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Amnesty Raps Mexico on Human Rights Abuses in Drug War

Mexico must take decisive action to rein in systematic and widespread use of torture, ill-treatment, and other human rights abuses, which have increased dramatically since outgoing President Felipe Calderon unleashed the military to fight the country's so-called cartels nearly six years ago, Amnesty International said in a report released last Thursday.

Mexican military displaying detainees (sedena.gob.mx)
The report, Known Abusers, But Victims Ignored: Torture and Ill-Treatment in Mexico, documents the increase of cases of torture and ill-treatment by the police and military forces, the lack of effective investigations and almost total lack of prosecutions, and the juridical weaknesses and lack of political will that allow such abuses to go unpunished and even allow testimony obtained through torture to be used to convict its victims.

An estimated 60,000 people have been killed and another 160,000 displaced in prohibition-related violence in Mexico since Calderon made waging the drug war the centerpiece of his then new administration in December 2006. The cartels are responsible for much of the mayhem, but as the violence intensified, human rights complaints filed with federal authorities have more than quadrupled, from 392 in 2007 to 1669 in 2011. Nearly 5,000 federal complaints have been filed overall, and those are just the cases when someone bothered to go through the formality of a process that too often produces no results.

And, the Amnesty report shows, it is mainly just a formality. According to the report, federal prosecutors prosecuted no torture cases in 2007 or 2008, one in 2009, and filed four more in 2010. Similarly, the number of state level torture prosecutions can be counted in the single digits each year since 2007.

"The Calderón administration has effectively turned a blind eye to the 'torture epidemic' we've been witnessing in Mexico," said Rupert Knox, an Amnesty International Mexico researcher. "The protection of human rights has been ignored or sidelined in favor of the government's strategy of militarized combat of organized crime and drug cartels. Across Mexico criminal suspects often face detention and trial on the basis of evidence obtained under torture and ill-treatment while prosecutors and courts fail to question seriously information or evidence obtained in this manner."

Miriam Isaura López Vargas is a case in point. She was arbitrarily detained in Ensenada, Baja California, on February 2, 2011. During interrogation in a military barracks in Tijuana by a civilian federal prosecutor, members of the army reportedly sexually assaulted her, subjected her to near asphyxiation and stress positions, and threatened her in order to coerce her into signing a confession falsely implicating other detainees in drug trafficking offenses.

"I heard a man scream many times, they kept on asking him, 'Where are the guns, where are the drugs?' A bit later I heard 'Take him away and bring me the next one.' I heard them open a door," Lopez Vargas recounted. "They put a wet cloth over my face, when I tried to breathe. I felt the wet cloth, it became difficult to breathe, I then felt a stream of water up my nose, I tried to get up but couldn't because they had me held down by my shoulders and legs… someone was pressing down on my stomach, they did this repeatedly as they kept on asking the same questions."

A week later, she was transferred to Mexico City and held without being brought before a judge until April 26, 2011, when she was charged with drug offenses. The following month, the case against her collapsed, and she was released by a federal judge. She filed a complaint alleging she was tortured; it has yet to be acted on.

The involvement of the Mexican military in the Lopez Vargas is not unusual. Across Mexico,  military personnel performing policing functions have held thousands of suspects in military barracks before presenting them to prosecutors. In this context, there have been numerous reports of torture and ill-treatment while in military custody.

"Federal authorities have shown an absolute lack of leadership to combat torture and ill-treatment seriously at the state level or federal level," said Knox. "The only way to tackle torture and ill-treatment is by ensuring that all cases are properly investigated and those responsible, brought to justice. In a letter sent to Amnesty International, Mexican President elect Enrique Peña Nieto committed to implement policies and take action to end torture, we urge the authorities to abide by their promises."

Mexico

US/Mexico Drug War "Caravan of Peace" Gearing Up [FEATURE]

Aghast and appalled at the bloody results of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's war on drugs, which has resulted in at least 50,000 deaths since he deployed the military against the so-called drug cartels in December 2006 and possibly as many as 70,000, dozens of organizations in Mexico and the US announced Monday that they will take part in a "Caravan for Peace" that will journey across the US late this summer in a bid to change failed drug war policies on both sides of the border.

caravan launch at Museo Memoria y Tolerancia, Plaza Juárez, Mexico City (@CaravanaUSA @MxLaPazMx)
Led by Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, who was spurred to action by the murder of his son by cartel members in Cuernavaca in 2010, and the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity (MPJD) he heads, the caravan will depart from San Diego on August 12 and arrive in Washington on September 10 after traveling some 6,000 miles to bring to the American people and their elected officials the bi-national message that failed, murderous drug war policies must end.

The caravan will be underway in between presidential elections in the two countries. Mexico will choose a successor to Calderon on July 1, and whoever that successor is, will be re-tooling its fight against the drug cartels. By late summer, the US presidential campaign will be in full swing, and advocates hope to have at least some impact on that as well.

The caravan builds on similar efforts last year in Mexico. Led by Sicilia and other relatives of drug war victims, one caravan of more than 500 people left Cuernavaca and traveled north through 15 cities to Ciudad Juarez, one of the epicenters of prohibition-related violence in Mexico. A second caravan left Mexico City with 700 people traveling south through 21 cities. Those caravans helped turn what was an amorphous fear and dismay among Mexicans at the violence into a political movement that has put the issue of the drug wars and their victims squarely on the Mexican political agenda.

"The war on drugs has had painful consequences for our country, such as corruption and impunity," said Sicilia at a Mexico City press conference. "The proof of this is that Mexico has seen over 70,000 deaths and 10,000 disappearances, and this is closely linked to US regional security policies, which have sparked widespread areas of violence, human rights violations, and the loss of the rule of law. The drug war has failed," he said bluntly.

"On August 12, Mexicans will come to the US and cover a route of 25 cities in one month," Sicilia continued. "Our message is one of peace, and our journey will be peaceful with an open heart and the hope of speaking with each other. We believe the harm we live is linked to the failed policies we want to change."

"Regarding policies on the war on drugs, we propose the need to find a solution with a multidimensional and international approach that places the dignity of the individual at the center of drug policy," Sicilia said. "We call on both Mexican and US civil society to open and maintain a dialogue on evidence-based alternatives to prohibition and to consider various options for regulating drugs."

Javier Sicilia on CNNMéxico
For Sicilia and the caravan, drug policy is inextricably tied to other policies and issues that affect both sides of the border. The caravan is also calling for a ban on the importation of assault weapons to the US (because they then end up being exported to Mexican criminals), a higher priority for concentrating on money laundering, an end to US immigration policies that have resulted in the militarization of the border and the criminalization of immigrants, and a refocusing of US foreign policy to emphasize human rights while suspending US military aid to Mexico.

The broad range of interrelated issues is helping build a broad coalition around the caravan. Groups concerned with the border, immigrant rights, human rights, racial justice, and labor are all coming on board.

"Forty years ago, then President Nixon inaugurated the war on drugs, and we've not won the war on drugs -- the only thing we've achieved is being the world's leader in incarceration," said Dr. Niaz Kasravi, with the NAACP criminal justice program. "Through these policies, we've also promoted violence and death for those caught up in the drug war in the US and Mexico. In the US, those who have borne the brunt of it have been people of color. The war on drugs hasn't made our communities safer, healthier, or more stable, but has resulted in the mass incarceration of people of color, a de facto Jim Crow. We are in a violent state of emergency that must end, and we stand committed to ending the war on drugs."

"We emphasize the dignity and humanity of immigrants in the US," said Oscar Chacon of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities (NALACC), "and when we were invited to consider joining the caravan, we identified with it as a cause of our own. We see our issues reflected throughout the caravan. Policies that emphasize militarization and authoritarianism and enforcement and punishment have human rights violations as their natural results. We see in the caravan an opportunity to write a new chapter in our initiatives to highlight the value of respect for all human life and we will use our participation to further educate Latino and immigrant communities about the relationship between policy decisions made in Washington and the sad effects they can have -- in this case, particularly for our Mexican brothers and sisters."

