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Latin America: Mexico's Drug War Stirs Opposition in the Streets and from the Bishops

As the death toll tops 17,000 since Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on the so-called drug cartels in December 2006, and with no end to the killing in sight, demonstrators took to the streets of bloody Ciudad Juárez Sunday to denounce the killing and the government's approach. The next day, Calderon's drug policies came under attack from an entirely different direction: the Catholic Church in Mexico.

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Council of Bishops event releasing report
In Juárez, where more than 2,600 people were killed in prohibition-related violence last year and 15 teenagers were gunned down last week in an incident that shocked the nation, more than a thousand people took to the streets Sunday in a "March of Anger" against the drug violence, with some leaders saying the presence of 6,000 federal troops is only making things worse.

"The army's presence is anti-constitutional and violates citizens' rights. That's why we're asking them to withdraw," National Front Against Repression leader Javier Contreras told the crowd.

Human rights and civil society groups in Juárez and, more broadly, across Mexico, have charged that Mexican law enforcement and armed forces have harassed, tortured, kidnapped, "disappeared," and killed innocent people in overzealous prosecution of the drug war. That won't work, said Contreras.

"You can't fight violence with more violence and breaking the laws," he said.

The protest came just days after President Calderon visited Ciudad Juárez in a bid to placate angry and frightened citizens. He apologized to the families of the massacred teenagers for initially blaming their deaths on gang warfare, said he was sending in 400 more federal police, and vowed to seek community cooperation in setting a new strategy against crime and violence. Still, he was booed by crowds during that visit. He returned again this week, touting a new security plan.

If Calderon is having a hard time placating angry Juárez residents, he's not having much better luck with the Catholic Church. The day after the Juárez protest, the Mexican Church's Council of Bishops issued a report critical of Calderon's drug policies.

In the report, the bishops said that using thousands of army troops to police Mexican cities raises severe human rights concerns. The bishops also pointed at a corrupt judicial system. They said many suspects are paraded before the media in "perp walks" even before being charged with any crime and called on the government to speed up police reforms so the troops can return to their barracks.

The bishops conceded that Calderon's deployment of the military initially had broad public support, but warned it was eroding. "As time passed, the participation of the armed forces in the fight against organized crime has created uncertainty in the population," the report said. "The armed forces have the obligation to respect human rights."

The bishops also harshly criticized the criminal justice system, saying few criminals are brought to justice because of corruption and inefficiency, while at the same time, innocent people are too often jailed because of police tactics. They noted that many of those people arrested and paraded before the media end up being released or charged with much lesser crimes than those announced at the time of their arrest.

The "perp walks" should stop, the bishops said. Authorities must "respect the judicial principle that someone is innocent until proven otherwise, because now we see that detainees are exhibited before the media before they are brought before judicial authorities."

More than halfway through his six-year term, President Calderon faces the threat of seeing his presidency defined by the bloody drug wars his policies have not only failed to stop, but have exacerbated. He seems to have no response except more of the same.

Feature: El Paso City Council Passes Resolution Criticizing Drug War, But Only After Killing Marijuana Regulation Language

A year ago, dismayed at the violence rocking its sister city of Ciudad Juárez just across the Rio Grande River, the city council in the remote Texas border city of El Paso unanimously passed a resolution calling for serious consideration of ending drug prohibition, only to see it vetoed by Mayor John Cook. Then, after heavy-handed warnings from US Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX) and the city's delegation in the state legislature that such a resolution could threaten the city's funding, the city council backed down, failing to override Cook's veto.

With those votes and the controversy surrounding them, El Paso was thrust into -- and helped ignite -- a national debate on the country's drug policies. This week, the El Paso city council returned to the issue when, led by Councilmembers Beto O'Rourke and Steve Ortega, it considered a resolution calling for a "comprehensive examination of our country's failed War on Drugs," and advocating for "the repeal of ineffective marijuana laws" and their replacement with taxed, regulated, and controlled marijuana production, sales, and consumption for adults.

