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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 45,000 people, including more than 15,000 last year and approximately 13,000 this year. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest or killing 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:

Tuesday, December 13

In Chihuahua, two bodyguards were killed during an attack on the public safety secretary of the town of Gran Morelos. Miguel Angel Gomez Carrera was wounded along with his wife and two children. The two bodyguards were following them in a pickup truck. Carrera has been in the position since November 21, when his predecessor was arrested with a known drug trafficker.

In Monterrey, eight people were murdered. In one incident, five young men were kidnapped, taken to a street corner, lined up against a wall and shot.

Thursday, December 15

In Saltillo, Coahuila, a series of fire fights left 10 people dead, including one soldier and one bystander. The violence began early in the afternoon when soldiers began chasing a convoy of armed men. During the gun battle, a woman was shot and suffered wounds from which she later died. One gunman was killed when his vehicle crashed. Three men were later arrested during a raid at a safe house in connection with the incident.

Later that night, seven gunmen and a soldier were killed in a fire fight.

Near Culiacan, two men were executed and dumped off the side of a highway. One of the men, Juan Guzman Rocha, "El Juancho" is reported to be a first cousin or nephew of Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman. He is also thought to be a member of Los Antrax, a group of Sinaloa Cartel enforcers.

In Zacatecas, armed men thought to be from the Sinaloa Cartel attacked targets in five towns, killing four people and wounded eight others. In one incident, armed men entered a hospital and threatened staff before taking away three men who were being treated there for wounds suffered earlier. Grenades were used in several of the attacks. In the town of Jerez, a convoy of 20 vehicles -- totaling around 70 gunmen -- briefly kidnapped and beat several local police officers before releasing them.

Friday, December 16

In Michoacan, the dismembered bodies of two men were found on a road in the municipality of Iguala. A note -- which was held in place by the two heads -- said that the men were executed for being kidnappers and extortionists.

Monday, December 19

In Durango, soldiers discovered a grave site containing 10 bodies. This is the 14th mass grave found in the state of Durango this year, totaling 287 bodies. Officials have said many of the killings are a result of an internal dispute within the Sinaloa Cartel.

In Mexico City, the army announced that between December 1, 2006 and December 19, 2011, soldiers had been involved in a total of 1,948 violent incidents with gunmen, in which a total of 126 soldiers and 2,268 gunmen were killed -- a 1:18 ratio. A total of 2,180 gunmen were captured and 348 wounded, compared to 744 soldiers wounded.

During that timeframe, the Army received 5,962 human rights complaints, for which 92 non-binding recommendations were issued by the governmental human rights commission.

Tuesday, December 20

In Arizona, authorities announced that some 200 alleged members of the Sinaloa Cartel were arrested following a 15-month investigation. Approximately $7.8 million dollars were seized, as well as 650 pounds of marijuana, 435 pounds of meth, 123 pounds of coke and 4.5 pounds of heroin, as well as over 40 weapons.

In Sinaloa, the former mayor of the town of Cosala was shot and killed in his home. He was mayor between 2008 and 2010.

Editor's Note: We have been conservatively estimating Mexican drug war deaths this year after El Universal quit publishing a box score. As of mid-November, we had estimated 8,100 deaths so far this year, but in light of new figures have revised that figure upward by about 3,000 deaths. Even that figure is an estimate, no more, until there is some official toll reported.]

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

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

Total Body Count for 2009 (approx.): 9,600

Total Body Count for 2010 (official): 15,273

Total Body Count for 2011 (approx.): 12,000

TOTAL: > 45,000

Mexico

Medical Marijuana Update

So much is going on in the world of medical marijuana that we cannot adequately cover it all through news briefs and the occasional feature article. The news briefs and feature articles will, of course, continue, but we now include a weekly medical marijuana update at least noting all those stories we are unable to cover more comprehensively. Here's the latest:

California

On December 14, a federal judge in San Diego rejected a request from medical marijuana advocates for an injunction to halt federal enforcement actions against dispensaries there. The ruling followed his November ruling rejecting a temporary restraining order. US District Judge Dana Sabraw rejected arguments that the feds were engaging in selective prosecution by not targeting dispensaries in other states and that use of medical marijuana has become a protected right. Sabraw noted that the federal government was prosecuting some dispensaries in other states and ruled that using marijuana as medicine is not a fundamental right protected by the US Constitution. The suit is not dead, but the government is now expected to file a new motion to dismiss the case.

