(formerly The Week Online with DRCNet)
Issue #391 -- 6/17/05
"Raising Awareness of the Consequences of Drug Prohibition"
Table of Contents
The US House of Representatives Wednesday turned back a measure that would have barred the use of federal funds to go after sick people using pot. The vote came just a week after the US Supreme Court gave federal drug law enforcers the okay to resume arresting and prosecuting medical marijuana patients and providers in states where it is legal. The Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment, named after cosponsors Reps. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), would have amended the Justice Department appropriations bill for the next fiscal year. But when the smoke cleared after a half-hour of debate Wednesday morning, the measure was defeated by a margin of 161-264.
While a defeat, Wednesday's vote showed a slow but steady increase in support for medical marijuana on Capitol Hill. The vote count is up by 13 votes over an identical proposal last year.
"Drug czar Walters said medical marijuana was dead as a political issue after the Raich decision, but a week after the Supreme Court decision came down, Congress allocated a lot of time to the issue, and we picked up 13 more votes than last year," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance, who has been working the Hill on the issue. "It is notable how seriously Congress took this issue," he told DRCNet. "Last year, we only got 10 or 15 minutes; this year only one other amendment out of 440 got more time than Hinchey-Rohrabacher."
"While we're disappointed that the amendment did not pass, a record 161 House members voted today to stop arresting medical marijuana patients," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project in a statement after the vote. "There have been only four House floor votes on medical marijuana in the history of the country, and this one was our best ever."
The House voted 311-94 to oppose medical marijuana in a 1998 non-binding resolution. For the last three years, it has voted on amendments identical to this year's Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment, with support dipping slightly last year from 2003's 152 votes in favor. At the same time, opposition to medical marijuana has declined slightly from 273 votes against in 2003 to 268 last year and 264 this year.
The House vote comes in the face of broad public support for medical marijuana, demonstrated most recently with a Mason-Dixon poll released this week. In that poll, 68% of respondents agreed that "the federal government should not prosecute medical marijuana patients," while only 16% said it should.
"With over four-to-one public support for ending medical marijuana arrests, it's astounding that 264 House members would vote to spend taxpayer money to arrest medical marijuana patients in violation of states' rights," said Kampia.
Debate on the measure ran largely as expected, with familiar faces on both sides of the issue staking out their positions. One notable exception was first-time vocal support for the measure by Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). "This is just the compassionate way to go," she said. "Compassion is a bipartisan value. We must not make criminals of seriously ill people."
"It is unconscionable that we in Congress could possibly presume to tell a patient that he or she cannot use the only medication that has proven to combat the pain and symptoms associated with a devastating illness," said amendment sponsor Rep. Hinchey.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), sponsor of the "States' Rights to Medical Marijuana Act," chided lawmakers about the more hysterical claims of opponents. "This is not a bill to make marijuana generally available and it is not a bill to put it in baby formula," he said.
While Democratic supporters of the amendment emphasized compassion, Republican chief cosponsor Rep. Rohrabacher appealed to more conservative sentiments among his colleagues. "Let's not have a power grab by the federal government at the expense of those poor patients and the right of doctors trying to make these decisions," said Rohrabacher.
But hard-line drug warriors led by Rep. Mark Souder, chair of the House Government Operations Committee's Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources subcommittee, were un-swayed by appeals to conservative principle. "Marijuana has never been proven as safe and effective for any disease," he claimed. "Marijuana can increase the risk of serious mental health problems, and in teens, marijuana use can lead to depression, thoughts of suicide, and schizophrenia."
Doctors who recommend marijuana to patients are "quacks," Souder said, comparing pot to the snake oil medicines purveyed a century ago. Besides, there is always Marinol, the FDA-approved drug containing THC, the most active cannabinoid in marijuana. "You isolate the chemicals to treat the disease, you do not smoke pot," he said.
Rep. Steven King (R-IA) reprised the familiar warning that this was just the camel's nose under the tent. If the amendment passed, King suggested, next thing you know hippies will be smoking joints everywhere. "It's seeking to establish a small sliver of marijuana [in federal law]," he warned, "and eventually be able to legalize this substance."
"Congress is still driven by a fairly narrow ideology when it comes to these issues and influenced by a mythology that has been promulgated for decades," said the Drug Policy Alliance's Piper. "It is not yet ready mentally and psychologically to take a step like this, but we are getting closer, and momentum is on our side. Every poll taken shows that the citizenry understands that the sick people should be able to get the relief cannabis can provide. Congress will come around."
In the meantime, said Piper, the vote sends a warning shot over the bow of the DEA. "The DEA has to understand that raiding patients has political consequences," he said, "and 161 legislators have just told them they don't like it."
And despite drug czar Walters' fond wishes, the battle over access to medical marijuana continues. "The next step is to pass the medical marijuana bills pending in New York and Rhode Island, enact medical marijuana laws in several other states early next year, and then win on Capitol Hill next summer when the House votes on medical marijuana again," said MPP's Kampia. "The momentum is clearly on our side, and we'll keep fighting until Congress listens to the American people and ends this cruel and needless war on the sick."
Thursday, June 9, was just another day in the war on drugs in Austin, the capital city of Texas. A city as racially segregated as any, Austin is bisected north to south by the towering, double-decked Interstate 35, a concrete barrier that very cleanly marks the divide between the primarily white -- or "Anglo," as they say in Texas -- west side of the city and predominantly black and Hispanic East Austin. It was in shabby subdivisions of southeast Austin that Thursday evening that 18-year-old Daniel Rocha died, his heart penetrated by a single slug fired at point blank range by Austin police officer Julie Schroeder -- into his back.