"Prior to coming here, I did not know the extent of the pain, sorrow, and suffering of the families here in Mexico," said Neill Franklin, head of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "There are so many orphans, so many families being attacked. Families and future generations are also under attack in my country, with drive-by shootings and running gun battles in the streets of our big cities. Most of those targeted by the drug war here are blacks and Latinos; we have many broken families and communities because of these policies. This caravan will unite our people, our pain, and our solutions in an effort to save our sons and daughters."

"This is a historic moment and one of great necessity," said Ted Lewis of Global Exchange. "The caravan arrives between two presidential elections, and that's intentional, not because we have electoral ends, but because we want the message to be heard on both sides of the border. This is a truly binational effort, and it is very important that leaders on both sides of the border take this message deeply into account as they organize in Mexico a new administration and as they campaign here in the US. This issue must be dealt with now."

Also on board is Border Angels, a San Diego-based group best known for leaving caches of water in the desert to help save the lives of undocumented immigrants heading north. The group has long been critical of increased border enforcement efforts such as Operation Gatekeeper, which have pushed those immigrants away from urban areas and into harsh and unforgiving environments as they seek to make their way to a better life.

"Operation Gatekeeper has led to more than 10,000 deaths since 1994," said the group's Enrique Morones. "Two people die crossing the border every day, but they are also dying south of the border. Now, we see a new wave of migration to escape the terrible violence in Mexico, the country of my parents, and that's why we are joining this movement for peace in this historic caravan. We have told both Obama and Calderon that human rights, love, and peace have no borders. We demand peace, justice, and dignity."

"I think this will really have a significant impact," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "It's going to be a pivotal moment, just a month after the Mexican elections and just a few months before the US elections. I don't think drugs will be a major issue, but it will be bubbling up from time to time."

The caravan will seek to raise awareness on both sides of the border, Nadelmann said.

"Americans need to be aware of the devastation in Mexico from the combination of US demand and our failed prohibitionist policies," he said. "It's also important that Mexicans understand the devastating consequences of the war on drugs in the US -- the arrests and incarceration, the evisceration of civil rights. This mutual understanding is a pivotal part of what we're trying to accomplish."

"I hope the message will come through that change is needed on both sides of the border," Nadelmann continued. "We've seen the failures of prohibition on both sides, but the biggest impetus has to come from the US through legal regulation of marijuana and more innovative policies to reduce demand -- not from locking up more people, but by providing effective drug treatment and allowing people addicted to drugs to get them from legal sources. We need a fundmentally different approach, and this caravan will be a leap forward in understanding the consequences of failed prohibition."

Mexico City
Mexico

Marking Mother's Day With Calls for Reform [FEATURE]

On this Mother's Day, more than 100,000 women are behind bars in American prisons, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and many of them are doing time for drug offenses. That's too many, said members of a new coalition, Moms United to End the War on Drugs, as they held events last week in the days running up to Mother's Day.

Gretchen Burns Bergman at the National Press Club (Moms United)
"The war on drugs is really a war on families," said Mom's United's Gretchen Burns Bergman. "It is time to end the stigmatization and criminalization of people who use drugs and move from arrest and mass incarceration to therapeutic, health-oriented strategies. Moms were the driving force in repealing alcohol prohibition and now moms will play a similar role in ending the war on drugs."

Bergman, from San Diego, is the mother of two sons who have struggled with substance abuse and incarceration and is a founder of A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment & Healing). A New PATH has joined forces with other groups, including Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), the NORML Women's Alliance, Families to Amend California's Three Strikes, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy to form Moms United to agitate for an end to the drug war and a turn toward sensible, evidence-based drug policies.

The week leading up to Mother's Day was a week of action under the rubric of Cops and Moms Working Together to End Prohibition. The week saw events and press conferences in Atlanta, Boston, New York City, and Washington, DC, in the East and Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland on the West Coast.

"Mother's Day was derived out of an intensely political effort to organize women on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line against the Civil War," said Sabrina Fendrick, coordinator for the NORML Women's Alliance. "The reason mothers were made the vehicle was because they were the ones whose children were dying in that war. Women were also largely responsible for ending alcohol prohibition. This is more than just a ‘greeting-card holiday,’ this is the beginning of an institutional change in our society. The government's war on drugs is unacceptable. For our children's sake, the concerned mothers of the world are being called on to demand the implementation of a rational, responsible, reality-based drug and marijuana policy."

Last Wednesday, at a San Diego press conference, the umbrella group unveiled the Moms United to End the War on Drugs Bill of Rights, a 12-point motherhood and drug reform manifesto which calls for "the right to nurture our offspring, and to advocate for their care and safety" and "the parental right to policies and practices that recognize addiction as a disease in need of treatment, rather than a willful behavior to be criminalized," as well as the right to have harm reduction and overdose prevention practices implemented, the right to be free from heavy-handed, constitution-threatening drug war policing, and the right to be free from drug war violence.

Moms United in Los Angeles (Moms United)
"If we stop arresting and incarcerating drug users, think of the number of children who would have the chance to look upon their parents as positive role models instead of having parents who are absent because they are incarcerated," the group said. "We have a moral and ethical obligation to give these children a better chance in life by allowing parents to take care of their families. These parents should have the opportunity to become the productive members of society and role models to their children that they want to be and that their children need and deserve."

The Bill of Rights has been endorsed by a number of religious, reform, and civil rights groups, and individuals can sign onto it, too. To sign on, go to the online petition.

"We are building a movement to stop the stigmatization and criminalization of people who use drugs or are addicted to drugs," the group said. "We urgently call for health-oriented strategies and widespread drug policy reform in order to stop the irresponsible waste of dollars and resources, and the devastating loss of lives and liberty."

It's not just Moms United who is using Mother's Day to strike a blow for drug reform. In Colorado, where Amendment 64 to legalize and regulate marijuana is on the ballot, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol is running a television ad featuring a young woman writing an email to her mother in which she explains that she has found her marijuana use to be safer and healthier than the drinking she did in college.

The ad is aimed at a demographic that is both critical to and difficult for the campaign: women in their 30s and 40s, many of whom are mothers. The ad appeared Friday and again on Mother's Day.

"Our goal with the ad is to start a conversation -- and encourage others to start their own conversations -- about marijuana," Betty Aldworth, the advocacy director for the campaign.

And it's not just the United States, either. In mother-honoring Mexico, which marked Mother's Day on Thursday, hundreds of women and other family members traveled to Mexico City on the National March for Dignity to demand that the government locate their loved ones gone missing in the drug wars, according to the Frontera NorteSur news service.

"They took them alive, and alive we want them," the marchers chanted.

While the drug wars in Mexico have claimed at least 50,000 lives, including 49 people whose dismembered bodies were found on a highway outside Monterrey Sunday morning, thousands more have gone missing, either simply vanished or last seen in the hands of armed, uniformed men.

The Mexican government doesn't report on how many have gone missing in its campaign against the cartels, but the Inter-American Human Rights Commission counts more than 5,000 missing persons complaints filed with police -- and this in a country where many people so mistrust the police they don't bother to file official reports.

"For some it has been years, for others months or days, of walking alone, of clamoring in the desert of the hallways of indolent and irresponsible authorities, many of them directly responsible for disappearances or complicit with those who took our loved ones away," the mothers' group said.

On Mother's Day, many mothers in Mexico have "nothing to celebrate," said Norma Ledezma, cofounder of Justice for Our Daughters in Chihuahua City. "As families, we want to take this occasion to tell society not to forget that in Mexico there is home with a plate and a seat empty."

"We have walked alone in the middle of stares and stigmatizing commentaries, and we have been treated like lepers, marginalized and condemned to the worst pain a human being could live: not knowing the whereabouts of our sons and daughters," the new mother's movement declared. "But now we are not alone. We have found hundreds of mothers and we unite our clamor and our love to recover our loved ones and bring them home."

On Mother's Day, the agony of the drug war transcends borders. And the call from mothers for a more sane and human alternative continues to grow, from Chihuahua to Chicago and from Oaxaca to Washington.

