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Sinaloa Cartel Dominates Meth Trade, Report Finds

Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel dominates the methamphetamine trade in the Asia-Pacific-Mexico-US area, controlling 80% of the market, according to a Mexican security report released this week.

"El Chapo" Guzman makes billions off drug prohibition.
The report, "Methamphetamine Traffic: Asia-Mexico-United States," by researcher Jose Luis León, was presented as part of the 2012 Security and Defense Atlas of Mexico (both are in Spanish), which was released this week. It estimates the Sinaloa Cartel's take from meth sales at about $3 billion a year.

The Sinaloa Cartel, Mexico's most powerful, is headed by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, one of the world's wealthiest criminals, as well as Mexico's most wanted fugitive. Guzman has eluded capture since escaping from a Mexican prison in 2001. The US Treasury Department considers Guzman the most powerful drug trafficker in the world.

The Sinaloa Cartel has been a leading actor in the prohibition-related violence that has plagued Mexico, especially since former President Felipe Calderon declared war on the cartels in December 2006. At least 70,000 have been killed in the violence, much of which pits the Sinaloa Cartel against national-level competitors such as the Zetas, as well as against regionally-based rivals.

"The Sinaloa cartel is an authentic global enterprise since both their markets and products exhibit a high degree of diversification," León said in his report.

In addition to methamphetamine, the Sinaloa Cartel traffics cocaine, marijuana, and opiates throughout North America, Europe, Australia and Asia. It also purchases precursor chemicals from China, India, and Thailand, which in uses in drug production laboratories hidden away in the cartel's Western Mexican heartland.

Mexico City
Mexico

Colombia's FARC Wants Legal Coca Cultivation

In peace talks in Havana Tuesday, Colombia's FARC guerrillas called on the Colombian government to consider legalizing coca cultivation. The proposal was part of the FARC's broader proposal on agrarian development and land reform.

FARC negotiator Rube Zamora (pazfarc-ep.blogspot.com)
The proposal came one day after the FARC ended its self-imposed cease-fire (the Colombian government never agreed to a cease-fire during the peace talks) and launched a series of attacks on security forces, leaving at least one soldier dead.

The FARC is a socialist político-military formation that has been in rebellion against the central government in Bogota since 1964. Its military strength seems to have peaked about a decade ago, but it remains a potent forcé in some sectors of rural Colombia.

After first opposing the cultivation of coca among the peasantry, it gradually shifted to supporting and taxing it, and the group has had some involvement in the cocaine trade as well. Colombia is either the world's largest or second largest coca and cocaine producer, depending on which figures you believe. That's despite more than $7 billion in US anti-drug and counterinsurgency assistance since 1999 and massive, years-long aerial fumigation campaigns.

In its agrarian reform proposal, FARC negotiator Rube Zamora called on the government to "contemplate actions regarding the cultivation of illicit crops to transition toward substitute or alternative production or for their legalization for medicinal or therapeutic ends or cultural reasons."

More broadly, the FARC called for the creation of a "land bank" of unused or underused areas that could be distributed to landless peasants and for a more democratic method of rural planning. The land would include "latifundia," or large rural estates, confiscated from drug traffickers. The proposal marks a retreat from the previous FARC position that called for the seizure and redistribution of all latifundia.

There is no word on the Colombian government's response to the proposals. Both parties in the talks have agreed not to talk publicly about their progress. They restarted Tuesday after going on hiatus for the Christmas holidays.

Havana
Cuba

Chronicle Review Essay: Opium Dreams

Opium: Reality's Dark Dream, by Thomas Dormandy (2012, Yale University Press, 366 pp., $40.00 HB)

Opium Fiend: A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction, by Steven Martin (2012, Villard Books, 400 pp., $26.00 HB)

Social Poison: The Culture and Politics of Opiate Control in Britain and France, 1821-1926, by Howard Padwa (2012, Johns Hopkins University Press, 232 pp., $55.00 HB)

Ah, blessed opium, the beloved bringer of sweet relief from pain, of the body or the soul, the deliverer of bliss and sweet surcease from suffering. From it and its derivatives come the most effective pain relievers known to man. Morphine, codeine, Percocets, Lortabs, Vicodin, Oxycontin, hydrocodone, Fentanyl and rest of the opiates and opioids (synthetic opiates) fill the medicine cabinets of those dying of cancers and other horrifyingly painful conditions and they work wonders with acute pain, from a broken limb to dental surgery, turning agony into pleasantly numb nirvana.

But, oh, cursed opium, death with a needle in its arm, and a trail of wasted junkies left like whispering wraiths in its lee. Thief not only of lives, but also of souls as those in her thrall bend before the sultry temptress enslaved before her insatiable demands.

Opium -- inspiration of writers and artists, tool of physicians, cash crop for peasant farmers, boon of the pained, bane of the moralist. Prototypical commodity of global trade, subject of wars, and funder of armies.

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It's safe to say we have a love-hate relationship with papaver somniferum, the opium poppy. And, as Thomas Dormandy points out in his magisterial history Opium: Reality's Dark Dream, it goes back a long way. Poppy seeds were found in the excavation of a lakeside Swiss village dated to 6000 BC, and the use of the poppy as medicine was part of Egyptian practice as early as 4500 BC. (Interestingly, concern about its deadly and addictive properties came only much later, although, in a gripe that could have come from the online comment section of any newspaper today, grumpy old man Cato the Elder complained about doped-up youth hanging around the Forum in imperial Rome.)

