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DEA Facing Fallout from Deadly Honduras Raid

In the Honduran village where four residents were killed last week by gunfire from a helicopter on a US-backed anti-drug operation complete with DEA agents on board the chopper, feelings continue to run high. On Monday, they told the Associated Press that DEA agents also accompanied Honduran commandos who stormed into homes and mistreated residents after the raid, but the agency denies that.

In the predawn hours of May 11, Honduran National Police and DEA agents were searching for a boat supposedly carrying a load of cocaine when they said they came under fire from the river. The Hondurans opened fire, but the boat they attacked was a small fishing vessel, not a smuggling craft, and the attack left two pregnant women and two others dead and four other people wounded.

The helicopter is owned by the US State Department and was one of four being used in the operation, which had already resulted in the seizure of cocaine from the banks of the river. Police on the ground and the door-gunner for one helicopter opened up on the boat.

The DEA said its agents did not open fire and did not participate in heavy-handed raids in the immediate aftermath. But villagers in the town of Ahuas said masked agents then landed in their community and broke down doors, looking for a trafficker they called "El Renco." The witnesses referred to some of the agents as "gringos" and said they were speaking English.

After the commandos left, angry villagers formed a machete-wielding mob and burned government installations and four homes belonging to families associated with El Renco. Police Chief Filiberto Pravia Rodriguez said he tried to stop the mob, but had to run for his life.

The incident comes as the US is ramping up its support of Honduran anti-drug efforts. The Obama administration is increasing the amount of anti-drug assistance and is working with the Honduran military to create forward operating bases to fight the cocaine traffic from Colombia en route to North America.

Human Rights watch has called for an investigation into the killings.

"It is critical that both Honduran and US authorities ensure that the killings are thoroughly investigated to determine whether the use of lethal force was justified," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for the group. "If evidence demonstrates that security forces violated international standards, they must be held accountable."

At least one congressman, Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) is calling for a review of US military assistance to Honduras, where the Honduran military took part in a coup in 2009 and where continuing human rights violations are alleged to be taking place.

"I have consistently expressed deep concerns regarding the danger of pouring US security assistance into a situation where Honduran security forces are involved in serious human rights violations," he told National Public Radio last week. "The problems are getting worse, not better, making such a review all the more urgent."

Local leaders aren't waiting for investigations or reviews. They want the DEA out now.

"For centuries we have been a peaceful people who live in harmony with nature, but today we declared these Americans to be persona non grata in our territory," the leaders of five indigenous groups said in a press statement last week picked up by the AP.

Ahuas
Honduras

DEA Now Ensnared in Colombia Prostitute Scandal

First it was Secret Service agents and members of the military who were part of President Obama's security detail during his trip to the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, last month. Now, allegations of dalliances with prostitutes there have spread to the DEA.

The Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General is investigating possible misconduct by at least two DEA agents, federal officials told the Associated Press Monday. ABC News reported the same day that at least three agents are involved.

The alleged misconduct is unrelated to the Secret Service scandal, but evidence of it developed as the Secret Service investigated.  The DEA said it was making its employees available to be interviewed by investigators.

"The Drug Enforcement Administration was provided information from the Secret Service unrelated to the Cartagena hotel Secret Service incident, which DEA immediately followed up on, making DEA employees available to be interviewed by the Department of Justice's Office of Inspector General," a DEA spokesperson said in a statement. "DEA takes allegations of misconduct very seriously and will take appropriate personnel action, if warranted, upon the conclusion of the OIG investigation," the statement said.

Sen. Susan Collins, ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee said in a statement Tuesday that she had been informed of the allegations against the DEA agents on May 4, but had been asked to stay quiet until the agents involved could be returned to the US and questioned.

"It's disturbing that we may be uncovering a troubling culture that spans more than one law enforcement agency," Collins said. "In addition to the Secret Service scandal, we now learn that at least two DEA agents apparently entertained female foreign national masseuses in the Cartagena apartment of one of the agents. The evidence uncovered thus far indicates that this likely was not just a one-time incident."

