escaped. Four others were wounded in the shooting. Upon searching the truck, police found several weapons, including AK-47's, AR-15's, fragmentation grenades and a .50 caliber "Barrett" sniper rifle. In another incident, police shot dead a suspected drug-trafficker and wounded two others in La Laguna.
The mayor of the town of Mezquital, Durango was gunned down as he dined in a restaurant in the state capital of Durango. In Navolato, Sinaloa, a municipal police official was shot dead. Several minutes after his killing, gunmen returned to open fire on police and army personnel who had arrived at the scene to gather evidence. None were killed.
Additionally, in the coastal town of Bella Vista, two executed bodies were found lying on the beach. Two men were murdered in Culiacan, two others in Mazatlan, and another body was found in Navolato. During the same time period, eight people were killed in violence across the city. In one incident, gunmen forced the patrons of a business in the La Presa neighborhood to lay down before picking out their three targets, who were then shot. Also in Tijuana, police discovered a shipment of 5,000 unidentified "psychotropic pills" which had arrived on a flight from Guadalajara.
Wednesday, February 24
In Oaxaca, gunmen attacked a rural town, leaving 13 people dead. The attack, which took place in the small town of San Vicente Camalote, was carried out by an unknown number of masked men traveling in several vehicles. The attack began when 9 policemen were killed after the gunmen attacked their checkpoint. The gunmen then stormed a ranch, killing its owner and three of his sons. Although the exact motive is unclear, authorities believe the killings were related to the drug trade.
In other news, the US consulate in Monterrey advised American citizens to avoid travel to the states of Chihuahua, Durango, and Nuevo Leon, and the city of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, which borders Texas. Authorities in Tamaulipas fought gun battles against suspected cartel members in several cities, leaving at least 19 dead, including one police officer. Additionally, in the state of Guerrero, authorities discovered two severed arms and a threatening note inside a cooler, having being led to it by an anonymous tip.
In Sinaloa, a Mexican Air Force helicopter came under fire while searching for marijuana and poppy fields in a remote area. A 48-year pilot was wounded by the gunfire, and had to be taken to a hospital in the town of Los Mochis. No further details on the incident are available.
In Mexico City, two bodies were found in the trunk of an SUV parked in the upscale neighborhood of Bosques de las Lomas. One of the dead was male and one female. Their identities are unclear. Police also removed a mysterious package from the vehicle to be further inspected.
Total Body Count for the Week: 137
Total Body Count for the Year: 1,401
Total Body Count for 2009: 7,724
Total Body Count since Calderon took office: 17,606
A pill-peddling cop, a court officer fudging drug tests in return for pills, and, of course, the requisite crooked jailers -- just another week in the drug war. Let's get to it:
In Port Richey, Florida, a Port Richey Police sergeant was arrested February 19 for allegedly selling 1,000 Oxycodone tablets to a DEA snitch. Sgt. James Ruland, a 12-year-veteran of the force is alleged to have left work and gone to his home to arrange a deal to peddle the pills. He was arrested after selling the pills to the snitch for a $5,000 down payment. At last report, he was being held without bond in the Pinellas County Jail.
In South Boston, Pennsylvania, a Halifax County court services officer was arrested February 9 for allegedly accepting Schedule II drugs in return for falsifying drug test results, although the arrest wasn't announced until this Monday. Court officer Robert Wazeka III went down after being turned in by someone who knew what he was up to. It's not clear exactly what he is charged with, but he is out on a $3,500 unsecured bond.
In Hickman, Kentucky, a Fulton County jail guard was arrested February 18 on charges he smuggled marijuana, cocaine, and prescription pain relief drugs into the jail. Deputy Jailer Ian Whittington is charged with promoting contraband 1st degree, trafficking controlled substance 1st degree (cocaine), trafficking controlled substance 1st degree (Opiates-Oxycontin) trafficking marijuana under 8 oz., drug paraphernalia- buy/possess 1st degree, official misconduct-1st degree. Whittington went down after another jailer shared his suspicions about him with the county sheriff.