Dormandy takes the reader from that prehistoric Swiss village to the poppy fields of Afghanistan, carrying us along with a graceful narrative and subtle wit as he surveys colonial machinations and imperial intrigue, evolving medical knowledge, literary and artistic output associated with the poppy, and opium's own transformation from consumed resin to alcohol-based tincture (laudanum) to smoked opium (curiously thanks to Dutch and British sailors who brought their new-found tobacco smoking habits, perhaps with a pinch of poppy thrown in, and paraphernalia to the Far East, which didn't have tobacco, but did have plenty of opium to smoke), on to injectable morphine, "heroic" heroin, and now, the newer synthetic opioids.

Along the way, we check in with doctors and scientists, junkies and kings, de Quincey and Coleridge and the the tubercular Romantics. Dormand surveys some well-trodden territory, but brings to the subject refreshing insights and entrancing prose. And he is a model of moderation.

He is loathe to cheerlead for legalization, given the downsides of death and addiction, but is equally skeptical of claims that prohibition -- short of the Maoist model, which even China couldn't get away with now -- can somehow make the poppy and its derivatives go away.

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/opium-fiend.jpg
"Criminalization is justified if it deters potential delinquents and protects the innocent," he writes. "Little if any evidence suggests that current legislation does either."

Dormandy's main prescription -- education, and presumably, prevention -- is unlikely to satisfy partisans on either side of the policy debate, but may, after decriminalization and adoption of a public health approach, be the best we can hope for in the foreseeable future.

Steven Martin's Opium Fiend is not a history of opium, although it contains plenty, but a fascinating memoir of his journey from nerdy teenage compulsive collector to full-blown chaser of the dragon in the back alleys and hidden byways of Southeast Asia. Martin made a career for himself writing for off-the-beaten-path travel series, such as the Rough Guides and Lonely Planet, but his obsession was collecting, and he eventually turned to collecting the paraphernalia of opium smoking.

From collecting opium pipes to seeing how they actually work is a very short leap, one that Martin was quick to take, once he managed to find some of the last real-life opium dens left in the region (and some of the characters who inhabited them). And before he realized it, he had become enslaved to the pipe.

Or had he been liberated? As his world shrank to the confines of his Bangkok apartment and the home of his fellow pipe-head and opium supplier (another American expatriate and antiquities expert whose death in US detention casts a somber shadow over the tale), he congratulated himself on his withdrawal from -- and rejection of -- what he increasingly saw as a brutal and thuggish world. "There was euphoria in what felt like the ultimate act of rebellion against modern society," he wrote. "Opium was setting me free."

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Except it wasn't, as his ghastly recounting of his efforts to kick the habit demonstrated. What was once liberation was now addiction. But how much of Martin's addiction was tied up with his own obsessive-compulsive personality?

Martin's memoir combines the typical obsessive descriptions of drug effects with a survey of the broader historical and cultural traditions surrounding opium, as well as the (surprisingly brief; it was largely extinguished a century ago) history of opium smoking, as well as taking the reader into the strange world of collecting Asian antiques. Opium Fiend is a worthwhile, engaging, and enlightening read, and stands not only as a valuable contribution to the literature of opiate use, but on its own literary merits.

Howard Padwa's Social Poison will attract a much more limited audience, and that's too bad. While it concentrates on the rather esoteric topic of 19th Century approaches to opiate control in Britain and France, it, too, provides interesting insights on the politics of drug control. But this has the appearance of a PhD dissertation turned into a book, and its likely readership is probably a very small number of graduate students in related subjects--who will probably only check it out from university libraries, given its $55.00 price tag.

Still, Padwa is able to disentangle various threads and offer an explanation for the divergent courses of the two countries. While Britain demonstrated an amenability to opiate maintenance and its practitioners, France has historically come down firmly on the side of criminalizing opiate users and the doctors who prescribed to them. Padwa traces the divergence to national conceptions of citizenship and the shifting nature of the drug-using populations in the two countries. His comparative study is well-constructed, and its a shame few are likely to ever even pick up the book.

Opium and its derivatives remain both bane and boon. Prescription pain pills (opiates) are driving the current drug overdose epidemic in the US. At the same time, they are bringing blessed relief to pain sufferers. Opium production is putting foods in the mouths of families in Afghanistan and Myanmar. At the same time, it is corrupting governments and buying guns to fight remote wars. Cheap heroin is creating new generations of addicts. At the same time, it is in some ways making bearable the misery in the lives of the miserable.

Now, if we can only figure out how to end opium (and opiate) prohibition without being engulfed by the downside of opiate use. As Dormandy noted, in 18th and 19th Century England, laudanum was viewed as mother's little helper; it sent baby to sleep. But sometime baby never woke up.

Bolivia Rejoins UN Drug Treaty, Sans Coca Ban

Bolivia will rejoin the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs after its bid to rejoin with a reservation that it does not accept the treaty's requirement that "coca leaf chewing must be banned" was successful last Friday. Opponents needed one-third of the 184 signatory countries to object, but fell far, far short despite objections by the US and the International Narcotics Control Board.

