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The Capture of El Chapo: A Capo Gone, But the Trade Goes On [FEATURE]

Special to the Chronicle by Bernd Debusmann, Jr., who is currently studying for an MA in International Journalism at City University London. Prior to that, he lived and worked in his native Mexico, most of it as a full-time freelancer for Reuters TV, also contributing to Fox Latino. Earlier he worked as a reporter in New York City and as a freelance producer for the Reuters Latin American Television Desk in Washington DC, during which time he dealt with many drug trafficking stories. During 2010 and 2011 he authored the weekly Mexico Drug War Update published by this newsletter, available in our Mexican Drug War archive section.

At around 06:40 on the morning of Saturday, February 22nd, Mexican marines and police officers arrested Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman at a condominium in the Pacific resort town of Mazatlan. Without a doubt, Guzman is the most significant organized criminal captured or killed since the current Mexican drug war began in December 2006. But what effect will his capture have on the violence in Mexico and the flow of drugs to American consumers? Not much.

El Chapo in the custody of Mexican Marines Saturday (sedena.gob.mx)
Guzman was widely regarded as the world's most powerful drug trafficker, and his aggressive organization has been a significant contributor to the violence that has gripped Mexico in recent years. This is especially true in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, where the Sinaloa Cartel's bloody and drawn-out takeover of the access routes to the US drug market left thousands dead over the course of a three year orgy of violence.

Since his January 2001 escape from prison, Guzman turned into a mythic figure, Mexico's answer to Osama bin Laden. For much of his administration, former president Felipe Calderon was dogged by accusations that he was protecting Guzman, and ridiculed for not being able to find him. In February 2013, the Chicago Crime Commission named him "Public Enemy #1" for his role trafficking wholesale quantities of cocaine and heroin to the city.

Given his notoriety, Guzman's successful capture is a significant PR victory for the PRI administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto, as well as for the DEA and other American law enforcement agencies. But the victory may well prove much more symbolic than strategically meaningful.

Guzman's capture does not mean an end to the Sinaloa Cartel, a long-established and sophisticated organization whose tentacles spread across the world. The cartel is often referred to as "The Federation," of which Guzman was not the only leader. In his absence, much of the organization will likely come under the control of Ismael Zambada Garcia, aka "El Mayo," a capable and intelligent career drug trafficker considered by many to have been Guzman's equal. The organization can also count on the services of Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, aka "El Azul," a crafty former police officer well known for serving as a peacemaker between rival criminal organizations.

Another possibility is that Guzman may well be able to continue to exercise some control over the organization from inside prison, as he did the last time he was incarcerated. Mexico's prisons are notoriously corrupt, and many drug traffickers and criminals have been able to continue to direct the day-to-day operations of their organizations in relative comfort in posh cells.

Guzman's capture is very unlikely to have an effect on the overall level of violence in Mexico, and may actually lead to an increase in more bloodshed and mayhem if the Federation were to break up into rival factions fighting to fill the vacuum. Many Mexican narco-blogs are already theorizing that Guzman was given up by members of his own organization, perhaps even El Mayo himself.

This was the case after the 2009 killing of Arturo Beltran Leyva, which led violence to spike as his underlings fought amongst themselves to fill the void. It should also be noted that Beltran Leyva's organization was considered part of the Sinaloa Cartel until a violent split with Guzman in 2008, demonstrating the fickle and fluid nature of these organizations.

Another possibility is that -- sensing an opportunity -- Sinaloa Cartel rivals such as the notoriously violent Zetas will take advantage of the arrest and go on the offensive in Sinaloa's turf. This is not without precedent. In mid-2012, the Zetas, along with elements of the Beltran-Leyva organization and the Juarez Cartel, made a push into Sinaloa-controlled territory in mountains of the Sierra Madre.

By the American government's own admission, the Sinaloa Cartel has dozens -- if not hundreds -- of distribution cells across the US, as well as Europe. Additionally, the cartel is thought to have an organized logistical network across Central and South America. Guzman's arrest leaves these networks intact, and business will continue regardless of who is in charge.

That happened after the 1993 killing of Pablo Escobar in Colombia. Despite having eliminated the world's most wanted drug trafficker of the time and leaving the Medellin Cartel in tatters, the northbound flow of cocaine continued. His organization splintered into several smaller organizations, which, while being less capable of challenging the state, were more than up to the task of keeping business going at a steady pace.

Guzman was an immensely important drug trafficker with few equals and had the blood of thousands on his hands. His freedom had become an embarrassment to the Mexican government, and his eventual downfall was inevitable. But it is unlikely to have any significant impact on the flow of drugs from and through Mexico, or on the violence that continues to plague large swathes of the country.

As long as Mexican cartels can deliver the illegal commodities that American (and European) customers want, drug trafficking organizations will continue to exist. While there are very few drug traffickers currently of the same calibre as Guzman, as long as prohibition continues there will be ruthless, violent and intelligent individuals who want to profit from it. This means that there will always be a pool of people to replace men like Guzman. Only through sensible drug laws and demand reduction can these organizations be weakened and eventually driven out of business.

Mexico Marijuana and Drug Reform Bills Filed [FEATURE]

Late last week, lawmakers in Mexico City filed two bills that would begin to radically transform the country's approach to drugs. One was introduced in the Mexico City legislative assembly and one in the federal legislature.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/mexico-seal-231px.jpg
The moves come as the debate over drug policy in general and marijuana in particular heats up in the region. The legalization of marijuana in Uruguay and the US states of Colorado and Washington has enlivened ongoing efforts at drug reform in Mexico, and the country continues to bleed from the violence associated with criminal organizations that rose to power on the back of drug prohibition.

They also come just days after four former Latin American presidents -- Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, Ricardo Lago of Chile, Fernando Enrique Cardoso of Brazil, and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia -- penned an open letter in support to Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera, himself a proponent of legalization.

"This is a necessary debate to have for Mexico City, Mexico and the entire region," the four ex-presidents said. "Something needs to change as 40 years of immense efforts and funds have failed to reduce both the production and consumption of illicit drugs."

"We believe we're making a very important contribution to a global debate that has to do with rethinking the issue of drugs," Vidal Llerenas, a member of the Mexico City Legislative Assembly and sponsor of the local legislation, said at Thursday news conference announcing the bills.

"The aim of this legislation is not to change the drug sphere in the city, but rather to simply avoid criminalizing those who consume marijuana," said Deputy Eduardo Santillan Perez, another sponsor of the bill.

The Legislative Assembly in Mexico City
The Mexico City bill would de-emphasize small-time marijuana prosecutions. It would instruct police and judges to deprioritize prosecution of marijuana violations in some circumstances, and it would create a Portugal-style "dissuasion commission" which could impose administrative sanctions on offenders instead of subjecting them to the criminal process.

The bill would also allow for the limited retail sales of marijuana in the Federal District. Such sales could only take place under certain criteria, including posting warnings to consumers about potential health risks. Retailers would not be allowed to sell to minors or be located near schools, and they would not be allowed to sell adulterated marijuana. Retailers who complied with these criteria would be issued permits to sell marijuana by the district government's Institute for the Attention and Prevention of Addictions.

The federal bill would raise possession limits for the amount of drugs decriminalized under a 2009 law. Under that law, the possession of up to five grams of pot was decriminalized; the new bill would increase that to 30 grams (slightly more than an ounce). It would similar increase the decriminalized possession limits for drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine.

The federal bill would also allow for the use of medical marijuana. And it would devolve some decision making power on drug policy issues from the federal government to states and cities.

There are clear medicinal benefits to using marijuana, said PRD Deputy Fernando Belaunzaran Mendez, and denying these benefits "is like when the clergy denied Galileo's claim that the Earth moves."

