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Why Is the Administration Sending Refugees Back to Narco War Nightmare US Helped Create? [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

With the New Year, the Obama administration has unleashed a new campaign of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids targeting Central American women and children who fled to the US in 2014 to escape violence in their home countries. Some 17,000 are at immediate risk of being dragged from their homes and families and being detained and deported.

Salvadoran refugee walking toward the US border. (unhcr.org)
"Our borders are not open to illegal migration; if you come here illegally, we will send you back consistent with our laws and values," Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement announcing the action.

Some 121 people were arrested in raids last weekend, Johnson said, with many of them housed in euphemistically named "family residential centers" before their imminent deportation. The raids took place in Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas.

Johnson's statement noted that back in November, the administration had broadened its deportation actions beyond "criminals and threats to public safety" (including at least 250,000 people deported for drug offenses) to include those who threaten "border security" by having arrived uninvited after January 1, 2014.

The administration signaled last week that the raids will continue despite a growing outcry from some Democrats, progressives and immigrant rights groups.

Democratic presidential contenders Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley both railed against the raids, with Sanders saying that while he is an ally of the president, "I don't agree with him on this," and O'Malley decrying them, saying "Jesus himself was a refugee child."

Protestors gathered in Boston Friday for an event organized by the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coaltion (MIRA) echoed complaints being heard around the nation.

"I came to this country fleeing the terror of the Pinochet military dictatorship in Chile," said the Unitarian Universalist Rev. Maria Cristina Vlassidis Burgoa. "I know what it's like to be 12 years old and to live in fear that at any moment, an unmarked car will stop at your house and take your family away one by one. I know what it's like to fear that you will be the next one to disappear. My grandmother, my mother, and I were fortunate to find refuge here and build a life. Today, as a US citizen I denounce the massive deportations and raids as a violation of human rights."

"The home raids that terrorize the community, separate families, and wake up sleeping children must stop. Arresting, detaining, and deporting them is not the answer," said MIRA executive director Eva Millona. "Such crisis requires compassion and humane solutions."

ICE swears in agents for the family detention program. (ice.gov)
Those would include letting them stay in the country under Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Enforced Departure. The latter is the program that allowed Obama to regain some favor with the immigrant community when he used it to ensure that some five million young people whose parents brought them into the country illegally -- the Dreamers -- would be allowed to stay.

The people being targeted now are part of the 100,000 or so children and parents who fled gang violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras during the immigration "crisis" of 2014, when the specter of masses of Central Americans coming to the border and turning themselves in to seek asylum temporarily focused the nation's attention -- and the Republicans' ire -- on the issue.

Amid predictable calls for more walls, more border agents, and immediate deportation, many of the asylum-seekers were placed in "family detention centers," but others were released, often with GPS ankle bracelets. The vast majority were processed without legal counsel and without any real understanding of the legal proceedings that would determine their futures. The people being targeted now are those whose asylum applications were rejected or those who, for one reason or another, failed to show up at immigration hearings.

The cruel irony of the situation is that it is US policy to deport these people back to countries wracked by poverty and violence that is due at least in part to other US policies -- the imposition of US-style drug war on the region, and even earlier, Ronald Reagan's anti-communist crusade to thwart the region's leftist revolutionary movements in the 1980s. US policy helped to push these people out of Central America, and now US policy is to push them back in.

The US can't be blamed for all the woes of Central America, of course, but it has certainly been a contributing factor. The violent gangs that have helped turn the region into one of the deadliest on the planet, such as Mara Salvatrucha, Barrio 18, evolved in Salvadoran immigrant communities in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, DC, after hundreds of thousands fled the violent civil war in which Ronald Reagan and US taxpayers spent $4 billion to ensure that leftist revolution was neutered. Some 75,000 people died in that conflict.

After the young Central American immigrants learned the fine art of gang-banging up north, deported gang members brought those skills back with them to the old country, laying the groundwork for the emergence of increasingly powerful and deadly street gangs, particularly in El Salvador and Honduras.

And, thanks to the "success" of the Reagan administration in shutting down Caribbean cocaine smuggling routes into Miami in the early 1980s, the new deportees came home to countries increasingly awash in cocaine as Colombian smugglers began using the region as a trampoline, a transshipment point for drugs headed on to Mexico before reaching their ultimate destination in the US.

Central Americans didn't try to sneak into the country; they sought asylum. (wikipedia.org)
"Drug prohibition makes drug transshipment very lucrative for organized crime," said Adam Isacson, a drug policy analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America. (WOLA). "US efforts to interdict aerial and maritime drug shipments in the Caribbean in the 1980s and 1990s caused more and more cocaine to pass through Central America, a region recovering from civil war."

