Drug War Chronicle #607 - November 6, 2009

1. Feature: Maine Voters Approve Medical Marijuana Dispensaries

Maine has become the latest state to approve state-licensed medical marijuana dispensaries. It joins New Mexico and Rhode Island. But locally-allowed (or not) dispensaries are the rule in California, Colorado, and Washington. Both paths have their pluses and minuses.

2. Feature: Veterans Incarcerated and Ignored When They Could Be Getting Help, Report Finds

Nearly a quarter of a million American veterans were behind bars in 2004, many of them for drug abuse-related offenses, a new report finds. While the military, the Veterans Administration, and other agencies are taking some steps to help them, there is much more that could -- and should -- be done.

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

The British government seems to think that if drug policy is not supported by science, you need to trash the science -- and the scientist -- not the failed policy. It fired a leading voice for science- and evidence-based drug policies last Friday for what amounted to heresy against official dogma.

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

Breckenridge, Colorado, a Rocky Mountain ski town, just voted overwhelmingly to legalize marijuana under municipal ordinance. Denver did that in 2005.

5. Latin America: Mexico Drug War Update

No break in Mexico's prohibition-related violence as the death toll since December 2006, when President Calderon called in the army, has now topped 15,000. The latest victims include a US soldier gunned down in a Ciudad Juárez strip club with five other people.

6. The Border: US Begins Turning Busted Smugglers Over to Mexico for Prosecution

For years, federal prosecutors on the US-Mexican border have been so swamped with smuggling cases that they refuse to prosecute busts under 500 pounds. Local prosecutors can't handle the overflow, either, so now, the US is sending busted Mexican pot smugglers back home to be prosecuted.

7. Drug Legalization: Senator Pushes Amendment to Censor Any Talk of That

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) is floating an amendment to Jim Webb's bill to create a commission on criminal justice reforms. Grassley's amendment would bar any talk of legalization or decriminalization.

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

The drug war corrodes the integrity of law enforcement in multiple ways, as we see this week: Testilying, sexual extortion, thievery, and the usual just plain old corrupt practices.

9. Marijuana Legalization: California Poll of Primary Voters Finds Narrow Majority Say Keep It Illegal

A new poll of likely California primary voters has a majority in favor of maintaining marijuana prohibition, but the pollster said that should not be read as suggesting legalization initiatives will necessarily go down to defeat. Different polling questions and populations provide different results, he said.

10. Europe: Dutch Cannabis Café Owner on Trial Over Amount of Pot on Hand

Dutch authorities at all levels are tightening the screws on the country's famous cannabis coffee shops, and now a prominent coffee shop owner is on trial for violating the rules about how much he can have on hand.

11. LAST CHANCE: Help StoptheDrugWar.org (DRCNet) Win $50,000 in America's Giving Challenge

"America's Giving Challenge" is offering prizes ranging from $500 to $50,000 to nonprofits who get the largest number of gifts from supporters between now and November 7 (TOMORROW). Any gift of $10 or higher -- made through the "Causes" program, which is linked in to Facebook -- counts equally toward the prize, and gifts can be made up to once a day. StoptheDrugWar.org is a contestant, and we're asking for your help by participating and by spreading the word.

12. Weekly: This Week in History

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

1. Feature: Maine Voters Approve Medical Marijuana Dispensaries

Voters in Maine Tuesday approved Question 5, the Maine Medical Marijuana Act, an initiative instructing the state government to set up a system of state-licensed medical marijuana dispensaries. The measure passed with 59% of the vote.

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a plea from a patient -- Maine voters listened (courtesy mainecommonsense.org)
Sponsored by Maine Citizens for Patient Rights (MCPR) and the Maine Medical Marijuana Policy Initiative (MMMPI), and funded primarily by the Drug Policy Alliance, the Maine Medical Marijuana Act will:

  • Establish a system of nonprofit dispensaries which would be overseen and tightly regulated by the state;
  • Establish a voluntary identification card for medical marijuana patients and caregivers;
  • Protect patients and caregivers from arrest, search and seizure unless there is suspicion of abuse;
  • Create new protections for qualified patients and providers in housing, education, employment and child custody;
  • Allow patients with Lou Gehrig's disease and Alzheimer's disease access to medical marijuana;
  • Require the Department of Health and Human Services to develop a procedure for expanding the list of conditions for which marijuana can be used; and
  • Keep current allowable marijuana quantities at 2.5 ounces and six plants.