Also on December 14, NORML dismissed James Benno, the director of its Redding chapter, after his angry outburst during a meeting of the Shasta County Board of Supervisors the night before as the supervisors voted to ban dispensaries in the county's unincorporated areas. NORML also apologized to the supervisors and suspended the Redding chapter. Benno's behavior prompted an editorial in the Redding Record Searchlight, Nasty Outbursts do Nothing for Marijuana Cause.

On December 15, the Fresno city council voted to ban outdoor medical marijuana cultivation within the city limits. Fresno County banned outdoor grows last year. The vote came after Fresno police went to the council seeking an immediate ordinance "to prevent the cultivations from starting next year." Police cited the shooting death of a local man during an attempted marijuana heist in a backyard last year. The emergency measure took effect immediately and must be renewed within 45 days. A final permanent ban is expected in April, and it would make growing marijuana a violation of (no pun intended) the city's weed abatement ordinance. Local growers are holding meetings to figure out what to do next.

On December 15, the Butte County Registrar of Voters certified a referendum petition turned in by opponents of a ban on medical marijuana dispensaries in the county. The petitioners are trying to reverse a recent vote by county supervisors to ban dispensaries. Supervisors will take up the issue at their next meeting. They can either reverse their decision or put the matter before the voters on the June ballot.

On December 15, medical marijuana advocates filed a proposed 2012 ballot initiative to license, regulate, and tax the industry at the state level. The initiative, the Medical Marijuana Regulation, Control, and Taxation Act was filed by a coalition that includes Americans for Safe Access, California NORML, the Drug Policy Alliance and the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents some dispensary workers.

"We think that this initiative will create a level playing ground that law enforcement will embrace because it creates a sensible process," said Dan Rush, national director of the United Food and Commercial Workers' medical cannabis division. "The US attorneys became hostile to medical marijuana in California and what we are doing is offering a responsible, dignified and sincere approach to the citizens of California."

Look for a feature article on the initiative in coming weeks. 

On Friday, Sacramento County's Magnolia Wellness Center closed down but only after offering free grams and discounts on top-tier medical marijuana strains to its clients. Hundreds of customers of what was possibly the largest dispensary in the county lined up for the final day, with many expressing great unhappiness with the federal crackdown and an aggressive campaign by the county to shut down dispensaries via citations for building code and zoning violations. The county had seen as many as 99 dispensaries open in the past two years. Now there are only five left. The closing of Magnolia left 25 unionized bud tenders and other workers out of jobs in a county where the unemployment rate is 11.8%.

On Saturday, the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Novato closed its doors in the face of threats of federal prosecution. The Alliance was the oldest operating dispensary in the state and had a good working relationship with local officials, but ran afoul of the feds because it was located too close parks and schools. It closed after it was served an eviction notice by its landlord, who had received a threat letter from US Attorney for Northern California Melinda Haag. Co-founder and longtime Alliance operator Lynette Shaw also formally severed her connection with the Alliance, saying she was "in great danger," presumably of federal prosecution.

On Monday, San Diego medical marijuana collectives unveiled a proposed ballot initiative that would regulate storefront operators and generate additional revenue through a sales tax to the city of San Diego. The move comes after years of futile efforts to get the city council to enact a friendly ordinance regulating dispensaries and as both local and federal prosecutors are cracking down on dispensaries in the area. The same collectives earlier this year collected enough signatures to successfully repeal a restrictive city ordinance. If they get enough signatures this time, the measure will be on next November's ballot.

Montana

On December 15, three medical marijuana dispensary operators were sentenced in federal court to a year in prison each. Joshua Schultz, Jesse Leland, and Jason Burns could have faced a five year prison sentence, but the US Probation Office recommended two to 2 ½ years under sentencing guidelines.

