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Summer Reading Assignment for Congress

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/dean-becker-200px.jpg
Dean Becker of the Drug Truth Network is in Washington today to give copies of his book, "To End the War on Drugs," to every member of the House and Senate. There is a press conference at 10:00am this morning in room 340 of the Cannon House Office Building, with Dean, members of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy, sponsored by Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX).

Phil reviewed Dean's book last night.

I was also on Dean's radio show last week talking about my two new papers; check out the audio or transcript of the interview, which also featured Judge James P. Gray.

Rand Paul Files Crack Sentencing Reform Bill

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) last Thursday filed Senate Bill 2657 the RESET (Reclassification to Ensure Smarter and Equal Treatment) Act to eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The potential 2016 GOP presidential contender unveiled the bill publicly the following day as he pitched his criminal justice reforms before an African-American audience at the National Urban League.

Rand Paul (congress.gov)
The bill would also reclassify some low-level federal drug possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. And it seeks to address the issue of drug weights in food items by clarifying that only the weight of the drug itself -- not the weight of the food containing it -- can be used in charging decisions, thus resulting in lesser charges for defendants.

As of early Tuesday morning, the text of the bill is not yet up on the congressional web site, but can be viewed here.

The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act reduced the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity from 100:1 to 18:1, but this bill would totally equalize the penalties by removing the sentencing enhancements for crack.

It's been a busy month for Paul when it comes to criminal justice matters. In addition to the RESET Act, he has also introduced an asset forfeiture reform bill and a medical marijuana amendment explicitly allowing states to set their own laws. And he also cosponsored, along with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), another sentencing reform bill.

Washington, DC
United States

Chronicle AM -- July 28, 2014

The New York Times comes out for marijuana legalization, a Florida poll finds majority support for it, Rand Paul introduces a bill to wipe out the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, and more. Let's get to it:

The nation's "newspaper of record" wants to free the weed. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

New York Times Editorial Board Calls for End to Federal Marijuana Prohibition. What is arguably the most influential and respected newspaper in the United States is ready to free the weed. In a Sunday editorial, the New York Times called forthrightly for the end of federal marijuana prohibition. "The federal government should repeal the ban on marijuana," the newspaper proclaimed. "We reached that conclusion after a great deal of discussion among the members of The Times's Editorial Board, inspired by a rapidly growing movement among the states to reform marijuana laws."

Alaska Legalization Initiative Backers File Campaign Finance Complaint Against Foes. The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska has filed a complaint with the Alaska Public Offices Commission charging that the "Big Marijuana, Big Mistake, Vote No on 2" campaign deceived the public trust when its campaign spokesperson, Kristina Woolston, said her employer, Northwest Strategies is donating its time to the campaign. State law requires that donations be filed as campaign contributions.

Florida Poll Finds 55% for Marijuana Legalization. A majority (55%) of Floridians are ready to legalize marijuana, a new Quinnipiac University poll has found. It looks to be a generational thing; 72% of people under 30 support it, but only 36% of people 65 and older do. The poll also had 88% support for medical marijuana.

More Michigan Towns to Hand in Local Decriminalization Initiative Signatures Tomorrow. Initiative organizers in Port Huron, Lansing, and Portage are preparing to hand in signatures for local decriminalization initiatives tomorrow. The Safer Michigan Coalition says organizers have already handed in signatures in 14 other towns: Frankfort, Huntington Woods, Mt. Pleasant, Pleasant Ridge and Utica; in prior weeks, they did so in Berkley, Grosse Pointe Park, Harrison, Hazel Park, Lapeer, Montrose, Oak Park, Onaway and Saginaw.

Santa Fe, New Mexican, Decriminalization Initiatives Comes Up Short on Signatures. A campaign to put a municipal decriminalization on the Santa Fe ballot in November has hit a bump. Only 3,569 of the 7,000 signatures it handed in were valid; it needs 5,763 to qualify. But campaigners still have more time to gather more.

Medical Marijuana

Bill to Allow Low-THC, High-CBD Medical Marijuana Filed in US House. Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) today introduced a bill that would exempt low-THC, high-CBD marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act. The Charlotte's Web Medical Hemp Act is not yet available on the congressional web site.