As the officers questioned passengers, one of them bolted, and, according to Schroeder, she tried to get Rocha to stay in the car, yelling commands such as "stay where you are" and "don't run." But Rocha instead lunged at her, knocking her to her knees, and they struggled until Officer Doyle joined the fray. Then, Schroeder said, she reached for her Taser to subdue Rocha, and when she realized it was missing, feared Rocha would get possession of it and turn it against herself and Doyle, so she shot him once.
"Her fear was that he was about to disable the sergeant and that since the two of them hadn't been able to control him, that she wasn't going to be able to do it alone," an anonymous police source told the Austin American-Statesman early this week. "At that point, she really believed that Don Doyle was about to be Tased and disabled and that a weapon either could be used on her or him or both."
But Schroeder's account was immediately challenged by eyewitnesses to the incident. "He [Doyle] had his hand on his back and her [Schroeder] knee on his back. By then, he lifted up his shirt and said 'I don't have nothing,' and that's when I heard the gunshot go off," one witness told the American-Statesman.
"There was not a struggle. I did not see a struggle," said eyewitness Tamara Thompson.
"All of a sudden she just grabbed him, put him down there and threw him on the floor," witness Sonya Lopez told the newspaper. "I thought they were going to try to put handcuffs on him... and all of a sudden, the shot just went off."
Rocha's family has hired Austin attorney Bobby Taylor, who told the American-Statesman he had talked to those witnesses. "Two witnesses said they saw police grab Daniel Rocha out of the car and throw him on the ground," Taylor said Monday. "One of the witnesses heard Rocha yelling, 'I don't have a weapon. I don't have a gun.' You don't shoot someone in the back when they're laying on the concrete, saying 'I don't have a gun,'" Taylor said.
For what it's worth, an autopsy on Rocha showed no trace of drugs in his system and no signs of struggle, according to Travis County Medical Examiner Robert Bayardo. As for the "drug activity" that precipitated the encounter, the Austin police said they found a small amount of "narcotics," but the American-Statesman described the stash as a small amount of "a leafy green substance."
Rocha's killing over a pittance of pot is bad enough by itself. But it is only the latest in a series of controversial police killings in Austin dating back to December 2000, when Austin police participating in a local drug task force shot and killed 19-year-old Antonio Martinez, who was unarmed and sleeping on a couch at a friend's house when a SWAT team burst through the door. Seconds later he was dead. At least four other Austin residents besides Rocha -- all black or Hispanic -- have been killed under questionable circumstances by Austin police since then, and 11 Austinites have been killed by police since 1998.
The department didn't improve its reputation with an increasingly edgy and fearful minority population when 10 officers were caught making racist and other "inappropriate" remarks on their police radios the night a popular black nightclub, Midtown Live, burned down in March. The uproar over the revealing peek into Austin's cop culture eventually forced Chief Stan Knee to seek a US Department of Justice review of the department. That review, which is also looking into yet another Austin police killing, is ongoing.
Over the weekend, as the police department stonewalled, community outrage grew. On the corner where Rocha died, a memorial appeared, as well as a sign marking it "D. Rocha's Corner." Signs began to appear in the neighborhood with messages such as "Guns Don't Kill People. Cops Do" and "Administrative Duty Isn't Justice," a reference to Schroeder's current status as departmental and grand jury investigations are underway.
"This is an ongoing problem," said Gloria Terrazas, one of Rocha's neighbors, referring to what she viewed as police using unnecessary force. "The police always seem to get away with it," she told the American-Statesman.
The Austin Police Association stood by one its own, asking the public to await the result of the investigations. "We have a process that's in place. We have the criminal investigation by our homicide unit. We have the professional standards and policy review by our internal affairs," said association vice president Wuthipong Tantaksinanukji, "and then we have the grand jury proceedings. And I just ask the public just to hold judgment until all the process is gone through to make this an impartial case."
But with trust in the department and its officers eroded by the killings, some are now calling for an independent investigation. "There are things that need to be brought out, and unfortunately, the Austin Police Department's history in investigating themselves is not the best," said Rocha family attorney Taylor. "So, we're going to try and get other people to look at the facts here and see what occurred."
Two Hispanic organizations, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and El Concilio, a coalition of Austin Mexican-American neighborhood associations, are calling on the US Justice Department to investigate. The shooting has raised community tensions, said LULAC spokesman Marcos DeLeon. "The way we see it, if a crime was committed here, then it should be prosecuted. And many of us feel that way -- the community feels that way. This was an innocent young person and he was shot. He was shot. And there must be some kind of resolve here," DeLeon said.
"We are now feeling unsafe in our own community and fear that we are not being provided protection and safety by our police department," Gavino Fernandez of El Concilio said.
On Monday, more than a hundred people including numerous Rocha family members attended a protest rally at police headquarters demanding justice in the Rocha case. Led by the East Austin environmental and social justice group People Organized for the Defense of Earth and her Resources and the Austin NAACP, the demonstrators called for police restraint and accountability. "They're not white and on the west side of Austin. They are youth of color that are forcefully tortured, killed and criminalized, and it's not fair. We need to stop this now before another one of our youth gets hurt," PODER spokesperson Erika Gonzalez said.
"We should have a police policy that says people not armed should be disabled, not shot and killed. We've been saying this for three years now, and obviously we think this should have been avoided," NAACP President Nelson Linder said.
"This very quick resort to violent, lethal force by police has been an increasing problem in the last couple of years," said PODER's Carmen Llanes. "The communities are wondering why this keeps happening. There are constant problems with our young people being harassed and profiled, and it is now getting to a lethal point," she told DRCNet. "Remember, Daniel Rocha was unarmed and hadn't been arrested, but he ends up being shot in the heart. It ruptured his aorta; he died almost immediately. This is completely unacceptable," she said.