"We weren't surprised at all by the outcome," said Jonathan Leavitt of Maine Citizens for Patients Rights, who had predicted weeks ago the measure would cruise to victory. "We would have done a lot better in most elections, but this time there was a big turnout from the hard-core religious right," he said, referring to the heated battle over a gay marriage referendum that went down to defeat the same day.

"We're really tickled," said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), which also supported the campaign. "This was a state election with some controversial issues, but medical marijuana wasn't one of them. Oh, the usual suspects objected, but nobody was listening. This suggests the comfort level with medical marijuana is growing by leaps and bounds."

Some long-time Maine marijuana activists, such as the Maine Vocals, had joined the "usual suspects" in opposing the measure. They argued that the measure gave too much power to the state. But their complaints appeared to have little impact on the electoral outcome.

"It's great to see Maine leapfrog other states in adopting cutting-edge medical marijuana legislation," said Jill Harris, DPA managing director for public policy. "What's especially nice is that the medical marijuana guidelines recently issued by the US Department of Justice provide reassurance to Maine officials that they can implement the new law without fear of reprisal by federal authorities."

"This is a dramatic step forward, the first time that any state's voters have authorized the state government to license medical marijuana dispensaries," said MPP executive director Rob Kampia. "Coming a decade after passage of Maine's original marijuana law, this is a huge sign that voters are comfortable with these laws, and also a sign that the recent change of policy from the Obama administration is having a major impact."

Maine becomes the sixth state to allow medical marijuana dispensaries, and, as Kampia noted, the first one to approve state-licensed dispensaries through a popular vote. New Mexico and Rhode Island approved state-licensed dispensaries through the legislative process, while California, Colorado, and Washington adopted locally-approved dispensaries through the initiative process.

In New Mexico, there is currently one state-licensed medical marijuana dispensary; in Rhode Island none yet exist. In Colorado, by contrast, there are nearly a hundred, while in California, the number of locally-permitted (or not) dispensaries is somewhere shy of 2000. In Washington State, the number of dispensaries is much lower, but still higher than in states where dispensaries are licensed by the state.

"The trend toward licensed dispensaries is a good thing," said Kris Hermes, communications director for Americans for Safe Access, the nation's largest medical marijuana advocacy group. "Back in 1996, when the first initiative was passed in California, that initiative included language calling on the state and federal governments to work together to create a plan for distribution. But because the federal government was not only unhelpful, but actually working to actively undermine medical marijuana distribution in California during the Bush years, people at the local level were forced to develop a model they could advance. What we now have in California is a local model of distribution," he noted.

While locally-approved dispensaries appear to provide access to medical marijuana to greater numbers of people, they are also subject to more harassment and even prosecution by the state or even the federal government. The Obama administration has declared it will not go after dispensaries operating in accord with state law, but in states like California and Colorado, where local prosecutors determine legality -- not a state law -- dispensary operators could still see themselves prosecuted by the feds.

One such incident occurred in September in San Diego, where hard-line county District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis led joint state and federal raids against dispensaries, and at least two people were charged with federal marijuana distribution offenses. Similarly, the Los Angeles county prosecutor has warned that he considers almost all LA-area dispensaries to be illegal.

"That's the fundamental difference Maine, New Mexico, and Rhode Island on one hand, and California and Colorado on the other," said MPP's Mirken. "The latter have a large number of dispensaries, but they are operating in a grey area. In California, we've seen the feds justify participating in raids where local DAs say the dispensaries aren't legal."

That could continue to happen, even with the Obama edict, Mirken said. "Until the courts settle these issues, it's not shocking that the feds might defer to local prosecutors," he said. "There's something to be said for legal clarity."

What is needed, said Hermes, is federal acceptance of medical marijuana. "As long as the federal government continues to deny medical marijuana's efficacy and refuses to develop a national plan that goes beyond law enforcement, states will have to develop their own laws to deal with the issue of distribution," he said. "Having said that, we continue to work with the Obama administration to develop that national policy, and hopefully, one day soon we will have a policy that obviates the need for individual policies at the state level."

