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US Drug Policy and the Border Child Immigration Crisis [FEATURE]

The mass migration of tens of thousands of children and adolescents from Central America festered for months before exploding into a full-blown border refugee/immigration crisis in the last few weeks, as images of hundreds of children warehoused in temporary holding facilities competed with equally compelling images of crowds of angry Americans loudly protesting their presence.

At the border. (COHA)
The finger-pointing is in full swing. Much of it centers on the need to "secure the border" and the Obama administration's alleged failure to do so. Other Republican critics blame the administration's alleged "softness" on child immigrants as a factor pulling the kids north. Democrats counter that the GOP's blockage of long-pending immigration reform is part of the problem.

A lot of the discussion centers around the "pull" factors -- those policies or social or economic realities that draw these immigrants toward the US, but equally at play are "push" factors -- those policies or social or economic factors that impel these emigrants to seek new, better lives outside their homelands.

And there is finger-pointing going on about that, too, with some loud and prominent voices placing a good share of the blame on prohibitionist US drug policies in Latin America -- their emphasis on law enforcement and military responses, their balloon effects, and their other unintended consequences.

The majority of the child immigrants are coming from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America (the isthmus also includes Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama). Those Northern Triangle countries suffered not only devastating civil wars in the 1980s, with the US supporting conservative, often dictatorial governments against leftist popular guerrilla movements (or, in the case of Honduras, serving as a platform for counterinsurgency against the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua), but also chronic poverty and income inequality.

They are also the countries feeling the brunt of the expansion of powerful Mexican drug trafficking organizations -- the so-called cartels -- who, in response to increased pressure from the Mexican government (assisted by US aid under the Merida agreement) began pushing south into the region around 2008. And they are countries where transnational criminal gangs, such as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) have taken on an increasingly high profile, bringing high levels of criminal violence with them. (San Pedro Sula, Honduras, bears the dubious distinction of having the highest murder rate in the world.)

Honduran President Juan Fernandez is one of the prominent voices placing the blame for the crisis squarely on the war on drugs.

"Honduras has been living in an emergency for a decade," Hernandez told Mexican daily newspaper Excelsior. "The root cause is that the United States and Colombia carried out big operations in the fight against drugs. Then Mexico did it. This is creating a serious problem for us that sparked this migration. A good part of (migration) has to do with the lack of opportunities in Central America, which has its origin in the climate of violence, and this violence, almost 85% of it, is related to the issue of drug trafficking," he said.

Former Clinton administration labor secretary Robert Reich has been another prominent voice pointing to the role of the drug war -- and earlier militaristic US interventions in the region. He let loose in a Facebook post last weekend.

"I've been watching media coverage of angry Americans at our southern border waiving signs and yelling slogans, insisting that the children -- most of whom are refugees of the drug war we've created -- 'go home' to the violence and death that war has created, and I wonder who these angry Americans are," he wrote. The "United States is not a detached, innocent bystander" when it came to the refugee crisis, he explained.

"For decades, US governments supported unspeakably brutal regimes and poured billions into maintaining them ($5 billion in El Salvador alone). Implacable opposition to communism -- often defined as virtually any reformer -- gave these regimes a blank check," Reich continued. "The result is a legacy of dealing with opponents through extreme violence and a culture of impunity. Judicial systems remain weak, corrupt, and often completely dysfunctional. After the cold war ended, the United States lost interest in these countries. What was left was destruction, tens of thousands dead, and massive population displacement. The percentage of people living below the poverty line is 54 % for Guatemala, 36 % for El Salvador, and 60 % for Honduras. More recently gangs, organized crime, and drug cartels feeding the US market have become part of this unholy mix."

While the president of Honduras and Democrats like Reich could have political incentives in what is an increasingly ugly and partisan debate over the crisis, a number of experts on the region -- though not all of them -- agree that US drug policies in the region are playing a major role in the affair.

"Although there are many factors, clearly the drug war is one of them," said John Walsh, senior associate for drug policy for the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). "There can't be any doubt that drug trafficking and efforts to repress it are part of the criminality and violence in Central America," he told the Chronicle.

"It's not the only explanation, of course," he added. "There are decades of weak institutions and long histories of violence in the area. But if you take into account the shifting trafficking patterns resulting from the US helping other governments in the region put pressure on the industry and shift routes through Central America, it has certainly added to the problems."

"We've been engaged in a drug war for 40 years, and everywhere we put pressure, it bulges out somewhere else," said Nathan Jones, fellow in drug policy at Rice University's Baker Institute in Houston. "In the Miami Vice era, we put pressure on the Caribbean, and the trade moved to Mexico. We dismantled the Cali and Medellin cartels in the early 1990s, and in hindsight, we know that also empowered the Mexican cartels."

The pattern keeps repeating, Jones said.

"Through the Merida Initiative, we put more pressure on the Mexican cartels -- and for very good reasons -- but that resulted in their dispersal into Central America. The Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel established alliances and began carving out chunks of Central America. They shifted to two-state and multi-stage trafficking operations and tried to minimize their risk by having their loads stop in various countries."