"A lot of the problems come from drug law enforcement. People in our communities are more likely to be seen as suspects in drug crimes without any evidence," said Llanes. "There are a lot of assumptions made that smack of racial profiling. All the kids think the police have it out for them, so there is an increasingly hostile relationship between police and community residents. They don't feel the police are there to protect them," she said. "Instead, the police are out there going after them."
All the heat prompted typically uncommunicative Austin Police Chief Knee to try to cool things down Tuesday, but it's unclear whether he succeeded. Instead of addressing concerns about police violence in Austin's minority communities, Chief Knee defended his officer. "An officer has the right to go home at night. An officer has the right to protect themselves and to overcome resistance to arrest," Knee said.
Rocha family attorney Bobby Taylor had a different take. "I think every police officer has a right to go home at night, and I think every civilian has a right to go home at night. Police officers are civilians who have special duties, special responsibilities. But that doesn't mean you kill somebody to assure yourself the right to go home at night," Taylor said.
The police homicide investigation should be completed next week, when it will be turned over to a Travis County grand jury. If the grand jury feels the investigation was lacking, it can open its own investigation. Officer Schroeder also faces an internal affairs investigation after the criminal investigation.
In late news, the US Justice Department Thursday ordered the FBI to investigate Rocha's death. But even that news wasn't enough to placate an angry crowd of community residents who gathered Thursday night for Austin Police Department forum on the shootings to pepper Chief Knee with jeers and hostile questions. Anger over the Rocha killing continues to build.
Still, long-time readers of Drug War Chronicle will not be holding their breath waiting for an indictment, let alone a conviction for the police shooter.
For the first time since the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s was at its height, the number of people in the United States has climbed over a million, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Monday. There is good news and bad news. The good news is that part of the increase in people with HIV is because with new drugs on the market, people with the virus are living longer. The bad news is that new HIV cases continue to occur at a rate of about 40,000 a year since the late 1990s, with some experts estimating that the number could be closer to 60,000 a year.
Worse news is that new HIV cases related to injection drug use account for somewhere around one-half of all new HIV cases, while federal officials turn a blind eye to harm reduction measures, such as needle exchange programs, that have been repeatedly proven to reduce the rate of HIV infections.
According to the CDC, somewhere between 1.04 million and 1.19 million people in the US were living with HIV in December of 2003. The most recent previous estimate, from 2002, put the number at between 850,000 and 950,000.
"It is estimated that half of all new HIV infections in the US are occurring among injection drug users (IDUs)," noted the University of California at San Francisco's Center for AIDS Prevention Studies, based on data from the late 1990s. "For women, 61% of all AIDS cases are due to injection drug use or sex with partners who inject drugs. Injection drug use is the source of infection for more than half of all children born with HIV." IDUs made up 36% of all HIV-infected persons, that report found.
Relying on somewhat more recent numbers from the CDC, the center also found that when it comes to people living with AIDS, IDUs accounted for 28% of the new cases and 36% of the cumulative total. Women and minorities are disproportionately affected by IDU-related AIDS. According to the center, 31% of Latino AIDS cases were IDU-related, 26% of black AIDS cases were IDU-related, and only 19% of white cases were IDU-related. For women, a shocking 62% of all AIDS cases are attributable to either personal injection drug use or having a partner who is shooting dope.
But despite the enormous impact of injection drug use on HIV infection rates, dealing with the problem through scientifically proven methods such as needle exchanges is being ignored by officials and downplayed by some AIDS organizations. The national CDC conference on HIV prevention held this week in Atlanta didn't even have syringe access or harm reduction on the agenda.
"We could completely eliminate HIV among injection drug users if they were given access to sterile syringes through paraphernalia law reforms or needle exchange programs," said Allan Clear, executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition. "It has already worked dramatically here in New York City, where we have brought the number down from 60% to 16%," he told DRCNet.
"It would really help if the federal government would lift the ban on funding for syringe exchanges," concurred Alisa Solberg of the North American Syringe Exchange Network, an umbrella group representing the more than 200 needle exchanges currently operating in the US, some legally, others underground.
While that message seems to be getting through to the larger AIDS community to a limited degree -- the Campaign to End AIDS, for instance, includes a demand for ramped up prevention efforts "guided by science rather than ideology" -- a Wednesday evening appearance on PBS's News Hour by the CDC's Dr. Ron Valdeserri and the Black AIDS Institute's Phill Wilson made clear the degree to which injection drug users are the red-headed stepchildren of the AIDS movement. In the 15 minute discussion of HIV prevention, the words "drug users" were mentioned only once in passing by Wilson and not at all by Valdeserri, who made only a fleeting reference to "high risk groups." Similarly, needle exchange and harm reduction never came up -- a striking omission when we are talking about half of all new HIV infections. (Black AIDS' Wilson was traveling back from the conference late this week and unavailable to comment on the omission.)
The oppressive political atmosphere in Washington is having an impact on science and policy, said Clear, who spent most of this week in Atlanta attending the conference. "I've been talking to people who work for the federal institutions, and no one doubts that needle exchange works, but because of the political atmosphere, they cannot promote it or even use the term except very guardedly. If you look at the topic and subject categories for this conference, you won't find the words 'needle exchange,' 'syringe exchange,' or 'harm reduction,'" he noted. "This is total censorship, it is politics over science every time. It must be really frustrating. You have these trained scientists at CDC who know what the truth is, but they cannot speak it."
Any help on the score at the federal level appears a distant mirage, said Clear. "There is no will whatsoever at the federal level to reduce or eliminate HIV infections among drug users," he said. "Right now, it appears that the congressional attitude toward needle exchange programs is that they are something that should be done away with."
