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One of the Worst Ideas to Come Out of the War on Drugs: Sentencing Enhancement Zones

Video from the Prison Policy Initiative on what is indeed one of the worst ideas to come out of the war on drugs:
 

Chronicle AM -- June 30, 2014

The Big Dog opines on marijuana, a California sentencing reform initiative qualifies for the ballot, the DC legalization initiative looks poised to make the ballot, municipal decrim initiative campaigns are underway in New Mexico's largest cities, the drug war is driving grand jury indictments in an East Texas county, and more. Let's get to it:

Bill Clinton is ready to let the states experiment on marijuana policy. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

DC Legalization Initiative Poised to Make Ballot. The DC Cannabis Campaign is reporting that it has gathered more than 60,000 signatures to place its initiative to legalize home-growing and possession of marijuana on the November ballot. It only needs 22,600 valid voter signatures to qualify. The signature-gathering period ends next week.

Albuquerque, Santa Fe Decriminalization Initiatives Begin Signature-Gathering. Organizers of municipal decriminalization initiatives in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico, began signature-gathering last Saturday. The Drug Policy Alliance's political action arm, Drug Policy Action, is behind the effort. Some 5,700 signatures are needed in Santa Fe and 11,000 in Albuquerque.

Bill Clinton Talks Pot. Former President Bill Clinton was asked on Meet the Press Sunday whether "giving pot a chance" would help governments raise revenue. Here's his response: "Rocky Mountain high?" Clinton quipped. "Look, I think there's a lot of evidence to argue for the medical marijuana thing. I think there are a lot of unresolved questions, but I think we should leave it to the states, if there really is a time when there should be laboratories of democracy because nobody really knows where this is going. Are there adequate quality controls? There's pot and then there's pot. What's in it? There's all these questions, and I think that I like where it is now. If a state wants to try it, they can. And then they'll be able to see what happens."

Washington State Faces Marijuana Shortages, High Prices. With the first retail marijuana shops slated to open in less than 10 days, Washington state is facing a legal marijuana shortage, which is expected to drive up prices. Only 79 of the more than 2,600 people who applied for growing licenses have been approved, and many of them aren't ready to harvest. Pounds being sold to retailers now are going for as much as $4,000, which comes out to $9 a gram before taxes. After a retailers' mark up, the 25% excise tax, and state and local sales taxes, gram prices could be in the $15-20 range -- above the price on the black market.

Medical Marijuana

Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Initiative Has More than 75,000 Signatures. The constitutional amendment medical marijuana initiative sponsored by Oklahomans for Health now has 75,000 raw signatures. The group needs 156,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot. They have until August 17 to come up with more.

California Medical Marijuana Regulation Bill Advances, But Needs Work. A bill to regulate California's medical marijuana industry, Senate Bill 1262, passed the Assembly Public Safety Committee last Friday, but is described as "unworkable, incoherent, and unacceptable to most advocates." Committee approval was conditioned on working out the problems before hearings in the Appropriations Committee in August.

Sentencing

California Sentencing Reform Initiative Qualifies for November Ballot. The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act sentencing reform initiative has qualified for the November ballot, the secretary of state's office announced last Friday. Backed by San Francisco DA George Gascon and San Diego Police Chief William Landsdowne, the initiative would defelonize some drug possession offenses, as well as making some other crimes misdemeanors instead of felonies.

Law Enforcement

Drug War Accounts for Big Chunk of Upshur County, Texas, Grand Jury Indictments. The Upshur County Grand Jury returned its latest batch of indictments last week, and of the 26 indictments, 11 of them (43%) were for drug charges. Of the drug charges, six were possession of methamphetamine, three were meth sales, and two were for cocaine sales.

International

Crackdown on Anti-Cartel Vigilantes in Michoacan, Mexico. Mexican soldiers and police arrested 83 suspected vigilantes last Friday in Michoacan after they encountered them carrying unauthorized weapons. Among those arrested was Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, one of the founders of the vigilante groups, which formed in response to harassment, extortion, and lawlessness perpetrated by the region's Knights Templar cartel. The vigilantes were supposed to have joined rural police forces, but Mireles and his men had not done that and had instead begun organizing a new vigilante group. He and his men were arrested when they set up roadblocks around the port city of Lazaro Cardenas.

Zambian Government Says No Marijuana Legalization. Responding to increasing calls for marijuana legalization to improve the economy, the government says no way. Home Affairs Minister Ngosa Simbyakula said last Friday that the government remains determined not to legalize marijuana. It would encourage drug use in the country, he said.

Chronicle AM -- June 27, 2014

Things are looking good after legalization in Colorado, a medical marijuana bill moves in Pennsylvania, food stamp drug testing is on hold in Mississippi, hash battles break out in Libya, and more. Let's get to it:

Marijuana Policy

DPA Issues Report on Six Months of Legal Marijuana Sales in Colorado. Crime is down, tax revenues are up, and the marijuana industry is generating thousands of new jobs in Colorado, according to a new report from the Drug Policy Alliance. The report is Status Report: Marijuana Regulation in Colorado After Six Months of Retail Sales and 18 Months of Decriminalization.

Medical Marijuana

Pennsylvania Senate Committee Approves Medical Marijuana Bill. The state Senate Law and Justice Committee voted unanimously yesterday to approve Senate Bill 1182, which would allow qualified patients to obtain marijuana through dispensaries, but not grow their own. Neither could patients smoke their medicine, but they could use edibles or vaporize it. Now, the bill is on to the Appropriations Committee and, if it passes there, a Senate floor vote. Companion legislation in the House has yet to move.

Tulsa Medical Marijuana Petitioners Say Tulsa Cops Backed Off After They Went Public. Signature-gatherers for the Oklahomans for Health medical marijuana initiative report they are no longer being harassed by Tulsa Police after they went public with their complaints. Police had, on several occasions, stopped and investigated petitioners, at least twice after purportedly receiving complaints they were selling or smoking marijuana. The group hasn't had any formal response from Tulsa Police or city officials, but they are no longer being harassed, they said.

