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Thai Government in Massive Campaign to Round Up Drug Users [FEATURE]

In a new wave of repression aimed at drug users, the government of Thailand has begun rounding up suspected "drug addicts" to be forced into "rehabilitation centers." That has health, human rights, and harm reduction groups expressing grave concerns, especially given previous Thai pogroms against drug users, like that in 2003, when tens of thousands were rounded up and more than 2,000 killed by police in summary executions.

Bangkok looks so modern, but some Thai drug policies are downright medieval. (Image via Wikimedia)
The official announcement from the National News Bureau of Thailand of the government's plans came only last week. "The Ministry of Interior has picked next week to get all drug addicts across Thailand clean," it said, with Deputy Permanent Secretary for Interior Surapong Pongtadsirikul as putting the number of untreated addicts at 30,000.

"During 20-27 February, 2011, drug abusers in Bangkok will be brought to the rehabilitation centers to get clean," the notice continued. "There will be those who are encouraged to receive treatment on their freewill and those who will be forced against their will. A rehabilitation camp will be open for addicts elsewhere in Thailand where a rehab center is scarce."

The announcement also said staff training would be carried out and a location for a "makeshift rehab center for drug addicts" will be selected. Chillingly, it added that "their names will be recorded in the database specifically designed for easy tracking and providing updates on their progress in the future."

The roundup has already begun in Bangkok, according to Karyn Kaplan of the Thai AIDS Treatment Action Group (TTAG). "Yes, people are being arrested right now," she said. "The police have quotas, they do this every few months, and this is just another excuse to round people up again. Even in our own small network of people who use drugs, people have been arrested, even workers at our harm reduction center."

While the Thai government officially embraces harm reduction principles -- it adopted harm reduction as a national strategy last fall -- it schizophrenically continues its crackdowns on drug users and sends them to "treatment centers" not worthy of the name.

"We don't call them treatment centers, because they aren't run by people who know how to treat people," said Kaplan. "They were originally set up because of prison overcrowding, but even though they have a policy that says drug users are patients, not criminals, they still use the police to sweep the streets and throw people into the system. But then the system says there is no room in prison, send them to the camps. The camps are in military bases and run by the military, and they aren't trained for that. The military is just housing them, and there are beatings and forced labor for no money. There is no due process," she said.

It is as if the Thai government's left hand doesn't know what its right hand is doing, said Kaplan. "The government at least pays lip service to harm reduction, but the Ministry of the Interior is not talking to the Narcotics Control Board, which sponsors the harm reduction policy," she said. "We have gotten unofficial statements from senior officials inside the Public Health Ministry saying they are going to speak with the board and the Interior Ministry about what Thailand might do more effectively."

In the mean time, the roundups continue.

The threat of the mass roundup of suspected drug users has led a coalition of Thai and international health, harm reduction, and human rights organizations to publicly air their fears that it will trample on human rights and could lead to the widespread abuses of drug users seen in other Thai anti-drug campaigns.

"These plans for mass detention and forced treatment raise considerable human rights concerns, especially given Thailand’s history of nationwide punitive and ineffective anti-drug campaigns," they said in an open letter to the Thai government. "There is no way for the government to implement a campaign to forcibly 'treat' tens of thousands of people who use drugs without widespread human rights abuses taking place."

Groups signing on to the letter include the TTAG, the International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA), the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), the International Harm Reduction Program of the Open Society Institute, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, and the International Network of People Who Use Drugs (INPUD).

"The mandatory rounding up and detention of people who use illicit drugs for the purpose of enforced treatment is not only a violation of their human rights, it's a violation of common sense -- enforced detention doesn't work," said INPUD's Jude Byrne. "Never has, never will! Communities need to look to the reason people are using drugs. Stop the systemic violence against the poor, minorities, people of different sexual persuasion and the unemployed. Rounding up the most marginalized people in the community will do nothing except provide jobs for the police and the people who run the detention centers. It will also drive INPUD's community underground so they are not able to access harm reduction information or equipment where it is available. The transmission of HIV and Hep C among the injecting drug using community will soar, and that is the real crime, not the use of drugs."

"This crackdown flies in the face of Thailand’s 2002 policy, which states that people who use drugs should be treated as patients, not criminals. There is nothing therapeutic about rounding up thousands of drug users and forcing them into military boot camps that fail to provide appropriate services and support," said Paisan Suwannawong, TTAG executive director and co-founder of the Thai Drug Users' Network.

