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Washington, Oregon Marijuana Legalization Initiatives Filed

Marijuana law reform activists in the Pacific Northwest are moving ahead with renewed efforts to win legalization at the ballot box. In the last few days, legalization initiatives have been filed with state authorities in Oregon and Washington.

In both states, similar legalization initiatives failed to make the ballot last year. This time around, organizers in both states say they are better prepared for the arduous and expensive process of signature-gathering to make the ballot.

In Washington, Sensible Washington, the folks behind last year's failed effort, have filed an initiative that removes all criminal penalties for adults who use, possess, produce, transport, or distribute marijuana. Unlike last year's initiative, which lost critical support for its failure to address regulation of the marijuana market, this year's version explicitly directs the state legislature to enact a regulatory scheme.

Sensible Washington is aiming for this year's November election ballot, despite pleas from some national and state reform figures to hold off until the presidential election year in 2012.

"We're pleased to again put the important question of marijuana legalization before the public," said Seattle attorney Douglas Hiatt, Sensible Washington’s chair and initiative coauthor. "We’re better funded and better organized this year and we look forward to giving the public an opportunity to vote on this issue in November. We've changed last year’s initiative to reflect concerns about civil regulations of marijuana, and our new initiative has language that clearly directs the state legislature to regulate the responsible adult use of marijuana."

The group expects to start signature-gathering this month. They need 241,153 valid voter signatures to make the November ballot.

In Oregon, the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act (OCTA 2012) initiative is back. Organizers turned in 2,200 signatures on January 4 to start the ballot title creation process. The initiative has until July 2012 to turn in nearly 86,000 valid voter signatures to make the November 2012 ballot. In an email to supporters, D. Paul Stanford of the Campaign for the Restoration and Regulation of Hemp vowed to gather at least 130,000 signatures to ensure a comfortable cushion. The initiative is also supported by Oregon NORML.

OCTA 2012 would allow Oregonians 21 or over to possess and grow marijuana. It would also create an Oregon Cannabis Commission to oversee the regulation of commercial cultivation and distribution. The commission would sell marijuana through its own outlets, similar to state liquor stores.

And so the next round begins.

Illinois Blacks More Likely to Get Prison for Drugs

An Illinois state panel found Monday that Illinois blacks convicted of low-level drug possession offenses are much more likely to be sentenced to prison than whites. According to the Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission, 19% convicted of drug possession were imprisoned, while only 4% of whites were.

Joliet Prison (image via Wikimedia)
The disparity was even worse in the state's most populous jurisdiction, Cook County. While statewide, blacks were five times more likely to be imprisoned for drug possession than whites, in Cook County, the figure was eight times.

The commission was formed in 2009 to examine incarceration rates between the races. Legislation to create it was sponsored in the state Senate by Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago), who co-chairs the panel.

"It's always disappointing to know the true facts," Hunter said in remarks reported by the Chicago Sun-Times.

The sentencing disparity comes despite research that shows that blacks and whites nationally use illegal drugs at roughly the same rate, said Pamela Rodriguez, president of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, a Chicago-based nonprofit that led the commission’s research. She cited a 2008 federal study that 10.1% of blacks and 8.2% of whites reported using illegal drugs.

Rodriguez said the disparity could be partially explained by differences in education and economic status, but that blacks were also more likely to conduct drug transactions in public spaces, where they are easily targeted by police. "Where you have greater enforcement, you have greater arrests," Rodriguez said. "Where you have greater arrests, you have greater prosecutions."

The commission called for funding alternatives to imprisonment as a way to reduce the disparity. The state has programs in place, including drug courts and first-time offender probation, but it needs new revenue to fund them adequately.

Sen. Hunter suggested that the commission would look at using part of local jurisdictions' drug forfeiture funds to pay for alternatives to imprisonment. That would be preferable to leaving them in the hands of police forces, which use them to arrest more drug offenders and seize more funds to arrest more drug offenders and seize more funds in a vicious cycle of drug law enforcement.

