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Latin America: Former Mexican Foreigner Minister Accuses Army of Extra-Judicial Executions in Drug War

Jorge Castañeda, Mexico's foreign minister under President Vicente Fox, said Saturday that the Mexican military is engaging in the extrajudicial execution of members of drug trafficking organizations. The frank and surprising comments came as Castañeda spoke on a panel at the 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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Jorge Castañeda
"We are having more and more 'false positives,'" Castañeda said, referring to a term used in Colombia to describe people executed by the military and then described as guerrillas killed in combat. "Here in Mexico, apparent gang war killings are in fact being carried out by the military. Every time the cartels catch the police and military infiltrators and slice them up, the army says 'We're taking out ten of yours.' The statistics say that 90% of the killings are within the cartels, but the army is engaging in these killings."

President Felipe Calderon deployed the military against the so-called cartels in December 2006. Since then, more than 15,000 people have been killed in prohibition-related violence in Mexico, including more than 6,000 so far this year. Hundreds of police and soldiers are among the dead.

In response to a question asking for documentation of his assertions, Castañeda said: "The only known incident was a town in Chihuahua where the bodies of 29 sicarios (assassins) were found, with witnesses who said this was after they were detained. The press has not wanted to investigate this."

But the military can't keep its mouth shut, Castañeda said. "They go to bars and restaurants and get drunk and talk and they are going around saying how many people they have knocked off," he reported. "The 12 military officers killed by the cartels in Michoacan -- that's why the army went out and killed a bunch of other people."

Castañeda's comments come as the US State Department is preparing the process of certifying Mexican compliance with human rights conditions as part of the $1.4 billion Plan Merida anti-drug assistance package. The bill authorizing the aid requires that portions of it be withheld if the State Department determines Mexico is not in compliance.

Castañeda also criticized President Obama for turning a blind eye to human rights violations by the Mexican military. "Obama regrettably said that the human rights violations he was most concerned with was with the victims of the drug war," the former diplomat noted.

Europe: Fired British Drug Advisor Calls for Royal Commission on Marijuana Decriminalization

Professor David Nutt, the former head of Britain's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), who was fired late last month by Home Secretary Alan Johnson for criticizing the government's drug policies as driven by politics instead of science, is now calling for a Royal Commission to study whether to decriminalize marijuana.

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David Nutt
As head of the ACMD, Nutt had recommended that marijuana not be up-scheduled by the Labor government, but the government ignored that advice and moved marijuana back to a Class B drug, where it had been before the government down-scheduled it to Class C in 2004. Nutt and the ACMD had also recommended down-scheduling Ecstasy, another position the government rejected.

Nutt's firing three weeks ago has led to considerable criticism of the government from the scientific community. It has also led to the resignations of five members of the ACMD.

Now, Nutt has told BBC's Radio 4 that a Royal Commission examining decriminalization was a "sensible" idea that could bring "big health benefits." Nutt added: "We've seen some countries like Portugal make real progress in terms of drug-related crime and drug-related harms by decriminalizing drugs of personal use. You could make a moral position that why should people be imprisoned for possessing something that effectively will only harm themselves?"

The Dutch model was one worthy possibility, Nutt said. "I certainly am interested in the idea that we might de-penalize possession and even allow the Dutch model for cannabis -- the coffee shops -- which could potentially have many benefits. I think it's perfectly sensible to think about the Dutch model for cannabis and explore whether that might be a tenable way of allowing young people to get an intoxicant which is safer than alcohol, and which they could then use in a controlled, safe environment."

Sentencing: Era of Mandatory Minimums for Drugs Comes to an End in Rhode Island

As of last week, Rhode Island sentencing reforms that eliminate mandatory minimums for drug offenses have taken effect. The sentencing reforms were embodied in H 5007 and its companion bill, S 039, which were passed by the General Assembly on October 29 and went into effect two weeks later without the signature of Gov. Donald Carcieri.