While the Thai government refers to "drug addicts," its plans appear to include any drug users. Under the current plan, "occasional" users will be detained for one week, "continuous" users for two weeks, and those showing signs of drug dependence for 6 1/2 weeks (45 days).

"There are many reasons to be worried," said IHRA executive director Rick Lines. "Due process guarantees have been thrown out the window. What is the legal basis for mass detention? There are numerous examples of how forced detention in the name of drug dependence 'treatment' can lead to human rights violations and breaches of accepted principles of medical ethics," he continued. "What is more, many who do not need any form of drug dependence treatment will be herded into detention centers. Where is the clinical assessment?" he asked.

The activists also expressed concern about the temporary detention centers that will be set up outside Bangkok. They feared they would be operated not by health workers, but by police or soldiers, they said.

"We are profoundly concerned that these centers may be run by public security forces such as the police or paramilitary civil-defense organizations" said Kaplan. "It is dangerous and extremely disheartening given recent progress made in the country on injecting drug use and HIV. This can only serve to undermine those efforts in the long term. The immediate concern, however, is for the safety and well-being of those targeted."

But the medium term goal is to persuade the Thai government to embrace not merely the rhetoric of harm reduction, but the practice. That is going to take continuing pressure on the government, and the United Nations needs to step up, said Kaplan.

"We need more high-level action to push the government over to harm reduction," she said. "The World Health Organization and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime don't listen to civil society, so we need governments to step up. It is very important and progressive that Thailand is talking harm reduction, but to actually do it, they need a lot of help."

Thailand

New York City Still America's Marijuana Arrest Capital [FEATURE]

The New York City Police Department arrested nearly 140 people a day for low-level marijuana possession offenses in 2010, according to recently released figures from the New York Division of Criminal Justice. Arrests totaled 50,383 last year, accounting for more than 6% of all small-time pot busts nationwide.

NYPD's highest law enforcement priority? (image via Wikimedia)
While for the past 20 years, New York City has had high marijuana possession arrest rates, last year was the sixth year in a row that the numbers increased. Last year's arrest totals marked a 69% increase over the 29,752 pot possession arrests in 2005. Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002, more than 350,000 people have been arrested for misdemeanor pot possession in the Big Apple.

The dramatic increase in arrests comes even as marijuana usage rates have declined from the 1980 peak, according to US government data. The arrests suggest that the NYPD has quietly made small-time pot busts its top law enforcement priority.

Although the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) put out a press release with the numbers a week ago, and the story received some play in New York City media, neither Mayor Bloomberg nor the NYPD have deigned to comment.

"New York has made more marijuana arrests under Bloomberg than any mayor in New York City history," said Dr. Harry Levine, a sociology professor at Queens College and a leading scholar of marijuana arrest patterns. "Bloomberg's police have arrested more people for marijuana than Mayors Koch, Dinkins, and Giuliani combined. These arrests cost tens of millions of dollars every year, and introduce tens of thousands of young people into our broken criminal justice system."

The high marijuana possession arrest numbers are particularly shocking because New York state decriminalized marijuana possession back in the 1977. What typically happens is that someone is stopped by the NYPD -- they stopped 575,000 people in 2009 and frisked more than 325,000 of them -- and the police demand that they empty their pockets. When they comply, and a bag of weed emerges, they are then charged not with simple marijuana possession, which is a violation under state law, but with possession "in public view," which is a misdemeanor.

In a stop and frisk, police are allowed to pat down a person to determine whether they are carrying a weapon, but they are not allowed to search inside pockets or bags without probable cause. By complying with a police officer's command to "empty your pockets," the subject is effectively consenting to a search. The better course of action is to say, "Officer, I'm sorry, but I do not consent to any searches." Then, if the officer does search without consent, he could only charge the subject with the violation -- not the misdemeanor "in public view" possession -- and such a charge could be challenged in court.

"Police will intimidate people to get them to take the marijuana out of their pockets, then, once it's in public view, it's an arrestable offense," said the New York native Noah Mamber, of the Marijuana Policy Project. "It's not fair."

Although these offenders are typically sentenced only to a fine, the city gets its pound of flesh first. People busted for pot possession are handcuffed, taken to a police station, booked, and held in jail for 24 hours or more before being arraigned.

The NYPD's "stop and frisk and bust" policy appears to be aimed disproportionately at the city's minority residents and its youth. A whopping 86% of those arrested were black or Latino, even though research consistently shows that young whites use at a higher rate, and 70% of those arrested were under the age of 30.

