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Congress: House Border Caucus Wants Half a Billion Dollars to Fight Mexican Narcos

Congressmen from districts along the US-Mexican border are asking for $500 million in emergency federal funds to fight the drug trade along the border. The request came last Friday in a letter from the House Border Caucus to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urging her to include immediate funding in an emergency supplemental spending package.

The letter requested:

  • $202.2 million to hire hundreds of additional US Border Patrol agents and inspection agents at ports of entry to alleviate understaffing.
  • $200 million to go toward replacing communications infrastructure used by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) along remote stretches of the border.
  • $50 million to go toward Operation Stonegarden, a federal program that assists local law enforcement in fighting violence and drug and weapon trafficking.
  • $39.6 million to screen all CBP agents to prevent infiltration and corruption efforts by cartels.
  • $10 million to compensate border region health care providers as they treat individuals wounded in Mexico who cross the border to seek treatment at US hospitals.

"The will of governments in communities in the US and Mexico to combat criminal elements is strong," said the letter written by Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-El Paso). "The United States Congress must continue to honor that resolve with needed funding to aid those serving on the front lines at this critical juncture."

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Merida Initiative photo (from state.gov)
The funding request comes as prohibition-related violence in Mexico continues unabated -- the official death toll now stands at more than 22,000 since 2006 -- and has attracted new concern in the US with attacks on US consulates in Mexico and the killing of three consular employees in Ciudad Juarez.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon, whose decision in December 2006 to go to war against the so-called cartels unleashed the current wave of violence, is coming to Washington next month to meet with President Obama and address both houses of Congress.

"We are hoping to get this funding to the border soon, and we are urging our leaders and colleagues to make it happen," said Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-TX). "We want to make sure our federal agents on the border have everything they need to protect themselves, to protect us and to protect the border."

"We want to make sure that the border law enforcement get as much support as they need," said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX). "They understand we're doing as much as we can from Congress to help them supplement the work they do."

Congress has already allocated at least $1.2 billion for anti-drug assistance to Mexico via the 2008 Plan Merida. This additional funding would come on top of that. And there's no guarantee that would be the end of it.

"Our first shot at doing this of course is with the appropriation's emergency funding... if we (get) part of it (at that time) we can always go to the second part which is the regular appropriations," Cuellar said in a telephone Tuesday with the Valley Morning Star. "I feel one way or another we will get a good share of what we are asking for."

Feature: Mixed Reactions to DC City Council's Medical Marijuana Regulations

The District of Columbia City Council Tuesday unanimously approved regulations for a DC medical marijuana program, but some patient and provider advocates are concerned the measure is too restrictive. The measure must be voted on again next month, and then approved by Congress under DC Home Rule law.

Under the measure approved by the council, DC residents who suffer from HIV, cancer, glaucoma, or a "chronic and lasting disease" will be able to possess up to two ounces of marijuana in a 30-day period after presenting a doctor's recommendation. Patients will not be able to grown their own medicine, but will be able to purchase it through one of five medical marijuana distribution centers. Patients, designated caregivers, and distributors will register with the city Department of Health and be provided with ID cards.

Distributors will be limited to growing no more than 95 plants and must be located at least 300 feet from schools. The original version of the legislation had a 1,000-foot location restriction, but that was reduced after advocates said it would make it nearly impossible to find suitable locations in the city.

"This legislation seeks to avoid problems while assuring the District moves forward with a medical marijuana program that is based on evidence and best practices," said council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the Health Committee.

The Tuesday vote is one of the last steps in the more than decade-long struggle to bring medical marijuana to the District. Voters approved a medical marijuana initiative with 69% of the vote in 1998, but DC officials were blocked from implementing the will of the voters by the Barr amendment, named after then Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA). That amendment was only removed last year, after Democrats regained control of the Congress. DC officials are counting on Congress to look the other way when asked to approve the measure later this year since federal law does not recognize medical marijuana.

While many medical marijuana supporters are happy with the measure, others fear it is so restrictive it will defeat its purpose. "We're happy that they passed it -- some cities have yet to enact any legislation -- but we have some concerns with the language that is currently in there," said Nikolas Schiller, secretary for the DC Patients' Co-op and member of Americans for Safe Access DC chapter. "There is no home cultivation for patients. In 1998, District residents voted legal cultivation at home, but this measure removes that language," he said.