US District Court Judge Charles Lovell went a step further, saying: "The sentencing range that established the guidelines has been, in the judgment of the court, excessive for utilization in this particular case under what I find to be very unusual circumstances. While it is true that the law was violated and while it is true that the computation set forward by the US Probation Office complies with the guidelines in an ordinary case, this is not an ordinary case as to each of the three defendants."

The three men had all operated dispensaries in compliance with Montana state law and believed they were safe from federal prosecution because of the Justice Department's 2009 Ogden memo. But their dispensaries were among more than two dozen hit in March raids by the feds, and they were arrested and jailed on about 25 charges each, including manufacturing and distributing marijuana and money laundering.

On Tuesday, a Whitefish man who helped run a medical marijuana dispensary was sentenced to a year and half in federal prison. Ryan Blindheim, 34, had helped operate the Black Pearl dispensary in Olney along with Evan Corum, also of Whitefish. Corum earlier pleaded guilty to money laundering and was sentenced to six months in prison. Blindheim pleaded guilty to money laundering and conspiracy to manufacture marijuana. Black Perl was among the more than two dozen medical marijuana businesses raided by the feds in March.

Washington

On December 14, Seattle marijuana defense attorney Douglas Hiatt filed a lawsuit challenging the city's ordinance regulating medical marijuana dispensaries. The lawsuit argues that the ordinance is unconstitutional because it requires dispensary operators to admit they are taking actions that are illegal under federal law.

Gary Johnson to Seek Libertarian Presidential Nomination

The Washington, DC, political news web site Politico.com reported Tuesday that Gary Johnson will end his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination and instead seek the Libertarian Party nomination. Citing Johnson campaign sources, Politico.com said that Johnson will make the announcement at a December 28 press conference in Santa Fe.

Gary Johnson (wikimedia.org)
Calling news of the switch "the worst kept secret," Libertarian Party Chairman Mark Hinkle told Politico.com that Johnson had been in talks with Libertarian officials for months. "It looks like it's definitely going to come to fruition here," he said.

The former New Mexico governor's bid for the Republican nomination never got any traction and he never got above single digits in any polls. The low polling numbers keep him out of most debates -- unfairly, his campaign claimed -- further reducing his chances in a crowded field.

Johnson has a strong drug reform platform, which calls outright for legalization of marijuana and a harm reduction approach to other drugs.

"Abuse of hard drugs is a health problem that should be dealt with by health experts, not a problem that should be clogging up our courts, jails, and prisons with addicts," the platform says. "Instead of continuing to arrest and incarcerate drug users, we should seriously consider the examples of countries such as Portugal and the Netherlands, and we should ultimately choose to adopt policies which aim to reduce death, disease, violence, and crime associated with dangerous drugs."

Although it's no shoo-in, Johnson could well win the Libertarian nomination. While there are a handful of other contenders, none of them has Johnson's national stature. And while party stalwarts daydream of a Ron Paul or Jesse Ventura candidacy, Paul is busy fighting for the Republican nomination and says he has no plans to seek a third party nomination, and Ventura is incommunicado in Mexico.

If he wins the nomination, not only could Johnson use the campaign as a bully pulpit for his drug policy ideas, his candidacy could have an impact on the two-party presidential race, especially in his home state of New Mexico, which went big for Obama in 2008. According to a Public Policy Polling survey conducted earlier this month, Johnson would pull 23% in a contest with Obama (44%) and Romney (27%) and he would pull 20% in a contest with Obama (45%) and Gingrich (28%). Obama is currently polling well against all the Republican candidates and can probably carry the state, but a third party Johnson candidacy would almost ensure an Obama victory in a state he can ill afford to lose next year.

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Washington, DC
United States

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

In Fernandina Beach, Florida, the Nassau County Sheriff's Office is being investigated by the FBI in a wide ranging corruption and civil rights abuses probe. Allegations include Sheriff Tommy Seagraves blocking the drug prosecution of the wife of a close friend, detectives using steroids, job-related kickbacks, marijuana grow lamps and beer keg taps that disappeared after being seized in drug raids, physical assaults on drug suspects, improper use of department property, and ongoing misconduct in the narcotics unit. Part one of the Florida Times Union's two-part investigative report on the sordid story is available at the link above. Part two is forthcoming.

