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What To Do About the Drug Trade in West Africa? [FEATURE]

Over the past decade, West Africa has emerged as an increasingly important player in the global illicit drug trade. Although the region has historically not been a drug producing one -- with the important exception of marijuana -- it has become a platform for predominantly Latin American drug traffickers moving their illicit commodities toward lucrative European and Middle Eastern markets. The cocaine traffic alone is worth more than a billion dollars a year, according to a 2013 report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

children walking from home to school in Bamako, Mali (JoeyTranchinaPhotography©2014 Sète, France)
And the trade is becoming more complex. Now, it's not only cocaine flowing through the region, but heroin destined mainly for Western Europe and methamphetamines being manufactured there and exported to Asia and South Africa, that same UNODC report found.

The region -- stretching along the African coast from Nigeria to the east to Senegal on the west, and extending deep into the Sahara Desert in countries such as Mali and Niger -- is plagued by weak states and corrupt governments, making it attractive to criminals of all sorts, who thrive in lawless lands. And it's not just criminals. The region is also home to various bands of Islamist militants, some of whom are involved in the drug trade.

Now, a commission of prominent West Africans is calling for fundamental changes in drug policies in the region. Last week, the West Africa Commission on Drugs, issued a report, Not Just in Transit: Drugs, the State and Society in West Africa, calling for the decriminalization of drug use, treating drug use primarily as a public health issue, and for the region to avoid becoming the next front line in the failed war on drugs.

The commission is impressive. It was initiated by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan of Nigeria and headed by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, and includes other former heads of state as well as a distinguished group of West Africans from the worlds of politics, civil society, health, security and the judiciary.

And so is its very existence. It marks the entrance of West African civil society into the international debate on drug policy in which calls for fundamental drug reform have gained increasing momentum in recent years. In 2008, former Latin American heads of state and other luminaries formed the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, and in 2011, Annan and other world luminaries and former heads of state came together to form the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Now, West Africa adds its voice to the chorus calling for change.

"We call on West African governments to reform drug laws and policies and decriminalize low-level and non-violent drug offenses," said Obasanjo upon the report's release last week. "West Africa is no longer just a transit zone for drugs arriving from South America and ending up in Europe but has become a significant zone of consumption and production. The glaring absence of treatment facilities for drug users fuels the spread of disease and exposes an entire generation, users and non-users alike, to growing public health risks."

"Most governments' reaction to simply criminalize drug use without thinking about prevention or access to treatment has not just led to overcrowded jails, but also worsened health and social problems," added Kofi Annan.

West Africa
"We need the active support and involvement of civil society and of the international community," said commission member Edem Kodjo. "South America, where most of the drugs smuggled to West Africa come from, and Europe, which is the main consumer market, must take the lead to deal with both production and consumption at home. We cannot solve this problem alone; governments and civil society have to come together in West Africa to help prevent the drug problem from getting completely out of hand."

The report won kudos from American drug reformer Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance.

"First Europe, then the Americas, now Africa," he said. "Drug policy reform is truly becoming a global movement, with Kofi Annan and Olusegun Obasango providing the sort of bold leadership that we've also seen in Latin America. Maybe, just maybe, West Africa will be spared the fate of other parts of the world where prohibition-related crime, violence and corruption spiraled out of control."

But some analysts, while welcoming the report, suggested that it did not get at the heart of the problem in West Africa.

"The report focuses on public health, and that's great, but I'm not sure that's the issue," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow with the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution who has published extensively on West Africa. "Nor are there generally large prison populations due to the arrests of low-level drug offenders. There is increasing drug use, and many addicts don't have access to public health. That, however is not because they were arrested, but because Africa in general doesn't have access to public health," she pointed out.

"In some senses, the commission report is preventative -- it warns of policies that would be counterproductive -- but it is not going to solve West Africa's problems," Felbab-Brown continued. "And the harm reduction approaches that dominate the discourse in Europe and the US are not really apropos for West African public health issues. The increasing focus of the international community is interdiction, but that accounts for only a small fraction of the total traffic, and the report doesn't deal with what kind of alternate law enforcement there should be, or who should be targeted."

But others thought the criminal justice and public health emphasis in the report were a step down the right path.

"The report's message about alternatives to criminalization for use and minor offenses is important in criminal justice terms -- to discourage the horrible over-representation of minor drug offenders in prisons in the region -- but also as a reminder that there are no such alternatives unless the health and social sectors develop those alternatives," said Joan Csete, deputy director of the Open Society Foundation's Global Drug Policy Program.

"Health ministries need to be as important around the drug policymaking table as the police, which is far from the case in most of Africa today," she added. "Services for treatment of drug dependence in the region are absent or of appalling quality. Improving health and social support for people with drug dependence is a key to drug policy reform in West Africa."

And Felbab-Brown agreed that while measures like drug prevention and treatment wouldn't solve the region's problems, they would still be helpful.

"We're already seeing quite a bit of heroin in the region, and we are seeing increasing use," she said. "These are cheap and prevalent commodities, the traffickers partake in kind, and user communities are being established. In a sense, developing strategies to prevent use, get treatment, and prevent the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C is useful because there are more and more users."

drug, security, and insurgency analyst Vanda Felbab-Brown (brookings.edu)
But for Felbab-Brown, the key problem for West Africa is its weak and corrupt states.