Another drug war "success" also had ramifications for the region, Isacson said.

"The mid-90s takedown of the big Colombian cartels -- the Medellin and Cali cartels -- gave more market share to the Mexican organizations, which relied more heavily on Central American territory," he explained.

"The groups transshipped drugs through Central America further corrupted and undermined already weak security and judicial institutions," Isacson continued. "And that made those institutions less able to protect their citizens."

And more vulnerable to hyper-violent Mexican drug trafficking organizations, such as El Chapo Guzman's Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas, who began expanding their presence in Central America as they came under pressure from Mexican authorities, bolstered by US anti-drug assistance, at home.

Now, Central America is one of the most violent regions in the world, and El Salvador has the highest murder rate the world has seen in 20 years, taking the dubious title of world's murder capital from neighboring Honduras, which claims an official decline in murders this year. Some observers are skeptical.

Jeannette Aguilar, director of Institute of Public Opinion at the Central American University in El Salvador, told USA Today the apparent reduction could be artificial because the cartels have learned that too many bodies is bad publicity and have become adept at disposing of them.

"Because of the evolution of dismembering bodies, decomposing them, incinerating them, it's difficult to know if homicides have really fallen," she said.

The American policy response to violence, much of it drug trade-related, and social decomposition has historically been heavy on assistance to the military and police forces, like the Central American Regional Security Initiative, but that looks like it is finally beginning to change this year. Just last month, Congress approved $750 million in aid for the region that shifts the focus away from security initiatives and instead targets structural issues that have crippled the region.

The bill stipulates that 75% of the funds can only be spent after government take on issues of corruption, transparency, immunity, and criminality. Equally important, it calls on regional governments to "support programs to reduce poverty, create jobs, and promote equitable economic growth in areas contributing to large numbers of migrants."

It will be up to the governments of those countries to try to make progress in alleviating the conditions causing so many to flee, but as our policy-makers decide the fates of the people who have already sought refuge here, they would be remiss to ignore our own role in helping this crisis to happen.

Chronicle AM: Wichita "Decrim" Thrown Out, Argentina Will Shoot Down Drug Planes, More... (1/22/16)

The Kansas Supreme Court throws out Wichita's voter-approved "decrim" ordinance on a technicality, GOP committee chairs quash medical marijuana bills in Indiana, the DEA partnered with a TSA screener in a bid to seize cash from travelers, the Argentines want to shoot down drug planes, and more.

The DEA schemed to pay a TSA screener a cut for any cash he found in travelers' luggage. (tsa.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Key Vermont Politico Says No To Home Growing Marijuana. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard Sears (D-Bennington) said today he would advance a marijuana legalization bill if it has majority support in his committee, but that he does not support home cultivation.

Kansas Supreme Court Throws Out Wichita "Decrim" on a Technicality. The state's high court ruled that the initiative was invalid because it was improperly filed with the city clerk, but did not address arguments by the state that the ordinance conflicted with state marijuana laws. The Wichita ordinance lessened penalties for first offense possession to a $50 fine, but was not true decriminalization because that first offense would still be a criminal infraction.

Medical Marijuana

Indiana Medical Marijuana Bills Pronounced Dead. State Sen. Jean Leising (R-Oldenburg) said Thursday that medical marijuana bills in the state legislature would not got a hearing this year. "They are all dead," she said. "There just isn't the appetite in the Senate for approving any kind of medical marijuana, not with the current makeup of the (50-member) Senate. You need 26 votes, and they're just not there." Parents of children suffering from epilepsy had pleaded with lawmakers to act, to no avail.

Utah Governor Signals Support for Medical Marijuana. Gov. Bob Herbert (R) said Thursday that he is not familiar with two medical marijuana bills filed this session and that he doesn't want a "Dr. Feelgood" situation, but "if there's a medicine out there that will alleviate pain and conditions and health concerns for people, if there's a medicine out there that can do that, we ought to see if we can embrace it." He added that he would prefer that Congress legalize it federally rather than leaving it up to the states to act.

Law Enforcement

DEA Hired TSA Informant to Help Steal Money From Travelers' Luggage. The agency recruited a TSA security screener to alert agents to cash in luggage that the DEA could confiscate, an arrangement that "violated DEA policy," according to the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General. The agency planned to pay the screener a cut of the cash he seized, but the Inspector General found that the screener never actually provided any actionable intelligence for seizures. Still, the DEA scheme "could have violated individuals' protection against unreasonable searches and seizures if it led to a subsequent DEA enforcement action," the OIG noted.