The head-in-the-sand attitude toward preventing IDU-related HIV infections is part of a larger, abstinence-based conservative vision, Clear argued. "The people who run the federal government are opposed to sexuality, they are opposed to measures that could reduce harm, whether it is supplying condoms to teenagers or syringes to drug users. This is all part and parcel of the same conservative agenda."
"This is not a time when we can be silent about federal inaction," said Clear. "We have to attack them. They are already attacking us. Tens of thousands of drug users are dead when they didn't have to be."
We admit it: We don't like the US Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA. It is, after all, the lead federal government agency enforcing drug prohibition. But we always assumed that at the least the agency and its employees were sincere about their task: drastically reducing drug consumption in the United States. But an unofficial web site for former and current DEA employees to vent their frustrations provides a most illuminating and stomach-churning window into the mentality of at least some DEA employees.
Most of the comments are of the "complaining about the boss around the water cooler" variety, as participants grumble about supervisors and programmatic decisions within DEA. But while the misogyny, fascination with race, and overall thuggishness of much of the commentary is deplorable, it was the sheer cold-blooded cynicism of posts in a thread which began June 11 on the Daily Field Report page (scroll down to June 11) that really jumped out.
Responding to a wire service report that scientists in Colombia had developed a moth that could destroy the country's coca crop, some posters responded in a most surprising fashion to what would seem to be potential good news for the agency and its mission.
Under the heading "Colombia eggheads scheme to put DEA out of business," one anonymous poster wrote: "Word on the street is a group of Colombian scientists are developing a moth they call "Noyesi's" to wipe out cocaine production by eating the plant. Should this scheme succeed cocaine as we know it could be history... and a good portion of our work could be wiped out in a matter of months. Should cocaine and all of its related narcotics disappear, our nation, and others, could suffer a serious economic recession. Needless to say, should this insect plan prove effective in Colombia, some wise-a** bright boy will develop a bug that will devour opium poppies. Such a disaster will truly send our agency up S**t Creek... Without heroin and coke to do battle with we will be left with only marijuana, meth and the piddly-a** drugs. [Asterisks in the original.]
Not to worry, responded another post on the thread. While "inexpensive science has the potential of achieving what billions of dollars spent on law enforcement has failed to accomplish for decades" and "the next 'Drug War' we fight may be the war we fight to preserve our paychecks," there is hope on the horizon -- if agents play it smart:
"That is why we need to get behind President Bush's goal of outlawing all, repeat all, forms and reasons for abortion," the poster suggested. "With abortion, birth control (bc) pills and emergency bc outlawed a new, underground illegal drug industry will spring up overnight. This industry will be fueled by thousands of chemistry and pre-med majors making bc drugs and devices in their labs, garages and attics. Hundreds of thousands of pervert fathers and serial rapists who want to impregnate their daughters and/or as many women possible before getting caught won't care about finally getting caught as long as they know they will leave behind dozens of rape-babies that the new Bush Abortion Laws will prohibit being aborted. Advocates of anti-abortion laws that include rape and incest pregnancies will say: 'Even incest and rape babies are children that God wants.'"
In this author's apocalyptic vision, "Thousands of nurses will moonlight as abortionists. And almost every women's gym, diet center and beauty salon will provide abortion services or referrals to their most loyal and trusted clients. The illegal abortion industry will do for DEA what cocaine and heroin never could because not everyone will use those two drugs... but everyone screws. Science will one day do away with heroin and cocaine, but nothing will do away with sex. We need to support our president's anti-abortion agenda to save our jobs, to guarantee our children's and grandkid's college tuitions, but most of all... to preserve our Gold Badge."
While some later posters responded with bizarre and very ugly rape fantasies tangentially connected to the abortion theme, at least one poster counseled discretion. Although he agreed with the abortion-ban-as-DEA-job-security-program scenario, he did "take issue with the writer's public celebration of the pending evolution."
"I don't think that it is a good idea for one among us to telegraph our feelings on what could be a new and exciting frontier for DEA that would perpetuate our jobs for decades into the future. I, for one, have young children and I am counting on my DEA paycheck to put them through college, just as all of my predecessors in this job pulled their punches and dragged their feet on thousands of cases to ensure that cocaine, heroin and other drugs didn't disappear... So, I cannot disagree with the writer who says we should look at our agency more as a retirement system than a job, but I don't think it's a very good idea to say this publicly. There are some secrets that are best kept to ourselves... particularly when we're all laughing our way to the bank with great paychecks."
Typical DEA attitude? Hopefully not -- but possibly. In any case, your drug war tax dollars at work.
Another week, another batch of prohibition-related tales of law enforcement corruption. A sheriff on the border succumbs to temptation, a prosecutor in San Francisco trades leniency for crank, two jail guards in New Jersey see their retail operation crash and burn, and a love-struck West Virginia cop makes a bad choice. Let's get to it:
In Brownsville, Texas, former Cameron County Sheriff Conrado Cantu and four others, including two sheriff's department employees, were charged June 9 with massive, systematic corruption that netted them tens of thousands of dollars. According to a federal indictment released that day, a continuing criminal enterprise led by Cantu provided information about drug investigations and offered protection to drug traffickers and the operators of an illegal gambling operation. According to the indictment, one defendant told a convicted drug dealer Cantu would let him escape for $50,000. In another incident, the department seized $25,000 in purported drug money from a government snitch, whom one of the defendants told that the department "helped" traffickers and Cantu wanted the money as a "protection" payment. Cantu faces eight counts, including conspiracy to possess marijuana and cocaine with intent to distribute, extortion, money laundering, obstruction, and operating a continuing criminal enterprise. He is in jail and looking at up to 35 years in prison. The others face similar charges.