Mexico Presidential Candidate Vows to End Drug War

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), the candidate-in-waiting of the center-left Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), said last week that he would end the US-backed war on drugs in Mexico if he is elected president. He said his government would instead concentrate on creating jobs and fighting corruption.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (wikimedia.org)
His comments come as the region is awash in criticism of US-style drug wars and calls for a discussion of alternatives, including decriminalization and legalization. Regional heads of state will meet to discuss the issue later this month, and it looks likely to be on the agenda at the Summit of the Americas in Colombia next month.

AMLO was also the PRD candidate in the 2006 elections, barely losing to National Action Party (PAN) candidate Felipe Calderon in a hotly contested election. At least in part to strengthen his stature amid accusations of election fraud, Calderon called out the military to fight Mexican drug trafficking organization shortly after taking office. Since then, more than 50,000 people have been killed in prohibition-related violence, shaking the country's confidence in its institutions.

Lopez is currently trailing the Institutional Revolutionary Party's (PRI) candidate Enrique Pena Nieto and PAN nominee Josefina Vazquez Mota in national polls. In one poll early this month, Pena Nieto had 36%, Vazquez Mota had 29%, and AMLO had 17%. In another, the figures were Pena Nieto at 49%, Vazquez Mota at 28%, and AMLO at 19%.

"We're going to stop the war (against organized crime) and justice will be procured," if he is elected, AMLO said in remarks reported by the Mexico City daily La Jornada. "We are not going to use this strategy because it has not produced results. There will be jobs, we'll fight corruption and calm down the country. We know how to do it, I'm sure," he said.

He also vowed to end impunity and criticized the government's use of high-profile arrests and heavily-covered presentations of captured capos to the media as evidence it was actually achieving anything in its battle with the drug cartels.

"Politicians who want to resolve everything through the use of the media are responsible for the lack of security and violence, because they have not established justice, employment and wellbeing. They look the other way and, continue a policy that produces poverty, resentment, hate, hostility, insecurity and violence; they want to resolve it with wars, threats of a crackdown and PR stunts," he said.

"How are those who have no moral authority, who are dishonest and corrupt, going to guarantee justice?" AMLO asked. "With what moral authority can they ask others to do right if they don't do it themselves? And furthermore they let established interest groups make decisions just like in the past in this country."

Bernardo Batiz, whom Lopez Obrador has named as his attorney general-in-waiting if he wins, added that they want to bring social peace and respect for the human rights of victims, witnesses, and criminals alike.

"We propose to move from a war where there are enemies to a justice system with humane criteria," he said. He also vowed there would not be harsher laws, more prisons, more soldiers in the streets, or "complicity with anybody," a clear reference to the widespread suspicion in Mexico that the Calderon government is cozy with Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and his Sinaloa cartel.

While AMLO and company were campaigning against the drug war, PAN candidate Vazquez Mota was doing some drug-related politicking herself. On Saturday, as she filed documents needed to make her the official PAN candidate, Vazquez Mota also handed in a drug test and a lie detector test she said showed she has no ties to organized crime.

The election is July 1.

Iran Executed Nearly 500 Drug Offenders Last Year

The Norwegian-based human rights group Iran Human Rights (IHR) has presented its annual report on the death penalty in the Islamic Republic and announce that at least 676 people were executed there last year. Of those, 480, or 71%, were executed for drug offenses, IHR said.

public mass execution in Iran, 2008 (ncr-iran.org)
The count of 676 executions was based on information reported by official Iranian news, other independent sources, or high-ranking officials in the Iranian judiciary. IHR said that the actual number of executions is "probably much higher" than that figure.

Of the 676 executions tallied by IHR, only 416, or 62%, were reported by official media or high-ranking officials. The group said some executions are not announced by state media, but lawyers and family members were notified prior to the execution. In other cases of "secret" executions, not even family and lawyers are notified. IHR left more than 70 additional reported executions off its tally because of difficulty in confirming details.

Drug offenses were far and away the most common death penalty charges. More than five times as many people were hung for drug crimes as for rape (13%) and more than 10 times as many as for murder (7%). Some 4% were executed for being "enemies of God," 1% for acts against chastity, and in 3% of the cases, no charge was made public.

Situated next door to Afghanistan, supplier of nearly 90% of the world's illicit opium and heroin, Iran has been waging a fierce "war on drugs" against smugglers and traffickers transiting the country on the way to European markets. But much of that opium and heroin is destined for Iran itself, which suffers one of the world's highest opiate addiction rates.

While China, the world's leading executioner state, may execute more drug offenders -- the numbers are hard to come by because China doesn't report them -- Iran leads the world in executions per capita, both for drug offenses and all offenses combined.

Last year, IHR helped launch the International Campaign Against the Death Penalty in Iran. More broadly, Harm Reduction International has an ongoing Death Penalty Project aimed at the 32 countries that have laws on the books allowing the death penalty for drug offenses. Opponents of the death penalty for drug offenses argue that such statutes violate UN human rights laws, which say the death penalty can be applied only for "the most serious crimes."

Iran

The Top Ten International Drug Policy Stories of 2011 [FEATURE]

The new year is upon us and 2011 is now a year for the history books. But we can't let it go without recognizing the biggest global drug policy stories of the year. From the horrors of the Mexican drug wars to the growing clamor over the failures of prohibition, from the poppy fields of Afghanistan and the Golden Triangle to the coca fields of the Andes, from European parliaments to Iranian gallows, drug prohibition and its consequences were big news this year.

Of course, we can't cover it all. We have no room to note the the emergence of West Africa as a transshipment point for South American cocaine bound for Europe's booming user markets, nor the unavailability of opioid pain medications in much of the world; we've given short shrift to the horrors of "drug treatment" in Southeast Asia; and we've barely mentioned the rising popularity of synthetic stimulants in European club scenes, among other drug policy-related issues. We'll be keeping an eye on all of those, but in the meantime, here are our choices for this year's most important global drug policy stories:

The Mexican Drug Wars

militarized US-Mexico border
This month marks the fifth anniversary of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's declaration of war on his country's drug trafficking organizations -- the so-called cartels -- and five years in, his policy can only be described as a bloody disaster. The death toll stands at somewhere around 45,000 since Calderon sent in the army and the federal police, but that figure doesn't begin to describe the horror of the drug wars, with their gruesome brutality and exemplary violence.

Mexico's drug wars pit the army and the state and federal police against the cartels, the cartels against each other, and different factions of state, local, and federal police, and even different military commands, aligned with various cartels fighting each other in a multi-sided dance of death. All the violence and corruption has had a corrosive effect on Mexicans' perceptions of personal and public safety and security, as well as on its political system.

It has also tarnished the reputation of the Mexican military. After a two-year investigation, Human Rights Watch reported last month credible evidence that the security forces, led by the military, were responsible for 170 cases of torture, 39 disappearances and 24 extrajudicial killings in the five states they studied.

And, as the cartels battle each other, the military, and the various police, the violence that was once limited to a handful of border cities has spread to cities across the country. Once relatively peaceful Acapulco has been wracked by cartel violence, and this year, both Veracruz and Monterrey, cities once unaffected by the drug wars, have seen murderous acts of spectacular violence.

Meanwhile, business continues as usual, with drugs flowing north across the US border and voluminous amounts of cash and guns flowing south. Calderon's drug war, which has racked up a $43 billion bill so far (and an additional nearly one billion in US Plan Merida aid), has managed to kill or capture dozens of cartel capos, but has had no discernable impact on the provision of drugs across the border to feed America's voracious appetite. Worse, the attempted crackdown on the cartels has led them to expand their operations to neighboring Central American countries where the state is even weaker than in Mexico. Both Guatemala and Honduras have seen significant acts of violence attributed to the cartels this year, while El Salvador and Nicaragua also complain of the increasing presence of Mexican drug trafficking organizations.

There are, however, a couple of positives to report. First, the carnage may have peaked, or at least reached a plateau. It now appears that the 2011 death toll this year, while tremendously high at around 12,000, didl not exceed last year's 15,000. That would mark the first downturn in the killing since Calderon called out the troops.

Second, the bloody failure of Calderon's drug war is energizing domestic Mexican as well as international calls to end drug prohibition. A strong civil society movement against the drug war and violence has emerged in Mexico and, sadly, the sorrow of Mexico is now Exhibit #1 for critics of drug prohibition around the world.