Argentina Approves Shooting Down Suspected Drug Planes. The new government of President Mauricio Macri continues to burnish its drug warrior credentials by announcing plans to begin shooting down suspected drug trafficking planes, a move the opposition called "the death penalty without trial." Macri has already decreed a "public security emergency" for a year to fight drug trafficking, which he said had led to "situation of collective danger."

Chronicle AM: Drug Policy in Obama's SOTU Speech, New England Legalization Bills Heard, More... (1/13/16)

As New England states ponder marijuana legalization, Colorado is raking in the revenues. Plus, the president touches on drug policy in his SOTU speech, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Colorado Will Have Taken in More Than $100 Million in Adult Marijuana Taxes and Fees Last Year. Based on official figures through the end of October, the state will have collected more than $100 million on pot taxes and fees through the end of 2015. The state had already collected more than $109 million by the end of October, but some $17 million of that was for medical marijuana. Still, with the last two months of the year yet to be accounted for, and with tax revenues at $9 million for the lowest month in 2015, the state will certainly top the $100 million mark by the time everything is counted.

Massachusetts Legislative Committee Holding Hearing on Legalization Bill. The Joint Committee on the Judiciary is holding a hearing today on House Bill 1561, filed by Rep. David Rogers (D-Cambridge). The bill would regulate marijuana like alcohol in the state.

Vermont Senate Committee Hears Legalization Bills. The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony for and against two legalization bills, Senate Bill 95, introduced last session by Sen. David Zuckerman (P/D-Chittenden) and Senate Bill 241, from Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham). If the committee decides to approve one or both bills, it must do so by January 29. In Tuesday's testimony, representatives from law enforcement expressed strong opposition to legalization, especially citing fears of stoned driving.

Medical Marijuana

Florida Initiative Hands in Signatures. It looks like Floridians will get a second chance to approve medical marijuana. United for Care, the group leading the campaign, handed in more than one million raw signatures to state officials Monday. The group needs only 683,149 valid signatures to qualify for the November ballot. In 2014, United for Care's initiative failed even though it won 58% of the vote. Because it was a constitutional amendment, it needed 60% to pass.

Drug Policy

President Obama Touches on Drug Policy in State of the Union Speech. The president's State of the Union speech included a call to imprison fewer people. "I hope we can work together this year on bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform, and helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse," the president said. Obama also mentioned people who have reentered society after being imprisoned: "I see it in the American who served his time, and dreams of starting over -- and the business owner who gives him that second chance. The protester determined to prove that justice matters, and the young cop walking the beat, treating everybody with respect, doing the brave, quiet work of keeping us safe."

Chronicle AM: CA Init Cleared for Petitioning, Gets Donations, VT Gov Says Legalize, More... (1/7/16)

It's another one of those all-marijuana news days -- the California initiative hits the ground running, New Hampshire legalization bills get filed, Canadian MPs get a pot package, and more.

Dana Larsen's gift to all 184 Liberal MPs in Canada (Twitter/Dana Larson)
Marijuana Policy

California Adult Use of Marijuana Act Initiative Can Start Signature Gathering. The AUMA is now the most viable shot at legalizing weed in California this year. It has the backing of tech billionaire Sean Parker, as well other marijuana mavens and reform movement donors. It needs 365,000 valid voter signatures by June to make the November ballot.

Contributions Start Coming in for California's AUMA Legalization Initiative. The AUMA has picked up $1.25 million in donations, including $250,000 from the Marijuana Policy Project, a matching $250,000 from Sean Parker, $250,000 from the New Approach PAC, $250,000 from Drug Policy Action (the lobbying and campaign arm of the Drug Policy Alliance), and $250,000 from the Californians for Sensible Reform committee (Weedmaps). That should cover the cost of signature gathering for the initiative.

Nebraska, Oklahoma Accuse Colorado of Acting Like Drug Cartel. Attorneys for the two states urged the US Supreme Court to let them sue their neighbor over its legal marijuana production and distribution system, accusing Colorado of creating "a massive criminal enterprise whose sole purpose is to authorize and facilitate the manufacture, distribution, sale and use of marijuana… "If this entity were based south of our border, the federal government would prosecute it as a drug cartel." The Obama administration has urged the high court to refuse to hear the case.

Trio of New Hampshire Legalization Bills Filed. Granite State lawmakers have filed not one, not two, but three bills to legalize marijuana. House Bill 1675 would legalize possession of up to 2.2 pounds of marijuana for personal consumption by adults 18 and older, and would also legalize cultivation of up to six pot plants at home. It was also allow the sale and taxation of marijuana. House Bill 1610 would legalize marijuana possession of up to two ounces for personal use by adults 21 and older, and would legalize cultivation of up to six plants at home -- limited to three mature plants at any one time. It would not allow retail sales, but would allow adults to gift up to an ounce to other adults. House Bill 1694 would legalize marijuana possession of up to one ounce by adults 21 and older, and would permit home cultivation of up to six pot plants, with a limit of three mature plants at one time. The bill would allow the sale and taxation of marijuana.