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez (wikipedia.org)
At the same time the Mexican cartels were pushing (and being pushed) into Central America, Central American gangs were rearing their tattooed heads. Ironically enough, gangs like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) had their origins in another US war in the region: the Reagan-era effort to thwart the rise to power of popular leftist guerrillas.

"Deportation got us into this mess in the first place," said Jones. "We had immigrants coming from Central America during the wars of the 1980s. Some of them formed their own gangs after being rejected by Mexican street gangs in places like Los Angeles, and when they showed up in the criminal justice system, we deported them back to their home countries. We transnationalized those gangs in the process, and now the violence from those very gangs is resulting in another mass migration flow. And now we are proposing the same solution of deportation. This doesn't deal with root causes."

"I'm not a big proponent of the drug war as an explanation for everything," countered Eric Olson, associate director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. "We need to stop thinking about the violence in Central America as a drug problem. It's a factor in the violence but not really a primary factor. Community based criminal networks involved in extortion, kidnapping, and other forms of criminal activity -- including retail drug markets -- are more of a factor," he told the Chronicle.

"There is virtually no state presence in most of the areas of highest violence so it's a little hard to blame the drug war," Olson continued. "Where the drug war has been the biggest problem has been when there are mass operations and mass detentions, but even those arrests have less and less to do with drugs and more and more to do with the criminalization of gang membership, extortion, and other things. We've got to stop seeing everything through the drug war lens."

"Criminal groups have diversified their business models," WOLA's Walsh conceded. "Drug trafficking is only one aspect, but the revenues are so huge that there is more money to buy weapons and corrupt officials, so it contributes to crime and impunity. There is no doubt this is part of the problem."

"This is a very complicated issue, with lots of causal factors, and blaming it solely on US policy has lots of shortcomings," said Alicia Magdalena Duda, a researcher with the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA). "But the drug war and the violence is a big issue."

Assigning blame for the status quo is a backwards looking exercise, but what is to be done moving forward? There are divergences of opinion there, too.

"We have to recognize that just equipping these countries to chase drugs around in the interest of interdicting them for our purposes isn't contributing much to reducing violence and increasing public safety," said Walsh. "Drug enforcement as measured by how much they're interdicting has no impact at best, and probably makes things worse. Rather than foster the illusion that we can eradicate the drug trade, we need to steer law enforcement there to reduce violence by going after the worst, most violent actors rather than measuring success in tons seized."

"How to end the violence is a long-term issue," said COHA's Duda. "Those countries are facing extreme violence and poverty. To address this immigration crisis, we have to actively engage with them, and not just with monetary packages. One of the contributors to poverty is corruption, and corruption is rampant there. Ignoring that and just continuing with the present approach is not effective, either," she said.

Duda even broached a very controversial response, one that has also been heard in regard to Mexico and the prohibition-related violence there.

"Maybe they have to engage in peace talks with the gangs and cartels," she suggested.

"One of the great frustrations about Central America is that we supported those right-wing regimes during the Cold War, but we didn't deal with any of the underlying conditions, the grievances, the extreme income inequality, the crushing, grinding poverty," said Jones. "We need a sustained engagement with Central America, but we also have to leverage those host governments to do the right thing. We can't have a situation where wealthy elites are not paying their fair shares of taxes. We have societies fundamentally structured along wrong principles. It will take decades to turn things around, but it needs to happen."

"Our focus should be on reducing violence and addressing the factors that are actually driving the violence," said Olson. "This should include targeted law enforcement, but also prevention programs as well as gang intervention and reintegration programs. Only by reducing violence and the stranglehold criminal networks have on communities will people consider staying in place."

This is a complicated problem with no easy solutions and a lot of different suggestions. Whether prohibition and US drug policies have played a key role or only a supporting one, it does seem clear that, at best, they have not helped. At worst, our drug policies in the region have increased violence and corruption in the region, enriching the worst -- on both sides of the law.

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."

Key Sinaloa Cartel Figure Reported Dead

Reports are emerging from Mexico that Juan Jose "El Azul" Esparragoza, a key figure in the Sinaloa cartel, has died of natural causes. After the capture of cartel head Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman by Mexican authorities earlier this year, Esparragoza and Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada were viewed as the effective leaders of the cartel. Now, only Zambada remains.

The story was broken Sunday by the Culiacan, Sinaloa-based investigative weekly Rio Doce, which cited people close to the Esparragoza family, as well as anonymous police sources. On Monday, Radio Formula reported that the Mexican attorney general's office had opened an investigation into "rumors" of his death.

According to Rio Doce, Esparragoza had suffered spinal injuries in an auto accident about two weeks ago and was convalescing in a hospital in either Cuernavaca or Mexico City when he suffered a heart attack while attempting to get out of bed. He was 65. His body was reportedly cremated, with plans to return his ashes to his native Sinaloa.

[Editor's Note: We covered a 2008 conference in Culiacan organized by the folks at Rio Doce. You can read our report here.]