Law Enforcement

Staten Island Narcs Are NYPD's Most Sued. Seven of the 10 most sued NYPD officers work out of a Staten Island narcotics unit, according to an analysis by the New York Daily News. Those Staten Island narcs account for 21% of the more than 600 cases filed against NYPD officers in the past decade. Taxpayers have shelled out more than $6 million to settle suits against them. Most of the suits against them allege false arrests for charges that are later dropped. Detective Vincent Orsini, who has been sued 21 times since 2003, with payouts of nearly $1.1 million, is the most-sued cop on the Island.

Sentencing

Rand Paul Introduces Bill to Eliminate Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) last Thursday filed the RESET (Reclassification to Ensure Smarter and Equal Treatment) Act to eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act reducing the disparity from 100:1 to 18:1, but this bill would totally equalize the penalties. The bill would also reclassify some low-level federal drug possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. It is not yet up on the congressional web site.

International

Gun Battles Continue in Northeast Mexico Across from US Border. Fighting between various Mexican drug cartel factions in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas continues. Gun battles in Reynosa, just across the Rio Grande River from McAllen, Texas, left six suspected cartel gun men dead, including at least one killed by Mexican marines.

Chronicle AM -- July 25, 2014

Wichita looks set to vote on decriminalization this fall, Rand Paul (busy, busy) files a federal asset forfeiture reform bill, drug users finally get a voice at the International AIDS Conference, and more. Let's get to it:

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Marijuana Policy

Wichita Decriminalization Initiative Campaign Turns in Twice the Necessary Signatures. Organizers of a decriminalization initiative signature-gathering campaign yesterday turned in 5,800 signatures to get the initiative on the November ballot. Kansas for Change needs 2,928 valid voter signatures to qualify. They turned in the signatures at 4:20pm.

Five People Ticketed for Marijuana Possession in First Week of DC Decriminalization Law. DC police have cited five people for marijuana possession in the week since the DC decrim law went into effect. Four of the five citations came in predominantly black areas of the city east of the Anacostia River. Last year, before decrim, police made about 11 marijuana possession arrests a day.

Poll: California Latinos Strongly Oppose Deportation for Marijuana Possession. A new poll from Latino Decisions and Presente.org finds that nearly two-thirds (64%) of California Latinos strongly oppose deporting non-citizens for marijuana possession. Marijuana possession is the fourth most common criminal offense leading to deportation, according to a 2012-2013 study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.

Asset Forfeiture

Rand Paul Files Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has filed a bill to reform federal asset forfeiture laws. Yesterday, he introduced the FAIR (Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration) ACT, Senate Bill 2644, which would require the government to prove with clear and convincing evidence that the property it wishes to forfeit is connected with a crime. The FAIR Act would also require that state law enforcement agencies abide by state law when seizing property. It would also remove the profit incentive for forfeiture by redirecting forfeitures assets from the Attorney General's Asset Forfeiture Fund to the Treasury's General Fund.

International

Drug Users Get a Voice at Global AIDS Conference. For the first time, a group of drug users has been allowed space at the International AIDS Conference, taking place this year in Melbourne, Australia. The International Network of People Who Use Drugs (INPUD) had a booth at the conference and also held a movie premiere event at the conference for the film, "We are Drug Users."

British National Survey Finds Slight Overall Increase in Drug Use. The number of drug users in Britain increased by 0.7% last year, according to the 2013 to 2014 Crime Survey for England and Wales. Some 8.8% of adults used drugs in the past year; 6.6% used marijuana. Cocaine was the second most commonly used drug, at 2.4%.

Guatemalan President Still Mulling Marijuana Legalization. President Otto Pérez Molina said in an interview in Washington yesterday that he hadn't ruled out the possibility of legalizing marijuana. "Right now we have a commission that's following what's been happening in Uruguay, Portugal, Holland, Colorado, and the state of Washington," he said. "I expect to receive the studies, analysis and recommendations at the end of the year and from there we will make the decisions that would best fit our country." Pérez Molina will be hosting an international conference on drug policy in Guatemala in September. [Editor's Note: We are not aware of any conference in Guatemala this fall. It's not clear if Perez Molina misspoke or the Washington Post misheard. There is a V Conferencia latinoamerica sobre la politica de drogas set for Costa Rica in September.]

WOLA Releases Analysis of Ecuador Drug Policy Trends and Contradictions. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) has published "Reforma y contradicciones en la politica de drogas de Ecuador." The report identified advances and blockages in Ecuador's path to a more progressive drug policy. Click on the link to read it in Spanish or use your translate button or wait a few days for WOLA's English version to read it in English.