In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a Milwaukee County jail guard was arrested last Friday for smuggling contraband, including marijuana, into the jail for an inmate. Former guard Eric Colon is charged with delivering contraband to an inmate and misconduct in public office. Both counts are felonies, and he's looking at up to seven years in prison. Colon is accused of becoming friendly with an inmate and buying a car at a discount from his family. In return, Colon smuggled in a number of items to the inmate, including "deodorant, a hairbrush, matchsticks, two packs of Newport cigarettes, two marijuana cigarettes hidden inside a deodorant container, crushed tobacco, a container of hair grease, a fabric hair net, a Mini Bic cigarette lighter, two ink pens, 14 pornographic photographs and 20 Duracell batteries."
Maybe the voters won't have to take things into their own hands this November in California after all. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) has reintroduced his marijuana legalization bill, the Marijuana Control, Regulation and Education Act (AB 2254).
bill sponsor Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, with Dale Gieringer, Stephen Gutwillig and Aaron Smith in background
In a historic first, last session's version of the bill won a 4-3 vote in the Assembly Public Safety Committee -- the first time any legislative committee anywhere in the country has approved marijuana legalization legislation. But the bill failed to get to the floor before the consideration deadline passed.
The bill would "remove marijuana and its derivatives from existing statutes defining and regulating controlled substances" and would instead provide for the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) to regulate the possession, sale, and cultivation of the herb by people 21 or older. The bill would not affect California's existing medical marijuana law (except perhaps to render it unnecessary).
Under the bill, the ABC would regulate wholesale and retail sales. A special fee would be imposed, with proceeds going to fund drug abuse prevention programs. The bill would also "ban state and local assistance in enforcing inconsistent federal and other laws relating to marijuana."
"It is time to acknowledge that the existing model of prohibition has failed, and that California is long overdue for a public policy for the control and regulation of marijuana that reflects the reality of what is happening in our state," Ammiano said.
Marijuana is California's largest cash crop, with an annual estimated value of $14 billion. In evaluating last session's version of Ammiano's bill, the state Board of Equalization estimated that taxes generated under a legalization and regulation scheme could generate more than $1 billion a year.
"The fact that California's largest cash crop continues to go untaxed and unregulated is astounding, especially in such tough economic times," said Marijuana Policy Project California policy director Aaron Smith in a statement welcoming the bill. "We once again applaud Assemblyman Ammiano on his dedication and leadership on this issue and remain optimistic that 2010 is the year California ends its state's failed marijuana policies."
If the California legislature fails to act this year, it looks extremely likely that the voters will have a chance to vote for legalization in November. Organizers of the Tax Cannabis 2010 ballot measure last month turned in nearly 700,000 signatures, more than 250,000 more than then 434,000 valid signatures needed to make the ballot. That measure awaits certification by state election officials.
Representatives of the US and Mexican governments meeting at the US-Mexico Bi-national Drug Demand Reduction Policy Meeting in Washington, DC, this week took pains to make clear that neither government is prepared to consider drug legalization. Although legalization wasn't on the meeting's agenda, both Gil Kerlikowske, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), and Mexican Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova Villalobos felt impelled to denounce it.
status quo at all costs (follow top link above for video)
"Legalization isn't a subject under discussion under the Obama administration under any circumstances," said Kerlikowske. Such proposals do not hold up "under the thinnest veil of scrutiny," he said. "The reasons for this are multiple: There is no evidence that legalization would reduce the violence or benefit the economy."
"In Mexico," said Villalobos, "and I want to emphasize this in a firm manner, there is a clear consensus to maintain the criminalization of the cultivation, transportation, possession, commerce, or use of substances identified as dangerous in the international conventions. We are convinced that the legalization of the use of drugs is not only dangerous and distant, but unviable in practical terms. Drugs aren't dangerous because they're illegal, they're illegal because they're dangerous," he added, stealing a hoary trope that is a favorite of UN Office on Drugs and Crime head Antonio Maria Costa.