Drug Testing

Mississippi Food Stamp Drug Testing Implementation Delayed. A Mississippi law approved this year that would require food stamp applicants to be subject to drug testing is being delayed. It was supposed to go into effect July 1, but will be held up pending a public hearing set for July 22. The delay comes thanks to ACLU of Mississippi and the Mississippi Center for Justice, which challenged the start-up on grounds that it violated the state's administrative procedures law.

Methamphetamine

Michigan Governor Signs Package of Meth Bills. Gov. Rick Snyder (R) Thursday signed into law three bills increasing the criminalization of methamphetamine users and producers. One makes it a crime to purchase pseudoephedrine knowing it will be used to make meth, another makes it a crime to solicit someone else to do so, and the third specifies that the second mandates a 10-year prison sentence. Click on the link for more bill details.

International

Are the Latin American Drug Cartels on the Wane? Council on Hemispheric Affairs analyst Claudia Barrett has penned a provocative analysis suggesting the era of the cartels may be coming to an end. The piece is The Breakdown of Cartel Culture -- An Analysis.

Reductions in Coca Cultivation Don't Necessarily Mean Less Cocaine. The Global Post has a think piece on the reported decline in coca production and why it doesn't necessarily mean cocaine supplies are decreasing. Click on the link to read it.

Libya Hash Bust Sparks Deadly Battle. A hash bust in Benghazi last Saturday erupted into a pitched battle when armed gunmen attacked government forces who were destroying a major stash of hash seized from a cargo ship. At least seven people were reported killed. Government officials accused Al Qaeda of being involved.

Tunisia Will Reform Its Drug Laws. Tunisia is going to revamp its drug laws, a vestige of the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali dictatorship. The North African country has some 25,000 people in prison for drug offenses. Current laws don't differentiate between hard and soft drugs and require mandatory minimum prison sentences for any drug offense. A commission is expected to submit to parliament this summer an amended law that does away with the mandatory sentences of one-to-five years for drug possession.

New Zealand Poll Has Majority for Marijuana Reform. A majority of New Zealanders polled in a recent survey support reforming the country's marijuana laws. The New Zealand Herald-DigiPoll had 32% supported decriminalization and another 22% wanting it completely legalized, while 45% were opposed to any reform. Even among members of the ruling National Party, which opposes reform, 45% supported decrim or legalization.

Chronicle AM -- June 26, 2014

It's UN anti-drug day, and protests to mark it are going on in at least 80 cities around the world, House Republicans move to block DC decrim, the Oregon legalization initiative looks set to make the ballot, the ACLU has a strong new report out on SWAT teams, and more. Let's get to it:

fundraiser for the Florida medical marijuana initiative, at the Vicente-Sederberg law firm following the NCIA summit
Marijuana Policy

Cannabis Business Summit Draws Big Crowd in Denver. More than 1,200 people attended the Cannabis Business Summit sponsored by the National Cannabis Industry Association in Denver this week. Look for a Chronicle report on it in coming days.

Oregon Legalization Initiative to Hand in Signatures Today. It looks like Oregonians will vote on marijuana legalization this November. The New Approach Oregon initiative campaign will hand in 145,000 signatures to state officials today; they only need some 87,000 valid ones to qualify for the ballot.

House Committee Votes to Block Decriminalization in DC. The House Appropriations Committee yesterday passed an amendment to the 2015 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill intended to prevent the District of Columbia from implementing its recently passed law decriminalizing the possession of marijuana. It also has the potential to end the District's medical marijuana program. The amendment, offered by Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), passed by a vote of 28-21. Reform advocates will seek a floor vote to remove this amendment from the bill when it proceeds to the House floor.

No Vote on Legalization in the Rhode Island Legislature. The 2014 legislative session has ended without the Marijuana Regulation, Control, and Taxation Act never coming up for a vote. Maybe next year.

Oakland Shuts Down a Trio of Measure Z Speakeasies. For the past decade, recreational marijuana retail outlets have quietly operated in Oakland, protected by Measure Z, which makes the private use of marijuana by adults law enforcement's lowest priority. But in recent weeks, Oakland police have raided and shut down three of the speakeasies. The police say their enforcement actions are driven by complaints.

Sentencing

Two More Cosponsors for the Smarter Sentencing Act. The Smarter Sentencing Act has picked up two more cosponsors, bringing the total to 41, 27 Democrats and 14 Republicans. The latest cosponsors are Rep. Ann Kuster (D-NH) and Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA).

Senate State and Foreign Operations Funding Bill to Include Sentencing Reform Language. Advocates working with Senate Judiciary Chair Pat Leahy's (D-VT) office report that the Senate committee report on the issue will include language making sentencing reform part of US foreign policy and an issue the State Department promotes when working on police training and judicial reform in other countries. Click the link to read the language.

Law Enforcement

ACLU Issues Report on Militarization of American Policing. The American Civil Liberties Union has released a new report on the excessive militarization of American policing, War Comes Home. The report concentrates on the use of SWAT teams, and fnds that 80% of SWAT deployments were not hostage rescue or other dangerous missions, but to serve search warrants, mainly for drugs. The report also examines the abuses associated with SWAT teams. This is strong stuff.

International

Global Demonstrations Against Drug War Today Mark UN Anti-Drug Day. Protestors in at least 80 cities around the world are taking the opportunity of UN anti-drug day to call not for more drug war, but for less. Click on the link for more details.

British Khat Ban Now in Effect. The British ban on the East African herbal stimulant plant khat has now gone into effect. There are fears the Somali community will be targeted and that a black market will now emerge.

British Doctors Reject Marijuana Legalization, Urge Cigarette Ban for Those Born After 2000. Meeting at their annual conference, members of the British Medical Association rejected a proposal to call for legalizing marijuana, but voted in favor of a ban on cigarettes for people born after 2000. The BMA's rejection of legalization was "both unscientific and unethical," said Steve Rolles of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation.