Rand Paul Files Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has filed a bill to reform federal asset forfeiture laws. Yesterday, he introduced the FAIR (Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration) ACT, Senate Bill 2644, which would require the government to prove with clear and convincing evidence that the property it wishes to forfeit is connected with a crime.

A modern form of highway robbery?
It also takes aim at state and local law enforcement agencies who evade state laws requiring that seized assets go into state general funds or other specified destinations by instead turning their seizures over to a federal agency, which delivers back 80% of the value of the seized goods to the local or state law enforcement agency involved.

The FAIR Act would require that state law enforcement agencies abide by state law when seizing property. It would also remove the profit incentive for forfeiture by redirecting forfeitures' assets from the Attorney General's Asset Forfeiture Fund to the Treasury's General Fund.

"The federal government has made it far too easy for government agencies to take and profit from the property of those who have not been convicted of a crime. The FAIR Act will ensure that government agencies no longer profit from taking the property of U.S. citizens without due process, while maintaining the ability of courts to order the surrender of proceeds of crime," Sen. Paul said.

The bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. As of today, it has no cosponsors.

Washington, DC
United States

Chronicle AM -- July 24, 2014

There's dollar signs coming with marijuana legalization laws, Rand Paul moves to protect medical marijuana, but it's too late for one New York girl, there's a new opiate pain reliever out there (with a twist), and more. Let's get to it:

Chilean Senator Isabel Allende Bussi wants to legalize marijuana possession and cultivation. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Oregon Marijuana Legalization Could Generate $38.5 Million in Taxes in First Year, Report Says. An economic study commissioned by New Approach Oregon, the people behind the marijuana legalization initiative just approved for the November ballot, finds that legalization would produce $38.5 million in tax revenues in its first year.

Medical Marijuana

Rand Paul Files Medical Marijuana Amendment. US Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) today filed an amendment to Senate Bill 2569, the "Bring Jobs Home Act," that would explicitly allow states to pass medical marijuana laws despite the provisions of the federal Controlled Substances Act. The amendment would also bar prosecutions of patients and doctors for engaging in medical marijuana activities in states where it is legal.

New York Poster Child for Medical Marijuana Dies Without Her Medicine. Nine-year-old Anna Conte, whose family has been at the center of the Empire State medical marijuana debate, has died without ever gaining access to marijuana medicines that may have alleviated her condition. Conte suffered from Dravet Syndrome, which caused her to suffer hundreds of crippling seizures every day. The state passed a medical marijuana law last month, but it won't go into effect for another year and a half.

Minnesota Names Medical Marijuana Director. The state Department of Health has named department employee Michelle Larson the first-ever director of the Office of Medical Cannabis. She is charged with managing the office's staff and creating and implementing administrative policies for things like an application process for a manufacturer and a patient registry. The state's law limits medical marijuana to eight specified diseases or conditions and does not allow for the use of smoked marijuana.

Prescription Opiates

FDA Approves Oxycodone/Naloxone Combo Pain Reliever. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a new opioid pain reliever that combines oxycodone and naloxone. Targiniq ER, produced by Purdue Pharma, the maker of Oxycontin, included naloxone to block the euphoric effects of oxycodone, making it less likely to be misused.

International

Poll Finds Strong Australian Majority for Medical Marijuana. A new ReachTel survey finds that nearly two-thirds of respondents support legalizing medical marijuana. Support was highest among people between 51 and 65. The poll comes as New South Wales inches toward approving medical marijuana.

Chilean Senators Propose Legalizing Marijuana Possession, Cultivation. Four Chilean senators have introduced a bill that would legalize the possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana for personal use, as well as for "therapeutic and spiritual reasons." The legislators include Sen. Isabel Allende Bussi, daughter of Salvador Allende, who died in the midst of a rightist military coup to overthrow him in 1973, and Juan Pablo Letelier, the son of Orlando Letelier, a Chilean politician assassinated by the Pinochet government in Washington, DC, in 1976.

Rand Paul Files Medical Marijuana Amendment

US Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) today filed an amendment to Senate Bill 2569, the "Bring Jobs Home Act," that would explicitly allow states to pass medical marijuana laws despite the provisions of the federal Controlled Substances Act. The amendment would also bar prosecutions of patients and doctors for engaging in medical marijuana activities in states where it is legal.