Vermont Governor Calls for Legalizing Marijuana in State of the State Address. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin called on lawmakers to pass legislation legalizing and regulating marijuana in his final State of the State address today. He also declared the drug war a failure and expressed desire to continue emphasizing a health-based approach to drug policy by expanding treatment and overdose prevention programs, as well as by removing the stigma associated with drug use and addiction. With Shumlin entering his last year in office, this is a strong signal that he intends to make marijuana legalization a priority in the upcoming legislative session. "The outdated war on drugs has also failed," said Shumlin, "and there is no greater example than our nation's marijuana laws." Earlier this week, top legislative leaders downplayed the likelihood of legalization this year.

Drug Policy

Legalization Advocate Gary Johnson Announced Libertarian Presidential Bid. The former Republican New Mexico governor, who championed a discussion of drug legalization while in office, announced Wednesday that he is seeking the Libertarian Party presidential nomination. He resigned from his position as president and CEO of Cannabis Sativa Inc. to do so.

Medical Marijuana

First New York Dispensaries Opened Today. Eight dispensaries opened in the state today, a slow start to a medical marijuana program in a state with nearly 20 million people. The state has authorized another 12 to open later this month.


DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Chronicle AM: CA Could Get $1 Billion a Year in Pot Taxes, Kosher MedMJ Comes to NY, More... (12/31/15)

Thar's gold in that there merry-ju-wanna, California finance officials say; Oregon recreational tokers start paying taxes next week, kosher medical marijuana comes to New York, the US surgeon general is planning a review of drug policies, and more.

Marijuana Policy

California Could Get $1 Billion a Year in Pot Taxes, Finance Department Says. The state stands to gain "from the high hundreds of millions to over $1 billion annually," according to the Department of Finance's analysis of the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, the "Sean Parker initiative," which looks to be the one that will go before voters in November. The state could also save about $100 million a year from "the reduction in state and local criminal justice costs" associated with marijuana prohibition, the report added.

Mississippi Legalization Initiative Comes Up Far Short. A DeSoto County woman's effort to get a legalization initiative, Ballot Initiative 48, on the November 2016 ballot has come to an end. Kelly Jacobs managed to gather only 13,320 valid voter signatures by this week's Tuesday deadline. She needed 107,000 to qualify. Jacobs had complained of unlawful denial of access to public buildings and being threatened by Ku Klux Klan members, among other improprieties. "The truth about Mississippi and marijuana is that Mississippians are too afraid of the police to change the law themselves by supporting a ballot initiative with their signatures of approval," Jacobs said.

Oregon Recreational Marijuana Sales Tax Goes Into Effect Next Week. Recreational pot smokers who have been enjoying tax-free marijuana from dispensaries in the state will have to start paying up beginning on January 4. On that date, a 25% sales tax for pot takes effect. Registered medical marijuana patients will not be affected. The tax could decrease at a later date.

Medical Marijuana

New Yorkers Can Get Kosher Medical Marijuana. Vireo Health, a provider of non-smokable medical marijuana products, has been certified kosher by the Orthodox Union. The Union said it awarded the certificate after inspecting the company's facilities to ensure that the marijuana was being grown and processed according to kosher standards. Vireo said it was the first time a medical marijuana producer had been certified as kosher.

Drug Policy

US Surgeon General to Review Drug Policies. According to a Federal Register notice published Thursday, the US surgeon general is preparing a report "presenting the state of the science on substance abuse, addiction, and health. The review will cover both illegal drugs and legal substances, such as alcohol and tobacco. The report will be broad in scope, covering prevention, treatment, and recovery; social, economic, and health consequences of substance use; the state of health care access; and "ethical, legal and policy issues; and potential future directions."

Law Enforcement

Appeals Court Agrees to Hear Case of Texas Trucking Company Suing DEA. The 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans will hear oral arguments in the case of Craig Patty in February. Patty owns a trucking company. The DEA used one of his trucks without his permission in a drug cartel sting that resulted in a shootout in Houston leaving an informant dead and leaving Patty's truck bullet-riddled. Patty filed suit, seeking payment from the DEA for fixing the truck and for the temporary loss of its use, as well as damages for emotional turmoil to Patty, who feared the Zetas cartel could come after him. A federal circuit court judge ruled earlier in the DEA's favor.