Twelve Secret Service agents have been fired or disciplined in the prostitution scandal, and 12 military personnel have also been implicated. Whether any DEA agents will take a fall remains to be seen.

Cartagena
Colombia

House of Representatives Votes Down Defunding Medical Marijuana Raids [FEATURE]

Four US representatives introduced an amendment to the Justice Department appropriations bill, House Resolution 5326, which would bar the agency from spending funds to attack medical marijuana operations in states where it is legal. The bill was being considered Wednesday, before failing on a voice vote Wednesday evening.

A roll call vote was taken later, with the amendment failing 163-262 -- 50 Democrats opposed it and 28 Republicans supported it. While the total number of "ayes" was almost identical to the last time the amendment was offered several years ago, that reflects the larger number of Republicans in the House. Both Democrats and Republicans voted for the amendment in greater percentages than in the past. [Ed: We will publish analysis of the voting breakdown this week.]

Rep. Hinchey addresses a 2005 press conference on medical marijuana, as Montel Williams awaits his turn at the podium.
The House heard Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA), Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Jerold Nadler (D-NY), and Steve Cohen (D-TN) speak in favor of the amendment, while the most notable opposition came from committee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA).

Hinchey was a cosponsor of the amendment, as was Rohrabacher, of Huntington Beach, and his California colleagues Reps. amie Farr (D-Carmel) and Tom McClintock (R-Auburn).

As a presidential candidate, then-Senator Obama said his administration would not use its resources to undermine state medical marijuana laws, especially if people were following their state’s law. At first, the administration lived up to his word. Shortly after he was elected president, the Department of Justice issued a memorandum to US Attorneys urging them not to waste taxpayer dollars and law enforcement resources arresting and prosecuting people following their state’s medical marijuana law.

But according to the medical marijuana defense group Americans for Safe Access, the DEA has undertaken more than 200 raids against medical marijuana dispensaries and associated businesses since it took office in 2009, with most of them coming in the past year. Beginning in March 2011 with raids on dispensaries across Montana, the Justice Department has shifted its stance on medical marijuana, becoming much more aggressive in enforcing federal law.

It's not just the DEA. Federal prosecutors in dispensary states, such as California, Colorado, and Montana, have also been aggressively targeting medical marijuana operations. They typically try to intimidate dispensary operators and/or their landlords in voluntarily closing their doors by issuing threat letters in which they warn that operators and/or landlords could face civil asset forfeiture or even criminal prosecution if they do not comply.

The threat letters are based on arbitrary standards having nothing to do with state medical marijuana laws. Instead, federal prosecutors typically allege that targeted dispensaries are within 1,000 feet of a school or playground. There is no federal law disallowing dispensaries in those areas, but there is a federal sentencing enhancement for drug law violations within them, and federal prosecutors are using that statute as a measuring rod for deciding which dispensaries to pick on.

The federal crackdown has, to some extent, worked. The Montana medical marijuana distribution scene was all but wiped out by federal raids and prosecutions, dozens of dispensaries have been forced out of business in Colorado, and more than 200 have closed in California.

But medical marijuana supporters and advocates have been mobilizing their forces, too. The crackdown has been criticized by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and drug reform friend Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), as well as elected officials in all three states and local Democratic Party organizations in the San Francisco Bay area.

And this week, the fight came to the House.

"It is time for the federal government to stop targeting the legal vendors that are providing safe access to this treatment, and instead focus limited resources on those who sell illicit drugs," Farr said in a statement. "The amendment I will offer with my colleagues will work to assure funds under the Department of Justice do not target the safe access to treatment patients need."

A plethora of medical marijuana and drug reform groups and even labor unions were mobilizing their members to contact Congress this week in a bid to show popular support for reining in the feds. Among them was the Drug Policy Alliance.

"Both Democrats and Republicans are telling the Obama administration: enough is enough, stop wasting taxpayer money to undermine state medical marijuana laws, said Bill Piper, the group's director of national affairs. "President Obama needs to realize his assault on patient access is not just immoral -- but a serious political miscalculation. For more than a decade, polling has consistently shown that 70% to 80% of Americans support medical marijuana."