In Rogersville, Tennessee, a former Hawkins County sheriff's narcotics detective was indicted December 15 on charges he was stealing drugs from the evidence room. Brad Depew was hit with a 68-count indictment after he was caught on videotape breaking into the locked evidence room with a screwdriver and exiting with evidence envelopes containing drugs. A subsequent search of his home turned up unspecified quantities of  the Schedule II narcotics oxycodone and methadone, the Schedule III narcotic dihydrocodeinone, and Schedule IV tranquilizers alprazolam, diazepam and clonazepam, which matched the kinds of pills missing from the evidence room. The search also turned up 26 grams of cocaine, a half gram of meth, and drug paraphernalia, including scales, baggies, a pipe, screens, spoons and straws. None of that come from the evidence room, though. He faces 47 counts of evidence tampering, as well as possession of cocaine with intent to deliver, possession of meth with intent to deliver, official misconduct, four counts of burglary, four counts of possession of burglary tools, two counts of possession of drug paraphernalia, two counts of theft under $500 for the actual evidence envelopes, and six counts of misdemeanor drug possession for the drugs found at his residence. Depew worked as a detective on the HCSO Narcotics Unit and 3rd Judicial District Drug Task Force for more than a decade. He is free on $100,000 bond pending trial.

In Atlanta, two Talbot County sheriff's deputies pleaded guilty December 14 to ripping off drugs and money from motorists they targeted. Deputies Alvin Malone and Jeff Sivell admitting using a confidential informant to identify vehicles carrying drugs and drug money, then seizing the dope and cash and splitting it with the snitch. Each pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Hobbs Act, or attempted extortion by a public official. They will be sentenced in February and are looking at up to 20 years in federal prison.

In St. Louis, a former St. Louis sheriff's deputy pleaded guilty December 14 to charges he bought heroin while on duty and chauffeured a drug dealer around the city. Jason Stewart, 31, copped to a single count of being a drug addict in possession of a firearm. He went down after he went to an area of the city known for drug dealing that happened to be under federal and local police surveillance. He had just conducted a transaction when he was pulled over, and police found a fifth of a gram of heroin, drug paraphernalia, and a bottle of urine wrapped in a hand warmer, which he said he carried with him to thwart drug tests. He faces up to 10 years in prison, but will reportedly be sentenced to 18 to 30 months.

In Beaumont, Texas, a Beaumont police officer resigned Monday after being accused of leaking confidential information in a drug investigation. Officer Eugene Wilson had been suspended with pay. No charges are being filed against him.

In Haskell, Texas, a former Haskell police officer was sentenced Monday to seven years probation for planting drugs in a man's vehicle. William Glass had resigned from the department last year just before he was about to take a lie detector test over an allegation that he planted methamphetamine in a man's vehicle during a traffic stop. He was indicted on charges of fabricating physical evidence, possession of a controlled substance, and official oppression, but he copped a plea to just the first count. The meth had come from an earlier drug bust.

Montreal Agency Calls for Four Safe Injection Sites

In a report released Friday, the city of Montreal's public health agency recommended that the city create four safe injection sites for hard drug users, including one that would be mobile. The mayor's office said the same day it agreed with the proposal.

A client prepares to fix at Vancouver's Insite safe injection site. (Image: Insite)
The city must now seek funding to operate the sites from the Quebec provincial health department and then seek an exemption from the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to be able to legally operate the sites.

The Conservative Harper government is not friendly toward safe injection sites, but its effort to shut down Canada's only existing safe injection site, Vancouver's Insite, was rejected by the Supreme Court of Canada in September. The court held that shutting down Insite would violate drug users' rights to life, liberty, and security.

Montreal public health director Richard Lessard said that ruling "opened the door" for Montreal's proposal and that it was desperately needed.

"There is an abnormally high death rate among intravenous drug users in Montreal and an epidemic of infections of hepatitis and HIV," he said on Friday.