Uruguay's First Grower's Club Begins Registration Process. The Association of Cannabis Studies of Uruguay has registered to become the first officially recognized marijuana growing club in the country. The club headed by Laura Blanco will have 40 members. Joining a club and enjoying the fruits of collective grows is one of three ways to legally obtain marijuana under Uruguay's new law. The other options are registering to buy it from pharmacies or growing your own individually.

Mexico Wants More Black Hawk Choppers for Anti-Drug Activities. Mexico has formally requested to purchase five UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters for it war on drugs. The choppers are to be equipped with GPS/inertial navigation systems, forward-looking radar systems, and 10 7.62mm machine guns each. The proposed deal would be worth an estimated $225 million

Chronicle AM -- June 24, 2014

Your fearless reporter has been traveling, so the schedule is off, but the drug policy news continues. Paul Stanford calls it quits in Oregon, pot shops are coming within days in Washington, an Alabama drug task needs to reconsider its priorities (or maybe the people funding it need to reconsider theirs), and more. Let's get to it:

Coming soon to a store near you -- if you live in Washington state.
Marijuana Policy

Paul Stanford Pulls Plug on Oregon CRRH Initiative. Paul Stanford, the man behind the Campaign for the Restoration and Regulation of Hemp legalization initiatives, announced Friday that had given up the effort to qualify for the November ballot. That leaves the New Approach Oregon initiative, which is well over 100,000 signatures. It needs some 87,000 valid voter signatures to qualify, and the campaign still has another week to get more signers.

Washington State Liquor Control Board Says First Marijuana Retail Stores Will Open July 8. The board, which is charge of legal marijuana commerce, said it will issue the first licenses July 7, but that the licensees would have to spend that first day getting their product into their store tracking programs.

Medical Marijuana

Rhode Island Legislature Amends Medical Marijuana Law. The legislature has amended the state's medical marijuana law to require national criminal background checks on all caregiver applicants and the mandatory revocation of the caregiver registry ID cards for those convicted of a felony. The bill, House Bill 7610, won final approval by the Senate last Friday. It also allows landlords not to lease to cardholders who want to grow and imposes weight, plant, and seedling limits on growing co-ops.

Collateral Consequences

Missouri Governor Signs Bill to End Food Stamp Ban for Drug Felons -- With Conditions. Gov. Jay Nixon signed into a law a bill that would allow people with drug felonies to obtain food stamps, but only if they submit to drug tests and an assessment to see if they need drug treatment, which they must enroll in and complete if they are determined to need it. The bill is Senate Bill 680. The 1996 federal welfare reform law banned drug felons from obtaining food stamps, but allowed states to opt out. By now, more than 30 have.

Opiates

Federal Bill Targeting Heroin, Prescription Opiates Filed. US Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Joe Donnelly (D-IN) have filed legislation that seeks to respond to rising levels of opiate use by creating a "Pain Management Best Practices Inter-Agency Task Force" to develop prescribing practices that aim to ensure "proper pain management for patients, while also preventing prescription opioid abuse." Along with federal agencies such as HHS, Defense, the VA, and the DEA, the task force would include treatment providers, people from pain advocacy groups and pain professional organization, and experts in pain research and addiction research. Pain advocates will be watching carefully. The bill, Senate Bill 2504, would also provide grants to expand prescription drug monitoring programs.

Law Enforcement

Texas to Spend $1.3 Million a Week on "Border Surge" Aimed at Immigrants, Drugs. Using the influx of underage immigrants across the US-Mexican border as a jumping off point, Texas authorities announced last week they plan to spend $30 million this year tightening border security, with a major emphasis on law enforcement and cutting drug flows. Gov. Rick Perry (R) has also asked President Obama to send a thousand National Guard troops, to be joined by hundreds of Texas troopers Perry is deploying to the border. What this will mean on the ground is more troopers patrolling the highways, more surveillance, more undercover operations -- in an area already sinking under the weight of the billions spent beefing up border security since 9/11.

Alabama Drug Task Force Gets Busy With Chump Change Drug Round-Up. The West Alabama Narcotics Task Force based in Tuscaloosa arrested 24 people last Friday in a round-up that "stemmed from multiple ongoing investigations." But they were almost entirely charges like "unlawful sale of marijuana within three miles of a school" ($30,000 bond), "unlawful possession of drug paraphernalia" ($5,000 bond), and "unlawful possession of marijuana" ($15,000 bond). Only five of the charges didn't involve marijuana, and of those, three were for possession of a controlled substance, two were "unlawful sale of cocaine within three miles of a school," and one was for "interfering with government operations."

International

Vietnam Upholds Death Sentences for 29 Drug Smugglers. A Vietnamese appellate court last Thursday upheld the death sentences for 29 people convicted. The court reduced one other death sentence in the case to life in prison. The sentences came in what is Vietnam's largest heroin case ever, with 89 defendants and 1.5 tons of heroin involved.

Bolivia Coca Cultivation Drops to 11-Year Low. Coca cultivation declined 9% in Bolivia last, reaching the lowest level since 2002, according to the annual Bolivian coca survey conducted by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). This is the third straight decline, in line with the Bolivian government's commitment to reduce production to 50,000 acres by 2015. The 2013 crop was about 55,000 acres.

British Medical Association to Debate Legalizing Marijuana. Britain's largest doctors' organization will debate a motion calling on it to legalize marijuana as its Annual Representatives Meeting continues this week after a weekend hiatus. "The current law isn't working and only by adopting a different approach can we regulate, educate and exert a level of quality control," the motion says. "Cannabis use should be treated primarily as a health issue, not a criminal justice issue."