In San Francisco, Assistant District Attorney Robert Roland, 34, was arrested June 11 on federal corruption charges. Roland is accused of arranging a light sentence -- no jail time -- for a drug-dealing defendant in exchange for free drugs. According to the indictment, Ryan Nyberg was looking at felony meth and ecstasy dealing charges when an acquaintance of Roland's, Eric Shaw, hooked the two up. Prosecutors cited text messages from Nyberg such as one saying "I need 80 bucks to get the meds for the DA" and another one saying he had to run to "the district attorney's house." The day after that message, Nyberg delivered dope to Roland three times, the indictment alleges. Roland now faces conspiracy charges, as well as a count of lying to investigators when he said he did not use drugs. His attorneys say he is being set up by Nyberg, who is cooperating with federal officials and has accepted a sealed plea bargain in a separate case.
In Essex County, New Jersey, corrections officers Malcolm Hughes and Derrick Reynolds were charged Monday with smuggling drugs into the county jail. According to the Newark Star-Ledger, authorities expect more arrests to follow. After a two-month investigation, Hughes was searched as he came to work last Friday and was found to be carrying marijuana and Ecstasy, prosecutors said in a Monday news conference. Reynolds was also found in possession of marijuana and Ecstasy and was arrested last Saturday. Hughes had 23 grams of pot in three separate bags, while Reynolds had 7 grams in nine bags. [Ooh! And he was ripping off the prisoners!] The pair had 14 Ecstasy tablets between them. Prosecutors alleged that the pair were working with street gangs to smuggle drugs, cell phones, tobacco, and other contraband into the jail. Also arrested was a Newark women described as the girlfriend of an imprisoned Bloods gang member who directed drug sales in the jail.
In Charleston, West Virginia, former police officer William Hart, 44, was sentenced to five years of probation June 11 for letting a woman in a drug case keep money that should have been seized. The 24-year-veteran was apparently blinded by love instead of greed. He let Rachel Ursala Rader keep $3,000 that had been hidden by her former husband, who is serving a life sentence on drug trafficking charges because he was romantically involved with her, he told the court. He was later briefly married to her. The 24-year veteran officer was charged in April 2003 with one misdemeanor count of theft of government property and pled guilty in January.
On the same day the US House of Representatives voted to fund federal raids on medical marijuana patients in states where it is legal, legislators in a Rhode Island House of Representatives committee voted overwhelmingly to approve a bill, HB 6502, that would add Rhode Island to that list. A companion measure passed the state Senate last week, and the only legislative hurdle now facing the bill is a final vote in the full House. With 50 of 75 House members signed on as cosponsors, the bill appears headed for victory at the statehouse.
But Republican Gov. Donald Carcieri has threatened to veto the bill and, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, which has been working closely with local activists on the measure, Carcieri's office has been giving medical marijuana supporters who call "rude treatment." MPP responded by debuting a TV ad campaign Wednesday that asks Rhode Islanders to call the governor and ask him to support the medical marijuana bill.
The ads feature Rhode Island registered nurse Rhonda O'Donnell, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and who testified at earlier hearings in support of the bill. In one ad, O'Donnell talks about her father, who once used marijuana to ease the pain of cancer. "People shouldn't have to fear arrest for trying to alleviate their pain," she said. A second spot shows O'Donnell discussing her own medical problems and urging voters to call the governor's office.
The ads have caused a response, the Pawtucket Times reported Thursday. A spokesman for Gov. Carcieri told the Times the office had received 174 phone calls on the issue Wednesday, "a very significant number of calls in one day." But when asked if the voter interest would sway the governor's thinking, he replied in one word: "No."
"The momentum for compassionate medical marijuana legislation in Rhode Island is tremendous," said Neal Levine, MPP director of state policies. "Rhode Island moved another giant step toward protecting its most vulnerable citizens today. Hopefully, the governor will follow the lead of the people, the legislature, and the state's leading medical organizations and support this bill."
No sign of that yet, but with the bill yet to pass the house and end up on the governor's desk, there is still time to change his mind.
Hawaii US Attorney Ed Kubo ignited a firestorm of protest last week with his comments in the wake of the Supreme Court's Raich decision, which held that the federal government could indeed prosecute medical marijuana patients and providers even in states where voters have approved it. According to Kubo last week, the ruling meant that Hawaii's medical marijuana law was "dead" because doctors who must recommend the drug could now be prosecuted for doing so.
After a week's worth of stinging criticism from the likes of the ACLU of Hawaii, which threatened to file a lawsuit, Kubo has backed down. Late last week, Kubo announced that he will not seek a list of doctors who certify marijuana for their patients, nor will he attempt to prosecute doctors merely because they recommend marijuana.
"I don't think physicians have anything to fear about prosecution solely for a certification," Kubo said. But the die-hard prosecutor warned that doctors could still face prosecution if they recommended marijuana for a condition that is not "debilitating" as required under state law, if they tell a patient to score from a street dealer, or if they provide samples to patients.
Hawaii's medical marijuana program currently counts more than 2,600 certified patients. More than a hundred Hawaii doctors have certified patients for the program. Last week, patients and doctors alike expressed grave concern about Kubo's remarks, with some doctors saying they would not certify patients if they risked prison.
The ACLU of Hawaii welcomed Kubo's clarification. "The US Attorney has reversed his inaccurate and intimidating threats and clarified the facts for the benefit of doctors and patients in Hawaii," said Lois Perrin, Legal Director of the ACLU of Hawaii. "Doctors have a right to continue to recommend medical marijuana, and that right is extremely clear under both federal and Hawaii law. In the future we urge the US Attorney be more careful before commenting on a matter that has grave public health implications and impacts thousands of patients and their families."