Springfield, IL
United States

Iran in Drug Offender Execution Frenzy

Iran began 2011 by hanging eight accused drug traffickers at Qom prison south of Tehran New Year's Day, and that was just day one. By the end of January, Iranian authorities had executed at least 56 drug offenders, according to press accounts compiled by the anti-death penalty group Hands Off Cain.

International Anti-Drugs Day drug burn, Tehran
Seven drug offenders were hung in the Kermanshah prison January 3, and another in Shirvan two days after that. Two more went to the gallows on January 7 in Boroujerd, and another four were hung in Isfahan prison the following day. Another seven were hung in Tehran's Evin Prison on January 12 and five more the following day in the western city of Khoramabad. On January 18, one drug smuggler was executed in Zarand, and 10 drug traffickers were hung the following day at Kharaj's Rejai Shahr Prison. Six days after that, one drug offender was hung in Bojnourd. The month ended with 10 drug executions on January 27, seven at the Ghezel Hesar Prison west of Tehran, and three in the town of Orumieh.

Only one of those cases created even a ripple of media interest outside Iran, and that was because the victim, Sahra Bahrami, 46, held dual Dutch and Iranian citizenship. Bahrami was originally arrested during anti-government demonstrations in 2009, but was convicted of drug trafficking after authorities said they discovered cocaine in her home and developed evidence they said showed she had smuggled drugs into the country at least twice. Her execution has led to a freeze in diplomatic relations between Tehran and the Hague.

While Iran has been one of the governments most likely to resort to the death penalty for drug offenses, the spate of executions so far this year suggests that the Islamic Republic is stepping up the pace. Last year, Iran hanged 179 people, but with at least 65 executions overall in January, if Iran keeps up the pace, it will exceed last year's total by the end of March.

For information on ongoing efforts to curtail the use of the death penalty for drug offenses, visit the International Harm Reduction Association's Death Penalty Project.


Schumer Wants to Ban Synthetic "Bath Salts" Drugs

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) told the Associated Press Saturday that he wants the federal government to criminalize the new synthetic stimulant drugs mephedrone and MPDV (methylenedioxypyrovalerone). Although he said he was announcing a bill Sunday, it had yet to be filed as of Monday afternoon.

mephedrone ad (image via Wikimedia)
Marketed as "bath salts" under brand names including Ivory Wave, Zoom, and White Lightning, and sold in head shops, convenience stores, and corner gas stations across the land, as well as on the Internet, the drugs have effects on users similar to those of cocaine or amphetamines.

The substances are already banned by emergency action in three states -- Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi -- and similar actions are likely in other states. Alarm-raising press reports are typically followed by hasty administrative or legislative action at the state house.

Now, Sen. Schumer wants to ban the substances nationwide. The bath salts "contain ingredients that are nothing more than legally sanctioned narcotics," he said.

The DEA is aware of the bath salts drugs and have them listed as drugs of concern, but it has so far not moved to enact a ban.

Drug War Chronicle has been following the mephedrone story for the past year. Read our recent overview here.

Washington, DC
United States

Obama Says Drug Legalization Worthy of Debate

In a YouTube "Ask Obama" forum Thursday, President Obama rejected marijuana legalization, but said that drug reform is a legitimate topic of debate. (The drug question and response start at 25:57 in the video.)

"I think this is an entirely legitimate topic for debate, but I'm not in favor of legalization," he said in response to a question from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) member Mackenzie Allen. "I am a strong believer that we have to think more about drugs as a public health problem. When you think of other damaging activities, such as smoking or driving without seat belts, we have made huge strides by changing people's attitudes. With drugs we have been so focused on arrests, incarceration, and interdiction, that we don't spend enough time focusing on demand."

That would require "shifting resources and being strategic," he said, citing lengthy waits for drug treatment. "We also have to look at what we're doing with nonviolent first-time drug offenders," suggesting that drug courts could be an answer. "These are all issues worth exploring," he said.

Legalization and related issues made more than a respectable showing in the lead-up to Thursday's YouTube "Ask Obama" forum -- of the top 200 most popular questions submitted, nearly all were on drug policy. The legalization question followed other questions submitted about jobs and the economy, education, a series of "personal questions" ("What's the best and worst thing about being president?" "Who will win the Superbowl?"), the role of social media in the ongoing Middle East unrest, US policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and energy policy.

