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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.

The 2014 National Drug Control Strategy: Baby Steps in the Right Direction [FEATURE]

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) released its 2014 National Drug Control Strategy Wednesday. While in general, it is remarkable for its similarities to drug control strategies going back more than a decade, it does include some signals suggesting that the Obama administration is ready for a shift in emphasis in the drug war -- from a criminal justice approach to a more public health-oriented approach.

But even that rhetorical positioning is somewhat undercut by the strategy's continuing commitment to the criminalization of drug users and the people who supply them, as well as particular policy prescriptions, such as its support for expansion of drug courts -- the use of the criminal justice system to enforce therapeutic health goals like abstinence from drug use, as opposed to measures that don't involve criminal justice intervention.

The 2014 strategy also continues the roughly 3:2 funding ratio between law enforcement and treatment and prevention spending that has marked federal anti-drug spending since at least the Clinton administration in the 1990s. And it does so somewhat deceptively.

"In support of this Strategy," ONDCP wrote in a press release, "the President has requested $25.5 billion in Fiscal Year 2015. Federal funding for public health programs that address substance use has increased every year, and the portion of the Nation's drug budget spent on drug treatment and prevention efforts -- 43% -- has grown to its highest level in over 12 years. The $10.9 billion request for treatment and prevention is now nearly 20% higher than the $9.2 billion requested for Federally-funded domestic drug law enforcement and incarceration."

What the press release doesn't mention when claiming that treatment and prevention spending now exceeds spending on law enforcement is that it did not include figures for drug interdiction and international spending on the law enforcement side of the ledger. The White House's proposed federal drug budget for 2015, however, shows that those drug prohibition-enforcement costs add up to another $5.4 billion, or $14.6 billion for enforcing drug prohibition versus $10.9 billion for treatment and prevention.

The strategy does, however, provide a sharper focus than in the past on reducing the harms associated with drug use, such as overdoses and the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, and other blood-borne diseases. It calls for greater access to the opiate overdose reversal drug naloxone and supports needle exchange and state laws that provide limited immunity from prosecution for people suffering overdoses and the people who seek help for them -- the so-called 911 Good Samaritan laws. The strategy also sets a five-year goal for reducing overdose deaths, something drug reform advocates had been seeking.

The strategy also acknowledges the need to reduce mandatory minimum drug sentencing and recognizes that the US has the world's largest prison population, but in absolute terms and per capita. And, implicitly acknowledging that Americans increasingly see the war on drugs as a failed policy, the 2014 strategy has adjusted its rhetoric to emphasize public health over the drug war.

Acting ONDCP head or "drug czar" Michael Botticelli (ONDCP)
But, despite polls now consistently showing majority support for marijuana legalization, and despite the reality of legal marijuana in two states, with two more and the District of Columbia likely to embrace it later this year, the 2014 strategy appears not only wedded to marijuana prohibition, but even disturbed that Americans now think pot is safer than booze.

That puts ONDCP at odds not only with the American public, but with the president. In an interview published in January by the New Yorker, Obama said marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol "in terms of its impact on the individual consumer."

Noting that about three-quarters of a million people are arrested on marijuana charges each year, and nearly nine out of ten of those for simple possession, the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) pronounced itself unimpressed with the new national drug strategy.

The drug czar's office is still tone deaf when it comes to marijuana policy. It appears to be addicted to marijuana prohibition. Why stay the course when the current policy has utterly failed to accomplish its goals?" asked MPP communications director Mason Tvert.

"The strategy even goes so far as to lament the public's growing recognition that marijuana is not as harmful as we were once led to believe. President Obama finally acknowledged the fact that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol, yet his administration is going to maintain a policy of punishing adults who make the safer choice," Tvert continued. "Most Americans think marijuana should be made legal, and even the Justice Department has acknowledged that regulating marijuana could be a better approach than prohibition. Legalizing and regulating marijuana is not a panacea, but it is sound policy."

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), with a wider policy remit than MPP, had a nuanced response to the release of the drug strategy. It was critical of some aspects of the strategy, but had kind words for others.

"The administration says drug use is a health issue but then advocates for policies that put people in the criminal justice system," said Bill Piper, DPA national affairs director. "Until the drug czar says it is time to stop arresting people for drug use, he is not treating drug use as a health issue no matter what he says. I know of no other health issue in which people are thrown in jail if they don't get better."