Mayor Bloomberg could act to stop these busts.
"The NYPD and Mayor Bloomberg are waging a war on young Blacks and Latinos in New York," said Kyung Ji Rhee, director of the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reforms and Alternatives (IJJRA). "These 50,000 arrests for small amounts of marijuana can have devastating consequences for New Yorkers and their families, including: permanent criminal records, loss of financial aid, possible loss of child custody, loss of public housing and a host of other collateral damage. It's not a coincidence that the neighborhoods with high marijuana arrests are the same neighborhoods with high stop-and-frisks and high juvenile arrests."

"The NYPD's marijuana enforcement practices are racially biased, unjust, and costly," said Gabriel Sayegh, DPA's New York state director. "The mayor can end these arrests immediately by simply ordering Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and the NYPD to follow the legislative intent of the 1977 decriminalization law. What the Legislature found in 1977 holds true today: Arrests for small amounts of marijuana are inappropriate and wasteful."

"There is no sane reason New York City should have a higher per capita marijuana possession arrest rate than South Carolina or Georgia or Oklahoma," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. (NORML). "The really vexing part is that the numbers have gone up when they should be going down and that they racial disparity numbers are still at about nine to one. This really seems to belie New York City otherwise progressive attitudes on social issues. Ironically, it's safer to be a cannabis consumer in Buffalo or Schenectady than in Greenwich Village, because police in those cities respect the intent of the law."

The policy is really "a left-handed jobs program for New York City police," St. Pierre continued. "Police in the city can't negotiate increased wages and salaries, but they seem to have an agreement with the mayor's office that they can achieve pay increases by arresting cannabis consumers and then getting overtime. Harry Levine calls it 'dollars for collars.'"

"This is nothing surprising," sighed Morgan Fox, MPP director of communications. "New York City has been an epicenter of marijuana arrests for years, and the racial disparities are no surprise either.

New York City needs to change its low-down ways, said Fox. "They either need to amend the law so it is completely and truly decriminalized, or they could just tax and regulate it similar to alcohol," he argued.

DPA and the IJJRA are working on it on a couple of different levels. The two groups have launched a training program called "Know Your Rights, Build Your Future," which will hold training sessions across the city to educate New Yorkers about their rights and the law. They are also calling on the city council to hold hearings to learn more about the human and fiscal costs of the arrests and to demand greater accountability from the NYPD.

In the mean time, New York City pot smokers need to watch out -- especially if they're young, non-white, or in the outer boroughs. And they would be well-served to educate themselves about what their rights are and how to effectively exercise them.

New York , NY
United States

Cut Funding for Failed Drug Policies (Action Alert)

We Are the Drug Policy Alliance.

Tell Congress to cut funding for the drug war!

Take Action!

Email Your Representative

Dear Friends,

I need your help to talk some sense into Congress. While they preach fiscal responsibility, they want to keep giving piles of money to state and local governments to prioritize low-level drug arrests – especially for marijuana possession. Even worse, they want to put the cost on the nation's credit card. You and I will be paying off this foolishness for decades to come if we don't act now.

Tell Congress: No more money for failed drug policies.

As I write this, Congress is working on a new federal budget. Right now we have a unique opportunity to cut the funding that helps keep the drug war alive at the local level. If we can get enough people to email Congress, I'm hopeful that we can cut spending, reduce marijuana arrests, and push states to embrace drug policy reform. It would be a three-for-one victory.

Please take a minute to write Congress and tell them to stop spending your tax money on the failed war on drugs.

Sincerely,

Bill Piper
Director, Office of National Affairs
Drug Policy Alliance

Marijuana Arrests in New York City Skyrocket to 15 Percent of Total

Location: 
New York, NY
United States
More than 50,000 people were arrested last year in New York City for low-level marijuana offenses, according to the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services. Those 50,383 arrests represented 15 percent of all arrests by the New York Police Department. The 50,000-oplus figure is more marijuana arrests in one year than the number of similar arrests made by the New York Police Department over the entire period from 1978 to 1996, according to an analysis for the alliance done by Harry Levine, a sociology professor at Queens College.
Publication/Source: 
International Business Times (NY)
URL: 
http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/111662/20110211/marijuana-arrests-new-york.htm

Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debusmann, Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year smuggling 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 more than 35,000 people, including more than 15,000 last year. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest of dozens of 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:

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/wanted1.jpg
wanted poster, US Embassy in Mexico
Thursday, January 13

In Ciudad Juarez, eight people were killed. One of the victims had been shot approximately 70 times with AK-47 rounds. His body was found by reporters after police left after not being able to immediately find the body when they arrived.