The re-accession marks the end of a process that began in 2009. Bolivia attempted to amend the Single Convention, and when that effort was blocked by the US and mostly Western European nations, it withdrew from the Convention with the intent to rejoin with the reservation that it did not accept the language on coca.

Coca, from which cocaine is derived, has been used as a stimulant and appetite suppressant for thousands of years in South American's Andean region. The Bolivian government of President Evo Morales considers coca part of its national patrimony.

The Bolivian reservation applies only on Bolivian territory, and the export of coca remains proscribed under the Convention.

The nations that objected to Bolivia's reservation mainly objected on procedural grounds, though some worried that it could lead to an increase in coca production. Only Sweden objected on the basis that coca leaf chewing should be abolished, arguing vainly that "the ambition expressed in the convention is the successive prohibition also of traditional uses of drugs."

"The objecting countries' emphasis on procedural arguments is hypocritical. In the end this is not about the legitimacy of the procedure Bolivia has used, it is not even really about coca chewing," according to Martin Jelsma, coordinator of the Transnational Institute's Drugs and Democracy program. "What this really is about is the fear to acknowledge that the current treaty framework is inconsistent, out-of-date, and needs reform."

The Institute noted that Bolivia's success can be an example for other regional countries where traditional use of the coca leaf is permitted, including Argentina, Colombia, and Peru, to challenge the Single Convention on coca. It also called for the World Health Organization to undertake a review of coca's classification as a Schedule I drug under the Convention.

"Those who would desperately try to safeguard the global drug control system by making it immune to any type of modernization are fighting a losing battle," according to John Walsh, director of the Washington Office on Latin America drug policy program. "Far from undermining the system, Bolivia has given the world a promising example that it is possible to correct historic errors and to adapt old drug control dogmas to today’s new realities."

Vienna
Austria

US, Few Others Object to Bolivia UN Coca-Chewing Bid

Five Western countries -- the US, Canada, Britain, Italy, and Sweden -- have formally objected to Bolivia's rejoining the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs with a reservation that allows for the traditional habit of coca leaf chewing, the Transnational Institute reported last Friday. The move is the latest twist in the Latin American nation's effort to remove the international proscription on the ancestral habit.

coca plant (UNODC)
But the Western objections are far from sufficient. Another 58 signatory countries would have to object by next week to block Bolivia's bid, and there is little sign of that happening.

[Update: On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin submiltted a bill to the Duma objecting to Bolivia's reservation, but it wasn't clear if that amounted to a formal objection.]

Coca leaf, the raw material from which cocaine is produced, has been used with little ill effect as a hunger-suppressant and mild stimulant for thousands of years in South America's Andean region. It was included as a proscribed substance in the 1961 Convention based on a 1950 study that has been found to be unscientific and blatantly prejudiced. The 1961 Convention called for the chewing of coca leaf to be phased out by 1989.

Led by former coca grower union leader Evo Morales, Bolivia tried in 2011 to amend the 1961 Single Convention to remove the provision requiring it to ban coca leaf chewing. If no countries objected, the request would have been automatically granted, but the US, supported by the International Narcotics Control Board organized a "friends of the convention" group to rally against the move. In all, 18 countries objected to Bolivia's request.

Among Latin American countries, only Mexico's conservative government objected. Colombia objected at first, but withdrew its objection, while Costa Rica, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Venezuela went on record supporting Bolivia's request even though they weren't required to. The objecting countries were all European, except for Canada and the US and Japan and Singapore.

Following the failure of its effort to amend the 1961 Convention, Bolivia withdrew from it and requested re-accession with a reservation regarding the coca chewing provision. The Convention allows for such a procedure, which can be blocked only if one-third of the member states object. There are 184 countries that have signed the Convention, meaning 62 must object to stop Bolivia's re-accession.

So far, just a few have done so. Other countries have only until January 10 to weigh in.

Vienna
Austria

HuffPost Live on Mexican Drug War and Security, 11:30am EST TODAY

I am participating on a HuffPost Live panel starting at 11:30am EST this morning: Is Mexico's Security Policy Failing?

Update: The archive is already online, embedded below. The link from the live broadcast is also the permalink.

The panel was hosted by commentator Alicia Menendez, and I shared the panel with Alejandro Hope of the Instituto Mexicano para la CompetividadProf. John Ackerman of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, and former ONDCP official Paul Chabot.

Chronicle Review Essay: What Next for Mexico?

The Fire Next Door: Mexico's Drug Violence and the Danger to America by Ted Galen Carpenter (2012, Cato Institute, 307 pp., $24.95 HB)

Drug War Mexico: Politics, Neoliberalism, and Violence in the New Narcoeconomy by Peter Watt and Roberto Zepeda (2012, Zed Press, 260 pp., $24.95 PB)

As of this month, Felipe Calderon has finished his term as president of Mexico, and while history may prove kinder in the long run, he leaves office known as the man who plunged his country into a drug war. Some 50,000 people, or is it 60,000 or 70,000? -- nobody seems to know for sure -- have been killed in the multi-sided conflict since Calderon, in almost the opening act of his administration, deployed the army against the so-called cartels six years ago.

