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Drug War Chronicle #536 - May 16, 2008

1. Feature: Battling Military Impunity in Mexico's Drug War

As the US Congress begins to move toward passing a massive anti-drug aid package aimed mainly at the Mexican military, abuses by soldiers in the drug war there have prompted a serious legal challenge.

2. Feature: Vancouver's Safe Injection Site Fights for Its Life -- Again

Time is running out for Vancouver's InSite, the only officially-sanctioned safe injection site in North America. The Conservative government of Canadian Prime Minister Harper has until June 30 to re-authorize the program, which it dislikes, and InSite supporters are now engaged in a major campaign to ensure its continued existence.

3. Law Enforcement: Death of Florida Student Forced to Become a Snitch Sparks Protests in Tallahassee

The killing of a Florida State University student who became an informer after being busted on drug charges has provoked angry protests by her friends and fellow students.

4. Offer: New Clergy Anti-Drug-War Video

Clergy are speaking out against the war on drugs! Donate $16 or more (or whatever you can afford) and we'll send you a copy.

5. Students: Intern at DRCNet and Help Stop the Drug War!

Apply for an internship at DRCNet for this fall (or spring), and you could spend the semester fighting the good fight!

6. Law Enforcement: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

The evidence goes missing in Galveston, a pill-hungry cop goes down in Oklahoma, a pill-peddling cop gets popped in New Jersey, and another pill-peddling cop goes to prison in Indiana.

7. Medical Marijuana: GOP Attacks Obama for Suggesting He Would End Raids

The Republican National Committee Wednesday attacked Sen. Barack Obama for suggesting he would end DEA raids on medical marijuana providers in states where it is legal. Given broad popular support for medical marijuana, it is not at all clear that this will be a winning issue for the GOP.

8. Pregnancy: South Carolina Supreme Court Overturns Woman's Murder Conviction for Fetal Death After Cocaine Use

Regina McKnight was the first woman in South Carolina charged with murder for having a stillborn child after using drugs while pregnant. Now, after almost a decade behind bars, the state Supreme Court has overturned her guilty verdict, saying she had poor legal representation and was the victim of shoddy science.

9. Latin America: Prohibition-Related Violence Surges in Mexico

More than 100 people, including several top federal police commanders, have been killed in surging prohibition-related violence in Mexico in recent days as the so-called drug cartels strike back hard against police, soldiers, and each other.

10. Canada: Marijuana Legalization Retains Majority Support, Poll Finds

Canada's Conservative government wants to crack down on marijuana, but it's out of step with the population. According to a new poll, 53% want to legalize it.

11. Europe: Despite British Marijuana Reclassification, No Jail for Low-Level Sellers

The new tough line on marijuana signaled last week by the British government when it reclassified the herb may not be so tough after all. The British Sentencing Guidelines Council says small-scale sales and cultivation should be punished by probation and fines in most cases.

12. Southeast Asia: Vietnam Ponders Drug Decriminalization

The Vietnamese National Assembly is considering decriminalizing drug possession. But with most drug users sent to detox camps under administrative regulations instead of criminal charges, it might not make much difference in the real world.

13. Death Penalty: Malaysia Sentences Two to Hang for Marijuana Trafficking, Iran Executes Nine Drug Sellers

Two Thai citizens have been sentenced to death in Malaysia over 75 pounds of marijuana, and nine convicted drug sellers go to the gallows in Iran.

14. Weekly: This Week in History

Events and quotes of note from this week's drug policy events of years past.

1. Feature: Battling Military Impunity in Mexico's Drug War

Lawmakers in the United States this week took the first steps toward approving a $1.6 billion dollar, three-year anti-drug assistance package for Mexico that is heavily weighted toward aid for the Mexican military. The Mexican army needs all the help it can get as, with 30,000 troops deployed against violent drug traffickers by President Felipe Calderón, it wages war against the so-called cartels, say supporters of the package.

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poster of assassinated human rights advocate Ricardo Murillo
But even as the aid package, known as Plan Mérida after the Mexican city where US and Mexican officials hammered out details, was being crafted, the Mexican military was once again demonstrating the risks of using soldiers for law enforcement. On the evening of March 26, near the town of Santiago de los Caballeros in the municipality of Badiraguato in the mountains of the state of Sinaloa, a five-man military patrol opened fire on a white Hummer driven by a local man back from the US. When the smoke cleared, four people in the vehicle were dead, two were wounded -- and there was no sign of any weapons.

It was the second time in less than a year that soldiers in Badiraguato had opened fire, killing multiple innocent civilians. Last June, three school teachers and two of their young children were killed when soldiers at a checkpoint perforated their vehicle with bullets. That case went away after the military paid their families $1,600 each.

Seeing yet another unjustified killing by the military was enough for Mercedes Murillo, head of the independent human rights organization the Frente Cívico Sinaloense (Sinaloa Civic Front). The veteran activist saw her brother assassinated in September after discussing the June killings on his radio program, but that didn't stop her from filing a lawsuit designed to end what is in effect impunity for soldiers who commit human rights offenses against civilians.

