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Interview with "The Cartel" Author Don Winslow [FEATURE]

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

Internationally acclaimed novelist Don Winslow's The Cartel, a hard-hitting and gut-wrenching tale of the Mexican drug wars, hit the stands late last month and is currently #17 on the New York Times best seller list. A sequel to his best-selling novel of the cartels, The Power of the Dog, Winslow's latest effort is a true-to-life, ripped-from-the-headlines story of power, greed, corruption, brutality, revenge, and justice set in the past decade of spiraling prohibition-related violence in Mexico.

Roughly 100,000 people have been killed in Mexico's drug wars since 2006, and another 20,000 or so have simply vanished. That blood-drenched history is the spindle from which Winslow unspools his story, featuring a veteran DEA agent locked in a decades-long feud with the head of the world's most powerful cartel. It's a grim, nail-biting crime thriller.

But Winslow, who also authored 2012's Savages, another fictional treatment of the cartels turned into an Oliver Stone movie, isn't just writing for the sake of selling books. He has used the publication of The Cartel to pen op-eds calling the war on drugs a counterproductive failure and publish a full-page ad in the Washington Post telling Congress and the president "It's Time to Legalize Drugs."

On Friday, Winslow traveled to Houston to sit down for an interview with Dean Becker of the Drug Truth Network for the network's Cultural Baggage radio program. Here's the interview:

DEAN BECKER: Hello, dear listeners, this is Dean Becker and I want to thank you for joining us on this edition of Cultural Baggage. Well folks, I've been enjoying this new book, it's a powerful indictment of this war on drugs, it's written by the author Don Winslow, the name of the book is The Cartel, and we have him with us today. Mr. Winslow, your book is a powerful indictment of the futility of this drug war, and first off, I just want to thank you, sir.

DON WINSLOW: Well, thank you, sir, for that kind comment, and I appreciate it.

DEAN BECKER: Now, with the release of this book you also took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post decrying that futility and calling for the powers that be to take another look at the results of this drug war, and once again, I commend you, sir.

DON WINSLOW: Well, thank you. You know, I felt it was important to do something like that. At the end of the day, I'm a novelist and I write fiction, and I'm an entertainer, at the same time we're dealing with obviously serious issues that have had serious consequences on so many people in the United States, but of course particularly in Mexico. And so I just thought that I should try to do something.

DEAN BECKER: Now, Don, The Cartel, this new book, it's a follow-up to The Power of the Dog, and I think much of your similar or previous writings, and it continues the story of Agent Keller and a couple of others from that first book, but it's more, it's much more, and would you please just kind of give us a summary of your new book, The Cartel.

DON WINSLOW: Well, yes, thank you. The Cartel as you said is a follow-up to a book I did ten years ago called The Power of the Dog, which follows a DEA agent named Art Keller, who arrives in Mexico in the 70s full of idealism, and is over the years sort of schooled out of that by reality. But, he ends up in a vendetta with a drug lord, if you will, named Adan Barrera. And, so The Cartel continues that story. But, you know, it's not a book I really wanted to write, Dean. I really fought against writing it for a long time, but as things spiraled out of control in Mexico, you know, far beyond our worst nightmares, really, and I thought, well, I'll try a in fictional sense, you know, to crime readers, to try to explain what was going on down there.

DEAN BECKER: Well, a few years back I took a one-day junket into Ciudad Juarez, and the machine gun nests in the city park, cops on every street corner -- I didn't see the violence myself, but it was palpable, it was, it was, just -- scary, for lack of a better word. Your thoughts, sir.

DON WINSLOW: Well, you know, the estimates vary of course, but during this era something like 100,000 Mexican people were killed, 22,000 missing. Juarez and Nuevo Laredo, and Tijuana, and the Frontera Chica, and the Texas border -- you know, all became battlegrounds in a multi-fronted war, cartel versus cartel. The military versus the cartels, the military versus the police, certain police forces versus other forces, and of course, you know, many, too many, innocent civilians got caught in the crossfire.

DEAN BECKER: Now, Don, you state in your acknowledgements that The Cartel draws deeply on real events, and I see many of them, I've been following the war in Mexico for several years, and it just seems that, you know, it made it more compelling to be based on a true story, so to speak.

DON WINSLOW:I'm an historian by training and inclination, and so I usually like to keep my stories pretty, pretty close to the bone. But I think that in a way, novelists can do things that journalists aren't allowed to. You know, we're allowed to imagine the inner life of characters, we're allowed to make up dialogue that perhaps brings out some of these events in a maybe more visceral way to readers who might not, you know, pick up a piece of journalism on this subject. And so, I like that combination between fiction and reality, and as long as I sort of keep their thoughts and their emotions fairly realistic, I think the novel can work well for that.

DEAN BECKER: Now, Don, back in 2012, with my group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, I rode across the country with Javier Sicilia and about a hundred family members of those butchered in Mexico on the Caravan for Peace, and most of them were women who had these horrible stories that made me cry every night, I'll be honest with you. And your book includes the stories of some of these women, and the pain and misery they endure as well.

DON WINSLOW: As you know when you deal with this topic, it's all too easy to lose your faith in humanity. But, in researching the stories and writing the stories about some of these women, it's awe-inspiring. You know? There's no other word for it. The courage and the moral fortitude, and I think in the video I saw of the Caravan, the word grace is used, and I think that that might be absolutely the perfect word to describe these women, who have lost so much and have moved ahead and have moved on and tragically, you know, too often at the cost of their own lives.