Another Malaysian Faces Death Sentence for Marijuana Trafficking. A 35-year-old Malaysian man has been charged with trafficking 15 pounds of marijuana, which, under the country's Dangerous Drug Act of 1952, carries a mandatory death sentence. The defendant, S. Gunalan, had no legal representation during his initial hearing.

Chronicle AM: DOJ Suspends Asset Forfeiture Progam, Syrians Flee ISIS for Lebanon's Hash Trade, More (12/23/15)

Two federal agencies make drug policy-related announcements, Syrians are fleeing the ISIS caliphate to work in the hash fields of Lebanon, and more.

Lebanese hash field (cannabisculture.com)
Medical Marijuana

DEA Eases Requirements for Natural Marijuana-Derived Research. The DEA today eased some restrictions on research evaluating cannabidiol (CBD) for medicinal use. The changes will relax some requirements imposed by the Controlled Substances Act on use of CBD in specific US Food and Drug Administration-approved research protocols. The changes are in effect immediately.

New Hampshire to Begin Issuing Medical Marijuana ID Cards. State officials said today that they will begin issuing ID cards to registered medical marijuana patients beginning Monday. While dispensaries in the state won't open until the spring, people with the ID cards will be able to buy medical marijuana in neighboring states that have reciprocity.

Asset Forfeiture

Justice Department Suspends Asset Forfeiture Equitable Sharing Program. The Justice Department released a memorandum Monday notifying law enforcement agencies that it is temporarily suspending the equitable sharing program asset forfeiture funds because of tight budgets. This means law enforcement agencies will no longer get a share of federal funds confiscated through civil asset forfeiture, and that means law enforcement agencies have lost a considerable financial incentive to turn drug busts over to the feds. Many state laws require seized funds to be allocated to the general fund or education funds, and law enforcement agencies used the federal equitable sharing program to get around those laws. Under the federal program, the local seizing agency got 80% of the haul.


Syrians Flee ISIS to Harvest Hash in Lebanon. Refugees from Raqqa, the capital of the ISIS caliphate, are fleeing across the border to Lebanon, where they can get work in that country's booming cannabis trade. Their work in the trade places them in danger of retribution from the jihadists if they return home, they said. "If Islamic State back home knew we work with hashish, they would cut us" with knives, said one refugee.

The Top 10 Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2015 [FEATURE]

As the year winds down, we look back on the big stories in drug policy, from marijuana reform to climbing fatal overdose levels to sentencing reforms and beyond.

Marijuana remained a major story this year. (wikimedia.org)
The Sky Hasn't Fallen on Legal Marijuana States. The great social experiment with marijuana legalization appears to be going off without a serious hitch, and that's great news for people in states where it will likely be an issue next year. No outbreaks of reefer-induced mass criminality have taken place, no hordes of zombie school kids have appeared. In fact, very little at all seems to have happened, except that in Washington state, marijuana arrests are way down, tax revenues are flowing in, and, and ditto for Colorado, where legal pot has created 16,000 jobs (not to mention thousands more in weed-related industries) and, in Denver at least, a real estate boom is going on. Evaluating the impacts of a policy shift like ending state-level marijuana prohibition is a complicated and long-term affair, but so far it we're not seeing any signs of major social policy disaster.

The Marijuana Majority Solidifies. Marijuana legalization is now consistently winning majority support in national polls. An April CBS News poll (released on 4/20) reported support at "an all-time high" at 53%, while a Pew Research poll that some month also came in at 53%. An October Gallup poll had support at 58%, a November Morning Consult poll had it at 55%. This is really quite remarkable: Less than a decade ago, fewer than a third of people were ready to legalize it. Beginning in 2012 or 2013, public opinion reached the tipping point, and now we've clearly tipped.

Groundwork Well Laid for Marijuana Legalization Efforts Next Year. Efforts are well-advanced in a half-dozen states states to put legalization initiatives on the ballot next year. A Nevada initiative has already qualified for the November ballot and a Massachusetts initiative has also met its initial signature gathering hurdle (but must let the legislature have a chance to act before gathering a token amount of additional signatures to qualify for November). Initiative signature gathering campaigns are also well-advanced in Arizona, Maine, and Michigan, and while the California effort lags behind, an initiative backed by some deep-pocketed funders should qualify for November as well. State polls in those states show majorities for legalization, but support numbers only in the 50s suggests that victories are by no means inevitable. Those numbers tend to get pushed down in the course of an actual campaign, especially if there's well-funded opposition. And serious efforts are underway in two states, Rhode Island and Vermont, to pass legalization at the state house next year.