Under Mexican law -- the result of a post-revolutionary political settlement designed to keep the military out of politics -- members of the military do not face trial in the civilian courts, but in special military courts. This martial fuero -- a privileged judicial instance whenever the military are on trial -- results in soldiers charged with human rights abuses being judged by members of their own institution, and all too frequently, being absolved of any wrongdoing no matter what the facts are.

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Mercedes Murillo with legal assistant
Now, Murillo and her legal team, acting on behalf of the widow of the Hummer driver, have filed suit in Sinaloa district court in Mazatlán, challenging the fuero system. She doesn't expect immediate success, she said.

"This is the first case presented in Mexico against the actions the army has taken," said Murillo. "We know that when we present this in Mazatlán, the judges will give us nothing. Then we must take it to the Supreme Court of Mexico, and there might be people there who will study what we are presenting."

But Murillo isn't counting on the Mexican courts; her vision goes beyond that. "I don't think we can win here, but even if the Supreme Court says the military can do what it wants, that will lay the groundwork for going to the Inter-American Court. Military impunity violates international treaties that Mexico has signed," she argued.

The Organization of American States' Inter-American Court of Human Rights and Inter-American Commission of Human Rights are autonomous institutions charged by the hemispheric organization with interpreting and applying the American Treaty on Human Rights and ensuring governments' compliance with it. Mexico is a signatory to that treaty.

"Using the military for drug enforcement in Mexico is a serious problem," agreed Ana Paula Hernández of the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center of the Mountains in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. In addition to being one of the most impoverished areas of the country, the mountains of Guerrero have long been home to poppy and marijuana farmers, as well as the occasional leftist guerrilla band over the decades. The military has been deployed there for years.

But while most attention these days is focused on the military's deployment to fight the cartels in major cities, Hernández cited the military's more traditional drug war role: manual illicit crop eradication. "It's an almost impossible and useless task since illicit crop cultivation is an issue of survival in the mountain region, as in other parts of the country," she said. "In these regions, farmers have two options -- either they grow illicit crops or they migrate, so of course they will continue to find ways to grow illicit crops. It will never end unless the social and structural reasons for it are addressed."

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Frente Cívico Sinaloense (Sinaloa Civic Front) office, hippie shop next-door
But instead, successive Mexican governments have sent in the military to root out the poppy and pot fields. At least, that is their stated purpose, but Hernández isn't sure they're serious. "This is the excuse for deploying the military in many rural and indigenous regions, but in many cases it's more about a counterinsurgency strategy than a crop eradication strategy," she said.

The military presence in such regions is "an intimidating and threatening" one, said Hernández. "They set up camp wherever they like, often destroying licit crops and harvests in the process, stealing the water from the community, entering people's homes to take their food, stopping people on the roads to interrogate them, and so on. Worse yet, the military has become one of the main perpetrators of human rights abuses in the region, committing violations as serious as sexual rape for example," Hernández said. "This is something that is very common but that is rarely denounced."

Tlachinollan has documented some 80 cases of human rights violations carried out by members of the military in the region in recent years, including the rape of two women, Valentina Rosendo Cantú and Inés Fernández, by soldiers in 2002, said Hernández. But because of the military court system, nobody has been punished.

"Justice has not been carried out in a single case," she said. "It is very difficult, almost impossible, to obtain justice in cases where the military is involved. They remain untouchable to a certain degree and without a doubt, absolutely unaccountable to society for their actions."

As for Cantú and Fernández, they have given up on Mexican justice and are now seeking redress before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. Their case is pending after a hearing last October.

While Mexican citizens and activists struggle to rein in the military, some US experts wonder whether involving soldiers in drug law enforcement does any good anyway.
"We don't think it's a problem that can be solved militarily," said Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). "The use of the military in the drug war is not a new thing -- they continually bring in the military because the police are either too weak or too corrupt to deal with the traffickers -- but the question is whether it can deal with the challenge at hand, and we don't think so," she said.

But even if the military is unable to stop drug production and trafficking, it will continue to be the backstop for hard-pressed Mexican politicians unless real reforms take place, Olson said. "We need to be talking about significant police reform. Until that happens, the military will be used over and over again without solving the problem."

Murillo agreed that police reforms were necessary, and vowed never to give up the fight for justice. "They killed my brother because he criticized the army," she said, "but we are so used to the soldiers now that we are not scared. I have nothing to lose. My sons and daughters are married, my husband is 82. If they kill me, I don't care. That's the only way to work. You can't be afraid."

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2. Feature: Vancouver's Safe Injection Site Fights for Its Life -- Again

The only officially-sanctioned safe injection site in North America, Vancouver's InSite will have to close its doors June 30 if the Canadian federal government does not extend its exemption from Canada's Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. But while the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made no secret of its distaste for the program, it has very strong community, local, provincial, and international support, and its supporters are now engaged in a strong campaign to ensure its continued existence.