DEAN BECKER: It seems that media everywhere is starting to recognize this futility of the drug war, and is starting to expose it for what it is, and that is hopeless.

DON WINSLOW: We've been doing the same thing for coming on now 45 years, and not only is it not working, it's made things worse. Drugs are more plentiful, more potent, cheaper than ever, and again, it's had a hideous effect on American society in terms of the number of people we imprison, in terms of the alienation of our police forces with our inner city communities. I think the militarization of police really began with the war on drugs, and of course, it's had the worst effect on the people of Central America, particularly Mexico. So, if something after 45 years has not improved a situation, but made things worse, then I think it's time that we looked at different solutions.

DEAN BECKER: Indeed.

DON WINSLOW: And I think that that's pretty obvious, really.

The face of the cartels. Has anyone seen El Chapo?
DEAN BECKER: Yes, sir. If you will allow me, I want to read just a paragraph here from your book, this is from Alvarado. He states: "You North Americans are clean because you can be. That has never been a choice for us, either as individuals or a nation. You're experienced enough to know that we're not offered a choice of taking the money or not, we're given the choice of taking the money or dying. We've been forced to choose sides, so we choose the best side we can and get on with it. What would you have us do? The country was falling apart, violence getting worse every day. The only way to end the chaos was to pick the most likely winner and help him win, and you North Americans despise us for it. At the same time you send the billions of dollars and the weapons that fuel the violence. You blame us for selling the product that you buy. It's absurd, John."

DON WINSLOW: I don't know how to respond to my own writing. I think it's the truth. Couple of thoughts: You know, we're very good up here at wagging the finger of corruption at Mexico. Is there corruption in Mexico? Of course, and I write a lot about it. I'm not alone in that. But as that passage indicated, what we don't understand is that police and journalists and average citizens are not offered the choice: take the money or leave it. They're offered the choice: take the money or we kill you. And very often, or we kill your family.And you know, the so-called Mexican drug war is one of the most tragic misnomers of the last half century. It's not the Mexican drug problem; it's the American drug problem. We're, we're the buyers, and it's the simultaneous appetite, American appetite for drugs and prohibition of them that creates the power of the cartels and that shields this violence. And, if I were on the other side of the border looking north, I'd talk about corruption, I would ask what kind of corruption exists in American society that makes you Americans the largest drug market in the world? At a rate of five times your population.

DEAN BECKER: And the world's leading jailer.

DON WINSLOW: The world's leading jailer. Not only the world's leading jailer, Dean. In the history of the world we have the largest prison population.

DEAN BECKER: Kind of tied in with your action to do that full-page ad in the Washington Post, I tried last summer to wake up our nation's leaders with release of my book. We hand-delivered a copy of my book to the president, his cabinet, every senator, representative, all nine Supreme justices, and we mailed a copy to all fifty governors, to pretty much little avail. And I'm hoping that your book lights a bigger bonfire on their conscience.

Waiting to cross from Mexico into the US (wikimedia.org)
DON WINSLOW: Well, thank you, I hope so too. You know, I deliberately put that ad in the Washington Post in order to do it in Congress's home town, hoping that that paper would arrive on their desks with their coffee. I think that ad was two weeks ago or three weeks ago, I don't remember, it's been a little bit of a blur, you know, I'm out on a book tour. But, I've not heard from a single politician. Who I have heard from? Cops.

DEAN BECKER: What was their response?

DON WINSLOW: Agreeing with it.

DEAN BECKER: Well, that's good to hear. I mean, it puzzles me that the evidence is so glaring, we can cut down on death, disease, crime, and addiction were to legalize and control it for adults, but no one wants to talk about that. Certainly not at the presidential level.

DON WINSLOW: Well, you know, I think, Dean, for so many years it's been the fourth rail of American politics. You know, you start talking about a sane drug policy and your opponent then starts talking about you being soft on crime, and, you know, oh he wants our kids to have access to dope. Which of course they do now, because it's not working. What I would like is some politician to stand up and talk back with the facts. The numbers are there, the solid data are there. If you want to talk about being soft on crime, I would say that the fact that 60 percent of rapes and 40 percent of murders now go unsolved, because we're so focused on busting drugs. To me, that's soft on crime. And I think police want to go back to doing real police work.

DEAN BECKER: I'm with you, sir. Now, it seems like every week I see another headline about another bust of a quote top narco-trafficker, but the fact is, it's just a chance for another corn farmer to get down off the tractor and attempt to become a billionaire, isn't it?

DON WINSLOW: Listen, it's never worked. We have tried to attack the drug organization pyramid from the bottom, the street-level kids selling crack on the corner, to the middle, the traffickers coming across the border, to the top, going after these top drug lords. None of these strategies work because the amount of money they can make is so great that there is always someone willing to step into any of those roles. So, you know, there was great celebration when for instance Chapo Guzman was captured. That's fine, I have no tears for Chapo Guzman, I'm glad he's in prison, I have no tears for any of these drug lords who've been killed by the police. However, it makes no difference. Nothing was disrupted, nothing was even slowed down. The drugs just keep coming. The strategy does not work. And as long as we approach this as a law enforcement problem or god help us a military problem, we're, the same thing is going to on and on and on.

DEAN BECKER: You know, a couple of portions of the book touched me deeply. One was about the old farmer, Don Pedro, and his battle for his ranch with the Zetas. That one made me cry, I'm an old man, I'm sorry, and it just made me think of, you know, these bandits, these rapscallions, what they're up to, the Zetas. Would you talk about that situation?