Lessard's report found that 68% of intravenous drug users in Montreal are infected with hepatitis C and 18% are infected with HIV. It also found fatal overdoses on the rise. While an average of 51 users overdosed each year between 2000 and 2005, an average of 72 users overdosed each year between 2006 and 2009.

"We are convinced -- and all the scientific studies back us up on this point -- that supervised injection sites do not create new problems," Lessard told The Montreal Gazette. "On the contrary, they reduce the problem of syringes found on the streets and in the parks, and they reduce the number of overdose deaths."

There are still obstacles to overcome, ranging from federal hostility to local NIMBYism, but if all goes well, Montreal could join Vancouver in providing safe injection sites as a public health measure by next year.

Montreal
Canada

North Carolina Opium Law Snares Small Prescription Pain Pill Holders

North Carolina's drug laws, which severely punish people who traffic in opiates, are yielding harsh prison sentences for people possessing or trafficking small quantities of prescription pain pills. That is leading to renewed debate in the Tar Heel State about whether the laws are too harsh.

This pill bottle fulls of opiate pain pills could get you 20 years or more in North Carolina. (wikimedia.org)
Under North Carolina's opium law, which was designed to attack heroin trafficking, anyone caught with more than four grams of opium, heroin, or an opium derivative faces a mandatory minimum prison sentence of between six and seven years. But as the Wilmington Star News reported, the four-gram limit means people caught with as few as four Lorcet tablets, five Percocets, or six Vicodin are subject to those draconian punishments.

The sentences increase with the quantities of drugs in question. Having between a half ounce and an ounce of prescription pain pills can earn a seven-to-10-year sentence, while having more than an ounce garners between 19 and 23 years. A single pill bottle full of pain pills could be enough for that latter sentence.

The penalties for opiates are much more severe than for other drugs under the North Carolina law. Trafficking an ounce to 199 grams of amphetamines has a two-year mandatory minimum, while the same quantity of cocaine has a three-year mandatory minimum. When it comes to marijuana, to get the same mandatory minimum as five or six pain pills, one would have to be caught with a ton or more of pot.

While some relatives of pain pill overdose victims have lobbied for harsher penalties, even some North Carolina prosecutors say the punishments are already too extreme.

"You can literally end your life in prison on a handful of pills," said Chris Thomas, an assistant district attorney in Brunswick County. "When the legislature enacted the trafficking law back when they did, I don't think they ever intended it to apply to prescription drugs. That was when heroin was a big problem," he told the Star News. "But it's one of those things that's on the books, and it's a tool that we're going to utilize."

New Hanover County Assistant District Attorney Janet Coleman, who handles drug cases, said many people she has prosecuted for pain pills had no prior criminal record. "None, zero, not even a speeding ticket," she said. "They are otherwise law-abiding citizens who end up in this nightmare."

[Editor's Note: Why prosecute people with those laws then? Prosecutors have the discretion to not do so.]

The issue has gained the attention of state lawmakers, but has so far gone nowhere. A bill in the 2008 legislature would have allowed some some convicted traffickers to get out after serving half their sentence if they lacked a violent criminal history and did not have a firearm when the offense was committed, in addition to meeting other criteria, but it died in committee.

NC
United States

Amnesty International Condemns Iran Drug Executions

Amnesty International has called on Iran to stop executing people for drug offenses, saying the Islamic Republic has embarked on "a killing spree of staggering proportions."

Afghan police guard the Iranian Embassy during January 2011 protests against Iranian executions of Afghans (wikimedia.org
In a new report, Addicted to Death: Executions for Drug Offenses in Iran, the London-based human rights group said "at least 488 people have been executed for alleged drug offenses so far in 2011, a nearly threefold increase on the 2009 figures, when Amnesty International recorded at least 166 executions for similar offenses."

Bordering Afghanistan and its bountiful opium poppy crop, Iran is burdened with one of the world's highest rates of opiate addiction and drug-related deaths. It is also a key transshipment point for Afghan opium and heroin bound for European markets.