The resolution also called for an immediate meeting between Mexican President Felipe Calderon and US President Obama to address prohibition-related violence in Mexico, rejected the "militaristic" approach of Plan Merida, the three-year, $1.4 billion anti-drug assistance scheme for Mexico and Central America, called for that aid to be tied to strict human rights reporting requirements, and called for any additional aid to Mexico to be aimed at improving the country's "social, educational, and economic development."

"It's up to us to act and make some tough decisions and do some uncomfortable things," said O'Rourke, as he urged his colleagues to support the resolution.

"The fuel to the fire in Juárez is the profits of a black market," said Councilwoman Susie Byrd, explaining why she supported the marijuana regulation language.

But not all the council members were in accord. "We didn't talk about demand reduction. We didn't talk about prevention, and we didn't talk about treatment," said Councilman Carl Robinson, explaining his vote against the resolution.

The public also joined in the debate, with University of Texas-El Paso political science professor Tony Payan refreshing the council's member about the city's historic role in marijuana prohibition. "It was the first city council a hundred years ago that passed the first resolution forbidding the use of marijuana," he said. "One hundred years later we've come full circle, and now we're debating 100 years of a failed policy."

"We've got this war that's cost us billions of dollars in Iraq and there's a huge problem next, right next door!" said El Paso resident Eric Contreras.

"It is time to change the laws because drug prohibition is a failed policy," said El Paso resident Richard Newton, a retired veteran US Customs agent and member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). "The bottom line is that the reason you have cartels in Juárez fighting each other is to sell drugs in the United States. They sell drugs because they can make money. Get rid of the money and you get rid of the cartels."

Not everyone was on board, however. "Quit calling it our sister city. No one wants a disease-riddled prostitute as a sister," said El Paso resident Armando Cardoza. [Ed: That was rude.]

After debating the resolution on Monday, the council voted, arriving at a 4-4 tie vote. Once again, Mayor Cook swooped in to block reform, even in the form of a resolution. His vote against the resolution broke the tie.

But that wasn't the end of it. The council then amended the resolution by dropping the paragraph referring to marijuana regulation and unceremoniously passed the amended resolution on a 6-2 vote. O'Rourke was one of the no votes, saying that regulating marijuana was an integral part of his approach.

Still, the El Paso city council has gone on record as condemning current US drug policies and demanding a shift to a smarter, more humane approach to drug sales and use. And it has clearly called on the US government to take a smarter, more humane approach to the drug violence just across the river in Juárez.

When asked what is was about El Paso that made it amenable to passage of such a resolution critical of the drug war, LEAP's Newton mentioned the city's unique location. Tucked into the triangular tip of far West Texas, El Paso not only borders bloody Ciudad Juárez, with its daily prohibition-related killings, but it also borders New Mexico, a state that has been a leader in drug policy reforms, ranging from medical marijuana to passing the country's first Good Samaritan drug overdose law to working with the Drug Policy Alliance on methamphetamine prevention and education programs.

"This is a strange city for Texas," Newton continued. "The state is very Republican, but there aren't any Republicans in El Paso. Bush didn't carry El Paso County. Silvestre Reyes has not had a Republican run against for several elections now. I wouldn't say El Paso is especially liberal or progressive, but it is Democratic."

Last year, Mayor Cook and Congressman Reyes pulled the plug on the resolution, but there is no sign yet that we will see a repeat this year. That would be progress, even if O'Rourke lost his marijuana regulation language. And he and the rest of the council still have three years to make up for city council's 1913 vote to criminalize marijuana. The city was a leader then; it can be a leader once again, only this time in the right direction.

Southeast Asia: Human Rights Watch Charges Torture, Rape, Illegal Detentions at Cambodian Drug "Rehab" Centers, Demands Shutdown

In a scathing 93-page report released today, the international human rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Cambodian drug detention centers of torturing and raping detainees, imprisoning children and the mentally ill, and illegally detaining and imprisoning drug users. The centers are beyond reform and should be closed, the group said.