For the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which represents dispensary workers in California and Colorado, smothering the federal crackdown is not just about compassion, it's about jobs and the economy.

"The UFCW supports the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment," the group said in a statement Wednesday. "Medical marijuana laws have been enacted to allow patients safe and legal access to appropriately produced and compliantly dispensed medical marijuana in the safest possible environment and UFCW members in the medical cannabis industry work in accordance with state laws to provide safe and effective medical treatment for persons suffering from cancer and other serious medical conditions.

"At a time when millions of hardworking Americans are out of work and still struggling to make ends meet, the use of taxpayer money for the misguided targeting and prosecution of an industry that provides Americans with good middle class jobs with benefits is counterproductive. The US Justice Department should not use the fewer resources it has to focus on targeting patients and dispensaries abiding by state law. That is a problem that the Hinchey-Rohrabacher Amendment will solve and the UFCW wholeheartedly supports it," the union said.

The political calculus behind the Obama administration's crackdown on medical marijuana is unclear. What is certain is that the opposition to it is broad and cuts across party lines.

"History is calling on President Obama to protect terminally ill patients from suffering, and he is dangerously close to falling on the wrong side," said Piper. "He will continue to pay a political price as long as his administration continues to waste taxpayer money undermining state law."

The Obama administration may have won a victory Wednesday night, but even victories come with a cost.

Washington, DC
United States

Congress Voting on Medical Marijuana THIS WEEK!

protest against federal medical marijuana crackdown, San Francisco, April 2012
Dear reformer:

For the past 16 years states have called for safe access to medical marijuana. But Congress has failed to act, to the detriment of patients and providers.

That could change this week. Supporters of medical marijuana in Congress are offering an Appropriations amendment that would forbid the Dept. of Justice from interfering with state medical marijuana laws. The amendment comes at a time when pressure has been mounting on Pres. Obama to explain his administration's crackdown, the latest criticism from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

I'm tired of seeing friends who stood up to help patients lose their livelihoods after federal raids, some even prosecuted and imprisoned. I'm tired of watching DEA officials continue to obstruct FDA-approved research on medical marijuana, research that could have resolved things through that official process long ago. But things will only change if people like you who care about the issue and see through those deceptions speak up.

And so I'm asking for your help. Would you make a phone call today to your US Representative's office, asking for a YES vote on the Rohrabacher-Hinchey-McClintock-Farr medical marijuana amendment to the Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations bill, H.R. 5326? Tell your Rep it's time to respect state medical marijuana laws and patients' rights! You can reach your Rep's office (or find our who your Rep is) by calling the Congressional Switchboard at (202) 224-3121, or you can look up the contact info through our online Legislative Center. (Use the "search by zip code" box.)

It couldn't be a more important time. Please call Congress to turn this challenging time in drug policy into a pivotal time for reform instead -- thank you for taking action.

Sincerely,

David Borden, Executive Director
StoptheDrugWar.org
Washington, DC
http://stopthedrugwar.org

P.S. You can help StoptheDrugWar.org by letting us know you've taken action and what your Representative's staffs had to say. You can also help by forwarding this alert and by urging people to sign up for our email list, our Facebook and Twitter pages and our RSS feeds. We also gratefully welcome donations.

Medical Marijuana Update

The national battle over medical marijuana is heating up, Connecticut is about to become the 17th medical marijuana state, and state and local battles continue. And so do the DEA raids. Busy, busy, busy. Let's get to it:

National

Last Wednesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi criticized the federal crackdown on medical marijuana. Listening to her home town constituents, the San Francisco representative called on the administration to back off from the raids and prosecutions. In doing so, she joined the San Francisco and Alameda County Democratic Party organizations, and various state and local elected officials.

Last Saturday, 34 groups opposing medical marijuana sent a letter to President Obama urging him to "continue to enforce federal drug laws in states that allow 'medical marijuana.'" The effort was organized by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America and the signees were mostly law enforcement, treatment industry, and community anti-drug groups.