DON WINSLOW: Well, you know, that is based on a real incident. It was impossible to resist writing about it, but, you know, I think there are two parts to your question, so let me take the first one first. Back in, you know, 2010, '11, and '12, various cartels were forcing people off their land because either it was strategically located along the border or just because they could. The Zetas that you mentioned were looking for land for training camps and secret bases, and they were all-powerful, or so they thought, and they could just go tell people, get out. In northern Chihuahua, along the Texas border, the Sinaloa Cartel was fighting the Juarez Cartel, and they were literally colonizing the area. They were telling, you know, people in that area, in the Juarez Valley that had been there for generations, to get out, and moving Sinaloans in, almost like colonists, in order to secure that area. Who's on first now? Without a doubt the Sinaloa Cartel. They're the dominant cartel in Mexico now. They basically won the war. There's a sort of an upstart cartel, the new generation Jalisco Cartel, and we're in a bit of a lull, but that's about to collapse. You know, over the past month or so violence has drastically increased again in the Tijuana area. So, stay tuned.

DEAN BECKER: Your book references some of the videos that get circulated by the cartels, showing their commitment to outdoing each other in the way they torture and kill members of the opposite cartel. I saw one of those that, where one cartel had grabbed the wives and girlfriends of another cartel. They pulled out axes and chainsaws, and built piles of arms...

DON WINSLOW: That sounds familiar, that video.

DEAN BECKER: Oh god. And, my Spanish was not good enough to understand all they said, but it was a strong message, for sure.

DON WINSLOW: You know, lately we've been as a nation very absorbed with ISIS, and those videos, and they took that page out of the cartel playbook. What you're looking at is basically terrorism in Mexico. And, you know, the cartels are in the territory business, they need to control territory, and to do that, they need to control the population. And they do it through a variety of methods, but one of them is terror. And, and when they put out videos like that, they are really saying to the people, you don't want this to be you. The Spanish that is being spoken in many of these videos is to get these people to confess their roles in the rival cartel, sometimes to confess their crimes because these videos are also a means of propaganda, and a means of the cartels justifying, or attempting to justify, the horrors that they commit, in a very similar way to the ISIS videos. The really sad aspect, or more tragic aspect of these videos, is that they're used as tools of recruitment. Particularly young people, both men and women, see these videos, and see them as demonstrations of power. And I think that there are few things more seductive to people who see themselves as powerless than to see power, and just as the ISIS sadistic videos have been great recruiting tools for ISIS, the videos that you alluded to have been recruiting tools to the cartels.

DEAN BECKER: The hundred thousand dead, approximately, the 20,000 missing, the tens of thousands of children without parents -- it's just so enormous, and yet somehow it's ignored. That doesn't count in the US's drug war equation.

DON WINSLOW: The modern day Mexican drug war, the contemporary period that we're looking at, coincides almost exactly with the post-911 era. And I think that the United States has been, and it's understandable, Dean, because of 911, because of the lives lost, because we've had people in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our soldiers dying and wounded, we have been obsessed with, and most of our attention has gone to the Middle East. That, that's understandable, I think. I'm not saying it's right. I'm not saying it's good, but I think that, that people can only absorb so much violence and sorrow and tragedy. I think though that the other part of the equation is that, that we don't want to look at it down there. It's something we don't want to see because I think on some level we are aware of the role that we play in it, and our own responsibility for it, and I think that that can be a hard mirror to look into. And sometimes people, and particularly our politicians, frankly, would rather look away.

DEAN BECKER: It kind of draws a parallel with the cops busting somebody and accusing them of being the cause of the problem here in the US -- if they weren't buying drugs then these other situations would not occur. But the same could be said about the US and as you stated earlier, our addiction to these drugs coming through Mexico.

DON WINSLOW: I think we are addicted to the drugs. Now obviously, we have a population in the United States that is literally addicted to drugs. The percentage of that never changes very much over the years. There are some spikes with certain drugs at certain times, but the level of drug addicts remains about the same, that's sort of one topic. The other topic is recreational drug users, and they need to look at their responsibility. I can't understand for instance why a person who would be so concerned about buying free trade coffee or fair trade coffee would then think nothing of buying marijuana that has blood all over it. You know? I don't understand people who go out and protest against big business but then will come back and buy a product that's been shipped to them by a cartel that tortures and slaughters and rapes. This makes no kind of moral sense to me. So, in my perfect world, all drugs would be legal and no one would use them. But certainly, in the time until the United States straightens out its drug laws, until we've stopped forcing the hands of these sadistic criminals, I'd love to see a movement where particularly young people in America boycotted these drugs, the way they boycott other products.

DEAN BECKER: The book was a follow-up to Power of the Dog, and it seems that there may be, as you mentioned earlier, a need for another book in this series, if Los Pinos and the White House continue to believe this drug war to be necessary.

DON WINSLOW: It's my fondest hope and prayer that there's no need for a third book. I would love it if Los Pinos and the White House took me out of this business. I don't have plans to write another drug book, you know, next or for a few years, but then I'm really hoping at that point when I look around this landscape that we have come to some sort of sanity, and some sort of wiser policy, and that there's no need for a third book.

DEAN BECKER: Well, me too. I'm keeping my fingers crossed and deep prayer in that regard. Well, Don, here's hoping we can continue this discussion again soon and that just maybe, the politicians will read your book and pull their heads out soon. Is there a website, some closing thoughts you'd like to share with the listeners, Mr. Don Winslow?