Along with Guzman and Zambada, Esparragoza was part of a generation of Sinaloa narcos who came to dominate the trade across Mexico, including running cartels in Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, and Guadalajara. Now, Zambada is about the only one left. The rest are dead or behind bars.

Esparragoza was known as a shrewd negotiator, one who could make peace among warring drug trafficking groups. Much of that reputation was based on his years working for the Juarez cartel in the 1990s, the era of famed narco Amado Carillo Fuentes, known as "the Lord of the skies" for his fleet of planes ferrying cocaine from Colombia.

He was also reportedly an efficient corrupter, as good at greasing palms as he was at cooling down hot heads. And he preferred a low profile. While not as well known as some of his more infamous counterparts, Esparragoza was a key player and a deal-maker. This could portend more strife within the Sinaloa cartel.

Mexico

Smuggler Shooting Immediately Tests Border Patrol's New Force Policy

Last Friday, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske announced new policies designed to reduce the use of deadly force by Border Patrol agents. Hours later, a Border Patrol agent shot and killed marijuana smuggler Luis Arambula, 31, as he fled on foot through an Arizona golf course. Arambula becomes the 20th person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

The killing is bound to put CBP's new use of deadly force policies to the test. According to the CBP's new handbook, the use of deadly force is authorized only when there is imminent danger of death or serious injury to the agent or someone else. Deadly force is not to be used "solely to prevent the escape of a fleeing subject," but can only be justified when the person "has inflicted or threatened to inflict serious physical injury or death" and the person's escape poses an imminent threat of serious injury or death to the agent or others.

But that doesn't appear to be the case with Luis Arambula. Border Patrol Agent Daniel Marquez shot him nine times as he ran through a golf course after his vehicle got stuck as he fled from agents. Agents had tried to pull him over on Interstate 19, but he didn't stop, instead getting off the highway, onto an access road and then a surface street into the golf course.

Two agents chased him on foot for a quarter mile, then Marquez opened fire. Agents claimed that Arambula made "punching out" motions with his arms, as if he were aiming a gun at that in a two-handed stance, but Pima County sheriff's deputies investigating the incident said Arambula was unarmed.

The Pima County Sheriff's Office is investigating the killing. We shall see how CBP handles this first challenge to its new deadly force policy.

Chronicle AM -- May 7, 2014

A reform rollback in New Zealand, a hearing on DC decrim in Congress tomorrow, a medical marijuana trial becomes a travesty, the DEA makes another change-nothing drug bust, and more. Let's get to it:

New synthetic drugs are going back to the black market after New Zealand rolls back its effort to regulate them. (wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

ACLU DC Branch Will Testify on District Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Tomorrow. The American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation's Capital will testify before the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, Subcommittee on Government Operations about the District of Columbia's marijuana decriminalization bill tomorrow. The legislation would remove the criminal penalties under District of Columbia law for the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana within the District. The bill passed the DC council overwhelmingly and was signed by Mayor Vincent Gray. It cannot become law until Congress and the president have had 60 days to review it. The Subcommittee on Government Operations called the hearing to discuss the enforcement in the District of local and federal marijuana laws. The ACLU will testify that nothing in the bill would prevent federal law enforcement officers from enforcing federal law throughout the District.

Colorado Legislature Approves Bills on Hashish, Edibles. House Bill 1361, which limits hash sales, and House Bill 1366, which further regulates edibles, both passed the Senate Wednesday, the last day of the session. Under current law, consumers can purchase up to an ounce of hash at a time, but that will be reduced by some as yet unspecified amount. The edibles bill would ban manufacturers from making edibles that "a reasonable consumer would confuse with a trademarked food product" (goodbye, Reefers Cups) or that are "primarily marketed to children." Both bills await the governor's signature.

MPP Releases Report on Collateral Consequences of Marijuana Convictions in New Hampshire. The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) has just released a new report, Marked for Life, that shows how the lifelong stigma associated with a marijuana conviction can derail dreams by making it difficult to obtain jobs, an education, and even housing. The moves two weeks after the state Senate refused to consider a marijuana reform bill, but the session isn't over yet, and MPP and its allies say they are not giving up for the year.

Medical Marijuana

Federal Judge Denies Medical Marijuana Defense to Family Accused of Growing Medical Marijuana. A federal judge won't allow a family of a medical marijuana patients from Washington state to defend themselves against drug trafficking charges by arguing their pot plants were for medical purposes. US District Judge Fred Van Sickle of the Eastern District of Washington on Tuesday rejected the planned medical marijuana defense of Larry Harvey, 70, his wife Rhonda Firestack-Harvey, 55, and three others facing trial next week, saying they could not argue that growing marijuana was for medical purposes and legal under Washington state law. "The intent of the defendants is not relevant to the issues," Van Sickle said. "There's this concept of reliance on state law and the like. That's not relevant either." Because the federal government considers marijuana illegal, federal courts generally don't allow evidence that the drug may have been used for medical purposes, even when medical marijuana is legal under a state's law, as it is in Washington. The Harveys, their son, Rolland Gregg, 33; Gregg's wife Michelle, 35; and family friend Jason Zucker, 38, sought to describe their doctor-recommended medical marijuana cultivation at their upcoming trial on federal drug charges.