Chronicle AM -- June 19, 2014

We can watch the marijuana policy landscape shift before our eyes, with legalization initiatives and decrim measures popping up around the country and even Oklahoma Republicans arguing over legalization. There is also action on the opiate front, the Senate will vote on defunding the DEA's war on medical marijuana in states where it is legal, and more. Let's get to it:

US Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) cosponsors an amendment to cut DEA medical marijuana funding. (senate.gov)
Marijuana Policy

House Fails to Add Rider to Block DC Decriminalization Law. The House Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee approved a familiar series of social policy riders on the District of Columbia budget, but did not include one that would seek to undo the city's recent adoption of marijuana decriminalization. It's not a done deal yet, however; such a rider could still be added during the legislative process. The subcommittee did approve riders barring the District from funding needle exchanges or medical marijuana programs.

Delaware Decriminalization Bill Heads for House Floor Vote. A bill that would decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and levy a maximum $250 fine passed the House Public Safety Committee today. House Bill 371 now heads for a House floor vote.

Marijuana Policy in the Oklahoma GOP Governor's Race. In next week's GOP primary, sitting Gov. Mary Fallin is up against two longshot opponents who both favor marijuana legalization. Both Chad Moody, also known as "The Drug Lawyer," and Dax Ewbank, a libertarian-leaning Republican, have come out in favor of freeing the weed. But Fallin says that's not on her to-do list: "I just don't see that it provides a substantial benefit to the people of Oklahoma," Fallin said.

Milwaukee Legalization Initiative Signature-Gathering Drive Underway. A coalition of Milwaukee groups have begun a petition drive to place a municipal legalization ordinance on the November ballot. The measure would legalize the possession of up to an ounce. The groups have until July 29 to come up with 30,000 valid voter signatures. People interested in helping out can get more information here.

Philadelphia City Council Votes to Decriminalize Marijuana. The city council today approved a decriminalization measure introduce last month by Councilman Jim Kenney. Up to 30 grams is decriminalized, with a maximum $25 fine. Four years ago this month, the city began treatment small-time possession as a summary offense, with a maximum $200 fine and three-hour class on drug abuse.

Activists Gather Twice the Signatures Needed for York, Maine, Legalization Initiative. Activists supported by the Marijuana Policy Project needed 100 valid voter signatures to present a marijuana legalization petition to the York Board of Selectmen. They handed in 200. Similar petition drives are going on in Lewiston and South Portland, and Portland voters approved a legalization referendum last year. The local efforts are laying the groundwork for a statewide legalization initiative in 2016.

Medical Marijuana

Sens. Rand Paul, Cory Booker Cosponsor DEA Defunding Amendment in Senate; Vote Could Come as Soon as Tonight. Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) have cosponsored an amendment to the Justice Department funding bill that would shield medical marijuana patients and providers from the attention of the DEA in states where it is legal. The vote could come as soon as tonight or tomorrow. The House passed such an amendment at the end of last month.

New York Governor, Legislature in Tentative Deal as Session Draws to End. With the legislative ticking down its final hours, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and legislative leaders today announced a deal that would allow passage of a medical marijuana pilot program, but would not allow patients to smoke their medicine.

North Carolina Limited CBD Medical Marijuana Bill Wins House Committee Votes. A bill that would allow some patients to use a high-CBD cannabis oil was approved by the House Health Committee Wednesday and the House Finance Committee today.

Drug Policy

Drug Policy in the Colorado GOP Senatorial Race. Former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, who is running for the state's GOP senatorial nomination, is being attacked as a drug legalizer in a radio ad created by a committee supporting former Sen. Mike Copp. While Tancredo supports marijuana legalization and has in the past spoken of the need to consider drug legalization, he says he is not ready to legalize hard drugs and is demanding that the ads be pulled.

Opiates

Vermont Governor Signs Package of Bills Aimed at Opiate Use. Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) Tuesday signed into law a package of bills and executive orders that will ramp up treatment for opiate addiction, but also increase penalties for bringing more than one gram of heroin into the state. The centerpiece of the legislative package is Senate Bill 295, which will fund pretrial screening and drug treatment for suspects before they are arraigned.

New York Assembly Set to Approve Package of Heroin Bills. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and key lawmakers announced Tuesday night that they had a deal on a package of heroin bills that would raise awareness of the issue and increase insurance coverage of heroin treatment. What isn't clear is whether they agreement also includes a series of Rockefeller drug law-style measure passed by the Republican-dominated Senate that would increase criminal penalties for some heroin offenses.

Harm Reduction

DC Police Chief Orders No Arrests for Overdose Victims. In a recent memorandum, Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier has instructed her police force to observe protections from arrest and charge granted under a DC law designed to encourage residents to seek immediate medical assistance for a person experiencing an overdose. The Good Samaritan Overdose Prevention Amendment Act of 2012 (#A19-564), which was passed by the D.C. Council in 2012 and took effect on March 19, 2013, provides limited legal protection from arrest, charge and prosecution for those who witness or experience a drug overdose and summon medical assistance.

Sentencing

Federal Fair Sentencing Act Picks Up Another Sponsor. And then there were 39. Rep. William Envart (D-IL) has signed on as a cosponsor to the Federal Fair Sentencing Act. That makes 25 Democrats, along with 14 Republicans. It would reduce the use of mandatory minimum sentences and impose retroactivity for crack cocaine sentences handed down before 2010.

International

Britain's Looming Khat Ban Could Create Black Market. A ban on khat is about to go into effect in England, and this report suggests that it could create political tensions in East Africa, as well as creating a black market for the substance in England itself.

Albanian Siege of Marijuana-Producing Village Continues. A police assault on the village of Lazarat that began Monday is still underway as clashes continued between police and armed villagers. Some 800 police are involved in the operation, and they say they have seized or destroyed more than 10 tons of marijuana so far. But that's only a fraction of the 900 tons the village is estimated to produce annually. The town's $6 billion pot crop is equivalent to about half Albania's GDP.

