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Mexico's Drug War Version 2.0 [FEATURE]

Dismayed and horrified by the wave of prohibition-related violence unleashed on Mexico with President Calderon's deployment of the military to fight the country's wealthy and powerful drug trafficking organizations -- the so-called cartels -- Mexican voters on Sunday appear to have rejected Calderon's party, the PAN, instead harkening back to the past, choosing as president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto, candidate of the PRI, the party that dominated Mexico for most of the 20th Century.

Mexico's likely next president, Enrique Peña Nieto (wikimedia.org)
While Peña Nieto is virtually certain to be Mexico's next president, it's not quite official yet. Mexico election officials are recounting half the ballot boxes because of inconsistencies in the tallies and expect to release final results Sunday. But with Peña Nieto holding a five-point lead over second place finisher Andre Manuel Lopez Obrador, the recount is unlikely to change the outcome.

The election came amidst relentless and terrifying violence. At least 55,000 people have been killed in the internecine conflicts among the rival cartels and in the multisided fighting between the cartels, the police, and the military, with thousands more gone missing. Election week saw a new video of Gulf Cartel operatives beheading four Zetas, as well as the killing of three federal police officers at the Mexico City airport by other federal police officers being targeted in a drug trafficking investigation.

That is nothing unusual for Mexico these days, six years after Calderon sent 50,000 troops and federal police out to stop the cartels. The question is whether Peña Nieto is going to do anything substantially different once he takes power in December, and right now, the answer is unclear.

During the run-up to Sunday's election, the charismatic former governor of the state of Mexico attempted to create some distance between himself and Calderon's approach, but his policy prescriptions appear to be more in the nature of adjustments than a radical rethinking. He has made two direct proposals for retooling Mexico's drug war and one key appointment.

Peña Nieto has called for the creation of a paramilitary force of 40,000 ex-soldiers to take the burden of fighting the heavily-armed cartels from the military, which has seen an increasing number of human rights complaints filed against it. But that will take time to pull together, and he has said nothing about sending the military back to its barracks before then.

He is also calling for something like a single unified national police force, or what he calls the mando unico, the unified command. Calls for reforming Mexico's police, with its thousands of different municipal, state, and federal department, have been a constant for at least the last quarter-century, as those forces repeatedly expose themselves as hopelessly corrupt and inefficient. But reorganizations have been done before, only to create a new cadre of cops to be corrupted.

The US-Mexican border
In another sign of the direction he intends to take the country, Peña Nieto this week appointed as an internal security advisor the former chief of the Colombian national police, Oscar Naranjo. Working closely with the US, Naranjo vastly expanded the intelligence apparatus of the national police and is credited with helping to bring down the Medellin and Cali cartels. But Naranjo also ran the national police under the presidency of Alvaro Uribe, a period marked by shady dealings with rightist paramilitaries linked to the drug trade.

On Tuesday, Peña Nieto told PBS he would continue to use the military indefinitely.[Editor's Note: In that same interview, he had some words to say about discussing drug legalization; see our news brief on that here.]

"I will maintain the presence of a Mexican Army, and the Navy and police in the states of the Mexican Republic, where the problem of crime has increased," he said. "We will adjust the strategy so that we can focus on certain type of crimes, like kidnapping, homicide, extortion, which today, unfortunately, have worsened or increased, because we have a lot of impunity in some areas. The state's task is to achieve more efficiency, and to go back to the rule of law and enforce laws strictly in our country."

Raising eyebrows in Washington, Peña Nieto has previously hinted that he may refocus Mexico's anti-crime efforts, placing lesser emphasis on nailing cartel kingpins and eradicating illicit crops and placing more emphasis on reducing the violence.

"Violence is the most sensitive issue for Mexicans," he told the Financial Times in his first interview with an international newspaper. "Mexico cannot put up with this scenario of death and kidnapping."

Such comments have led many observers in both Mexico and the US to suggest that Peña Nieto may revert to the PRI's old ways. It is commonly believed -- although difficult to prove -- that during the latter part of its 70-year rule, that the PRI did not so much attempt to suppress the drug trade but to manage it, allowing itself to be bought off by the cartels. In return for non-interference from the state, the drug traffickers would keep a relatively low profile as they went about their business. What is certain is that the levels of violence around the drug trade and its repression have soared during the 12 years the PAN held power and moved aggressively against the cartels.

[Ed: Whether or not the government or individual officials made explicit deals with the cartels, it is generally understood among scholars that government's mostly manage illegal drug trades rather than seriously trying to undo them -- doing so enables them to keep crime within "normal" levels, as opposed to the kinds of bloodbaths seen in Mexico recently or Colombia during the time of Pablo Escobar.]

Sensitive to such charges, Peña Nieto took pains to say he was not going to make deals with the cartels. "There will be no pact or truce with organized crime," he said.

"What's really going on is that he's being very careful to assure the US that it will be business as usual, that they will continue fighting the drug war," said Nathan Jones, a fellow in drug policy at the Baker Institute in Houston. "There could be ways you could shift from counter-narcotics to counter-violence and have it be in line with US policies. With a counter-violence strategy, you would be consciously and publicly targeting the most violent cartels, but they're already doing that."

What drug prohibition brings Mexico (PGR Mexico)
"Much is up in the air in terms of what differences there will actually be once he comes to power in December," said Elise Dunn, a research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "On the one hand, he has promised not to negotiate with the drug cartels, and on the other hand, he comes to power at a difficult time, but I don't think the strategy will change dramatically. No president is going to lose the appearance of taking a hard stand against the cartels, but there are many accusations that he will deal with them, and those accusations are based on the past behavior of the PRI."

Still, Dunn said, the PRI has traditionally had a close relationship with the US, and Peña Nieto will seek to keep it that way.

"I would anticipate that in public relations with the US, he will say they'll go after the capos, but that's very much up in the air," she said. "He has also suggested that putting the military back in its barracks is an option, but I consider that very unlikely given the pressures the US would exert."

It is also unlikely, at least in the near term, because there is no effective force in place to replace the military.