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Thousands more have disappeared. The Mexican government says it has 9,000 unidentified corpses. The addition of tens of thousands of Mexican army troops and federal police into conflict-ridden cauldrons like Ciudad Juarez or Michoacan where intra-cartel violence ran rampant only seemed to jack up the number of killings. Cartel-linked corruption plagues the police forces and tarnishes the not-so-sterling reputation of the Mexican military.

Calderon's throwing the military into the fray and his strategy of attempting to decapitate the cartels by going after their top leadership have produced some results -- the government proudly says 25 of 37 top capos have been captured or killed -- but have clearly failed to destroy the cartels, stop the traffic of drugs into the US, or reduce the horrendous levels of violence. He -- and the country -- have also paid a disastrous price, not just in terms of lives lost, but in public cynicism and insecurity, loss of confidence, international dismay and disgust, and domestic political capital.

Indeed, only a dozen years after "the perfect dictatorship" of the PRI fell in disgrace at the hands of Vicente Fox and the PAN, Calderon and the PAN are out, and the PRI is back. Calderon's disaster of a drug war and steady increase in violent crime in general while he was preoccupied fighting the cartels certainly deserve credit, if that is the word, for the return of the rejected.

Now, Calderon's successor, the PRIista Enrique Pena Nieto, has a chance to change course, and his administration has made no secret it wants to. Just this week, Pena Nieto's secretary of the interior, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, bitterly attacked Calderon's US-backed strategy for causing violence to increase, saying its decapitation strategy had only fractured the cartels, making them "more violent and much more dangerous." The new government will abandon that strategy and instead concentrate on reducing violent crime affecting ordinary civilians, Osorio Chong and Pena Nieto have said.

But having a smarter drug war is not going to get the job done, argues libertarian-leaning Cato Institute senior fellow for defense and foreign policy studies Ted Galen Carpenter in The Fire Next Door. He rather convincingly makes the case that there is no solution to the Mexican drug war short of ending drug prohibition and sucking the money out the multi-billion dollar black market business in the substances we love to consume north of the border. Only then will the cartels be weakened enough to recede as a threat to Mexico and to the US, which as his subtitle indicates, is the real focus of his concern.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/drug-war-mexico-politics-neoliberalism-and-violence-in-the-new-narcoeconomy.jpg
British academics Peter Watt and Roberto Zepeda are Carpenter's polar opposites in terms of ideological orientation, but in Drug War Mexico, they arrive at some similar policy prescriptions, at least when it comes to drug prohibition itself. "If the illegal narcotics were decriminalized and stringently controlled, it is likely cartel profits would be severely constrained," they write.

But even that would not suffice, they argue. Legalization is probably a pipe dream for now, and even were it to occur, "it would not necessarily on its own present a long-term answer to the institutional corruption and the eruption of violence in the last few years," they write, noting that drug revenues now make up only about half of cartel earnings, and that legalization does nothing in itself to address the broader economic and political problems that allow the illicit drug business to flourish in the first place.

And that's where they part ways with Carpenter. For Watt and Zepeda, Mexico's "narcoeconomy" is a manifestation of its insertion into the global capitalist economic order, which is the main problem. For Carpenter, global capitalism, the free market, neo-liberalism, whatever you want to call it, is just the status quo.

Thus the differences. Carpenter sees legalization as a market-based solution to the problem of Mexico's drug violence, while Watt and Zepeda see the free market as the problem, legalization as no better than a partial solution to Mexico's drug violence, and fundamental social and economic reform as the necessary precondition.

Differences notwithstanding, both Carpenter and Watt and Zepeda provide histories of drug trafficking in Mexico, the complicity of the state and other actors, and the ins and outs of the cartel wars, and both cast a leery eye on US policies toward Mexico and its drug wars. The US has backed Calderon's militaristic approach with hundreds of millions of dollars in mostly military and law enforcement aid under Plan Merida. Carpenter views this as dangerously empowering the military against civilian institutions, while Watt and Zepeda see it as backing a Mexican ruling class strategy of using the military to repress and intimidate political opposition in the guise of the drug war.

Both are valuable contributions to the ever-growing bibliography of Mexico's prohibition-induced dance of death. Carpenter's primary concern is from a US national security perspective, and his examination of the dangers of the violence left unchecked for the US is sobering. His concentration on the US also leads him to focus like a laser on calling for ending prohibition in the US, after which surely others will follow.

Watt and Zepeda do especially well in unraveling the networks of complicity that embed the Mexican drug trade squarely within the larger economy and polity, and make an especially strong case that the Sinaloa Cartel has received favorable treatment from various state actors. They also deserve kudos for clarifying just how exhaustively and effectively the former PRI-state did not so much repress as manage the drug trade during its tenure.

Those "good old days" of Mexican drug trafficking, where the violence was kept within limits, where the occasional exemplary bust of drug lord kept the Americans at bay, where the drugs flowed quietly and the money accumulated in the pockets of policemen, politicians, and army officers, doesn't look so bad now. That's one strong reason we're starting to hear a lot of talk about reaching an accommodation with the cartels or, more pejoratively, appeasement.