"The big trafficking issues are around the intersection of very poor, very weak, very corrupt, and often very fragile states with state participation in various forms of criminality," she said. "Drugs are just another commodity to be exploited by elites for personal enrichment. Elites are already stealing money from oil, timber, and diamonds, and now there is another resource to exploit for personal enrichment and advancement," she argued.

"One narrative has it that drug trafficking has caused fragility and instability, but I think trafficking compounded the problems; it didn't create them," Felbab-Brown continued. "There is a systematic deficiency of good governance. Many of these states have functioned for decades like mafia bazaars, and the trafficking just augments other rents. There are rotten governments, miserable institutions, and poor leadership around all commodities, not just drugs."

"The states are not monolithic," Csete noted. "Some have high-level corruption, some are aggressive in trying to fight money-laundering and other elements of organized criminal networks, some rely heavily on traditional interdiction methods. Some of these countries have relatively strong democratic systems and relatively strong economic growth; some have governance institutions that are less strong."

The state of the states in West Africa influenced the commission and its recommendations, Csete said.

"Legalization of drugs -- production, sale, consumption -- was not judged to be politically feasible or necessarily desirable by the commission," she explained. "I think the commissioners generally perceive that generally these countries do not yet have a political climate favorable to debate on progressive changes in drug policy. The whole idea of the commission and its report is to open those debates -- high-profile people from the region saying things that sitting officials do not find it politically easy to say."

"These are newer post-colonial states," Felbab-Brown noted. "Are we having unreasonable expectations? Is this like Europe in the 13th Century, or is that some of these countries are doomed to exist in perpetual misgovernance?"

While there may be concern in Western capitals about the specter of West African drug trafficking, many West Africans have other, more pressing, drug policy concerns.

In its 2013 report, the UNODC noted that the importation of fake pharmaceutical drugs from South and Southeast Asia into the region was a problem. Joey Tranchina, a longtime drug policy observer who has recently spent time in Mali, agrees.

"Having traversed Mali from Bamako to Mopti, except for the usual oblique indigenous references to smoking weed, the only personal experience I have with drug crime is counterfeit pharmaceuticals from India, China, and Russia," he said. "They're sold cheap in the streets to people who can't afford regular meds and they take the place of real pharmaceuticals, especially malaria and HIV drugs. These drug scams are killing people in Mali," he said.

"Most people in West Africa don't see drug trafficking as that much of a problem," said Felbab-Brown. "If it's mostly going to Westerners, they say so what? For them it is a mechanism to make money, and those drug traffickers frequently become politicians. They are able to create and reconstitute patronage networks around drug trafficking, just as they were once able to get elected with money from blood diamonds."

It seems that, to the degree that drug use and drug trafficking are West African problems, they are problems inextricably interwoven with the broader issues of weak, fragile, and corrupt states that are unable or unwilling to deliver the goods for their citizens. The West Africa Commission on Drugs has pointed a way toward some solutions and avoiding some failed policies already discredited elsewhere, but it seems clear that that is just the beginning.

Chronicle AM -- June 18, 2014

A pair of potential presidential contenders speak out on marijuana, five New England governors meet on the opiate issue, New York cops are starting to be trained to use the overdose reversal drug naloxone, New York's governor makes passage of medical marijuana there iffy, the Dutch high court rules cities can ban foreigners from cannabis coffee shops, and more. Let's get to it:

Hillary Clinton talks pot. (Wikimedia/Chatham House Flickr Stream)
Marijuana Policy

Hillary Clinton Evolves on Marijuana Policy. In an interview with CNN international correspondent Christiane Amanpour Tuesday, former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she favors medical marijuana for people who are in "extreme medical conditions" and is willing to "wait and see" how recreational pot works in Colorado and Washington state. "On recreational, states are the laboratories of democracy," Clinton said. "We have at least two states that are experimenting with that right now. I want to wait and see what the evidence is." That's a step forward for Clinton, who in 2008 opposed marijuana decriminalization and who in 2012 said she doubted drug legalization would end black market violence in Central America.

Chris Christie Doesn't. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said Monday night that medical marijuana is "a front for legalization" and suggested that -- unlike every other industry in the United States -- medical marijuana providers should not be concerned with making money. His remarks came in response to criticism of his management of the state's highly-regulated medical marijuana program. Christie has said repeatedly that he opposes legalization, and that it won't happen "on my watch."

No Legalization Initiative for Arizona This Year. A Safer Arizona campaign to get its legalization initiative on the November ballot is over after the campaign came up well short in its signature-gathering efforts. The group needed 250,000 signatures to qualify, but said it only had about a third of that number. They are vowing to be back in 2016.

Delaware Decriminalization Bill to Get Hearing Tomorrow. The House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing on a decriminalization bill tomorrow. House Bill 371, sponsored by Rep. Helene Keeley (D-Wilmington), would make possession of less than an ounce a civil infraction punishable by a fine. Under current law, possession of any amount is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail.

Medical Marijuana

New York Governor Rejects Medical Marijuana Bill, Demands No Smoking. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has rejected the Compassionate Use Act just two days before the state's legislative session ends. Legislators are working to revise the bill in a manner acceptable to Cuomo, and he has signaled he was willing to waive legislative rules to allow a late bill to be introduced.