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

What To Do About the Drug Trade in West Africa? [FEATURE]

Over the past decade, West Africa has emerged as an increasingly important player in the global illicit drug trade. Although the region has historically not been a drug producing one -- with the important exception of marijuana -- it has become a platform for predominantly Latin American drug traffickers moving their illicit commodities toward lucrative European and Middle Eastern markets. The cocaine traffic alone is worth more than a billion dollars a year, according to a 2013 report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

children walking from home to school in Bamako, Mali (JoeyTranchinaPhotography©2014 Sète, France)
And the trade is becoming more complex. Now, it's not only cocaine flowing through the region, but heroin destined mainly for Western Europe and methamphetamines being manufactured there and exported to Asia and South Africa, that same UNODC report found.

The region -- stretching along the African coast from Nigeria to the east to Senegal on the west, and extending deep into the Sahara Desert in countries such as Mali and Niger -- is plagued by weak states and corrupt governments, making it attractive to criminals of all sorts, who thrive in lawless lands. And it's not just criminals. The region is also home to various bands of Islamist militants, some of whom are involved in the drug trade.

Now, a commission of prominent West Africans is calling for fundamental changes in drug policies in the region. Last week, the West Africa Commission on Drugs, issued a report, Not Just in Transit: Drugs, the State and Society in West Africa, calling for the decriminalization of drug use, treating drug use primarily as a public health issue, and for the region to avoid becoming the next front line in the failed war on drugs.

The commission is impressive. It was initiated by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan of Nigeria and headed by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, and includes other former heads of state as well as a distinguished group of West Africans from the worlds of politics, civil society, health, security and the judiciary.

And so is its very existence. It marks the entrance of West African civil society into the international debate on drug policy in which calls for fundamental drug reform have gained increasing momentum in recent years. In 2008, former Latin American heads of state and other luminaries formed the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, and in 2011, Annan and other world luminaries and former heads of state came together to form the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Now, West Africa adds its voice to the chorus calling for change.

"We call on West African governments to reform drug laws and policies and decriminalize low-level and non-violent drug offenses," said Obasanjo upon the report's release last week. "West Africa is no longer just a transit zone for drugs arriving from South America and ending up in Europe but has become a significant zone of consumption and production. The glaring absence of treatment facilities for drug users fuels the spread of disease and exposes an entire generation, users and non-users alike, to growing public health risks."

"Most governments' reaction to simply criminalize drug use without thinking about prevention or access to treatment has not just led to overcrowded jails, but also worsened health and social problems," added Kofi Annan.

West Africa
"We need the active support and involvement of civil society and of the international community," said commission member Edem Kodjo. "South America, where most of the drugs smuggled to West Africa come from, and Europe, which is the main consumer market, must take the lead to deal with both production and consumption at home. We cannot solve this problem alone; governments and civil society have to come together in West Africa to help prevent the drug problem from getting completely out of hand."

The report won kudos from American drug reformer Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance.

"First Europe, then the Americas, now Africa," he said. "Drug policy reform is truly becoming a global movement, with Kofi Annan and Olusegun Obasango providing the sort of bold leadership that we've also seen in Latin America. Maybe, just maybe, West Africa will be spared the fate of other parts of the world where prohibition-related crime, violence and corruption spiraled out of control."

But some analysts, while welcoming the report, suggested that it did not get at the heart of the problem in West Africa.

"The report focuses on public health, and that's great, but I'm not sure that's the issue," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow with the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution who has published extensively on West Africa. "Nor are there generally large prison populations due to the arrests of low-level drug offenders. There is increasing drug use, and many addicts don't have access to public health. That, however is not because they were arrested, but because Africa in general doesn't have access to public health," she pointed out.

"In some senses, the commission report is preventative -- it warns of policies that would be counterproductive -- but it is not going to solve West Africa's problems," Felbab-Brown continued. "And the harm reduction approaches that dominate the discourse in Europe and the US are not really apropos for West African public health issues. The increasing focus of the international community is interdiction, but that accounts for only a small fraction of the total traffic, and the report doesn't deal with what kind of alternate law enforcement there should be, or who should be targeted."

But others thought the criminal justice and public health emphasis in the report were a step down the right path.

"The report's message about alternatives to criminalization for use and minor offenses is important in criminal justice terms -- to discourage the horrible over-representation of minor drug offenders in prisons in the region -- but also as a reminder that there are no such alternatives unless the health and social sectors develop those alternatives," said Joan Csete, deputy director of the Open Society Foundation's Global Drug Policy Program.

"Health ministries need to be as important around the drug policymaking table as the police, which is far from the case in most of Africa today," she added. "Services for treatment of drug dependence in the region are absent or of appalling quality. Improving health and social support for people with drug dependence is a key to drug policy reform in West Africa."

And Felbab-Brown agreed that while measures like drug prevention and treatment wouldn't solve the region's problems, they would still be helpful.

"We're already seeing quite a bit of heroin in the region, and we are seeing increasing use," she said. "These are cheap and prevalent commodities, the traffickers partake in kind, and user communities are being established. In a sense, developing strategies to prevent use, get treatment, and prevent the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C is useful because there are more and more users."

drug, security, and insurgency analyst Vanda Felbab-Brown (brookings.edu)
But for Felbab-Brown, the key problem for West Africa is its weak and corrupt states.

"The big trafficking issues are around the intersection of very poor, very weak, very corrupt, and often very fragile states with state participation in various forms of criminality," she said. "Drugs are just another commodity to be exploited by elites for personal enrichment. Elites are already stealing money from oil, timber, and diamonds, and now there is another resource to exploit for personal enrichment and advancement," she argued.

"One narrative has it that drug trafficking has caused fragility and instability, but I think trafficking compounded the problems; it didn't create them," Felbab-Brown continued. "There is a systematic deficiency of good governance. Many of these states have functioned for decades like mafia bazaars, and the trafficking just augments other rents. There are rotten governments, miserable institutions, and poor leadership around all commodities, not just drugs."