The prospects of passage are much better for the Mexico City bill than the federal bill, because the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), whose members introduced both the local and the federal bills, dominates the Mexico City assembly, but not the federal one. Mexico City, which has moved to allow abortion, divorce, and same-sex marriage, is also more socially liberal than the country as a whole. The Mexico City bill is likely to be debated early next month.

Both bills had their genesis in discussions that began last summer, when the Mexico City legislature organized public hearings to explore alternative solutions to the city's drug problems. Civil society groups, including México Unido Contra la Delincuencia (MUCD), the Colectivo por Una Politica Integral Hacia las Drogas (CUPIHD), and Britain's Transform Drug Policy Foundation were deeply involved in the drafting process, along with lawyers, medical professionals, security professionals and drug policy experts.

"Of the four specialists that helped draft the bill, two were from CUPIHD," said Alejandro Madrazo Larous, a constitutional law expert, law professor and CUPIHD member who helped draft the bill.

He told the Chronicle that international reform currents were indeed percolating in Mexico.

"As other countries move forward with reforms, it just seems more and more absurd that we are killing each other in Mexico to ban something that is becoming a regulated business," he said.

Reefer Bender in Mexico City wants to legalize it. (Phillip Smith, Drug War Chronicle)
"We welcome this attempt to replace stringent cannabis law enforcement with humane, just and effective alternatives," said MUCD's Lisa Sanchez. "Decades of punitive responses have failed to reduce levels of use and have effectively left the market in the hands of criminal entrepreneurs whose watchwords are violence and greed. This is a great opportunity for the government to adopt a new approach to drugs and improve the health and safety of its citizens. Let's not waste it."

"On the heels of historic marijuana legalization victories in Washington, Colorado and Uruguay, it's promising to see other countries and jurisdictions following suit. The innovative nature of the marijuana bill -- which combines elements of marijuana regulation models from around the world -- demonstrates that reforms can be tailored to fit the local context," said Hannah Hetzer, policy manager for the Americas at the Drug Policy Alliance.

"Mexico has suffered immensely from the war on drugs," Hetzer continued. "Amidst extreme levels of violence and crime, it is encouraging to see Mexico's capital city attempt to refocus its efforts away from marijuana possession and low-level drug offenses and to invest in reducing violent crime instead."

Madrazo Larous said passage of the bills would smartly reprioritize law enforcement, but that it would take work.

"I think they have a chance," he said. "We are reaching out for more support. If we can pass this at the national level, it would free up resources at the local level which would allow for better criminal investigation and prosecution of violent crimes. Today, we waste too many resources running after consumers and petty dealers."

With marijuana legalization also on both the legislative and the popular agenda in Washington, DC, it appears that Mexico City and Washington are in a race to see which North American capital city becomes the first to allow legal marijuana sales. Sorry, Ottawa.

Mexico City
Mexico

Hoffman, Heroin, and What Is To Be Done [FEATURE]

The news last Sunday that acclaimed actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman had died of an apparent heroin overdose has turned a glaring media spotlight on the phenomenon, but heroin overdose deaths had been on the rise for several years before his premature demise. And while there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth -- and quick arrests of low-level dealers and users -- too little has been said, either before or after his passing, about what could have been done to save him and what could be done to save others.

cooking heroin (wikimedia.org)
There are proven measures that can be taken to reduce overdose deaths -- and to enable heroin addicts to live safe and normal lives, whether they cease using heroin or not. All of the above face social and political obstacles and have only been implemented unevenly, if at all. If there is any good to come of Hoffmann's death it will be to the degree that it inspires broader discussion of what can be done to prevent the same thing happening to others in a similar position.

Hoffman, devoted family man and great actor that he was, died a criminal. And perhaps he died because his use of heroin was criminalized. Criminalized heroin -- heroin under drug prohibition -- is of uncertain provenance, of unknown strength and purity, adulterated with unknown substances. While we don't know what was in the heroin that Hoffman injected, we do know that he maintained his addiction and went to meet his maker with black market dope. That's what was found beside his lifeless body.

In a commentary published by The Guardian, actor Russell Brand, a recovered heroin addict, laid the blame for Hoffman's demise on the drug laws. "Addiction is a mental illness around which there is a great deal of confusion, which is hugely exacerbated by the laws that criminalise drug addicts," Brand wrote, calling prohibitionists' methods "so gallingly ineffective that it is difficult not to deduce that they are deliberately creating the worst imaginable circumstances to maximise the harm caused by substance misuse." As a result, "drug users, their families and society at large are all exposed to the worst conceivable version of this regrettably unavoidable problem."

We didn't always treat our addicts this way. Even after the passage of the Harrison Act in 1914, doctors continued for years to prescribe maintenance doses of opiates to addicts -- and hundreds of them went to jail for it as the medical profession fought, and ultimately lost, a battle with the nascent drug prohibition bureaucracy over whether giving addicts their medicine was part of the legitimate practice of medicine.

The idea of treating heroin addicts as patients instead of criminals was largely vanquished in the United States, but it never went away -- it lingers with methadone substitution, for example. But other countries have for decades been experimenting with providing maintenance doses of opioids to addicts, and to good result. It goes by various names -- opiate substitution therapy, heroin-assisted theatment, heroin maintenance -- and studies from Britain and other European countries, such as Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, as well as the North American Opiate Medications Initiative (NAOMI) and the follow-up Study to Assess Long-Term Opiate Maintenance in Canada have touted its successes.

Those studies have found that providing pharmaceutical grade heroin to addicts in a clinical setting works. It reduces the likelihood of death or disease among clients, as well as allowing them to bring some stability and predictability to sometimes chaotic lives made even more chaotic by the demands of addiction under prohibition. Such treatment has also been found to have beneficial effects for society, with lowered criminality among participants and increased likelihood of their integration as productive members of society.

The dry, scientific language of the studies obscures the human realities around heroin addiction and opioid maintenance therapy. One NAOMI participant helps put a human face on it.

"I want to tell you what being a participant in this study did for me," one participant told researchers. "Initially it meant 'free heroin.' But over time it became more, much more. NAOMI took much of the stress out of my life and allowed me to think more clearly about my life and future. It exposed me to new ideas, people (staff and clients) that in my street life (read: stressful existence) there was no time for."

"After NAOMI, I was offered oral methadone, which I refused. After going quickly downhill, I ended up hopeless and homeless. I went into detox in April 2007, abstained from using for two months, then relapsed. In July 2008 I again went to detox and I am presently in a treatment center... I am definitely not "out of the woods" yet, but I feel I am on the right path. And this path started for me at the corner of Abbott and Hastings in Vancouver... Thank you and all who were involved in making NAOMI happen. Without NAOMI, I wouldn't be where I am today. I am sure I would be in a much worse place."

Arnold Trebach, one of the fathers of the drug reform in late 20th Century America, has been studying heroin since 1972, and is still at it. He examined the British system in the early 1970s, when doctors still prescribed heroin to thousands of addicts, and authored a book, The Heroin Solution, that compared and contrasted the US and UK approaches. Later this month, the octogenarian law professor will be appearing on a panel at the Vermont Law School to address what Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) has described as the heroin crisis there.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman (wikimedia.org)
"The death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a tragedy all the way around," Trebach told the Chronicle. "It's a bad idea to use heroin off the street, and he shouldn't have been doing that."

That said, Trebach continued, it didn't have to be that way.

"If we had had a sensible system of dealing with this, he would have been in treatment under medical care," he said. "If he was going to inject heroin, he should have been using pharmaceutically pure heroin in a medical setting where he could also have been exposed to efforts to straighten out his personal life, and he could have access to vitamins, weight control advice, and the whole spectrum of medical care. And if he had had access to opioid antagonists, he could still be alive," he added.