"Individuals in these centers are not being treated or rehabilitated, they are being illegally detained and often tortured," said Joseph Amon, director of the Health and Human Rights division at HRW. "These centers do not need to be revamped or modified; they need to be shut down."

The report cited detailed testimonies from detainees who were raped by center staff, beaten with electric cables, shocked with cattle prods, and forced to give blood. It also found that drug users were "cured" of their conditions by being forced to undergo rigorous military-style drills to sweat the drugs out of their systems.

"[After arrest] the police search my body, they take my money, they also keep my drugs... They say, 'If you don't have money, why don't you go for a walk with me?... [The police] drove me to a guest house.... How can you refuse to give him sex? You must do it. There were two officers. [I had sex with] each one time. After that they let me go home," said Minea, a woman in her mid-20's who uses drugs, explaining how she was raped by two police officers.

"[A staff member] would use the cable to beat people... On each whip the person's skin would come off and stick on the cable," said M'noh, age 16, describing whippings he witnessed in the Social Affairs "Youth Rehabilitation Center" in Choam Chao. The title of the HRW report is "Skin on the Cable."

More than 2,300 people were detained in Cambodia's 11 drug detention centers in 2008. That is 40% more than in 2007.

"The government of Cambodia must stop the torture occurring in these centers," said Amon. "Drug dependency can be addressed through expanded voluntary, community-based, outpatient treatment that respects human rights and is consistent with international standards."

Cambodian officials from the National Authority for Combating Drugs, the Interior Ministry, the National Police, and the Social Welfare Ministry all declined to comment when queried by the Associated Press. But Cambodian Brig. Gen. Roth Srieng, commander of the military police in Banteay Meanchy province, denied torture at his center, while adding that some detainees were forced to stand in the sun or "walk like monkeys" as punishment for trying to escape.

Children as young as 10, prostitutes, beggars, the homeless, and the mentally ill are frequently detained and taken to the drug detention centers, the report found. About one-quarter of those detained were minors. Most were not told why they were being detained. The report also said police sometimes demanded sexual favors or money for release and told some detainees they would not be beaten or could leave early if they donated blood.

The report relied on testimony from 74 people, most of them drug users, who had been detained between February and July 2009.

Southeast Asia: Human Rights Watch Charges Torture, Rape, Illegal Detentions at Cambodian Drug "Rehab" Centers; Demands They Be Shut Down

In a scathing 93-page report released today, the international human rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Cambodian drug detention centers of torturing and raping detainees, imprisoning children and the mentally ill, and illegally detaining and imprisoning drug users. The centers are beyond reform and should be closed, the group said. "Individuals in these centers are not being treated or rehabilitated, they are being illegally detained and often tortured," said Joseph Amon, director of the Health and Human Rights division at HRW. "These centers do not need to be revamped or modified; they need to be shut down." The report cited detailed testimonies from detainees who were raped by center staff, beaten with electric cables, shocked with cattle prods, and forced to give blood. It also found that drug users were "cured" of their conditions by being forced to undergo rigorous military-style drills to sweat the drugs out of their systems. "[After arrest] the police search my body, they take my money, they also keep my drugs...They say, ‘If you don't have money, why don't you go for a walk with me?...[The police] drove me to a guest house.... How can you refuse to give him sex? You must do it. There were two officers. [I had sex with] each one time. After that they let me go home," said Minea, a woman in her mid-20's who uses drugs, explaining how she was raped by two police officers "[A staff member] would use the cable to beat people...On each whip the person's skin would come off and stick on the cable," said M'noh, age 16, describing whippings he witnessed in the Social Affairs "Youth Rehabilitation Center" in Choam Chao. The title of the HRW report is "Skin on the Cable." More than 2,300 people were detained in Cambodia's 11 drug detention centers in 2008. That is 40% more than in 2007. "The government of Cambodia must stop the torture occurring in these centers" said Amon. "Drug dependency can be addressed through expanded voluntary, community-based, outpatient treatment that respects human rights and is consistent with international standards." Cambodian officials from the National Authority for Combatting Drugs, the Interior Ministry, the National Police, and the Social Welfare Ministry all declined to comment when queried by the Associated Press. But Cambodian Brig. Gen. Roth Srieng, commander of the military police in Banteay Meanchy province, denied torture at his center, while adding that some detainees were forced to stand in the sun or "walk like monkeys" as punishment for trying to escape. Children as young as 10, prostitutes, beggars, the homeless, and the mentally ill are frequently detained and taken to the drug detention centers, the report found. About one-quarter of those detained were minors. Most were not told why they were being detained. The report also said police sometimes demanded sexual favors or money for release and told some detainees they would not be beaten or could leave early if they donated blood. The report relied on testimony from 74 people, most of them drug users, who had been detained between February and July 2009.