But the consensus of which Villalobos spoke is badly tattered. The rejection of drug legalization comes amidst a rising clamor for a rethink of prohibitionist drug policies. The calls for change are growing increasingly loud south of the border, where Mexican President Felipe Calderon's militarization of the drug war has led to growing public dismay with its bloody death toll, accusations of human rights abuses by the military, and the campaign's inability to have an noticeable impact on the so-called drug cartels.
On Monday, Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox, once again called for debating legalization. "We need to end the war," he said. "It's time to debate legalizing drugs," he said, adding, "Then maybe we can separate violence from what is a health problem."
Similarly, at a conference in Mexico City this week, academics, attorneys, and activists joined former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria in calling for drug legalization. (See related story here.)
The officials also took some flak from north of the border. "The only solution to the current crisis is to tax and regulate marijuana," said Aaron Houston, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project. "Once again, Mexican and US officials are ignoring the fact that the cartels get 70% of their profits from marijuana. It's time to face the reality that the US's marijuana prohibition is fueling a bloodbath in Mexico and the United States."
Congress has approved a three-year $1.4 billion anti-drug aid package for Mexico and Central America, and this year the Obama administration is seeking an additional $310 million in anti-drug aid for Mexico.
"It is illogical, at best, to continue throwing money at this failed policy," Houston said. "The government will never eliminate the demand for marijuana, but it can put an end to the monopoly drug cartels currently hold on America's largest cash crop. Lifting marijuana prohibition would take away the cartels' largest source of income and the main reason for the horrifically brutal violence perpetrated by rival drug groups."
But if Washington and Mexico City just whistle loudly enough as they walk past the graveyard, perhaps they can continue to ignore the rising clamor just a while longer.
The New York Senate Health Committee approved a medical marijuana bill, S 4041-B, on a 9-3 vote Tuesday. The measure now moves to the Senate Codes Committee. The Assembly version of the bill, A 9016, passed out the Assembly Health Committee last month and is now before the Assembly Codes Committee.
The Assembly approved medical marijuana bills in 2007 and 2008, but the measure had never gotten a Senate floor vote while Republicans controlled the state Senate until after the 2008 elections. Last year, the Senate Health Committee passed a bill, but it never got a floor vote as the Democratic leadership in the Senate imploded in bitter infighting.
The bill would allow patients with a doctor's recommendation and state registration or their caregivers to possess up to 2 ½ ounces of usable marijuana, but not to grow it. Marijuana cultivation would be done by registered producers, who would not provide the product to patients and caregivers, but would instead sell it to pharmacies, the state or local health departments, or nonprofit organizations registered as medical marijuana providers.
"We applaud the New York Senate Health Committee members for doing the right thing and taking this important step toward protecting sick and dying New Yorkers from arrest or jail," said Noah Mamber, legislative analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project. "Let's hope New York legislators will follow the lead of New Jersey, the state next door, which is about to become the 14th state to implement an effective medical marijuana law."
(Commentary on this late-breaking important news item is reprinted from our blog in order to include it in this week's issue. Come back for next week's Chronicle for a news report on it, and visit The Speakeasy to read Scott Morgan's commentary on a daily basis.)
The DEA's recent tough-guy tactics in Colorado aren't winning them any friends in the press, the public, or even in politics. Colorado Congressman Jared Polis sent a scathing letter to Attorney General Holder and President Obama demanding that DEA be required to uphold the administration's policy of respecting medical marijuana laws. Here it is in part:
Despite these formal guidelines, Friday, February 12, 2010, agents from the US Department of Justice's Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raided the home of medical marijuana caregiver Chris Bartkowicz in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. In a news article in the Denver Post the next day, the lead DEA agent in the raid, Jeffrey Sweetin, claimed "We're still going to continue to investigate and arrest people... Technically, every dispensary in the state is in blatant violation of federal law," he said. "The time is coming when we go into a dispensary, we find out what their profit is, we seize the building and we arrest everybody. They're violating federal law; they're at risk of arrest and imprisonment."