"To try to contain their immense drug problem, the Iranian authorities have carried out a killing spree of staggering proportions, when there is no evidence that execution prevents drug smuggling any more effectively than imprisonment," said Amnesty's Interim Middle East and North Africa deputy director, Ann Harrison. "Drug offenses go much of the way to accounting for the steep rise in executions we have seen in the last 18 months," Harrison said.

Amnesty said it began to receive credible reports of a new wave of drug executions in the middle of 2010, including reports of mass executions at Vakilabad Prison in Mashhad, with one, on August 4, 2010, involving at least 89 people. While Iran officially acknowledged 253 executions in 2010, of which 172 were for drug offenses, Amnesty said it has credible reports of another 300 executions, "the vast majority believed to be for drug-related offenses."

"Ultimately, Iran must abolish the death penalty for all crimes, but stopping the practice of executing drug offenders, which violates international law, would as a first step cut the overall number significantly," said Harrison.

Iran maintains that the death penalty is critical for maintaining law and order and that it is applied only after scrupulous legal proceedings. But Amnesty said it had received credible reports of executions without trial, of confessions achieved by torture, and of failure to notify families -- or even inmates -- of impending execution. It said those executed tended to be poor or from minority groups or outside the country, and that some 4,000 Afghans were on death row for drug offenses.

Iran receives significant international support in its war on drugs. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has provided $22 million since 2005 to support training for Iranian anti-drug forces, while the European Union is providing $12.3 million for an Iran-based project to strengthen regional anti-drug cooperation. Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, and Japan have all provided anti-drug assistance to Iran via UNODC programs.

The UNODC technical assistance program is supposed to include work to promote reforming the Iranian justice system to bring it in line with international standards. But when he visited Iran in July, UNODC executive director Yury Fedetov didn't mention the rising number of executions as he praised Iran's anti-drug efforts.

"All countries and international organizations helping the Iranian authorities arrest more people for alleged drugs offenses need to take a long hard look at the potential impact of that assistance and what they could do to stop this surge of executions," said Harrison. "They cannot simply look the other way while hundreds of impoverished people are killed each year without fair trials, many only learning their fates a few hours before their deaths."

Iran

US Prison Population in First Decline Since 1972

In two reports released last week, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced that for the first time since 1972, the US prison population had fallen from the previous year and that for the second year in a row, the number of people under the supervision of adult correctional authorities had also declined.

In its report Prisoners in 2010, BJS reported that the overall US prison population at the end of 2010 was 1,605,127, a decrease of 9,228 prisoners or 0.6% from year end 2009. The number of state prisoners declined by 0.8% (10,881 prisoners), while the number of federal prisoners increased by 0.8% (1.653 prisoners).

Fully half of the states reported decreased prison populations last year, with California (down 6,213) and Georgia (down 4,207) accounting for the biggest decline in absolute numbers. Rhode Island (down 8.6%) and Georgia (down 7.9%) accounted for the largest percentage decreases.

For the first time since BJS started keeping jurisdictional data in 1977, the number of people released from prison exceeded the number of people sentenced to prison. Some 708,677 people were released from prison, while only 703,798 entered prison.

"The stability in prison release rates and expected time to be served indicates that the change in state prison population between 2009 and 2010 was the result of a decrease in state prison admissions," BJS explained.

Drug offenders accounted for 18% of state prison populations in 2009, the last year for which that data is available. That's down from 22% in 2001. Violent offenders made up 53% of the state prison population, property offenders accounted for 19%, and public order or other offenders accounted for 9%.

In the federal prison population, drug offenders made up a whopping 51% of all prisoners, with public order offenders (mainly weapons and immigration violations) accounting for an additional 35%. Only about 10% of federal prisoners were doing time for violent offenses.

Overall, somewhere between 350,000 and 400,000 people were doing prison time for drug offenses last year.

Similarly, in its report Correctional Population in the US 2010, BJS reported that the number of people under adult correctional supervision declined 1.3% last year, the second consecutive year of declines. The last two years are the only years to see this figure decline since 1980.