Latin America: Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debusmann, Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year trafficking illegal drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed over 12,000 people, with a death toll of over 5,000 so far in 2009. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest of several high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war:

Friday, December 4

Near Monterrey, a group of more than 20 gunmen attacked a police detention center and freed 23 inmates. Two federal officers were killed during the attack. Witnesses reported that the inmates were driven away in at least five vehicles. Earlier on Friday in Monterrey, clashes between the army and dozens of gunmen left 13 people dead -- 12 suspected cartel members and one civilian.

The clashes began when soldiers came under fire as they raided a ranch where hostages were thought to be kept. A firefight ensued between the soldiers and an estimated 50 gunmen, seven of whom were killed and nine captured before the rest managed to escape. The gunmen that escaped later ran into another unit of soldiers, and five of them were killed in the gun battle that followed. A civilian was also killed in the crossfire. Several of the dead gunmen were ex-cops suspected in the death of a municipal police chief who was murdered in November.

Saturday, December 5

Thirty-six people were killed in drug-related violence across Mexico, including five federal agents. Additionally, a public security official in Chihuahua was kidnapped by gunmen as he drove on a highway, and remains to be found. Of the dead, 14 were murdered in Chihuahua, eight of them in Ciudad Juarez. Near Culiacan, Sinaloa, a state police official was found dead (along with an unidentified woman) in a bullet-riddled car. A three-year old who was in the backseat survived. In Guerrero, three policemen and two gunmen were killed in a firefight.

Tuesday, December 8

With the late night killings of four youths in Ciudad Juarez, the total body count this year from Mexico's drug war passed the 7,000 mark. In a 24 hour period, 13 people were killed in Ciudad Juarez, three in Sonora, seven in Guerrero, four in Sinaloa, and four in Mexico City and the surrounding area, bringing the yearly total to 7,026. Of these, 2,991 took place in Chihuahua, mostly in Ciudad Juarez.

Wednesday, December 9

In a report released Tuesday, Amnesty International blasted the conduct of Mexican government forces as they fight against drug traffickers. The report cited five cases involving 35 people that the organization thought were representative of the rampant human rights violations in Mexico, and accused the army of torturing civilians, capturing suspects illegally, and killing prisoners. The report was especially critical of Mexico's civilian authorities, who have refused or failed to investigate allegations of abuse on the part of the army. Complaints against the army are handled entirely by the Mexican military justice system, and out of the thousands of complaints, only a few have been investigated.

In Hermosillo, several locations were attacked in coordinated grenade attacks, leaving four people wounded. In Nogales, near the border with Arizona, five people were executed by gunfire in what appears to be an attempt to take over the local drug trafficking corridor. In Chihuahua, ten people were found murdered, eight of them in Ciudad Juarez.

Total Body Count for the Week: 174

Total Body Count for the Year: 7,056

Read the last Mexico Drug War Update here.

Latin America: Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debusmann, Jr.

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poster of assassinated human rights advocate Ricardo Murillo
Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year trafficking illegal drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed over 16,000 people, with a death toll of over 7,000 so far in 2009. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest of several high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war:

Saturday, December 12

In the town of Almoloya, near Mexico City, six members of a family were killed by gunmen who attacked their home in the morning. Gunmen entered their home, locked several children in a bedroom, then lined up and shot the six adults, three men and three women ranging in ages from 25 to 52. Two bodies were also found in the nearby town of Villa Victoria, although it is unclear if these two incidents are related.