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InSite (courtesy Vancouver Coastal Health)
Situated on Hastings Street in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, home to one of the hemisphere's largest concentrations of hard drug users, InSite has operated since 2003, when it was granted a three-year exemption by the then Liberal government. With the advent of Conservative government, with its ideological opposition to programs that "encourage" or "facilitate" drug use, InSite's continued existence has been shaky. Twice, the Conservatives have granted the program temporary 18-month exemptions, saying that more research on its efficacy was needed.

But now, after five years of monitoring and evaluation, the results are in: According to peer-reviewed scientific studies, InSite increased the use of addiction treatment services, increased the use of detox services, reduced needle sharing, led to improvement in neighborhood public order and quality of life, resulted in no increase in drug-related crime, prevented overdose deaths, and helped reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS among drug injectors.

As if the nearly two-dozen studies of InSite were not enough, the Conservative government last year commissioned its own study, "Vancouver's INSITE service and other Supervised injection sites: What has been learned from research?," which was released in early April. According to Simon Fraser University criminologist Neil Boyd, who was hired by the government to advise the committee overseeing the study, the research shows that InSite has no apparent negative impacts, has resulted in "modest decreases" in drug use, and has not disturbed public order.

In fact, said Boyd at a press conference announcing his findings, InSite should not only be continued, but the program should be expanded to other locations. "I think our data suggests... the building of additional facilities of a similar kind in neighborhoods where they are needed would yield benefits much in excess of the costs required for such projects," he said.

That's unlikely under the Harper government, which is ideologically opposed to such harm reduction practices and in fact removed funding for them from its anti-drug budget. As Harper put it last October: "Because if you remain an addict, I don't care how much harm you reduce, you're going to have a short and miserable life."

Harper has also scoffed at empirical evidence when it conflicts with his agenda. In a January speech to party faithful, he mocked opponents who cited falling crime statistics in challenging his emphasis on law and order. "They try to pacify Canadians with statistics," said the prime minister. "Your personal experiences and impressions are wrong, they say; crime is really not a problem."

More recently, Health Minister Tony Clement and his underlings have sounded similar themes. Science would not be the only factor in determining whether to continue InSite's exemption, Clement's undersecretary, Winnipeg MP Steven Fletcher told The Canadian Press earlier this month. While the government would make a "rational and thoughtful decision based on science," it must also take into account "the realities of the situation," Fletcher explained. "There's multiple sides to this and they all have to be taken into consideration," said Fletcher.

When pressed in parliament by Vancouver East MP Libby Davies, a staunch InSite supporter, Clement vowed to make a decision before June 30 and responded to her criticism about rejecting the science supporting the program: "We are the government that actually wants more research, that actually commissioned more research because we want to make sure this decision is the right decision for Canada, for addicts and for the community in Vancouver," he said. "That is the decision we have made, more research and more consideration. That is because we are open-minded and we want to make the best decision for Canada and Canadians."

Now, as the June 30 deadline looms, InSite's supporters have mobilized. Already this month, the International Journal of Drug Policy published articles by scientists from around the world condemning the federal government for interfering politically with the site's research, Boyd held his Ottawa press conference, advocates held a rally in a Downtown Eastside park featuring 1,000 white crosses to symbolize the people who didn't die from drug overdoses while injecting at InSite, Vancouver street nurses picketed the office of the Vancouver Police Union, whose president is a leading critic of the site, BC Nurses Association president Debra MacPherson held a press conference to tout the health benefits of InSite, and all three BC civic parties have signaled their joint support of the program.

"We're fully behind the effort to keep InSite open," said David Hurford, director of communications for Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan. "It is part of the solution, not part of the problem, and it is a bottom-up solution from the grassroots. The federal government has said it supports grassroots decision-making, so why should bureaucrats from 3,000 miles away be making decisions for us here?" he asked.

The mayor's office is "working with local stakeholders to help communicate the benefits of InSite," said Hurford. "We wrote to the health minister last week asking him to keep the site open, and at a minimum, to extend the permits until all pending legal issues are heard."

Hurford is referring to a lawsuit pending in the BC courts that challenges Health Canada's jurisdiction over InSite. That suit argues that since under Canadian law, health care is the domain of the provinces, the federal government should not have control over InSite. But that lawsuit will not be settled by the end of next month.

Opposition politicians have also joined the fight. "This government chooses to view harm reduction as nothing more than dirty words, at the expense of protecting the safety and health of Canadians," said Liberal Party public health spokesperson Dr. Carolyn Bennett.

"The results from the InSite project show measurable evidence that it saves lives," said Liberal MP Dr. Hedy Fry, who played a key role in bringing the agreement that allowed InSite to open. "This has won it widespread support not only from experts in Canada but from the international scientific community, from the Vancouver police and from residents of the Downtown Eastside," said Dr. Fry. "It is simply irresponsible to ignore scientifically-based proof of the efficacy of harm reduction programs like this, and base public policy on ideology alone because real people suffer the consequences."

"The Conservative government must stop its unconscionable interference in scientific research on Vancouver's safe injection site," added New Democratic Party MP Libby Davies, who represents the Downtown Eastside. "Medical researchers from the University of British Columbia have revealed that Harper and his team have been suppressing evidence and denying funding to scientists who are looking objectively at the merits of Insite," she said.