DON WINSLOW: I have a website, DonWinslow.com, and, you know, always happy to hear from anybody. I have been very encouraged over the past two weeks by the number of police officers and DEA people that have contacted me. And I think there is a little momentum right now. You know, yesterday the United Methodist Church came out calling for war, an end to the war on drugs, addressing Congress. So I think that there might be a little bit of a groundswell, and I'm going to choose to go with that optimism.

DEAN BECKER: Once again, I want to thank Don Winslow, author of The Cartel.

Three More Drug War Deaths in June

An Indiana man died after eating drugs during a traffic stop, an Ohio man wanted on drug charges was killed by police during a traffic stop, and an Oregon man was killed by police breaking up an apparent street drug deal. Lance Royal, 31, Jeremy Linhart, 30, and Allen Lee Bellew, 29, become the 30th,  31st, and 32nd persons to die so far this year in US domestic drug law enforcement operations.

According to Fort Wayne 21 Alive, citing police sources, Fort Wayne Police with an arrest warrant for another man pulled over a vehicle Royal was in. Both occupants of the vehicle then tried to eat drugs in a bid to escape arrest. The other person, a woman, complained of distress and was hospitalized, but Royal refused treatment at first. But he then collapsed and went into cardiac arrest before medics could arrive. Medics tried CPR, then took him to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

According to the Findlay Courier, citing police sources, on June 9 at about 3 a.m., a Findlay police officer pulled over a car in which Jeremy Linhart was a passenger. The officer ordered both people out of the car, and both complied, but then Linhart tried to get back in the car and was shot in a scuffle with the officer.

Linhart was being sought on a warrant for failure to comply with his bond conditions for his cocaine charge. Police found a gun in the car.

According to the Portland Tribune, police investigating suspicious activity in a parking lot on the night of June 28 made contact with three people standing by a car. While police were talking to the men, Bellew reached into the car, pulled out a gun, and pointed it at them. Both officers opened fire, shooting Bellew, who was pronounced dead at the scene.

It's not clear if the police were in uniform or undercover. Bellew's gun turned out to be a starter pistol.

Bellew was from Eugene and was wanted in Lane County on a failure to appear warrant for heroin possession and probation violation for resisting arrest. 

On the UN's Global Anti-Drug Day, Civil Society Fights Back [FEATURE]

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) today released its 2015 World Drug Report as the organization marked the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, but civil society groups around the world used the occasion to take to the streets to demand an end to the global drug prohibition regime.

The report itself was relatively anodyne by UNODC standards, noting that illicit drug was "stable," with around 250 million people having used illegal drugs in the previous year. There was "little change in the overall global situation regarding the production, use and health consequences of illicit drugs," the UNODC noted.

The annual report did make note of deleterious consequences related to drug prohibition -- including high overdose death rates and health consequences, as well strengthening terrorist and organized crime networks -- but failed to acknowledge the role of prohibition in creating and aggravating the very problems it claims to address.

Global civil society took it upon itself to rectify that omission. Led by the International Drug Policy Consortium, dozens of groups mobilizing thousands of people marched or otherwise took action in at least 150 cities worldwide as part of the Support, Don't Punish global advocacy campaign. Support has more than tripled since 2013, when 41 cities participated.

"On the 26th June, thousands of people in over 150 cities will take part in a global day of action for the Support. Don’t Punish campaign. The campaign is a global show of force to say enough is enough – it’s time to end the wasteful and damaging war on drugs," said Ann Fordham, Executive Director of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC).

"Governments need to wake up," declared Idrissa Ba, Executive Director of the Association Sénégalaise pour la Réduction des Risques Infectieux chez les Groupes Vulnerables (ASRDR) and member of the West African Commission on Drugs. "In the last year we’ve spent another $100 billion on fighting the drug war, and yet again we’ve seen no change, but the human cost in terms of lives lost, new HIV infections or the forced detention of people who use drugs is immeasurable. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, isn’t that the definition of madness?” 

In New York City, people from groups including the Drug Policy Alliance, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the Harm Reduction Coalition, National Advocates for Pregnant Women, Espolea, México Unido Contra la Delincuencia, and Transform met an UN headquarters to demand reforms in the broken global drug prohibition system.

In Washington, DC, another march went from the State Department to the White House to demand that the Obama administration take stronger steps to bring about an end to global drug prohibition and the human rights abuses committed in its name, including the resort to the death penalty for drug offenses.  

"The purpose of 'Support, Don't Punish' is not only to spread global awareness about the failures of prohibition, but to demand that world leaders place human rights at the forefront of any conversation around global drug trafficking," said Jake Agliata, regional outreach coordinator for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, an organization with chapters on hundreds of campuses worldwide and which coordinated the DC march. "Executing people for nonviolent drug offenses is not acceptable, and the State Department should take steps to ensure that our tax dollars never contribute to this archaic practice."

"The World Drug Report has dutifully laid out what some of the key harms of the current system are. But the report fails to note that the system itself is a cause of those harms, not a solution for them," said David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org, cosponsor of the DC march. "Prohibiting drugs sends both use and the trade in drugs into a criminal underground, generating untold profits for drug lords and causing terrible harms to many users. We were at the State Department today because we think the US should get behind efforts to reform the UN drug conventions. It doesn't make sense to maintain a treaty structure that is based on prohibition while the U.S. and other countries are taking steps toward legalization."