"Patients can only use or possess cannabis at home," Schiller went on. "The council is coming from a perspective where they don't want coffee shops or places where people can medicate together, but this will be an onerous restriction on patients. People who rely on medication for work will have to leave work and go home to medicate."

Patient advocate and StoptheDrugWar.org assistant director David Guard took issue with the council's failure to include chronic pain in its list of allowable conditions. "Chronic pain isn't in there, and that's deplorable," he said. "In DC, 3% of the population suffers from HIV/AIDS, but according to national figures, 30% of the population suffers from chronic pain. I'm sick of people turning their backs on chronic pain."

Schiller also criticized the Council's decision to make distributors for-profit operations. "The original language allowed for nonprofit corporations, and Catania is on record as saying they only want to use best practices from other states, but only Colorado has the for-profit model included," he noted. "From a medical perspective, the for-profit model is seen as being part of the larger health care industry. People feel that for-profit distribution works against the best interests and needs of the patients and for the business's shareholders and boards of directors."

He also took issue with the 95-plant limit, saying it could prove insufficient for patient demand and that it could lead to distributors choosing fast-flowering strains instead of those best suited for patients. "The reality is that 95 plants will not be enough at the beginning because they won't know what the demand is," Schiller said. "If they can only grow 95 plants and it's a for-profit business, they will want to produce as much medicine as possible, leading to strains that grow quickly."

The council will vote again on the measure on May 4, and then Congress will have 30 days in which to approve it. That means DC could have a working medical marijuana system before year's end. It also means that advocates will have one more shot at getting a better program.

"We're thankful that the Council has been proactive and understands the need for medical marijuana," said Schiller. "We are hoping to influence the Council to change this for the better, and we are lobbying our elected officials to make those changes."

Medical Marijuana: Wisconsin Bill Dies as Session Ends

Medical marijuana advocates in Wisconsin have been working for a decade to get a bill passed there, and now they will have to wait at least one more year. The legislative session ended Thursday without the Assembly taking a vote on a bill that had already passed the Senate.

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Gary Storck leading IMMLY march, October 2009, Madison
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison), one of the main sponsors of the bill, issued a statement saying the bill would not go to the Assembly floor. "It is disappointing to many of us, myself included, that the legislature did not pass medical marijuana this session," he said. "But as I have assured the patient advocates, our efforts enjoyed many successes this year and we came closer to our goal than ever before. This fight is far from over because this issue is far too vital for too many people."

Medical marijuana patient and advocate Gary Storck of Is My Medicine Legal Yet?, the group leading the fight for the bill, told the University of Wisconsin independent daily The Badger Herald that while he was disappointed, he and others would be working through the summer to get referenda on local ballots in support of the issue and may even target specific legislators for defeat. "There's a lot of people in the legislature who just don't get it," Storck said. "We've come to the conclusion that if you can't change the law, maybe you have to change the legislature."

Storck speculated that many solons have errant perceptions of marijuana's harmfulness. "They've been so brainwashed that marijuana is some kind of dangerous, illegal drug, that it's hard for them to think outside the box," Storck said. "Cannabis won't kill you; it won't cause permanent damage. It's definitely something that should be out there."

Look for Storck and IMMLY to be back at again next year, and busy in the meantime laying the groundwork.

Latin America: 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 over 19,000 people, with a death toll of nearly 8,000 in 2009 and over 3,000 so far in 2010. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest of several 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:

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DEA Mexican drug cartel map
Thursday, April 15

In Acapulco, six people were killed during a shootout between federal police and drug traffickers suspected to be tied to Edgar Valdez Villareal. At least three of the dead were bystanders caught in the crossfire, among them a mother and her 8-year old child. One 26-year old individual was taken into custody.

Sunday, April 18

In Tepic, Nayarit, three men were killed at a funeral home. The men were paying respects to a suspected retail-level drug dealer that had been executed on Friday. In the previous few days, three other people thought to be involved in the Tepic drug trade had been gunned down. The killings are thought to be a power-struggle following the capture of several local bosses.