"More than 20 medical and academic studies have been published showing the health and social benefits of InSite. We now have both scientific fact and evidence from users in our community that this facility is helping, not hurting the people of our city. The research record shows that Insite saves lives and increases public safety," Davies continued. "Harper doesn't understand that you can't just hide the facts whenever they don't suit your political agenda. We need a change in direction. It's time for this government to make decisions based on evidence instead of ideology -- InSite needs to be kept open."

"What we want is a 3 ½ year renewal of the exemption from the Controlled Substances Act," said Nathan Allen of InSite for Community Safety. "The fact that the Harper government has not granted this renewal shows they are very reluctant to support the community."

While the Harper government has previously said it needed more research to evaluate InSite's efficacy, that dog won't hunt anymore, said Allen. "They've already spent more than $1.5 million studying InSite, they've produced two dozen academic papers, and they've concluded that it has all kinds of positive impacts. We're wondering what questions the government has left to ask," he scoffed. "InSite has undergone the most thorough and well-funded scrutiny of any health clinic in the country."

In the event the government refuses to grant another exemption, Allen said he hoped it would respect provincial authority and local autonomy. "This has been a regional response to a local crisis here in Vancouver. We need to let the people here on the ground do what they need to do. If not, people will die," he predicted bluntly.

The clock is ticking for InSite, but the pressure is mounting on the Harper government. The next few weeks will determine if that pressure is sufficient to overcome the government's ideological opposition to the safe injection site.

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3. Law Enforcement: Death of Florida Student Forced to Become a Snitch Sparks Protests in Tallahassee

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courtesy FSU NORML
The death last week of a Florida State University student who was killed while acting as an informant for the Tallahassee Police Department after being arrested on marijuana and ecstasy charges has sparked intense criticism of the police. On Wednesday, around 100 people gathered at the Old Capitol to call for police accountability in the murder of Rachel Hoffman, 23, who was allegedly shot and killed by two men she was trying to set up for the police.

Tallahassee police have been on the defensive since Hoffman's murder last week. Various law enforcement spokesmen have attempted to blame Hoffman for her death by arguing she didn't follow proper informant procedures.

But the protestors at the capitol weren't buying it. They criticized both Tallahassee police behavior in sending Hoffman out to buy cocaine and a gun, but they also leveled strong criticisms at the informant system in general.

"What we're trying to do is make sure TPD is accountable for their actions," Matthew Zimmerman, vice president of the Florida State University chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, told the Tallahassee Democrat.

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courtesy FSU NORML
"I just think it was stupid that this all happened over drugs," said Mckenzie Smith, who said she had known Hoffman since childhood. "I don't think her life was worth busting two dudes."

"TPD had Rachel Hoffman going into a situation she had no place being in, just because she was associated with marijuana," said Rachel Lillibridge.

Zimmerman added, "I don't think two wrongs make a right. To make someone who's been convicted rat out someone else to get their sentence lessened is the right thing to do, I think everyone should be treated according to the law."

Two men have been arrested in Hoffman's death and are expected to be charged with murder shortly. But for many in Tallahassee, the shooters aren't the only guilty parties.

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4. Offer: New Clergy Anti-Drug-War Video

We are pleased to offer as our latest membership gift: "Clergy Against the War on Drugs," a new DVD by our friends at the groups Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative and Common Sense for Drug Policy. The IDPI DVD is essential. As Rev. Scott Richardson of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in San Diego said in his interview, "One of the reasons that we as religious leaders need to speak out against [the drug war] is that we share responsibility for it." And speak out they do, in this two part video (9 minutes & 17 minutes). The voices of clergy opposing the drug war is a powerful tool that you and your friends can use to enlighten members of your community.

Donate $16 or more to DRCNet, and we will send you a copy of the IDPI video -- perfect for showing at a meeting, in a public viewing at your nearest library, or at home for friends or family who don't yet understand. Please visit http://stopthedrugwar.org/donate/ to make your donation and order your DVD today -- consider signing up to donate monthly! If you haven't already seen the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) DVD, let us know and we'll include that in the package too -- or order some other premium for us, and add either or both videos for free! (Use the comment form at the bottom of our donation form for any special instructions.)

If you can't afford the $16, make us an offer, we'll get the video to you if we can. But please only ask this if you truly aren't able to donate that amount. Our ability to get the word out about important products like the IDPI and LEAP videos depends on the health and reach of our network, and that depends on your donations. Please consider donating more than the minimum too -- $50, $100, $250 -- whatever you are able to spare to the cause. The cause is important -- as Rabbi Michael Feinberg of the Greater NY Religion Labor Coalition expressed it in the video, "the war on drugs has caused as much devastation to communities around this country, particularly low income communities, as the drug themselves."

online version of Clergy Against
the War on Drugs video

Again, our web site for credit card donations is http://stopthedrugwar.org/donate/ -- or send a check or money order to: DRCNet, P.O. Box 18402, Washington, DC 20036. (Note that contributions to Drug Reform Coordination Network, which support our lobbying work, are not tax-deductible. Deductible contributions can be made to DRCNet Foundation, same address.) Lastly, please contact us for instructions if you wish to make a donation of stock.