Will Pena Nieto and the PRI cut a deal with the cartels? As Carpenter notes, things have changed. The unitary PRI-state is no more; the number of parties and players who would have to be cut in has grown, and whatever deals are done could be undone in the next election. And the US certainly wouldn't approve. Still, Pena Nieto seems to be signaling to the cartels at least a truce of sorts: "You don't mess with us (by killing, kidnapping, and extorting the good people) and we won’t mess with you (by trying to decapitate your leadership).

That would be a very uncomfortable accommodation, but short of ending drug prohibition, it may be the best Mexico can hope for, at least in the short run. Let's see if the crime rate starts to drop, the grisly killings grow less frequent, the "neutralization" of drug bosses less frequent. There will certainly be no public pronouncement.

But that's a bargain with the devil. Perhaps Mexico can live with the tamed cartels and their insidious corruption, but if it's going to get serious about eliminating their wealth and power, the only answer is increasingly clear, whether you're on the left ,the right, or in the middle.

The Top Ten Drug Policy Stories of 2012 [FEATURE]

In some ways, 2012 has been a year of dramatic, exciting change in drug policy, as the edifice of global drug prohibition appears to crumble before our eyes. In other ways it is still business as usual in the drug war. Marijuana prohibition is now mortally wounded, but there were still three-quarters of a million pot arrests last year. The American incarceration mania appears to be running its course, but drug arrests continue to outnumber any other category of criminal offense. There is a rising international clamor for a new drug paradigm, but up until now, it's just talk.

The drug prohibition paradigm is trembling, but it hasn't collapsed yet -- we are on the cusp of even more interesting times. Below, we look at the biggest drug policy stories of 2012 and peer a bit into the future:

1. Colorado and Washington Legalize Marijuana!

Voters in Colorado and Washington punched an enormous and historic hole in the wall of marijuana prohibition in November. While Alaska has for some years allowed limited legal possession in the privacy of one's home, thanks to the privacy provisions of the state constitution, the November elections marked the first time voters in any state have chosen to legalize marijuana. This is an event that has made headlines around the world, and for good reason -- it marks the repudiation of pot prohibition in the very belly of the beast.

And it isn't going away. The federal government may or may not be able to snarl efforts by the two states to tax and regulate legal marijuana commerce, but few observers think it can force them to recriminalize marijuana possession. It's now legal to possess up to an ounce in both states and to grow up to six plants in Colorado and -- barring a sudden reversal of political will in Washington or another constitutional amendment in Colorado -- it's going to stay that way. The votes in Colorado and Washington mark the beginning of the end for marijuana prohibition.

2. Nationally, Support for Marijuana Legalization Hits the Tipping Point

If Colorado and Washington are the harbingers of change, the country taken as a whole is not far behind, at least when it comes to public opinion. All year, public opinion polls have showed support for marijuana legalization hovering right around 50%, in line with last fall's Gallup poll that showed steadily climbing support for legalization and support at 50% for the first time. A Gallup poll this month showed a 2% drop in support, down to 48%, but that's within the margin of error for the poll, and it's now a downside outlier.

Four other polls released this month
demonstrate a post-election bump for legalization sentiment. Support for legalization came in at 47%, 51%, 54%, and 57%, including solid majority support in the West and Northeast. The polls also consistently find opposition to legalization strongest among older voters, while younger voters are more inclined to free the weed.

As Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown put it after his survey came up with 51% support for legalization, "This is the first time Quinnipiac University asked this question in its national poll so there is no comparison from earlier years. It seems likely, however, that given the better than 2-1 majority among younger voters, legalization is just a matter of time."

Caravan for Peace vigil, Brownsville, Texas, August 2012
3. Global Rejection of the Drug War

International calls for alternatives to drug prohibition continued to grow ever louder this year. Building on the work of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy and the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the voices for reform took to the stage at global venues such as the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, in April, the International AIDS Conference in Washington in July, and at the United Nations General Assembly in September.

While calls for a new paradigm came from across the globe, including commissions in Australia and the United Kingdom, this was the year of the Latin American dissidents. With first-hand experience with the high costs of enforcing drug prohibition, regional leaders including Colombian President Santos, Guatemalan President Perez Molina, Costa Rican President Chinchilla, and even then-Mexican President Calderon all called this spring for serious discussion of alternatives to the drug war, if not outright legalization. No longer was the critique limited to former presidents.

That forced US President Obama to address the topic at the Summit of the Americas and at least acknowledge that "it is entirely legitimate to have a conversation about whether the laws in place are doing more harm than good in certain places" before dismissing legalization as a policy option. But the clamor hasn't gone away -- instead, it has only grown louder -- both at the UN in the fall and especially since two US states legalized marijuana in November.

While not involved in the regional calls for an alternative paradigm, Uruguayan President Mujica made waves with his announcement of plans to legalize the marijuana commerce there (possession was never criminalized). That effort appears at this writing to have hit a bump in the road, but the proposal and the reaction to it only added to the clamor for change.