Philadelphia District Attorney Lynn Abraham has disbanded a specialized group of prosecutors who worked drug cases, citing budgetary constraints. In a June 11 press conference, Abraham said she is shutting down the Special Narcotics Prosecution Unit and another specialized group, the Forfeiture Unit, to avoid laying off 25 prosecutors. Abraham also said she will cut back on the prosecution of economic and computer crimes, reduce new hires, and not replace lawyers who leave her office.
The cutbacks come as Abraham grapples with a $1.3 million cut from last year's budget, which in turn was reduced from the previous year. Specialized prosecutor units were a "luxury" that her office could no longer afford, she said.
The Special Narcotics Prosecution Unit, consisting of a chief and five attorneys, concentrated on long-term drug investigations. Its notable cases included the convictions of a Kensington father and his two sons on marijuana charges and the guilty plea of a Northeast Philadelphia pharmacist to charges he illegally prescribed prescription pain pills and relaxants.
Police enthusiasts and former prosecutors alike bemoaned the loss of the unit. "It was making a tremendous, positive effect on neighborhoods," City Councilman Jack Kelly told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "It gave some relief to people who wanted some action. I thought they were doing a terrific job," Kelly said, adding that he was "disappointed."
"It's a shame," said former prosecutor Carolyn Ferko, likening the drug-busting legal team to oncologists. "If a person has cancer, they can go to a general practitioner, but most people go to a specialist. I view drugs as a cancer of the city," Ferko said. "... Drugs are a major problem in the city of Philadelphia, and I don't think anybody would dispute that."
Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Gene Blagmond told the Inquirer police hoped funding would be restored. Police "thought it was good to have specialized people dedicated to these prosecutions."
No comment from the tens of thousands of Philadelphians prosecuted under the drug laws, though.
After five years of declines, cocaine production in South America is once again on the rise, the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) reported Tuesday. Although cocaine production continued to diminish in Colombia, down 7% from 2003 to 2004, that decline was more than offset by increases in production of 23% in Peru and 35% in Bolivia, marking a 3% overall increase in cocaine production in the region.
Those figures demonstrate the both the resiliency of the coca-cocaine economy and the continuing power of the balloon effect. In the 1980s, Bolivia dominated coca leaf production. When it was repressed there, Peru became the global leader in the early 1990s, and when it was repressed there, production boomed in Colombia. Now, with the Colombian crop under a five-year sustained attack, farmers in Bolivia and Peru are taking up the slack.
While Bolivian production remains below peak 1980s levels, Peruvian production is now back where it was in 1998. Between them, the two Andean nations produced 327 tons of cocaine last year, while Colombia produced 430 tons.
UNODC executive director Antonio Maria Costa said last year's increase should not be viewed as marking the end of a downward trend that has seen overall production decline of about one-thired since 1999. "This small hike should not yet be construed as a structural change," he wrote in the report. "Should cultivation continue to increase, of course, it would have to be perceived as a threat to the gains made in the last five years."
The UNODC figures on Colombia were more optimistic than those released by the Bush administration in March. Those numbers, quietly released on a Friday afternoon, showed that despite massive aerial herbicide spraying, the acreage devoted to coca production in the country had remained unchanged from the previous year.
Still, UNODC executive director Costa qualified the effort in Colombia as a success and praised the US-backed crop-spraying program. "Efforts to reduce coca cultivation in Colombia continue to succeed," said Costa. "In 2004, cultivation dropped by 7% to 80,000 hectares. Since 2000, cultivation was reduced by half, one of the most sustained reductions in illicit crops in recent history."
But the increases in Bolivian and Peruvian production concerned the UN narcocrat. "We are worried about the situation in Bolivia," where a popular uprising led in part by coca grower leader turned national political figure Evo Morales forced the nation's president out of office last week, he said. "Narcotics is a byproduct of the crisis," he told a news conference. "The weaker the government, the greater the amount of land cultivated for narcotics." Bolivian production was up 17% over the previous year, the report found.
Similarly, Costa complained that the Peruvian cocaine production increase of 14% was due to "lawlessness" in two of the country's eight coca growing regions. The answer, said Costa, was more money for alternative development, but that would require a "stable and secure" environment. "It is imperative, therefore, to strengthen governance and development programs in Peru and Bolivia, where recent increases in cultivation have occurred."
The Mexican Army was patrolling the streets of Nuevo Laredo earlier this week after a steady drumbeat of drug prohibition-related violence reached a spectacular double crescendo last week. First, newly sworn-in police chief Alejandro Dominguez was gunned down June 8, the same day he was sworn in, making him the seventh Nuevo Laredo law enforcement officer to be killed this year and the 50th person killed in the violence this year in Nuevo Laredo. Then, three days later, a group of Nuevo Laredo municipal police opened fire on a convoy of Federal Investigative Police (PFI) coming to beef up security in the city of half a million, seriously wounding one fed.
By Monday, faced with both the brazen attacks and rising press attention north of the border, Mexican President Vicente Fox had sent in the cavalry. Hundreds of Mexican soldiers and agents of the Federal Preventive Police (PPF) assumed police powers in the city, establishing roadblocks, some cruising around in armored vehicles, as more than 700 Nuevo Laredo police were detained and 41 who were involved in the attack on federal police were shipped to Mexico City for questioning.
The cops were corrupt, the Fox administration said. "There are very clear signs of a relationship between elements of the Nuevo Laredo police and drug smuggling, hence the decisive action," government spokesman Ruben Aguilar told journalists in the capital.