New York Medical Marijuana Bill Gains First Republican Sponsor. Sen. Joseph Robach (R-Rochester) added his name this week to the Compassionate Care Act, joining 17 other Democratic senators who have cosponsored the measure. The bill's primary sponsor is Sen. Diane Savino, a Staten Island Democrat. Republican Senate leaders have held up the bill. Senate GOP leader Dean Skelos said Tuesday there was a "good possibility" some sort of bill would be approved this session, but that he would only support a limited CBD bill.

Minnesota Senate Approves Medical Marijuana Bill. The state Senate Tuesday approved Senate File 1641, which would allow for up to 55 dispensaries statewide and allow patients suffering from a list of approved medical conditions to use the plant -- but not to smoke it. A companion measure in the House is even more restrictive. It could be up for debate as early as Friday.

Law Enforcement

Courts, Legislators Moving to Curb Police Access to Prescription Drug Databases. For years, police across the country have had easy access to databases of prescriptions for controlled substances used by individuals they suspect of committing a crime. Not anymore. Some courts and legislators are now starting to restrict the data, amid concerns by privacy advocates and defense lawyers who say warrantless searches of these databases violate privacy rights, The Wall Street Journal reports. In February, a federal court in Oregon ruled for the first time that federal agents need a warrant to search that state's prescription-drug database. Last year, Rhode Island raised the barrier of entry to its database, and legislators in Florida and Pennsylvania are considering new limits on law-enforcement access to the records in those states.

DEA in Nationwide Raids on Synthetic Drugs, Sellers. The Drug Enforcement Administration on Wednesday broadened its national crackdown on synthetic drug manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers as federal agents served hundreds of search and arrest warrants in at least 25 states. Agents served warrants at homes, warehouses and smoke shops beginning early morning. The largest single operation was a statewide effort in Alabama. Agents also were active in Florida and New Mexico, among other states. Wednesday's crackdown was focused strictly on US targets and involved 66 DEA cases, seven investigations led by Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agents and several others led by Customs and Border Protection that focused on express consignment shipments. Last year, the DEA and Customs and Border Protection wrapped up a 7-month investigation that ended in 150 arrests and the seizure of about a ton of drugs. And now it's rinse and repeat.

Sentencing Reform

Harry Reid Says Sentencing Reform Debate Could Hit Senate Floor Soon. CQ Roll Call (behind a pay wall; no link, sorry) reported Tuesday that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) was asked whether he intended to bring Sen. Richard Durbin's (D-IL) sentencing reform bill, Senate Bill 1410, to the floor for debate soon. "The answer is yes," Reid said, adding that he has been consulting with Durbin about it. The bill would slash mandatory minimums for some drug crimes and give judges more discretion to impose sentences beneath federal guidelines.

International

New Zealand Reverses Course on Regulating Synthetic Drugs. In a disappointing about-face, New Zealand reversed course on allowing some synthetic drugs to be legally sold after a rising public clamor about them. A law change effective Thursday will ban the sale and possession of all synthetic drugs. That ends the sale of 36 substances, many of which had been designed to mimic marijuana. Five other substances were banned earlier this year. The country last year gained international attention after enacting a novel new law that allowed those synthetic drugs thought to be low-risk to be sold while waiting for pharmaceutical-style testing. The law still allows manufacturers to sell the drugs if they can prove them low-risk after rigorous testing. But health officials have yet to develop testing protocols. And manufacturers may find the hurdles insurmountable after lawmakers on Wednesday also banned the use of animals in testing the products.

Tunisia Activists Urge Reform of Harsh Marijuana Laws.Tunisia's tough law on cannabis use, laying down jail terms of at least one year, is "destroying lives" and overcrowding prisons, according to a group of activists urging reform. Since the law was passed more than 20 years ago, "tens of thousands of Tunisians have been convicted," the group said in an open letter to the government. "But the number of people sentenced and the number of users continue to grow, proving that this law is not a deterrent. It has failed," said the group, named Al Sajin 52 (or Prisoner 52) as the law is called. Health ministry director general Nabil Ben Salah said the health and justice ministries are trying to "humanize" the marijuana law, but that decriminalization is not an option.

Drug War Violence Flares in Northeast Mexico. Federal security forces killed five gunmen in separate shootouts in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, just across the border from McAllen, Texas, Monday. Army troops, meanwhile, detained 15 suspected criminals in different operations across the state. The Gulf and Zetas drug cartels have been fighting for control of Tamaulipas and smuggling routes into the United States for years, and now Gulf cartel factions are also fighting among themselves. The violence has spiked in recent weeks, but federal officials have not taken any additional measures to deal with the situation in the border state.