Opiates

New England Governors Meet to Address Opiates. The five governors of the New England states (except for Maine, whose Republican governor, Paul LePage didn't attend) met yesterday to address rising drug overdoses and agreed to cooperate on the cross-state monitoring of prescription drug monitoring and to expand drug treatment. They said they would try to make prescription monitoring mandatory and would try to curb "doctor shopping." The governors had nothing to say about ensuring that patients with legitimate needs for pain medications are able to get access to them.

Harm Reduction

New York Cops Get Training in Using Overdose Reversal Drug. By the end of this week, more than 600 New York state police officers and sheriff's deputies will have received the necessary training to carry and administer naloxone (Narcan), the opiate overdose reversal drug. The state has pledged to make the life-saving drug available to police officers across the state, and the program is just being rolled out now.

International

Myanmar's 15-Year Opium Eradication Effort a Failure, Government Minister Says. A Myanmar Home Affairs minister told parliament Monday that the country's 15-year effort to wipe out opium poppies had failed, and that the government would extend it for another five years. Brigadier General Kyaw Kyaw Tun said poppy crops had declined until 2006, but had been on the rise since then. It has been increasing at a rate of more than 10% a year in the past several years, he said. Myanmar is the world's second largest opium producer, although it trails far behind world leader Afghanistan in output.

Canada Prescription Opiate Overdoses on the Increase, New Report Says. Overdose deaths from prescription opiates have "risen sharply" and now account for about half of all drug-related deaths in the country, the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition said in a report released Monday. The report, Getting to Tomorrow: A Report on Canadian Drug Policy, calls for harm reduction measures and a public health approach to reduce overdose deaths.

Dutch High Court Decides Local Councils Can Ban Foreigners From Cannabis Coffee Shops. The Dutch Council of State, the country's highest court, has ruled that municipalities have the ability to bar people who are non-residents from the country's famous cannabis cafes. The aims of preventing drug tourism and combating organized crime are sufficient to allow discrimination based on nationality, the court ruled. The ruling comes in the case of coffee shop owners in the border towns of Maastrict and Limburg, where councilors had closed coffee shops for selling to tourists. Most other municipalities have not moved to ban foreigners. Read the advisory opinion here.

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

In all the years we've been doing this weekly update, there's only been one week with no corrupt cops stories. This week is pretty quiet, but we've still got a couple. Let's get to it:

In Edwardsburg, Indiana, a former Edwardsburg police officer pleaded no contest last Tuesday to stealing pain pills from a private residence. Jesse Holmes, 23, was on duty when he assisted on a medical call at a home and took the pills. He had been charged with larceny, home invasion, and committing a felony while in possession of a firearm, but ended up copping to only the home invasion count. But that's still good for up to 20 years in state prison.

In Michigan City, Indiana, a jury failed to convict a former prison guard last Friday on charges she smuggled drugs into the prison. The jury hung in the case of Christine Evans, a former Westville Correctional Facility officer who had been arrested on the charges in January 2013. She had been arrested after allegedly carrying more than 80 grams of synthetic cannabinoids while reporting for work and hiding the stash in a trash can. But there was no video or other physical evidence against her, and the jury wasn't convinced. Prosecutors have not decided if they will seek a retrial.

Chronicle AM -- June 17, 2014

It looks like Oregon is set to join Alaska in voting on marijuana legalization this year, the New York medical marijuana bill is going down to the wire, Florida's governor signs a pair of drug-related bills, Colombia's drug-reforming president wins reelection, and more. Let's get to it:

Colombia's drug reforming and peace negotiating President Juan Manuel Santos has won reelection. (wikiemedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

New Approach Oregon Legalization Initiative Now Has More Than 100,000 Signatures. Only yesterday, we reported that just before the weekend, the New Approach Oregon legalization initiative had handed in some 83,000 raw signatures, but that proponents would need more than 100,000 raw signatures to feel comfortable that they will actually attain the 87,213 valid signatures needed to qualify for the November ballot. Now, the campaign reports that it has more than 100,000 raw signatures and will continue signature-gathering until the July 3 deadline. It looks like Oregon is about to join Alaska as states where residents will vote on marijuana legalization this fall.

Medical Marijuana

Thirty Congressmembers Call on HHS to End Roadblocks to Marijuana Research. Thirty members of Congress led by Rep. Earl Blumenaur (D-OR) have sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Mathews Burkwell calling on her to make the process for obtaining marijuana for research purposes less onerous.

California Assembly Committee is Debating Medical Marijuana Regulation Bill. A bill that would create the first statewide regulation of medical marijuana is being heard in the Assembly Business, Professions and Consumer Protection Committee today. Senate Bill 1262, sponsored by Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), has already passed the Senate.

Florida Governor Signs Limited CBD Medical Marijuana Bill. Gov. Rick Scott (R) Monday signed into law the "Charlotte's Web" bill (Senate Bill 1030), which allows a small number of patients to use high-CBD, low-THC cannabis oils for the treatment of epilepsy or cancer.

New York Medical Marijuana Fight Going Down to Last Minute. Medical marijuana proponents continued to do battle with Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) over the Compassionate Care Act as the state's legislative session draws to a close. Legislators have amended the bill to address Cuomo's concerns, but patients and providers expressed outrage over Cuomo's "attempt to derail the legislation." Cuomo has called for eliminating many medical conditions from eligibility for medical marijuana, as well as imposing onerous restrictions on physicians. Another obstacle is the Senate's GOP leadership, which could block a floor vote. The session ends on Thursday.