"The president talks a good game about shifting resources and having a balanced, public health-oriented approach, but it doesn't square with the budgets he's submitted to Congress," responded LEAP executive director Neill Franklin, a retired Baltimore narcotics cop. "The Obama administration has maintained the Bush-era two-to-one budget ratio in favor of prisons and prosecution over treatment and prevention. It doesn't add up. Still, it's historic that the president of the United States is finally saying that legalizing and regulating drugs is a topic worthy of discussion. But since the president remains opposed to legalization, it's clear that the people are going to have to lead the way. Police officers and innocent civilians are dying every single day in this drug war; it's not a back-burner issue."

Following his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama asked the public to submit questions for an exclusive YouTube Interview that took place Thursday. The "Ask Obama" forum promised to take questions from the American people on the issues they find most important in terms of national policy.

Washington, DC
United States

Bolivians Hold Coca "Chew-Ins" Opposing UN Ban
photos courtesy Andean Information Network
Thousands of Bolivians took to the streets January 26 to chew coca leaf in support of their government's effort to have coca chewing removed from the list of proscribed activities and substances under the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The government of President Evo Morales 18 months ago offered an amendment to the treaty that urges the United Nations to undo the ban on coca chewing.

Coca, a plant indigenous to the Andes, is the source of cocaine, but the coca leaf has been part of traditional Andean culture for thousands of years. Chewing the leaf provides an energy boost and relieves hunger pangs. Bolivia has recognized the coca leaf as part of its cultural patrimony.
Advocates for the amendment point to the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. It says that "indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions."

As the January 31 deadline to contest the amendment draws has come and gone, the US, Canada, Britain, Denmark, Germany, and Norway have objected to the amendment. The new Colombian government of Juan Manuel Santos withdrew an objection it had filed in December. If there had been no objections, the amendment would have automatically taken effect, but now the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) will have to decide whether to approve or reject the amendment, or to convene a conference of the parties to discuss the matter.
Last week, the US Embassy in Bolivia tried to play both sides of the aisle, saying in a statement that it "respects indigenous peoples' culture and recognizes that acullico (coca-chewing) is a traditional custom in Bolivian culture," but that it does not support the amendment because of "the importance of maintaining the integrity of the 1961 Convention, which represents an important tool in the global fight against narcotrafficking."

Now it will be up to ECOSOC to move this issue forward.



Ex-World Leaders Form Global Drug Policy Commission

A group of world political leaders, intellectuals, and businessman Richard Branson have formed a Global Commission on Drug Policies in a bid to boost the effort to achieve more humane and rational drug laws. The commission is headed by former Brazilian President Henrique Cardoso and builds on the work Cardoso and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria did with the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy.
Latin America Commission panel, 2009, President Gaviria on left (courtesy
The commission's goals include reviewing the basic assumptions, effectiveness and consequences of the 'war on drugs' approach; evaluating the risks and benefits of different national responses to the drug problem; and developing actionable, evidence-based recommendations for constructive legal and drug policy reform. The commission will issue a report in six months.

The commission will examine the current international drug control regime, conduct a global overview of drug policies and laws, examine the drug production and supply chain, address criminal justice challenges, study the lessons learned from harm reduction, treatment, and prevention campaigns, and examine the economic and political ramifications of the massive illicit global drug trade.

In addition to the three Latin American ex-presidents, commission members include former US Secretary of State George Schulz, writers Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, former European Union official Javier Solana, former Swiss President Ruth Dreifuss, and former UN High Commissioner for Refugees Thorvald Stoltenberg.

"There is a growing perception that the "war on drugs" approach has failed," the commission said in a statement as it announced its existence in Geneva this week. "Eradication of production and criminalization of consumption did not reduce drug traffic and drug use," the commission said.

The harm from corruption and violence resulting from prohibition "largely exceeds the harm caused by drugs," the statement says.

We will be looking forward to seeing the commission's report this summer. The report from the Latin American Commission helped stir debate and advance the cause of reform, and this should, too.


Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debusmann, Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year smuggling drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed more than 35,000 people, including more than 15,000 last year. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest of dozens of high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war:
wanted poster, US Embassy in Mexico
Thursday, January 13

In Ciudad Juarez, eight people were killed. One of the victims had been shot approximately 70 times with AK-47 rounds. His body was found by reporters after police left after not being able to immediately find the body when they arrived.

Friday, January 14

In Ciudad Juarez, 11 people were murdered across the city. In one incident, a triple homicide occurred in a junkyard after an attack by heavily armed gunmen. Three other men were wounded.

In Xalapa, Veracruz, 12 gunmen and two soldiers were killed during a six-hour gunfight. The target of the raid remains unclear.

Saturday, January 15

In Veracruz, a police commander was kidnapped by heavily armed men after being forced off the road by an SUV. A police officer was later wounded in an exchange of gunfire with the suspects.

Monday, January 17

In Chihuahua, fourteen prison inmates escaped through a hole in the wall. A vehicle charged through a metal fence and picked the men up. Five have been recaptured. Prison escapes are very frequent in Mexican prisons.

Tuesday, January 18

In Oaxaca City, Mexican Federal police captured a founding member of the Zetas Organization. Flavio Mendez Santiago, 35, was in charge of Zetas operations in Oaxaca, Chiapas and Veracruz and controlled migrant trafficking of migrants from other parts of the Americas and drug trafficking routes through Central America. He joined the Gulf Cartel in 1993 after deserting from the Army, and siding with the Zetas when the organization split with its former employers.

In Guatemala, the government extended a state of siege in the province of Alta Verapaz. Drug trafficking in the area has been controlled by the Zetas since the 2008 assassination of a local Guatemalan drug boss.

In Mexico City, a well-known trafficker was arrested in the upscale Bosques de Lomas neighborhood. Jose Jorge Balderas, 34, is also suspected in the shooting of a Paraguayan soccer player in a Mexico city bar.

Thursday, January 20

In Ciudad Juarez, a policeman was killed during a daytime firefight with armed suspects inside a crowded shopping center which sent civilians running for cover to avoid the crossfire.

Friday, January 21

In Guerrero, Mexican authorities made a record seizure of opium gum. Approximately 245 kilos of opium paste were discovered from a house in the town of Chilpancingo.

Saturday, January 22

In Tamaulipas, ten gunmen were killed during a prolonged firefight with the army.  The incident occurred near the rural village of Valle Hermoso after soldiers were fired upon as they approached a camp of armed men. Among the weapons discovered at the camp were a rocket launcher and 20 grenades.

In Pachuca, Hidalgo, a policeman was killed and three others were wounded by a car bomb. The officers had been responding to reports that a body was inside a car when the explosives detonated. Initial reports suggest the bomb was the work of the Zetas, possibly in retaliation for the death of two Zetas at the hands of police in the nearby town of Tula.

Sunday, January 23

In Ciudad Juarez, seven people were gunned down at a park built as part of a city rehabilitation campaign called "we are all Juarez." During the incident, gunmen arrived in three vehicles and fired over 180 high-caliber rounds at a group of youths playing soccer. Mexican media are reporting that the intended target was someone involved in street-level drug dealing.

Six other people were killed in other incidents in Juarez, including a woman who was apparently stabbed and stoned to death.

Monday, January 24

In Mexico City, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

Tuesday, January 25

In Ciudad Juarez, federal police officers attacked the mayor’s convoy, killing one of his bodyguards. Mayor Hector Murguia claims two masked federal officers approached a house where he was holding a meeting and opened fire on his bodyguards even though they identified themselves. Federal police are saying they opened fire after the bodyguards refused to identify themselves and did not lower their weapons.

Wednesday, January 26

In Mexico City, soldiers conducted operations against suspected Zetas. It is the first military operation against drug traffickers conducted in the Mexico City area. So far, only several weapons have been recovered and it appears no arrests have been made. At least 30 heavily armed and masked soldiers participated in the operations.