4. Mexico's Drug War: The Poster Child for Drug Legalization

Mexico's orgy of prohibition-related violence continues unabated with its monstrous death toll somewhere north of 50,000 and perhaps as high as 100,000 during the Calderon sexenio, which ended this month. Despite all the killings, despite Calderon's strategy of targeting cartel capos, despite the massive deployment of the military, and despite the hundreds of millions of dollars in US aid for the military campaign, the flow of drugs north and guns and money south continues largely unimpeded and Mexico -- and now parts of Central America, as well -- remain in the grip of armed criminals who vie for power with the state itself.

With casualty figures now in the range of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars and public safety and security in tatters, Calderon's misbegotten drug war has become a lightning rod for critics of drug prohibition, both at home and around the world. In the international discussion of alternatives to the status quo -- and why we need them -- Mexico is exhibit #1.

And there's no sign things are going to get better any time soon. While Calderon's drug war may well have cost him and his party the presidency (and stunningly returned it to the old ruling party, the PRI, only two elections after it was driven out of office in disgrace), neither incoming Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto nor the Obama administration are showing many signs they are willing to take the bold, decisive actions -- like ending drug prohibition -- that many serious observers on all sides of the spectrum say will be necessary to tame the cartels.

The Mexican drug wars have also sparked a vibrant and dynamic civil society movement, the Caravan for Peace and Justice, led by poet and grieving father Javier Sicilia. After crisscrossing Mexico last year, Sicilia and his fellow Mexican activists crossed the border this summer for a three-week trek across the US, where their presence drew even more attention to the terrible goings on south of the border.

5. Medical Marijuana Continues to Spread, Though the Feds Fight Back

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have now legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes, and while there was only one new one this year, this has been a year of back-filling. Medical marijuana dispensaries have either opened or are about to open in a number of states where it has been legal for years but delayed by slow or obstinate elected officials (Arizona, New Jersey, Washington, DC) or in states that more recently legalized it (Massachusetts).

None of the newer medical marijuana states are as wide open as California, Colorado, or Montana (until virtual repeal last year), as with each new state, the restrictions seem to grow tighter and the regulation and oversight more onerous and constricting. Perhaps that will protect them from the tender mercies of the Justice Department, which, after two years of benign neglect, changed course last year, undertaking concerted attacks on dispensaries and growers in all three states. That offensive was ongoing throughout 2012, marked by federal prosecutions and medical marijuana providers heading to federal prison in Montana. While federal prosecutions have been less resorted to in California and Colorado, federal raids and asset forfeiture threat campaigns have continued, resulting in the shuttering of dozens of dispensaries in Colorado and hundreds in California. There is no sign of a change of heart at the Justice Department, either.

6. The Number of Drug War Prisoners is Decreasing

The Bureau of Justice Statistics announced recently that the number of people in America's state and federal prisons had declined for the second year in a row at year's end 2011. The number and percentage of drug war prisoners is declining, too. A decade ago, the US had nearly half a million people behind bars on drug charges; now that number has declined to a still horrific 330,000 (not including people doing local jail time). And while a decade ago, the percentage of people imprisoned for drug charges was somewhere between 20% and 25% of all prisoners, that percentage has now dropped to 17%.

That decline is mostly attributable to sentencing reforms in the states, which, unlike the federal government, actually have to balance their budgets. Especially as economic hard times kicked in in 2008, spending scarce taxpayer resources on imprisoning nonviolent drug offenders became fiscally and politically less tenable. The passage of the Proposition 36 "three strikes" sentencing reform in California in November, which will keep people from being sentenced to up to life in prison for trivial third offenses, including drug possession, is but the latest example of the trend away from mass incarceration for drug offenses.

The federal government is the exception. While state prison populations declined last year (again), the federal prison population actually increased by 3.1%. With nearly 95,000 drug offenders doing federal time, the feds alone account for almost one-third of all drug war prisoners.

President Obama could exercise his pardon power by granting clemency to drug war prisoners, but it is so far a power he has been loathe to exercise. An excellent first candidate for presidential clemency would be Clarence Aaron, the now middle-aged black man who has spent the past two decades behind bars for his peripheral role in a cocaine deal, but activists in California and elsewhere are also calling for Obama to free some of the medical marijuana providers now languishing in federal prisons. The next few days would be the time for him to act, if he is going to act this year.

7. But the Drug War Juggernaut Keeps On Rolling, Even if Slightly Out of Breath

NYC "stop and frisk" protest of mass marijuana arrests
According to annual arrest data released this summer by the FBI, more than 1.53 million people were arrested on drug charges last year, nearly nine out of ten of them for simple possession, and nearly half of them on marijuana charges. The good news is that is a decline in drug arrests from 2010. That year, 1.64 million people were arrested on drug charges, meaning the number of overall drug arrests declined by about 110,000 last year. The number of marijuana arrests is also down, from about 850,000 in 2010 to about 750,000 last year.

But that still comes out to a drug arrest every 21 seconds and a marijuana arrest every 42 seconds, and no other single crime category generated as many arrests as drug law violations. The closest challengers were larceny (1.24 million arrests), non-aggravated assaults (1.21 million), and DWIs (1.21 million). All violent crime arrests combined totaled 535,000, or slightly more than one-third the number of drug arrests.

The war on drugs remains big business for law enforcement and prosecutors.