Monday, April 19

In Tamaulipas, a shootout occurred between the army and suspected drug traffickers. At least three gunmen were killed and at least four soldiers were wounded. Seventeen individuals were taken into custody. The battles began when gunmen attacked soldiers on a recon patrol in the city of Ciudad Aleman. The three gunmen were killed in the return fire. Thirty-two rifles were seized, as well as 7,000 rounds of ammunition and six vehicles.

In the city of Chihuahua, a former TV anchor was gunned down as she bought food from a street vendor. An unidentified young man that accompanied her was also killed. Isabella Cordova had previously been the main anchor on the Cada Dia television program, and more recently worked as the PR director for the Mexico City Chamber of Commerce. The two were attacked by gunmen wielding automatic weapons.

In Culiacan, Sinaloa, an inmate in prison for federal crimes was shot dead in his cell by at least two gunmen. In Guamuchil, Sinaloa, two people were murdered, including a female school teacher. Two people were killed in Mazatlan, and a police commander was killed in Michoacán. In Tijuana, one man was shot dead by customs officers, and in Jalisco, a police official was killed when assailants raked his home with gunfire.

Wednesday, April 21

In Cuernavaca, two men were found dead outside a bar. A note left at the scene claimed that 25 members of a group allied to Hector Beltran-Leyva are currently being held and interrogated in the city of Acapulco, after which they are to be executed. Cuernavaca has seen a rise in drug-related violence as US-born drug trafficker Edgar Valdez Villareal battles Hector Beltran-Leyva for control of the Beltran-Leyva organization, which was left without a leader following the December killing of Arturo Beltran-Leyva by Mexican naval commandos.

In Nuevo Leon, four police officers were wounded after the checkpoint they were manning was attacked by gunmen. In Leon, Guanajuato, two families were attacked by gunmen, leaving four dead and another wounded. In Michoacán, at least three people were killed, including a gunman who died during a clash with the army. At least four people were killed in Jalisco, three in Sinaloa, two in Tijuana. A union leader was gunned down in Guerrero, and two people were killed and another wounded after an incident in Acapulco.

In Monterrey, gunmen kidnapped six people from two hotels. Initial reports indicate that between 20 and 30 gunmen were led by a handcuffed captive to the fifth floor of the Holiday Inn, where they went room-to-room looking for specific individuals. Three male guests and a receptionist were taken, and another receptionist was taken from the Hotel Mision across the street. A private security guard who was posted outside the Holiday Inn is also reported missing, but it is unclear if he was kidnapped as well.

In the suburbs of Mexico City, gunmen clashed with soldiers, leaving two gunmen dead and another wounded. The incident came after soldiers launched a raid to capture Gerardo Alvarez Vasquez, a presumed member of the Beltran-Leyva Cartel. Vasquez, who was captured, is thought to be partly responsible for the wave of violence which has struck the states of Guerrero and Morelos recently.

Total Body Count for the last two weeks: 420

Total Body Count for 2010: 3,141

Total Body Count for 2009: 7,724

Total Body Count since Calderon took office: 19,452

Read the last Mexico Drug War Update here.

Public Opinion: California Support for Pot Legalization At 56% in New Poll

A SurveyUSA poll conducted this week for a consortium of California television stations showed majority support for marijuana legalization. An initiative that would do just that, Control and Tax Cannabis California 2019, will be on the ballot in November. The poll found that 56% of those surveyed responded affirmatively to the question, "Should the state of California legalize marijuana?" That's the same number as supported legalization in a Field poll a year ago this month. In this week's poll, only 42% answered negatively, with 3% undecided. People under 35 supported legalization by a margin of three-to-one (74%-25%), with support declining to 46% among the 35-to-49 age group, rising to 49% among the 50-64 group, then declining again to 39% among those 65 and older. Among all voters under age 50, support was at 61%, while among those over 50, it dropped to 46% The poll revealed a significant gender gap, with 65% of men supporting legalization, while a dramatically lower 46% of women supported it. That means legalization supporters will have to work to win over a key demographic. There was majority support for legalization among all ethnic groups except Hispanics, of whom only 45% wanted to free the weed. Support was highest among blacks (67%), followed by whites (59%), and Asians (58%). Somewhat surprisingly, there was majority support for legalization in all regions of the state, although only barely, except for the San Francisco Bay area, where support was at 65%. In Central California and the Inland Empire, support was at 54%, and in the Greater Los Angeles area, support was at 52%. The poll was conducted Tuesday and involved interviews with 500 adults across the state. It has a margin of sampling error of plus/minus 4.4%.
Location: 
CA
United States