"This idea of the paramilitary force composed of former soldiers seems to be popular in Mexico because the military is the second most respected institution in the country behind the Catholic Church," said Jones, "but 40,000 men is a very large force and that will take time to build, so they continue to have to use the military at least for the short term."

"The one reform Mexico really needs is a complete overhaul of its police force," said Dunn. "Peña Nieto has suggested the shift, and his paramilitary plan could be the core of a national police force. We need a complete overhaul of the more than 2,000 different police forces that have been rife with corruption and lack of transparency, but what that overhaul will look like is up in the air."

Reforming law enforcement, though, is an old and so far failed game in Mexico. As each corrupted unit or department is disbanded and replaced, the new ones consistently fall prey to the same temptations.

"One problem is that Mexico has been readjusting its federal police forces since the 1980s, they've had an alphabet soup of federal drug enforcement agencies, so I'm a bit skeptical about a new one," she added.

One obstacle to reforming the Mexican police will be political. While Peña Nieto triumphed on Sunday, the PRI failed to achieve a majority in the congress. That means he will need the support of other parties to move forward on the idea, and that's by no means a given.

Peña Nieto has five months before he takes office in December. There is no sign of any let-up in the prohibition-related violence, nor any sign all the captures or killings of cartel higher-ups are having any impact on the violence or the drug trade. And there appears to be little sign that the new president will do anything radically different about it -- at least not out in the open.

Mexico

Pelosi Condemns Medical Marijuana Crackdown

US House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) issued a statement last Wednesday condemning the federal campaign against medical marijuana businesses operating in compliance with state law. The prominent Democrat's statement is a clear shot across the bow for President Obama and his Justice Department, which is leading the charge against dispensaries and associated medical marijuana enterprises.

Nancy Pelosi had Obama's ear after he won the White House in 2008. Will he listen to her now? (wikimedia.org)
"I have strong concerns about the recent actions by the federal government that threaten the safe access of medicinal marijuana to alleviate the suffering of patients in California, and undermine a policy that has been in place under which the federal government did not pursue individuals whose actions complied with state laws providing for medicinal marijuana," Pelosi said.

The House Minority Leader said access to medical marijuana is "both a medical and a states' rights issue" and that it has "proven medical uses," including alleviating the suffering of AIDS patients.

"I have long supported efforts in Congress to advocate federal policies that recognize the scientific evidence and clinical research demonstrating the medical benefits of medicinal marijuana, that respect the wishes of the states in providing relief to ill individuals, and that prevent the federal government from acting to harm the safe access of medicinal marijuana provided under state law," Pelosi said. "I will continue to strongly support those efforts."

Pelosi's statement came the same day that the Alameda County (Oakland) Democratic Party unanimously adopted a resolution "decrying the federal raids on dispensaries and calling for the US Department of Justice to refrain from future expenditure of public resources on any act that contradicts the will of the California voters regarding medical marijuana" and just days after the San Francisco Democratic Party passed a similar resolution.

The Bay Area Democrats are responding to a coordinated crackdown on the medical marijuana industry by federal prosecutors in the state that began last fall and has led to the forced closing of dozens of California dispensaries and related businesses, including such well-respected institutions as the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana and the Berkeley Patients Group, as well as last month's raid that crippled Oaksterdam University.

The toll includes five dispensaries in San Francisco itself. Another four San Francisco dispensaries or their landlords have received similar threatening letters from US Attorney for Northern California Melinda Haag.

The politicians are being prodded by San Francisco United for Safe Access, an ad hoc group of patients, patient advocates, dispensaries, and other stakeholders led by Americans for Safe Access (ASA). The coalition was formed to mobilize political opposition to the Obama administration's crackdown.

"We applaud Pelosi's leadership in urging President Obama to address medical marijuana as a public health issue," said ASA Executive Director Steph Sherer. "Rather than defending a policy of intolerance, President Obama should end his unnecessary and harmful attacks once and for all."

There have been more than 200 SWAT-style raids on dispensaries, growers, and associated businesses since Obama took office in January 2009. Most of them have taken place since the administration unleashed its offensive in March 2011 with a series of DEA raids in Montana that decimated that state's until-then booming medical marijuana industry.

Washington, DC
United States

Jacksonville Police Kill Armed Man in Drug Raid

A Jacksonville, Florida, narcotics detective shot and killed an armed man during a drug raid aimed at arresting a small-scale crack dealer last Thursday. Juan Montrice Lawrence, 40, becomes the 22nd person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year, and the third in a one-week period.

According to the Florida Times-Union, citing Jacksonville Sheriff's Office spokesman John Hartley, detectives had spent six weeks buying crack out of an apartment in the Casa del Rio St. Johns complex, and, after making one last purchase at the apartment door Thursday afternoon, a "take-down team" attempted to arrest their target, Nathaniel Phillip Hill, 39.

But Hill struggled, and the officers were pulled into the apartment as they took Hill to the floor. A second male, later identified as Hill's teen-age son, was also tackled. At that point, veteran narcotics Detective Valentino Demps saw Lawrence standing in a hallway with a gun in his hand. Demps ordered Lawrence to drop the gun, then shot him twice when he did not comply.

"He gave multiple commands for the suspect to drop the gun. He refused to obey the commands," Hartley said. "He was shot at least twice, once in the face, once in the hip."

Lawrence was taken to Shands Jacksonville Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Witnesses described seeing officers in black uniforms and ski masks gathered at the apartment complex.

By Friday, police had identified Lawrence as an "armed felon" whose previous convictions including carrying a concealed weapon and cocaine possession and were saying that the decision to shoot him had probably saved several officers' lives.

"If he'd let him get down that hallway, we could have three or four dead officers at the scene," Hartley said. "Certainly he [Lawrence] was ready to fire on them."

Nathaniel Hill was arrested and charges with distribution of cocaine and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. An ounce of cocaine, a pistol, and rounds of ammunition were seized at the apartment. Hill's teenage son was detained, but later released without charges.