Still, said Piper, the drug czar's office deserves some credit for addressing serious issues associated with drug use under prohibition.

"Director Botticelli should be applauded for taking strong steps to reduce drug overdose fatalities and the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and other infectious diseases," he said. "His leadership on these issues, and his work overall to reduce the stigma associated with substance misuse, are encouraging."

But when it comes to marijuana policy, DPA found itself pretty much on the same page as MPP.

"The Administration continues to keep its head in the sand when it comes to marijuana law reform," said Piper. "Hundreds of thousands of Americans are being arrested each year for nothing more than possessing small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Once arrested they can be discriminated against in employment and housing for life. The administration can't ignore the destructive impact of mass arrests forever."

Washington, DC
United States

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chronicle AM -- February 14, 2014

Marijuana legalization is dead in the Hawaii statehouse this year, but still kicking at the Oregon capitol, the annual Monitoring the Future survey is out, Uruguay's president chides the US and Europe on drug policy, and more. Let's get to it:

Uruguayan President Mujica has some advice for the US and Europe (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Hawaii Legalization Bill Killed, But Decrim Bill Still Lives. A bill that would have legalized marijuana in the Aloha State died in a state Senate committee Thursday, but a decriminalization bill still lives. Senate Bill 2733 was "deferred" in committee, or, as Sen. Will Espero, chair of the Public Safety Committee said in remarks reported by the Associated Press, "At this time, the legalization bill is dead." But a decriminalization bill, Senate Bill 2358, remains alive.

Oregon Bill to Put Legalization on November Ballot Advances. A bill that would put marijuana legalization to the voters in November advanced on a 3-2 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday. Senate Bill 1556 must now pass the Senate Rules Committee before going to a Senate floor vote. Supporters said it would give the legislature more control than a legalization initiative sponsored by New Approach Oregon.

Maryland Bill Would Ban Cooperation With Feds on Marijuana Prohibition. A bipartisan group of legislators has introduced a bill that would refuse cooperation with federal marijuana prohibition laws. House Bill 1016 prohibits enforcement of any federal law or regulation prohibiting cannabis by any state agency, political subdivision of the state, or any agent or employee of the state or political subdivision of the state acting in their official capacity, or a corporation providing services to the state or political subdivision. The bill relies on the "anti-commandeering" doctrine that says states cannot be compelled to enforce federal laws. Click on the link for more.

Tennessee Poll Reveals Splits on Marijuana Policy. A Middle Tennessee State University poll has found that only 33% said it should be legalized, with 57% saying it shouldn't. But when that 57% was asked if adults should be allowed to have marijuana if prescribed by a doctor, nearly two-thirds of them said yes. When the one-third that said legalize is combined with the 36% that said medical was okay, that creates a strong majority at least for medical marijuana.

Medical Marijuana

Kansas Legislative Foes Snub Debate. Key legislators blocking the advance of medical marijuana bills added insult to injury Friday by failing to show up to an informal debate on the issue at the state capitol to which they had been invited. Sen. David Haley (D), author of Senate Bill 9, invited Senate President Susan Wagle (R) and Committee on Public Health and Welfare Chair Sen. Mary Pilcher-Clark to the event sponsored by Kansas for Change, but they were no-shows.

Guam Medical Marijuana Bill "Inorganic," Election Commission Says. The legal counsel for the Guam Election Commission said Thursday a pending medical marijuana bill violates the Organic Act that established democratic government in the US territory. At the request of legislators, Senate Bill 215 sponsor Sen. Tina Muna Barnes (D-Mangilao) amended her bill to have it approved by voters in a referendum, but the legal counsel said the Organic Act has no provision for such referenda.

New Hampshire Medical Marijuana Modification Bill Stalled. A bill that would expand the state's medical marijuana program to include several more diseases, but also limit the amount of marijuana patients could purchase in a month is on hold after key lawmakers said it needed more work. House Bill 1616 has some problematic provisions, including one that would criminalize patients for possessing their medicine in a motor vehicle unless it is in a locked container, legislators said. Lawmakers will continue to review it, they said.

Drug Use

Annual Monitoring the Future Teen Drug Use Study Released. The annual survey of drug, alcohol, and tobacco use among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders was released Thursday. There's not a whole lot shocking in it. Illicit drug use is generally down slightly, except for marijuana, which is up slightly, although in "non-significant" amounts among 8th and 10th graders, and flat for 12th graders. The complete survey is at the link.