The death penalty for drugs is under attack. Here, Iran executes drug offenders. (handsoffcain.info)
The day of action is intended to help frame the debate in advance of a UN General Assembly Special Session on Drug scheduled for next April, where countries have the opportunity to revise international treaties that threaten to stand in the way of reforms such as marijuana legalization and harm reduction measures like syringe exchange.

Last month, a coalition of more than 100 organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, released a sign-on letter calling on nations to begin the process of revising the drug control treaties. The letter is online here

A full list of events from Friday's global day of action is available here. Actions were set to to take place in Australia, Brazil, Egypt, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, Thailand, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the USA – as well as in Argentina, Belgium, Benin, Bolivia, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Denmark, France, The Gambia, Georgia, Ghana, Greece, Hungary, Indonesia, Ireland, Ivory Coast, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Liberia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Malawi, Malaysia, Mali, Moldova, Montenegro, Myanmar, Nepal, New Zealand, Niger, Norway, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Romania, Serbia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Uruguay, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe.

Chronicle AM: Vancouver Regulates Dispensaries, Albanian Pot Clashes, OR Pot Bill Advances, More (6/25/15)

You can listen in on the marijuana conversation in California, there's more Ohio pot legalization news, the Oregon House has passed a marijuana regulation bill, Vancouver decides to regulate its dispensaries, and more.

Vancouver dispensaries like the Green Panda will now be regulated by the city. (yelp.ca)
Marijuana Policy

Drug Policy Alliance Releases Videos of Three Marijuana Symposia in California. In an effort to educate the public and discuss pressing issues related to the legalization of marijuana in California in 2016, the Drug Policy Alliance held three symposia, each focusing on a different aspect of marijuana regulation. Videos from those symposia are now available online to view for free. The first symposia, held in Los Angeles, addressed issues related to marijuana use and public health. The second symposia, held in Oakland, addressed the social and racial justice issues related to legalization, including the modification of criminal penalties for marijuana, and the impact that prohibition has had and legalization might have on communities typically targeted by the War on Drugs. The final symposia, held in Eureka, focused on the impact that marijuana prohibition has had on the environment, and the ways in which this damage can be addressed via the regulation of marijuana cultivation. Click on the link to see the videos.

Ohio House Approves Measure Aimed at Blocking Legalization Initiative. The House voted 81-12 Wednesday to put a question before voters this November that could derail the ResponsibleOhio legalization initiative that will likely appear on the same ballot. It now goes to the Senate. The lawmakers are pushing a constitutional amendment that would block attempts to use the state constitution to create monopolies, as was the case with a casino initiative a few years ago and is the case with the ResponsibleOhio initiative, which would limit commercial grows to 10 investors who have already paid into the campaign.

Another Ohio Legalization Initiative Approved for Signature-Gathering. A legalization initiative sponsored by Ohioans to End Prohibition has been certified by the Ohio Ballot Board and can now begin signature gathering. Petitioners will now have to gather 306,000 vote signatures to appear on the ballot, most likely next year.

Oregon House Passes Marijuana Regulation Bill. The House Wednesday sweepingly approved House Bill 3400, a 127-page bill put together by members of joint legislative marijuana committee. It would impose new limits on medical marijuana growers, make it easier for the state's conservative eastern counties to opt out of legal sales, and reduce penalties for many of the state's remaining marijuana offenses. The bill now heads to the Senate. Marijuana becomes legal in Oregon as of next week, but sales are unlikely to start until next year.

Medical Marijuana

Massachusett's First Dispensary is Open for Business. The Alternative Therapies Group has opened the state's first dispensary in Salem. It only took three years once voters approved medical marijuana in 2012.

International

Vancouver Approves Regulation of Medical Marijuana Dispensaries. Ignoring the angry protests of the federal government, Vancouver city councilors voted Wednesday to regulate and license the estimated 100 dispensaries operating in the city. Dispensaries will have to pay a $30,000 license fee, and some will have to move or close because the regulations also bar them from operating within a thousand feet of schools, community centers, or other dispensaries.

Albanian Marijuana Growers in Armed Clashes With Police. At least one police officer has been killed and two wounded in fighting between police and pot growers in the town of Lazarat, known as the "cannabis kingdom" for its industrial-scale marijuana production. More than 400 police, supported by army helicopters, have surrounded the town, where they say at least 21 members of an armed group are holed up. The same thing happened last year, when police clashed with armed groups for a week before managing to take control of the town. Italian police estimate the town produces 900 tons of pot annually. 

Chronicle AM: Denver Public Pot Use Effort, House GOP Eases Up on Needle Exchange Ban, More (6/18/05)

We're heavy on the marijuana news today, but there's also good news from Congress on needle exchange, and Peru's Shining Path wins a second bad-news designation from the US government.

Denver, the Mile High City. Soon, you may be able to smoke marijuana in a club there. (wikipedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Delaware Senate Committee Approves Decriminalization. The state Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday voted 4-2 to approve House Bill 39, which would replace criminal penalties and possible jail time for marijuana possession with a civil fine similar to a traffic ticket. The committee chair, Sen. Margaret Rose Henry (D-Wilmington), sponsored the bill. It has already passed the House, and Gov. Jack Markell (D) has said he is "hopeful" Delaware will decriminalize.

New Poll Has Strong New Jersey Majority for Legalization. A new Rutgers-Eagleton poll has support for legalizing, taxing, and regulating marijuana at 58% among Garden State residents. Click on the link for demographics and more detail.