Jacksonville, FL
United States

Two More Drug Raids, Two More Deaths

Two drug raids last Wednesday, one in Miami Lakes, Florida, and one in New Orleans, have resulted in the deaths of two men, one in each raid. Michael Ray Santana, 26, of Miami Lakes and Wendell Allen, 20, of New Orleans become the 14th and 15th persons to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

In Miami Lakes, according to police, Santana was shot and killed after he confronted members of the Miami-Dade police Special Response Team, a SWAT-style outfit, serving a "high risk narcotics search warrant" at his residence. Police said officers knocked, announced themselves, and then went inside, when they were confronted by a man armed with a firearm.

Santana was the subject of the police investigation, and police said they found numerous firearms and a substantial amount of unspecified "narcotics" in the residence.

In New Orleans, according to police, Allen was shot in the chest and killed by a police officer serving a search warrant at a home where he was present. Officers from both the New Orleans Police Department and Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Department took part in the raid, but the identity of the officer who fired the fatal shot has not been made public.

Police made no mention of any weapons found.

New Orleans Police Superintedant Ronal Serpas said the house in the Gentilly district had been under surveillance for several days.

"Today, multiple narcotics transactions of a distribution nature were observed," he said, adding that a person who left the house was later charged arrested for intent to distribute "narcotics."

Serpa did not identify either the shooter or the dead man, and he didn't take questions during a brief press conference.

But a distraught woman at the scene of the shooting told the New Orleans Times-Picayune he was her grandson, Wendell Allen.

Allen's shooting was the second fatal police shooting in the NOPD's 3rd District in less than a week.

As people milled around the scene of the shooting, one woman screamed, "Lord have mercy! Why does this stuff keep happening?" Another shouted, "The policeman killed him. They killed my baby."

Allen had one arrest on his record, for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. He was one year into a five-year suspended sentence when he was shot and killed.

In the days since Allen's death last week, a growing clamor has arisen.The Louisiana Justice Institute is threatening to sue the city unless it releases more information on the killing. Police have yet to supply a narrative of what happened, and the officer who pulled the trigger has yet to be interviewed. Family members and community activists demonstrated last Friday and again on Tuesday to keep up the pressure.

What is clear is that the raid was aimed at small-time marijuana dealing, and Allen wasn't the subject of the raid.

 

FBI Drug Squad Uses Chainsaw To Invade…the Wrong Apartment

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/chainsaw.jpg
If anyone needs another reminder that the adrenaline-addicted anti-drug armies we've unleashed in our own communities are more dangerous than any drug on the planet, well, get a load of this:

FITCHBURG (CBS) – It’s going to be a while before things get back to normal for Judy Sanchez and her three-year-old daughter.

Last Thursday, a team of FBI agents swarmed her apartment building as part of a massive citywide drug and weapons gang raid.

Trouble is, Sanchez lives in apartment 2R.

The suspect they were after is in 2F.

“I just happened to glance over and saw this huge chainsaw ripping down the side of my door,” she explains. “And I was freaking out. I didn’t know what was going on.” [CBS Boston]

I'm sure it's just a matter of time before some spokesperson comes along to explain to everyone why breaking out a f$%king chainsaw at a drug raid was perfectly reasonable under the circumstances. Maybe their battering ram was broken from too many batterings. Or, gasp, maybe they chainsaw through people's doors all the damn time and we're only hearing about it now because they finally – inevitably – carved their way into somewhere they weren't supposed to be.

I could spend an extraordinarily long time enumerating all the ways that this is insane, but if I had to choose, I'd say the #1 most horrifyingly messed up thing about this is that they knocked first. It's protocol, I know, but that rule has to change now that there's a chainsaw in play. Imagine that you're doing what someone is theoretically expected to do when you hear a knock at the door and you actually go to answer it…and suddenly a screaming chainsaw rips through the door and you get your arm sliced off by the FBI!!!   

Seriously, this is how they protect you from the people engaged in drug activity down the hall: by mixing up your addresses, knocking on your door, and then shoving a giant buzzing chainsaw right where your head would be. Would the appropriate authorities then come forward and encourage everyone not to let this regrettable accidental disembowelment distort our perceptions of an otherwise sound public policy?

I swear, every time I think we've reached the peak of berserk drug war demolition tactics, someone somewhere finds an excuse to do something still more stupid and insane. And they actually have the nerve to tell us that if we're afraid of cops smashing our doors down with various deadly weaponry flailing in every direction, then we shouldn’t break the law. Yeah, tell that to Judy Sanchez and her 3-year-old. 

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

Lead us not into temptation with seized cash, nearby evidence rooms, and the perks of police powers, amen. A few law enforcement officers haven't been reciting the prayer. Let's get to it:

In Austin, Texas, the state attorney general's office is reviewing the use of asset forfeiture funds by the Brooks County Sheriff. An audit of $562,000 in asset forfeiture spending by Sheriff Balde Lozano found that he spent $394,000 to purchase 18 cars without county approval for reasons that had nothing to do with law enforcement and that he charged more than $88,000 in restaurant dinners, department and electronics store purchases, and at hotels and gas stations. He spent $3,000 at Cavender's Boot City alone. Lozano has not yet been charged with any crime, but the investigation comes only eight months after former Brooks County DA Joe Frank Garza was sentenced to prison for skimming at least $1.2 million from the fund for himself and his former staff members.

In Bridgeton, New Jersey, a Williamstown police officer was arrested last Wednesday on steroid-peddling charges, including a count of intending to deal drugs near a local school. Officer Robert Smith, 31, went down after local police received information he was involved in narcotics. He is charged with possession of a controlled substance, possession of a controlled dangerous substance with the intent to distribute, and distribution of a controlled dangerous substance in a school zone. At last report, he was being held in the Salem County jail on $75,000 cash bail. He has been suspended without pay and faces dismissal if found guilty.

In Alexandria, Louisiana, a former supervisor of the Rapides Parish drug task force was indicted last Thursday on a slew of drug and malfeasance charges. Michael LaCourt had originally been arrested in Augusts, but a parish grand jury issued a superseding indictment charging him with distribution of methamphetamine and conspiracy to distribute meth. He is also charged with having sex multiple times with a woman who was under the supervision of the Division of Probation and Parole. He faces four malfeasance charges, three of them for his misbehavior with the woman and one for falsely telling Crimestoppers that a certain person had provided information in a case, allowing that person to collect reward money. Bond was set at $150,000. LaCour had headed Metro Narcotics from 2008 until his August 2011 arrest. He went down after "three female offenders" complained about him.