Monopoly Marijuana Gets Rejected in the Heartland. In a clear signal that marijuana legalization is not inevitable, a well-funded, but equally well-loathed legalization initiative went down in flames in November. The ResponsibleOhio initiative would have enshrined within the state constitution a "monopoly" under which pot would be legalized, but only 10 growers could produce commercial pot crops. The effort was opposed by the state's Republican political establishment, as well as the usual suspects in law enforcement, but also by most of the state's marijuana legalization activists. Concerns about the role of industry money in the movement are on the rise, but ResponsibleOhio wasn't even industry money -- it was just a set of wealth investors hoping to cash in with their privileged positions in a newly legal and high lucrative industry.

Black Lives Matter's Policing Critique Implicates the Drug War. The most energetic mass movement since 2011's Occupy Wall Street (and beyond) is taking direct aim at policing abuses that have festered for a generation -- and the war on drugs is deeply implicated in them. BLM's Campaign Zero manifesto to end police violence includes numerous drug war-related reform targets. From the militarization of policing to mass incarceration, from stop-and-frisk to "policing for profit," the objects of BLM's ire are key components of the drug war, and the movement is raising the racial justice imperative in the loudest fashion possible.

Heroin overdoses are still on the increase. (New Jersey State Police)
Overdoses Kill Tens of Thousands, Harm Reduction Responses Emerge. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death in the US, claiming some 44,000 lives a year. Heroin is involved in more than 8,000 of those deaths, but prescription opiates are involved in twice that number. Deaths related to prescription opiates are actually leveling off in line with a decrease in prescribing beginning in 2012, but heroin deaths, which quadrupled between 2002 and 2013, are not, especially as people who once had access to pain pills resort to the black market. With the rising death toll -- and the changing demographics of users; younger, whiter, less "urban" -- has come a new openness toward harm reduction measures that can actually save lives, especially the wider availability of the opiate overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan). Access to the drug is being increased around the country, thousands of lives are being saved, even the drug czar is for it. It's not like having supervised injection facilities, where users can inject under medical supervision, and which are proven to practically eliminate overdoses (Vancouver's InSite points to exactly zero fatal overdoses in nearly 16,000 injections), but it's a start.

Asset Forfeiture Reform Picks Up Steam. The use of asset forfeiture has been a favorite drug war tactic of police and prosecutors for years, and has grown to the point where federal law enforcement seized more from citizens than burglars did last year. It's been 15 years since the last round of federal asset forfeiture reform, and the pressure is building in Washington. The year started off with then Attorney General Holder abruptly limiting federal seizure sharing with state and local cops, which cut off a main conduit for local cops to get around state asset forfeiture laws (the federal equitable sharing program allowed seizing law enforcement agencies to keep 80% of seizures, while state laws often required seizures to go into general funds). That was followed by the filing of a Rand Paul bill to end federal civil asset forfeiture with a House panel signaling support. The practice is also under fire in the states, where more than a dozen took up bills this year. In two states, Maryland and Wyoming, bills passed the legislature, only to be vetoed by Republican governors, but new asset forfeiture reform laws went into effect July 1 in Montana and New Mexico and passed in Michigan in the fall. Look for more asset forfeiture reform battles next year, both in Congress and at the statehouse.

Some 6,000 drug war prisoners got out in one fell swoop at the beginning of November. (nadcp.org)
6,000 Federal Drug War Prisoners Come Home. At the end of October, the largest prisoner release in recent US history took place, with some 6,000 prisoners set free after their drug sentences were cut thanks to policy changes by the US Sentencing Commission. Another 8,000 are set to be released the same time next year. Along with other sentencing reforms enacted in the past few years, the move has resulted in the federal prison population declining for the first time since Ronald Reagan unleashed the modern drug war in the early 1980s.

Obama Commutes Drug Sentences. President Obama commuted the sentences of 68 drug offenders earlier this year, and just last week he commuted the sentences of nearly a hundred more. Obama has now issued more commutations (which actually free people still behind bars, as opposed to pardons, which are granted after the fact) than the last five presidents combined, and with some 35,000 having petitioned for commutations at the invitation of the Justice Department, we could well see another big batch next year before he leaves office.

Drug Policy Becomes a Presidential Election Issue. In a good way. On the issue of marijuana policy, Bernie Sanders has become the first serious mainstream presidential candidate to endorse marijuana legalization, and, as this Marijuana Policy Project report card on the presidential candidates shows, many of the others -- from both parties -- support medical marijuana, decriminalization, and/or a states' rights approach to legalization. Not all of them do, of course, but supporting marijuana reform is now a thoroughly mainstream position in presidential politics. Similarly, the candidates have been addressing high rates of prescription opiate and heroin use, with even some GOP candidates talking about treating addiction as a health and public health issue, not a criminal justice one. Democratic contenders have also been addressing the problem as a public health issue, most recently in the New Hampshire Democratic debate. We've come a long way from competing to see who can be the "toughest" on drugs.