Latin America: Coca Colla Goes On Sale in Bolivia

A coca-based soft drink went on sale in Bolivia this week. Coca Colla, made from the coca leaf and named after Bolivia's indigenous Colla people, is the latest manifestation of President Evo Morales' quest to expand legal markets for coca products.

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Coca Colla (photo via curiosaweb.com
The first batch of Coca Colla, about 12,000 half-litre bottles going for $1.50 each, went on sale in La Paz, Santa Cruz, and Cochabamba. Like Coca-Cola, it is black, sweet, and comes in a bottle with a red label. Unlike Coca-Cola, which originally used full-fledged coca leaf extract but began de-cocainizing it early in the company's history, Coca Colla is the real thing.

While Morales' government has vowed zero tolerance for cocaine, it has encouraged Bolivian companies to use coca in products including tea, syrups, toothpaste, liqueurs, candies, and cakes. The Bolivian government backed Coca Colla from the beginning. If Coca Colla and other coca products take off, the government could expand the amount of land authorized for legal coca production from the current 30,000 acres to as much as 50,000 acres.

"We are seeing how we can give it impetus, because the industrialization of coca interests us," the deputy minister of rural development, the BBC quoted the deputy minister of rural development, Victor Hugo Vázquez, as saying.

Five years ago, Paez indigenous people in Colombia launched a coca-based soft drink, Coca Sek. But that drink was banned in 2007 following pressure from the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), which enforces the international drug treaties that consider coca a drug. No word yet from the INCB on Coca Colla.

Marijuana Decriminalization: New Hampshire Bill Defeated in Senate Committee

A bill that would decriminalize the possession of a quarter-ounce or less of marijuana in New Hampshire appears dead this year after the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 5-0 Tuesday not to recommend it. The bill will still go before the full Senate, where it is expected to be defeated on a voice vote.

"It is now clear the bill will not become law this year, but it is also clear the discussion will continue," Matt Simon, director of the New Hampshire Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy, told the North Andover (Massachusetts) Eagle Tribune after the vote.

The bill, HB 1653, passed the House on a 214-37 vote earlier this year. But Senate Judiciary Committee members said the threat of a gubernatorial veto made it dead on arrival because the Senate has other legislation to which to attend.

Simon said the Senate vote was a minor setback and that medical marijuana and decriminalization bills will be back. The legislature already defeated a marijuana legalization bill this year, but will study the tax benefits of legalizing pot this summer.

Harm Reduction: Colorado Bill Would Legalize Needle Exchanges

Colorado is one of just 17 US states that do not allow needle exchanges, but that could change under a bill before the Colorado Senate. The bill, SB 189, would allow local health departments to exchange dirty needles for clean ones in a bid to slow the spread of blood-borne diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C among injection drug users.

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widely-used needle exchange graphic
The bill passed its first legislative hurdle Wednesday, passing out of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee with only two no votes. It now goes before the Senate for a floor vote.

"This is intended to be a public health measure to stop the spread of infectious diseases," lead sponsor Sen. Pat Steadman (D-Denver) told ABC 7 News.

But the bill is generating opposition from solons who fear it will enable drug use. "It does give kind of a wink and a nod towards the use of illegal drugs," said Sen. Kevin Lundberg (R-Berthoud), who opposes the measure. "My common sense says a needle exchange program is a de facto drug legalization and I'm not going to go there. We've got a problem with illegal drugs," he said. "Let's not make it worse by saying maybe, sort of, kind of, you can do it."

"No one's condoning illegal drug use," Steadman retorted. "No one's saying, 'Go have a good time.' What we're saying is, 'Please be safe.'"