8. And So Does the Call to Drug Test Public Benefits Recipients

Oblivious to constitutional considerations or cost-benefit analyses, legislators (almost always Republican) in as many as 30 states introduced bills that would have mandated drug testing for welfare recipients, people receiving unemployment benefits, or, in a few cases, anyone receiving any public benefit, including Medicaid recipients. Most would have called for suspicionless drug testing, which runs into problems with that pesky Fourth Amendment requirement for a search warrant or probable cause to undertake a search, while some attempted to get around that obstacle by only requiring drug testing upon suspicion. But that suspicion could be as little as a prior drug record or admitting to drug use during intake screening.

Still, when all the dust had settled, only three states -- Georgia, Oklahoma, and Tennessee -- actually passed drug testing bills, and only Georgia's called for mandatory suspicionless drug testing of welfare recipients. Bill sponsors may have been oblivious, but other legislators and stakeholders were not. And the Georgia bill is on hold, while the state waits to see whether the federal courts will strike down the Florida welfare drug testing bill on which it is modeled. That law is currently blocked by a federal judge's temporary injunction.

It wasn't just Republicans. In West Virginia, Democratic Gov. Roy Tomblin used an executive order to impose drug testing on applicants to the state's worker training program. (This week came reports that only five of more than 500 worker tests came back positive.) And the Democratic leadership in the Congress bowed before Republican pressures and okayed giving states the right to impose drug testing requirements on some unemployment recipients in return for getting an extension of unemployment benefits.

This issue isn't going away. Legislators in several states, including Indiana, Ohio, Texas, and West Virginia have already signaled they will introduce similar bills next year, and that number is likely to increase as solons around the country return to work.

9. The US Bans New Synthetic Drugs

In July, President Obama signed a bill banning the synthetic drugs known popularly as "bath salts" and "fake weed." The bill targeted 31 specific synthetic stimulant, cannabinoid, and hallucinogenic compounds. Marketed under brand names like K2 and Spice for synthetic cannabinoids and under names like Ivory Wave, among others, for synthetic stimulants, the drugs have become increasingly popular in recent years. The drugs had previously been banned under emergency action by the DEA.

The federal ban came after more than half the states moved against the new synthetics, which have been linked to a number of side effects ranging from the inconvenient (panic attacks) to the life-threatening. States and localities continue to move against the new drugs, too.

While the federal ban demonstrates that the prohibitionist reflex is still strong, what is significant is the difficulty sponsors had in getting the bill passed. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) put a personal hold on the bill until mandatory minimum sentencing requirements were removed and also argued that such efforts were the proper purview of the states, not Washington. And for the first time, there were a substantial number of Congress members voting "no" on a bill to create a new drug ban.

10. Harm Reduction Advances by Fits and Starts, At Home and Abroad

Harm reduction practices -- needle exchanges, safer injection sites, and the like -- continued to expand, albeit fitfully, in both the US and around the globe. Faced with a rising number of prescription pain pill overdoses in the US -- they now outnumber auto accident fatalities -- lawmakers in a number of states have embraced "911 Good Samaritan" laws granting immunity from prosecution. Since New Mexico passed the first such law in 2007, nine others have followed. Sadly, Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the New Jersey bill this year.

Similarly, the use of the opioid antagonist naloxone, which can reverse overdoses and restore normal breathing in minutes, also expanded this year. A CDC report this year that estimated it had saved 10,000 lives will only help spread the word.

There has been movement internationally as well this year, including in some unlikely places. Kenya announced in June that it was handing out 50,000 syringes to injection drug users in a bid to reduce the spread of AIDS, and Colombia announced in the fall plans to open safe consumption rooms for cocaine users in Bogota. That's still a work in progress.

Meanwhile, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs unanimously supported a resolution calling on the World Health Organization and other international bodies to promote measures to reduce overdose deaths, including the expanded use of naloxone; Greece announced it was embracing harm reduction measures, including handing out needles and condoms, to fight AIDS; long-awaited Canadian research called for an expansion of safe injection sites to Toronto and Ottawa; and Denmark first okayed safe injection sites in June, then announced it is proposing that heroin in pill form be made available to addicts. Denmark is one of a handful of European countries that provide maintenance doses of heroin to addicts, but to this point, the drug was only available for injection. France, too, announced it was going ahead with safe injection sites, which could be open by the time you read this.  

This has been another year of slogging through the mire, with some inspiring victories and some oh-so-hard-fought battles, not all of which we won. But after a century of global drug prohibition, the tide appears to be turning, not least here in the US, prohibition's most powerful proponent. There is a long way to go, but activists and advocates can be forgiven if they feel like they've turned a corner. Now, we can put 2012 to bed and turn our eyes to the year ahead.

Another Reason for Mexico to End Its Drug War

2008 Dia Mundial de la Marijuana (Global Marijuana Day), March, Mexico City
Along with catalyzing devastating violence that has claimed 60,000 lives thus far, there's another good reason for Mexico to end its ill-fated drug war -- they are massively abusing the human rights of large numbers of their citizens. A report by the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (Centro de investigación y docencia en económicas, CIDE) and the Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law (Colectivo de Estudios Drogas y Derecho, CEDD), highlighted on the Open Society Foundations Global Drug Policy Program web site, has found that most drug investigations in Mexico are for possession and consumption:

[I]n 2010, the crimes of possession and consumption accounted for 71 percent of all drug-related investigations initiated by the Public Prosecutor’s Office (Ministerio Público). Of all the rulings (convictions or acquittals) issued in 2010 for drug-related crimes, 18,343 -- 80.7 percent -- were for a single crime, meaning that no other crime was committed apart from the drug offense for which the person was sentenced or absolved.
 