In Guadalajara, a prep school teacher was shot and killed by two gunmen as he drove to work. In Culiacan, Sinaloa, two women with their hands and feet bound were found executed. 16 people were killed in Ciudad Juárez, including a police official. In Michoacan, police found the bodies of three suspected cartel members, who were found dead in a car that contained weapons of various calibers. Six people were also killed in Tijuana, and five in Durango.

Monday, December 14

The spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico called on the Mexican army to withdraw from the streets of Mexican cities. The spokesman, Hugo Valdemar, called on more effective police forces to be created. He also said that local authorities "cannot count on the army," and said that "unfortunately, the army is committing human rights violations" in its fight against organized crime. The same day as his statements, two law enforcement facilities in Durango were attacked by grenades.

Tuesday, December 15

Seven people were killed in Tijuana, bringing the total number of murders in the city to 23 in four days. Among the dead was a man found by commuters hanging by his hands from a bridge over the Tijuana-Playas de Rosarito highway. In Ciudad Juárez, ten men and one woman were killed in several incidents across the city. In the state of Aguacalientes, a woman was found murdered, along with a note accusing her of being an informant. Near Nogales, six bodies were found dumped in a construction site. In the same time period, three people were killed in Sinaloa, three in Guerrero, and one (a 17-year old boy) outside Mexico City.

Wednesday, December 16

In a major coup for the government, Beltran Leyva cartel leader Arturo Beltran Leyva was killed along with two other cartel members when members of the Mexican Navy attacked their apartment in a luxury quarter of Cuernavaca. One Mexican sailor also died in the 90 minute-long gun battle.

Ricardo Chavez Aldana, a reporter for the Ciudad Juárez radio station Radio Cañón fled to El Paso with his family and requested political asylum. Two nephews of his were recently killed in Ciudad Juárez and his family had received death threats. He is the fourth Ciudad Juárez journalist to seek asylum in the US. In the last nine years, 56 journalists have been killed in Mexico. Most of the killings remained unsolved.

In Tijuana, gunmen armed with assault rifles killed four men in a taco store. Several people were wounded in the attack. The day before, the bodies of four decapitated men were found in the city, and four other people were killed by gunfire, including one woman. These killings brought to 35 the number of people murdered in Tijuana since Friday. The reasons for the sudden spike in violence are unclear, although much of the violence in Tijuana is due to the intense rivalry between the Arellano-Felix Organization (AFO) and a breakaway faction that has allied itself with the Sinaloa Cartel.

In Ciudad Juárez, 18 people were killed in a 24-hour period. In one incident, five men were killed when a home was attacked by a group of gunmen. The five men attempted to flee, but were gunned down in the courtyard. In another incident, two men were killed by gunmen wielding AK-47's.

In Guerrero, body parts belonging to two individuals were found inside plastic bags. A note was found near the bag which threatened kidnappers and was said to be from "the boss of bosses". This nickname is thought to belong to Arturo Beltran-Leyva, one of the heads of the Beltran-Leyva organization. The note also implored the local population not to be alarmed by the killings.

Body Count for the Week: 221

Body Count for the Year: 7,277

Read the last Mexico Drug War Update here.

North Africa: Moroccan Human Rights and Drug Policy Activist to Remain Behind Bars

A Morrocan appeals court Tuesday rejected the appeal of a human rights activist who had publicly criticized the country's drug policy and was subsequently jailed for offending the authorities and alleged currency violations. That means Chakib El Khayari will continue to serve a three-year sentence handed down in June.

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Chakib El Khayari
El Khayari heads a human rights group in the Rif Mountains, where marijuana growing has been a way of life for centuries. He had criticized inequities in the Moroccan government's crackdown on the cannabis industry there. El Khayari repeatedly told international conferences and foreign media outlets that he questioned the government's record on marijuana eradication and interdiction. He accused authorities of turning a blind eye to hashish smuggling to Europe while focusing their repressive efforts on poor farmers.