Oklahoma Initiative Signature-Gatherers Complain of Harassment by Tulsa Police. Signature-gatherers for the state's medical marijuana initiative say that on at least four occasions, Tulsa Police have shown up to harass them. Police asked signature-gatherers to leave, then, when they asserted their right to petition, began asking for identification and doing background checks on them. Tulsa Police, for their part, said they had records of two calls reporting that signature-gatherers were selling marijuana. But no one was arrested for selling marijuana or anything else, and the campaign group Oklahomans for Health said its people were not selling or advertising marijuana. The group said it has asked the ACLU of Oklahoma for assistance.

Privacy

Methadone Advocates Warn of SAMHSA Patient Confidentiality Threat. A proposed Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) regulation that would end the exclusion of methadone treatment records from electronic health records is raising concern among methadone advocates. They say methadone patients suffer from stigma and that the records of their treatment should stay protected. Click on the link for information about how to have some input on the decision-making process.

New Synthetic Drugs

Florida Governor Signs Bill Targeting New Synthetic Drugs. Gov. Rick Scott Monday signed into law House Bill 697, which adds six new synthetic drugs to the list of criminally banned substances. The new synthetics targeted all appear to be phenethylamines.

Law Enforcement

South Dakota Drug Arrests Up More than 40% Last Year. Although overall arrests were only up slightly last year, drug arrests in South Dakota jumped more than 40%. Law enforcement is saying the big jump is due to the increased presence of meth and other drugs in the state's largest cities, Sioux Falls and Rapid City "Certainly more people have been arrested for drug offenses," Attorney General Marty Jackley said. "Part of that is attributable to more people using controlled substances." Drug arrests accounted for one out of six of all arrests in the state last year. More people were arrested for drugs than for DUI, assault, or larceny.

New Orleans Police Department Loosens Past Drug Use Policies. Under a policy change approved Monday, past drug use is no longer an automatic disqualifier for being hired as a New Orleans police officer. Now, applicants can be hired if that have not used marijuana or prescription pills within the last three years and most other drugs within the last 10 years. The brings the NOPD in line with the FBI and other major city police departments.

International

Drug Reformer, Peace Negotiator Juan Manuel Santos Re-Elected President of Colombia. Juan Manuel Santos has won reelection as president of Colombia in a race against a rightist candidate who criticized his peace negotiations with the leftist guerrillas of the FARC. Santos has been a loud voice for drug reform on the national and international stages.

Bermuda Approves Drug Testing of Parliamentarians. After rancorous debate, Bermuda's parliament has approved a proposal to require drug testing of parliamentarians. MPS can test positive for marijuana three times before they are suspended; for other drugs, it's one time.

What Does the Dance of the Peruvian Drug Czars Mean? Peruvian President Ollanta Humala recently fired hard-line DEVIDA head Carmen Macias, replacing her with former Defense Minister Luis Alberto Otarola. Humala also backed away from a controversial coca eradication campaign about to get under way in the Apurimac-Ene-Mantaro River Valley (VRAEM) that faced strong local opposition. Washington Office on Latin America analyst Coletta Youngers has written an analysis of what it all means, both domestically and internationally. Click on the link to read her piece.

Chronicle AM -- June 16, 2014

It's looking like at least one Oregon marijuana legalization initiative will make the fall ballot, a legalization initiative gets underway in Oklahoma, proposed medical marijuana rule changes in New Mexico run into stiff opposition, Georgia gives up on drug testing food stamp recipients, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon gets a coca birthday cake in Bolivia, and more. Let's get to it:

Marijuana Policy

New Approach Oregon Legalization Initiative Closes in on Signature Goals. The New Approach Oregon legalization initiative had gathered some 83,000 raw signatures by the end of last week, according to the secretary of state's office. It needs 87,213 valid signatures to qualify for the November ballot. With 25% to 30% of raw signatures typically thrown out, something north of 100,000 raw signatures is going to be needed for campaigners to rest easy. They have until July 3 to gather more signatures.

CRRH Oregon Legalization Initiative Facing Signature-Gathering Problems. The Campaign for the Restoration and Regulation of Hemp (CRRH) legalization initiatives -- there are two; one is a constitutional amendment -- is facing labor issues with its signature-gatherers and needs to come up with a whole bunch of signatures in a hurry if either CRRH initiative is to make the November ballot. The campaign reports it still lacks 50,000 signatures for its initiative and 75,000 for its constitutional amendment, which has a higher signature threshold.

Oklahoma Legalization Initiative Campaign Gets Underway. State Sen. Constance Johnson (D-Oklahoma City) last Friday unveiled a marijuana legalization initiative in the Sooner State. The initiative, which takes the form of a constitutional amendment, requires 155,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot. Proponents have three months to gather them. A medical marijuana initiative is already in the signature-gathering phase in the state.

Medical Marijuana

Contentious Hearing Today Over Proposed New Mexico Medical Marijuana Rules. The state Department of Health is holding a hearing today on proposed new rules for the medical marijuana program, and it is getting an earful from patients, growers, health care professionals, and even some state legislators. Proposals to reduce the number of plants patients can grow, impose stricter testing requirements, and increase fees are all proving unpopular. So is the department's insistence on holding the hearing today instead of postponing it to allow more time for people to respond to the proposed rules.