The new law strikes previous language mandating 10-year mandatory minimums for possession, manufacture or sale of between an ounce and a kilogram of heroin or cocaine, between one and five kilos of marijuana, and between 100 and 1,000 tablets of LSD. It also strikes 20-year mandatory minimums for quantities greater than those just listed.

It's not like it'll be a drug dealers' holiday, though. While it eliminates the old law's mandatory minimums, it keeps its maximums of up to 50 years in the first instance and up to life in prison in the second. And while it also eliminates minimum fines of $10,000 and $25,000, it raises maximum fines to $500,000 and $1 million.

Still, legislators and reform advocates were enjoying a hard-fought and long-sought victory. "I am thrilled that our hard work has finally paid off," said Rep. Joseph Almeida, sponsor of the House bill. "These sentences were enacted in a different era, at a time when policymakers around the nation believed that long sentences would act as a deterrent against drug use and drug dealing. Twenty years down the road we have seen that these policies are a failure. They have devastated our communities and driven up the prison population, costing tax-payers millions of dollars."

"It's a shame it took a disastrous economy and horrific state budget deficits for the evidence to finally sink in, but politicians at last are realizing that we as a society can no longer afford to pay for our prejudices," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "It's nice to see elected officials providing real leadership in rolling back the excesses of 1980s drug war hysteria."

For Rhode Island nonprofit Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), victory was sweet, but there are more battles to be fought. "We have always looked at this legislation as a starting point," said DARE's Executive Director Fred Ordonez. "Our hope is that this will help spark a trend among Rhode Island decision-makers to shift away from a tough-on-crime approach and towards a smart-on-crime approach."

Reform proponents led by DARE grafted together an impressive coalition of state and national organizations, including the Rhode Island ACLU, the Rhode Island Public Defender's Office, the Rhode Island Family Life Center, RICARES, the Drug and Alcohol Treatment Association of Rhode Island, the Roger Williams Law School, the Drug Policy Alliance, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM).

Law Enforcement: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

A dirty Philly cop gets smacked hard, a dirty St. Louis cop gets his hands slapped, and two more jail and prison guards get caught. Let's get to it:

In Philadelphia, a former Philadelphia police officer was sentenced Monday to 30 years in federal prison for robbing a drug dealer while in uniform. Former officer Malik Snell got 10 more years than pre-sentence investigators recommended. Perhaps it's because while being chased by police after the robbery, he hit another car and left the young driver for dead.

In St. Louis, a former St. Louis police officer was sentenced Monday to two years in prison for stealing money during drug raids and lying about it to superior officers and federal investigators. Bobby Leo Garrett also has to pay restitution. He is the third officer from the department's crime suppression unit to be sentenced in the case. The three bad cops ripped off a drug courier in September 2007 and failed to report stopping him and taking his money. They also stole money during drug raids on June 6 and June 11, 2008, and falsely arrested a man during the June 6 raid in an attempt to further cover up their crimes.

In Sacramento, California, a California Department of Corrections guard was arrested November 2 for allegedly smuggling weapons and drugs into Folsom prison. Officer Domingo Garcia, 39, had worked at Folsom for nearly a decade. At least one loaded weapon was found in Garcia's car on prison property. He is also being charged with conspiracy to bring drugs into the prison. Garcia bailed out on November 4.

In Selma, Alabama, a former Bibb County Correctional Facility guard was sentenced November 5 to a year in jail and three year's probation for smuggling drugs into the prison where he worked. Woodrow Richardson was caught with four bags of marijuana wrapped in duct tape during a routine employee search in April 2008. He said he had been paid $800 by an inmate to bring the pot into the prison. Richardson pleaded guilty to felony charges of promoting prison contraband, marijuana possession, and attempted distribution of a controlled substance.