Friday, January 14

In Ciudad Juarez, 11 people were murdered across the city. In one incident, a triple homicide occurred in a junkyard after an attack by heavily armed gunmen. Three other men were wounded.

In Xalapa, Veracruz, 12 gunmen and two soldiers were killed during a six-hour gunfight. The target of the raid remains unclear.

Saturday, January 15

In Veracruz, a police commander was kidnapped by heavily armed men after being forced off the road by an SUV. A police officer was later wounded in an exchange of gunfire with the suspects.

Monday, January 17

In Chihuahua, fourteen prison inmates escaped through a hole in the wall. A vehicle charged through a metal fence and picked the men up. Five have been recaptured. Prison escapes are very frequent in Mexican prisons.

Tuesday, January 18

In Oaxaca City, Mexican Federal police captured a founding member of the Zetas Organization. Flavio Mendez Santiago, 35, was in charge of Zetas operations in Oaxaca, Chiapas and Veracruz and controlled migrant trafficking of migrants from other parts of the Americas and drug trafficking routes through Central America. He joined the Gulf Cartel in 1993 after deserting from the Army, and siding with the Zetas when the organization split with its former employers.

In Guatemala, the government extended a state of siege in the province of Alta Verapaz. Drug trafficking in the area has been controlled by the Zetas since the 2008 assassination of a local Guatemalan drug boss.

In Mexico City, a well-known trafficker was arrested in the upscale Bosques de Lomas neighborhood. Jose Jorge Balderas, 34, is also suspected in the shooting of a Paraguayan soccer player in a Mexico city bar.

Thursday, January 20

In Ciudad Juarez, a policeman was killed during a daytime firefight with armed suspects inside a crowded shopping center which sent civilians running for cover to avoid the crossfire.

Friday, January 21

In Guerrero, Mexican authorities made a record seizure of opium gum. Approximately 245 kilos of opium paste were discovered from a house in the town of Chilpancingo.

Saturday, January 22

In Tamaulipas, ten gunmen were killed during a prolonged firefight with the army.  The incident occurred near the rural village of Valle Hermoso after soldiers were fired upon as they approached a camp of armed men. Among the weapons discovered at the camp were a rocket launcher and 20 grenades.

In Pachuca, Hidalgo, a policeman was killed and three others were wounded by a car bomb. The officers had been responding to reports that a body was inside a car when the explosives detonated. Initial reports suggest the bomb was the work of the Zetas, possibly in retaliation for the death of two Zetas at the hands of police in the nearby town of Tula.

Sunday, January 23

In Ciudad Juarez, seven people were gunned down at a park built as part of a city rehabilitation campaign called "we are all Juarez." During the incident, gunmen arrived in three vehicles and fired over 180 high-caliber rounds at a group of youths playing soccer. Mexican media are reporting that the intended target was someone involved in street-level drug dealing.

Six other people were killed in other incidents in Juarez, including a woman who was apparently stabbed and stoned to death.

Monday, January 24

In Mexico City, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

Tuesday, January 25

In Ciudad Juarez, federal police officers attacked the mayor’s convoy, killing one of his bodyguards. Mayor Hector Murguia claims two masked federal officers approached a house where he was holding a meeting and opened fire on his bodyguards even though they identified themselves. Federal police are saying they opened fire after the bodyguards refused to identify themselves and did not lower their weapons.

Wednesday, January 26

In Mexico City, soldiers conducted operations against suspected Zetas. It is the first military operation against drug traffickers conducted in the Mexico City area. So far, only several weapons have been recovered and it appears no arrests have been made. At least 30 heavily armed and masked soldiers participated in the operations.

Total Body Count for the last two weeks: 402

Total Body Count for the year: 538

Total Body Count for 2010: 15,273

Total Body Count for 2009: 9,600

Total Body Count for 2008 (approx.): 5,400

Total Body Count for 2007 (approx.) 4,300

Total Body Count for Calderon's drug war through 2010: 34,612

Total Body Count for Calderon's drug war to date: 35,150

Mexico

Poor Economy Forces Georgia to Rethink Drug Criminalization

Location: 
GA
United States
The high price of enforcing criminal penalties on non-violent offenders has Georgia's new Republican governor rethinking a major linchpin in US domestic policy: the drug war. Roughly 19 percent of Georgia's prison population was incarcerated on drug offenses in 2009, according to a report by the Office on National Drug Control Policy. Nationally, nearly half of all arrests are due to laws criminalizing the cultivation, sales and use of cannabis, which has been shown to be less damaging to human health than alcohol or tobacco.
Publication/Source: 
The Raw Story (DC)
URL: 
http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2011/01/economic-crunch-forcing-georgias-conservative-governor-rethink-drug-criminalization/

Associated Press Chronicling Failure of Drug War

In a stark sign of the continuing erosion of the prohibitionist consensus on drug policy, the Associated Press late last month published the latest installment in an "occasional series" charting the failure of drug prohibition to achieve its stated aims. The article, Portugal's Drug Policy Pays Off; US Eyes Lessons, is the third so far to examine what the AP calls the failed "war on drugs after four decades and $1 trillion."