Kentucky VFW Passes Resolution Supporting Medical Marijuana for Veterans. The Kentucky state convention of Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) last Friday passed a resolution calling on the national VFW to support medical marijuana access for veterans through the Veterans Administration. The VA should begin "post haste" to provide medical marijuana to vets through VA Hospital System pharmacies, the resolution said. The resolution will be brought up at the VFW national convention in St. Louis next month.

Oregon HIDTA Issues Report Noting "Threat" of Medical Marijuana. The Oregon High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), a federal agency that coordinates law enforcement efforts against drug trafficking, has issued its annual threat assessment and finds marijuana use, cultivation, and distribution "pervasive." It blames the state's medical marijuana program for the "threat," complains about driving under the influence of marijuana (although its own graphs show a decline in such charges in recent years), and bemoans the fact that it can no longer sic child protective services on medical marijuana users and producers. It also highlighted the dangers of accidental ingestion of marijuana by children, even though the Oregon Poison Center reports only two to 15 cases a year, and even though there is no fatal overdose potential.

Drug Testing

Georgia Heeds USDA Warning; Will Not Drug Test Food Stamp Recipients. The office of Gov. Nathan Deal (R) announced last Friday that it will not drug test food stamp recipients under a newly passed law after both state and federal officials concluded it was illegal. The US Department of Agriculture informed the state several weeks ago that such a law violated federal food stamp program rules, and state Attorney General Sam Olens delivered an opinion to the governor agreeing with that assessment.

Law Enforcement

Drug War Dominates the Police Blotter in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Just another weekend in Jacksonville, and the police blotter shows that drug arrests account for the bulk of the activity. Of 25 arrests, 11 were for drug charges. There were also four people arrested for breaking and entering, three for larceny, two for eluding arrest, and a handful of other charges. Most of the drug arrests appear aimed at users and low-level dealers.

Illinois Man Challenges State's Heroin Overdose Homicide Law. Under state law, a person who provides heroin to someone who then overdoses and dies can be charged with murder. John Chappell, 22, of Aurora, has been charged under that statute with the death of a relative after delivering heroin to a third man who then delivered it to her. He has filed a motion to have the law declared unconstitutional on several grounds, including that crime is essentially involuntary manslaughter, but is punished more severely.

International

UN Chief Ban Ki-Moon Gets Coca Birthday Cake in Bolivia. Ban Ki-moon's birthday was last Saturday, and Bolivian President Evo Morales helped him celebrate it by presenting him with a birthday cake containing coca. Ki-moon is in Bolivia for a meeting of the G77 group of countries. Ki-moon didn't actually publicly take a bite of the coca cake, but he thanked Bolivians for their "big, broad heart... and great wisdom."

Albanian Marijuana Growing Crackdown Sparks Clashes with Police. Hundreds of Albanian police have stormed and occupied the village of Lazarat after marijuana growers fired RPGS, mortars, and machine guns at them as they attempted to raid the village a day earlier, the Associated Press reported. The village is home to growers who produce an estimated 900 metric tons of weed each year. No injuries were reported, and the gunmen are said to have fled to the hills, although the sound of gunfire was still being reported hours later. A TV crew covering the raid was robbed at gunpoint by masked men who burned their vehicle, Albania's A1 channel reported.

Chronicle AM -- June 12, 2014

Marijuana reform is exciting some third-party activity, New York's medical marijuana bill is still alive amidst ongoing last-minute negotiations, the New York Senate has passed a package of anti-opiate bills that will bring on more drug war, a high-level commission calls for radical drug policy changes in West Africa, and more. Let's get to it:

coca plant (unodc.org)
Marijuana Policy

Minnesota Independence Party Runs on Legalization Platform. The Independence Party of Minnesota, a fiscally conservative and socially liberal state party, is making marijuana legalization a key part of its 2014 platform. The party, which is fielding candidates in a number of statewide and legislative races, is descended from the Jesse Ventura-era Reform Party. Its gubernatorial candidate got 12% of the vote in the 2010 election.

New Jersey Democrats Try to Kick NJ Weedman Off Ballot. Ed Forchion, better known as the NJ Weedman, is running for a congressional seat on the Legalize Marijuana Party ticket, but the state Democratic Party issued a last-minute (or past the last minute) challenge to his candidacy Monday afternoon. The Democrats claim he is one signature short of qualifying and that he registered to vote last month in California, where he sometimes resides. NJ Weedman says he will fight the challenge.

Medical Marijuana

New York Medical Marijuana Bill Still Alive; Talks Underway. Last minute negotiations to pass the Compassionate Care Act continued in Albany today. The measure was transferred out of the Senate Finance Committee, where the committee chair said yesterday he would not allow a vote, to the Senate Rules Committee. Bill sponsor Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island) said she is in talks with legislative leaders and Gov. Andrew Cuomo's (D) office to keep the bill alive. Cuomo said earlier today that he still has "serious questions" about the bill. Stay tuned.

South Carolina Democrats Overwhelmingly Favor Medical Marijuana in Non-Binding Primary Question. South Carolina Democrats voting in the party primary Tuesday supported a non-binding question about allowing for medical marijuana use by a margin of three-to-one. The state passed a limited CBD medical marijuana bill this year, but that will only help a small number of patients.