This week, drug reform and medical marijuana advocacy groups mobilized in support of an amendment to the Justice Department appropriations bill that would cut funding for the agency's offensive against medical marijuana. The amendment failed on a voice vote Wednesday night.

California

Last Tuesday, the Milpitas city council voted to reaffirm its ban on dispensaries. City leaders had been considering allowing them in order to create tax revenues, but decided to hold off pending clarification of state laws by the Supreme Court.

Also last Tuesday, Yuba County adopted a medical marijuana nuisance ordinance on a 4-1 vote by the board of supervisors. The ordinance creates limits on how big a space people with valid medical marijuana cards could use to grow plants, depending on the size of the parcel. Earlier, there were loud objections about the 100 square foot limit on grows on parcels of less than an acre. Growers are threatening a lawsuit.

Last Wednesday, the DEA raided a Santa Barbara dispensary. The raiders hit Pacific Coast Collective, but no arrests were made. A sign posted on the door that same day read: "Due to a raid by the federal government, we will be closed until further notice. We are sorry for any inconvenience this has caused."

Also last Wednesday, the LAPD raided an Eagle Rock dispensary. The American Eagle Collective was hit and police on the scene said it would be permanently shut down. The collective is one of more than two dozen that are being sued by the city of Los Angeles for allegedly violating city zoning laws. Two other Eagle Rock dispensaries have been sued for operating within 600 feet of a school. The city plans to seek a preliminary injunction against American Eagle on May 31.

Last Thursday, the DEA and local police hit a medical marijuana grow in Santa Barbara. It was part of a declared war on dispensaries in the county by federal prosecutors. "All known marijuana stores in Santa Barbara County are now the subject of federal enforcement actions," according to a statement from the US Attorney's Office. The feds also filed three asset forfeiture lawsuits, two against dispensaries and one against the grow up.

Last Friday, the DEA raided a Glendora dispensary. The raiders hit the Glendora Healing Clinic and arrested two customers on outstanding warrants. Agents seized money and marijuana, but did not arrest the operators. The dispensary had only been open a few weeks.

Also last Friday, Vallejo police raided their fifth dispensary since February. They hit Nature's Love and arrested at least one person. The identity of the man taken into custody Friday, and if anything was seized from the dispensary was not immediately known.

On Tuesday, protestors picketed the Garden Grove city council over the city's recent talks with federal authorities about helping them crack down on dispensaries. They also gave council members an earful once the meeting got underway.

Also on Tuesday, Tulare County amended its code enforcement measures for medical grows. Now, for the first time, the county can use administrative code enforcement proceedings that could lead to a series of penalties that include $100-a-day fines for each violation of the county's medical marijuana ordinance.The ordinance specifies where medical marijuana can be grown and distributed, along with other requirements, which include requiring the plants be grown in enclosed buildings with security.

Also on Tuesday, the Palm Springs city council approved a fourth dispensary. Three permitted dispensaries already operate in the city, as do at least a half dozen unlicensed ones, clustered in an area known as "Little Amsterdam."

Also on Tuesday, Nevada County approved marijuana cultivation ordinances on a 4-1 vote of the board of supervisors. The ordinances limit cultivation to 100 square feet in parcels smaller than two acres, 300 square feet in parcels smaller than five acres, 400 square feet in parcels less than 10 acres, and 600 square feet in parcels smaller than 20 acres. Unhappy residents shouted that supervisors should be voted out, and growers are threatening a lawsuit over the restrictions.

Also on Tuesday, the Vallejo city council retreated from plans to regulate dispensaries. They cited uncertainty under state law and fears of federal prosecution if they regulate. Residents accused the council of cowardice, but the council was not swayed. 

Also on Tuesday, Lake County came out against a June ballot measure that would give "right to farm" privileges to medical marijuana growers. The board of supervisors voted to oppose Measure D, which would also allow medical pot growers to cultivate up to 12 mature plants in residential backyards of less than a half acre outside of city limits in Lake County. More plants could be grown on larger parcels, with a maximum of 84 plants allowed on properties that are seven acres or more. The ballot measure is opposed by county and police officials, the local Sierra Club, the Chamber of Commerce and state and local farm bureaus. Opponents say it will lower property values and increase pot-related crime.