Under current Colorado law, groups are allowed to collect used syringes, but not exchange them for clean ones. The only city in the state that allows for needle exchanges is Boulder, which passed a 1989 law exempting some groups from prosecution for doing exchanges.

That doesn't mean there is no needle exchange in Denver, the state's largest city. The Underground Syringe Exchange of Denver (USED) has been doing exchanges since 2008 and has handed out more than 11,000 needles to drug users.

"We remove syringes off the streets of Denver," said USED member Chris Conner. "They wind up in our dumpsters. They wind up thrown away in public bathrooms or discarded in parks," he said. "So this is a public health issue for all of us."

Prohibition: Contaminated Drug Supply Threatening Cocaine Users in North America, Heroin Users in Europe

Problems with contaminated drug supplies reemerged on two fronts this week, with health authorities in Scotland announcing another case of anthrax among heroin users and health authorities in Quebec warning that cocaine continues to be contaminated with levamisole, a veterinary de-worming agent.

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anthrax spores
In a press release issued last Friday, Health Protection Scotland announced the first anthrax case among heroin users in the Edinburgh area had been confirmed. That brings to 33 the number of confirmed cases among heroin users, all but two of them in Scotland. One was reported in Germany and one in London. Eleven people have died of anthrax from tainted heroin, 10 of them in Scotland.

"There is no way to tell if your heroin is contaminated and there is no way to take heroin which we can advise is safer or less likely to result in illness or death if it has anthrax contamination," warned Dr. Colin Ramsey, consultant epidemiologist for Health Protection Scotland. "Drug users are advised that the only way to avoid the risk of anthrax in this outbreak is not to take heroin. While we appreciate that this may be extremely difficult advice to follow, it remains the only public health protection advice possible due to the nature of anthrax infection."

Such advice dismays harm reductionists, who have called for more informational campaigns and the prescribing of pharmaceutical heroin to addicts.

Users should seek urgent medical attention in the event of symptoms such as redness or swelling at or near an injection site, or other symptoms of general illness such a fever, chills or a severe headache, as early antibiotic treatment can be lifesaving, Health Protection Scotland said. Marked swelling of a limb which has been used as an injection site is a particularly important sign of possible anthrax infection.

Meanwhile, in Montreal, the National Public Health Institute of Quebec has issued a report on levamisole contamination in cocaine (sorry, French only) in the province. According to that report, eight out of 10 blood samples taken from known cocaine users in Quebec contained the cutting agent.

When ingested by humans, levamisole can cause nausea, dizziness, and diarrhea. Chronic use can lead to neutropenia, a potentially lethal blood disorder, or a related condition, agranulocytosis.

The US DEA first reported the presence of levamisole in cocaine in 2002 and its use is on the rise. In November 2009, Center for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services published a survey indicating that 70% of cocaine seized in the US contained levamisole.

Medical Marijuana: Arizona Initiative Appears Headed for November Ballot

An initiative that would legalize medical marijuana in Arizona appears headed for the November ballot after organizers handed in some 252,000 signatures to state officials Wednesday. The initiative needs 153,365 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.

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coming your way on election day
The initiative, known as the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, would allow terminally and seriously ill patients to use marijuana with their doctors' approval. Patients and caregivers could procure medical marijuana at regulated clinics, but could grow it themselves only if they are located more than 25 miles from a clinic.

"We are proud to turn in these signatures today on behalf of the thousands of patients in Arizona who will benefit from this law once it is enacted," said Andrew Myers, campaign manager for the Arizona Medical Marijuana Policy Project. "People suffering from multiple sclerosis, cancer, AIDS, and other serious illnesses should not be forced to seek on the streets the medicine they and their doctors know they need. This initiative proposes instead a dispensary system that will give patients safe and reliable access to medical marijuana if they possess a doctor's recommendation to use it. We look forward to qualifying for the ballot and bringing our message to voters over the coming months."

If the initiative qualifies, that will mean two states will be voting on medical marijuana this year. An initiative in South Dakota has already made the ballot.

If Arizona voters approve the initiative in November -- and support for medical marijuana is running at 65% in the state -- that would mean medical marijuana would be legal all the way from the Pacific Coast to the Texas border. Arizona borders California, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. Only the latter state does not have legal medical marijuana.

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