Opiates

New York Senate Passes Package of Heroin Bills; Would Intensify Drug War. The state Senate earlier this week passed a massive package of bills aimed at dealing with increased levels of heroin and other opiate use. While the package includes prevention and harm reduction measures, such as increasing access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone, other bills in the package seek to limit access to prescription opiates for acute pain, and the majority of the 23-bill package are law enforcement measures that aim to take the state back in the direction of the draconian Rockefeller drug laws of the 1970s. Read the complete list of bills passed here. Whether any of these will become law remains to be seen; the session ends next week.

International

West Africa Needs to Consider Drug Decriminalization, Report Says. The West Africa Commission on Drugs, headed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, issued a report today calling for radical policy changes, including drug decriminalization, to reduce regional instability in West Africa exacerbated by the illicit trade in drugs. Otherwise, the region faces becoming "a new front line in the failed 'war on drugs,'" the report says. It also calls for drugs to be treated primarily as a public health issue. The report is Not Just in Transit: Drugs, the State, and Society in West Africa.

Spain to Start Including Illicit Drug Trade in GDP. Spanish officials said today they will begin including estimated revenues from the drug trade, as well as prostitution, in calculating the country's Gross Domestic Product. Other European countries are doing the same as part of new European Union requirements that they must state percentages of GDP derived from illicit activities.

Peru Coca Output Declined Last Year, Prices Soared Amidst Eradication Efforts. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported Wednesday that, under the pressure of eradication campaigns, coca leaf production declined 18% last year, but that prices jumped nearly 50%, to more than $1300 a kilogram. The UNODC noted the changes in its annual Peruvian coca survey. Cultivation fell last year after expanding for the seven previous years. Peru is either the world's number one or number two coca producer; we'll have to see what UNODC says about Colombian production later this year. Bolivia is number three.

Mexico Awaiting DNA Test Results to Confirm Death of Sinaloa Cartel Leader "El Azul" Esparragoza. Mexican officials are waiting for DNA test results that would confirm the death by natural causes of Sinaloa cartel leader Juan Jose "El Azul" Esparragoza, which was first reported by the Sinaloa news weekly RioDoce on Sunday. Family members have reportedly confirmed his death, but the government is still waiting to make it official.

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares 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.)

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

A Tennessee police chief gets caught misbehaving, so does a strung out Pennsylvania deputy, and a San Diego husband and wife cop team go down for dealing. Let's get to it:

In Graysville, Tennessee, the Graysville police chief was arrested last Monday on charges he was improperly disposing of seized vehicles and dipping into seized cash. Police Chief Jason Erik Redden is accused of either taking for himself or returning to the original owner three of the vehicles, and is also being held responsible for $4,128 in missing seized cash and fees paid to the department. He is charged with seven counts of misconduct in office, two counts of theft over $1,000, and one count of theft under $500.

In Washington, Pennsylvania, a Washington County sheriff's deputy was arrested last Wednesday after he sold the opiate maintenance drug suboxone to an undercover informant. Deputy Matthew Miller, 29, became former Deputy Miller the same day when the sheriff fired him after his arrest. Miller allegedly told the informant he was strung out on heroin and was selling the pills to get money.

In San Diego, a husband and wife pair of San Diego police officers were arrested last Thursday on multiple drug charges amid an investigation into corruption in the department. Officer Bryce Charpentier is charged with possessing and transporting drugs, possessing a loaded firearm while under the influence, and conspiracy. His wife, Officer Jennifer Charpentier is charged with possessing, transporting, and selling drugs, and conspiracy. They have both been put on administrative leave.

Chronicle AM -- June 10, 2014

New York City residents are still getting arrested for marijuana at the rate of 80 a day, New York state residents face another year without medical marijuana passing, Philly heads for decriminalization of a sort, the Justice Department supports retroactivity for recent sentencing reforms, the Sinaloa cartel has apparently lost another key leader, and more. Let's get to it:

NYC marijuana arrests just keep on coming. (www.nyc.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Lawsuit Claims Marijuana Taxes Violate Fifth Amendment. Denver attorney Robert Corry Jr. has filed a lawsuit on behalf of an unnamed marijuana retailer arguing that paying pot taxes violates a citizen's Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination since marijuana remains illegal under federal law. The lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction to stop the state from collecting taxes and the return of all taxes collected. A similar lawsuit has been filed in Washington state by attorney Douglas Hiatt.

New York City Marijuana Arrests So Far This Year at Same Pace as Last Year. New Yorkers are still being arrested for small-time pot possession in high numbers under new Mayor Bill DeBlasio (D). According to the Marijuana Arrest Project, so far this year, NYPD is arresting an average of 80 people a day for pot possession, compared to 78 a day throughout 2013 under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R). Another constant is that blacks and Latinos continue to make up the vast majority of marijuana possession busts. They accounted for 87% of pot arrests last year and 86% so far this year. Click on the title link for more details.

Philadelphia City Council Committee Approves Decriminalization Measure. A city council committee yesterday approved a bill that would make possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana a code violation punishable by a $25 fine -- but would still give police officers the discretion to arrest. But Mayor Michael Nutter opposes the bill. His Public Safety Director, Mike Resnick, said the opposition stems the discretional arrest provision, which he said could create unfair situations. A final vote is likely next week.