Colorado

On Monday, a Denver attorney reported she had lost her liability insurance because part of her practice involves representing medical-marijuana businesses. Ann Toney's insurance company, Hanover Insurance Group, explained that her practice "does not meet current underwriting guidelines because of the following risk factors: Area of practice involving medical marijuana." This is believed to be the first time in the nation an attorney has lost her insurance because of doing medical marijuana-related work.

Also on Monday, 25 more dispensaries were ordered to close by federal prosecutors. All of the targeted dispensaries are within 1,000 feet of schools, which does not violate Colorado law, but which federal prosecutors are using as an arbitrary benchmark for targeting them.

On Wednesday, the state legislature adjourned without passing a drugged driving bill that would have criminalized drivers solely on the basis of having five nanograms or more of THC per milliliter of blood in their systems. The bill had passed the Senate, but didn't get a floor vote in the House.

Connecticut

Last Saturday, the state Senate approved a medical marijuana bill. The measure had already passed the House, and Gov. Dan Malloy (D) has already said he will sign it. Connecticut will become the 17th medical marijuana state.

Iowa

On Sunday, news came that three out of four state Democratic district platforms support medical marijuana.

Michigan

Last Thursday, the House passed a package of four medical marijuana bills that advocates don't think very much of. The Marijuana Policy Project said it is "opposed to the package because of concerns that the bills would compromise patients’ privacy and subject medical marijuana to more onerous restrictions than those that apply to more dangerous prescribed narcotics." It is urging supporters to voice their objections to House bills 4834, 4851, and 4856.

Montana

On Monday, advocates suing to repeal Montana's restrictive medical marijuana law said they need more donations to continue. The Montana Cannabis Industry Association said the case has cost about $150,000 and it needs another $100,000 to take the case to the state Supreme Court.

Also on Monday, the number of medical marijuana patients had dropped below 11,000, continuing a steep decline since the number of card-holders peaked at more than 31,000 at the end of last May. The number of providers has also declined by more than 90%, to slightly more than 400. This in the wake of a federal crackdown and the state legislature passing very restrictive legislation.

Rhode Island

On Wednesday, the state Senate approved a compromise dispensary bill. It would restrict dispensaries to 1,500 ounces of usable marijuana at one time and limit cultivation to 150 plants. Patients and caregivers would be able to sell their excess to the dispensaries. The bill now must be approved by the House. Dispensaries had been stalled after Gov. Lincoln Chafee (I) quailed in the face of federal threats; this compromise legislation should assuage his worries.

Wisconsin

Late last month, the Wisconsin Medical Society voted to adopt a new position on medical marijuana. It calls for further controlled studies on medical marijuana and a review of the plant's Schedule I status.

DEA Forgets Student in Cell, Pols Want Answers

The DEA and its parent agency, the Justice Department, have come under increasing criticism over the case of a University of California-San Diego student who was swept up in a drug raid, placed in a holding cell, and forgotten. When 23-year-old Daniel Chong was finally discovered five days later, his condition was so poor he was hospitalized for three days in intensive care.

The DEA has since apologized for the incident, but US representatives and senators from California are demanding answers, and Chong and his attorney have filed a $20 million lawsuit against the agency.

Chong was one of nine people swept up in a raid targeting Ecstasy traffickers early in the morning of April 21. Chong said that he had gone to the residence the night before -- the marijuana holiday of 4/20 -- "to get high" and was arrested along with the others the next morning. DEA agents booked all nine, then transported seven to local jails, released one person, and apparently forgot all about Chong.

In an interview with the Associated Press last Wednesday, Chong said that after waiting hours in the cell, which had no toilet or running water, he screamed and kicked the door, to no avail. As the days dragged on, he said he realized he was trapped. On day three, he began to hallucinate. He urinated on a metal bench so he could drink his urine to quench his thirst. He eventually began to accept that he would die in the cell. He bit into his glasses to break them and used a shard of glass to carve "Sorry, Mom" on his arm as a farewell, but only got as far as the letter "S".