The report also found disproportionate punishment for persons convicted of nonviolent distribution offenses:

[T]he maximum prison sentence for the crimes of production, commerce, supply, and trafficking of drugs -- all non-violent crimes -- is more than the maximum sentence established for violent crimes, including intentional homicide, rape -- both of minors and adults -- and robbery. The maximum prison sentence established for rape among adults is 11 years shorter than the maximum sentence established for drug offenses, and the maximum sentence established for robbery is 15 years, 10 years less than for drug crimes.
 

We see this kind of reversal of justice in the United States, of course, through the much-criticized sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimums. Mexico's public prosecutor's office does not seem more able or inclined to target its resources toward violent crime or the highest levels of the drug trade then the US Dept. of Justice does.

Of course in Mexico they have a full-blown crisis of drug trade violence -- prompting many Mexicans to call for legalization or at least a serious examination of it. So far the incoming president has vowed to continue to pursue the same strategies that led to the crisis, and it sounds like he has the full support of the prosecutor's office. But eventually things have to give.

Amnesty Raps Mexico on Human Rights Abuses in Drug War

Mexico must take decisive action to rein in systematic and widespread use of torture, ill-treatment, and other human rights abuses, which have increased dramatically since outgoing President Felipe Calderon unleashed the military to fight the country's so-called cartels nearly six years ago, Amnesty International said in a report released last Thursday.

Mexican military displaying detainees (sedena.gob.mx)
The report, Known Abusers, But Victims Ignored: Torture and Ill-Treatment in Mexico, documents the increase of cases of torture and ill-treatment by the police and military forces, the lack of effective investigations and almost total lack of prosecutions, and the juridical weaknesses and lack of political will that allow such abuses to go unpunished and even allow testimony obtained through torture to be used to convict its victims.

An estimated 60,000 people have been killed and another 160,000 displaced in prohibition-related violence in Mexico since Calderon made waging the drug war the centerpiece of his then new administration in December 2006. The cartels are responsible for much of the mayhem, but as the violence intensified, human rights complaints filed with federal authorities have more than quadrupled, from 392 in 2007 to 1669 in 2011. Nearly 5,000 federal complaints have been filed overall, and those are just the cases when someone bothered to go through the formality of a process that too often produces no results.

And, the Amnesty report shows, it is mainly just a formality. According to the report, federal prosecutors prosecuted no torture cases in 2007 or 2008, one in 2009, and filed four more in 2010. Similarly, the number of state level torture prosecutions can be counted in the single digits each year since 2007.

"The Calderón administration has effectively turned a blind eye to the 'torture epidemic' we've been witnessing in Mexico," said Rupert Knox, an Amnesty International Mexico researcher. "The protection of human rights has been ignored or sidelined in favor of the government's strategy of militarized combat of organized crime and drug cartels. Across Mexico criminal suspects often face detention and trial on the basis of evidence obtained under torture and ill-treatment while prosecutors and courts fail to question seriously information or evidence obtained in this manner."

Miriam Isaura López Vargas is a case in point. She was arbitrarily detained in Ensenada, Baja California, on February 2, 2011. During interrogation in a military barracks in Tijuana by a civilian federal prosecutor, members of the army reportedly sexually assaulted her, subjected her to near asphyxiation and stress positions, and threatened her in order to coerce her into signing a confession falsely implicating other detainees in drug trafficking offenses.

"I heard a man scream many times, they kept on asking him, 'Where are the guns, where are the drugs?' A bit later I heard 'Take him away and bring me the next one.' I heard them open a door," Lopez Vargas recounted. "They put a wet cloth over my face, when I tried to breathe. I felt the wet cloth, it became difficult to breathe, I then felt a stream of water up my nose, I tried to get up but couldn't because they had me held down by my shoulders and legs… someone was pressing down on my stomach, they did this repeatedly as they kept on asking the same questions."

A week later, she was transferred to Mexico City and held without being brought before a judge until April 26, 2011, when she was charged with drug offenses. The following month, the case against her collapsed, and she was released by a federal judge. She filed a complaint alleging she was tortured; it has yet to be acted on.

The involvement of the Mexican military in the Lopez Vargas is not unusual. Across Mexico,  military personnel performing policing functions have held thousands of suspects in military barracks before presenting them to prosecutors. In this context, there have been numerous reports of torture and ill-treatment while in military custody.

"Federal authorities have shown an absolute lack of leadership to combat torture and ill-treatment seriously at the state level or federal level," said Knox. "The only way to tackle torture and ill-treatment is by ensuring that all cases are properly investigated and those responsible, brought to justice. In a letter sent to Amnesty International, Mexican President elect Enrique Peña Nieto committed to implement policies and take action to end torture, we urge the authorities to abide by their promises."

Mexico

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