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Chronicle AM: Obama to Free 93 Drug War Prisoners, Budget Deal Includes Drug Reforms, More (12/18/15)

The omnibus budget bill approved by Congress today includes several drug policy provisions, the president commutes the sentences of 93 drug war prisoners, Iranian parliamentarians move to end the death penalty for non-violent drug smuggling offenses, and more.

There will be a bit less overcrowding in federal prisons next spring. (nadcp.org)
Marijuana Policy

US Postal Service Doubles Down on Marijuana Advertising Mailing Ban. What started as a one-off letter to a small Washington state newspaper has now become official USPS policy nationwide. The agency's general counsel has penned a new letter directing postal carriers across the country to report marijuana ads to law enforcement, and now, Oregon federal representatives are trying to get to the bottom of it. "We are working as a delegation to quickly find the best option to address this agency's intransigence," said Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and Reps. Suzanne Bonamici and Earl Blumenauer in a statement. "We want federal authorities to respect decisions made by law-abiding Oregonians and small business owners in the state. Unfortunately, the outdated federal approach to marijuana as described in the response from the Postal Service undermines and threatens news publications that choose to accept advertising from legal marijuana business in Oregon and other states where voters have also freely decided to legalize marijuana."

Oregon Indian Tribe Votes to Approve Marijuana. Members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs overwhelmingly approved a referendum that would allow for the growing, processing, and selling of marijuana. The referendum passed with 86% of the vote.

Medical Marijuana

Florida Supreme Court Okays Medical Marijuana Initiative Language. The state's high court determined that the initiative is limited to a single subject and its ballot wording informs voters fairly. That means if supporters collect enough valid voter signatures, the measure will appear on the November 2016 ballot.

Congress Passes Budget Bill That Bars DOJ From Interfering in Medical Marijuana States. The omnibus spending bill approved by Congress this morning includes several drug reform provisions, although reformers didn't get everything they wanted. The bill includes language blocking the Justice Department and DEA from spending money to interfere with state medical marijuana laws or hemp research projects and it also lifts a freeze on federal funding for needle exchange programs. But Congress failed to approve amendments to allow banks to provide financial services to marijuana businesses or to allow veterans to have access to medical marijuana, despite the Senate having approved both. And the Congress again included provisions that block Washington, DC, from taxing and regulating marijuana.


Key Hemp Provision Added to the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2016. The budget bill that passed Congress today protects the transportation, processing, and sale of hemp that is from Farm Bill-compliant pilot programs. The provision was added to the bill by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

Harm Reduction

Congress Passes Budget Bill That Includes End to Ban on Federal Needle Exchange Funds. The omnibus spending bill approved by Congress this morning lifts a freeze on federal funding for needle exchange programs. The ban had been put in place in the midst of drug war and AIDS hysteria in 1988 and was repealed in 2009, when Democrats controlled both chambers, but reinstated by congressional Republicans after they regained control of the House in 2011.Since then, outbreaks of HIV and Hepatitis C in southwestern Indiana and the impact of rising heroin use in states like Kentucky and West Virginia have weakened Republican opposition to restoring the funding.


Obama Commutes Sentences for Nearly a Hundred Federal Drug Prisoners. President Obama today commuted the federal prison sentences of 95 men and women, all but two of them drug offenders serving draconian sentences. He also issued pardons for two people who have already served their sentences. This single step nearly doubles the number of sentence commutations the president has issued in his seven years in office, bringing the total to 184. While that is a tiny fraction of the hundred thousand drug offenders serving federal time, the number of commutations is more than the previous five presidents combined.


Move to End Death Penalty for Drug Smuggling in Iran. At least 70 members of the Iranian parliament are supporting an effort to end the death penalty in nonviolent drug smuggling cases. The country is most likely the world's leading drugs executioner, with one UN official estimating that it will hang a thousand people for drug crimes this year. Lawmakers are preparing a bill to present to the parliament.

President Obama Commutes Sentences of Nearly a Hundred Federal Drug Prisoners

President Obama today commuted the federal prison sentences of 95 men and women, all but two of them drug offenders serving draconian sentences. He also issued pardons for two people who have already served their sentences.

President Obama commutes drug sentences. (whitehouse.gov)
Many had been imprisoned since the 1990s. Some were doing life sentences for drug offenses. Most were cocaine offenders, but the commutations also included people doing time for marijuana, meth, and heroin.

This single step nearly doubles the number of sentence commutations the president has issued in his seven years in office, bringing the total to 184. While that is a tiny fraction of the hundred thousand drug offenders serving federal time, the number of commutations is more than the previous five presidents combined.