Thank you for your support of the work of DRCNet and our allies. We hope to hear from you soon.

Sincerely,

David Borden, Executive Director

StoptheDrugWar.org: the Drug Reform Coordination Network

Washington, DC

http://stopthedrugwar.org

P.S. Special thanks to Common Sense for Drug Policy for funding the video and providing copies! Clergy Against the War on Drugs can also be viewed online here.

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5. Students: Intern at DRCNet and Help Stop the Drug War!

Want to help end the "war on drugs," while earning college credit too? Apply for a DRCNet internship for this fall semester (or spring) and you could come join the team and help us fight the fight!

DRCNet (also known as "Stop the Drug War") has a strong record of providing substantive work experience to our interns -- you won't spend the summer doing filing or running errands, you will play an integral role in one or more of our exciting programs. Options for work you can do with us include coalition outreach as part of the campaign to repeal the drug provision of the Higher Education Act, and to expand that effort to encompass other bad drug laws like the similar provisions in welfare and public housing law; blogosphere/web outreach; media research and outreach; web site work (research, writing, technical); possibly other areas. If you are chosen for an internship, we will strive to match your interests and abilities to whichever area is the best fit for you.

While our internships are unpaid, we will reimburse you for metro fare, and DRCNet is a fun and rewarding place to work. To apply, please send your resume to David Guard at [email protected], and feel free to contact us at (202) 293-8340. We hope to hear from you! Check out our web site at http://stopthedrugwar.org to learn more about our organization.

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6. Law Enforcement: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

The evidence goes missing in Galveston, a pill-hungry cop goes down in Oklahoma, a pill-peddling cop gets popped in New Jersey, and another pill-peddling cop goes to prison in Indiana. Let's get to it:

In Galveston, Texas, large amounts of cash and drugs have gone missing from the Galveston Police Department evidence room, prompting the dismissal of 16 cases and a Texas Rangers audit of more than 2,000 other cases. Some $18,000 in cash, as well as undisclosed amounts of cocaine, Ecstasy, and hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab) disappeared from the evidence room last month. One civilian employee has been fired, but no one has yet been charged with a crime. Charges could be filed once the state investigation is complete, city officials said.

In Trenton, New Jersey, a Trenton police officer was arrested May 7 on charges of distribution of prescription drugs and official misconduct. Officer Nicholas Fratticioli, 24, is accused of selling more than 100 doses of muscle relaxants. Fratticioli graduated from the Trenton Police Academy in August, but has now been suspended without pay. He is currently out on $25,000 bail awaiting trial.

In Durant, Oklahoma, a Durant police lieutenant was arrested May 8 after breaking into a pharmacy in an alleged attempt to steal prescription drugs. Lt. Johnny Rutherford has admitted he was the person shown in a surveillance video breaking into the pharmacy, according to an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation affidavit in the case. Rutherford, who was due to retire this year after 20 years on the job, was on personal leave when he was arrested. He is now on administrative leave.

In Clarksville, Indiana, a former Clarksville police officer was sentenced May 8 to 10 years in prison for dealing drugs. Former office Franklin Mikel had pleaded guilty to selling morphine tablets to a police informant three times in March and April 2007 at a roller rink he owned in Clarksville. The eight-year veteran officer was running for a town judge position at the time of his arrest. He was suspended from the force and later left the department.

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7. Medical Marijuana: GOP Attacks Obama for Suggesting He Would End Raids

With Sen. Barack Obama now the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, the Republican Party is looking for potential weaknesses and thinks it has found one in his relatively progressive stance on medical marijuana. On Wednesday, the Republican National Committee issued a press release saying Obama's position on medical marijuana and the DEA raids on patients and providers "raises serious doubts" about an Obama candidacy.

The attack came after the San Francisco Chronicle published an article Monday detailing Obama's position on medical marijuana, from comments he made in November to a response he more recently provided to the paper's candidate questionnaire. In responding to the Chronicle's medical marijuana question, the Obama campaign said he endorsed a hands-off federal policy:

"Voters and legislators in the states -- from California to Nevada to Maine -- have decided to provide their residents suffering from chronic diseases and serious illnesses like AIDS and cancer with medical marijuana to relieve their pain and suffering," said campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt. "Obama supports the rights of states and local governments to make this choice -- though he believes medical marijuana should be subject to (US Food and Drug Administration) regulation like other drugs," LaBolt said. He added that Obama would end DEA raids on medical marijuana providers.

Sen. Hillary Clinton has also suggested she would end the raids, according to Granite Staters for Medical Marijuana, a New Hampshire-based activist group that specializes in trying to get candidates on the record on medical marijuana. Republican nominee Sen. John McCain has waffled on the issue, according to Granite Staters, which has him saying he would end the raids at one point, but saying he would not end them a few weeks later.