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

More jail guards gone wild! Smuggling dope, smuggling meth, cooking marijuana butter. Plus, a Customs officer winks at semis full of weed blowing through his lane, a crooked Chicagoland cop agrees to rat out his buddies, and more. Let's get to it:

In Andalusia, Alabama, an Andalusia police sergeant was arrested last Wednesday on somewhat murky drug and prostitution charges. Sgt. Jason Curry is charged with distribution of controlled substances, possession of controlled substances, and promotion of prostitution. Curry's father also faces drug distribution charges. Authorities are being tight-lipped, so details are limited, but Curry has bailed out of jail on $165,000 bond. He's been relieved of his duties, but not fired yet.

In Grand Rapids, Michigan, four Kent County sheriff's jail guards were arrested Saturday for making large amounts of marijuana butter. They went down after postal inspectors alerted the Kent Area Drug Narcotics Enforcement team about a suspicious package sent to one of them, which was found to contain marijuana. Sgt. Tim Bernhardt, a 22-year veteran of the department, is charged with the delivery and manufacture of marijuana and conspiracy to deliver and manufacture; Officer Mike Frederick, a 24-year veteran, is charged with delivery and manufacture of marijuana and conspiracy to deliver and manufacture, as well as possession of a controlled substance; Officer Todd VanDoorne, a 22-year veteran, iis charged with possession of a controlled substance and maintaining a drug house; and Officer Brian Tennant, a 20-year veteran, is charged with delivery and manufacture and possession of a controlled substance.

In Honolulu, a former Halawa Correctional Facility guard pleaded guilty last Tuesday to smuggling methamphetamine into the prison. James Sanders III, 31, admitted distributing meth to a confidential informant and taking $5,000 for his efforts. He pleaded guilty to one count each of meth distribution and bribery. He's looking at up to 50 years in prison when sentenced in June.

In Chicago, a former Schaumburg police officer pleaded guilty last Friday to participating in a police drug ring and agreed to testify against his former colleagues. Former tactical officer Terrance O'Brien copped to possession of a controlled substance, official misconduct, burglary and armed violence. O'Brien and his partners allegedly forced drug informants and dealers to sell drugs on their behalf and went down after a man arresting for drug-selling in a nearby Chicago suburb told police Schaumburg cops had forced him to sell the dope. O'Brien is looking at up to 38 years behind bars, but will probably get about 12 because of his cooperation.

In Salinas, California, a California state prison guard was sentenced last Friday to three years in prison for smuggling drugs and cell phones into the prison. Cruz Aguirre, 28, had been convicted of bribery for smuggling the contraband in exchange for cash.

In San Diego, a former US Customs officer was sentenced Monday to 7 ½ years in federal prison for letting at least 66,000 pounds of marijuana move undetected though his Customs inspection lane. Former officer Lorne "Hammer" Jones, 50, was convicted of conspiracy to commit offenses against the United States and attempted importation of marijuana. He had been dirty for at least a decade, beginning by waving cars and vanloads of immigrants through his lane, and later tractor trailers.

Chronicle AM -- January 16, 2014

Florida's medical marijuana initiative appears poised to qualify for the ballot (if it survives a challenge in the state Supreme Court), a new poll finds the country evenly split on marijuana legalization, Afghanistan was on the agenda in the Senate yesterday, and more. Let's get to it:

harvesting opium poppies in Afghanistan (unodc.org)
Marijuana Policy

ABC News/Washington Post Poll Has Americans Split on Marijuana. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll has support for marijuana legalization nationwide at 49%, with 48% opposed. The poll is in the same ballpark as other polls since the November 2012 elections, where support for legalization has ranged between 45% and 58%. Click on the link to see full poll results.

DEA Operations Chief Bemoans Marijuana Legalization Trend. DEA operations chief James Capra told a Senate committee Wednesday that marijuana legalization at the state level was "reckless and irresponsible" and could lead to dire consequences. "It scares us," Capra said, responding to a question. "Every part of the world where this has been tried, it has failed time and time again." [Editor's Note: No country had legalized marijuana until Uruguay did late last year, and that hasn't gone into effect yet. If Capra is referring to Amsterdam, where sales are tolerated, if not technically legal, cannabis coffee shops are now in their fourth decade of existence, and the problems associated with them are relatively trivial.] "There are more dispensaries in Denver than there are Starbucks," he continued. "The idea somehow people in our country have that this is somehow good for us as a nation is wrong. It's a bad thing. This is a bad experiment. It's going to cost us in terms of social costs."

Missouri Marijuana Legalization Petitions Approved for Circulation. Secretary of State Jason Kander announced Wednesday that 13 marijuana legalization initiatives had been approved for signature-gathering. The bakers' dozen initiatives are all variations on a theme: legalize and regulate marijuana in Missouri. They were submitted by Columbia defense attorney Dan Viets, the chairman of the activist group Show-Me Cannabis. To make the November 2014 ballot, organizers must gather 157,778 valid voter signatures for at least one of them by May 4.