He said he was considering using the glass to kill himself and end his suffering. "I pretty much lost my mind," he said. He also admitted ingesting some methamphetamine that had been left hidden in a mattress in the cell by a previous occupant.

Then, on day five, a DEA agent opened the door to find the still handcuffed Chong covered in his own feces. "Where did you come from?" the agent asked.

The engineering student for taken to a local hospital, where he was treated for dehydration, kidney failure, cramps and a perforated esophagus. He had lost 15 pounds. He spent three days in intensive care and two more days at the hospital before being released.

San Diego DEA Special Agent in Charge William Sherman apologized to Chong, though not directly, and said in a statement he was "deeply troubled" by the incident. Sherman said he had ordered an extensive review of policies and procedures at the office.

That wasn't good enough several members of the state's congressional delegation, who have demanded answers from the DEA and the Justice Department.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) last Wednesday called on US Attorney General Eric Holder to begin an "immediate and thorough" Justice Department investigation into the matter. "After the investigation is completed, I ask that you please provide me with the results and the actions the department will take to make sure those responsible are held accountable and that no one in DEA custody will ever again be forced to endure such treatment," she wrote.

On Thursday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-San Diego), head of the House Government Oversight Committee, called for in investigation, and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-San Diego County) sent a letter to DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart asking for a full accounting of Chong's detention, processes in place for accounting for detained individuals, and the steps the DEA is taking to ensure it doesn't happen again.

"The situation involving Chong may in fact be an isolated incident," Hunter wrote. "Regardless, my concern is that this situation could also be a symptom of a bigger problem, with errors in procedure and oversight possibly extending to the division's law enforcement function."

Chong is "still recovering" from his ordeal, San Diego attorney Gene Iredale, who is representing him, said at a press conference last Wednesday. "He thought he was going insane," Iredale added.

Iredeale filed preliminary papers for the $20 million law suit last Wednesday. The suit alleges Chong was treated in a way that constitutes torture under US and international law.

"He is glad to be alive," Iredale said of Chong. "He wants to make sure that what happened to him doesn't happen to anyone else."

San Diego, CA
United States

Pelosi Condemns Medical Marijuana Crackdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Washington, DC
United States

Nancy Pelosi Condemns Federal Attacks on Medical Marijuana

Yesterday we reported that advocates had presented House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi with a petition asking her to help end the federal crackdown on medical marijuana. (Click here and scroll down to the last paragraph of the California section of our Medical Marijuana Update.)

Pelosi responded, issuing a statement on "Recent Federal Actions Threatening Safe Access to Medical Marijuana":

"I have strong concerns about the recent actions by the federal government that threaten the safe access of medicinal marijuana to alleviate the suffering of patients in California, and undermine a policy that has been in place under which the federal government did not pursue individuals whose actions complied with state laws providing for medicinal marijuana."

 

Click here for the full statement on Pelosi's web site.

Central American Presidents Hold Drug Legalization Summit [FEATURE]

In a historic meeting in Antigua, Guatemala, Saturday, three Central American heads of state attended a regional summit to discuss alternatives to the current drug prohibition regime, which has left their countries wracked by violence. No consensus was reached and three other regional leaders failed to attend, but for the first time, regional heads of state have met explicitly to discuss ending the war on drugs as we know it.

Otto Perez Molina on the campaign trail (photo courtesy Surizar, flickr.com/photos/puchica/)
"We have realized that the strategy in the fight against drug trafficking in the past 40 years has failed. We have to look for new alternatives," said the host, Guatemalan President Oscar Pérez Molina, a former army general who first called for such a meeting last month, shortly after taking office. "We must end the myths, the taboos, and tell people you have to discuss it, debate it."

According to the Associated Press, Pérez Molina said that drug use, production, and sales should be legalized and regulated. He suggested that the region jointly regulate the drug trade, perhaps by establishing transit corridors through which regulated drug shipments could pass.