In Carlsbad, California, a Carlsbad vice and narcotics detective was arrested last Thursday after he was caught stealing drugs from the evidence room "by various police employees." Det. Michael Koch, 44, an 18-year veteran of the department, was arrested within hours of the incident and posted $25,000 bail last Friday. The department declined to comment on the type or quantity of drug is accused of taking.

In Tucson, Arizona, a Border Patrol agent and an Arizona prison guard were arrested last Thursday on charges they had conspired to smuggle drugs into the US. Border Agent Ivhan Herrera-Chiang and corrections officer Michael Lopez are charged with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana. Herrera-Chiang had been part of the Border Patrol's Smuggling Interdiction Group since March 2011, but was actually acting as a middle man between Mexican drug traffickers and Lopez. He is accused of monitoring Border Patrol radio and agent locations and notifying Lopez where the smuggling effort should occur. Both men are reported to have made at least partial confessions.

In Savannah, Georgia, a former Savannah-Chatham police officer pleaded guilty last Friday to extorting drugs and a cell phone while working off-duty at a night club while in uniform. Floyd Sawyer, 45, went down after DEA agents informed the FBI they had received reports that Sawyer and another Savannah police officer, Sgt. Kevin Frazier, were shaking down dealers at the club and taking their drugs and other possessions. FBI agents set up a sting, sending an undercover agent into the club posing as a dealer. Sawyer and Frazier shook down the agent, taking Oyxcontin pills and a cell phone from him. The pills ended up going to a local small-time dealer and the phone ended up with one of Sawyer's relatives. Sawyer pleaded guilty to extortion, but denied using force or intimidation, leaving the judge in the case to warn that he may not accept the plea bargain.

In Palm Beach, Florida, the commander of the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office SWAT team has been placed on administrative leave, the office announced Tuesday. Lt. Daniel Burrows, a 17-year-veteran of the department was placed on leave January 3 amid allegations of misuse of prescription pain medication and possibly being under the influence of drugs while on duty.

Two More US Drug War Deaths This Week

Two men were shot and killed in separate incidents by police enforcing drug laws this week. California resident Angel Molina and Little Rock, Arkansas resident Angelo Clark become the 3rd and 4th persons to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

Police told local media in Shafter, California, that Shafter police went to a residence during a drug investigation Monday night and when they arrived, they encountered two people in the driveway. Police said they were searching the two men when they found a gun on Molina, 37. Police said Molina then tried to grab the gun, and Officer Joseph Hayes shot him in the chest.

He was taken to the Kern Medical Center, but died less than an hour later. The district attorney's office is investigating the incident. Officer Hayes is on administrative leave.

In Little Rock, police told local media a SWAT team was serving a pre-dawn search warrant at an alleged drug house when they were confronted by Clark, who they said was holding an AK-47 directed at officers. He was shot by police and died at the scene.

Police said they had been investigating the residence since early December and undercover narcotics detectives had bought crack cocaine from Clark, 31, who lived there. But there was no mention of crack being seized at the home. Instead police reported finding a small marijuana growing operation, pot plants, scales and other drug paraphernalia, a loaded AK-47 clip, and a .40 caliber hand gun.

The unnamed SWAT officer who pulled the trigger is now on administrative leave. The Little Rock Police Department is conducting separate detective division and internal affairs investigations.

The Top Ten Domestic US Drug Policy Stories of 2011 [FEATURE]

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/usmap-small.jpg
We can put 2011 to bed now, but not before looking back one last time at the good, the bad, and the ugly. It was a year of rising hopes and crushing defeats, of gaining incremental victories and fending off old, failed policies. And it was a year in which the collapse of the prohibitionist consensus grew ever more pronounced. Let's look at some of the big stories:

Progress on Marijuana Legalization

Last year saw considerable progress in the fight for marijuana legalization, beginning in January, when Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) got President Obama to say that legalization (in general) is "an entirely legitimate topic for debate," and that while he does not favor it, he does believe in "a public health-oriented approach" to illicit drugs. Before the LEAP intervention, which was made via a YouTube contest, legalization was "not in the president's vocabulary." While we're glad the president learned a new word, we would be more impressed if his actions matched his words. Later in the year, in response to "We the People" internet petitions, the Obama White House clarified that, yes, it still opposes marijuana legalization.

In June, Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Ron Paul (R-TX) made history by introducing the first ever bill in Congress to end federal marijuana prohibition, H.R. 2306. It hasn't been scheduled for a hearing or otherwise advanced in the legislative process, but it has garnered 20 cosponsors so far. Sadly, its lead sponsors are both retiring after this term.

Throughout the year, there were indications that marijuana legalization is on the cusp of winning majority support among the electorate. An August Angus Reid poll had support at 55%, while an October Gallup poll had it at 50%, the first time support legalization has gone that high since Gallup started polling the issue. A November CBS News poll was the downside outlier, showing support at only 40%, down slightly from earlier CBS polls. But both the Angus Reid and the Gallup polls disagreed with CBS, showing support for legalization trending steadily upward in recent years.

Legalization is also polling reasonably -- if not comfortably -- well in Colorado and Washington, the two states almost certain to vote on initiatives in November. In December, Public Policy Polling had legalization leading 49% to 40% in Colorado, but that was down slightly from an August poll by the same group that had legalization leading 51% to 38%.

In Washington, a similar situation prevails. A January KING5/SurveyUSA poll had 56% saying legalization would be a good idea and 54% saying they supported marijuana being sold at state-run liquor stores (similar to what the I-502 initiative proposes), while a July Elway poll had 54% either definitely supporting legalization or inclined to support it. But by September, the Strategies 360 Washington Voter Survey had public opinion evenly split, with 46% supporting pot legalization and 46% opposed.

The polling numbers in Colorado and Washington demonstrate that victory at the polls in November is in reach, but that it will be a tough fight and is by no means a sure thing. "Stoners Against Proposition 19"-style opposition in both states isn't going to help matters, either.

Oh, and Connecticut became the 14th decriminalization state.