International

Uruguay's Mujica Says US, European Drug Policies Must Change. In an interview with Reuters Thursday, Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, whose country recently legalized marijuana commerce, said the US and Europe need to find a new strategy to deal with drugs. "The industrial societies are the ones that have to change," he said. "For a small country, it's possible to experiment with this, but it's also very possible for a developed country because of the resources it has. There are big markets, they have great buying power, and that is a big economic attraction. Until things change there, it will be very difficult to change elsewhere," said Mujica. "Any North American state is more important than Uruguay, in dimensions, in its economic force," he said. "But it's still a bit like a lady embarrassed to admit her natural sins and lying to herself. What we are doing is much more open."

UNODC Calls on Sri Lanka to Enact More Prohibitionist Laws to Stop Sea Smuggling. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Thursday called on Sri Lanka to enact mechanisms allowing it to prosecute those caught drug smuggling on the high seas. UNODC complained that without such a law, smugglers caught at sea off Sri Lanka are simply set free after their drugs are dumped into the ocean. The Sri Lankan government said it would have to consider the idea. [Ed: The thriving global drug trade and dim interdiction statistics demonstrate the futility of the approach that UNODC is calling for.]

Venezuela to Shoot Down Drug Planes

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro warned last week this his government will shoot down planes using Venezuelan air space to smuggle drugs. The National Assembly passed a law allowing for such actions in May, but it did not go into effect until this month.

"Let drug traffickers know that starting today any plane that enters Venezuela (to smuggle drugs) will be forced to land in peace, or else it will by shot down by our Sukhoi, our F-16s and the entire Venezuelan Air Force," Maduro said in a speech last Wednesday. "I will begin applying this law immediately in coordination with our armed forces," he added.

While Venezuela is not a drug-producing country, it has become a key transit route for cocaine produced in neighboring Colombia, only this year displaced by Peru as the world's leading coca and cocaine producer. The US government has placed Venezuela and its South American ally Bolivia on its annual list of countries not complying with US drug war objectives, a charge both countries categorically rejected. (Oddly enough, neither Colombia nor Peru are on that list, nor Mexico, the country from which the most drugs are imported to the US.)

The drug plane shoot-down law, known officially as the Law of Control for the Integral Defense of Airspace, was originally proposed in 2011 by the late President Hugo Chavez. After Chavez's death last December, the law was approved by the National Assembly.

While an apparent violation of international civil aviation law, the shooting down of civilian planes suspected of drug running led to the downing of at least 30 planes by Peruvian authorities in the 1990s. The US suspended its cooperation with Peru in that effort after Peruvian fighter jets working with CIA spotters blasted a plane carrying American missionaries out of the sky in 2001, resulting in the deaths of Veronica Bowers and her infant child. Brazil also has had such a policy in place since 2004.

Caracas
Venezuela

Peru Retakes Spot as World's #1 Coca Producer

And the wheel turns. Twenty years ago, Peru produced about 60% of the world's coca crop, from which cocaine is derived. But crop disease and aggressive anti-trafficking efforts in Peru hurt output there even as cultivation blossomed in Colombia, which took first place honors by the turn of the century.

coca leaf statues in Peruvian village (Phillip Smith)
But now, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Peru has regained its status as the number one producer. In a report issued last week, UNODC estimated that Peru had 151,000 acres of land devoted to coca production, compared to 125,000 acres in second place Colombia and about 63,000 acres in third place Bolivia.

Just as aggressive eradication and interdiction campaigns in Peru -- including a US-aided policy of shooting down suspected drug trafficking planes -- reduced the coca supply there in the 1990s, the massive US aid program known as Plan Colombia, with its aerial fumigation and aggressive eradication programs, has managed to shrink production in Colombia.

At its peak in 2000, Colombia accounted for 90% of the world's cocaine, with about 400,000 acres planted with coca. Since then, that figure has shrunk by about one third.

But in a clear example of "the balloon effect," Peru has taken up the slack, and has been well-situated to take advantage of growing Brazilian and European demand for cocaine. Peru's reemergence as the global coca leader comes despite renewed efforts by President Ollanta Humala to crack down on coca cultivation, as well as the trafficking and armed rebel groups -- remnants of the feared Shining Path insurgency of the 1980s -- who protect and profit from it.