While Hoffman may have made bad personal choices, Trebach said, we as a society have made policy choices seemingly designed to amplify the prospects for disaster.

"This is a sad thing. He is just another one of the many victims of our barbaric drug policy," he said. "This was a totally unnecessary death at every level. He shouldn't have been using, but we should have been taking care of him."

The stuff ought to be legalized, Trebach said.

"I'm an advocate of full legalization, but if we can't go that far, we need to at least provide social and psychological support for these people," he said. "And even if we were to decriminalize or legalize, I would still want to figure out ways to provide support and love and kindness to people using the stuff. I advise you not to do it, but if you're going to use it, I want to keep you alive. I remember talking to people from Liverpool [a famous heroin maintenance clinic covered in the '90s by Sixty Minutes, linked above] about harm reduction around heroin use back in the 1970s. One of the ladies said it is very hard to rehabilitate a dead addict."

"There are plenty of things we can be doing," said Hilary McQuie, Western director for the Harm Reduction Network, reeling off a list of harm reduction interventions that are by now well-known but inadequately implemented.

"We can make naloxone (Narcan) more available. We need better access to it. It should be offered to people like Hoffman when they are leaving treatment programs, especially if they've been using opiates, just as a safeguard," she said. "Having treatment programs as well as harm reduction programs distribute it is important. We can cut the overdose rate in half with naloxone, but there will still be people using alone and people using multiple substances."

There are other proven interventions that could be ramped up as well, McQuie said.

"Safe injection sites would be very helpful, so would more Good Samaritan overdose emergency laws, and more education, not to mention more access to methadone and buprenorphine and other opioid substitution therapies (OST)," she said, reeling off possible interventions.

Dr. Martin Schechter, director of the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, knows a thing or two about OST. The principal study investigator for the NAOMI and the follow-up SALOME study, Schechter has overseen research into the effectiveness of treating intractable addicts with pharmaceutical heroin, as well as methadone. The results have been promising.

"What we're using is medically prescribed pharmaceutical diacetylmorphine, the active ingredient in heroin," he explained. "It's what you have when you strip away all the street additives. This is a stable, sterile medication from a pharmaceutical manufacturer. We know the precise dose tailored for each person. With street heroin, not only is it adulterated and injected in unsterile situations, but people really don't know how strong it is. That's probably what happened to Mr. Hoffman."

Naloxone (Narcan) can reverse opiate overdoses (wikimedia.org)
In NAOMI, 90,000 injections were administered to study participants, and only 11 people suffered overdoses requiring medical attention.

"Never did we have a fatal overdose," Schechter said. "Because it was in a clinic, nurses and doctors are right there. We administer Narcan (naloxone), and they wake up."

Heroin maintenance had even proven more effective than methadone in numerous studies, Schechter said.

"There have been seven randomized control trials across Europe and in Canada that have shown for people who have already tried treatments like methadone, that medically prescribed heroin is more effective and cost effective treatment than simply trying methadone one more time."

Those studies carry a lesson, he said.

"We have to start looking at heroin from a medicinal point of view and treat it like a medicine," he argued. "The more we drive its use underground, the more overdoses we get. We need to expand treatment programs, not only with methadone, but with medically prescribed heroin for people who don't respond to other treatments."

Safe injection sites are also a worthwhile intervention, Schechter said, although he also noted their limitations.

"Injecting under supervision is much safer; if there is an overdose, there is prompt attention, and they provide sterile equipment, reducing the risk of HIV and Hep C," he said. "But they are still injecting street heroin."

He would favor decriminalizing heroin possession, too, he said.

Harm reduction measures, opioid maintenance treatments, and the like are absolutely necessary interventions, said McQuie, but there is a larger issue at hand, as well.

"We still need to look at the overall issue of the stigmatization of drug users," she said. "People aren't open about their use, and that puts them in a more dangerous situation. It's really hard in a criminalized environment."

Stigmatization means to mark or brand someone or something as disgraceful and subject to strong disapproval. Defining an activity, such as heroin possession, as a crime is stigmatization crystallized into the legal structures of society itself.

"The ultimate harm reduction solution," McQuie argued, "is a regulated, decriminalized environment where it is available by prescription, so people know what they're getting, they know how much to use, and it's not cut with fentanyl or other deadly adulterants. People wouldn't have to deal with all the collateral damage that comes from being defined as criminals as well as dealing with the consequences of their drug use. They could deal with their addictions without having to worry about losing their homes, their families, and their freedoms."

While such approaches have a long way to go before winning wide popular acceptance, policymakers should at least be held to account for the consequences of their decision-making, McQuie said, suggesting that the turn to heroin in recent years was a foreseeable result of the crackdown on prescription opioid pain medication beginning in the middle of the last decade.

"They started shutting down all those 'pill mills' and people should have anticipated what would happen and been ready for it," she said. "What we have seen is more and more people turning to injecting heroin, but nobody stopped to do an impact statement on what would be the likely result of restricting access to pain pills."

The impact can be seen in the numbers on heroin use, addiction, and overdoses. While talk of a "heroin epidemic" is overblown rhetoric, the number of heroin users has increased dramatically in the past decade. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the number of past year users grew by about 50% between 2002 and 2011, from roughly 400,000 to more than 600,000. At the same time, the number of addicted users increased from just under 200,000 to about 370,000, a slightly lesser increase.

If there is any good news, it is that, according to the latest (2012) National Household Survey of Drug Use and Health, the number of new heroin users has remained fairly steady at around 150,000 each year for the past decade. That suggests, however, that more first-time users are graduating to occasional and sometimes, dependent user status.

And some of them are dying of heroin overdoses, although not near the number dying from overdoses from prescription opioids. Between 1999 and 2007, heroin deaths hovered just under 2,000, even as prescription drug deaths skyrocketed, from around 2,500 in 1999 to more than 12,000 just eight years later. But, according to the Centers for Disease Control, by 2010, the latest year for which data are available, heroin overdose deaths had surpassed 3,000, a 50% increase in just three years.

While the number of heroin overdose deaths is still but a fraction of those attributed to prescription opioid overdoses and the numbers since 2010 are spotty, the increase that showed up in 2010 shows no signs of having gone away. Phillip Seymour Hoffman may be the most prominent recent victim, but in the week since his death, another 50 or 60 people have probably followed him to the morgue due to heroin overdoses.

There are ways to reduce the heroin overdose death toll. It's not a making of figuring out what they are. It's a matter of finding the political and social will to implement them, and that requires leaving the drug war paradigm behind.

New York City, NY
United States

DC City Council Approves Marijuana Decriminalization [FEATURE]

The District of Columbia city council moved another step closer to decriminalizing marijuana possession in the nation's capital Tuesday, approving a bill to do just that on an 11-1 vote. But it only acted after approving last-minute amendments that would make public pot-smoking a criminal offense and give police the right to conduct vehicle searches if they smell marijuana.

A final vote on the bill will come next month. It is expected to pass and already has the support of Mayor Vincent Gray.

While advocates greeted the council vote with praise, the accolades were tempered by concerns about the council's adoption of the late amendments. And looming over it all is the prospect of outright legalization in the District, either through a bill introduced by Councilmember David Grasso that is now before the council or through an initiative that is now awaiting language approval from District officials.

"This is a major victory for advancing the cause of racial justice in DC," said Grant Smith, policy manager with the Drug Policy Alliance. "The war on marijuana is largely a war on people of color and the DC council is saying enough is enough."

"As a former prosecuting attorney, I call this a step forward for the cause of promoting public safety," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). "Arresting and prosecuting adults for possessing a less harmful substance than alcohol is a waste of law enforcement and court resources. Police and prosecutors should focus their time and attention on addressing actual threats to public safety."