Medical Marijuana Advances…

In May, Delaware became the 16th state to enact a medical marijuana law. Under the law, patients with qualifying conditions can legally possess up to six ounces of marijuana, but they cannot grow their own. Instead, they must purchase it from a state-licensed compassion center. That law will go into effect this year.

Meanwhile, New Jersey and Washington, DC, continue their achingly slow progress toward actually implementing existing medical marijuana laws. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie (R) finally got out of the way and okayed plans for up to six dispensaries, but early efforts to set them up are running into NIMBY-style opposition. In DC, a medical marijuana program approved by voters in 1998 (!) but thwarted by Congress until 2009 is nearly at the stage of selecting dispensary operators. One of these months or years, patients in New Jersey and DC may actually get their medicine.

And late in the year, after the federal government rejected a nine-year-old petition seeking to reschedule marijuana, the governors of Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington formally asked the Obama administration to reschedule it so that states could regulate its medical use without fear of federal interference. As the year came to an end, Colorado joined in the request for rescheduling.

…But the Empire Strikes Back

Last year saw the Obama administration recalibrate its posture toward medical marijuana, and not for the better. Throughout the year, US Attorneys across the country sent ominous signals that states attempting to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries could face problems, including letters to state governors not quite stating that state employees involved in regulation of the medical marijuana industry could face prosecution. That intimidated public officials who were willing to be intimidated, leading, for example, to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) delaying his state's medical marijuana program, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee (I) to kill plans for dispensaries there, and Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) to veto key parts of a bill there that would have regulated dispensaries.

Then the feds hit hard at Montana, raiding dispensaries and growers there, even as the state law was under attack by conservative Republican legislators. Now, Montana medical marijuana providers are heading to federal prison, and the state law has been restricted. What was once a booming industry in Montana has been significantly stifled.

There have also been raids directed at providers in Colorado, Michigan, Oregon, and Washington, but California has been the primary target of federal attention in the latter half of the year. Since a joint offensive by federal prosecutors in the state got underway in October, with threat letters being sent to numerous dispensaries and their landlords, a great chill has settled over the land. Dispensary numbers are dropping by the day, the number of lost jobs number in the thousands, and the amount of tax revenues lost to local jurisdictions and the state is in the millions. That's not to mention the patients who are losing safe access to their medicine.

It's unclear whether the impetus for the crackdown originated in the Dept. of Justice headquarters in Washington or with individual US Attorneys in the states. Advocates hope it will stay limited mainly to states that are not effectively regulating the industry, and a coalition in California has filed a ballot initiative for 2012 that would do just that. Either way there is plenty of pain ahead, for patients and for providers who took the president's and attorney general's earlier words on the subject at face value.

Synthetic Panic

Last year, Congress and state and local governments across the land set their sights on new synthetic drugs, especially synthetic cannabinoids ("fake marijuana") and a number of methcathinone derivatives ("bath salts") marketed for their stimulating effects similar to amphetamines or cocaine. Confronted with these new substances, politicians resorted to reflex prohibitionism, banning them as fast as they could.

Some 40 states and countless cities and counties have imposed bans on fake weed or bath salts or both, most of them acting this year.

At the federal level, the DEA enacted emergency bans on fake weed -- after first being temporarily blocked by retailers -- and then bath salts until Congress could act. It did so at the end of the year, passing the Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2011. The bill makes both sets of substances Schedule I drugs under the Controlled Substances Act, which will pose substantial impediments to researching them. Under the bill, prison sentences of up to 20 years could be imposed for the distribution of even small quantities of the new synthetics.

But the prohibitionists have a problem: Synthetic drug makers are responding to the bans by bringing new, slightly different formulations of their products to market. Prosecutors are finding their cases evaporating when the find the drugs seized are not the ones already criminalized, and retailers are eager to continue to profit from the sales of the new drugs. As always, the drug law enforcers are playing catch-up and the new drug-producing chemists are way ahead of them.

The Drug War on Autopilot: Arrests Hold Steady, But Prisoners Decline Slightly

overcrowded Mule Creek State Prison, CA
Last year saw more evidence that drug law enforcement has hit a plateau, as 2010 drug arrests held steady, but the number of prisoners and people under correctional supervision declined slightly.

More than 1.6 million people were arrested for drug offenses in the US in 2010, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report 2010, and more than half of them were for marijuana. That's a drug arrest every 19 seconds, 24 hours a day, every day last year. The numbers suggest that despite "no more war on drugs" rhetoric emanating from Washington, the drug war juggernaut is rolling along on cruise control.

Overall, 1,638,846 were arrested on drug charges in 2010, up very slightly from the 1,633,582 arrested in 2009. But while the number of drug arrests appears to be stabilizing, they are stabilizing at historically high levels. Overall drug arrests are up 8.3% from a decade ago.

Marijuana arrests last year stood at 853,838, down very slightly from 2009's 858,408. But for the second year in a row, pot busts accounted for more arrests than  all other drugs combined, constituting 52% of all drug arrests in 2010. Nearly eight million people have been arrested on pot charges since 2000.

The vast majority (88%) off marijuana arrests were for simple possession, with more than three-quarters of a million (750,591) busted in small-time arrests. Another 103,247 people were charged with sale or manufacture, a category that includes everything from massive marijuana smuggling operations to persons growing a single plant in their bedroom closets.

An analysis of the Uniform Crime Report data by the University of Maryland's Center for Substance Abuse Research added further substance to the notion that drug enforcement is flattening. The center found that the arrest rate for drug violations has decreased for the last four years, but still remains more than twice as high as rates in the early 1980s. The all-time peak was in 2006.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that for the first time since 1972, the US prison population in 2010 had fallen from the previous year and that for the second year in a row, the number of people under the supervision of adult correctional authorities had also declined.

In its report Prisoners in 2010, BJS reported that the overall US prison population at the end of 2010 was 1,605,127, a decrease of 9,228 prisoners or 0.6% from year end 2009. The number of state prisoners declined by 0.8% (10,881 prisoners), while the number of federal prisoners increased by 0.8% (1.653 prisoners). Drug offenders accounted for 18% of state prison populations in 2009, the last year for which that data is available. That's down from 22% in 2001. Violent offenders made up 53% of the state prison population, property offenders accounted for 19%, and public order or other offenders accounted for 9%.