Ohio Secretary of State Attacks ResponsibleOhio Signature-Gathering. Secretary of State John Hustad (R) said Wednesday that signature-gatherers hired by ResponsibleOhio may be responsible for fraud. He cited several irregularities, including registrants with non-existent addresses, signatures that are illegible or don't match the signature on file for the applicant in the voter's existing registration record, and multiple applications submitted on the same day for a single applicant at different locations. ResponsibleOhio denied those charges, saying it had fully complied with state election laws and that it had met earlier with Hustad, and he didn't bring up any problems with their signature-gathering. The group has gathered more than 500,000 signatures; it needs 305,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Another Ohio Legalization Initiative Approved for Signature-Gathering. Two initiative campaigns have already bowed out this year, a third (ResponsibleOhio) appears poised to qualify for the ballot (but see item above), and now a fourth has been approved for signature-gathering. The latest is the Ohio Cannabis Control Amendment, proposed by Ohioans to End Prohibition. The group has only two weeks to qualify for this year's November ballot, but could continue to gather signatures beyond the July 1 deadline to try to get on next year's ballot. The group's web address -- www.legalizeohio2016.org -- suggest that next year is its real target.

Washington State Pot Workers Join UFCW. In a first for Washington, employees at the Cannabis Club Collective in Tacoma have voted unanimously to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW). This is the first union contract in the state's marijuana industry. The UFCW has organized medical marijuana workers in California.

Denver Activists Plan Local Initiative to Allow Limited Public Use. Some of the same people who led the statewide campaign to legalize marijuana in 2012 are now gearing up a plan to allow public use. They're talking about an initiative that would allow indoor vaping and outdoor smoking at bars and other spaces that want to do so. A public hearing on the proposal with Denver officials is going on right now.

Harm Reduction

Congressional Republicans Easing Opposition to Needle Exchange. Faced with rising heroin use in their home states and attendant public health implications from it, House Republicans are now easing their opposition to federal funding for needle exchange programs. The health spending bill now in the House would still bar federal funding to buy needles or syringes, but would allow federal block grant funds to states and localities to be used for the other costs of operating exchanges.

International

US Designates Peru's Shining Path as Narcotic "Kingpins." The remnants of the Maoist guerrilla group that plunged Peru into bloody civil war in the 1980s has been designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization since 1997, but this month, the US Treasury Department designated Shining Path as a significant foreign drug trafficking organization. Shining Path is accused of being involved in cocaine trafficking in south central Peru.

May Drug War Mayhem: Five Civilians, Two Police Officers Dead in Separate Incidents

Police enforcing the drug laws killed five people in separate incidents last month. The victims become the 25th, 26th, 27th, 28th, and 29th persons to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year. Also killed in May drug war mayhem were two Mississippi police officers whose deaths were noted earlier here.

Here's who was killed and the circumstances in which they died:

On May 5, US Marshals shot and killed a drug fugitive in a Honolulu parking garage. The man, who was not identified, was sitting in his car when marshals tracked him to the parking garage. They said he reached for a weapon as they approached, so they tasered him. When that didn't work, they shot and killed him. He died at the scene.

On May 9, a Fort Worth, Texas, police officer shot and killed a man "who tried to back over a plainclothes narcotics officer." Police had gone to a residence that was under surveillance for drug activity when they realized that a wanted drug felon, Kelvin Goldston, was in the house. When Goldston left the home and got into his pickup truck, officers approached from the front and rear of his vehicle. Goldston put the truck into reverse, forcing the officer at the back to jump into the grass, where she sustained minor injuries. The officer in front then opened fire, hitting Goldston multiple times. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

On May 10, two Jacksonville, Florida, police officers shot and killed a man they encountered while carrying out an eviction order at an apartment complex. D'Angelo Reyes Stallworth, 28, had nothing to do with the eviction, but was apparently selling marijuana at the complex when he encountered the officers. Police said he stuck a gun in one officer's chest, struggled with both, then broke free and ran down a staircase. He then turned around, and the officers, thinking he was still armed, shot him. But Stallworth had dropped the gun during the struggle and was unarmed when shot.

On May 21, Kentucky State Police officers shot and killed a drug suspect at a Motel 6 in Owensboro. They were in a joint drug investigation with Owensboro police and tracked their as yet unnamed suspect to the motel, but when they attempted to arrest him, he refused to exit the room and said he would not cooperate. Because a woman was in the room with him, police set up a hostage negotiation team, but the man emerged from the room around midnight and fired at officers. Police returned fire, hitting him. He later died at a local hospital.

On May 29, a Northglenn, Colorado, peace officer shot and killed a man during a drug raid. Officers had used a battering ram to open the front door of the residence during their no-knock SWAT raid and were met with gunfire from inside the house. One officer was shot and wounded and a man inside the house, who has not been identified, was shot and killed.

Three Marijuana Reform Bills Filed in Louisiana

(Welcome back to our one-time intern Jimi Devine, who has graciously volunteered his time to support our blog.)

Louisiana State Capitol
The smell of marijuana reform is strong in the bayou air, Louisiana is now home to a big push for both medical marijuana and major sentencing reforms around marijuana convictions.

Today the Louisiana legislature' House Health and Welfare Committee will hear a medical marijuana bill brought forward by Republican State Senator Fred Mills, a man who formerly served as head of the Louisiana Board of Pharmacy. Mills spent the last year working with law enforcement to make it past a committee and organizations that had held it back in the past.