Prosecutors accused him of taking a bribe to focus a media campaign on some traffickers and not others. They also accused him of depositing money in foreign banks without approval from the country's Exchange Office. That charge was based on a payment he accepted for writing an article for a Spanish magazine. He was convicted in a court in Casablanca in June.

Even before his conviction, human rights and drug reform groups were calling his prosecution unjust. "It's pretty clear that the new charges against el-Khayari appear to be one more attempt to silence a critic on politically sensitive issues, and to intimidate other activists," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "El-Khayari's prosecution shows that despite Morocco's reputation for open debate and a thriving civil society, the authorities are still ready to imprison activists who cross certain red lines."

The European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD) has organized a campaign to seek his release. Click on the ENCOD link here to see how you can help.

Latin America: Former Mexican Foreigner Minister Accuses Army of Extra-Judicial Executions in Drug War

Jorge Castañeda, Mexico's foreign minister under President Vicente Fox, said Saturday that the Mexican military is engaging in the extrajudicial execution of members of drug trafficking organizations. The frank and surprising comments came as Castañeda spoke on a panel at the 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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Jorge Castañeda
"We are having more and more 'false positives,'" Castañeda said, referring to a term used in Colombia to describe people executed by the military and then described as guerrillas killed in combat. "Here in Mexico, apparent gang war killings are in fact being carried out by the military. Every time the cartels catch the police and military infiltrators and slice them up, the army says 'We're taking out ten of yours.' The statistics say that 90% of the killings are within the cartels, but the army is engaging in these killings."

President Felipe Calderon deployed the military against the so-called cartels in December 2006. Since then, more than 15,000 people have been killed in prohibition-related violence in Mexico, including more than 6,000 so far this year. Hundreds of police and soldiers are among the dead.

In response to a question asking for documentation of his assertions, Castañeda said: "The only known incident was a town in Chihuahua where the bodies of 29 sicarios (assassins) were found, with witnesses who said this was after they were detained. The press has not wanted to investigate this."

But the military can't keep its mouth shut, Castañeda said. "They go to bars and restaurants and get drunk and talk and they are going around saying how many people they have knocked off," he reported. "The 12 military officers killed by the cartels in Michoacan -- that's why the army went out and killed a bunch of other people."

Castañeda's comments come as the US State Department is preparing the process of certifying Mexican compliance with human rights conditions as part of the $1.4 billion Plan Merida anti-drug assistance package. The bill authorizing the aid requires that portions of it be withheld if the State Department determines Mexico is not in compliance.

Castañeda also criticized President Obama for turning a blind eye to human rights violations by the Mexican military. "Obama regrettably said that the human rights violations he was most concerned with was with the victims of the drug war," the former diplomat noted.

Feature: Fired Up in Albuquerque -- The 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference

Jazzed by the sense that the tide is finally turning their way, more than a thousand people interested in changing drug policies flooded into Albuquerque, New Mexico, last weekend for the 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference, hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance. Police officers in suits mingled with aging hippies, politicians met with harm reductionists, research scientists chatted with attorneys, former prisoners huddled with state legislators, and marijuana legalizers mingled with drug treatment professionals -- all united by the belief that drug prohibition is a failed policy.

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candlelight vigil outside the Albuquerque Convention Center (courtesy Drug Policy Alliance)
As DPA's Ethan Nadelmann said before and repeated at the conference's opening session: "We are the people who love drugs, we are the people who hate drugs, we are the people that don't care about drugs," but who do care about the Constitution and social justice. "The wind is at our backs," Nadelmann chortled, echoing and amplifying the sense of progress and optimism that pervaded the conference like never before.

For three days, conference-goers attended a veritable plethora of panels and breakout sessions, with topics ranging from the drug war in Mexico and South America to research on psychedelics, from implementing harm reduction policies in rural areas to legalizing marijuana, from how to organize for drug reform to what sort of treatment works, and from medical marijuana to prescription heroin.