Medical Marijuana

North Carolina "March Against Fear" Aims to Generate Support for Medical Marijuana. North Carolinian Todd Stimson is leading a 259-mile "March Against Fear" from Asheville to Raleigh to help bring attention to a pending medical marijuana bill, House Bill 1161. The bill was filed last month and is now languishing in the House Judiciary Committee. Click on the title link to join up or get more info.

Key New York GOP Legislator Says He Will Not Allow Vote on Medical Marijuana. Senate Finance Committee Chairman John DeFrancisco (R) said today he would not allow a vote on the Compassionate Care Act, sponsored by Sen. Diane Savino (D). "The Savino bill will not come out of my committee, the Finance Committee," he said. "You don't have any kind of reasonable research on the effects. You have people coming in here every day trying to ban e-cigarettes and use of tobacco in other ways." He said he and other Senate Republicans may be open to legislation that would not allow marijuana to be smoked. The session ends next Thursday.

Clark County, Nevada, Commissioners Approve 18 Dispensary Licenses. There will soon be 18 medical marijuana dispensaries operating in unincorporated parts of Clark County, the home of Las Vegas. County commissioners approved the licenses yesterday. Nevada approved medical marijuana in 2000, but only approved dispensaries last year.

Drug Testing

Repeated School Drug Tests of Pennsylvania 10-Year-Old Provoke Scorching Editorial. The editorial board at the Pennsylvania news website PennLive has penned a strong editorial condemning the drug testing policy at the Susquenita Middle School, which has resulted in a 10-year-old girl be tested three times so far. The editorial notes that state law requires that school districts actually show there is problem and show that drug testing helps, but that Susquenita has failed to do either. "Repeatedly drug testing a trouble-free 10-year-old student like Natalie Cassell shows how ridiculous this kind of random snooping is. Innocent students are treated like criminals, while drug-using students can dodge the tests simply by deciding not to join after-school activities," PennLive noted. "At a time when school districts across the state are pleading for more state funding, surely Susquenita schools can find a better uses of money than an unproven, highly invasive program that randomly tests innocent 10-year olds.

Sentencing

Justice Department Supports Making Drug Sentence Cuts Retroactive. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Tuesday that the Justice Department is formally supporting a US Sentencing Commission proposal to allow some nonviolent drug offenders currently doing time in federal prisons to seek sentence reductions. The proposal would extend sentencing reforms already approved by the commission by making them retroactive.

Smarter Sentencing Act Gains Four More Sponsors. The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 picked up four more cosponsors Monday, three Democrats and one Republican. They are Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL), Rep. Tony Cardenas (D), and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). The measure now has 37 cosponsors, 24 Democrats and 13 Republicans. It has been sitting in the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations since January.

Prescription Opiates

Massachusetts Governor Unveils Plan to Fight Opiate Use. Gov. Deval Patrick (D) today released a $20 package of proposals to deal with "the opioid addiction epidemic" in his state. He is calling for a summit of regional governors, as well as streamlined access to treatment, better prevention measures, and "strengthening safe prescribing and dispensing practices" to "minimize diversion and misuse." That last bit is likely to raise concerns among people worried about adequate access to prescription opiates. But unlike some other state-level responses to rising levels of opiate use, Patrick's did not contain a law enforcement component. The link leads to the full press release.

International

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

Spanish Authorities Close Down Barcelona Cannabis Club for Selling… Cannabis. A Barcelona cannabis club has been closed after police spotted a man approaching tourists and taking them to the club to score. Under Spanish law, one can grow marijuana for personal use, but not sell it. The cannabis clubs have sprung up as a way for consumers to pool their growing resources. Members pay an annual membership fee for a chance to share in the proceeds of the collectively cultivated cannabis, but they're not supposed to sell it.

Chronicle AM -- June 9, 2014

In California, all eyes now turn toward 2016 for marijuana legalization, Washington state's first retail marijuana store will open soon, Mexico's president is willing to debate marijuana legalization, British activists are planting the seeds of change, and more. Let's get to it:

Marijuana Policy

Last California 2014 Legalization Initiative is Dead. The last remaining campaign to put a marijuana legalization initiative on the 2014 ballot is dead. The secretary of state's office announced last Friday that the Marijuana Control, Legalization and Revenue Act of 2014, sponsored by San Jose interests had failed to gather enough signatures by its cutoff date. That means all eyes turn to 2016. See the next item.

California Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform Launches Grassroots Campaign for Marijuana Legalization. The Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform (CCPR) announced today it was launching a grassroots campaign to legalize marijuana in the Golden State. CCPR already has the backing of most national drug reform organizations, as well as the ACLU, the California NAACP, and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). A new Reform CA web site and Facebook page are now up, and CCPR says they have 120,000 people on their list so far.

Texas GOP Spurns Marijuana Reform. Meeting at its state convention in Fort Worth over the weekend, the Texas Republican Party quickly rejected adding support for medical marijuana to its platform and even more quickly rejected a legalization plank.

Colorado Governor Signs Marijuana Banking Bill. Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) last Friday signed into law legislation designed to allow marijuana businesses to use a series of cooperatives a means of accessing basic banking services. The move is aimed at allowing those businesses to move away from cash-only operations, but still needs approval from the Federal Reserve.

Washington State's First Marijuana Retail Store Will Open July 1. The first legal non-medical marijuana retail shop will open in Spokane on July 1. Kouchlock Productions says it will be open, but will set quantity limits until more supply is available. Koucklock is also a licensed producer, but has only been growing its first crop for two months. More retail outlets should open in coming weeks; the state says 334 will be allowed.