According to Northeast Louisiana media outlet The News Star, major revisions have been made with support from the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, they include:

  • Prescribed marijuana would be taken in a form other than smoking it, perhaps in a pill.
  • The state Agriculture Department would be in charge of growing marijuana to be used for medical purposes.
  • Dispensing pharmacies -- ten, at this point -- would be required to meet certain conditions.
  • The bill would "sunset," or be reviewed on Jan. 1, 2020, giving lawmakers pause to determine if the changes to state law were beneficial. If the bill proves ineffective, the law could be corrected or ended.
  • The Louisiana Board of Pharmacy would adopt rules about dispensing medical marijuana.

This session the bill made it through the Senate Health and Welfare Committee that halted its progress in 2014, and then passed the full senate with two thirds in support. On when he takes it before the house Mills noted, "I'm hoping for a repeat performance from the Senate."

While the bill is very restrictive, but it would reinforce national trends on the medical use of marijuana in Louisiana. Hopefully leading to a more inclusive law in the future.

The sentencing reform bills look to reduce the penalties associated with a marijuana conviction in the state. Currently a third marijuana possession conviction could lead to a baffling 20 year sentence.

According to NOLA.com, the bill authored by New Orleans State Senator J.P. Morrell,

"reduces the maximum penalty for possession from 20 years in prison to eight, raises the threshold for a felony-level possession charge and adds a second-chance provision for first-time offenders."
 

Penalties would still be much more severe than their counterparts in other states, but first time offenders would have one opportunity to expunge their record after two years without a conviction. The bill would also reclassify a second offense from a felony to misdemeanor for quantities between fourteen grams and two and a half pounds.

The bill is projected to save Louisiana $17 million over the first five years. This would cover the $900,000 a year in wasteful spending on corrections highlighted by the Office of State Inspector General with $13 million to spare.

NOLA.com columnist Jarvis DaBerry noted,

"Such a bill does two important things. First, it establishes that a person with a small amount of weed isn't a real threat to the public. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the bill would keep such a conviction from haunting a person forever."
 

The second bill authored by Rep. Austin Badon would push major reforms, but is not as big a shift as the one presented by Morrell. Badon' bill would see those committing a third offense jailed five years, as opposed to the two year sentence in Morell' bill. It also does not include the possibility of conviction being expunged for first time offenders.

UPDATE: On Thursday Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said he would sign the bills if passed by the house and senate. In regards to the sentencing bill he told the Shreveport Times

"We've said all along we're fine with the idea of providing rehabilitation and treatment for nonviolent drug offenders. I think this bill does that. That's good for those offenders, that is good for taxpayers. So again, that's another one of those bills that if it got to our desk we'd sign that."

While Louisiana debates the direction of their sentencing procedures, I'll leave you with another quote from Jarvis DeBerry on the subject:

"Here's a prediction: Sooner or later, we're going to look back at what Louisiana has doing to folks caught with marijuana, and we're going to be just as shocked those sentences had our officials' blessing."

 
 
 

Chronicle AM: MO Pot Lifer Wins Commutation, MD Gov Vetoes Drug Reform Bills, DEA Heroin Threat, More (5/26/15)

A second Arizona legalization initiative has been filed, a Missouri marijuana lifer gets a reprieve, Maryland's Republican governor vetoes drug reform bills, the DEA warns of the heroin threat, there's more violence in Latin American drug war zones, and more.

The Show Me Cannabis campaign to free Jeff Mizanskey bears fruit. (twitter.com)
Marijuana Policy

Second Arizona Legalization Initiative Filed. The Campaign to Legalize and Regulate Marijuana last week filed paperwork for a second legalization initiative in the state. The other initiative, filed by the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which is affiliated with the Marijuana Policy Project, handed in its paperwork last month. Both would allow adults to possess up to an ounce of pot and propose a 15% tax, but the new initiative would make possession of more than eight ounces a misdemeanor, while the first one would make it a felony.

Maryland Governor Vetoes Marijuana Reform Bill. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) last Friday vetoed Senate Bill 517, which would have added some housekeeping measures to last year's decriminalization bill. The bill would have decriminalized public pot smoking and possession of pot paraphernalia. Hogan's explanation for the veto was that he is worried police won't be able to do anything about people smoking pot while driving.

Missouri Governor Commutes Sentence of Marijuana Lifer Jeff Mizanskey. Gov. Jay Nixon (D) last Friday commuted the life sentence meted out to 61-year-old Jeff Mizanskey, who had been the subject of a campaign led by Show-Me Cannabis to get him released. Nixon's action doesn't free Mizanskey, but does make him eligible for a parole hearing, after which he could be released.

Medical Marijuana

Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Bill Appears Blocked in House. A medical marijuana bill, Senate Bill 3, has passed the Senate, but appears to be bottled up in the House after being assigned to the Health Committee, which is headed by medical marijuana foe Rep. Matt Baker (R-Tioga County). He told local media last week he didn't see the bill moving any time soon. Bill supporters are exploring their options, including moving the bill to a different committee, adding it as an amendment to other legislation, and including it in a budget measure.

Heroin

DEA Says Heroin Deaths Highest in a Decade. The number of heroin overdose deaths more than tripled between 2007 and 2013, according to a National Heroin Threat Assessment released last Friday by the DEA. Deaths totaled more than 8,200 in 2013. Meanwhile, the number of heroin users doubled from 161,000 in 2007 to 289,000 in 2013. Still, heroin overdose deaths pale in comparison with those from prescription drugs, with more than 30,000 people dying of prescription drug overdoses in 2013. [Ed: One cause of increased heroin use is the crackdown on prescription drugs, which has led some users to take to the streets.]