"Operation Secure Mexico," as the Mexican government dubbed it, will also be expanded to other border cities, the Mexico City daily La Jornada reported Tuesday. It follows a similar push earlier this year, as the government attempted to wrest control of its prisons from drug traffickers. When suspected traffickers struck back by murdering six prison employees in the border town of Matamoros, Fox sent in the troops. But as has been the case with innumerable previous shows of force against the traffickers, things soon return to business as usual.
Throughout this week, the PPF and PFI agents began the process of investigating the local cops, subjecting them to questioning and drug tests in an effort to weed out police linked to drug trafficking. Nuevo Laredo police have spent the week cooped up in their barracks, stripped of their guns, their police cars, even their police-issue cell phones and radios. Thirteen of the 41 sent to Mexico City after the attack on the feds were already the subject of criminal investigations, federal officials said.
The border violence is an unintended consequence of President Fox's aggressive campaign against trafficking organizations. Tough law enforcement action has whittled the number of so-called cartels down from seven to two, but the forced consolidation of the $20-30 billion a year industry has come with no apparent impact on the flow of drugs to the north and with a death toll of around 500 so far this year as rival traffickers settle accounts.
The drama on the border couldn't come at a better time for US drug warriors seeking to blame Mexico for US drug problems. On Tuesday, Rep. Mark Souder's anti-drug subcommittee held hearings on Mexico, with Souder worrying aloud that groups that smuggle drugs into the US could also smuggle terrorists or nuclear weapons.
DEA assistant administrator for intelligence Anthony Placido told the committee that Mexico remained the number one conduit for marijuana and cocaine coming into the US and that the primary reason was corruption. "The single largest impediment to seriously impacting the drug trafficking problem in Mexico is corruption," Placido said in written testimony prepared for the hearing. "In actuality, law enforcement in Mexico is all too often part of the problem rather than part of the solution. This is particularly true at the municipal and state levels of government," he said.
Later that same day, President Fox announced that he would soon introduce legislation to more severely punish corrupt police found to be in cahoots with the drug cartels. Law enforcement, he said, "must be the best example of behavior and not those who, by colluding with organized crime, let society down."
But in a land where police are ill-paid and the wealth and murderousness of the traffickers are legendary, it's still a tough call for Mexican cops. The saying goes that the choice is simple, "plata o ploma," silver or lead, the bribe or the bullet.
Meanwhile, the violence on the border continues. Wire services reported two more killings in Nuevo Laredo this week and five more in the downriver border city of Reynosa, all reportedly drug prohibition-related.
The world's leading industrial democracies agreed this week to cancel some $40 billion in debt owed by African nations in an effort to jump-start the continent's ailing economies. But while the impact of ponderous macro-level reforms will take time to trickle down, farmers in the southern African kingdom of Swaziland are making micro-level decisions to grow marijuana crops now, and local police say they can't stop them.
From high in the kingdom's remote northern mountains comes "Swazi Gold," a potent variety sought after in consumer markets in nearby South Africa, which completely surrounds the New Jersey-sized country, as well as Europe and North America. For Swazi farmers, marijuana, or "dagga," as it is commonly known in southern Africa, is a crop worth growing, despite police raids and herbicide spraying. Smugglers will pay farmers about $150 a kilogram (2.2 pounds), a significant amount in a country where the average annual income hovers around $1500.
That same "Swazi Gold" will sell for about $11 an ounce in Johannesburg or Capetown, according to a Reuters report this week. By the time it makes its way to the coffee shops of Amsterdam, it goes for $7.50 a gram.
Swazi law enforcement finds itself fighting a losing battle as it butts up against dagga's profitability. "We can't win this war," said Ngwane Dlamini, head of criminal investigation in the northern region of Hhohho. "This is just a drop in the ocean," he said as he showed Reuters a field that had been discovered and destroyed. "The people are poor and they can get much more money for marijuana than maize or vegetables," he said.
According to Swaziland's Council Against Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 70% of farmers in the Hhohho region are growing dagga for the domestic and international market. Local officials blame drought and point to the mountainous terrain, which makes maize-growing difficult. But a Hhohho women named Khanyesile provided a more direct reason. As Reuters put it, her non-dagga earnings consisted of "a patchy income selling shiny stones to tourists at the side of the road."
"My husband died and I lost my job at the local furniture factory," said Khanyesile. "I needed money to feed my five children and send them to school." She has been jailed and fined for her dagga, she said, police have twice sprayed her field, and thieves stole her crop once just before harvest. For Khanyesile and her family, the black market in dagga is the only shot at economic survival. "You can't get money for maize... and it is difficult to grow, but a man from South Africa comes every month to buy my dagga," she said. She and her neighbors grow dagga and sell it jointly to the South African buyer to minimize his risks, she said. "I don't understand why the police want to stop us growing dagga -- it is the only way we can make money."
"It is everywhere. At every stream or river the banks are full of dagga," said Inspector Dlamani. That's not surprising. Not only has dagga become a valuable cash crop, it has a long history of acceptance in Swaziland, where it has been smoked for centuries by farmers and used as medicine by healers. Even the chief of his home village smoked a pipe of dagga twice daily, Dlamani noted, before returning to the fruitless fight.
The Seattle Times draws on the work of the King County Bar Association and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition to conclude it is [t]ime for a new strategy in the war on drugs.
June 17, 1971: President Richard Nixon declares "war on drugs," at a press conference naming drug abuse as "public enemy number one in the United States" and announcing the creation of the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention (SAODAP), to be headed by Dr. Jerome Jaffe, a leading methadone treatment specialist. Drug treatment for a brief time receives the majority of federal anti-drug funding.