Peru actually managed to decrease cultivation this year by about 4,000 acres, or 3.4%, according to UNODC. But given continuing declines in Colombia and stable, lower-level production in Bolivia, the country retakes first place even with the decline.

Unlike Colombia, both Peru and Bolivia have long histories of indigenous coca use, and both countries have large legal coca markets. But according to the UNODC, of Peru's estimated 129,000 tons of dried coca leaves, only 9,000 tons were destined for the legal market. That leaves 120,000 tons of leaves ready to be turned into cocaine hydrochloride and snorted up noses in Rio de Janeiro, Rome, and Riyadh.

Peru

Chronicle Book Review: Smuggler Nation

Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America, by Peter Andreas (2013, Oxford University Press, 454 pp., $29.95 HB)

Wow. With Smuggler Nation, Brown University political science professor Peter Andreas has hit the ball out of the park -- or over the border. This book should be required reading for not only for people interested in we got to our current mess in the war on drugs, but also for anyone interested in American history in general, and the twinned growth of illicit commerce and the ever-increasing policing resources designed to thwart it in particular.

What makes Smuggler Nation so essential for people primarily interested in drug policy is the manner in which it situates drug prohibition and efforts to suppress the drug trade within the larger historical context of state efforts to control -- or prohibit -- trade. The war on drugs (or at least its interdiction component) didn't drop on us out of the sky, but was built upon already existing national-level efforts to enforce proscriptions on free trade, dating back to Jefferson's abortive ban on US ships trading with any foreign nations, the more successful, but still long-lasting and highly contentious effort to ban the slave trade, and Prohibition-era border enforcement.

Andreas shows that, going back to colonial times, smuggling and illicit commerce played a crucial role in the creation and expansion of the American economy, and, indeed, in the anti-British sentiment that led the way to the American Revolution in the first place. Whether it was enriching Providence and Boston merchants in the triangular slave trade, stealing intellectual property from England at the start of the Industrial Age, selling American cattle to hungry British troops stationed in Canada during the War of 1812, allying with the smuggler-pirate Jean Lafitte in the Battle of New Orleans in that same war, selling contraband whiskey to Indians, smuggling guns into Mexico (in the 1840s, in addition to now) -- the list goes on and on -- smuggling and illicit commerce was, and continues to be, part and parcel of the American story.

Andreas also show that those efforts to control unsanctioned commerce led directly -- and continue to lead directly -- to ever larger, more expansive, more expensive, and  more unintended consequence-generating law enforcement efforts to suppress it. We saw it with the early growth of the US Navy to combat tax evading smugglers, and how those efforts rerouted, but did not defeat, illicit trade. We saw it with the expansion of drug war interdiction efforts in the 1980s, where blockading the Caribbean route for Colombian cocaine rerouted, but did not defeat, illicit trade, and helped provoke the metastasis of what had been largely low-key, local Mexican smuggling networks into the Frankenstein monster drug cartels of today.

We can see that at work today in the current debate over the immigration reform bill working its way through Congress. House Majority Leader Boehner thought he could sell the bill to his conservative caucus by agreeing to expansive provisions to "regain control of the border" or "secure the border" by spending billions of dollars and adding 20,000 more federal agents along the Mexican border. (Nevermind that even that's not likely to be enough to satisfy Boehner's caucus, some of whom might support the bill but others of which have charmingly compared Mexican immigrants to dogs and asserted that those DREAM Act kids are mostly drug mules.)

There were 3,000 border agents in the early 1990s, 7,000 by the late 1990s, and there are 20,000 right now. The immigration bill would double that number again. As Andreas, relying on the historical record, notes, that is unlikely to stop drug smuggling or people-smuggling (there are much deeper driving forces to such phenomenon than law enforcement), but merely to divert it or reroute it, to corrupt enforcers, and to inspire the smugglers to come up with new technologies to get around it and gain entrée into Fortress America.

Andreas also makes an important point about "the threat" of transnational organized crime. That's pretty much just a fancy way of saying smuggling, he asserts, and it is nothing new. As he shows throughout Smuggler Nation, trade in contraband has been part of global trade since, well, forever. And now, given the rapid expansion of global commerce in recent decades, it would be surprising if contraband trade isn't expanding, too. It is, he argues, but possibly at a slower rate than the expansion of licit global trade. All of the hulaballoo over "the menace" of illicit trade is overdone, he dares to suggest.