"The states are not monolithic," Csete noted. "Some have high-level corruption, some are aggressive in trying to fight money-laundering and other elements of organized criminal networks, some rely heavily on traditional interdiction methods. Some of these countries have relatively strong democratic systems and relatively strong economic growth; some have governance institutions that are less strong."

The state of the states in West Africa influenced the commission and its recommendations, Csete said.

"Legalization of drugs -- production, sale, consumption -- was not judged to be politically feasible or necessarily desirable by the commission," she explained. "I think the commissioners generally perceive that generally these countries do not yet have a political climate favorable to debate on progressive changes in drug policy. The whole idea of the commission and its report is to open those debates -- high-profile people from the region saying things that sitting officials do not find it politically easy to say."

"These are newer post-colonial states," Felbab-Brown noted. "Are we having unreasonable expectations? Is this like Europe in the 13th Century, or is that some of these countries are doomed to exist in perpetual misgovernance?"

While there may be concern in Western capitals about the specter of West African drug trafficking, many West Africans have other, more pressing, drug policy concerns.

In its 2013 report, the UNODC noted that the importation of fake pharmaceutical drugs from South and Southeast Asia into the region was a problem. Joey Tranchina, a longtime drug policy observer who has recently spent time in Mali, agrees.

"Having traversed Mali from Bamako to Mopti, except for the usual oblique indigenous references to smoking weed, the only personal experience I have with drug crime is counterfeit pharmaceuticals from India, China, and Russia," he said. "They're sold cheap in the streets to people who can't afford regular meds and they take the place of real pharmaceuticals, especially malaria and HIV drugs. These drug scams are killing people in Mali," he said.

"Most people in West Africa don't see drug trafficking as that much of a problem," said Felbab-Brown. "If it's mostly going to Westerners, they say so what? For them it is a mechanism to make money, and those drug traffickers frequently become politicians. They are able to create and reconstitute patronage networks around drug trafficking, just as they were once able to get elected with money from blood diamonds."

It seems that, to the degree that drug use and drug trafficking are West African problems, they are problems inextricably interwoven with the broader issues of weak, fragile, and corrupt states that are unable or unwilling to deliver the goods for their citizens. The West Africa Commission on Drugs has pointed a way toward some solutions and avoiding some failed policies already discredited elsewhere, but it seems clear that that is just the beginning.

Chronicle AM -- June 13, 2014

Jamaica will decriminalize pot possession and Bermuda is thinking about it, legalization initiatives in Alaska and Oregon get big bucks donations, medical marijuana reform is moving in the DC city council, and more. Let's get to it:

MPP Gives Alaska Initiative Campaign Big Cash Contribution. The Marijuana Policy Project, which is backing the Alaska legalization initiative, has just kicked in another $140,000. That's the second largest contribution to the campaign yet (the biggest, also from MPP, was $210,000), and pushes its total contributions to over half a million dollars. The organized opposition -- Big Marijuana, Big Mistake, Vote No on 2 -- has, on the other hand, raised only $31,000, most of it in a single donation by an Alaska Native village corporation.

Peter Lewis Family Gives Oregon Initiative Campaign Big Cash Contribution. A PAC controlled by heirs of Progressive Insurance founder and drug reform funder Peter Lewis has donated $250,000 to the New Approach Oregon legalization initiative. Lewis had donated $96,000 before his death last fall, and there were fears his death could end his reform largesse, but his family is carrying on. The group has raised more than $900,000 overall.

SurveyUSA Oregon Poll Has 51% for Legalization. A new SurveyUSA poll in Oregon has 51% supporting marijuana legalization, with 41% opposed, and 8% undecided. The poll comes as three legalization initiatives are in the final weeks of signature-gathering to put the issue on the November ballot. Initiative organizers are not going to breathe easy with numbers like these, though; the conventional wisdom is that initiatives want to be polling at 60% or above before the campaign begins in earnest. Click on the link for demographic and methodological details.

Medical Marijuana

DC Council Moves Toward Approving Expanded Medical Marijuana Access. The District of Columbia city council moved ahead yesterday with plans to expand access to medical marijuana. In a joint session of the Health and Judiciary and Public Safety committees, the council gave preliminary approval to two bills. Bill 20-766, cosponsored by every member of the council, would repeal the qualifying conditions list and allow physicians to recommend marijuana to any patient they think marijuana would benefit. Bill 20-678, will increase the number of plants a cultivation center could possess from 95 to 500, better ensuring that patient need is met.

Feds Warn Casinos to Not Take Bets Made With Marijuana Money. Federal regulators addressing a banking secrecy conference in Las Vegas yesterday warned casinos they can't accept bets from people working in the marijuana industry unless the casinos undertake rigorous background checks and allow the federal government to monitor the bets. That's because casinos are subject to the same financial reporting requirements as financial institutions. It's a lengthy report; click on the link to read it all.

Sentencing

Fair Sentencing Act Gets Another Cosponsor. Add Rep. David Joyce (R-OH) to the list of cosponsors of the federal Fair Sentencing Act of 2013. He signed on yesterday. That makes 24 Democrats and 14 Republicans. The bill is before the House Judiciary Committee. Clicking on the link will take you to the bill.

Law Enforcement

Virginia Sheriff's Office Makes Mass Drug Bust… Again… and Again. The Amherst County Sheriff's Office announced yesterday that a county grand jury had indicted 68 people on drug charges after a months-long investigation by the department. It's the third mass bust since 2010's Operation Silent Night and 2012's Operation Avalanche. The sheriff's office seems to understand--at least on some level--the futility of such operations: "It stops these folks from selling drugs [but] as soon as you remove these folks, someone else takes their place. It's a never-ending cycle we're working on," a spokesman said.

International

Jamaica Will Decriminalize Marijuana Possession. Jamaica will decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, the government announced yesterday. It will also allow possession for some medical and scientific purposes. And it will allow possession for religious purposes. Justice Minister Mark Golding said that the cabinet is supporting a proposal to decriminalize the possession of to two ounces of the ganja. Under the proposal, those caught with marijuana could be subjected to fines, but not criminal charges.