June 18, 1986: The evening death (heart failure from cocaine poisoning) of promising college basketball star Len Bias, the recent Boston Celtics draft choice, stuns the nation, leading to passage of federal mandatory minimum sentences.
June 18, 2002: The US Supreme Court rules that in conducting random searches for drugs or weapons on buses, police need not advise passengers that they are free to refuse permission to be searched.
June 19, 1812: The United States goes to war with Great Britain after being cut off from 80% of its Russian hemp supply. Napoleon invades Russia to sever Britain's illegal trade in Russian hemp.
June 19, 1991: In a secret vote, the Colombian assembly decides 51-13 to ban extradition in a new Constitution to take effect on July 5. The same day Pablo Escobar surrenders to Colombian police.
June 20, 1995: On a Discovery Channel special, "The Cronkite Report: The Drug Dilemma," former CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite -- regarded internationally as one of the most trusted figures in America -- calls the drug war a failure and calls for a bipartisan commission to study alternatives to prohibition. Cronkite concludes, "We cannot go into tomorrow with the same formulas that are failing today."
June 20, 2002: Rolling Stone magazine reports that the Senior Judge of England's highest court, Lord Bingham, has publicly declared his country's marijuana prohibition "stupid" and said he "absolutely" supported legalization.
June 21, 1995: The Journal of the American Medical Association JAMA publishes commentary: "It is time for physicians to acknowledge more openly that the present [schedule 1] classification [of marijuana] is scientifically, legally, and morally wrong."
June 22, 2002: The General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association passes its "Alternatives to the War on Drugs" Statement of Conscience.
Please submit listings of events concerning drug policy and related topics to [email protected].
June 18, 5:00-8:00pm, Miami, FL, "Ride for Freedom Kick Off Party," launching of 100-city motorcycle tour by Spencer Myers. At Tobacco Road, 626 S. Miami Ave., complimentary beer and food, RSVP to (305) 443-7743 or visit http://www.thenewbillofrights.com or http://thinkinkpr.com/html/kick_off_party.html for info.
June 28, New York, NY, An Opiate Overdose Prevention Conference, sponsored by the Harm Reduction Coalition and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Admission free, space limited, please RSVP to secure your space. At the Holiday Inn Conference Center, W. 32nd St. & Broadway, contact Paula Santiago at (212) 213-6376 ext. 155 or [email protected].
July 8-9, 7:00pm, New Brunswick, NJ, "Waiting to Inhale," screenings of new medical marijuana documentary, at the New Jersey International Film Festival. At Rutgers University, Scott Hall #123, 43 College Ave., visit http://www.njfilmfest.com for info.
August 12-13, Washington, DC, "Over 2 Million Imprisoned – Too Many!", March on DC, sponsored by Family and Friends of People Incarcerated (FMI). Reception Friday evening, march Saturday morning from 9:00am to noon. Contact Roberta Franklin at (334) 220-4670 or firstladytms©aol.com, or visit http://www.journeyforjustice.org for further information.
August 13, Washington, DC, "Million Family Members and Friends of Inmates March," sponsored by Family Members of Inmates. Contact Roberta Franklin at (334) 220-4670 or [email protected] for further information.
August 19-20, Salt Lake City, UT, "Science and Response in 2005," First National Conference on Methamphetamine, HIV and Hepatitis C. Sponsored by the Harm Reduction Coalition and the Harm Reduction Project, visit http://www.harmredux.org/conference2005.htm after January 15 or contact Amanda Whipple at (801) 355-0234 ext. 3 for further information.
August 20-21, 10:00am-8:00pm, Seattle, WA, Seattle Hempfest 2005. At Myrtle Edwards Park, Pier 70, admission free, visit http://www.hempfest.org or (206) 781-5734 or [email protected] for further information.
August 28, 11:00am-9:00pm, Olympia, WA, Third Annual Olympia Hempfest. At Heritage Park, visit http://www.olyhempfest.com for further information.
September 23-25, New Paltz, NY, Students for Sensible Drug Policy Northeast Conference. At SUNY New Paltz, contact Jenny Loeb at [email protected] for further information.
September 25-29, Kabul, Afghanistan, "The 2005 Kabul International Symposium – Drug Policy: Challenges and Responses." Sponsored by the Senlis Council, at Kabul University, visit http://www.senliscouncil.net/modules/events/kabul/ or e-mail [email protected] for further information.
October 2, noon, Madison WI, "Great Midwest Marijuana Harvest Festival." At the UW Campus Library Mall, visit http://www.weedstock.com for further information.
November 9-12, Long Beach, CA, "Building a Movement for Reason, Compassion and Justice," the 2005 International Drug Policy Reform Conference. Sponsored by Drug Policy Alliance, at the Westin Hotel, details to be announced. Visit http://www.drugpolicy.org/events/dpa2005/ for updates.
November 13-16, Markham, Ontario, "Issues of Substance," Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse National Conference 2005. At Hilton Suites Toronto/Markham Conference Centre & Spa, visit http://www.ccsa.ca/pdf/ccsa-annconf-abstract-2005-e.pdf for info.
February 9-11, 2006, Tasmania, Australia, The Eleventh International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA), coordinated by Justice Action. For further information visit http://www.justiceaction.org.au/ICOPA/ndx_icopa.html or contact +612-9660 9111 or [email protected].
April 5-8, 2006, Santa Barbara, CA, Fourth National Clinical Conference on Cannabis Therapeutics. Sponsored by Patients Out of Time, details to be announced, visit http://www.medicalcannabis.com for updates.
April 30-May 4, 2006, Vancouver, BC, Canada, "17th International Conference on the Reduction of Drug Related Harm," annual conference of the International Harm Reduction Association. Visit http://www.harmreduction2006.ca for further information.
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