Drug Policy

DPA, MAPS Release Report on DEA Obstructionism and Rejection of Science. The Drug Policy Alliance and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies today released a new report highlighting DEA obstructionism and the rejection of science, primarily around medical marijuana, but also including examinations of how the DEA can move with lightning speed when it comes to prohibiting drugs, as opposed to its lethargy regarding a series of medical marijuana rescheduling petitions. The report calls for responsibility for drug scheduling to be removed from the DEA and for an end to the government's monopoly on research-grade marijuana. DPA and MAPS will also hold a teleconference Wednesday with Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Steven Cohen (D-TN) and Dr. Carl Hart.

Law Enforcement

$10 Million Federal Grant for Vermont Anti-Heroin Drug Task Forces Wins Senate Committee Vote. A proposal from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to fund a $10 million competitive grant for state law enforcement drug task forces was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee last Thursday. The grant is an innovative way for Vermont to get around restrictions in the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grants program, which are based on formulas that assess size and need. Instead, this competitive grant would prioritize locales that have high per capita treatment admissions for opiates. But it is still a 100% law enforcement approach.

International

Mexico's President Says Marijuana Legalization Should Be Debated. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto said Sunday that while he doesn't personally support marijuana legalization, he favors debating the issue, and that Mexico could follow the lead of US states that have legalized it. Marijuana prohibition is "a failed policy," he said. "It needs to be reviewed. I repeat, I'm not in favor of legalization, this is a personal conviction. But we can't continue on this road of inconsistency between the legalization we've had in some places, particularly in the most important consumer market, the United States, and in Mexico where we continue to criminalize production of marijuana," he added.

Guatemala President Calls Costa Rica President "Strategic Partner" in Drug Reform Debate. Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina said last Friday that Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis is "a strategic partner" in the search for alternatives to the militarized prohibitionist drug policies currently in effect. "We feel that Costa Rica is a partner that brings an important vision in this battle to change the drug policy that is today based on prohibition," Perez Molina said. Solis does not support drug legalization, but he has expressed interest in further decriminalizing drug use in Costa Rica.

British Activists Planting Marijuana Seeds at Well-Known Landmarks. Marijuana seeds aren't illegal in Britain, and the Feed the Birds campaign sponsored by the London Cannabis Club is taking advantage of that to plant them at well-known landmarks around the country, including London's Tower Bridge and Big Ben. The project is aimed at decriminalizing marijuana and supporting medical marijuana users, and the seeds they are planting are from a strain with good medicinal properties, organizers said. "We've been doing this for years under a media blackout and we've grown everywhere you can imagine," said founder Finn Hemingway. "This isn't original, it's a return to the days before prohibition and we don't take much notice of whether it's legal or not. By helping medical users, we can get them away from low quality cannabis and dealers and make them self-sufficient." Police said it would be difficult to prosecute the seed-planters.

Utah SWAT Team Kills Drug Fugitive in Standoff

A man wanted on drug and other arrest warrants who barricaded himself inside a West Haven auto body shop was shot and killed Wednesday afternoon when he allegedly pointed a weapon at SWAT officers after a standoff lasting several hours. Kristopher Chase Simmons, 35, becomes the 21st person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, citing police sources, Ogden police detectives attempting to arrest Simmons on "several drug-related and evading police felony warrants" located him at the auto body shop, but he and a woman with him fled into the shop, and he barricaded himself in a car.

What later happened to the woman is unclear (see below).

SWAT officers were called to the scene and hours of negotiations ensued, but when negotiations proved fruitless, SWAT officers entered the building.

"Simmons pointed a gun at the officers and two of them returned fire, wounding Simmons," Sgt. Lane Findlay of the Weber County Sheriff's Office wrote in a press statement Wednesday night.

But one commenter on a Standard-Examiner story about the incident and Simmons' criminal history had a decidedly different take on what went down:

"My friend is the 'mystery girl' the cops speak of that they could not locate or didn't know if she was real. She was real and she was inside hiding during the stand off and saw everything," wrote the commenter, who identified herself as Mona Little. "SIMMONS DID NOT HAVE A GUN. SIMMONS HAD BARRICADED HIMSELF INSIDE A CAR IN THE SHOP AND HAD A BLANKET OVER HIM. THE COPS SHOT HIM POINT BLANK IN THE CHEST AS HE WAS BEGGING THEM NOT TO! AFTER HE WAS MURDERED THE POLICE SET UP THE STAGE WITH 11 REHEARSALS, REFUSING TO LET THE CSI IN UNTILL THEY PRACTICED WHAT THEY WERE GOING TO CLAIM HAPPENED AND GOT ALL THEIR DUCKS IN A ROW, EVEN RE-ARRANGING THE CRIME SCENE TO WORK IN THEIR FAVOR!!! THIS IS MURDER BUT WHO WILL POLICE THE POLICE? THIS IS THE TRUTH."

Sgt. Findlay told the Standard-Examiner yesterday that a detective had indeed seen a woman, who police believed was an associate of Simmons, make her way into the building while others were being evacuated, but that there had been no sign of her since.

"It's not certain where she went," he said. "She could possibly have slipped out."

Police don't know who she is and she could be difficult to identify, he said. "I know there are detectives working on it."

West Haven , UT
United States

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