Maryland Coalition to Legalize Marijuana Launched. Maryland legislators Thursday launched an effort to get a marijuana legalization bill, the Marijuana Control Act of 2014, passed this year. They were joined at a press conference by members of the newly formed Marijuana Policy Coalition of Maryland, which includes the ACLU of Maryland, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the Maryland League of Women Voters, the Marijuana Policy Project, and the Maryland NAACP.

Medical Marijuana

Florida Initiative Campaign Has Gathered 1.1 Million Signatures. The folks behind the Florida medical marijuana initiative, United For Care/Patients United for Freedom, announced Wednesday night that they had gathered 1.1 million signatures, nearly half a million more than needed to qualify for the ballot. While all the signatures haven't been validated yet, organizers are now confident they will pass that hurdle. Now, they have to wait and see if the state Supreme Court is going to allow the effort to move ahead.

Washington Patients, Advocates Speak Out Against Bill That Would Gut Medical Marijuana System. The House Health Committee got an earful from medical marijuana advocates at a hearing Wednesday on House Bill 2149, which would eliminate cultivation cooperatives (and thus, dispensaries) by 2020 and reduce the amount of marijuana patients could possess and the number of plants they could grow. The bill mirrors many of the recommendations of the state Liquor Control Board, which is charged with implementing I-502 marijuana legalization.

Hemp

Indiana Hemp Bill Introduced. State Sen. Richard Young (D-Milltown) has introduced Senate Bill 357, which would allow the Department of Agriculture to license industrial hemp growing and production. The bill requires the department to get necessary approvals from the federal government, which has yet to approve any such production anywhere in the US.

Illinois Hemp Bill Seeks New Life in 2014. State Rep. Kenneth Dunkin (D-Chicago) introduced a hemp bill, House Bill 2668, last year, but it has languished in committee despite picking up some bipartisan support. He said Wednesday that he was cautiously optimistic that opposition may be softening, and the bill could move this year.

Heroin

Maine Heroin Deaths Up Fourfold from 2011 to 2012. The number of heroin overdose deaths in Maine quadrupled between 2011 and 2012, according to numbers released by state officials Wednesday. Officials said the increase was due to tightening restrictions on the use of prescription opiates, a cheap heroin supply, and, possibly, cuts in MaineCare. But while the increase was dramatic, the 28 heroin overdose deaths reported in 2012 is well below the 2005 peak of 43. In the years between 2005 and 2011, heroin deaths declined steadily.

Heroin Prevention Bill Package Passes Wisconsin Assembly. The State Assembly Wednesday passed the HOPE (Heroin Opiate Prevention and Education) package of four bills designed to reduce the number of overdose deaths in the state. Sponsored by Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), one bill would allow anyone to use naloxone to reverse overdoses, another would grant legal immunity to drug users who call for help in an overdose emergency, a third would allow communities to establish prescription drug drop-off points, and the fourth would require people to show ID when picking up prescription drugs. The naloxone and legal immunity bills are Assembly Bill 446 and Assembly Bill 447. The package now moves to the Senate.

Kratom

Oklahoma Wants to Ban Kratom, But Meets Resistance. The Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics wants to ban the Southeast Asian herb kratom, which it calls "the legal form of heroin," but kratom fans are responding with dismay and disputing the narcs' assessment. Kratom is not a controlled substance under federal law, but narc Mark Woodward said he planned to ban it until it is federally proven to have medical benefits. Kratom users have started a petition to challenge efforts to ban Kratom.

Drug Courts

Study Finds Drug Courts Ignore Science When it Comes to Opiate Substitution Therapies. A small study of drug courts in New York state finds that their skeptical approach to opiate substitution therapies (OST), such as methadone and buprenorphine, can be a barrier to successful treatment. "Many courts do not respect medical consensus on scientifically sound treatment standards. Some courts included OST as part of court-mandated treatment options, while others allowed OST for a court-defined period of time as a bridge to abstinence. Still others showed intolerance and even disdain for anything having to do with methadone and buprenorphine, or -- as with the drug court in Albany County -- refused outright to admit people on methadone or buprenorphine treatment," the authors wrote. "Ordering people who are dependent on opioids to get off their prescribed methadone or buprenorphine medicines can force patients to seek out and become dependent on other opioids like prescription analgesics. Addiction to prescription opioids has been recognized as a priority problem by U.S. policy-makers, but drug courts may be exacerbating it."

Search and Seizure

ACLU Sues Border Patrol Over Interior Border Check Point Searches. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed suit against the Border Patrol, claiming its agent routinely violate the constitutional rights of local residents by stopping and searching them at interior checkpoints on highways near the border. In a 1976 ruling, the US Supreme Court ruled that immigration checkpoints were permissible if the stops were brief, involved "a limited enquiry into residence status," and a visual inspection of the exterior of the vehicle. "But that's not what's happening here," said ACLU attorney James Duff Lyall in Tucson. He said the cases mentioned in the lawsuit provide strong indications that the Border Patrol is using the checkpoints for general crime control, "which the courts have said is not acceptable for a checkpoint. The same thing is happening over and over again to many border residents," Lyall said. "They're going on fishing expeditions where there's no reasonable suspicion."