Bermuda's Attorney General Says Government Should Consider Marijuana Decriminalization. As the Bermudan government mulls marijuana reform, new Attorney General Trevor Moniz has come out for decriminalization. Moniz would prefer "a system where if you get caught with a small amount of marijuana, you don't go to court and you wouldn't have any criminal record," he said. "In New York and the UK., they have a caution only for a first offence, which may need to be broadened. I'm in favor of small steps, incremental steps, rather than a big leap," he added.

Barcelona Bans New Cannabis Clubs for a Year. Citing a proliferation of private cannabis clubs and a lack of regulation, the Barcelona city council announced today it was instituting a moratorium on new clubs for one year. The crackdown comes just days after a club was closed for illegal sales. The clubs allow members to grow and consume their own cannabis, but they aren't supposed to sell the stuff to outsiders. The clubs have been attracting cannabis tourists from around the world.

Conflict in Turkish Municipality Tied to Marijuana Crop. Three weeks of violent protests in the municipality of Lice in Diyarbakir Province, where Kurds predominate, are linked to the looming marijuana harvest, some of the profits from which are destined for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), according to this report. Violent incidents have been ongoing since demonstrators attacked a security forces outpost with homemade bombs and Molotov cocktails, and soldiers opened fire, killing the nephew of a "notorious trafficker."

Chronicle AM -- June 12, 2014

Marijuana reform is exciting some third-party activity, New York's medical marijuana bill is still alive amidst ongoing last-minute negotiations, the New York Senate has passed a package of anti-opiate bills that will bring on more drug war, a high-level commission calls for radical drug policy changes in West Africa, and more. Let's get to it:

coca plant (unodc.org)
Marijuana Policy

Minnesota Independence Party Runs on Legalization Platform. The Independence Party of Minnesota, a fiscally conservative and socially liberal state party, is making marijuana legalization a key part of its 2014 platform. The party, which is fielding candidates in a number of statewide and legislative races, is descended from the Jesse Ventura-era Reform Party. Its gubernatorial candidate got 12% of the vote in the 2010 election.

New Jersey Democrats Try to Kick NJ Weedman Off Ballot. Ed Forchion, better known as the NJ Weedman, is running for a congressional seat on the Legalize Marijuana Party ticket, but the state Democratic Party issued a last-minute (or past the last minute) challenge to his candidacy Monday afternoon. The Democrats claim he is one signature short of qualifying and that he registered to vote last month in California, where he sometimes resides. NJ Weedman says he will fight the challenge.

Medical Marijuana

New York Medical Marijuana Bill Still Alive; Talks Underway. Last minute negotiations to pass the Compassionate Care Act continued in Albany today. The measure was transferred out of the Senate Finance Committee, where the committee chair said yesterday he would not allow a vote, to the Senate Rules Committee. Bill sponsor Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island) said she is in talks with legislative leaders and Gov. Andrew Cuomo's (D) office to keep the bill alive. Cuomo said earlier today that he still has "serious questions" about the bill. Stay tuned.

South Carolina Democrats Overwhelmingly Favor Medical Marijuana in Non-Binding Primary Question. South Carolina Democrats voting in the party primary Tuesday supported a non-binding question about allowing for medical marijuana use by a margin of three-to-one. The state passed a limited CBD medical marijuana bill this year, but that will only help a small number of patients.

Opiates

New York Senate Passes Package of Heroin Bills; Would Intensify Drug War. The state Senate earlier this week passed a massive package of bills aimed at dealing with increased levels of heroin and other opiate use. While the package includes prevention and harm reduction measures, such as increasing access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone, other bills in the package seek to limit access to prescription opiates for acute pain, and the majority of the 23-bill package are law enforcement measures that aim to take the state back in the direction of the draconian Rockefeller drug laws of the 1970s. Read the complete list of bills passed here. Whether any of these will become law remains to be seen; the session ends next week.

International

West Africa Needs to Consider Drug Decriminalization, Report Says. The West Africa Commission on Drugs, headed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, issued a report today calling for radical policy changes, including drug decriminalization, to reduce regional instability in West Africa exacerbated by the illicit trade in drugs. Otherwise, the region faces becoming "a new front line in the failed 'war on drugs,'" the report says. It also calls for drugs to be treated primarily as a public health issue. The report is Not Just in Transit: Drugs, the State, and Society in West Africa.

Spain to Start Including Illicit Drug Trade in GDP. Spanish officials said today they will begin including estimated revenues from the drug trade, as well as prostitution, in calculating the country's Gross Domestic Product. Other European countries are doing the same as part of new European Union requirements that they must state percentages of GDP derived from illicit activities.

Peru Coca Output Declined Last Year, Prices Soared Amidst Eradication Efforts. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported Wednesday that, under the pressure of eradication campaigns, coca leaf production declined 18% last year, but that prices jumped nearly 50%, to more than $1300 a kilogram. The UNODC noted the changes in its annual Peruvian coca survey. Cultivation fell last year after expanding for the seven previous years. Peru is either the world's number one or number two coca producer; we'll have to see what UNODC says about Colombian production later this year. Bolivia is number three.

Mexico Awaiting DNA Test Results to Confirm Death of Sinaloa Cartel Leader "El Azul" Esparragoza. Mexican officials are waiting for DNA test results that would confirm the death by natural causes of Sinaloa cartel leader Juan Jose "El Azul" Esparragoza, which was first reported by the Sinaloa news weekly RioDoce on Sunday. Family members have reportedly confirmed his death, but the government is still waiting to make it official.