Afghanistan: Still the World's Drug Crop Capital

anti-opium abuse posters at a drug treatment center in Kabul (photo by the author)
A decade after the US invaded Afghanistan in a bid to decapitate Al Qaeda and punish the Taliban, the US and NATO occupation drags bloodily on, even as it begins to wind down. And Afghanistan's status as the world's number one opium poppy producer remains unchallenged. In a Faustian bargain, the West has found itself forced to accept widespread opium production as the price of keeping the peasantry out of Taliban ranks while at the same time acknowledging that the profits from the poppies end up as shiny new weapons used to kill Western soldiers and their Afghan allies.

The Afghan poppy crop was down in 2010, not because of successful eradication programs, but because a fungus blighted much of the crop. In 2011, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that the area under poppy cultivation increased 7%, but that the expected harvest increased 61% because of better yields and would produce about 5,800 metric tons of opium.

The 2010 blight-related poppy shortage led to price increases, which encouraged farmers to plant more poppy and more than doubled the farm-gate value of the crop from $605 million to more than $1.4 billion. Additional hundreds of millions go to traders and traffickers, some linked to the Taliban, others linked to government officials. Last year, US and NATO forces embarked on counter-drug operations aimed at traders and traffickers, but only those linked to the Taliban.

And it's not just opium. According to the UNODC World Drug Report 2011, Afghanistan is also "among the significant cannabis resin producing countries," producing somewhere between 1,500 and 3,500 metric tons of hash in 2010, with no reason to think it has changed dramatically in 2011. That brings in somewhere between $85 million and $265 million at the farm gate.

A decade after the US invasion, Afghanistan remains the world's largest opium producer by far and possibly the world's largest cannabis producer. Given the crucial role these drug crops play in the Afghan economy, there is little reason to think anything is going to change anytime soon.

The Return of the Golden Triangle

In 2010's roundup of major international drug stories, we mentioned the reemergence of opium production in Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle. In 2011, production has accelerated. According to the UNODC's Southeast Asia Opium Survey 2011, opium production has been increasing since 2006, but jumped 16% last year.

The region produced an estimated 638 metric tons this year, of which 91% came from Myanmar, with Laos and Thailand producing the rest. The region is now responsible for about 12% of annual global opium production.

The amount of land under poppy cultivation is still only one-third of what it was at its 1998 peak, but has more than doubled from its low point of 20,000 hectares in 2006. More importantly, estimated total production has rebounded and is now nearly half of what it was in 1998. The UNODC points a finger at chronic food insecurity, weak national governments, and the involvement of government actors, especially in Myanmar.

If Afghanistan does not produce enough opium to satisfy global illicit demand, the countries on the Golden Triangle are standing in the wings, ready to make up the difference.

The Rising Clamor for Legalization

former Mexican president Vicente Fox speaking at the Cato Institute
2011 saw calls for ending drug prohibition growing ever louder and coming from ever more corners of the world. Throughout the year, Latin American leaders, such as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and former Mexican President Vicente Fox, have called repeatedly for drug legalization, or at least a serious discussion of it. Although the specifics of their remarks shift over time -- sometimes it's a call for drug legalization, sometimes for marijuana legalization, sometimes for decriminalization -- leaders like Fox and Santos are issuing a clarion call for fundamental change in global drug policies.

That such calls should come from leaders in Colombia and Mexico is no surprise -- those are two of the countries most ravaged by drug prohibition and the violence it fuels. By the fall, even current Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who unleashed Mexico's drug war five years ago, was starting to join the chorus. In an October interview with Time magazine, Calderon said he could never win in Mexico if Americans don't reduce demand or "reduce at least the profits coming from the black market for drugs." While he was unwilling to take the final step and embrace ending prohibition, he added that "I want to see a serious analysis of the alternatives, and one alternative is to explore the different legal regimes about drugs."

But the biggest news in the international battle to end drug prohibition came at mid-year, when the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a star-studded panel of former presidents and prime ministers, public intellectuals, and business magnates, called the global war on drugs "a failure" and urged governments worldwide to should shift from repressive, law-enforcement centered policies to new ways of legalizing and regulating drugs, especially marijuana, as a means of reducing harm to individuals and society, in a report that drew press attention from around the world.

The commission, heavily salted with Latin American luminaries, grew out of the previous year's Latin American Initiative on Drug Policy and includes some of the same members, including former Brazilian President Henry Cardoso and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo. It is paired with the UK-based Beckley Foundation's Global Initiative for Drug Policy Reform, which launched in November and is eyeing changes in the legal backbone of international drug prohibition, the UN 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and its successor treaties. The global commission also picked up strong support from an organization of Latin American judicial figures, Latin Judges on Drugs and Human Rights, which echoed the commission's call with its own Rome Declaration.

European Reforms

wall paintings near the entrance to Christiania, Copenhagen (wikipedia.org)
Drug reform continued its achingly slow progress in Europe in 2011, with a handful of real advances, as well as a number of parties in various countries taking strong drug reform stands. But while Europe has largely embraced harm reduction and seen the positive results of Portugal's decade-long experiment with drug decriminalization, getting to the take level -- ending drug prohibition -- remains elusive.

In March, Scotland's Liberal Democrats voted to making campaigning for heroin maintenance treatment part of their party platform. Heroin users should not be fined or imprisoned, but should be given the drug through the National Health Service, party members agreed.

In September, their more powerful brethren, the British Liberal Democrats, who are junior partners with the Conservatives in the governing coalition, did them one better by adopting a resolution supporting the decriminalization of drug possession and the regulated distribution of marijuana and calling for an "impact assessment" of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act that would provide a venue for considering decriminalization and controlled marijuana sales. That is going to lead to debate in parliament on the issue next year.

In August, the Greek government proposed drug decriminalization in a bill sent to parliament by Justice Minister Miltadis Papioannou. Under the proposed bill, drug possession for personal use would qualify only as "misconduct" instead of a more serious criminal offense. The bill would also guarantee the right to drug treatment, including for people currently imprisoned. People deemed "addict offenders" by the courts would be provided treatment instead of being jailed. But given the other pressing matters before the Greek government, the bill has yet to move.

Probably the most significant actual drug reform achievement in Europe in 2011 was Poland's passage of a law that allows prosecutors to divert drug users into treatment instead of prison. That law went into effect in December. The new law lets prosecutors bypass the courts in a "treat, not punish" approach to drug use when confronted with people arrested in possession of small amounts of drugs. A person arrested with personal use quantities of drugs can now be immediately referred to a therapist, and prosecutors are compelled to gather information on the extent of the person's drug problem. Still, there is an appetite for more reform; a political party that wants legalize soft drugs won 10% of the vote in the October presidential elections.

There has been some movement on marijuana and hints of more to come, as well in 2011. In an otherwise dismal year for weed in the Netherlands (see below), the Dutch high court ruled in April that anyone can grow up to five pot plants without facing criminal charges, no matter how big the harvest. The ruling came after prosecutors went after two different people who produced large multi-pound yields from a handful of plants, arguing that such harvests violated the Dutch five-gram rule. The court disagreed, but said that the pot would have to be turned over to police if they came to the door.

In June, Italy's top court ruled that balcony pot grows are okay, finding that the amounts of pot produced in such grows "could cause no harm." It's a small advance on earlier court rulings, and a step in the right direction.

And then there are moves that are pushing the envelope. Last month, the Copenhagen city council voted to explore how best to legalize and regulate pot sales. The move has the support of the mayor, but has to be approved by the Danish parliament, which has balked at such measures before. Maybe this time will be different. And raising the ante, the Basque parliament is set to approve a new drug law that will regulate marijuana cultivation, distribution, and consumption. The move is being propelled by the health ministry in the autonomous region of Spain, and would be a direct challenge to the UN conventions' ban on legalization.

Medical Marijuana's Slowly Growing Global Acceptance

It comes by dribs and drabs, but it comes.

In Israel, the Cabinet approved guidelines in August that will govern the supply of marijuana for medical and research purposes. In so doing, it explicitly agreed that marijuana does indeed have medical uses. The move came on the heels of a Health Ministry decision the week before  to deal with supply problems by setting up a unit within the department to grow medical marijuana. That unit will begin operating in January 2012. Currently, medical marijuana is supplied by private Israeli growers, but with the number of medical marijuana patients expected to rise from the current 6,000 to 40,000 by 2016, the state is stepping in to help out with supply.