Rand Paul (congress.gov)
The amendment, No. 3630, is not yet available on the congressional web site, but a copy has been made available to the Chronicle.

"Notwithstanding section 708 of the Controlled Substances Act or any provisions of law (including regulations), a State may enact and implement a law that authorizes the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of marijuana for medical use," the amendment says.

"No prosecution may be commenced or maintained against any physician or patient for a violation of Federal law (including regulations) that prohibits the conduct described in subsection (b) [Ed.: The paragraph above.] if the State in which the violation occurred has in effect a law described in subsection (b) before, on, or after the date on which the violation occurred."

The amendment then lists the 32 states and the District of Columbia that have laws allowing for the use of medical marijuana, including some that only allow for the use of low-THC, high-CBD cannabis oils.

Senate Bill 2569 was introduced in the Senate earlier this month.

Washington, DC
United States

Sentencing Commission Cuts Up to 46,000 Drug War Prisoners' Sentences [FEATURE]

In a much anticipated move, the US Sentencing Commission last Friday voted unanimously to retroactively apply previously approved reductions in federal sentencing guidelines to federal drug war prisoners already serving their sentences. The move means more than 46,000 federal prisoners will be able to apply for sentence reductions.

"This amendment received unanimous support from Commissioners because it is a measured approach," said Judge Patti Saris, chair of the Commission. "It reduces prison costs and populations and responds to statutory and guidelines changes since the drug guidelines were initially developed, while safeguarding public safety."

It's not going to be a flood of inmates suddenly walking out of federal prisons. Prisoners will not be able to seek sentence cuts until November 1 and none will be released before November 1, 2015. Those cuts will average about two years, turning what are currently average 11-year sentences to average nine-year sentences.

It is not quite a done deal. Congress has until November 1 this year to move to block it, but there appears to be little sign of any significant effort underway to do so.

The move is the latest in an effort by the Sentencing Commission to reduce the excesses of drug sentencing resulting from harsh laws passed mostly in the 1980s. It comes as the federal prison population continues to expand, even as state prison populations have begun to shrink following the enactment of sentencing reforms at the state level.

Before the Commission acted, it opened the issue to public comment, and the response indicated intense interest in making the move. The Commission received some 65,000 letters during the comment period, the vast majority endorsing the proposed change. Commenters included nearly a dozen US senators and representatives, including members of both the House and the Senate judiciary committees, all of them in support of the move, as well as federal judges, civil liberties, civil rights, and sentencing and drug reform groups.

According to the federal Bureau of Prisons, there are 100,549 people serving federal time for drug offenses, accounting for nearly half (49.7%) of all federal prisoners. The next two biggest categories are weapons offenses (15.7%) and immigration offenses (10.4%).

Sentencing Commission Chair Judge Patti Saris (uscourts.gov)
The federal prison population has tripled since 1991, largely driven by harsh drug war sentences, the Sentencing Commission found, and the federal prison budget is now eating up $6 billion a year, or one quarter of the entire Justice Department budget. The federal prison system is currently 32% over capacity, with that figure rising to 52% over capacity in maximum security prisons.

The Sentencing Commission acted in April to redress harsh prison sentences by reducing the base offense levels in drug quantity tables in the federal sentencing guidelines so that drug offenses are scored lower in the federal sentencing grid. That reduces the length of possible sentences for a given offense under the guidelines.

"The Commission has the statutory duty to ensure that the guidelines minimize the likelihood that the federal prison population will exceed capacity," Judge Saris explained. "Reducing the federal prison population has become urgent, with that population almost three times where it was in 1991" and high prison costs "are reducing the resources available for federal prosecutors and law enforcement, aid to state and local law enforcement, crime victim services, and crime prevention programs -- all of which promote public safety," she added.

"Many of the same factors which led us to vote in April to reduce drug guidelines support making those reductions retroactive," Saris continued. "The same changes in the guidelines and laws I mentioned earlier that made the lower guideline levels more appropriate prospectively also make lower guideline levels appropriate for those offenders already in prison, most of whom were convicted after many of these statutory and guideline changes were already in place. In addition, retroactive application of the amendment would have a significant impact on reducing prison costs and overcapacity, which was an important purpose of the amendment, and the impact would come much more quickly than from a prospective change alone."

The Sentencing Commission's action was greeted with cheers from the drug reform and sentencing reform communities.