But in was Obama who was in the GOP bull's-eye over medical marijuana this week. "Barack Obama's pledge to stop Executive agencies from implementing laws passed by Congress raises serious doubts about his understanding of what the job of the President of the United States actually is," said RNC communications director Danny Diaz in the press release. "His refusal to enforce the law reveals that Barack Obama doesn't have the experience necessary to do the job of president, or that he fundamentally lacks the judgment to carry out the most basic functions of the executive Branch. What other laws would Barack Obama direct federal agents not to enforce?" Diaz asked.

Obama's refusal to countenance continued DEA raids would mean he would violate his oath of office by not protecting and defending the Constitution, the RNC charged. The Supreme Court has upheld the authority of Congress to regulate the use of marijuana, it noted.

Whether the Republican Party can gain advantage by attacking Obama on the medical marijuana issue remains to be seen. In poll after poll, American voters have said they support access to medical marijuana for sick people. It is currently legal in 12 states and under serious consideration in several more this year.

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8. Pregnancy: South Carolina Supreme Court Overturns Woman's Murder Conviction for Fetal Death After Cocaine Use

The South Carolina Supreme Court Monday threw out the homicide by child abuse conviction of Regina McKnight, the first woman in South Carolina to be convicted on that charge for suffering an unintentional stillbirth after having used cocaine during her pregnancy. In its ruling in McKnight v. South Carolina, the court held that McKnight received inadequate counsel during her trial and that her conviction was based on "outdated" and inaccurate information linking the fetal death to her cocaine use.

McKnight was arrested in 1999, several months after she experienced a stillbirth at Conway Hospital. She was convicted of homicide by child abuse in 2001 after a jury bought scientifically unsupported arguments that her cocaine use caused the stillbirth. Although McKnight had no prior conviction, and even prosecutors agreed she had no intention of harming the fetus, she was sentenced to 12 years in prison with no chance of parole.

McKnight unsuccessfully appealed her conviction in 2002, challenging the constitutionality of using murder statutes to prosecute women who experience stillbirths. But in a split decision, the state Supreme Court upheld her conviction, offering a novel interpretation of the state's homicide laws. The court held that any woman who unintentionally heightens the risk of a stillbirth could be found guilty of homicide with "extreme indifference to human life." Under this doctrine, the court held, any pregnant woman who engages in activity "potentially fatal" to her fetus could be charged with murder.

McKnight and her attorneys appealed to the US Supreme Court, but that body declined to review the decision.

In Monday's decision, the state Supreme Court focused on whether McKnight got a fair trial. It found that she did not. McKnight's trial counsel, an overworked public defender, was "ineffective in her preparation of McKnight's defense through expert testimony and cross-examination," the court found. The court also found that the information given to the jury about the supposed link between McKnight's cocaine use and her stillbirth was not scientifically supported.

"Significantly, the opinion acknowledges that current research simply does not support the assumption that prenatal exposure to cocaine results in harm to the fetus, and the opinion makes clear that it is certainly 'no more harmful to a fetus than nicotine use, poor nutrition, lack of prenatal care, or other conditions commonly associated with the urban poor,'" said Susan Dunn, counsel for amicus. "This decision puts prosecutors across the state on notice that they must actually prove that an illegal drug has risked or caused harm -- not simply rely on prejudice and medical misinformation."

"Ms. McKnight is one of more than 500 women in South Carolina who experience stillbirths each year, and in many of those cases, medicine just can't determine the cause," said Brandi Parrish, coordinator of the South Carolina Coalition for Healthy Families. "It is a tragedy that Ms. McKnight has been in prison for nearly eight years for a crime she did not commit. Families in South Carolina are not helped by treating stillbirths as crimes and wasting hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to imprison innocent mothers."

At least 90 women have been prosecuted in South Carolina for stillbirths after using drugs, according to National Advocates for Pregnant Women, one of a number of organizations that got involved in the case when McKnight sought redress. "The groups got involved because there is complete consensus that prosecuting pregnant women is bad for mothers and babies," said Lynn Paltrow, head of the group. "Regina McKnight was convicted on junk science and was not fairly represented at trial," she told Myrtle Beach Online Tuesday.

McKnight is not out of the woods yet. Her case has been remanded for retrial, but prosecutors have so far given no indication whether they will proceed. In the meantime, she remains in prison awaiting a hearing on bail pending her new trial.

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9. Latin America: Prohibition-Related Violence Surges in Mexico

More than 100 people, including at least 20 police officers, died in prohibition-related violence in Mexico in the past week as drug trafficking organizations -- the so-called cartels -- shot it out with police, soldiers, and each other in cities across the country. Among those killed were Federal Preventive Police (PFP) Commander Édgar Millán, assassinated on his doorstep in Mexico City, and Ciudad Juárez Municipal Police Chief Juan Antonio Román, gunned down in front of his home Saturday in a hail of bullets.