Also in attendance were Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla and Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli. Former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, a harsh critic of US-style drug policies and a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy was an invited guest and addressed the summit. Outside of Central America, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Mexican President Felipe Calderon have expressed support for the meeting.

Not attending were Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, Honduran President Porfirio Lobo, and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. While Funes initially expressed support for the summit, he has since backed away. Lobo and Ortega have opposed the idea from the beginning. Funes and Ortega did send lower ranking members of the governments to the meeting, and the Salvadoran delegation called for a future meeting on the subject, saying it remained a topic of great interest and import in the region.

Some leaders are pushing for a discussion on alternatives to the drug war to be on the agenda at next month's Organization of American States (OAS) summit in Cartagena, Colombia, where President Santos has also been signaling an openness to debate on the issue. US President Barack Obama is expected to attend that summit, setting the stage for a particularly sticky diplomatic dance, given US opposition to changes in regional drug policies.

But US-backed drug policies have in recent years brought a wave of violence to the region, which is used as a springboard for Colombian cocaine headed north to the US and Canada, either direct or via Mexico. Mexican drug cartels have expanded their operations in Central America in the past few year, perhaps in response to the pressures they face at home.

High levels of poverty and the strong presence of criminal gangs, particularly in El Salvador and Honduras, have combined with the cartel presence to make the region one of the world's deadliest. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, along with Jamaica, have the world's highest murder rates.

In its most recent annual report, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said violence linked to the drug wars has reached "alarming and unprecedented" levels in the region. It also noted that El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, along with Jamaica, have the world's highest murder rates.

"How much have we paid here in Central America in deaths, kidnappings, extortion?" asked Chinchilla. "Central America has to ask whether it is time that we raise this issue at the Security Council of United Nations."

Pérez Molina suggested that, barring legalization and a regulated drug trade, consumer countries should be taxed for the drugs seized in the region on their behalf.

"For every kilo of cocaine that is seized, we want to be compensated 50% by the consumer countries, he said, adding that the United States has a "responsibility" because of its high rates of drug use.

While Saturday's summit produced no common platform or manifesto, it is an important step in the fight for a more sensible, effective, and humane response to drug use and the regional drug trade. Leading US drug reformer Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance lauded its occurrence as "significant" and "remarkable."

"The rapid evolution of this debate is nothing short of remarkable," he said. "It has progressed in just a few years from the advocacy of activists and intellectuals, to distinguished former presidents, and now to current presidents demanding that all options, including decriminalization and legalization, be seriously evaluated and debated," he noted.

"The significance of this meeting cannot be overestimated, notwithstanding the fact that no one expects a consensus to emerge from this meeting on alternative drug policies," Nadelmann continued. "Virtually no one would have predicted" that such a meeting could take place "with the support of presidents in Mexico and Colombia, to discuss drug policy options including decriminalization and legalization. What was once taboo is no longer. The discussion will continue next month at the Summit of the Americas -- in Cartagena, Colombia -- with President Barack Obama and virtually all other heads of state from the region in attendance. At this point it is no longer possible to put this genie back in the bottle."

But that doesn't mean the US won't try, Nadelmann said.

"Unfortunately the biggest obstacle right now to informed debate is the head-in-the-sand resistance within the Obama administration and Congress to any real discussion of alternative drug policy options" because of fears of attack by political foes. "One result is that US government officials will be increasingly handicapped in the international drug policy discussions at Cartagena and elsewhere, armed only with defenses of failed US policies but bereft of any in-depth analysis of the options that other governments are putting on the table."

Antigua
Guatemala

Battle for Restored Needle Exchange Funding Heats Up [FEATURE]

After 20 years of walking in the political wilderness, public health and harm reduction advocates for federal funding for needle exchange programs made it to the Promised Land in December 2009, when the Democratic-controlled Congress overturned the longstanding funding ban. But just two years later, led by the Republican-controlled House and with the acquiescence of the Democratic-controlled Senate, Congress reinstated the ban in its 2012 federal omnibus spending bill.