In the Czech Republic, the Ministry of Health said in September it plans to remove marijuana from its list of proscribed substances and allow it to be prescribed by doctors. The ministry said it would move to amend Czech drug laws by the end of the year to allow for the prescription of marijuana by doctors, although we haven't seen that actually happen yet. The ministry must also determine what sort of distribution system to set up. The Israeli model, where the state is licensing medical marijuana farms, is one oft-cited system.

In New Zealand, medical marijuana was on the agenda of the New Zealand Law Commission when it issued a report in May reviewing the country's drug laws. In addition to other drug reform measures, the commission called for clinical trials on medical marijuana "as soon as practicable" and said medical marijuana patients should not be arrested in the meantime. "Given the strong belief of those who already use cannabis for medicinal purposes that it is an effective form of pain relief with fewer harmful side effects than other legally available drugs, we think that the proper moral position is to promote clinical trials as soon as practicable. We recommend that the government consider doing this." The government there does not appear to be eager to follow those recommendations, but the commission report is laying the groundwork for progress.

In Canada, which has an existing medical marijuana program, the news is more mixed. Health Canada is in the process of adopting a "more traditional regulatory role" for the medical marijuana "marketplace, and envisions privatized medical marijuana provision by licensed and strictly regulated grower. That doesn't sit well with a lot of patients and activists because it means Health Canada wants to eliminate patients' ability to grow their own. Nor were patients particularly impressed with Health Canada's earlier attempt to provide privately produced and licensed medical marijuana. Without outright legalization of marijuana being more popular than the Conservative government, Canada may eventually get around to solving its medical marijuana problem by just legalizing it all.

Iran's Drug War Execution Frenzy

drug burn marking International Anti-Drugs Day, Tehran
Iran has garnered itself a well-deserved reputation as one of the world's leading practitioners of the death penalty, but 2011 saw an absolute explosion of death sentences and executions -- the vast majority of them for drug offenses. At the end of January, we reported that Iran had already executed 56 drug offenders for offenses involving more than five kilograms of opium or 30 grams of heroin. As if that weren't enough, in February, the Islamic Republic made trafficking in synthetic drugs, including meth, a capital offense. More than 50 grams (less than two ounces) of meth could bring the death penalty, but only on a second offense.

At the end of May, by which time the execution toll for drug offenses had risen to 126, Iran announced it had 300 drug offenders on death row and lashed out at Western critics, saying if the West was unhappy with the killings, Iran could simply quit enforcing its drug laws.

"The number of executions in Iran is high because 74% of those executed are traffickers in large quantities of opium from Afghanistan bound for European markets," said Mohammad Javad Larijani, head of Iran's Supreme Council for Human Rights, during a press conference that month. "There is an easy way for Iran and that is to close our eyes so drug traffickers can just pass through Iran to anywhere they want to go," he said."The number of executions in Iran would drop 74%. That would be very good for our reputation."

In a December report, Amnesty International condemned Iran's drug executions, saying the Islamic Republic has embarked on "a killing spree of staggering proportions." The London-based human rights group said "at least 488 people have been executed for alleged drug offenses so far in 2011, a nearly threefold increase on the 2009 figures, when Amnesty International recorded at least 166 executions for similar offenses."

"To try to contain their immense drug problem, the Iranian authorities have carried out a killing spree of staggering proportions, when there is no evidence that execution prevents drug smuggling any more effectively than imprisonment," said Amnesty's Interim Middle East and North Africa deputy director, Ann Harrison. "Drug offenses go much of the way to accounting for the steep rise in executions we have seen in the last 18 months," Harrison said.

Amnesty said it began to receive credible reports of a new wave of drug executions in the middle of 2010, including reports of mass executions at Vakilabad Prison in Mashhad, with one, on August 4, 2010, involving at least 89 people. While Iran officially acknowledged 253 executions in 2010, of which 172 were for drug offenses, Amnesty said it has credible reports of another 300 executions, "the vast majority believed to be for drug-related offenses."

"Ultimately, Iran must abolish the death penalty for all crimes, but stopping the practice of executing drug offenders, which violates international law, would as a first step cut the overall number significantly," said Harrison.

Amnesty also accused Iran of executing people without trial, extracting confessions by torture, failing to notify families -- or sometimes, even inmates -- of impending executions, and mainly executing the poor, members of minority groups, or foreigners, including large numbers of Afghans.

Amnesty noted tartly that Iran receives significant international support in its war on drugs. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has provided $22 million since 2005 to support training for Iranian anti-drug forces, while the European Union is providing $12.3 million for an Iran-based project to strengthen regional anti-drug cooperation. Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, and Japan have all provided anti-drug assistance to Iran via UNODC programs.

"All countries and international organizations helping the Iranian authorities arrest more people for alleged drugs offenses need to take a long hard look at the potential impact of that assistance and what they could do to stop this surge of executions," said Harrison. "They cannot simply look the other way while hundreds of impoverished people are killed each year without fair trials, many only learning their fates a few hours before their deaths."

Iran may be the most egregious offender when it comes to killing drug offenders, but it is by no means the only one. Other countries that not only have the death penalty for drug offenses but actually apply it include China, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Vietnam. Human rights activists argue that the death penalty for drug offenses violates the UN Charter. For information on ongoing efforts to curtail the use of the death penalty for drug offenses, visit the International Harm Reduction Association's Death Penalty Project.

In a bit of good news on the death penalty front, in June, India's Bombay High Court struck down a mandatory death penalty for some drug offenses.The regional high court is the equivalent of a US district court of appeals.

"This is a positive development, which signals that courts have also started to recognize principles of harm reduction and human rights in relation to drugs. It is not utopia, but it is a giant step," said Indian Harm Reduction Network head Luke Samson.

"The Court has upheld at the domestic level what has been emphasized for years by international human rights bodies -- capital drug laws that take away judicial discretion are a violation of the rule of law," said Rick Lines, executive director of Harm Reduction International (formerly the International Harm Reduction Association) and author of The Death Penalty for Drug Offenses: A Violation of International Human Rights Law"India's justice system has affirmed that it is entirely unacceptable for such a penalty to be mandatory. This will set a positive precedent for judicial authorities in the region, which is rife with draconian drug laws."

Weekly updates on executions worldwide including for drug offenses are available from the Rome-based group Hands Off Cain.

The Netherlands Will Bar Foreigners from its Cannabis Cafes... and More

a coffee shop in Amsterdam (wikimedia.org)
The Netherlands' conservative coalition government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte continued and deepened its effort to undo Holland's reputation as a marijuana haven and drug tourism destination last year. Plans to ban foreigners from Dutch cannabis cafes reached fruition in 2011, with the Dutch Justice Ministry saying in November that foreigners would be barred from southern border coffee shops effective January 1. A month later, the government announced that plan would be delayed until May, and would go into effect nationwide beginning in 2013. Goodbye, tourist dollars.

But it's not just clamping down on foreigners. The number of coffee shops operating in the country has dropped by about half from its peak, with local governments putting the squeeze on them via measures such as distance restrictions (must be so far from a school, etc.). Now, the national government will be limiting their client base to 2,000 card carrying Dutch nationals each.

The national government also rather bizarrely declared in October that it wanted to declare high-potency marijuana a dangerous drug like cocaine or heroin and ban its possession or sale. That hasn't happened yet, but unless the Dutch get around to electing a more progressive government, the Christian Democrats and their allies will continue to work to undo the country's progressive pot policy reputation, not to mention its tourism industry..

North America's Only Supervised Injection Site Gets a Reprieve

Ending a years' long effort by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Steven Harper to close Insite, the Vancouver supervised injection site for hard drug users, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously in September that it should be allowed to stay open.

The Harper government, a foe of harm reduction practices in general and safe inection sites in particular, had argued that the federal drug law took precedence over British Columbia's public health policies. British Columbia and other Insite supporters argued that because Insite is providing a form of health care, its operation is a provincial matter. The federal government's concerns did not outweigh the benefits of Insite, the court said.