At the end of 2010, about 7.1 million people, or one in 33 adults, were either in prison or on probation or parole. About 1.4 million were in state prisons, 200,000 in federal prison, and 700,000 in jail, for a total imprisoned population of about 2.3 million. Nearly 4.9 million people were on probation or parole.

America's experiment with mass incarceration may have peaked, exhausted by its huge costs, but change is coming very slowly, and we are still the world's unchallenged leader in imprisoning our own citizens.

Congress Votes to Restore Needle Exchange Funding Ban

Two years ago this week, after years of advocacy by public health and harm reduction advocates, the long-standing ban on federal funding for needle exchanges was repealed. On Saturday, it was restored as the Senate took the final votes to approve the 2012 federal omnibus spending bill.

It was a Democratic-controlled House and Senate that rescinded the ban two years ago, and it was House Republicans who were responsible for reinstating it this year. Three separate appropriations bills contained language banning the use of federal funds, and House negotiators managed to get two of them into the omnibus bill passed Saturday.

A Labor-Health and Human Services appropriations bill including the ban on domestic use of federal funds for needle exchanges and a State Department bill including a ban on funding for needle exchange access in international programs both made it into the omnibus bill.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, American Public Health Association, and numerous other scientific bodies have found that syringe exchange programs are highly effective at preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases. Eight federal reports have found that increasing access to sterile syringes saves lives without increasing drug use.

Needle exchange supporters said restoring the ban will result in thousands of Americans contracting HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C or other infectious diseases next year alone.

"The federal syringe funding ban was costly in both human and fiscal terms -- it is outrageous that Congress is restoring it given how overwhelming and clear the science is in support of making sterile syringes widely available," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Make no mistake about it -- members of Congress who supported this ban have put the lives of their constituents in jeopardy."

They should pay a political price, Piper said. "We may have lost this battle, but we have just begun to fight," said Piper. "The Republicans who insisted on restoring the ban, and the Democrats who didn’t fight hard enough to oppose it, will be responsible for thousands of Americans contracting HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C. We will make sure Americans know which members of Congress care about their health and well-being and which do not."

Washington, DC
United States

Arizona Governor Asks Federal Judge to Void Part of Medical Marijuana Law

Gov. Jan Brewer (R) decided Wednesday to ask a federal judge to throw out a central component of the state's voter-approved medical marijuana law. The decision came just two days after a federal judge threatened to dismiss Brewer's lawsuit seeking clarity about medical marijuana regulations if the state did not take a position on whether it can implement the law despite federal statute or whether federal law preempts it.

No dispensaries for Arizona if Gov. Brewer has her way. (wikimedia.org)
Gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson told Capitol Media Services that Brewer is now taking the position that federal law preempts a provision in the law that requires the state to regulate and permit more than 100 medical marijuana dispensaries. The state will ask US District Court Judge Susan Bolton to rule that Arizona cannot process dispensary applications.

"She does support the will of the voters," Benson said, even though she opposed last year's successful initiative. "But she also has to look out for the well-being of her state employees. No state employee should be put in a position where they could face federal prosecution simply for doing their jobs."

Joe Yuhas, spokesman for the Arizona Medical Marijuana Association, which led last year's campaign, slammed the governor's decision. "That's unfortunate," he told Capitol Media Services. "I also think it's somewhat ironic that a state government that seems to continuously question federal preemption, whether it's health care or immigration, now runs behind that shield in an effort to thwart the will of the voters."

He added that the whole federal lawsuit seeking clarification is a waste of time and money. While Arizona's law, like those in other medical marijuana states, differs with the Controlled Substances Act in allowing medical marijuana use and distribution under state law, no state or local official anywhere has been prosecuted for undertaking actions to regulate medical marijuana in states where it is legal, he noted.

The Arizona law lets persons with specified medical conditions obtain and possess up to 2 ½ ounces of marijuana per week. Some 16,000 people have registered to do so. Brewer is not seeking to invalidate that part of the law.

The law as approved by voters only allowed patients or caregivers to grow their own if they were located more than 25 miles from a dispensary. But if Arizona ends up with no dispensaries, any patient could grow his own.

Drug War Issues

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