Medical Marijuana: Colorado Judge Blocks Restrictions on Caregivers

A judge in Denver Tuesday overturned a state Board of Health decision last week that medical marijuana caregivers must do more than simply provide marijuana to qualify as caregivers. Denver District Judge Larry Naves voided the decision, saying the board had violated state open meeting laws and ignored the needs of patients.

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Colorado medical marijuana certificate (courtesy cannabisculture.com)
The board held an emergency meeting last week with less than one day's notice to respond to a state Court of Appeals ruling that a woman who provided marijuana to a registered patient did not qualify as a caregiver under the law. That move outraged medical marijuana supporters, who immediately filed suit to block the move.

Attorney Richard Corry filed the lawsuit. He argued that the board failed to provide adequate public notice of the meeting and that the Court of Appeals ruling applied only to the criminal case in question. Naves agreed.

Naves was harshly critical of the Board of Health and let first assistant attorney general Anne Holton, who was representing the board, know it. "Did this board ever think about the impact on the health of people like these people here?" he asked, referring to a medical marijuana user and provider in the courtroom who had challenged the new requirements.

Holton replied that the board was merely trying to clarify restrictions for providers, and that the action was only temporary while the board came up with permanent standards.

"It's not temporary if you're trying to down 30 pills," Naves retorted, referring to testimony by a patient in an older, related case who said he couldn't keep his numerous medications down without marijuana.

Holton said she did not know if the Board of Health would appeal the decision. It has a December 15 hearing scheduled on the issue.

The dispute comes as medical marijuana is taking off in Colorado. The state now has more than 11,000 registered patients, and this year, dozens of dispensaries have sprung up, first in Denver, but now across the state.

Medical Marijuana: American Medical Association Calls for Review of Pot's Schedule I Status

In an historic shift, the country's largest physician group, the American Medical Association (AMA), has reversed its long-held position that marijuana has no medical value. The group instead adopted a new policy position on medical marijuana, calling for a review of marijuana's status as a Schedule I drug with no accepted medical use under the federal Controlled Substances Act. The AMA had previously recommended that marijuana be retained in Schedule I.

The AMA adopted a report drafted by the AMA Council on Science and Public Health (CSAPH) entitled, "Use of Cannabis for Medicinal Purposes," which affirmed the therapeutic benefits of marijuana and called for further research. "Short term controlled trials indicate that smoked cannabis reduces neuropathic pain, improves appetite and caloric intake especially in patients with reduced muscle mass, and may relieve spasticity and pain in patients with multiple sclerosis," the CSAPH report found.

"Our AMA urges that marijuana's status as a federal Schedule I controlled substance be reviewed with the goal of facilitating the conduct of clinical research and development of cannabinoid-based medicines, and alternate delivery methods," the new policy says.

But the AMA goes on to say that it is not endorsing existing state medical marijuana programs.

Laying the groundwork for the AMA's shift in position was the adoption in June 2008 by the group's Medical Student Section of a resolution supporting reclassification of marijuana. Leading that effort was University of Washington medical student Sunil Aggarwal, who also played a role as a reviewer of the CSAPH report.

"It's been 72 years since the AMA has officially recognized that marijuana has both already-demonstrated and future-promising medical utility," said Aggarwal. "The AMA has written an extensive, well-documented, evidence-based report that they are seeking to publish in a peer-reviewed journal that will help to educate the medical community about the scientific basis of botanical cannabis-based medicines."

"This shift, coming from what has historically been America's most cautious and conservative major medical organization, is historic," said Aaron Houston, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project, who attended the AMA meeting. "Marijuana's Schedule I status is not just scientifically untenable, given the wealth of recent data showing it to be both safe and effective for chronic pain and other conditions, but it's been a major obstacle to needed research."

The AMA lagged behind one of its competitors. In February 2008, a the American College of Physicians (ACP), the country's second largest physician group and the largest organization of doctors of internal medicine, adopted a resolution calling for an "evidence-based review of marijuana's status as a Schedule I controlled substance to determine whether it should be reclassified to a different schedule."