"The grave consequences that might result from a lapse in the current constitutional exemption for Insite cannot be ignored," the court said. "Insite has been proven to save lives with no discernible negative impact on the public safety and health objectives of Canada."

Insite has been the only supervised injection site on the North American continent, but in the wake of that ruling, that may not be the case for long. In the wake of the September ruling, Montreal announced plans for four safe injection sites in December. It's not a done deal -- it will require financing from provincial health agencies -- but plans are moving forward. And there are distant rumblings of plans for an effort to get a supervised injection site running in San Francisco, which would be a first for the US, but don't hold your breath on that one.

If the Harper government has been defeated in its effort to kill supervised injection sites, it is moving forward with plans to pass an omnibus crime bill that includes mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses, including growing as few as six pot plants. With an absolute majority in a parliamentary system, there seems to be no way to block the bill's passage, which will mean a real step backward for our northern neighbor as it emulates some of our worst penal practices.

Bolivia Challenges the Global Coca Ban

coca leaves drying in warehouse, Ayacucho province (photo by the author)
At the end of June, the Bolivian government of former coca-grower union leader Evo Morales announced it was resigning from the UN 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs because that treaty bans the cultivation of coca. The resignation is effective January 1. The move came after a failed effort last year by Bolivia to amend the treaty to allow for coca cultivation, a traditional activity in the Andes, where the plant has been used as a mild stimulant and hunger suppresser for millennia.

"This is an attempt to keep the cultural and inoffensive practice of coca chewing and to respect human rights, but not just of indigenous people, because this is an ancient practice of all Bolivian people," Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca told the British newspaper The Guardian at the time.

Bolivia will rejoin the convention sometime during the new year, but with the reservation that it does not accept the language proscribing the coca plant.

That move has aroused the concern of the International Narcotics Control Board, which issued a statement saying the international community should reject moves by any country to quit the treaty and return with reservations doing so "would undermine the integrity of the global drug control system."

Of course, there are many people aside from Evo Morales who believe the global drug control system lacks any integrity whatsoever. For those people, the actions of Bolivia represent the first serious effort to begin to undo the legal backbone of the global prohibition system.

Morales himself said last month
that he believes Bolivia will succeed next year. "I am convinced that next year we will win this international 'fight' for the recognition of chewing coca leaves as a tradition of peoples in Latin America, living in the Andes," he  said in an interview with the Bolivian radio station Patria Nueva.

In ending...

Global drug prohibition is under sustained, systemic, and well-deserved attack. It is being attacked (finally) in its core treaties and institutions, it is under ever broader political attack from around the planet; its central precepts are increasingly tattered. Ever year the clamor grows louder in the face of prohibition's screaming failure to accomplish its given ends and the terrible costs it generates. The process of chipping away at drug prohibition is under way. The prohibitionist consensus is crumbling; now comes the struggle to finally kill the beast and replace it with a more sensible, compassionate, and smarter approach to mind-altering substances.

New Canadian Drug Reform Coalition Emerges [FEATURE]

Even as Canada's Conservative federal government attempts to drag the country back into the last century with its drug and crime policies, a new drug reform umbrella group has emerged to fight for smart, sensible, evidence-based alternatives. The Canadian Drug Policy Coalition (CDPC) unveiled itself and its new web site late last month.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/cdpc-logo.jpg
Enlisting many of Canada's leading experts in drug policy, the coalition is headed by Donald Macpherson, the former head of Vancouver's ground-breaking Four Pillars approach to the drug problem. It also includes researchers, public health officials, front-line harm reduction and treatment providers, people who use drugs, HIV/AIDS service organizations, youth organizations, parents, and community members, all of whom are concerned with the health and safety outcomes of Canadian drug strategies. Its emergence couldn't be more timely. (See a complete list of member organizations here.)

Tuesday, the House of Commons approved a draconian omnibus anti-crime bill, C-10, that would, among other things, create mandatory minimum sentences for growing as few as six marijuana plants and for manufacturing small amounts of hashish or hash oil. The Tories were able to shove the bill through despite broad opposition from across Canada after winning an outright parliamentary majority in the last elections.

Reformers say they will be unable to stop the bill's passage, although they will likely challenge it in the courts, which have proven friendlier to innovative drug policy reforms. The Supreme Court of Canada earlier this year blocked the federal government from shutting down Insite, Vancouver's safe injection site. It is in this contested terrain of federal drug policy, as well at the provincial level, that the coalition seeks to intervene.

"We're letting the world know we're here and we're a coalition that wants to grow," said Macpherson. "We’re working toward trying to change the paradigm and the direction of the federal government and introducing a public health and human rights perspective on drug policy in Canada."

The coalition went public last week, marking its coming out with a press conference in Vancouver, a Macpherson op-ed in the Vancouver Sun, and joining with the British Columbia Health Officers' Council (HOC) in releasing an HOC report, Public Health Perspectives for Regulating Psychoactive Substances, which describes how public health oriented regulation of alcohol, tobacco, prescription and illegal substances can better reduce the harms that result both from substance use and substance regulation than current approaches.

"This paper highlights the large number of needless and preventable deaths, hospitalizations and human suffering consequent to our current approaches," said Dr. Richard Mathias of the HOC. "The Health Officers’ Council is inviting feedback on its ideas and requesting that organizations and individuals join with us in a call for immediate changes to put the public’s health first."

"The story about the emperor's new clothes is replayed time and again by governments unwilling to own up to realities," said Robert Holmes, head of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, as he saluted the report. "Public health professionals in B.C. are right to point out that our current chaotic and contradictory drug laws and policies need to be reviewed against scientific evidence of what works to reduce consumption, social harms, and costs," he said.

"People routinely get put in jail for conduct related to active drug addictions, but the criminal justice system is hardly a surrogate for medical care. It is plain that we have inadequate treatment and detox available for people with addictions to help them cope, recover or quit," noted Holmes. "By making cannabis taboo, our society both prohibits and makes more alluring its use. It is, of course, widely used. But instead of recognizing that and taxing it like tobacco and liquor products, with the tax revenue going to the cost of education and care, we leave the massive profits of this industry to organized crime and leave taxpayers with the bill for police efforts to contain it."

"This report is important because it's not about which drugs are legal and which are not," Macpherson said. "We need to look at all drugs through a public health lens. We're trying to get beyond 'good drug, bad drug' and move toward finding a regulatory system that minimizes the harm and maximizes the benefits of these substances."

The provincial health officers' report is also noteworthy because it actually addresses the benefits of drug use, Macpherson said.

"It takes courageous public health doctors to dare to talk about the benefits of drug use," he said. "We all know that drugs can be beneficial from our use of alcohol to relax or become more social or our use of pharmaceuticals to kill pain, but you're not allowed to talk about that in the drug policy arena. It's all about reducing harm, but we need to acknowledge that drug use has its benefits."

More broadly, the CDPC is working toward:

  • A health, social and human rights approach to substance use;
  • The important role harm reduction approaches play;
  • Removing the stigma of criminalization for people who use drugs;
  • Moving beyond the current approach to drug prohibition;
  • A national dialogue on drug policy for Canada.

"We'll advocate for a comprehensive public health and human rights approach," said Macpherson. "It's not just about health, but also looks at social and human rights issues. And it's not just about ending the drug war, but to start talking about alternatives to the failed war on drugs."

The CDPC sees itself as facilitating the dialog, Macpherson said. "A lot of change in drug policy requires political leadership, but politicians also need support in taking those courageous steps, so that when you bring people together to talk reasonably in an informed way and bring the evidence to bear, you can then move forward. They can see that despite their fears about safe injection sites or cannabis regulation, those are actually sound ways to go that make their communities safer in the long run than the way we're going now," he said. "We're trying to position ourselves as the organization than can help find the answers through our expertise and by looking at what's worked and what hasn't in other jurisdictions, and by convening people who care about these issues to look for solutions that actually work instead of the same old same old."