In the Portugal article, the AP examined the Lusitanian nation's decade-long experiment with decriminalization and drug treatment, found it largely successful, and not so subtly suggested US policymakers would do well to apply the lessons learned in Portugal here on the home front.

The article found that more people in Portugal tried drugs, but that fewer ended up addicted. It found small increases in illegal drug use among adults (along with most of the rest of Europe), but decreases among youth and problem drug users. It found that drug-related criminal cases declined by two-thirds and that drug-related HIV cases declined by three-fourths.

The article also touted the spread of harm reduction programs aimed at drug users, mentioning Vancouver's safe injection site, Switzerland's heroin maintenance program, and alternatives to jail available in 93 countries worldwide. It noted that an increasing number of American states and cities are embracing treatment not jail as an alternative approach, and that it seems to be working.

The first installment of the AP series appeared in May under the blunt title US Drug War Has Met None of Its Goals. The 2,200-word piece systematically savaged forty years of hard-line drug policy for failing to make a dent in drug use while throwing a trillion dollars down the rat hole. "The AP tracked where that money went, and found that the United States repeatedly increased budgets for programs that did little to stop the flow of drugs," the authors noted. It highlighted $20 billion to fight drug traffickers in their home countries, $33 billion in marketing "Just Say No" style messages aimed at youth, $49 billion to try to stop drug flows at the US-Mexico border, $121 billion to arrest some 37 million drug offenders, and $450 billion to lock them up.

The second installment in the AP series appeared early in December under the equally blunt title Cartel Arrests Did Not Curb Drug Trade and was a withering indictment of the futility of US prosecutions of Mexican drug trafficking organization members. Mass arrests of drug traffickers get loudly trumpeted by authorities, as when Attorney General Eric Holder announced a "crushing blow" to the Sinaloa Cartel in 2009 with the arrest of 761 people. But the AP's follow-up on the story found the arrests had no significant impact at all on the Sinaloa Cartel, which remains one of the strongest of Mexico' drug trafficking organizations. As the AP summed up: "The government is quick to boast about large arrests or drug seizures, but many of its most-publicized efforts result in little, if any, slowdown in the drug trade."

Kudos to the Associated Press for slaughtering the sacred cows of drug prohibition. We look forward to the next installment and the next steps toward ending drug prohibition.

This Year's Top 10 Domestic Drug Policy Stories

A lot went on in the realm of drug policy reform in 2010. Here is our summation of what we think are the biggest stories of the year.

fire truck lent by Dr. Bronner's for SSDP/Prop 19 campus tour
Marijuana on the Verge -- Prop 19, Public Opinion, and the Looming Sea Change

California's tax and regulate marijuana legalization initiative, Proposition 19, ultimately failed to get over the top on Election Day, but it garnered 46.5% of the vote, the highest ever for a legalization initiative, and generated reams of media coverage, making it the most watched initiative of any in the land this year. The battle for Prop 19 also yielded the broadest coalition yet behind marijuana legalization, as unions, dissident law enforcement groups, and Latino and African-American groups got on the legalization bandwagon in a big way for the first time. Launched with over a million dollars of funding from Oakland cannabis entrepreneur Richard Lee, the initiative garnered significant additional support during the campaign's final months, including a late $1 million donation from George Soros, but too little and too late to make a difference in the nation's largest and most expensive media market. The coalition that came together around Prop 19 is vowing to stay together and work to place another initiative on the ballot, most likely in 2012.

If California has legalization on the ballot in 2012, activists in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington all took steps this year to ensure that it won't be alone. Ill-funded and controversial legalization initiatives missed making the ballot in Oregon and Washington this year, but organizers in both states have vowed to try again, and Sensible Washington, the folks behind this year's effort there, already have a pro-legalization billboard up on I-5 in the Seattle area. In Colorado, organizers bided their time this year amidst the medical marijuana explosion there, but are busy laying the groundwork for a legalization initiative there.