"The two largest physician groups in the US have established medical marijuana as a health care issue that must be addressed," said ASA Government Affairs Director Caren Woodson. "Both organizations have underscored the need for change by placing patients above politics."

And so the pressure mounts.

Sentencing: US Sentencing Commission to Review Mandatory Minimums

The US Sentencing Commission has been ordered by Congress to review mandatory minimum sentencing. The order came via the National Defense Authorization Act signed last month by President Obama. The act contains quietly added language calling on the commission to conduct several tasks, including examining the impact of mandatory minimum sentencing laws and exploring alternatives.

Congress began passing mandatory minimum laws in the 1980s, especially for drug and weapons offenses. In part as a direct result, the federal prison population has ballooned from 24,000 prisoners in 1980 to more than 209,000 last week. More than half of all federal prisoners are doing time for drug offenses.

Now, the Sentencing Commission is charged with issuing recommendations on mandatory minimums. But don't hold your breath -- this could take awhile.

"It's going to be a massive undertaking," the new chairman of the Sentencing Commission, William Sessions III, told the Wall Street Journal. Sessions said the review would range from weighing the impact of mandatory minimum sentencing on prison population figures and spending to assessing the social impact of those policies. "In my view," he said, "it's a very open-ended request."

Even if the Sentencing Commission were to eventually recommend changing or eliminating mandatory minimums, the final decision is up to Congress. In that regard, recent history is not very encouraging. The commission has for years formally recommended that Congress to undo the sentencing disparity between federal crack and powder cocaine offenses, but Congress has, rejected its advice, except for minor relief when it allowed changes in sentencing guidelines that reduced some crack sentences,although that may finally change this year or next.

When the commission last undertook a full-scale review of sentencing laws in 1991, there were 60 mandatory minimum offenses on the books. Now, there are 170.

Europe: British Home Secretary's Firing of Drug Advisor Continues to Reverberate

Three more members of the British government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) quit Tuesday night after meeting with Home Secretary Alan Johnson in the wake of his firing of ACMD head Professor David Nutt. That brings to five the number of ACMD members who have resigned since Johnson fired Nutt two weeks ago for criticizing the government's reclassification of marijuana in the face of the ACMD's considered opinion that there was no evidence to justify reclassification.

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David Nutt
Faced with a growing mutiny within the ACMD, the Home Office's official scientific panel on drug policy, and among the broader scientific community after firing Nutt, Johnson agreed to meet Tuesday with the group in an effort to contain the damage. He was only partly successful.

According to The Independent, the session was "tense," with some ACMD members wanting to accept his vows to value their future work, while others remained unhappy, over both the firing of Nutt and the government's decision to reclassify marijuana before it even got the ACMD's report.

The ACMD's views would be given "due weight" in the future, Johnson said, but he stood by his decision to fire Nutt. "I understand why the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was concerned about this," said Johnson. "Its major concern was because they felt Professor Nutt was being dismissed for his views. I reassured them that was not the case. There is a duty I think to accept that politicians make the final decision," he added. "At my meeting we talked constructively about the future, about what we can do to reassure the science community that their decisions are important to us and they are given due weight."

Johnson did make some concessions in a bid to quell the uproar. According to the BBC, he pledged to not make decisions on drug classification before the ACMD issues its advice and he pledged to explain in writing to the ACMD if he rejected its advice.

Johnson's refusal to reinstate Nutt led chemist Dr. Simon Campbell, psychologist Dr. John Marsden, and scientific consultant Ian Ragan to resign after the meeting. ACMD members Marion Walker and Dr. Les King resigned in protest over the firing last week.

Having the government listen to the ACMD's advice would be a pleasant change, Campbell told the BBC. "When we made our recommendation on cannabis we saw no reason to change the classification and yet the government has already decided to move from Class C to Class B," he said. "That can only be because the government saw it as a vote-catching exercise."

The ACMD usually has 31 members. Now it has 25. The government said it needs to have at least 20 members to function properly.