In the federal prison population, drug offenders made up a whopping 51% of all prisoners, with public order offenders (mainly weapons and immigration violations) accounting for an additional 35%. Only about 10% of federal prisoners were doing time for violent offenses. Overall, somewhere between 350,000 and 400,000 people were doing prison time for drug offenses last year.

Similarly, in its report Correctional Population in the US 2010, BJS reported that the number of people under adult correctional supervision declined 1.3% last year, the second consecutive year of declines. The last two years are the only years to see this figure decline since 1980.

At the end of 2010, about 7.1 million people, or one in 33 adults, were either in prison or on probation or parole. About 1.4 million were in state prisons, 200,000 in federal prison, and 700,000 in jail, for a total imprisoned population of about 2.3 million. Nearly 4.9 million people were on probation or parole.

America's experiment with mass incarceration may have peaked, exhausted by its huge costs, but change is coming very slowly, and we are still the world's unchallenged leader in imprisoning our own citizens.

Federal Crack Prisoners Start Coming Home

Hundreds of federal crack cocaine prisoners began walking out prison in November, the first beneficiaries of a US Sentencing Commission decision to apply retroactive sentencing reductions to people already serving time on federal crack charges. As many as 1,800 federal crack prisoners were eligible for immediate release and up to 12,000 crack prisoners will be eligible for sentence reductions that will shorten their stays behind bars.

The releases come after Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act in August 2010, which shrank the much criticized disparity between mandatory minimum sentences for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1. After Congress acted, the Sentencing Commission then moved to make those changes retroactive, resulting in the early releases beginning in November.

Despite the joyous reunions taking place across the country, the drug war juggernaut keeps on rolling, and there is much work remaining to be done. Not all prisoners who are eligible for sentence reductions are guaranteed to receive one, and retroactivity won't do anything to help people still beneath their mandatory minimum sentences. A bill with bipartisan support in Congress, H.R. 2316, the Fair Sentencing Clarification Act, would make Fair Sentencing Act changes to mandatory minimum sentences retroactive as well, so that crack offenders left behind by the act as is would gain its benefits.

And the Fair Sentencing Act itself, while an absolute advance from the 100:1 disparity embodied in the crack laws, still retains a scientifically unsupportable 18:1 disparity. For justice to obtain, legislation needs to advance that treats cocaine as cocaine, no matter the form it takes.

But even those sorts of reforms are reforms at the back end, after someone has already been investigated, arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced. Radical reform that will cut the air supply to the drug war incarceration complex requires changes on the front end.

Also in November, the US Supreme Court announced that it will decide whether the Fair Sentencing Act should be applied to those who were convicted, but not sentenced, before it came into effect -- the so-called "pipeline" cases. The decision to take up the issue came after lower courts split on the issue. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the issue in June.

Drug Testing the Needy

drug testing lab
With state budgets strained by years of recession and slow recovery, lawmakers across the country are turning their sights on the poor and the needy. In at least 12 states, bills have been introduced that would require people seeking welfare or unemployment benefits to undergo drug testing and risk losing those benefits if they test positive. Some Republicans in the US Congress want to do the same thing. In a thirteenth state, Michigan, the state health department is leading the charge.

The race to drug test the needy appears to be based largely on anecdotal and apocryphal evidence. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Hailey (R), to take one example, cited reports that a nuclear installation there couldn't fill vacancies because half the applicants failed drug tests, but had to retract that statement because it was nowhere near to being true. In Florida, where welfare drug testing was briefly underway before being halted by a legal challenge, 96% of applicants passed drug tests, while in an Indiana unemployment drug testing program, only 2% failed.

While such legislation appeals to conservative values, it is having a tough time getting passed in most places, partly because of fears that such laws will be found unconstitutional. The federal courts have historically been reluctant to approve involuntary drug testing, allowing it only for certain law enforcement or public safety-related occupations and for some high school students. When Michigan tried to implement a welfare drug testing program more than a decade ago, a federal appeals court ruled that such a program violated welfare recipients' right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

That ruling has served to restrain many lawmakers, but not Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) and the Florida legislature. Scott issued an executive order to drug test state employees, but had to put that on hold in the face of threatened legal challenges. The state legislature passed and Scott signed a bill requiring welfare applicants and recipients to undergo drug testing or lose their benefits.

But the ACLU of Florida and the Florida Justice Institute filed suit in federal court to block that law on the grounds it violated the Fourth Amendment. In October, a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction preventing the state from implementing it. A final decision from that court and decisions about whether it will be appealed are eagerly awaited.

Marking 40 Years of Failed Drug War

Drug War 40th anniversary demo, San Francisco
June 17 marked forty years since President Richard Nixon, citing drug abuse as "public enemy No. 1," declared a "war on drugs." A trillion dollars and millions of ruined lives later, a political consensus is emerging that the war on drugs is a counterproductive failure. The Drug Policy Alliance led advocates all across the country in marking the auspicious date with a day of action to raise awareness about the catastrophic failure of drug prohibition and to call for an exit strategy from the failed war on drugs. More than 50 events on the anniversary generated hundreds of local and national stories.

In dozens of cities across the land, activists, drug war victims, and just plain folks gathered to commemorate the day of infamy and call for an end to that failed policy. Messages varied from city to city -- in California, demonstrators focused on prison spending during the budget crisis; in New Orleans, the emphasis was on racial injustice and harsh sentencing -- but the central overarching theme of the day, "No More Drug War!" was heard from sea to shining sea and all the way to Hawaii.

The crowds didn't compare to those who gather for massive marijuana legalization protests and festivals -- or protestivals -- such as the Seattle Hempfest, the Freedom Rally on Boston Commons, or the Ann Arbor Hash Bash, or even the crowds that gather for straightforward pot protests, such as 420 Day or the Global Marijuana March, but that's because the issues are tougher. People have to break a bit more profoundly with drug war orthodoxy to embrace completely ending the war on drugs than they do to support "soft" marijuana. That relatively small groups did so in cities across the land is just the beginning.