The "Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014 (Council Bill 20-409)" would eliminate the threat of arrest for possessing marijuana impose a $25 civil fine for possession as well as forfeiture of the marijuana and any paraphernalia used to consume or carry it. But the amendments approved Tuesday criminalize public possession and allows those vehicle searches.

The bill was introduced after the publication of an ACLU report and a Washington Lawyers' Committee on Civil Rights and Urban Affairs report highlighting the disparate rate of arrests of blacks over whites for marijuana possession in the District. The reports found that blacks are arrested eight times as often as whites for the offense, even though rates of use among both races are thought to be relatively similar.

But advocates complained that the amendments adopted Tuesday would only serve to perpetuate racially biased marijuana law arrests, not end them. Some called for a solution to the problem by having the council pass the legalization bill.

"These last-minute amendments will simply expand stop-and-frisk policies in the District and will do nothing to fight the horrible racial disparities in marijuana enforcement," said MPP's Riffle. "We need to regulate and tax marijuana like alcohol, and take it out of the hands of criminals and drug cartels. Marijuana should be sold by legitimate businesses in licensed, regulated stores, not by criminals on our street corners. The sooner the council takes up Councilmember Grosso's bill, the better."

The Drug Policy Alliance will be working to undo the amendments when the council takes a final vote on the bill next month, Smith told the Chronicle Tuesday night.

"There is one more opportunity to change the criminalization of public smoking when the council considers and votes one more time on the bill," he said. "We hope to work with Councilmember Tommy Wells and our community partners here in DC to pressure the council to reverse its decision to criminalize public consumption and treat public smoking as a civil offense instead."

Looming just behind the decriminalization fight is outright legalization. Public opinion in the District appears ready to make the leap. A Washington Post poll last year had support for legalization at a healthy 63%.

While some groups, like the Marijuana Policy Project, are working the council in an effort to move a bill, others favor the initiative process, especially if the council fails to act.

"As a DC resident, I'm proud the Council took an important step today to stop the expensive, time-consuming and racially discriminatory practice of putting people into handcuffs just for possessing marijuana," said Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority."But while this is clearly movement in the right direction, this legislation would unfortunately leave marijuana production and profits illegal and largely in the hands of street gangs and criminals. A clear majority of District voters supports legalizing marijuana, and that's why we're likely to approve a ballot initiative this November that would completely remove penalties for possession and allow residents to grow up to six plants. Hopefully such widespread voter support will spur the council to adopt more comprehensive legislation taxing and regulating the marijuana trade at some point soon."

Adam Eidinger of the DC Cannabis Campaign is the public face of the DC marijuana legalization initiative. The veteran District political gadfly had kind words for the decriminalization effort, but signaled it wouldn't make any difference to the initiative campaign.

"The compromise on the decrim bill wasn't that bad. The big deal is that it passed, and it passed with a veto-proof majority, and the mayor will sign it. We should be celebrating," he said, "But I'm on the war path. Decriminalization is a stepping stone toward ending the raging stream of marijuana arrests; it's a nice place to stand, but you don't want to live there, because you're going to fall in the water eventually. And I mean get arrested," he clarified.

"Look, decriminalization will get rid of a lot of arrests, but there will still be marijuana arrests and people engaging in illegal activity when they want to buy it," Eidinger continued. "And they're exposed to heroin and other hard drugs. You need to separate cannabis from all the hard drugs and create a legal cultivation and distribution system. That hurts the bulk hard drug dealers. If you care about reducing drug use and addiction, you create a massive harm reduction with marijuana legalization first. I don't have sympathy for the illicit market for heroin, but for the illicit cannabis market, it's not deadly."

The legalization initiative campaign continues to aim at the November ballot, Eidinger said, but still needs to secure funding if it's going to be successful. A key date for the initiative will be February 25, when the DC Board of Elections decides whether to approve the initiative language for signature-gathering.

"If the language is good, that's a big deal," Eidinger said. "I think some of the big money has been holding off until that happens. We're doing this on a shoe string and have raised $30,000 in six months, but we do have the money for signature-gathering locked in, thanks to Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps. We will do paid and volunteer signature-gathering."

Marijuana law reform is coming to the District of Columbia. And the decriminalization bill is only the beginning.

Washington, DC
United States

In Breakthrough, Farm Bill Includes Hemp Amendment [FEATURE]

The omnibus federal farm bill approved by Congressional conference committee negotiators this week and destined to be quickly signed into law includes the hemp amendment that was approved by the House last year before the bill blew up over Republican efforts to cut food stamp spending. The final version of the farm bill passed the House Wednesday morning.

hemp field at sunrise (votehemp.com)
Originally introduced by Representatives Jared Polis (D-CO), Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), the hemp amendment doesn't legalize hemp production, but it does allow for research on industrial hemp by universities and state agriculture departments in the 10 states that have approved hemp production. There are two bills pending in Congress that would legalize hemp; they are House Resolution 525, the "Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013," and the companion legislation, Senate Bill 359.

The 10 states that have already passed laws allowing hemp production are California, Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia, and the vote comes as even more states are showing an interest in hemp. Hemp bills have been introduced in 11 states this year, including Hawaii, Indiana, Nebraska, New Jersey (carried over from 2013), New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Washington (two bills were carried over from 2013) West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

"Although I strongly opposed the Republican Farm Bill, I was pleased to see that the bipartisan amendment that I offered with Representatives Blumenauer and Massie was included in the final bill that passed the House of Representatives today," said Rep. Polis. "This common sense amendment will allow colleges and universities to grow and cultivate industrial hemp for academic and agricultural research purposes in states where industrial hemp cultivation is already legal. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate to ensure that this language becomes law."

"This is an important victory for farmers, manufacturers, and consumers in Kentucky and across the country. Our amendment paves the way for production of industrial hemp by first allowing America's academic and research institutions to demonstrate that hemp and the products derived from hemp present a great economic opportunity for our country," said Rep. Massie. "The inclusion of our industrial hemp amendment in the farm bill reflects widespread support for cultivating industrial hemp and proves Congress can work together in a bipartisan fashion to help the American economy at a time when creating jobs is a national priority."

hemp supporter Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) (house.gov)
"With the U.S. hemp industry estimated at over $500 million in annual retail sales and growing, a change in federal law to allow for colleges and universities to grow hemp for research would mean that we will finally begin to regain the knowledge that unfortunately has been lost over the past fifty years," says Vote Hemp President, Eric Steenstra. "The American Farm Bureau Federation announced their opposition to the controlled substance classification of hemp earlier this month, and now passage of this amendment means America can get on track to once again become the predominant producer and manufacturer of hemp -- one of the most versatile and ecological industrial crops on the planet."

The hemp amendment was among the few provisions in the farm bill that had not been previously approved by both houses of Congress. That it made it into the final version of the farm bill was a testament to the bill's support, and to some key supporters, Steenstra told the Chronicle Wednesday.

"Senator Wyden introduced an amendment to the Senate farm bill that was more expansive than the House version, but the leadership limited the votes severely and our provision never got a vote," Steenstra explained. "That, combined with the fact that Senator Leahy had basically cleared it through Judiciary, allowed it to go forward. But ultimately, Senator McConnell and other conferees spoke up for it."

Both McConnell and his fellow Kentucky US senator, Rand Paul, have been ardent hemp supporters, supporting legislation both at the state level and now, in Washington.