International

Afghan Drug Situation "Dire," Federal Auditor Tells Senators."The situation in Afghanistan is dire with little prospect for improvement in 2014 or beyond," Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko told the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control Wednesday. Poppy cultivation is at record levels and the drug trade now accounts for 15% of Afghan GDP, Sopko said.

US to Help Afghanistan With Drug Problem, State Department Official Tells Senators. At the same hearing mentioned in the story above, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs ("drugs and thugs") William Brownfield vowed the US would remain committed to helping Afghanistan fight drug production and trafficking even after US and NATO troops pull out at the end of this year. "We will continue to ensure our counternarcotics programs are well integrated with broader US efforts, including assistance programs aimed at supporting a vibrant legal economy," he testified Wednesday. "The expanding cultivation and trafficking of drugs is one of the most significant factors putting the entire US and international donor investment in the reconstruction of Afghanistan at risk," he said.

San Diego Man Busted for Marijuana Dies in Border Patrol Custody

A San Diego man detained by the Border Patrol after being caught carrying three pounds of marijuana died in a holding cell Christmas Eve. Steven Keith, 58, becomes the 41st person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

According to the Associated Press, Keith was stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 8 in Southern California, and authorities found the marijuana, along with unspecified drug paraphernalia and traces of methamphetamine in his vehicle.

He was then arrested and placed in a holding cell, where he collapsed shortly thereafter. Paramedics were unable to revive him.

The Border Patrol said it is cooperating with an investigation being undertaken by the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office, but as NBC San Diego reported, local human rights activists are pointing out that Keith's is only the latest death in Border Patrol custody.

"Since 2010, we have had more than 20 individuals who have died while in Border Patrol custody. We don't have any answers as to what happened in any of those cases. Those are all pending investigation or investigations that have never even started," said Andrea Guerrero, executive director of Alliance San Diego. "We haven't seen any outcomes on any of the other cases," Guerrero said. "And so, it should be concerning to the general public and for the family that this is yet another case. We're just mounting up cases is all we're doing. We're not getting any answers."

CA
United States

Chronicle AM -- December 23, 2013

The marijuana court judge was drunk, Dread Pirate Roberts wants his bitcoins back, Beto O'Rourke wants the Border Patrol to answer some questions, Rand Paul and Cory Booker tweet policy, and more. Let's get to it:

Marijuana Policy

Florida "Marijuana Court" Judge Comes to Work Drunk. Florida Judge Gisele Pollack, who pioneered the notion of a "marijuana court," where misdemeanor pot offenders are steered toward treatment, showed up at work last Tuesday drunk out of her mind. When court staff tried to keep her off the bench, she responded, "Fuck you, you're fired." She was also reportedly screaming and crying as she demanded that her car keys be returned to her. She later told reporters she would be off for two weeks in "an intense outpatient program."

Medical Marijuana

Florida Signature-Gatherers Held Day of Action Saturday. Organizers for the campaign to put a medical marijuana initiative on the Florida ballot held a "Day of Action" Saturday as their effort heads into its final weeks. Supporters set up locations in 14 cities, including Daytona Beach and Orlando, where volunteers picked up and dropped off petitions. They need 700,000 to make the ballot, but are seeking to gather one million to have a cushion.

Asset Forfeiture

Silk Road's Dread Pirate Roberts Wants His Bitcoins Back. Ross Ulbricht, also known online as the Dread Pirate Roberts, is asking the federal government to return more than $30 million worth of bitcoins it seized after it shut down his Silk Road web site for allowing visitors to buy and sell illegal drugs and other contraband. Ulbricht argues in a legal filing that the currency should be returned because it isn't subject to civil forfeiture rules.

Law Enforcement

Beto O'Rourke Calls for Investigation into Heavy-Handed Border Drug Searches. US Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) is calling for an investigation into border drug search practices after, in the latest border search scandal, a New Mexico woman is suing after having been subjected to body cavity searches, including anal and vaginal probes while crossing into El Paso from Mexico. "Recent allegations brought against CBP for extreme and illegal searches are deeply troubling and, if true, completely unacceptable," O'Rourke said. "Individuals do not waive their constitutional or human rights simply because they choose to cross one of our international bridges. The war on drugs cannot be an excuse for sexual assault under the color of legal authority. Constitutional limits exist so that the rights of our citizens are protected and the government does not deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law," O'Rourke said. "CBP has a responsibility to ensure that all persons entering into our country are treated humanely and in accordance with our laws."

Sentencing Reform

Paul-Booker Tweet Fest Could Be Harbinger of Reform Alliance Next Year. Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) engaged in a Twitter exchange today that could augur cooperation on moving forward with sentencing reform and marijuana and hemp legalization next year. Both are among the highest-profile senators seeking sentencing reform. Read the exchange at the link.