Agent Sweetin's comment that "we arrest everybody" is of great concern to me and to the people of Colorado, who overwhelmingly voted to allow medical marijuana. Coloradans suffering from debilitating medical conditions, many of them disabled, elderly, veterans, or otherwise vulnerable people, have expressed their concern to me that the DEA will come into medical marijuana dispensaries, which are legal under Colorado law, and "arrest everybody" present. Although Agent Sweetin reportedly has backed away from his comments, he has yet to issue a written clarification or resign, thus the widespread panic in Colorado continues.
On May 14, 2009, Mr. Kerlikowske told the Wall Street Journal: "Regardless of how you try to explain to people it's a 'war on drugs' or a 'war on a product,' people see a war as a war on them," he said. "We're not at war with people in this country." The actions and commentary of Mr. Sweetin are inconsistent with the idea of not waging war against the people of the State of Colorado and are a contradiction to your agency's laudable policies. [Westword]
Right on. We're witnessing a conspicuous disruption of the White House's carefully crafted effort to reduce controversy in the war on drugs, and it's clear that the silence must soon be broken in Washington. It's easy to say "we're not at war," but until you order the soldiers under your command to lay down their arms, it won't be possible to sugarcoat any of this.
Denmark thus joins Germany, the Netherland, and Switzerland, and to a lesser extent, Great Britain, as countries that allow for the provision of heroin to hard-core users who have proven unamenable to the traditional treatments, such as methadone maintenance. A pilot heroin maintenance program is also underway in Vancouver, Canada.
The Copenhagen clinic will serve about 120 of Denmark's 300 or so identified hard-core users. Only addicts who have been referred from a methadone treatment center will be accepted. While subjects will be prescribed heroin, they will have to consume it at the clinic.
"Our objective is not to cure heroin addicts, but to help those who are not satisfied by methadone by providing them with clean heroin, allowing them to avoid disease and the temptation of criminal acts to obtain the drug," a doctor and head of the clinic Inger Nielsen told Agence-France Presse. People in the program will get methadone for the first two weeks "so we can determine how much heroin to prescribe," she added.
The Danish User Association, a group that represents drug users, while supportive of heroin maintenance, criticized the program for requiring users to go to the clinic twice a day, seven days a week, to get their fixes. "This means living like a zombie, without being able to hold down a job or study or have hobbies," said head of the association Joergen Kjaer.
The Belgian Court of Appeal in Antwerp Thursday acquitted a group of activists who had publicly planted marijuana seeds of "incitement to drug use." Board members of the group, calling itself "Trekt Uw Plant" (Grow Your Plant), had each planted one seed in a container in a May 2008 action in a bid to win the right to create a collective marijuana garden.
Instead they were arrested. They were convicted of "incitement to drug use" by the Antwerp Correctional Court in 2009, but the appeals court decision has now reversed that ruling.
In so doing, the appeals court accepted the group's argument that it was attempting to create legal space for the collective cultivation of marijuana for personal use. The group also argued before the court that accepting collective cultivation could reduce illegal cultivation and resort to the black market or Dutch coffee shops just across the border.
Under Belgian ministerial guidelines in effect since January 2005, authorities will not prosecute people possessing three grams of marijuana or less or one plant. Trekt Uw Plant used the action as a test case to push for collective gardens, as are allowed in Spain.
Thursday's ruling marks the second time Trekt Uw Plant has been acquitted of a crime for its action. "This second acquittal encourages us to continue in the fight for a coherent and effective cannabis policy in Belgium," the group said.
This week the ProCon.org program launched a new addition to its family of web sites, examining the popular but controversial "Drug Abuse Resistance Education" (D.A.R.E.) drug education program. Supporters of D.A.R.E. argue that the program annually helps over 35 million kids in all 50 states and 43 countries to resist drug abuse. Critics counter that decades of research shows D.A.R.E. is ineffective, marketing not science-based, and can actually increase drug use by students.