This year also saw a legalization bill pass out of the California Assembly Public Safety Committee in January, a first in the US. While that bill died later in the session, sponsor Tom Ammiano (D-SF), reintroduced it in March and it awaits further consideration in Sacramento. In New Hampshire, a decriminalization bill passed the House in March, only to be killed in a Senate committee in April, while in Washington state, legalization and decriminalization bills got a January hearing before dying in committee later that same month. In Rhode Island, a decriminalization bill was introduced in February and a state legislative commission endorsed it in March, but the bill went nowhere so far. Later in the year, the California legislature passed and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a decriminalization bill there. And in November, a marijuana legalization bill passed the House in the US territory of the Northern Marianas Islands, marking the first time a legalization bill has passed a legislative chamber anywhere in the US. It was later defeated in the Senate. No legalization or decriminalization bills passed this year, but the day is drawing near.

A plethora of public opinion polls this year suggest why, as support for pot legalization is now hovering just under 50%. In January, an ABC News/Washington Post poll had support at 46%; in April, a Pew poll had it at 41%. By July, an Angus-Reid poll had support at 52%, while Rasmussen showed it at 43%. In November, a Gallup poll had support for legalization at 46%, its highest level ever and a 15 percentage point increase over just a decade ago. Some of these polls showed majority support for legalization in the West, which will be put to the test in 2012.

Medical Marijuana -- the Ongoing Battle

The acceptance of medical marijuana continued in 2010, as two states, New Jersey and Arizona, along with the District of Columbia, became the latest to legalize the medicinal use of the herb. It's worth noting, however, that medical marijuana is not yet being produced or consumed in any of those places, even though the New Jersey legislation was signed into law in January and the DC medical marijuana initiative was actually revived last year. To be fair, voters only approved the Arizona initiative in November, and regulators there have three more months to come up with enabling regulations.

But the acceptance is by no means complete, and resistance from recalcitrant law enforcement and local governments continues apace. A medical marijuana initiative in South Dakota and an Oregon initiative to create a system of state-licensed, nonprofit dispensaries both failed in November. And despite efforts to pass medical marijuana bills through numerous state legislatures, none beside New Jersey came to fruition this year. Bills have stalled in Alabama, Illinois, Maryland, New York, and Wisconsin, among others, even as they are continually pared back to be ever more restrictive in a bid to appease opponents.

Medical marijuana states that have less loosely written laws -- all via the initiative process, including California, Colorado, Michigan, and Montana -- proved to be highly contested terrain in 2010. The blossoming of hundreds of dispensaries in Colorado this year led to the passage of regulatory legislation this summer, while a similar, if more limited outbreak of envelope-pushing in Montana has legislators there vowing to rein in the industry when they reconvene next year. In Michigan, law enforcement in some locales has arrested people in apparent compliance with the state law. In all three states, battles have also broken out at the city or county level, especially over efforts to ban medical marijuana operations. These fights will continue.

California is a world of its own when it comes to medical marijuana. The most wide open of the medical marijuana states, which, thanks to the language of Proposition 215, allows for medical marijuana to be recommended for virtually anything, it is also the state where legal and political conflict over medical marijuana is most entrenched. Despite more than a decade of litigation, the legality of selling medical marijuana remains unclear, and depending on the attitude of local authorities, dispensaries can be -- and are -- subject to raids and prosecution. The medical marijuana community dodged a bullet in November when Kamala Harris defeated dispensary arch-foe Steve Cooley, the Republican Los Angeles County prosecutor. Meanwhile, in communities across the state, battles rage over banning dispensaries, or, in happier circumstances, over how to permit and tax them. And medical marijuana is increasingly recognized for the big business it is. A growing number of California towns and cities this year voted to tax medical marijuana, and Oakland gave the go-ahead for massive medical marijuana mega-farms, although it may now retreat in the face of rumblings from the Justice Department. None of this got resolved this year, and the fight over medical marijuana in the Golden State is unlikely to wind down any time soon.

The DEA Continues to Misbehave

And then there's the DEA. It was in October 2009 that the Justice Department released its famous memo telling the DEA to butt out if medical marijuana operations in states that had approved them where not violating state law. While DEA raids have certainly declined from their thuggish heyday in the Bush administration, they have not gone away. After a Colorado medical marijuana grower had the temerity to appear on a local TV news program showing off his garden, the DEA raided him in February. The DEA also hit Michigan medical marijuana operations at least twice, in July and again early this month. The DEA has also raided numerous California medical marijuana operations this year, including the first collective to apply for the Mendocino County sheriff's cultivation permit program and a number of beleaguered San Diego area dispensaries. In most cases, the DEA is relying on the cooperation of sympathetic local law enforcement and prosecutors. Making the DEA live up to the Holder memo is a battle that is yet to be won.