International

A Thousand Rally for Marijuana Legalization in Tel Aviv. More than a thousand people rallied in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square Saturday night in favor of marijuana legalization and easing restrictions on medical marijuana. Likud lawmaker Moshe Feiglin and Meretz lawmaker Tamar Zandberg have proposed a bill that would legalize marijuana and ease access to it for medical use.

Costa Rica Presidential Candidates Not Keen On Marijuana Legalization. Costa Rica's two leading presidential candidates have said they do not support the full legalization of marijuana in Costa Rica. Proponents of medical marijuana, however, might glean some hope from the candidates' responses. Front-runners Johnny Araya of the National Liberation Party and Jose Maria Villalta of the Broad Front are lukewarm at best on marijuana reform. Araya said "I'm against legalizing marijuana in Costa Rica," while Villalta, while not endorsing legalization, at least called for "a broad national dialogue" on the issue.

Chronicle AM -- December 4, 2013

Some Denver city council members don't know when to give it a rest, some California US reps want stiffer penalties for pot grows on public lands, the Big Dog speaks on drug policy, Ecstasy may be on the rise, Morocco holds a historic hearing on cannabis, and more. Let's get to it:

Ecstasy seems to be making a comeback.
Marijuana Policy

Denver City Council Now Considering Cultivation Restrictions. Just when you thought it was safe again, after an effort to stop people from smoking marijuana on their own property in public view died Monday night, the Denver city council is now considering an effort to cap the number of plants that can be grown in a single household. The measure is sponsored by Councilwoman Jeanne Robb, the same person behind the failed private property smoking ban. The measure would be in conflict with Amendment 64, which is now part of the state constitution and clearly says anyone 21 or older can grow six plants "notwithstanding any other provision of law."

California US Senator, Representatives Seek Tougher Penalties for Federal Lands Marijuana Grows. Several California congressmen, including some who have been strong supporters of medical marijuana, have written a letter to the US Sentencing Commission seeking longer prison sentences for people growing on federal and some private lands. "We are concerned that existing guidelines do not address the long term detrimental threats these operations pose to the environment and nearby communities," the letter said. "The production and cultivation of controlled substances in particular marijuana, on public lands or while trespassing on private property is a direct threat to our environment and public safety." The signatories include Sen. Dianne Feinstein and US Reps. Doug Amalfa, Sam Farr, Jared Huffman, and Mike Thompson.

Drug Policy

Bill Clinton Says Attitudes Toward Drug Legalization Are Changing. Attitudes toward drug legalization are changing, former President Bill Clinton said in an interview with Fusion TV Tuesday. "The drug issue should be decided by people in each country, based on what they think is right," the ex-president opined. "We have a process in America for doing it that's being revisited state-by-state. And Latin America is free to do the same thing. It's obvious that attitudes are changing and opening up," he said. But he added that he didn't think hard drugs should be treated like marijuana. "It's also too complicated to say that if you legalize it, you wouldn't have any of these armed gangs trying to exercise a stranglehold over whole communities and lives, or that we could actually get away with legalizing cocaine and then the criminals would go away," he said.

Vermont Chief Justice Criticizes Drug War, "Tough on Crime" Approach. Vermont Chief Justice Paul Reiber has lashed out at the war on drugs and "tough on crime" approaches in general in a pair of recent speeches and a television interview. "Even with our best efforts, we are losing ground," Reiber told a crowd at Vermont Law School last month. "The classic approach of 'tough on crime' is not working in this area of drug policy. The public responds very well to this 'tough on crime' message, but that does not mean it's effective in changing individual behavior. If the idea is law enforcement alone will slow and eventually eliminate drug use altogether, that isn't going to happen… The criminal justice system can't solve the drug problem."

Club Drugs

Teen Ecstasy-Related Hospital ER Visits Doubled in Recent Years, Feds Say. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported Tuesday that hospital emergency room visits linked to teen Ecstasy use had more than doubled between 2005 and 2011. The number jumped from about 4,500 to more than 10,000 during that period. One third of those cases also involved alcohol. Authorities worry the club drug is making a comeback, although the number of ER visits reported for ecstasy is a tiny fraction of the 1.5 million drug-related ER visits reported each year.

International

Morocco Parliament Holds Hearing on Legalizing Cannabis for Hemp, Medical Marijuana. Morocco's Party for Authenticity and Modernity held a historic hearing Wednesday about legalizing marijuana cultivation for hemp and medical marijuana. The party hopes to introduce legislation next year. Somewhere between 750,000 and a million Moroccans depend on the cannabis crop for a living, although lawmakers said small farmers currently reap very little profit, with most profits going to drug traffickers sending Moroccan hash to Europe.

Former Mexican Border State Governor Charged in US with Money Laundering for Cartels. Tomas Yarrington, the former PRI governor of Tamaulipas state, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville and McAllen, Texas, has been indicted by US authorities on charges he took millions in bribes from the Gulf Cartel. Prosecutors allege Yarrington started receiving bribes while running for governor of the state in 1999 and continued to do so throughout his term. He is being sought by US authorities, but has not been taken into custody in Mexico.

Drug War Issues

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