"This is an important victory for Kentucky's farmers, and I was pleased to be able to secure this language on behalf of our state," McConnell said in a statement issued Tuesday. "By giving states the go-ahead to cultivate hemp for pilot programs, we are laying the groundwork for a new commodity market for Kentucky farmers. By exploring innovative ways to use hemp to benefit a variety of Kentucky industries, while avoiding negative impact to Kentucky law enforcement's efforts at marijuana interdiction, the pilot programs authorized by this legislation could help boost our state's economy."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) played a key role. (senate.gov)
"We think this is pretty significant," Steenstra said. "It's an excellent first step to revitalize what was once a proud and significant industry in this country. A big part of our farming economy has been lost, and we have to work to recover it."

The bill not only allows universities to do hemp research, Steenstra noted, but it also allows state agriculture departments to do pilot studies.

"That's a little bit more expansive than just research," he said. "The can look into things like marketing and cultivation of hemp, and that's a significant opportunity for the 10 states where it is legal."

Steenstra didn't think inclusion of the hemp amendment in the farm bill would take the oomph out the pending hemp legalization bills.

"We've made it very clear, and all of our supporters in Congress understand this, that this is just a first step," he said. "There are a lot of people anxious to grow hemp, and this won't really solve that. We will be able to get some crops in the ground and show that hemp is not the boogie man we feared, but commercial farmers still won't be able to grow it until we get those bill passed."

Although hemp proponents are careful to draw a bright line between industrial hemp and psychoactive marijuana, the growing national debate over -- and acceptance of -- marijuana has been a help rather than a hindrance, Steenstra said.

"The reality is that hemp has been caught up in marijuana policy for 70-some years," he noted. "There is no way to deal with hemp policy without looking at overall marijuana policy. These are two separate tracks, but at the same time, having a lot of people looking at marijuana policy has been a good thing for hemp."

New leadership at the DEA would be a good thing, too, Steenstra said, moaning aloud as he recounted DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart's comment last week that the low point of her career was seeing a hemp flag fly over the US capitol.

"Of all the things she should be down about, she complains about a flag made out of non-drug hemp fiber," he said."We're hoping a more enlightened DEA head will come in and replace her and bring some sanity to policy over there."

Washington, DC
United States

The Specter of Municipal Marijuana Legalization Looms Over DC [FEATURE]

The District of Columbia city council this week took a preliminary step toward decriminalizing marijuana possession in the nation's capital, with a bill to do just that winning a unanimous committee vote. But the council's belated response to decades of racially biased pot policing may end up just being a blip on the path to outright legalization.

That's because District activists, led by the indefatigable Adam Eidinger and the DC Cannabis Campaign have filed a marijuana legalization initiative with DC officials and are determined to move forward with it.

According to the campaign, the Legalization of Possession of Small Amounts of Marijuana for Personal Use Act of 2014 would "make it lawful for a person 21 years of age or older to possess up to two ounces of marijuana for personal use; to grow no more than three mature cannabis plants within the person's principal residence; and to transfer without payment (but not sell) up to one ounce of marijuana to another person 21 years of age or older; and to use or sell drug paraphernalia for use, growing or processing of marijuana or cannabis that is made legal by the Initiative."

The act does not address legal marijuana commerce because under District law, initiatives cannot deal with matters having to do with District government revenues. In the event the initiative passed, the council would have to come up with any regulatory and taxation scheme.

"Under DC law, voters can't interfere with the city's tax and spending authority," explained Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "And the courts have read that so broadly that they ruled that a ban on public smoking in bars would lead to less smoking, which would interfere with the city's revenue authority."

The time for a legalization push appears to be ripe. Public sentiment in the District, long a bastion of liberal politics, is swinging in favor of legalization, not least because of increased public awareness of the racially disparate impact of marijuana prohibition.In a June report, The War on Marijuana in Black and White, the American Civil Liberties Union found that Washington, DC, had one of the highest racial disparities in marijuana arrests in the country, second only to Iowa. In DC, blacks were 8.05 times more likely to face arrest for pot possession than whites. Numbers such as these are driving the reformist impulse in the District.

A Washington Post poll released Wednesday is a case in point. In that poll, 63% of DC residents favored legalizing small amounts of marijuana, up from only 46% in 2010. And among the District's black residents, support increased even more dramatically, from only 37% in 2010 to 58% now.

Adam Eidinger before the microphone (dcmj.org)
Not only does legalization appear to have public opinion on its side, the District is also easy pickings for initiatives. The number of signatures needed to qualify for the ballot is relatively small, and, in advertising market terms, DC is only a medium-sized market, meaning that the cost of a campaign is also relatively small.

"We only need 25,000 valid signatures, although we're going for 30,000, just to be on the safe side," said Eidinger. "I think we can do that in four months," even though DC law gives them up to six months.

The veteran DC activist estimates that the campaign needs $500,000 to be successful.

"I think we need about $300,000 for signature gathering," he said. "We'll need about half a million to be also be able to fight off any counter-campaign that emerges."

Eidinger and the DC Cannabis Campaign aren't there yet. He said the campaign had received a $100,000 donation from Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps and an additional $10,000 in bitcoins (!). The drug reform community needs to step up, he said.

"If we don't raise at least $350,000, I don't know if we can move forward," he said. "That's the bare bones. And if we do get this on the ballot, the drug reform community here in Washington should come up with the money. This is the nation's capital," he exclaimed. "It's a twofer. If we can legalize it here, we can legalize it anywhere."

But drug reform organizations that serve as major funding conduits have yet to get on board, at least with their checkbooks.

"We don't have a position so far on the initiative," said Dan Riffle, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project. "We generally support legalization, but it's a question of whether we want to put our resources into a campaign that would improve on a very good law."

Riffle was referring to the District's decriminalization bill, which he described as "the best decriminalization law in the country," with maximum $25 fines and no probable cause for a search based on smell alone.

DPA was similarly focused on the decriminalization bill and perhaps going even further with the council.

"Our first goal is eliminating the mass arrests of people of color in DC, which is why we're working with the council to support the decriminalization bill," said Piper. "And then we will support legalization, either through the initiative process or through the council or both," he said.

"We've had a lot of discussions with Adam," said Piper. "They're in the process of figuring out how much money they can raise to support this, while we're working with Councilmember Grosso and others on a tax and regulate bill."

That's all well and good, said Eidinger, but the initiative campaign needs money now.

"Early donations are the most important," he emphasized. "I think we can get the money to get this on the ballot, but we need money to defend it, and we need to hire good people early. People need to donate now!"

Marijuana reform is happening in the District of Columbia. The question now is how far it goes, and by what route. Decriminalization looks like a done deal, but having a legalization initiative hanging over the city council's head may prod it to take the next step as well.

"The council will for sure decriminalize in the next month," Piper prophesied. "But will they then take up legalization? Having an initiative on the ballot is a good way to force their hand. We're hopeful that the council will realize that they will either end up in a situation where marijuana is legal with no controls, or they can take action and adopt a regulatory approach."

The initiative now awaits approval by the Board of Elections of its language, which could take up to a month. Then, it's on to signature gathering. Then it's winning an election. And then, Congress would have to refrain from blocking it -- or be forced once again to contravene the democratically expressed will of the voters of the nation's capital.

"There are lots of hurdles, but now is the time to move forward with righteous indignation," Eidinger said. "Those people who were talking about decriminalization aren't talking about it now; instead, the goal now is legalization. This is the time for everyone to think big and win!"