While the Home Office and the ACMD go at it, Professor Nutt is going his merry way. The Telegraph quoted Nutt as saying he may set up an independent drug council and that he has financial backing for the venture.

Speaking at the Center for Crime and Justice Studies last night, Nutt was tight with details. "There is the possibility we could set up an alternative committee. At least one charitable benefactor has come forward to fund it," he said, declining to name the benefactor.

Marijuana: Colorado Ski Town Votes to Legalize It, Measure Passes With 73%

Residents of the Colorado ski town of Breckenridge overwhelmingly voted to legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana Tuesday. The measure passed with 73% of the vote.

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Breckenridge, Colorado
That means as of January 1, people in Breckenridge can legally possess up to an ounce of marijuana under local ordinance. The measure also legalizes the possession of marijuana paraphernalia.

"This votes demonstrates that Breckenridge citizens overwhelmingly believe that adults should not be punished for making the safer choice to use marijuana instead of alcohol," said Sean McAllister, Breckenridge attorney and chair of Sensible Breckenridge, a local project of the statewide marijuana law reform group Sensible Colorado.

"As state and national focus grows on this important issue, the popular ski town of Breckenridge has taken center stage on marijuana reform -- and not just for medical purposes," said Brian Vicente of Sensible Colorado. "With this historic vote, Breckenridge has emerged as a national leader in sensible drug policy."

The campaign, which had no formal opposition, received a chorus of local support including endorsements from Breckenridge Town Councilman Jeffrey Bergeron, former Colorado State Representative and Breckenridge resident, Gary Lindstrom, and the Summit Daily News.

Measure 2F was placed on the ballot when over 1,400 local supporters signed a petition supporting the reform measure.

Under Colorado state law, possession of up to an ounce is decriminalized and punishable by a $100 fine. But Breckenridge police will "still have the ability to exercise discretion," said Chief Rick Holman. "It's never been something that we've spent a lot of time on, so I don't expect this to be a big change in how we really do business," he told the Summit Daily News.

Breckenridge residents had voted for Amendment 44, a statewide legalization initiative, by the same percentage in 2006. That initiative won only 41% of the vote statewide.

Denver became the first city to vote to legalize marijuana possession under municipal ordinance in 2005.

Europe: British Science vs. Politics Battle Explodes As Top Drug Advisor Fired for Heresy

The British Labor government has created a firestorm of controversy with its firing of Professor David Nutt, head of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) last Friday. Nutt was canned by Home Secretary Alan Johnson after the psychopharmacologist again went public with his criticism of the government for refusing to follow a science- and evidence-based drug policy.

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David Nutt
As of this week, after a weekend of furious back and forth in dozens of newspaper articles, two more members of the ACMD have resigned in protest over the firing, and a mass resignation of the 31-member body may come after a meeting next Monday. Johnson told parliament Monday that he had agreed to a request from the ACMD for an urgent meeting, but he also told parliament he had ordered a review of the ACMD to satisfy ministers that the panel is "discharging its functions" and that it still represents a value to the public.

The ACMD's charge is to "make recommendations to government on the control of dangerous or otherwise harmful drugs, including classification and scheduling under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and its regulations," its web page explains. "It considers any substance which is being or appears to be misused and of which is having or appears to be capable of having harmful effects sufficient to cause a social problem. It also carries out in-depth inquiries into aspects of drug use that are causing particular concern in the UK, with the aim of producing considered reports that will be helpful to policy makers and practitioners."

In 2004 the Labor government down-scheduled marijuana on the Advisory Committee's advice, shifting it from Class B, the middle rank in Britain's drug classification scheme, to Class C, the least harmful. The maximum sentence for possession of a Class C drug is two years; for Class B drugs it is five years. Tensions between the ACMD and Labor began rising last year, when Prime Minister Gordon Brown reversed that decision, saying he wanted to send a strong message that use of the drug is unacceptable. Tensions rose again when the ACMD recommended that Ecstasy be down-scheduled from Class A (most harmful) to Class B, and the Brown government promptly ignored that advice too.