And despite Conservative domination at the federal level, there is still plenty that can be done, both in Ottawa and in the provinces, Macpherson said. "There is a lot that can be done around health and harm reduction because most of the health approaches emanate from provincial health ministries," he said. "Harm reduction can also be done locally by municipalities, for example, by making the criminalization of drug users a low priority for police."

While any decision to end Canada's drug war will have to come from Ottawa, Macpherson said, the provinces can still move forward themselves. "We can expand the number of safe injection sites and other harm reduction programs, and we can move toward a more comprehensive public health approach. They're doing that in some provinces," he said.

Given the obstinacy and recalcitrance of the government of Prime Minister Steven Harper, the CDPC certainly has its work cut out for it, but there couldn't be a group more suited for the task.

Vancouver, BC
Canada

Mexico's Symbol of Drug War Resistance Says It's Our Fight, Too [FEATURE]

At the 2011 International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Los Angeles last weekend, one of the more heart-wrenching sessions focused on the prohibition-related violence in Mexico, where somewhere north of 40,000 people have been killed since Mexican President Felipe Calderon sent in the army to wage war on the cartels in December 2006. A panel of Mexican politicians, activists, and journalists led by poet Javier Sicilia -- and El Paso City Councilwoman Susie Byrd -- examined the roots and consequences of Mexico's war on drugs and called eloquently on Americans to take action to stop the carnage.

Javier Sicilia addressing conference, with translator Ana Paula Hernandez (photo courtesy HCLU, drogriporter.hu/en)
Mexican journalist Diego Osorno, author of a book on the Sinaloa Cartel, explained how Calderon took power amidst mass mobilizations and turmoil after a closely contested election in which his foe refused to accept defeat. "Calderon took power amidst political and social crisis," Osorno explained. "He began the militarization using the pretext of drugs," he said.

The next panelist, former Mexican congressman Victor Quintana of Chihuahua (where Ciudad Juarez is located) looked at what Mexico's drug wars had done to his home state. "In Chihuahua, we had 407 people killed in 2007," he said. "In 2010, that number was 5,200. If the US had the same murder rate, that would be 400,000 dead in one year," he said.

"There has been an authentic genocide committed in our state," Quintana continued. "We have 10,000 drug war orphans and 230,000 people internally displaced. We face not only the violence of organized crime, but the violence of the state."

A report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch makes clear just what Quintana was talking about when it comes to the violence of the state. The 212-page report, Neither Rights Nor Security: Killings, Torture, and Disappearances in Mexico's "War on Drugs," portrays systematic human rights abuses committed by Mexican government forces, including dozens of documented killings.

Human Rights Watch officials visited Mexico this week to deliver copies of the report to Calderon, members of the Mexican Congress, the Supreme Court, and civil society groups.

"Instead of reducing violence, Mexico's 'war on drugs' has resulted in a dramatic increase in killings, torture, and other appalling abuses by security forces, which only make the climate of lawlessness and fear worse in many parts of the country, said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for the organization.

Like other panelists at the conference in Los Angeles, Quintana took pains to make clear that Mexico's tragedy was tied to the US and the way we deal with the drugs we love to hate (or hate to love). "This is a bi-national war," he said. "America sends the guns and money, and Mexico gets the deaths."

Prohibition is a godsend to the cartels, said El Paso city councilwoman Byrd, who explained how a pound of marijuana sells for $25 in Mexico's pot-growing areas but $525 in Chicago. "Legalizing marijuana is the best way to take it to the cartels," she said.

Ciudad Juarez is "the epicenter of pain and tragedy, but also the epicenter of resistance," said Zulma Mendez, a bi-national El Paso university professor and Ciudad Juarez activist. The resistance has an agenda calling for demilitarization, justice and truth, and re-founding the city in a more human form, she said.

Zuma, too, called on Americans to act. "The bloodshed here is related to Plan Merida," she said. "US taxpayers are funding this to the tune of $2.5 billion. People in the US should demand an end to Plan Merida. US citizens can demand drug reform and revision of weapons policies and immigration and asylum policies," she challenged.

But it was gruff-voiced, cowboy hat-wearing Javier Sicilia who proved most powerful. A poet and journalist who became the voice of resistance after his son and five others were murdered in Cuernavaca earlier this year, Sicilia has led caravans of protestors across Mexico to demand truth and justice and an end to the violence.

"Who is being held accountable?" he asked, complaining of a culture of impunity, and not just in Mexico. "Where is the money being laundered, and not just the drug money, but the money from other crimes? Money is the blood of the poor. We have 50,000 dead and 10,000 disappeared. The word to describe this would be 'demonic.' We are all responsible for these crimes against humanity because they are done by our governments," he said.

"If we were to put a human face on the suffering, it would be something we could not bear," Sicilia continued. "This is the image of our country: A six-year-old orphaned boy waiting for us on the road, holding a photo of his father, who had been killed and returned in a blanket. The face of that orphan is the face of our country. In a century when we talk of human rights, that is the tragedy."

The Mexico session wasn't the only place Sicilia made his voice heard. He also appeared before the crowd at a boisterous anti-drug war demonstration in MacArthur Park Thursday night and at the final plenary session of the conference. Then it was back to Mexico and the quest for peace and justice.

Los Angeles, CA
United States

Vietnam Using Drug Takers as Slave Labor [FEATURE]

Vietnamese drug users detained by the police are held for years without due process, subjected to torture and physical violence, and forced to work as low- or no-wage labor in camps that are supposed to be drug treatment centers, according to an explosive new report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch, which called for the camps to be closed and the prisoners released.

The report, The Rehab Archipelago: Forced Labor and Other Abuses in Drug Detention Centers in Southern Vietnam, documents the experience of people confined in 14 detention centers controlled by the government of Ho Chi Minh City. It found that the camps, which are mandated to treat and rehabilitate drug users are instead little more than forced labor camps where prisoners work six days a week processing cashew nuts, sewing clothes, and manufacturing other items.

Those who refuse to work or who violate camp rules are subject to punishments that Human Rights Watch said in some cases amounts to torture. It cited the experience of Quynh Luu, a former detainee who was caught trying to escape.

"First they beat my legs so that I couldn't run off again," Quynh said. "Then they shocked me with an electric baton and kept me in the punishment room for a month."

Quynh's case is hardly an exception, said the human rights monitoring organization, which talked to numerous current and former prisoners.

"People did refuse to work but they were sent to the disciplinary room. There they worked longer hours with more strenuous work, and if they balked at that work then they were beaten. No one refused to work completely," said Ly Nhan, who was detained in Nhi Xuan center in Ho Chi Minh City for four years.

"Work was compulsory," said Luc Ngan, who was a minor when he began more than three years in detention at Youth Center No. 2 in Ho Chi Minh City. "We produced bamboo furniture, bamboo products, and plastic drinking straws. We were paid by the hour for work -- eight-hour days, six days a week."

While workers were paid, they never saw the money, said Quynh, who spent five years at Center No. 3 in Binh Duong province. "On paper I earned 120,000 Vietnamese dollars a month, but they took it. The center staff said it paid for our food and clothes."

"If we opposed the staff they beat us with a one-meter, six-sided wooden truncheon. Detainees had the bones in their arms and legs broken. This was normal life inside," said Dong Ban, who was imprisoned for more than four years in Center No. 5 in Dak Nong province.

"Tens of thousands of men, women and children are being held against their will in government-run forced labor centers in Vietnam," said Joe Amon, health and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. "This is not drug treatment, the centers should be closed, and these people should be released."

The Vietnamese embassy in Washington did not return a call for comment Wednesday.

The system of forced labor camps for drug users originated with "reeducation through labor" camps for drug users and prostitutes established after the North Vietnamese victory over the South in 1975. They received a renewed impetus in the mid-1990s as the government launched a campaign to eradicate "social evils," including drug use. Their numbers have grown as the Vietnamese economy has expanded, more than doubling from 56 in 2000 to 123 at the beginning of this year.

Perversely, international donations to support drug treatment centers and to the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs have enabled the regime to continue to hold HIV-positive drug users against their will, even though Vietnamese law says they have the right to be released if they are not receiving appropriate medical care. Since 1994, international donors have sought to "build capacity," including training staff in drug treatment and support for HIV interventions, but Human Rights Watch reported that most centers offer no antiretroviral treatment or even basic medical care. The group cites various reports putting the number of HIV-positive detainees at between 15% and 60% of the detainee population.