It was almost too much. At any given moment, several fascinating panels were going on, ensuring that at least some of them would be missed even by the most interested. The Thursday afternoon time bloc, for example, had six panels: "Medical Marijuana Production and Distribution Systems," "After Vienna: Prospects for UN and International Reform," "Innovative Approaches to Sentencing Reform," "Examining Gender in Drug Policy Reform," "Artistic Interventions for Gang Involved Youth," and "The Message is the Medium: Communications and Outreach Without Borders."

The choices weren't any easier at the Friday morning breakout session, with panels including "Marijuana Messaging that Works," "Fundraising in a Tough Economy," "Congress, President Obama, and the Drug Czar," "Zoned Out" (about "drug-free zones"), "Psychedelic Research: Neuroscience and Ethnobotanical Roots," "Opioid Overdose Prevention Workshop," and "Border Perspectives: Alternatives to the 40-Year-Old War on Drugs."

People came from all over the United States -- predominantly from the East Coast -- as well as South Africa, Australia, Canada, Europe (Denmark, England, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Scotland, and Switzerland), Latin America (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico), and Asia (Cambodia and Thailand).

Medical marijuana was one of the hot topics, and New Mexico, which has just authorized four dispensaries, was held up as a model by some panelists. "If we had a system as clear as New Mexico's, we'd be in great shape," said Alex Kreit, chair of a San Diego task force charged with developing regulations for dispensaries there.

"Our process has been deliberate, which you can also read as 'slow,'" responded Steve Jenison, medical director of the state Department of Health's Infectious Disease Bureau. "But our process will be a very sustainable one. We build a lot of consensus before we do anything."

Jenison added that the New Mexico, which relies on state-regulated dispensaries, was less likely to result in diversion than more open models, such as California's. "A not-for-profit being regulated by the state would be less likely to be a source of diversion to the illicit market," Jenison said.

For ACLU Drug Policy Law Project attorney Allen Hopper, such tight regulation has an added benefit: it is less likely to excite the ire of the feds. "The greater the degree of state involvement, the more the federal government is going to leave the state alone," Hopper said.

At Friday's plenary session, "Global Drug Prohibition: Costs, Consequences and Alternatives," Australia's Dr. Alex Wodak amused the audience by likening the drug war to "political Viagra" in that it "increases potency in elections." But he also made the more serious point that the US has exported its failed drug policy around the world, with deleterious consequences, especially for producer or transit states like Afghanistan, Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru.

At that same session, former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda warned that Latin American countries feel constrained from making drug policy reforms because of the glowering presence of the US. Drug reform is a "radioactive" political issue, he said, in explaining why it is either elder statesmen, such as former Brazilian President Cardoso or people like himself, "with no political future," who raise the issue. At a panel the following day, Castaneda made news by bluntly accusing the Mexican army of executing drug traffickers without trial. (See related story here).

It wasn't all listening to panels. In the basement of the Albuquerque Convention Center, dozens of vendors showed off their wares, made their sales, and distributed their materials as attendees wandered through between sessions. And for many attendees, it was as much a reunion as a conference, with many informal small group huddles taking place at the center and in local bars and restaurants and nearby hotels so activists could swap experiences and strategies and just say hello again.

The conference also saw at least two premieres. On the first day of the conference, reporters and other interested parties repaired to a Convention Center conference room to see the US unveiling of the British Transform Drug Policy Foundation publication, After the War on Drugs: A Blueprint for Legalization, a how-to manual on how to get to drug reform's promised land. Transform executive director Danny Kushlick was joined by Jack Cole of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Studies, Deborah Small of Break the Chains, and DPA's Nadelmann as he laid out the case for moving beyond "what would it look like."