Follow Drug War Chronicle for more important facts or announcements from ProCon.org over the next several weeks, or sign up for ProCon.org's email list or RSS feed. To read last week's ProCon "Did You Know" blurb, click here.
ProCon.org is a web site promoting critical thinking, education, and informed citizenship by presenting controversial issues in a straightforward, nonpartisan primarily pro-con format.
March 3, 1905: The first Congressional anti-drug law is passed when the US colonial government prohibits opium in the Philippines.
March 1, 1915: The Harrison Narcotics Act goes into legal effect, beginning federal prohibition of drugs.
March 4, 1992: George Bush's White House has bureaucrats terminate the federal government's Compassionate Investigational New Drug (IND) medical marijuana program, barring even approved patients from receiving marijuana and allowing only a small handful already receiving it to continue.
February 26, 1995: Former mayor of San Francisco Frank Jordan is quoted in the Los Angeles Times, saying, "I have no problem whatsoever with the use of marijuana for medical purposes. I am sensitive and compassionate to people who have legitimate needs. We should bend the law and do what's right."
February 28, 1995: In compliance with the 1994 Crime Act, the US Sentencing Commission issues a report on the current federal structure of differing penalties on powder cocaine and crack cocaine, recommending that Congress "revisit" penalties enacted for those offenses.
February 29, 1996: In his State of the Union address, President Clinton nominates Army General Barry McCaffrey, a veteran of Vietnam and Desert Storm, as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. McCaffrey had been head of the US Southern Command (SouthCom) which provides military backup for US policy in Latin America -- a policy long linked with chronically ineffective and corrupt drug enforcement.
February 28, 1998: President Clinton recertifies Mexico as a fully cooperating ally in the struggle against drug smuggling despite a letter from 40 US senators urging Clinton to deny certification.
February 27, 1999: Conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. is quoted in the New York Post: "Even if one takes every reefer madness allegation of the prohibitionists at face value, prohibition has done far more harm to far more people than marijuana ever could."
March 1, 1999: The advice columnist Abigail Van Buren in her popular column "Dear Abby" says: "I agree that marijuana laws are overdue for an overhaul. I also favor the medical use of marijuana -- if it's prescribed by a physician. I cannot understand why the federal government should interfere with the doctor-patient relationship, nor why it would ignore the will of the majority of voters who have legally approved such legislation."
February 28, 2000: UPI reports that Spanish researchers said the chemical in marijuana that produces a "high" shows promise as a weapon against deadly brain tumors. A research team from Complutense University and Autonoma University in Madrid found that one of marijuana's active ingredients, THC, killed tumor cells in advanced cases of glioma, a quick-killing cancer for which there is currently no effective treatment.
March 1, 2004: The State Department releases its annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) revealing that Afghanistan produced a larger poppy crop in 2003 than ever before. Some 61,000 hectares of land were cultivated with poppy in 2003 -- up almost twofold from about 31,000 hectares in 2002.
Along with our weekly in-depth Chronicle reporting, DRCNet also provides daily content in the way of blogging in the Stop the Drug War Speakeasy -- huge numbers of people have been reading it recently -- as well as Latest News links (upper right-hand corner of most web pages), event listings (lower right-hand corner) and other info. Check out DRCNet every day to stay on top of the drug reform game! Check out the Speakeasy main page at http://stopthedrugwar.org/speakeasy.
prohibition-era beer raid, Washington, DC (Library of Congress)
Since last issue:
Scott Morgan writes: "Colorado Congressman Fights Back Against DEA's Medical Marijuana Raids," "New Synthetic Marijuana Products: Are They Medicine?," "Opponents of Medical Marijuana Should Just Give Up," "Pot Wars -- Battlefield California," "Employment Discrimination Against Medical Marijuana Patients Must End," "Federal Policy on Medical Marijuana is Still a Confusing Mess."
Phil Smith posts early copies of Drug War Chronicle articles.
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