Washington, DC
United States

The Top 10 Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2013 [FEATURE]

Last year is receding in the rear view mirror, but before looking forward to the battles of 2014, let us take a moment to savor what was, overall, a pretty big year for drug reform on the domestic front. Unsurprisingly, marijuana makes up a lot of the news, but there were also signs that America's decades-long incarceration fever is breaking, and even though the impulse to scapegoat the downtrodden through public benefits drug testing remains strong, it doesn't really seem to be picking up much traction, and the year ended with suspicionless public benefits drug testing slapped down by a federal judge. Here are the highlights of 2013:

October Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on state marijuana legalization
#1 The Obama Administration Doesn't Try to Block State Marijuana Legalization

While the truly historic moments in US marijuana legalization -- the November 2012 election victories in Colorado and Washington and the commencement of legal marijuana sales in Colorado on Wednesday -- neatly bracketed 2013, history was being made by the Obama administration as well. The first presidency to deal with states voting to legalize marijuana for adults in direct contravention of federal law did so in a remarkably reasonable fashion: by largely getting out of the way. In August, Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued a three-page memorandum affirming that the US Justice Department would allow the two states to move forward with statewide efforts to license and regulate the adult marijuana market. Cole later reaffirmed the agency's position in testimony before the US Senate, stating, "We will not … seek to preempt state ballot initiatives."

#2 State Officials Don't Try to Block Marijuana Legalization Where Voters Approved It

Kudos are also due to legislators, elected officials, and functionaries in Colorado and Washington, who accepted the voters' choice to legalize marijuana with apparent good faith. The Washington state Liquor Control Board and Colorado legislators both came up with workable ways of implementing the will of the voters, while being careful to also heed the concerns of those worried about problems legalization could bring with it. Colorado's system rolled out this week and Washington's will come in a matter of months.

#3 Public Support for Marijuana Legalization in the US Reaches All-Time Highs

If 2012 was the year public opinion in favor of marijuana legalization reaching the tipping point, 2013 was the year it went over it. An October Gallup Poll had support for legalization a record-breaking 58% nationwide. That was in line with a number of other polls since the 2012 elections that showed support either above or just below 50%, depending on the pollster. The on-going sea change in public opinion has also been apparent in polls showing majority support not just where it might be expected, like California, but also where it isn't, like Louisiana and Texas, both of which reported late year majorities for legalization.

Capital City Care medical marijuana dispensary, Washington, DC
#4 The Advance of Medical Marijuana Continues

Bills legalizing medical marijuana passed in Illinois and New Hampshire, bringing the number of states that allow it to 20, along with the District of Columbia. Dispensaries opened for the first time in New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, and the District of Columbia. And bills that will allow dispensaries to open this year passed in Nevada and Oregon. About two dozen states saw medical marijuana legislation filed last year; expect a similar level of activity this year.

#5 The Number of State, But Not Federal, Prisoners in America Keeps On Declining

For the third year in a row, the number of people in prison in the US declined, the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in July. (The figures are actually for year's end 2012, but the report came out in 2013, so here we are.). The figures do not include jail inmates. At the end of 2012, there were 1,571,013 prisoners in America, down 1.7% (or 27,770 inmates) from the previous year. Breaking down the numbers, that means that somewhere north of 330,000 people were serving time for drug crimes in US prisons at the end of last year, down from a record high of nearly half a million at the beginning of the century. The decline is because of shifts in sentencing policies in the states; the federal prison population kept expanding, although at a lower rate than over the past decade.

#6 Momentum for Sentencing Reform Grows in Washington

The clamor to do something about drug sentencing reverberated throughout the nation's capital in 2013. In August, Attorney General Holder announced an administration package of sentencing reforms, some of which could be enacted administratively, such as prosecutors not routinely resorting to mandatory minimum charging decisions, but others of which require congressional action. And while Congress didn't actually pass anything, it laid the groundwork for action next year. Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), an increasingly loud critic of mandatory minimums, allied himself with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) to introduce the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, and similar legislation has been introduced in the House. In another sign of interest in sentencing reform, 10 members of the House Judiciary Committee formed an "over-criminalization" task force in May. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on mandatory minimum sentencing in September to whip up support for their legislation and other sentencing reform bills, and the committee held a mark-up session on the bills in December. The stage appears set for real movement this year.

#7 "Defelonization" Emerges as a Sentencing Policy Option for States

Although, over the years, 13 states and the District of Columbia have moved to reduce incarceration burdens by treating simple drug possession offenses as misdemeanors instead felonies -- defelonization -- the idea got renewed impetus in 2013, especially on the West Coast. In California, a bill that would have allowed prosecutors the option of charging felony possession cases passed the legislature, and in Washington state, legislators and activists announced late last year that they would try to move a similar bill there this year. Unfortunately, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed the defelonization bill, but as a result of that veto, the San Francisco DA and the San Diego police chief have filed a defelonization initiative. While 2013 was a building year for defelonization efforts, they could well bear fruit this year.

#8 A Tough Year for Public Benefits Drug Testing Bills

Legislation seeking to make public benefits beneficiaries pass drug tests continued to popular in Republican-dominated state legislatures in 2013, with bills introduced in at least 30 states, but by year's end, only a handful had actually passed, and all of those were "reasonable suspicion" bills instead of bills requiring mandatory, suspicionless drug testing. Drug testing bills passed in Kansas (welfare, unemployment), North Carolina (welfare, passed over the Republican governor's veto), Michigan (unemployment), and Texas (unemployment). But as the year went on, there was rising criticism of the cost of enforcing such legislation and the small number of actual drug users found in states that had previously passed similar bills, including Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Utah. And the last day of 2013 saw a federal judge throw out Florida's suspicionless welfare drug testing law as unconstitutional. The up side is that that ought to drive a stake through the heart of any more suspicionless drug testing bills; the down side is that legislators elsewhere have already figured that out, which is why all of the 2013 bills that passed were "reasonable suspicion" bills.

#9 Historic Firsts for Hemp

Not only were industrial hemp bills filed in both houses of Congress last year, but for the first time ever, the House passed a hemp production measure. The measure was an amendment to the farm bill, but unfortunately, the entire bill was defeated after Republicans attempted to attach drug testing provisions for food stamp recipients. A later version of the bill passed without the hemp amendment. Still, there is hope that the hemp amendment, which also had Republican support, will reemerge whenever the Senate and House meet in conference committee. Meanwhile, more states took up hemp legislation, with a bill passing Kentucky and another one passing in Colorado (as part of the implementation of Amendment 64). Hemp bills were also filed in California (approved in the state Senate), Missouri, New Jersey, and Vermont (as part of a broader legalization bill). And in November, a Colorado farmer oversaw the first hemp crop harvest since World War II., even though it remains illegal under federal law.

#10 Obama Exercises Clemency Power, Commutes Sentences of Clarence Aaron, Seven Others

Just before year's end, President Obama granted clemency to eight crack cocaine offenders, bringing an early Christmas present to poster boy for drug war sentencing excess Clarence Aaron and seven other crack cocaine offenders. Aaron has served more than 20 years for his peripheral role in a cocaine conspiracy, and the others were serving equally onerous sentences. The commutations were a departure for the Obama administration, which has been the stingiest in recent presidential history when it comes to the pardon power. Before the pre-Christmas commutations, Obama had issued only one commutation, where someone currently serving a sentence is actually released from prison, and 39 pardons of people who had already been released, some of them decades ago.

The Top 10 International Drug Policy Stories of 2013 [FEATURE]

What a year in drug reform! 2013 saw a historic breakthrough on the international front, as well as evidence that powerful currents are shifting inexorably away from the prohibitionist consensus of the last half-century. There were also new, innovative approaches to regulating drugs and new, innovative approaches to buying and selling them illegally.