"There's never been a clear vision of a post-prohibition world," said Kushlick. "With this, we've tried to reclaim drug policy from the drug warriors. We want to make drug policy boring," he said. "We want not only harm reduction, but drama reduction," he added, envisioning debates about restrictions on sales hours, zoning, and other dreary topics instead of bloody drug wars and mass incarceration.

"As a movement, we have failed to articulate the alternative," said Tree. "And that leaves us vulnerable to the fear of the unknown. This report restores order to the anarchy. Prohibition means we have given up on regulating drugs; this report outlines some of the options for regulation."

That wasn't the only unveiling Thursday. Later in the evening, Flex Your Rights held the first public showing of a near-final version of its new video, 10 Rules for Dealing with Police. The screening of the self-explanatory successor to Flex Your Right's 2003 "Busted" -- which enjoyed a larger budget and consequently higher production level -- played to a packed and enthusiastic house. This highly useful examination of how not to get yourself busted is bound to equal if not exceed the break-out success of "Busted." "10 Rules" was one of a range of productions screened during a two-night conference film festival.

The conference ended Saturday evening with a plenary address by former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who came out as a legalizer back in 2001, and was welcomed with waves of applause before he ever opened his mouth. "It makes no sense to spend the kind of money we spend as a society locking up people for using drugs and using the criminal justice system to solve the problem," he said, throwing red meat to the crowd.

We'll do it all again two years from now in Los Angeles. See you there!

Asia: Drug Users Form Regional Organization

In a meeting in Bangkok last weekend, more than two dozen drug users from nine different countries came together to put the finishing touches on the creation of a new drug user advocacy organization, the Asian Network of People who Use Drugs (ANPUD). The Bangkok meeting was the culmination of a two-year process began at a meeting of the International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 2007, and resulted in the creation of a constitution and the selection of a steering committee for the new group.

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/anpud.jpg
ANPUD group photo
ANPUD adopts the principles of MIPUD (Meaningful Involvement of People who Use Drugs), and in doing so, aligns itself with other drug user advocacy groups, including the International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD), of which ANPUD is an independent affiliate, the Australian Injection and Illicit Drug Users League (AIVL),the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, and the Nothing About Us Without Us movement.

ANPUD currently has more than 150 members and sees its mission to advocate for the rights of drug users and communities before national governments and the international community. There is plenty to do. Asia has the largest number of drug users in the world, but is, for the most part, woefully retrograde on drug policy issues. Not only do drug users face harsh criminal sanctions -- up to and including the death penalty -- but Asian countries have the lowest coverage of harm reduction services in the world. Access to harm reduction programs, such as needle exchanges and opioid maintenance therapy, is extremely limited.

"People who use drugs are stigmatized, criminalized and abused in every country in Asia," said Jimmy Dorabjee, a key figure in the formation of ANPUD. "Our human rights are violated and we have little in the way of health services to stay alive. If governments do not see people who use drugs, hear us and talk to us, they will continue to ignore us."

The Director of the UNAIDS Regional Support Team, Dr. Prasada Rao, spoke of the urgent need to engage with drug user networks and offered his support to ANPUD, saying that "For UNAIDS, HIV prevention among drug users is a key priority at the global level." Rao continued, "I am very pleased today to be here to see ANPUD being shaped into an organization that will play a key role in Asia's HIV response. It is critical that we are able to more effectively involve the voices of Asian people who use drugs in the scaling up of HIV prevention services across Asia."

"When I go back home, I am now responsible for sharing the experiences with the 250 or so drug users who are actively advocating for better services at the national level," said Nepalese drug user and newly elected steering committee member Ekta Thapa Mahat. "It will be a great way for us to work together and help build the capacity of people who use drugs in Asia."

"The results of the meeting exceeded my expectations," said Ele Morrison, program manager for AVIL's Regional Partnership Project. "The participants set ambitious goals for themselves and they have achieved a lot in just two days to set up this new organization. The building blocks for genuine ownership by people who use drugs is definitely there."

While the meetings leading to the formation were organized and managed by drug users, the process received financial support from the World Health Organization, the UNAIDS Regional Task Force, and AIVL.

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