Asset Forfeiture

Maryland Governor Vetoes Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) last Friday vetoed Senate Bill 528, which would have required police to establish that a property owner knew the property was connected to a crime, set a minimum amount of $300 for triggering seizures, and forbid police from transferring asset forfeiture cases to the federal government (to get around state asset forfeiture laws). Hogan's given reason for the veto was… heroin. "Maryland is currently facing a heroin epidemic," he said in a veto statement. "The individuals involved in the manufacture and sale of drugs are profiting from the deaths and ruined lives they are creating. The asset forfeiture law helps to ensure that these criminals do not reap any economic benefits from their crimes."

International

FARC Calls Off Ceasefire After Colombian Military Kills 26 Rebels. Colombia's leftist rebels have ended their unilateral ceasefire during protracted peace negotiations with the government after a government air and ground offensive killed 26 FARC fighters last Thursday. But the FARC said it will continue with peace talks. The Colombian military offensive began after the FARC killed 11 soldiers on patrol last month, but the FARC claims the military has been harassing it throughout the peace talks.

Mexican Cops Kill 42 Drug Suspects in "Shoot Out." At least 42 suspected drug cartel members and one federal police officer died last Friday in what authorities described as a fierce, three-hour gunfight between police and drug gang gunmen. The killings took place in Jalisco state, home of the up-and-coming Jalisco New Generation cartel, although authorities did not name the group. While authorities reported a fierce fight, the one-sided death toll is raising eyebrows.

Paris City Council Announces Location of France's First Safe Injection Site. The city council announced Monday that the country's first "drug consumption room" will be located at the city's Lariboisiere Hospital. The site was chosen after the plan for the original site was derailed by neighborhood opposition.

Two Mississippi Cops Killed in Traffic Stop Turned Drug Search

The two Hattiesburg, Mississippi, police officers killed last Saturday died after a traffic stop turned into an attempted search for drugs and other contraband. Officers Benjamin Deen and Liquori Tate become the 23rd and 24th persons to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

According to the Associated Press, Officer Deen, the department's drug dog handler, stopped a car driven by Joanie Calloway for speeding. Also in Calloway's vehicle were her boyfriend, Marvin Banks, and another passenger, Cornelius Clark.

Officer Deen decided to search the vehicle and called for backup. This is the point the incident turned from a "routine traffic stop" to a drug war incident. (At a Monday eulogy for Deen, his comrades described him as an enthusiastic officer who made "many drug arrests with his dog, Tomi, at his side.")

When Officer Tate arrived, Deen told the trio to get out of the car. At that point, Banks produced a weapon and shot both officers, Deen in the face and Tate in the lower back.

Both officers were wearing bulletproof vests, but the vests did not protect them from either the head shot or the shot to the back. Both died shortly thereafter.

According to USA Today, Banks has a drug-related criminal history, an ongoing drug habit, and mental issues. He was arrested for both the sale of crack cocaine and possession of a stolen firearm in a three-month period in 2010, and possession of marijuana in 2011. In 2013, he was arrested again on crack cocaine sales charges, and last October, he was arrested for trespass at the University of Southern Mississippi. He had already done two stints on prison, and the drug charge was still pending when he was pulled over.

Banks's mother, Mary Smith, told USA Today that he smoked synthetic marijuana on a daily basis and that he had been hearing voices since being attacked and struck over the head with a pipe several years ago.

"You could tell something was wrong with him," she said. "I hate it for these families that he wasn't in his right mind."

Now, Banks is charged with capital murder, Calloway is charged with being an accessory after the fact, and Clark is charged with obstructing justice. Deen will be buried Thursday and Tate's funeral is set for Sunday.

Hattiesburg, MS
United States

Colombia Suspends Use of Aerial Herbicide to Kill Coca Crops [FEATURE]

[This article was written in collaboration with AlterNet and originally appeared here.]

No more of this. (wikipedia.org)
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced today that he is halting the use of the herbicide glyphosate as part of a US-backed effort to destroy coca crops. More than four million acres of land in the country have been sprayed with the Monsanto-manufactured weed killer.

The US has paid for the program as part of its multi-billion dollar, decades-long anti-drug campaign in the country that had been (and might be again) the world's largest coca and cocaine producer. US contractors paid by the State Department do some of the spraying.

Santos acted a little more than a month after the World Health Organization (WHO) said that the herbicide is probably carcinogenic and days after the Colombian Health Ministry, citing the WHO report, recommended that the program be halted.

Critics of the spraying program had complained for years that the herbicide not only killed coca crops, but also injured people, livestock, and other plant life exposed to it. Those claims got some backing last year when Daniel Mejia, chairman of an expert panel advising the Colombian government on its drug strategy, published research showing high rates of skin problems and miscarriages in areas sprayed with glyphosate.

The move comes in the midst of peace talks between the Santos government and the rebels of the FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces), who have been in rebellion against the government in Bogota for more than 50 years. The two sides had already agreed that aerial eradication should be used only as a last resort.

It was the strength of the rebels around the turn of the century that was a principal reason for the resort to aerial spraying. Their presence in coca-growing areas, where guerrilla fighters protected the crops, made manual eradication risky. At least 62 manual eradicators -- 48 of them soldiers -- have been killed since 2009 and nearly 400 injured, most of them the victims of guerrilla groups.

Colombian coca cultivation had declined for the previous six years, but jumped 39% last year, according to a US government report that came out last week. The conveniently timed report, which blamed the increase on new cultivation outside areas where aerial eradication was allowed, failed, however, to stop the Colombian government from suspending the program.

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