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At least three other high-ranking PFP commanders have been gunned down in Mexico City in the past few days, presumably by gunmen of the Sinaloa Cartel, headed by Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán. Another PFP commander, Arturo Cabrera, narrowly escaped the assassin's bullet Tuesday in Monterrey. He was attacked by gunmen as he left the state police academy, but managed to retreat back to the base, where he managed to hold off his attackers with his own gun until being rescued by a police SWAT team.

Guzmán's own son, Édgar Guzmán, was himself gunned down in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa, on Saturday, presumably by gunmen of the rival Juárez Cartel, which has been battling Guzman's group for control over the drug traffic there. That was only the latest flare-up in two weeks of violence there that have seen bloody attacks on PFP and local police, massive multi-vehicle convoys of armed narcos marauding through the streets, and an infusion of 3,000 more soldiers into the state.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón deployed the Mexican military a year and half ago in a bid to break the power of the cartels. But with some 30,000 soldiers now deployed in the fight, the violence not only continues, but seems to be escalating. Around 3,000 people have been killed since Calderón's offensive began, more than 1,100 of them so far this year, according to Mexican media reports.

The US Congress is now debating approval of a $1.6 billion, three-year anti-drug aid package for Mexico, heavily tilted toward military assistance. While the violence would appear to strengthen the case for such an aid program, it is unclear whether an infusion of military training and technology will have a positive impact on Mexico's drug war.

[Ed: In February 2003, a Mexican congressman from Sinaloa, Gregorio Urías Germán, after calling for drug legalization, attended our Latin America conference, "Out from the Shadows: Ending Drug Prohibition in the 21st Century" ("Saliendo de las sombras: Terminando con la prohibición de las drogas en el Siglo XXI" en español). Urías argued that "If we can't even discuss the alternatives, if we can't even admit the drug war is a failure, then we will never solve the problem." He said that existing forums, such as the UN and the Organization of American States, are not fruitful places for discussion, "because only the repressive policies of the United States are discussed at these forums." Sinaloa continues to suffer from the violence caused by drug prohibition, as discussed in this newsbrief five years later. In different but similar ways, inner-city neighborhoods throughout the US suffer from violence and disorder caused by prohibition as well.]

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10. Canada: Marijuana Legalization Retains Majority Support, Poll Finds

More than half of Canadian adults believe marijuana should be legalized, according to a poll done by the Angus Reid Global Monitor. According to the poll, 53% of respondents agreed that marijuana should be legalized.

The poll results are in line with early Angus Reid polls on marijuana legalization in Canada. In a July 2007 poll asking the same question, 55% said pot should be legalized; in an October 2007 poll, 51% said it should be legalized.

In 2004, the former Liberal government introduced legislation that would have decriminalized the possession of up to 15 grams of marijuana, but that legislation never went anywhere. The current Conservative government disagrees with legalization sentiment and is currently pushing a bill that would create mandatory minimum six-month jail sentences for marijuana growers.

The same poll asked Canadians whether they would support legalizing other drugs, but found few takers. Nine percent would support legalizing powder cocaine or ecstasy, 8% would support legalizing heroin or crack cocaine, and 7% would support legalizing methamphetamine.

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11. Europe: Despite British Marijuana Reclassification, No Jail for Low-Level Sellers

Last week, the British government announced it was returning marijuana to Class B drug status, signaling an end to the four-year experiment that saw the herb downgraded to a less serious Class C drug. That meant marijuana sellers could theoretically face up to 14 years in prison. Under guidelines issued Monday by the Sentencing Guidelines Council, however, it appears that many pot sellers will face no more than low-level sanctions.

For the first time in four years, the Sentencing Guidelines Council has promulgated a range of sentencing options for every offense that can be dealt with at a magistrate's court. Under the new guidelines, marijuana users who grow their own stash and occasionally provide marijuana to friends could be punished with only a fine or probation. Even those who supply larger amounts of marijuana or other drugs to share with a small circle of friends could receive probation, according to the guidelines.

For small-scale growing or sales of marijuana, the top end punishment in magistrate's court under the guidelines is 12 weeks in custody, but that sentence would be imposed only if there were aggravating factors. Commercial cultivation or large-scale sales offenses would be handled in the more serious Crown Court, where stiffer penalties are applied.

Opposition Conservatives were quick to pounce on the apparent contradiction between the government's announced hard line and the sentencing council's guidelines. "Once again we see mixed messages going out about drugs," said Tory justice affairs spokesman Nick Herbert in a Monday statement. "Just as the government finally admits that they got it wrong when they lowered the classification of cannabis, these guidelines would see most dealers receive weak and often poorly enforced community sentences."

But despite the posturing of the Tories, the sentencing council's guidelines seem in line with the recommendations of the government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which opposed the reclassification.

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12. Southeast Asia: Vietnam Ponders Drug Decriminalization

The Vietnamese National Assembly is considering legislation that would make drug use an administrative violation -- not a crime. Under current Vietnamese law, drug use is a criminal offense, a violation of Article 199 of the country's criminal code, and is punishable by up two years in prison.