The Obama administration's nomination of acting DEA administrator Michele Leonhart is not a good omen. Despite a horrendous record at the DEA, including a stint as Special Agent in Charge in Los Angeles during the height of the Bush administration raids on medical marijuana facilities, and in St. Louis during the Andrew Chambers "supersnitch" perjury scandal, Leonhart's nomination has cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee and is likely to be approved by the Senate as a whole once she takes some actions to improve access to pain medications for seniors in nursing homes -- an issue on which Sen. Herb Kohl was said will cause him to place a hold on a floor vote until she and the agency address it.

Drug War Juggernaut Continues Rolling

While support for marijuana decriminalization and/or legalization continues to grow, and while a number of states have enacted sentencing reforms in response to fiscal pressures, the drug war juggernaut keeps rolling along, chewing up lives like so much chaff. US law enforcement made more than 1.6 million arrests on drug charges last year, more than half of them for marijuana offenses, marking the first year pot busts made up more than half of all drug arrests. The number is actually down slightly from the previous year, but only marginally so, as drug law enforcement keeps humming along. But in the current economic crunch, such a high level of enforcement and punishment may no longer be sustainable. A Pew report found that state prison populations had declined for the first time since the 1970s, if only by 0.4%, although the federal prison population, more than 60% of which consists of drug offenders, increased by 3.4%. Similarly, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported than US jail populations had decreased for the first time in decades, dropping by 2.3% over the previous year. The tiny turnarounds are a good thing, but there is a long, long way to go.

Rolling Back the Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity


For the first time in the modern drug war era, Congress this year rolled back a harsh drug sentencing law. The sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses had been under the gun for more than decade as it became increasingly evident that the laws were having a racially disproportionate impact. Under the old law, five grams of crack would earn you a mandatory minimum five-year sentence, while it took a hundred times as much powder cocaine to garner the same sentence. Although a majority of crack users are white, blacks accounted for more than 80% of all federal crack cocaine prosecutions. A bill to reduce, but not eliminate, the sentencing disparity passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in March and the Senate as a whole weeks later. The House Judiciary Committee had already passed a similar measure that would completely eliminate the disparity, but the House leadership chose to go along with the Senate, reducing the disparity from 100:1 to 18:1, but not completely eliminating it when it voted to approve the bill in July. President Obama signed the bill into law days later. While passage of the bill is a milestone, it leaves work undone. The sentencing disparity, while reduced, still exists, and thousands of prisoners sentenced under the harsh old law remain in prison because the new law lacks retroactivity.

Demands for Drug Testing of Welfare Recipients, the Unemployed, and Even Politicians

The impulse to score cheap political points by unleashing moralistic wrath on the poor and the unfortunate remained alive in 2010. As in years past, efforts to demand drug testing of unemployment recipients or people receiving welfare benefits went nowhere, but not for lack of trying. In fact, the year was bookended by such efforts, starting with a Missouri bill that would have mandated drug testing for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) recipients upon "reasonable cause." That bill passed a Senate committee and the House in February, but died in the Senate after a Democratic filibuster. Similarly, drug testing bills in Kentucky, South Carolina, and West Virginia all died, as did a silly Louisiana bill that would have allowed Louisiana elected officials to submit to a voluntary drug test and post the results on the Internet. Later in the year, successful Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott called for mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients, a call he has vowed to carry out as governor.

Attack of (on) the Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids marketed as incense under names like Spice and K-2 first showed up on the national radar last year, and by early 2010 the prohibitionist impulse began rearing its ugly head in state legislatures across the land. Containing synthetic cannabinoids JWH-018 or JWH-073, synthesized by a university researcher in the 1990s, the stuff was available at head shops, smoke shops, and corner gas stations everywhere, as well as on the Internet. Although no overdose deaths linked to synthetic cannabinoids have been reported, there have been reports of emergency room visits and calls to poison centers by people under its influence. But it wasn't the alleged dangers as much as the fear that someone, somewhere could be getting high without getting into legal trouble that impelled a series of statewide and municipal bans. In March, Kansas became the first state to ban synthetic cannabinoids, followed by Alabama in April, Georgia in May and Missouri in July. Also banning the compounds this year were Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Dakota, and Tennessee. Similar legislation was also proposed in several more states, including Florida, Ilinois, and New York. Then, in November, the DEA announced an emergency nationwide ban to go into effect in 30 days, meaning you have until Christmas to use the compounds legally. After that, you're a federal criminal.