But on the other hand, there were also continuities. Major drug producing regions kept producing drugs, major drug-related conflicts continued, and the global drug war continues to grind on. A bullet-point Top 10 list can't hope to offer a comprehensive review of the year on drugs internationally, but it can illuminate some key events and important trends. With apologies in advance for all those important stories that didn't make the cut, here is Drug War Chronicle top ten global drug policy-related stories of 2013:

#1 Uruguay Legalizes Marijuana

No question about it; this has to be the top international drug policy story of the year. After a year and a half of laying the groundwork, Uruguayan President Jose Mujica and his ruling Broad Front pushed marijuana legalization through the legislature and Mujica signed the bill into law just before Christmas. Uruguay now becomes the first signatory to the 1961 UN Single Convention on Drugs to break decisively with the treaty and the global prohibition regime on marijuana policy. Uruguay's example is already causing reverberations in Argentina and Chile, and Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina called it "an important step" that could serve as "a pilot plan" in the regional war against drug trafficking. And that's even before the new law goes into effect in a few weeks.

#2 The Global Prohibition Regime is Under Increasing Attack

In May, the Organization of American States released a report that included an analysis of alternatives to prohibition, including regulation and legalization regimes. The report was an outgrowth of Latin American criticism of the drug war at the Cartagena Summit in 2012. In September, Latin Americans took the call for drug reform to the UN General Assembly, and in a consensus statement agreed to by Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Paraguay, and others, called on the UN "to reevaluate internationally agreed-upon policies in search of more effective responses to drug trafficking, from a perspective of health, a framework of respect for human rights, and a perspective of harm reduction." And in December, a leaked draft document revealed even broader divisions among member states, with several European nations offering serious criticism of the drug prohibition status quo.

#3 Bolivia Reenters UN Drug Treaty, But Rejects Coca Chewing Ban

The UN 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the legal backbone of global drug prohibition, took a hit in January, when Bolivia successfully rejoined the convention, but only with the reservation that it would ignore the treaty's ban on coca leaf chewing despite the objections of the US and the International Narcotics Control Board. Bolivia had withdrawn from the treaty the year before to protest the inclusion of the ban on coca chewing, a traditional indigenous practice that had gone on for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before Eurocentric treaty negotiators managed to criminalize it internationally under the Single Convention.

Coca Museum, La Paz (Phil Smith, Drug War Chronicle, 2007)
#4 New Zealand Moves to Regulate -- Not Prohibit -- New Synthetic Drugs

In July, New Zealand took a historic step away from drug prohibition and toward regulation when a new law went into effect to regulate and control new synthetic drugs. The law had breezed through Parliament on a 119-1 vote. Synthetic drug manufacturers who meet safety standards are now licensed and regulated, and their products are available legally at retail outlets. The law is designed to avoid the dangers of driving the trade underground and to end the perpetual game of prohibitionist catch-up played with synthetic drug makers, who, when one drug is criminalized, simply tweak a molecule or two to create a new one.

#5 The Dark Net Emerges as a Drug Marketplace

After quietly lurking in the dark corners of the Internet, the online illicit drug (and other goodies) marketplace Silk Road hit the big time in a big, bad way in October, when its operator, Ross William Ulbrict (AKA the Dread Pirate Roberts) was arrested by the FBI on drug trafficking, money laundering, and computer hacking charges. Silk Road and other "dark net" web sites require an anonymized browser (Tor) that was supposed to keep operators and users safe from prying government eyes, although the Ulbrict and related busts suggest that isn't entirely the case. Other sites, including Sheep Marketplace and Black Market reloaded, sprung up to replace it, but they have had their own problems. In November, Silk Road announced it was back, in Version 2.0. Meanwhile, the saga of the original Silk Road continued at year's end, with Ulbricht suing the federal government for the return of $30 million worth of bitcoins he argues were improperly seized. The battle between governments and Internet black marketers is doubtlessly continuing, even if most of us don't know about it until after the fact.

#6 Mexico: New President, Same Old Drug War

The wave of prohibition-related violence plaguing Mexico didn't garner the media attention last year that it did in 2012, a presidential election year in both the US and Mexico, but it continued nonetheless under incoming Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who took office in December 2012. According to Milenio's annual survey of drug war deaths, there were more than 10,000 killed last year. That is down from over 12,000 the year before, but still unconscionably high. Pena Nieto came into office vowing to reform the government's approach, but so far the changes have been mainly rhetorical, with the government shifting emphasis from going after top capos to increasing public safety and security. And the top leaders of the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico's most powerful, remain apparently untouchable.

Afghan anti-drug art (Phil Smith, Drug War Chronicle, 2005)
#7 Afghan Opium Production Hits All-Time High

Thirteen years after the Taliban virtually eliminated opium production in a bid to win foreign favor and US funding, and 12 years after the US invaded Afghanistan to drive the Taliban from power, Afghan opium production was at its highest level ever, about 5,500 metric tons, accounting for around 90% of global illicit production. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime's 2013 Afghanistan Opium Survey, opium production increased a whopping 49% over 2012, while the area under cultivation increased 36%. The previous high was in 2007. US anti-drug policies have been consistently relegated behind US counter-insurgency imperatives during the US and NATO occupation of the country, leaving Afghanistan with little likelihood of significant changes after the bulk of Western forces are scheduled to leave at the end of this year.

#8 Peru Overtakes Colombia to Regain Title as World's Largest Coca Producer

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. But this year, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that Peru was once again back on top. According to the UNODC, Peru had 151,000 acres under cultivation, compared to 125,000 for Colombia. The return to first place comes even as the government of President Ollanta Humala steps up eradication and enforcement efforts and suggests that 2014 could be a conflictive year in the coca valleys of Peru.

#9 Iran Continues to Execute Hundreds of Drug Offenders Each Year

Sharing a 1,300 mile long border with Afghanistan and its booming opium trade, Iran suffers one of the world's highest opiate addiction rates and battles mightily to suppress the cross-border drug trade. One of the grisliest weapons in the mullahs' arsenal is the hangman's noose. In recent years, the Iranians have executed hundreds of drug traffickers each year, and last year was no exception. Final figures are not available, but Iran began the year by executing 21 drug offenders in January alone and ended the year with more than 30 executions in December. It's not clear how many of those were drug offenders because reports from Iran are often sketchy, but it appears safe to say that 2013 was another year where Iran hanged hundreds of drug offenders.

#10 Colombian Peace Negotiations Progress

Forty years ago this year, the leftist guerrillas of the FARC rose up in armed struggle against the Colombian state. Based in the country's rural peasantry, the FARC generated enough wealth from the coca and cocaine trades to finance its insurgency, fighting the Colombian military, backed with US assistance, to a sweaty stalemate. Now, however, weakened by years of offensives by the Colombian military and convinced that the government of President Santos is willing to negotiate in good faith, the FARC has been engaged in a so-far months-long series of talks with government negotiators in Havana. Based as it is in the peasantry, one of the FARC's key concerns is agricultural reform; another is dealing with the coca/cocaine economy. The FARC is calling on the government to initiate alternative development and crop substitution programs, and wants to be involved, and in December, the FARC called for the decriminalization of drug use and coca cultivation. It's too early to tell if the negotiations will lead to an end to the world's longest insurgency, but the progress so far is a positive sign.

Colorado Makes History with First Legal Retail Marijuana Sales [FEATURE]

special to the Chronicle by Denver-based journalist Rebecca Chavez

For many people New Year's Eve means going to bars and celebrating with a night of drinking and carousing with their friends. For Adam Hartle and Anthony Hasham, the night was a little different. The duo flew into Denver from Jacksonville, Florida, in order to be first in line for Colorado's historic legal retail marijuana sales. Hartle and Hasham came prepared with a tent, and set up camp in front of 3D, Denver's Discrete Dispensary at 6:00pm on New Year's Eve. They were the first to arrive, making it even before the news cameras.

Adam Hartle and Anthony Hasham made the pilgrimage from Jacksonville, FL, to be first in line. (Rebecca Chavez)
While there are quite a few retail marijuana stores opening to the public on January 1, 3D was the place to be for those interested in being a part of history. The Marijuana Policy Project sent out a December 27 press release stating that they were recognizing the first sale at 3D as the first sale. With a press conference planned, and an Iraq war veteran slated to be the first retail customer, 3D was buzzing with excitement in the early hours of the new year.