Total Body Count for the last two weeks: 402

Total Body Count for the year: 538

Total Body Count for 2010: 15,273

Total Body Count for 2009: 9,600

Total Body Count for 2008 (approx.): 5,400

Total Body Count for 2007 (approx.) 4,300

Total Body Count for Calderon's drug war through 2010: 34,612

Total Body Count for Calderon's drug war to date: 35,150


Marijuana Legalization Bills Filed in Massachusetts, Washington

Legislators in two states on opposite ends of the country have introduced bills that would legalize marijuana. In both cases, the bills are a continuation of legalization efforts that did not reach fruition last year.

Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson
In Washington state Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, chair of the Human Services Committee, Tuesday introduced House Bill 1150, which would legalize marijuana for persons 21 and over, provide for regulation and taxation of marijuana commerce, and see pot sold through state liquor stores, with growers licensed by the Liquor Control Board.

"Drug cartels and black-market dealers have made it easier for kids to get cannabis than alcohol," Dickerson said. "The Liquor Control Board has a proven track record of shielding kids from its products. I’m confident our bill will break the back of cannabis crime-syndicate profits and make it possible to preserve vital health services across Washington in these very difficult budget times."

The bill has 13 cosponsors and has been referred to the Committee on Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness. That's where it died last year.

On the opposite coast, Massachusetts Rep. Ellen Story (D-Amherst) Monday filed House Docket Number 1091 (H1091 for short), An Act to Regulate and Tax the Cannabis Industry. The bill will be assigned a bill number later.

It would immediately remove all of Massachusetts criminal and civil penalties upon persons over the age of 21 who possess or cultivate marijuana for personal or share it with other adults. It would also set up a system to regulate, license, and tax commercial cultivation, possession, and distribution of marijuana when such regulation is lawful under federal law.

As in Washington, the Massachusetts bill didn't make it through last year. But advocates in both states continue to plug away.

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

An Illinois sheriff goes down hard, a Massachusetts police chief parties too hard, a Massachusetts cop gets nailed for helping out his local pot dealer, and a Florida motorcycle cop gets caught stealing a bud in his helmet. Let's get to it:

Raymond Martin -- a sheriff heads for the Big House
In Benton, Illinois, the former Gallatin County sheriff was sentenced to life in prison January 19 for trafficking marijuana on the job and conspiring to have potential witnesses killed. Former sheriff Raymond Martin had been jailed since May 2009, when federal agents arrested him on marijuana dealing charges. He went down after the man he was selling pot to decided he wanted out, and Martin said he could make him disappear. The dealer instead went to the DEA and became a cooperating witness. While in jail awaiting trial, he conspired with his wife and son to kill witnesses set to testify against him. He was convicted on 15 counts, getting two life terms on weapons charges and numerous 10- and 15-year concurrent sentences.

In Salisbury, Massachusetts, the former police chief is accused of exchanging drugs and money for sex with known criminals -- and much more! -- in a 31-page report compiled after town officials hired an outside investigator. Former Chief David L'Esperance, who resigned the day he was set to be interviewed during the investigation, is also accused of falsifying police records, improperly interfering in arrests, and numerous other violations. The report is being forwarded to other law enforcement agencies, so criminal charges could be soon forthcoming. Investigators focused on allegations that L'Esperance gave money and drugs to three women in their twenties, at least two of whom had criminal records or drug addictions, in return for sexual favors. He is also accused of taking "trophies" from arrest scenes, including a bag of cash seized during a drug raid.

In Worcester, Massachusetts, a Worcester police officer was convicted January 19 on drug charges for tipping off a marijuana dealer that police were near his workplace. Officer Carlos Burgos was found guilty on one federal count of conspiracy to distribute marijuana. Prosecutors said that Burgos had a one-minute telephone conversation with the dealer in January 2009 in which he warned him that undercover officers were near the location where he worked. No sentencing date was announced.

In Winter Haven, Florida, a Winter Haven police officer resigned January 20 after being busted stealing a bud of marijuana during a drug arrest. Ricardo Flores, 36, a motorcycle officer was fingered by fellow officers for hiding a bud in his motorcycle helmet before heading home as his shift ended. He is charged with felony burglary -- for taking the bud from a vehicle -- as well as petty theft and possession of less than 20 grams of pot.

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