Congress Reinstates the Federal Ban on Funding Needle Exchanges

Two years ago, after years of advocacy by public health and harm reduction advocates, the longstanding ban on federal funding for needle exchanges was repealed. Last month, the ban was restored as the Senate took the final votes to approve the 2012 federal omnibus spending bill.

It was a Democratic-controlled House and Senate that rescinded the ban two years ago, and it was House Republicans who were responsible for reinstating it this year. Three separate appropriations bills contained language banning the use of federal funds, and House negotiators managed to get two of them into the omnibus bill passed Saturday.

A Labor-Health and Human Services appropriations bill including the ban on domestic use of federal funds for needle exchanges and a State Department bill including a ban on funding for needle exchange access in international programs both made it into the omnibus bill.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, American Public Health Association, and numerous other scientific bodies have found that syringe exchange programs are highly effective at preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases. Eight federal reports have found that increasing access to sterile syringes saves lives without increasing drug use.

Needle exchange supporters said restoring the ban will result in thousands of Americans contracting HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C or other infectious diseases next year alone.

US Drug War Deaths

As far as we know, nobody has ever tried to count the number of people killed in the US because of the war on drugs. We took a crack at it last year, counting only those deaths directly attributable to drug law enforcement activities. The toll was 54, including three law enforcement officers.

Most of those killed were shot by police, many of them while in possession of firearms (some in their own homes) and some of them while shooting at police. Some were shot in vehicles after police said they tried to run them down (why is it they never were merely trying to get away?). But not all died at the hands of police -- several died of drug overdoses from eating drugs while trying to evade arrest, several more died from choking on bags of drugs they swallowed, one man drowned after jumping into a river to avoid a pot bust, and another died after stepping in front of a speeding semi-trailer while being busted for meth.

People were killed in "routine traffic stops," SWAT-style raids, and undercover operations. Hardly any of those cases made more than a blip in local media, the two exceptions being the case of Jose Guerena, an Iraq war vet gunned down by an Arizona SWAT team as he responded to his wife's cry of intruders in his own home, and the case of Eurie Stamps Sr., a 68-year-old Massachusetts man accidentally shot and killed by a SWAT team member executing a warrant for small-time crack sales.

Our criteria were highly restrictive and absolutely undercount the number of people who are killed by our drug laws. They don't include, for instance, people who overdosed unnecessarily because they didn't know what they were taking or medical marijuana patients who die after being refused organ transplants. Nor do they include cases where people embittered by the drug laws go out in a blaze of glory that wasn't directly drug law-related or cases, like the four men killed last year by Miami SWAT officers during an undercover operation directed at drug house robbers.

The toll of 54 dead, then, is an absolute minimum figure, but it's a start. We will keep track again this year, and look for a report on last year's numbers in the coming weeks.

In Conclusion...

Last year had its ups and downs, its victories and defeats, but leaves drug reformers and their allies better placed than ever before to whack away at drug prohibition. This year, it looks like voters in Colorado and Washington will have a chance to legalize marijuana, and who know what else the new year will bring. At the least, we can look forward to the continuing erosion of last century's prohibitionist consensus.


 

Medical Marijuana Update

So much is going on in the world of medical marijuana that we cannot adequately cover it all through news briefs and the occasional feature article. The news briefs and feature articles will, of course, continue, but we now include a weekly medical marijuana update at least noting all those stories we are unable to cover more comprehensively. Here's the second one:

National

Last Friday, responding to questioning from Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), Attorney General Eric Holder reiterated the Justice Department's support for its 2009 Ogden memo, which said the use and sale of medical marijuana in states where it is legal should be a low priority for federal prosecutors.

"What we said in the memo we still intend, which is that given the limited resources that we have, and if there are states that have medical marijuana provisions... if in fact people are not using the policy decision that we have made to use marijuana in a way that's not consistent with the state statute, we will not use our limited resources in that way," Holder said. "Where a state has taken a position, has passed a law and people are acting in conformity with the law -- not abusing the law -- that would not be a priority with the limited resources of our Justice Department," Holder said.

Arizona

Last Friday, a former nurse fired from Verde Valley Community Hospice because she is a medical marijuana user filed a lawsuit seeking damages in Maricopa County Superior Court. Arizona's medical marijuana law contains an anti-discrimination provision that says an employer may not make decisions on hiring, firing or discipline based on the person's status as a registered medical marijuana patient. The law even says that a positive drug test for marijuana from someone who is a registered user cannot be used against that employee unless the person either used, possessed or was impaired at the worksite. This case will be the first test of that law.

On Monday, a US district court judge harshly criticized the state's medical marijuana lawsuit, saying Arizona had to pick a side in the conflict over state and federal law. Judge Susan Bolton did not dismiss the case, saying she would issue a ruling later, but she told state attorneys she would throw it out unless the state decides whether or not to support its own law. Gov. Jan Brewer (R) filed the lawsuit in May, stalling the state's medical marijuana dispensary permit process.

On Wednesday, responding to the court's criticism, Gov. Brewer decided the state will argue that federal law preempts the state medical marijuana law and ask Judge Bolton to rule the state cannot regulate and permit medical marijuana dispensaries.

California

On December 7, the Live Oak City Council voted to ban residents from growing their own medical marijuana. The council cited "an unbearable stench and fear of violence." A final vote on the ban is set for next week, and the ban would take effect 30 days after that, on January 20.

On December 8, the La Puente City Council voted to order one dispensary shut down and gave another until February to show that it has not recouped costs of opening. The city banned medical marijuana dispensaries last year, but allowed some to continue operating temporarily during an amortization period while they attempt to recoup their investment costs.

On December 8, a Pomona police SWAT team raided the Natural Remedies dispensary. Police had a search warrant. A Rialto man was arrested on suspicion of possession of marijuana for sale. Police seized a pound of weed, cash, and weapons.

Last Friday, the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana announced it would close its doors as of this weekend. MAMM, the state's oldest dispensary, had been targeted by federal prosecutors. Another Marin County collective, Medi-Cone, shut down last week because of scrutiny by federal authorities.