Needle exchange advocates arrested on Capitol Hill Wednesday (Stephanie Simpson, Housing Works)
Advocates were outraged and dismayed by the congressional action, but are determined to fight back to restore funding for a harm reduction practice repeatedly proven to save lives and reduce the spread of infectious blood-borne diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C. This week, they came out swinging with a national day of action Wednesday that saw organized call-ins to members of Congress and civil disobedience actions leading to dozens of arrests at the offices of four of them, as well as actions in a dozen others cities across the county.

Although the funding ban's main proponents are Republicans, repealing the ban is actually the states' rights, deregulation position. Each year the federal government authorizes funding for grants to states to be used for AIDS prevention and treatment. When the ban was temporarily lifted, it neither increased nor decreased the amount of AIDS funding, but it meant that states could choose for themselves whether or not to use some of those funds to support needle exchange programs.

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

More than 200 needle exchange programs operate across the country in cooperation with local law enforcement officials and health departments, but many are in danger of closing their doors or cutting back services without access to federal funds. That puts lives and the public health at risk.

Needle exchange supporters said the restored the ban will result in thousands of Americans contracting HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C or other infectious diseases next year alone. According to the Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC), needle sharing by injection drug users accounts for 8,000 new cases of HIV and 15,000 new cases of hepatitis C each year. In New York City, there has been a 75% reduction in new HIV cases as a result of instituting such programs, according to a 2005 study cited by HRC.

"We need Congress to stand behind public health and science, and declare a cease-fire on syringe exchange," said HRC executive director Allan Clear. "All of the research tells the same story: Syringe exchange prevents infections, promotes drug treatment, and reduces drug use. Congress must stop treating syringe exchange as an ideological pawn in partisan politics."

"The federal syringe funding ban was costly in both human and fiscal terms -- it is outrageous that Congress has restored it given how overwhelming and clear the science is in support of making sterile syringes widely available," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Make no mistake about it -- members of Congress who supported this ban have put the lives of their constituents in jeopardy."

Cherry blossoms bloom in DC as arrestee is detained (Stephanie Simpson, Housing Works)
The renewed ban on federal funding for needle exchanges couldn't come at a more inopportune time. With a wave of drug users who began their careers with opioid pain pills finding succor in the needle, making access to clean needles more difficult is likely to make matters worse.

"We need to support syringe exchange programs now more than ever," said HRC policy director Daniel Raymond. "Health officials in many states report a disturbing new trend of hepatitis C outbreaks in young people, driven by a new wave of injection drug use linked to the prescription painkiller epidemic. We're in danger of starving programs of federal funds, just when the demand for syringe exchange is increasing."

In Washington, while a coordinated campaign of phone calling kept the congressional switchboard humming, dozens of AIDS and harm reduction activists went to Capitol Hill and held sit-ins at the offices of four House Republicans, including Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT), Mike Rogers (R-MI) and Eric Cantor (R-VA) for their role in reinstating the ban on federal funding for syringe exchange programs last December.

Carrying signs reading "Syringe Exchange: A Fix for AIDS," the activists chanted and blocked doorways before being arrested by Capitol Police. They were expected to be booked and released later Wednesday.

At least 32 people were arrested at Congress, according to Housing Works, a New York City-based group that provides services for AIDS sufferers. Housing Works participated in the action as part of the We Can End AIDS Coalition, an umbrella group coordinating a July 24 mass protest in Washington around economic justice and human rights for AIDS patients.

"Our government should be embarrassed as this year's host of the International AIDS Conference to have sneaked this into an unrelated bill under the cloak of night last December," said Housing Works CEO Charles King. "The US cannot be any shining example to the rest of the world on how to end the AIDS epidemic when we’re still fighting foolish policies that reject what we know works."

Wednesday's action was only an opening skirmish in what will be a determined battle to restore the federal funds. The AIDS, public health, and harm reduction communities are not going to just roll over and play dead while Congress makes decisions that will result in real people becoming really dead.

"We refuse to let the close-mindedness of anti-science conservatives dictate public health policy," said Clear. "We can't afford these political games, and we can't afford any more new infections. Our communities are struggling; Congress needs to listen and show leadership by rescinding the funding ban."

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