Andreas is an academic who specialized in the US-Mexico border in his early career, and his publisher, Oxford University Press, is an academic press, but his writing is quite accessible to the lay reader. Smuggler Nation is chock full of great lost stories from American history, stories that hold serious lessons for us today as we struggle against the behemoth that our prohibition industry has become. Smuggler Nation will help explain how we got here, and you'll learn plenty and have lots of fun along the way.  This book needs to be on your bookshelf, and well-worn at that.

In Profit-Sharing Scheme, Oklahoma DA Used Contractor for Highway Drug Stops

An asset forfeiture scheme that utilized a private security contractor to stop vehicles on Interstate 40 in Caddo County, Oklahoma, has been shut down after garnering strong criticism. Caddo County District Attorney Jason Hicks suspended the stops earlier this month after getting a tongue-lashing from a local judge.

highway drug interdiction search (ncjtc.org)
Hicks got the bright idea of hiring the private security contractor Desert Snow LLC to do on-site training with his local drug task force. Desert Snow claims to have trained more than 30,000 police across the country in interdiction techniques. "Providing criminal and terrorist interdiction training since 1989,"it boasts on its web site, and "20+ years of high quality 'no nonsense' instruction in the pursuit of America's worst criminals."

But beyond paying the private operators to train police, the contract DA Hicks agreed to in January gave Desert Snow 25% of all assets seized during training days and 10% of all assets seized even on days the contractors were not present.

Hicks told The Oklahoman he hired the contractors "because his drug task force had little success on drug stops" and because "he hoped to make money for his office from the drug stops because of a loss of federal funds."

Stops were made on a stretch of I-40 in Caddo County, and on some occasions, no drug were found and no one was arrested, but police seized money anyway after claiming that a drug-sniffing dog had alerted. Desert Snow had earned $40,000 so far this year from its share of seizures and was in line to receive another $212,000 from an $850,000 seizure before the program blew up in its face.

Under Oklahoma law, asset forfeiture funds are to be split among law enforcement agencies that took part in the operation. But in the deal brokered with Desert Snow, the private contractor gets its cut off the top.

The sweet deal came to an end earlier this month at a hearing where a local judge learned that Desert Snow owner Joe David had pulled over a pregnant driver on I-40 and questioned her even though he is not a state-certified law enforcement officer. David was wearing a gun and possibly a shirt that said "POLICE" on the back, according to his testimony. The stop was one of 400 conducted over a five-day period with Desert Snow in February.

"I'm shocked," said Caddo County Special Judge David Stephens at a July 2 hearing. "For people to pull over people on I-40 without that license is shocking to me."

Stephens urged David not to do it again. "If you do, I hope to see you soon, wearing orange," he said, referring to the color of jail uniforms in Caddo County.

The pregnant woman and her passengers were found to be carrying 25 pound of pot, but the criminal charges against her have been dismissed. Her attorney, Al Hoch, called for reform of the state's asset forfeiture laws, saying seized money should go to the state general fund instead of directly to law enforcement.

"Law enforcement is supposed to be a public service function, not a for-profit enterprise," he said.

Those remarks were echoed by well-known Oklahoma defense attorney Irven Box, who is representing a Colorado man charged with marijuana possession after he was pulled over for a cracked windshield. Private companies shouldn't be getting paid with funds from drug stops they are involved in, he said.

"That at least gives the appearance that these seizures are done for profit and not to protect the citizens," Box said.

Anadarko, OK
United States

Spending Cuts Hurting Cocaine Interdiction, Admiral Says

Spending cuts imposed by sequestration are devastating efforts to block the flow of cocaine into the US, the director of the Joint Interagency Task Force told the Defense Writers Group in Washington Wednesday. Some 38 metric tons of cocaine that otherwise would have been interdicted will make it to US shores, claimed Coast Guard Rear Admiral Charles Michel.

Some, including the analysts who wrote a major report on drug policy for the Organization of American States (OAS) last week, wonder if it even matters.

Joint Interagency Task Force South headquarters, Key West, Florida (jiatfs.southcom.mil)
Three South American nations -- Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru -- produce the world's coca and cocaine supply, creating about 1,200 metric tons a year of the marching powder. About 500 tons of that are estimated to head for the US.

Michel said the joint command interdicted or disrupted about a third of cocaine shipments to the US last year, but that he expected that figure to drop to between 20% and 25% this year. Both figures are unusually high; the heuristic is that interdiction normally accounts for about 10% of drug trafficking.