There were over a dozen people standing around outside, eager to get their hands on some of the first retail marijuana sold in the country, but the majority of the crowd had a more professional purpose. News crews and industry insiders sat in the lobby of 3D, while owner Toni Fox rushed around talking to press and making last minute adjustments.

For Fox, the opening of 3D for retail sales has been a long process that is "the culmination of everything we've been working towards." Many dispensary owners planned to make the switch when they found out about Amendment 64, but Fox started planning in 2009. When she started looking for space for her dispensary, she did it with a retail location in mind. This early decision paid off in a big way when it came time to hand out marijuana licenses for the city of Denver. The retail space is large and well lit.

Denver's Discreet Dispensary (3D) is now open for sales to adults 21 and over. (Rebecca Chavez)
Unlike many other dispensaries, this retail location is completely separate from the medical area. Before sales start, the area is set up to help people find exactly what they need. Fox expects that a lot of people won't know what to do when they get to a retail marijuana facility, so she's tried to make purchasing easy for someone experiencing a dispensary for the first time.

She even made the decision to limit the retail edibles that she offers early on to only those from Dixie Elixer, one of the few edible companies set up for retail sales. This choice keeps people who want to try an edible for the first time from having to sift through a multitude of options.

The publicity of being the first marijuana store is a great boost for 3D, but Fox knows that there are some risks involved, especially regarding the much buzzed-about marijuana shortage. Though the limit for Colorado residents is higher, Fox decided that she wouldn't make any sales of more than the non-resident limit of seven grams. Still she is concerned.

The sign says it all. Welcome to a new era. (Rebecca Chavez)
When asked whether there is going to be enough product, she states that 3D should have enough to last until February. "Or Monday," she said, sharing a laugh with one of her employees while acknowledging that the truth about retail marijuana is that no one knows the extent of the demand just yet.

Judging from the size of the crowd inside the building right before the press conference began, the novelty of marijuana is going to drive a lot of people to businesses like 3D. Media sources from around the world jockeyed to get the best view of a small podium where the directors behind the Amendment 64 campaign prepared to say a few words about what retail sales mean for marijuana, and what the future brings.

This is business as usual for Mason Tvert, Betty Aldworth, and Brian Vicente, the organizers of the successful Amendment 64 campaign that made marijuana legal in Colorado and who have all been doing press conferences about it for years now. This one is a little more chaotic than usual, and that's because the message is so unique. Aldworth sums it up when she says that this moment is a shift, and that "marijuana sales will be a boon instead of a burden" on our communities and our economy.

From left: Toni Fox, Betty Aldworth, Mason Tvert, Sean Azzariti, Brian Vicente (Rebecca Chavez)
The first proof of this occurs with the very first sale. Sean Azzariti is a veteran who uses marijuana to treat his post traumatic stress disorder, but who cannot get medication because the state doesn't recognize PTSD as one of the ailments that allows for medical marijuana use.

For the first time, he will be able to legally purchase the marijuana that has helped him get through the years since he fought in the Iraq War. This sale will provide the city and state with valuable tax dollars, while also boosting the local economy and providing jobs for people who want to work in marijuana.

Cameras and reporters flooded into the retail sale room to document the moment of the first sale. Outside the building, the dozens of people lined up to purchasse legal marijuana kept multiplying. The line stretched across the length of the building and, despite the falling snow, people were all smiles as they awaited their chance to be a part of history.

As Tvert pointed out during the press conference, "Today there will be people around the nation buying marijuana," but only in Colorado is it legal and regulated.

Colorado has initiated a new era in marijuana policy in the United States, and Washington state will be joining later this year. With Alaska and Oregon both well-placed to legalize it this year via the initiative process, and with other states about to consider marijuana legalization bills in their legislatures, the beginning of the end of US marijuana prohibition has commenced.

Denver, CO
United States

Legal Marijuana No Simple Matter for Colorado Retailers [FEATURE]

special to the Chronicle by Denver-based journalist Rebecca Chavez

Starting January 1, any person in Colorado over the age of 21 can walk into a retail marijuana facility and purchase marijuana with just a show of ID. While the process should be simple for those who choose to imbibe legally, things have not been so simple for the dispensary owners who have made the choice to sell retail marijuana. Luke Ramirez is one of these owners. His store, Walking Raven, sits on one of Denver's busiest streets.

For Ramirez, planning for retail marijuana sales began in February of 2012, when Walking Raven officially endorsed Amendment 64, the legalization initiative that won at the ballot that November. Even with almost two years of planning behind him, he finds that there are still a lot of hurdles to overcome. It wasn't until May of 2013 that Ramirez and other dispensary owners knew what would be expected of them by the state. Even with state legislation settled, Amendment 64 allows for municipalities to come up with even stricter rules for retail marijuana stores.

Denver started working on its own regulations in September, and wasn't done when the Chronicle spoke with Ramirez in late December. Though he was only the seventh person in the city of Denver to apply for a license, the constant changes mean that he won't be able to open until about January 10, over a week beyond the official start of recreational marijuana sales. In late December Ramirez was still getting calls about changes to marijuana laws at the city level.

The process has been similar for dispensary owners all over Denver, which means it might be one of the few places where a legal retail marijuana shortage will happen right away. The licensing for retail locations and retail grows is happening at the same time. This would be a problem for those trying to open on January 1, except that the state has allowed a one-time transfer of medical marijuana to retail. This transfer is how all stores will start, and it gives a little something extra to the consumer as well.

The edible companies have to go through the same process as other marijuana facilities, but some are opting out in the early stages. During the one time transfer, marijuana stores can make some edibles retail that otherwise wouldn't be available. This means some store owners are stockpiling certain items that they feel will be popular with retail consumers.

Ramirez has opted out of stockpiling because he simply can't afford it. The cost of selling retail marijuana is incredibly high, which prices smaller dispensaries out of an immediate switch. All told, Ramirez has spent $60,000 dollars going through the process of getting licensed and prepared to make the switch. Before he actually gets his license he expects to spend about $10,000 more.

Inside Walking Raven (Rebecca Chavez)
Money is a huge concern for retail marijuana dispensaries, and Ramirez is unsure of whether they will be able to make it all back during the first few months of retail sales. He acknowledges that the supply for retail just won't meet the demand, and worries that owners will see the same marijuana shortage that caused some of them to temporarily close their doors in 2012. This, of course, affects the people who work behind the counter. Ramirez wants to make sure that all of his employees are well-taken care of, but he acknowledges that he may have to cut back on hours at some point.

The marijuana shortage has another effect on the market. With marijuana prices possibly going as high as $70 for an eighth, Ramirez says that retail marijuana "won't get rid of the black market until supply meets demand."

In the meantime, his store and many others will have to compete with the grey market that has sprung up on Craigslist since the passage of Amendment 64.

Despite the many difficulties in his way, and the five inspections that he has to go through, Ramirez is confident that he is making the right choice. While he cannot sell retail marijuana at present, he is concerned to ensure that marijuana is still available for his current customers: medical marijuana patients.

"Patients definitely still need medicine," he says, and that's why he's sure to always have some on hand, segregated from retail marijuana for non-patients.

Retail and medical marijuana are sold in the same store, but they have to be kept in separate containers. Medicinal users can purchase retail, but retail consumers cannot get any of the medical marijuana regardless of a possible shortage. Despite eventual plans to sell only 10% of his product as medicinal, Ramirez is determined to always be able to take care of the patients.

They are, after all, the ones that supported him before the end of prohibition in Colorado.

Denver, CO
United States

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