The Sentencing Commission during a May public hearing. (uscourts.gov)
"We did it!" exclaimed Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) president and founder Julie Stewart. "We got full retroactivity of the drug guideline amendment! Because of your help, 46,000 federal drug offenders sentenced before November 1, 2014, will now be eligible to file a motion in federal court asking for a shorter sentence. I am thrilled with this outcome, especially because we did it together," she said. "More than two dozen FAMM supporters were present with me in the hearing room when the Commission voted in favor of full retroactivity. All of us were overjoyed at the result."

"The Sentencing Commission has promoted fundamental fairness by making its amendment retroactive, ensuring that sentence dates do not determine sentence lengths," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. "This vote reflects an historic shift in the decades-long war on drugs, which has filled half of federal prison cells with people convicted of drug offenses. That war has come at a ruinous cost for all Americans, but particularly for communities of color. Not only has there been an enormous financial cost to the public, but there is little evidence to suggest that excessively punitive federal drug policies have improved public safety," he said.

"Retroactive application of the drug guidelines amendment is an important step toward addressing the unjust racial disparities produced through federal sentencing policies as well," Mauer added. "Because drug law enforcement has disproportionately affected African Americans and Latinos, reduced drug penalties will help to mitigate the effect of harsh sentencing policies on communities of color."

"It makes little sense, of course, to reform harsh sentencing laws proactively but not retroactively," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "But that's what politicians do when they're scared of allowing people out of prison early. The Sentencing Commission really had no choice but to rectify the moral absurdity of keeping people locked up based on sentences that are no longer the law. What they did today was right and just."

The Sentencing Project's Mauer told the Chronicle Tuesday he thought it unlikely that Congress would attempt to block the reform.

"I have not heard of any significant opposition that is developing," he said. "My guess is that since it was a unanimous recommendation from the commission and that this is an election year and members have that on their minds, I'm optimistic there won't be any serious threat of this not going through."

Still, prisoners, their friends, families, and supporters will be waiting for that November deadline for congressional action to pass before they exhale. But it does look as if the federal government has taken a rather significant step in reversing some of the worst excesses of the drug war.

US Drug Policy and the Border Child Immigration Crisis [FEATURE]

The mass migration of tens of thousands of children and adolescents from Central America festered for months before exploding into a full-blown border refugee/immigration crisis in the last few weeks, as images of hundreds of children warehoused in temporary holding facilities competed with equally compelling images of crowds of angry Americans loudly protesting their presence.

At the border. (COHA)
The finger-pointing is in full swing. Much of it centers on the need to "secure the border" and the Obama administration's alleged failure to do so. Other Republican critics blame the administration's alleged "softness" on child immigrants as a factor pulling the kids north. Democrats counter that the GOP's blockage of long-pending immigration reform is part of the problem.

A lot of the discussion centers around the "pull" factors -- those policies or social or economic realities that draw these immigrants toward the US, but equally at play are "push" factors -- those policies or social or economic factors that impel these emigrants to seek new, better lives outside their homelands.

And there is finger-pointing going on about that, too, with some loud and prominent voices placing a good share of the blame on prohibitionist US drug policies in Latin America -- their emphasis on law enforcement and military responses, their balloon effects, and their other unintended consequences.

The majority of the child immigrants are coming from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America (the isthmus also includes Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama). Those Northern Triangle countries suffered not only devastating civil wars in the 1980s, with the US supporting conservative, often dictatorial governments against leftist popular guerrilla movements (or, in the case of Honduras, serving as a platform for counterinsurgency against the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua), but also chronic poverty and income inequality.

They are also the countries feeling the brunt of the expansion of powerful Mexican drug trafficking organizations -- the so-called cartels -- who, in response to increased pressure from the Mexican government (assisted by US aid under the Merida agreement) began pushing south into the region around 2008. And they are countries where transnational criminal gangs, such as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) have taken on an increasingly high profile, bringing high levels of criminal violence with them. (San Pedro Sula, Honduras, bears the dubious distinction of having the highest murder rate in the world.)

Honduran President Juan Fernandez is one of the prominent voices placing the blame for the crisis squarely on the war on drugs.

"Honduras has been living in an emergency for a decade," Hernandez told Mexican daily newspaper Excelsior. "The root cause is that the United States and Colombia carried out big operations in the fight against drugs. Then Mexico did it. This is creating a serious problem for us that sparked this migration. A good part of (migration) has to do with the lack of opportunities in Central America, which has its origin in the climate of violence, and this violence, almost 85% of it, is related to the issue of drug trafficking," he said.