At that point, Nutt went public with his criticisms of then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. He also famously compared the dangers of Ecstasy to those of horse-riding, deeply offending both the horsey set and the Labor government. Smith told Nutt to shut up, and he managed to do so until last week.

Last week, in a lecture and briefing paper at the Center for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College London, Nutt accused Smith of "distorting and devaluing" scientific evidence when she decided to reclassify marijuana. He also said that Ecstasy and LSD are less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco.

"We have to accept young people like to experiment -- with drugs and other potentially harmful activities -- and what we should be doing in all of this is to protect them from harm at this stage of their lives," he said. "We therefore have to provide more accurate and credible information. If you think that scaring kids will stop them using, you are probably wrong."

Nutt's briefing paper included a ranking of various licit and illicit drugs by comparative harm. Heroin and cocaine were ranked the most harmful in Nutt's scheme, with alcohol fifth, marijuana ninth, LSD fourteenth, and Ecstasy eighteenth.

"We need a full and open discussion of the evidence and a mature debate about what the drug laws are for -- and whether they are doing their job," Nutt said.

That was too much for Home Minister Alan Johnson. He told parliament Monday that Smith had warned Nutt not to publicly disagree with ministry decisions again. "Well, it has happened again," said Johnson. "On Thursday October 29 Professor Nutt chose, without prior notification to my department, to initiate a debate on drug policy in the national media, returning to the February decisions, and accusing my predecessor or distorting and devaluing scientific research. As a result, I have lost confidence in Professor Nutt's ability to be my principal adviser on drugs."

Prime Minister Brown is standing behind Johnson. An official spokesman said the firing was based on the "important principle" that advisers should present advice to ministers but not speak out against their policy decisions. "It would be regrettable if there were other resignations, but this is an important point of principle," the spokesman added. "The government is absolutely committed to the importance of having independent advice and evidence presented by advisory bodies."

Nutt defended himself and attacked the government in a London Sunday times opinion piece. "My sacking has cast a huge shadow over the relationship of science to policy," he wrote. "Several of the science experts from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) have resigned in protest and it seems likely that many others will follow suit. This means the Home Office no longer has a functioning advisory group, which is very unfortunate given the ever-increasing problems of drugs and the emergence of new ones. Also it seems unlikely that any 'true' scientist -- one who can only speak the truth -- will be able to work for this, or future, Home Secretaries.

One of the ACMD members who resigned, chemist Les King, said ministers were putting inappropriate pressure on scientists to make drug policy decisions based on political -- not scientific -- reasons. "It's being asked to rubber stamp a predetermined position," he said, warning that others could leave the council over the brouhaha. "If sufficient members do resign, the committee will no longer be able to operate," King said.

Scientist and Labor MP Robert Winston said Nutt had a "very reasonable" point about the relative dangers of legal and illegal drugs, and that he was disappointed by the firing. "I think that if governments appoint expert advice they shouldn't dismiss it so lightly," he said. "I think it shows a rather poor understanding of the value of science."

Reuters reported Saturday that the firing is causing consternation in scientific circles. Scientists told the news agency the decision could undermine the integrity of science in policymaking, including critical areas like health, the environment, education, and defense.

"Scientific data and their independent interpretation underpin evidence-based policy making -- and nobody rational could possibly want a government based on any other type of policy making," said Chris Higgins, chair of an advisory committee on spongiform encephalopathy, or "mad cow" disease.

Maurice Elphick, a professor of animal physiology and neuroscience at Queen Mary, University of London, said politicians should look elsewhere if they wanted data to back social policies and allow science to maintain objectivity. "If, however, politicians really do want to have an objective assessment of the relative risks to health of different recreational drugs, then they should listen to what the medical scientist has to say, not sack him." he said.

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