"It breaks my heart to see multi-metric-ton cocaine shipments go by that we know are there and we don't have a ship to target it," Michel said. "Once it gets on land, it becomes almost impossible to police up."

Michel blamed not only sequestration, but also a history of declining support within the Defense Department. The task force depends on the US Southern Command for support, and even though that has "always been an economy-of-force theater," more ships and aircraft were devoted to the mission in the past.

"With sequestration, as well as other Department of Defense cuts, those resources become scarcer," he said. At his interagency group based in Key West, Fla., resources have been on a "multi-, multiyear downward trend," Michel said,"particularly for aircraft and vessels. There is more intelligence out there on the movement of cocaine than there are surface vessels to interdict this product," Michel said.

The task force covers an areas 12 times the size of the continental US, but only has a handful of assets, Michel complained.

"Right now… on any given day, I’d estimate that for US capital ships I have about three or four" and a like number of major aircraft assets such as P-3 Orions, he said. "Go back 20 years and we would have multiple times the number of ships and aircraft. It is difficult to resource this mission set, and sequestration has been devastating to it," he said.

Not everyone sees interdiction as a panacea. In last week's OAS report, The Drug Problem in the Americas, while analysts noted that interdiction successfully stopped some drugs from making it to consumer markets, producer countries were more likely to want to use their limited resources elsewhere. They also scoffed at the resort to interdiction in general.

"Interdiction is a joke. At most it will net you 5% of the drug flows, and this is seen by the traffickers as just a cost of doing business," they say in an unattributed quote include in the scenarios section of the report. "They will find another route. It's like just stopping up one mouse hole -- there are not enough resources to stop all routes. "

Washington, DC
United States

White House 2013 National Drug Strategy Released

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) released its 2013 National Drug Control Strategy Wednesday. The strategy is being billed as a "21st Century Approach" to drug use and trafficking, but despite some rhetorical softening maintains the US hard-line approach to the issue.

"The president has outlined his vision of an America built to last -- where an educated, skilled workforce has the knowledge, energy and expertise to compete in the global marketplace. Yet -- for far too many Americans -- that vision is limited by drug use, which not only diminishes the potential of the individual, but jeopardizes families, communities and neighborhoods," ONDCP wrote on a blog post announcing the strategy's release and touting reductions in cocaine and prescription drug abuse as progress made.

"Today we are releasing a science-driven plan for drug policy reform in America to build upon this progress," ONDCP continued. "This 21st century drug policy outlines a series of evidence-based reforms that treat our nation's drug problem as a public health issue, not just a criminal justice issue. This policy underscores what we all know to be true: we cannot arrest or incarcerate our way out of the drug problem."

The strategy emphasizes treatment and prevention, but despite the rhetoric, the Fiscal Year 2014 federal drug budget it accompanies continues to be imbalanced, with 58% of federal anti-drug spending directed at law enforcement and interdiction efforts. That figure does mark a decline from previous years, but only a marginal one.

And even its emphasis on treatment also includes punitive criminal justice elements, such as its embrace of the drug court system, where drug-addicted people are subjected to legal sanctions for such addiction-related behaviors as failing a drug test or missing an appointment. That has some drug reformers calling foul.

"The administration says drug use is a health issue but then advocates for policies that put people in the criminal justice system," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Until the drug czar says it is time to stop arresting people for drug use, he is not treating drug use as a health issue no matter what he says. I know of no other health issue in which people are thrown in jail if they don't get better."

While much of the strategy is little more than the same old same old, the strategy does call for expanded access to naloxone, a low-cost antidote that can reverse the effects of opioid overdoses. That is in response to the rapid growth in prescription drug overdose deaths in recent years.

"Director Kerlikowske should be applauded for taking steps to reduce drug overdose fatalities, but he's not doing much to reduce drug arrests or the many other problems associated with treating drug use through the criminal justice system," said Piper.

But while the drug strategy shows flexibility in its efforts to deal with fatal drug overdoses, it maintains a staunch opposition to marijuana reform and includes attacking outdoor and indoor marijuana cultivation as one of its key goals.

"The administration's continued opposition to marijuana law reform shows they're not serious about reforming US drug policy," said Piper. "At the very least they should stop getting in the way of states that are trying to improve public health and safety by regulating marijuana like alcohol."

Washington, DC
United States

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