Former Clinton administration labor secretary Robert Reich has been another prominent voice pointing to the role of the drug war -- and earlier militaristic US interventions in the region. He let loose in a Facebook post last weekend.

"I've been watching media coverage of angry Americans at our southern border waiving signs and yelling slogans, insisting that the children -- most of whom are refugees of the drug war we've created -- 'go home' to the violence and death that war has created, and I wonder who these angry Americans are," he wrote. The "United States is not a detached, innocent bystander" when it came to the refugee crisis, he explained.

"For decades, US governments supported unspeakably brutal regimes and poured billions into maintaining them ($5 billion in El Salvador alone). Implacable opposition to communism -- often defined as virtually any reformer -- gave these regimes a blank check," Reich continued. "The result is a legacy of dealing with opponents through extreme violence and a culture of impunity. Judicial systems remain weak, corrupt, and often completely dysfunctional. After the cold war ended, the United States lost interest in these countries. What was left was destruction, tens of thousands dead, and massive population displacement. The percentage of people living below the poverty line is 54 % for Guatemala, 36 % for El Salvador, and 60 % for Honduras. More recently gangs, organized crime, and drug cartels feeding the US market have become part of this unholy mix."

While the president of Honduras and Democrats like Reich could have political incentives in what is an increasingly ugly and partisan debate over the crisis, a number of experts on the region -- though not all of them -- agree that US drug policies in the region are playing a major role in the affair.

"Although there are many factors, clearly the drug war is one of them," said John Walsh, senior associate for drug policy for the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). "There can't be any doubt that drug trafficking and efforts to repress it are part of the criminality and violence in Central America," he told the Chronicle.

"It's not the only explanation, of course," he added. "There are decades of weak institutions and long histories of violence in the area. But if you take into account the shifting trafficking patterns resulting from the US helping other governments in the region put pressure on the industry and shift routes through Central America, it has certainly added to the problems."

"We've been engaged in a drug war for 40 years, and everywhere we put pressure, it bulges out somewhere else," said Nathan Jones, fellow in drug policy at Rice University's Baker Institute in Houston. "In the Miami Vice era, we put pressure on the Caribbean, and the trade moved to Mexico. We dismantled the Cali and Medellin cartels in the early 1990s, and in hindsight, we know that also empowered the Mexican cartels."

The pattern keeps repeating, Jones said.

"Through the Merida Initiative, we put more pressure on the Mexican cartels -- and for very good reasons -- but that resulted in their dispersal into Central America. The Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel established alliances and began carving out chunks of Central America. They shifted to two-state and multi-stage trafficking operations and tried to minimize their risk by having their loads stop in various countries."

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez (wikipedia.org)
At the same time the Mexican cartels were pushing (and being pushed) into Central America, Central American gangs were rearing their tattooed heads. Ironically enough, gangs like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) had their origins in another US war in the region: the Reagan-era effort to thwart the rise to power of popular leftist guerrillas.

"Deportation got us into this mess in the first place," said Jones. "We had immigrants coming from Central America during the wars of the 1980s. Some of them formed their own gangs after being rejected by Mexican street gangs in places like Los Angeles, and when they showed up in the criminal justice system, we deported them back to their home countries. We transnationalized those gangs in the process, and now the violence from those very gangs is resulting in another mass migration flow. And now we are proposing the same solution of deportation. This doesn't deal with root causes."

"I'm not a big proponent of the drug war as an explanation for everything," countered Eric Olson, associate director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. "We need to stop thinking about the violence in Central America as a drug problem. It's a factor in the violence but not really a primary factor. Community based criminal networks involved in extortion, kidnapping, and other forms of criminal activity -- including retail drug markets -- are more of a factor," he told the Chronicle.

"There is virtually no state presence in most of the areas of highest violence so it's a little hard to blame the drug war," Olson continued. "Where the drug war has been the biggest problem has been when there are mass operations and mass detentions, but even those arrests have less and less to do with drugs and more and more to do with the criminalization of gang membership, extortion, and other things. We've got to stop seeing everything through the drug war lens."