On Tuesday, the Shasta County Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted an ordinance banning medical marijuana dispensaries in unincorporated parts of the county and narrowly passed a second law hours later regulating pot growth for county residents. The cultivation ordinance bans growing inside residences, but allows it in detached accessory structures and sets limits for outdoor growing regardless of how many patients live at a residence.

On Tuesday, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to support the idea of lifting federal marijuana prohibition for states that have marijuana laws in place. "Inconsistencies in local, state and federal law create challenges within our public safety system network and criminal justice system. There are a record number of ballot initiatives in the coming election cycle calling for the legalization of marijuana. Mendocino County supports the regulation, legalization, and taxation of marijuana," the supervisors said.

On Tuesday, the Lake County Board of Supervisors voted to close all dispensaries in the county's jurisdiction. The board had approved an ordinance allowing up to five dispensaries in August, but that ordinance was overturned after advocates began a referendum petition to undo it. Supervisors then voted to rescind the ordinance, making dispensaries illegal in the county. The 10 dispensaries in the county will have 30 days to shut down.

On Tuesday, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors approved a temporary moratorium on new dispensaries. The board cited uncertainty about whether local governments can regulate dispensaries in the wake of the Pack vs. Long Beach case, in which the court held that federal law preempted Long Beach's right to regulate marijuana. The moratorium will not affect the county's three existing dispensaries.

On Tuesday, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors voted to authorize its attorneys to sue any dispensaries in unincorporated areas of the county unless they close immediately. The county has banned dispensaries from operating in unincorporated areas of the county since 2006. Nonetheless, county officials estimate that at least 36 dispensaries are open in violation of the ban.

Colorado

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) will not join fellow governors Lincoln Chafee (I) of Rhode Island, Christine Gregoire (D) of Washington, and Peter Shumlin (D) of Vermont in petitioning the federal government to reschedule marijuana, but the state of Colorado will independently seek rescheduling. Colorado's medical marijuana law requires the Colorado Department of Revenue to make the same request of the feds by no later than January 2012. State officials said that will be done.

The number of registered medical marijuana patients has declined dramatically from its peak of more than 128,000 in June. As of the end of October, the state's registry showed only 88,000 patients. It's unclear what the decline means. Some patients could be dropping out temporarily because registration costs will drop next year, but the state has at least 4,200 applications on hold because of problems with doctors' signatures, and 30,000 applications were in the system as of the end of last month.

Michigan

Last Friday, state and local police raided three medical marijuana dispensaries in Tuscola, Sanilac and St. Clair counties Friday for alleged involvement in the the illegal trafficking of marijuana. They included the Blue Water Compassion Center and a private residence in Kimball Township, as well as Blue Water Compassion Centers in Denmark Township in Tuscola County and Worth Township in Sanilac County. Police confiscated marijuana and marijuana-laced tinctures, topical oils, capsules, and medicated edibles. Patient files, money and toys donated to Toys for Tots also were taken, but no arrests were made. The three centers are owned by Jim and Debra Amsdill. Combined, the centers have about 26 staff and roughly 3,500 members.

New Jersey

Last Friday, the state Agriculture Development Committee ruled that medical marijuana may be grown and processed on preserved farms. Preserved farms are areas designated only for agricultural usage. The committee's move came after residents of Upper Freehold implored it not to recognize medical marijuana as an agricultural crop allowed on preserved farmland. They also criticized the process that allowed a federally outlawed drug to be grown and distributed here in the first place. The Breakwater Alternative Treatment Center has expressed interest in at least five properties in Upper Freehold as sites for growing medical marijuana, and some of them are preserved farms.

Sheriff Will Pay You $100 to Wear a Wire and Ask People to Sell You Drugs

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/undercoverbuy.jpg
Stupid silver-bullet strategies to win the war on drugs are as common as the reckless zealots who dream them up, but rarely does one find an example so deeply absurd and irresponsible as this.

Sheriff Price believes there are still many dealers on the streets. He is now asking for the public's help to catch them.

"Basically what we need from the public to help combat this, is we need some informants. Without community involvement, there is no way we can combat these drugs. We have to have community involvement," said Sheriff Price.

The sheriff will pay people up to $100 to tell him who is dealing drugs and then possibly help with undercover work.

"If you know someone that sells drugs and you feel like you can put a stop to it by wearing a wire, at least come in. It doesn't cost you anything to come in and talk to us and we'll explain the process to you," said Sheriff Price.  [WKYT.com]

It’s fun and easy! Just use common sense. If someone tries to blow your head off, duck. If they set your house on fire, stop, drop and roll. After all, if teams of highly-trained, heavily-armed narco-cops can pull off these kinds of operations, what's your excuse? Certainly, you aren't afraid of a few ill-tempered drug dealers.

"Don't let people scare you. A lot of people are afraid they will get burnt out or beat up. I've done this for 25 years and got nobody hurt yet," said Sheriff Price.

Really, one can scarcely find words to describe the sickening irony of police suddenly claiming that drug enforcement is so safe a civilian could do it. 

Frightened police officers routinely panic and unload their weapons on innocent people and pets when entering the homes of drug suspects. When that happens, we're reminded by them that this work is dangerous, that drug dealers are bloodthirsty killers, and that it's necessary we arm our police to the teeth and forgive any fatal errors they may make with their machine guns, because failing to do so could result police being shot at or bitten by dogs when they smash down people's doors looking for drugs.

Meanwhile, police want to pay random people $100 each to approach these same deadly criminals with no training or protective gear? The whole thing just makes a mockery of everything police ever said about the dangers of drug enforcement, and yet it does so for the purpose of persuading naive people to do something that really is incredibly risky. Drug informants are routinely identified and targeted for harassment and even death. The murder of Rachel Hoffman, who was arrested for marijuana and agreed to wear a wire, is a well-known example, but Google finds many more

The whole idea is just idiotic on its face, and in ways that I would have thought obvious. The drug war isn't some action comedy on afternoon cable, and when you start screwing around with slippery BS like this, anything and everything could go horribly wrong. The fact that the war on drugs creates a temptation to enforce the law this way is a good example of why we'd be better off without it.

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