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Chronicle AM -- June 11, 2014

There's money in marijuana, as Colorado keeps finding out, MPP is eyeing Massachusetts in 2016, opponents of Florida's medical marijuana initiative got a big bucks contribution from a major Republican funder, Customs and Border Patrol fires its internal affairs head, the US Embassy in Kabul can't explain what impact $7 billion in anti-drug aid there has had, and more. Let's get to it:

In Afghan fields, the poppies grow... (unodc.org)
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Marijuana Revenues Keep Climbing. Recreational marijuana sales hit $22 million in April, with the state taking in more than $3.5 million in sales and excise taxes. With medical marijuana sales factored in, people bought more than $53 million worth of weed in Colorado in April.

MPP Opens Ballot Committee in Massachusetts, Eyes 2016. The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) opened a ballot referendum committee in Massachusetts Tuesday, a preliminary step for a marijuana legalization campaign in 2016. The formation of the committee, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Massachusetts, allows MPP to begin raising and spending money in the state.

Medical Marijuana

Florida Polls Have Strong Support for Medical Marijuana Among Likely Voters. With medical marijuana on the ballot in November, a new poll shows 70% of likely voters support the constitutional amendment. Because it is a constitutional amendment, it needs 60% to pass. Another poll released this week has support at 66%. "Florida's medical marijuana amendment that will be on the ballot this fall continues to appear headed for easy passage," Public Policy Polling, which did the second poll, wrote in an analysis.

Conservative Billionaire Sheldon Adelson Kicks In $2.5 Million to Defeat Florida Medical Marijuana Initiative. Billionaire casino magnate and major Republican political donor Sheldon Adelson has donated $2.5 million to the campaign to defeat the Florida medical marijuana initiative. A newly-formed group backed by Adelson, the Drug Free Florida Committee, was started by longtime GOP fundraiser Mel Sembler and his wife Betty. It has raised $2.7 million so far and its top donors have been primarily Republicans.

Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Bill Still Alive. Following a Tuesday hearing on Senate Bill 1182 Tuesday, committee members said they had been assured the bill would get a vote in the Senate Law and Justice Committee, but it will be then up to Senate leaders to decide if they will allow a floor vote. If it gets and wins a floor vote, the House would still have to pass it, or pass its own version.

Methamphetamine

Michigan Bill to Restrict Meth Precursor Purchases Passes House. A bill that would require people with prior methamphetamine convictions to obtain a prescription to buy cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine has passed the House. The bill also creates a statewide database for pseudoephedrine purchases and would require buyers to show the drivers' licenses.

Opiates

New York Governor Announces Doubling of State Police Drug Team to Fight Heroin, Prescription Pill Use. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced this morning that he will add 100 investigators to the State Police Community Narcotics Enforcement Team, nearly doubling the unit's size. He also announced that the state would make the overdose reversal drug naloxone to all first responders. And he announced an education and prevention campaign involving SUNY campuses.

New England Governors to Meet Next Week on Confronting Rising Opiate Use. The six New England governors are set to meet next week at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, to forge a regional strategy in response to growing alarm over increased use of prescription opiates and heroin. Massachusetts has declared a public health emergency over opiates, and other states in the region are experiencing similar issues. [Ed: Whether any of the New England governors, or New York's governor and narcotics police, will bear in mind the needs of chronic pain patients, remains to be seen.]

Law Enforcement

Myles Ambrose, Nixon's First Drug Czar, Dies. Myles Ambrose has died at age 87. He was President Richard Nixon's first "drug czar," serving as head of the White House Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE), the precursor to the DEA, which was formed in 1973. He had come to Nixon's attention when, as head of Customs, he initiated Operation Intercept, which shut down the US-Mexico border in 1969. Ambrose appeared set to take over DEA, but was pushed aside, in part due to bureaucratic infighting and in part because of hints of scandal related to his visits to the home of a Texas banker investigated in a drug trafficking conspiracy.

Customs and Border Protection Fires Its Own Head of Internal Affairs. The US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) has let go James Tomsheck, head of internal affairs for the agency, after claims he failed to investigate hundreds of allegations of abuse. More than 800 complaints of abuse by agents had been made during his tenure since 2006, but only 13 resulted in disciplinary actions. Tomsheck's firing by CBP head Gil Kerlikowske is part of an attempt by Kerlikowske to address widespread allegations of abuse by American border agencies. Last week, Kerlikowske set out new rules for the use of deadly force, only to be followed hours later by a Border Patrol agent shooting and killing a fleeing drug trafficker. At least 22 people have been killed by Border Patrol agents since January 2010 and many more injured.

Sentencing

New Jersey Bail Reform Bill Gets Committee Vote Today. The Assembly Judiciary is set to consider Assembly Bill 1910, which would implement widely supported reforms to the state's bail system. Under the proposed legislation, arrestees would be assessed for risk and pretrial release decisions would be based on their measured risk, not their ability to pay money bail. Companion legislation in the state Senate, Senate Bill 946, was approved by the Budget and Appropriations Committee last week.

International

Rising Afghan Opium Production Threatens Reconstruction, US Official Says. Afghanistan's record-level opium production is stoking corruption, spilling into the financial sector, and aiding the Taliban and criminal networks, all of which threaten national reconstruction, John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction, told a House subcommittee Tuesday. The US has spent $7 billion on anti-opium efforts since it invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, but "On my trips to Afghanistan in 2013 and earlier this year, no one at the Embassy could convincingly explain to me how the US government counter-narcotics efforts are making a meaningful impact on the narcotics trade or how they will have a significant impact after" the US-led combat mission ends in December," Sopko said.

Finland Greens Call for Marijuana Legalization, Drug Policy Shift From Punishment to Harm Reduction. The Finnish Green League has adopted a new manifesto on drugs that says "the focus of drug policy should be shifted from punishments to reducing adverse effects" and that "the criminal sanctions for the use of cannabis as well as the possession and cultivation of cannabis for personal use should be abolished." The Greens hold 10 seats in Finland's 198-seat parliament and are part of the ruling six-party "rainbow coalition" government.

Drug War Issues

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