"Criminal groups have diversified their business models," WOLA's Walsh conceded. "Drug trafficking is only one aspect, but the revenues are so huge that there is more money to buy weapons and corrupt officials, so it contributes to crime and impunity. There is no doubt this is part of the problem."

"This is a very complicated issue, with lots of causal factors, and blaming it solely on US policy has lots of shortcomings," said Alicia Magdalena Duda, a researcher with the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA). "But the drug war and the violence is a big issue."

Assigning blame for the status quo is a backwards looking exercise, but what is to be done moving forward? There are divergences of opinion there, too.

"We have to recognize that just equipping these countries to chase drugs around in the interest of interdicting them for our purposes isn't contributing much to reducing violence and increasing public safety," said Walsh. "Drug enforcement as measured by how much they're interdicting has no impact at best, and probably makes things worse. Rather than foster the illusion that we can eradicate the drug trade, we need to steer law enforcement there to reduce violence by going after the worst, most violent actors rather than measuring success in tons seized."

"How to end the violence is a long-term issue," said COHA's Duda. "Those countries are facing extreme violence and poverty. To address this immigration crisis, we have to actively engage with them, and not just with monetary packages. One of the contributors to poverty is corruption, and corruption is rampant there. Ignoring that and just continuing with the present approach is not effective, either," she said.

Duda even broached a very controversial response, one that has also been heard in regard to Mexico and the prohibition-related violence there.

"Maybe they have to engage in peace talks with the gangs and cartels," she suggested.

"One of the great frustrations about Central America is that we supported those right-wing regimes during the Cold War, but we didn't deal with any of the underlying conditions, the grievances, the extreme income inequality, the crushing, grinding poverty," said Jones. "We need a sustained engagement with Central America, but we also have to leverage those host governments to do the right thing. We can't have a situation where wealthy elites are not paying their fair shares of taxes. We have societies fundamentally structured along wrong principles. It will take decades to turn things around, but it needs to happen."

"Our focus should be on reducing violence and addressing the factors that are actually driving the violence," said Olson. "This should include targeted law enforcement, but also prevention programs as well as gang intervention and reintegration programs. Only by reducing violence and the stranglehold criminal networks have on communities will people consider staying in place."

This is a complicated problem with no easy solutions and a lot of different suggestions. Whether prohibition and US drug policies have played a key role or only a supporting one, it does seem clear that, at best, they have not helped. At worst, our drug policies in the region have increased violence and corruption in the region, enriching the worst -- on both sides of the law.

Sentencing Commission Makes Drug Sentencing Reductions Retroactive

The US Sentencing Commission Friday voted unanimously to make previously agreed upon federal drug sentencing reductions retroactive. That means tens of thousands of federal drug prisoners could see sentence cuts beginning in November 2015.

The move comes after the Commission's April decision to amend federal sentencing guidelines by lowering base offense levels in the guidelines' Drug Quantity Table across all drug types, which should lead to lower sentences for most federal drug offenders. Today's vote means that sentencing judges can extend that reduction to people currently serving drug sentences.

"This amendment received unanimous support from Commissioners because it is a measured approach," said Judge Patti Saris, chair of the Commission. "It reduces prison costs and populations and responds to statutory and guidelines changes since the drug guidelines were initially developed, while safeguarding public safety."

"We did it! We got full retroactivity of the drug guideline amendment," an elated Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), wrote to supporters. "Because of your help, 46,000 federal drug offenders sentenced before November 1, 2014, will now be eligible to file a motion in federal court asking for a shorter sentence. The average sentence reduction for those who qualify will be two years!"

The Sentencing Commission had asked for public input on its pending decision and was swamped with some 65,000 letters. FAMM took credit for much of that.

"I am thrilled with this outcome, especially because we did it together," Stewart wrote. "With your help, we generated most of the 65,000 letters the US Sentencing Commission received about this issue. And more than two dozen FAMM supporters were present with me in the hearing room when the Commission voted in favor of full retroactivity. All of us were overjoyed at the result."

It is not quite a done deal. Congress has until November 1 to reject the amendment to reduce drug guidelines. If it fails to act by then, federal courts could begin considering petitions for sentence reductions, but no prisoners would be released under the reductions until November 15, 2015.

"The delay will help to protect public safety by enabling appropriate consideration of individual petitions by judges, ensuring effective supervision of offenders upon release, and allowing for effective reentry plans," Saris said.

Look for a Chronicle feature article on this ground-breaking move early next week.

Washington, DC
United States

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