The report contains testimonies from numerous detainees and former detainees who said they were sent to the centers without a formal hearing and without ever seeing a lawyer or judge. Some were sent to the camps after being arrested by police, while others were turned in by family members who "volunteered" them, believing they would get effective drug treatment there.

"I was caught by police in a roundup of drug users," said Quy Hop, who spent four years in the Binh Duc camp in Binh Phuoc province. "They took me to the police station in the morning and by that evening I was in the drug center. I saw no lawyer, no judge."

A small number of detainees voluntarily placed themselves in the centers to get drug treatment, but even they were not free to leave. Some reported that their detention was capriciously extended by camp managers or by changes in government policy.

Human Rights Watch was unable to provide the names of any foreign companies benefiting from detainee labor, saying "the lack of transparency or any publicly accessible list of companies that have contracts with these government-run detention centers made corroborating the involvement of companies difficult." But it did cite Vietnamese media reports as saying two Vietnamese companies, Son Long JSC, a cashew processing firm, and Tran Boi Production, which manufactures plastic goods, both used detainee labor. Neither company has replied to inquiries from Human Rights Watch, the group said.

"Forced labor is not treatment, and profit-making is not rehabilitation," Amon said. "Donors should recognize that building the capacity of these centers perpetuates injustice, and companies should make sure their contractors and suppliers are not using goods from these centers."

Besides calling on the government of Vietnam to shut down the camps, Human Rights Watch is seeking "an immediate, thorough, and independent investigation into torture, ill treatment, arbitrary detention, and other abuses in the country's drug detention centers." In addition, it wants the government to make public a list of all companies with contracts for detainee labor.

Human Rights Watch also calls on international donors to review their aid to the detention centers to ensure that it is not supporting programs that violate international human rights standards and urges companies working with the detention centers to end all relationships immediately.

"People who are dependent on drugs in Vietnam need access to community-based, voluntary treatment," Amon said. "Instead, the government is locking them up, private companies are exploiting their labor, and international donors are turning a blind eye to the torture and abuses they face."

Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam

Big Name Panel Calls Global Drug War a "Failure" [FEATURE]

The global war on drugs is a failure and governments worldwide should shift from repressive, law-enforcement centered policies to new ways of legalizing and regulating drugs, especially marijuana, as a means of reducing harm to individuals and society, a high-profile group of world leaders said in a report issued last Thursday.

Richard Branson blogs about being invited onto the global commission, on virgin.com.
The Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose members include former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former presidents of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, said the global prohibitionist approach to drug policy, in place since the UN adopted the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs a half-century ago, has failed to reduce either the drug supply or consumption.

Citing UN figures, the report said global marijuana consumption rose more than 8% and cocaine use 27% in the decade between 1998 and 2008. Again citing UN figures, the group estimated that there are some 250 million illegal drug consumers worldwide. "We simply cannot treat them all as criminals," the report concluded.

The report also argued that arresting "tens of millions" of low-level dealers, drug couriers, and drug-producing farmers not only failed to reduce production and consumption, but also failed to address the economic needs that pushed people into the trade in the first place.

Prohibitionist approaches also foster violence, most notably in the case of Mexico, the group argued, and impede efforts to stop the spread of diseases like HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis. Governments should instead turn to science- and evidence-based public health and harm reduction approaches, the group said. It cited studies of nations like Portugal and Australia, where the decriminalization of at least some drugs has not led to significantly greater use.

"Overwhelming evidence from Europe, Canada and Australia now demonstrates the human and social benefits both of treating drug addiction as a health rather than criminal justice problem and of reducing reliance on prohibitionist policies," said former Swiss president Ruth Dreifuss. "These policies need to be adopted worldwide, with requisite changes to the international drug control conventions."

The report offered a number of recommendations for global drug policy reform, including:

  • End the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others.
  • Encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs (especially cannabis) to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.
  • Ensure that a variety of treatment modalities are available -- including not just methadone and buprenorphine treatment but also the heroin-assisted treatment programs that have proven successful in many European countries and Canada.
  • Apply human rights and harm reduction principles and policies both to people who use drugs as well as those involved in the lower ends of illegal drug markets such as farmers, couriers and petty sellers.

"Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and 40 years after President Nixon launched the US government's global war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed," said former president of Brazil Fernando Henrique Cardoso. "Let's start by treating drug addiction as a health issue, reducing drug demand through proven educational initiatives, and legally regulating rather than criminalizing cannabis."

"The war on drugs has failed to cut drug usage, but has filled our jails, cost millions in tax payer dollars, fuelled organized crime and caused thousands of deaths. We need a new approach, one that takes the power out of the hands of organized crime and treats people with addiction problems like patients, not criminals," said Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group and cofounder of The Elders, United Kingdom. "The good news is new approaches focused on regulation and decriminalization have worked. We need our leaders, including business people, looking at alternative, fact based approaches. We need more humane and effective ways to reduce the harm caused by drugs. The one thing we cannot afford to do is to go on pretending the war on drugs is working."

The Obama administration is having none of it. "Making drugs more available -- as this report suggests -- will make it harder to keep our communities healthy and safe," Rafael Lemaitre, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy told the Wall Street Journal the same day the report was released.

That sentiment is in line with earlier pronouncements from the administration that while it will emphasize a public health approach to drug policy, it stands firm against legalization. "Legalizing dangerous drugs would be a profound mistake, leading to more use, and more harmful consequences," drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said earlier this year.

But if the White House isn't listening, US drug reformers are -- and they're liking what they're hearing.

"It's no longer a question of whether legalizing drugs is a serious topic of debate for serious people," said Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and a 34-year veteran police officer from Baltimore, Maryland. "These former presidents and other international leaders have placed drug legalization squarely on the table as an important solution that policymakers need to consider. As a narcotics cop on the streets, I saw how the prohibition approach not only doesn't reduce drug abuse but how it causes violence and crime that affect all citizens and taxpayers, whether they use drugs or not."

"These prominent world leaders recognize an undeniable reality. The use of marijuana, which is objectively less harmful than alcohol, is widespread and will never be eliminated," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. "They acknowledge that there are only two choices moving forward. We can maintain marijuana's status as a wholly illegal substance and steer billions of dollars toward drug cartels and other criminal actors. Or, we can encourage nations to make the adult use of marijuana legal and have it sold in regulated stores by legitimate, taxpaying business people. At long last, we have world leaders embracing the more rational choice and advocating for legal, regulated markets for marijuana. We praise these world leaders for their willingness to advocate for this sensible approach to marijuana policy."

"The long-term impact of the Global Commission's efforts will be defining," predicted David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org (publisher of this newsletter). "Most people don't realize that there are leaders of this stature who believe prohibition causes much of the harm commonly seen as due to drugs. As more and more people hear these arguments, coming from some of the most credible people on the planet, legalization will come to be viewed as a credible and realistic option."

Other commission members include Louise Arbour, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Canada; Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil (chair); Marion Caspers-Merk, former State Secretary at the German Federal Ministry of Health; Maria Cattaui former Secretary-General of the International Chamber of Commerce, Switzerland; Carlos Fuentes, writer and public intellectual, Mexico; Asma Jahangir, human rights activist, former UN Special Rapporteur on Arbitrary, Extrajudicial and Summary Executions, Pakistan; Michel Kazatchkine, executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria , France; Mario Vargas Llosa, writer and public intellectual, Peru; George Papandreou, Prime Minister of Greece; George P. Shultz, former Secretary of State, United States (honorary chair); Javier Solana, former European Union High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy , Spain; Thorvald Stoltenberg, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Norway; Paul Volcker, former Chairman of the United States Federal Reserve and of the Economic Recovery Board; John Whitehead, banker and civil servant, chair of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, United States; and Ernesto Zedillo, former President of Mexico.

While the Obama administration may be loathe to listen, the weight of world opinion, as reflected in the composition of the global commission that issued this report, is starting to create stress fractures in the wall of prohibition. A half-century of global drug prohibition has showed us what it can deliver, and the world is increasingly finding it wanting.

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