But Truong Thi Mai, chair of the Assembly's Committee on Social Affairs, told a press conference last Friday the committee had recommended scrapping Article 199. "Being addicted to or using drugs should be considered a disease, and should only be subject to administrative fines," Mai said. "We cannot jail hundreds of thousands of drug users, can we?"

In actuality, Vietnam does not typically jail drug users; instead, it confines them in mandatory drug detoxification centers for up to two years, or in some centers, up to five years. Local governments maintain lists of drug addicts in their areas and send them to detox centers at their discretion. Few drug users are actually prosecuted under Article 199, so the impact of a decriminalization move would be mostly symbolic.

Still, that would be a good thing, said Le Minh Loan, a police chief and former director of counter-drug efforts in a province with one of the country's highest heroin addiction rates. "I think it makes sense to drop the article," Loan said. "Few countries in the world sentence drug addicts to prison terms."

Vietnamese drug rehabilitation efforts are not particularly effective, Loan said. "The rate of relapse into drug use is very high."

While Vietnam has harsh laws for drug dealing -- 85 people were sentenced to death last year for drug offenses and nine more so far this year -- those laws have had little impact on drug use in the Southeast Asian nation. Harsh enforcement is not working, said Mai. "Many people have been sentenced to death for trafficking heroin, but heroin trafficking is still rampant," Mai said. "The traffickers know that the laws are strict but they are still trafficking narcotics."

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13. Death Penalty: Malaysia Sentences Two to Hang for Marijuana Trafficking, Iran Executes Nine Drug Sellers

Countries around the world, but particularly in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, continue to resort to the death penalty for drug offenses. This week, we report on more executions in Iran and death sentences for marijuana in Malaysia.

On Tuesday, a Malaysian court sentenced two Thai citizens to death for marijuana trafficking. The two men, Masoh Daloh, 35, and Romuelee Yakoh, 46, were convicted in the Kuala Lumpur High Court of trafficking 75 pounds of pot. They had been arrested in 2002 with 34 kilogram-sized slabs of marijuana in their vehicle. Both men have appealed their sentences.

Malaysia has hanged more than 200 people, mostly its own citizens, for drug trafficking offenses since it imposed the death penalty for them in 1975. It has come under recent criticism from Amnesty International over secrecy surrounding its resort to the death penalty, but the government denies any cover-up and insists the ultimate sanction is a necessary deterrent to criminality.

Meanwhile, Iranian authorities announced May 5 that they had hanged 12 convicted criminals, including nine people convicted of drug offenses, according to the anti-death penalty organization Hands Off Cain. The nine drug offenders were hanged in the northeastern city of Bojnourd, not far from the Afghan border. One of them was hanged in public, the first reported public hanging since Iranian judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Sharoudi ordered an end to the macabre displays without his prior approval in January.

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14. Weekly: This Week in History

May 18, 1971: Tapes released years later reveal that sometime between 12:16pm and 12:35pm, President Nixon says to entertainer Art Linkletter, "... radical demonstrators that were here... two weeks ago... They're all on drugs, virtually all."

May 19, 1988: Carlos Lehder is convicted of drug smuggling and sentenced to life in prison without parole, plus an additional 135 years. He had been captured by the Colombian National Police at a safe house owned by Pablo Escobar and extradited to the US.

May 20, 1991: The domestic heroin seizure record is set (still in effect today) -- 1,071 pounds in Oakland, California.

May 20, 1997: Eighteen year-old Esequiel Hernandez, Jr., of Redford, Texas, becomes the first American to be killed on American soil by US soldiers in peacetime when he is shot on his own property by camouflaged Marines involved in a Joint Task Force-6 border drug interdiction operation. No drugs are found. Hernandez had never been suspected of or arrested for any criminal or drug-related activity.

May 22, 1997: Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Mayor John Norquist signs a measure into law decriminalizing first time possession of small amounts of marijuana after the proposal squeaks by the city council.

May 16, 2001: Regina McKnight is convicted and sentenced to 12 years in South Carolina for using crack during a pregnancy that resulted in a stillbirth. It is the first time in US history that a woman is convicted of homicide for using drugs during a pregnancy. (See major update to this case appearing in this week's Chronicle.)

May 17, 2001: Canada's House of Commons passes a unanimous motion to create a committee to examine the issue of non-medical drugs in Canada. Members of all five parties say they intend to discuss legalization, or at least decriminalization, of marijuana as part of a sweeping look at the country's drug strategy.

May 21, 2001: Geraldine Fijneman, head of the Amsterdam branch of the ayahuasca-using Santo Daime church, is acquitted by a Dutch court. Fijneman had owned, transported and distributed a DMT-containing substance, but the court ruled that her constitutional right to Freedom of Religion must be respected.

May 22, 2003: Maryland becomes the ninth state to relax restrictions on medicinal marijuana use for seriously ill patients when Governor Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. signs a bill reducing the maximum penalty to a $100 fine. The law goes into effect on October 1. Ehrlich, the first Republican governor to sign a bill relaxing penalties for medicinal use of marijuana, signs the measure despite pressure from the Bush administration to veto it.

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Permission to Reprint: This issue of Drug War Chronicle is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Articles of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.

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