Recent Republican presidents have tended to be stingier with the commutation power than recent Democrats. Jimmy Carter commuted 29 sentences and Bill Clinton commuted 61, but Ronald Reagan only commuted 13 and the Bush father and son team only commuted 14 between them.

Commutations apply to prisoners who are still serving their sentences, while pardons apply to those who have already completed them. The prisoners whose sentences were commuted today are set to walk out of prison next April.

"Most of the commutations the President has granted have been to nonviolent offenders sentenced under those unjust -- and now outdated -- drug crime sentencing rules," the White House said as it announced the commutations today. "If these individuals had been convicted for the exact same crime under today's laws, nearly all of them would have already finished serving their time."

The president sent a personal letter to each of the 95 people receiving a commutation: "I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around," he wrote. "Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change… But remember that you have the capacity to make good choices. By doing so you will affect not only your life, but the lives of those around you. You will also influence, by your example, the possibility that others in your circumstances get their second chance in the future."

President Obama has taken other steps to address harsh drug war sentencing, including supporting and signing the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity in crack and powder cocaine sentencing; creating a task force on 21st Century policing, and launching the Smart on Crime initiative, which includes the Justice Department modifying its policies on mandatory minimum sentencing.

Last year, he signaled that he wanted to make broader use of the clemency power, and Deputy Attorney General James Cole laid out criteria for those who would qualify. Those include people who are nonviolent, low-level offenders without significant ties to large gangs or cartels who have served at least 10 years of their sentence, have no other significant criminal history, have shown good conduct in prison, have no history of violence, and who would like have received a significantly lower sentence if sentenced today.

Since then, a consortium of lawyers calling itself Clemency Project 2014 has volunteered to handle and help process clemency requests. Tens of thousands of federal prisoners have responded. While President Obama has commuted more sentences than any recent president, there are thousands more that meet the criteria. He has one more year to exercise his commutation power.

Spending Bill Just Passed By Congress Includes Important Drug Reforms

The omnibus spending bill approved by Congress this morning includes several drug reform provisions, although reformers didn't get everything they wanted. The bill includes language blocking the Justice Department and DEA from spending money to interfere with state medical marijuana laws or hemp research projects, and it also softens a freeze on federal funding for needle exchange programs.

But Congress failed to approve amendments to allow banks to provide financial services to marijuana businesses or to allow veterans to have access to medical marijuana, despite the Senate having approved both. And the Congress again included provisions that block Washington, DC, from taxing and regulating marijuana.

The language blocking the Justice Department from going after medical marijuana where it is legal also came in the form of an amendment from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA), which was passed last year, but had to be renewed this year. In the Senate, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) sponsored the amendment.

Drug and criminal justice reformers welcomed the progress on Capitol Hill.

"The renewal of this amendment should bring relief for medical marijuana patients and business owners," said Michael Collins, Deputy Director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "For decades Congress has been responsible for passing disastrous drug laws. It's encouraging to see them starting to roll back the war on drugs by allowing states to set their own medical marijuana policies."

"Patients who benefit from medical marijuana should not be treated like dangerous criminals, and the businesses that support them need to be protected from the old drug war mentality that still runs deep within the DEA," said Major Neill Franklin (Ret.), executive director for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group of criminal justice professionals working to end the drug war. "It's very encouraging to see such widespread support for protecting state's rights and the rights of patients."

Reformers also cheered the softening of a ban on states and localities spending federal AIDS funds on needle exchange programs. The ban was put in place in the midst of drug war and AIDS hysteria in 1988, and repealed in 2009 when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, but reinstated by congressional Republicans after they regained control of the House in 2011.

Since then, outbreaks of HIV and Hepatitis C in southwestern Indiana and the impact of rising heroin use in states like Kentucky and West Virginia have weakened Republican opposition to restoring the funding, but not completely. There is still a ban on federal funding of syringes for the programs, but funds can be used for other program expenses such as staff, if a local or state authority has issued an emergency finding.

"Syringe access programs are a sound public health intervention, rooted in science, and proven to drastically reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C," said DPA's Collins. "Lifting this archaic ban will save thousands of lives."

"Needle exchange is a public health and safety necessity," said retired corrections officer, substance abuse counselor, and LEAP speaker, Patrick Heintz. "This new law will not only protect those who use drugs from disease, but it will help prevent other innocent victims who come into intimate contact with people who use IV drugs that have been forced for so long to share contaminated needles."

Needle exchange programs are proven to reduce the spread of HIV, Hep C, and other blood-borne diseases and are supported by every major medical and public health organization, including the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Bar Association, and US Conference of Mayors, as well as UNICEF, the World Bank, and the International Red Cross-Red Crescent Society.

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