SWAT Raids and Drug War Killings

It's not just the massive extent of the drug war that generates criticism, but the law enforcement violence and overkill that too often accompanies it. This year, the now infamous SWAT team raid in Columbia, Missouri, in February that left a dog dead and a family traumatized in a raid over marijuana went got national attention when a video of the raid went viral on the Internet at mid-year. Another SWAT raid in Detroit in May generated outrage when it resulted in the death of 7-year-old girl shot by a raider, and that same month, a Georgia grandmother suffered a heart attack when her home was mistakenly hit by the local SWAT team and DEA agents. And then there was the case of Trevon Cole, a 21-year-old black man killed as he knelt in his own bathroom as the apartment he shared with his pregnant girlfriend was raided over small-time pot sales. The police shooter, of course, was found innocent of any wrongdoing in a coroner's inquest, and now Cole's family is suing. So is the family in the Columbia SWAT raid.

Sentencing Reforms Continue in the States

In a bid to reduce corrections spending, a number of states in the last decade have moved to implement sentencing reforms, and 2010 saw the trend continue. In May, Colorado passed reforms that will reduce some drug use and possession sentences, allow greater judicial flexibility in sentencing, and keep some technical parole violators from being sent back to prison. But the package also increases some drug sales and manufacturing sentences. In June, South Carolina passed reforms that will end mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. In August, Massachusetts passed reforms that will eliminate some mandatory minimums in a bill that was watered down from an earlier Senate version.  In all three cases, it was not bleeding hearts but bleeding wallets that was the impetus for reform.

A Congressional Drug Warrior Goes Down in Flames

It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. This year is also notable for the spectacular May end to the career of inveterate congressional drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN). The doughy cultural conservative crusader from the heartland resigned from Congress after admitting at a press conference to having an affair with a female staffer with whom he had once made abstinence videos. Souder is best known to drug reformers as the author of the "smoke a joint, lose your federal aid" provision of the Higher Education Act, and thus deserves credit for almost singlehandedly causing the formation of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. But his enthusiasm for the war on drugs also led him to the chairmanship of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources from 2001 to 2007, where he used his position to support harsh drug policies. He was, for instance, a staunch foe of medical marijuana and a loud voice against the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendments, which would, if passed, have stopped federal raids on medical marijuana patients and providers. To be fair, Souder did offer committee legislation in 2006 to restrict the reach of his student aid penalty, and he was also a key Republican supporter of the recent "Second Chance" prisoner reentry funding legislation. Still, reformers are happy that one of the staunchest and most active drug warriors is out of Congress now, struck down by his own hypocrisy.

WikiLeaks: Brazil Frames Suspected Terrorists on Drug Charges

Location: 
Brazil
According to a secret cable sent to Washington in January 2008 by US Ambassador Clifford Sobel, the Federal Police and the Brazilian intelligence agency ABIN monitor suspected terrorists and have arrested some of them on drug charges.
Publication/Source: 
WikiLeaks
URL: 
http://cablegate.wikileaks.org/articles/2010/Cablegate-Brazil-frames-suspected.html

Colombian Shaman Arrested for Ayahuasca on Arriving in US

A widely known and well-respected indigenous Colombian shaman is in US custody on drug trafficking charges for possessing the psychedelic concoction ayahuasca when he arrived in Houston October 19 on a flight from Colombia. Taita Juan Agreda Chindoy faces up to 20 years in federal prison after being arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Taita Juan
Taita Juan is a traditional healer of the Cametsa people who live in the Sibundoy Valley in Colombia's Alto Putomayo region. He is recognized by the Colombian Ministry of Health as a traditional healer and is widely known in his community as an established healer and leader. He was traveling to Oregon to give a presentation when he was arrested.

Although used as a religious sacrament in the Amazon, ayahuasca is banned under the US Controlled Substances Act because it contains DMT, a fast-acting hallucinogenic chemical. But in a unanimous 2006 decision, the US Supreme Court held that a US branch of a Brazilian church may use ayahuasca as a sacrament during religious rituals.

Taita Juan's supporters are organizing a campaign for his release and have created a web site, Free Taita Juan, to help mobilize support. His attorney was scheduled to meet with prosecutors Tuesday in a bid to resolve the situation. Meanwhile, the shaman remains behind bars in a US detention center.

Houston, TX
United States

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