In the meantime, it's up to the states. In Maine, that means getting the state-licensed dispensary system up and running. "The process starts when the governor signs it into law, which we expect shortly," said Leavitt. "He will then set up a task force to pull together appropriate oversight for the new law. We hope to be part of that stakeholder process. I think it will take at least three or four months before we actually have functioning dispensaries."

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2. Feature: Veterans Incarcerated and Ignored When They Could Be Getting Help, Report Finds

Roughly 200,000 US veterans are in prison or jail, many of them there because of substance abuse or mental health issues, according to a new report released Wednesday. The report outlines the problem and suggests reforms that could ease the plight of American soldiers returning from the war zone and trying to make the transition back to civilian society.

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VA Medical Center, Columbia, MO
According to the report, 140,000 vets were in prison in 2004, with tens of thousands more serving time in jails. Nearly half (46%) of vets doing time in federal prison were incarcerated for drug offenses, while 15% of those in state prison were, including 5.6% doing time for simple possession. Three out five (61%) of incarcerated vets met the criteria for substance dependence or abuse.

The report, Healing a Broken System: Veterans Battling Addiction and Incarceration, comes at a critical time. With hundreds of thousands of soldiers currently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US faces a mounting challenge in caring for returning vets.

Many are returning home damaged by their experiences. According to the report, 30% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans report symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury, depression, mental illness, or other cognitive disability. These medical conditions, if left untreated, can contribute to problematic drug use, addiction, and fatal overdoses, as well as homelessness, suicide, and criminality, particular violations of the drug laws.

While the study mentions 200,000 vets behind bars, the number is most likely much higher. That's because owing to problems in data collection -- a problem in itself -- the last year for which hard numbers on vets behind bars is available was 2004. Since then, more than a million more vets have returned from their deployments and mustered out.

The report had its genesis about a year and a half ago, when the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) teamed up with a classroom of law students at Northeastern University in Boston to investigate the obstacles veterans were facing in obtaining adequate access to mental health and substance abuse services. In addition to a series of surprising and dramatic findings, the report also includes a list of specific recommendations about how to improve services for vets suffering mental health and substance abuse issues.

"We learned that far too many returning vets are falling victim to the war on drugs because of barriers to effective treatment," said DPA's Dan Abrahamson at a Wednesday press conference. "There are nearly a quarter million vets behind bars right now for crimes motivated in part by mental health or drug addiction problems. One third of returning vets report symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Also, vets suffer from traumatic brain injury, depression, and mental illness at higher rates than normal. All of those are contributory factors to substance abuse and drug addiction, as well as overdose, homelessness, suicide, and being arrested for a non-violent drug offense."

In the battle theater, soldiers are supposed to function despite high stress, and the military is more than willing to prescribe them whatever it takes to keep them fighting. But it's a different story when the vets come home.

"Service-related drug dependency is being talked about quite a bit in the veterans community, but is not well understood outside the military," said Tom Tarantino, an Iraq war veteran and now legislative associate for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "The ease of obtaining prescriptions in theater is staggering," he explained. "I know crack dealers who are more discriminating about issuing drugs than some of the medics I saw in Iraq. It's alarming how many people were just given anti-depressants instead of asking whether they were really fit for duty," said the veterans' lobbyist.

"Sometimes, it's just a matter of expediency and life in a combat zone, but then you have vets coming back from an environment where meds are very loosely prescribed and they are confronted with a medical system much more stringent about issuing drugs," Tarantino explained. "And that can cause problems."

"Let's be smarter than the problem," said veterans' advocate Guy Gambill. "We can't afford not to be. We arrest too many people and incarcerate them for too long. Then the mark of a criminal record keeps them from getting jobs, housing, and other services, and then the recidivism rate goes up."

There are things that can be done, Gambill said. States can change their incarceration policies. Localities can be more proactive.

"Chicago police and the LAPD are doing front-end interventions," Gambill noted. "In LA, trained peer specialists are doing ride-alongs with the LAPD so the officers will recognize Iraq and Afghanistan war vets. In Chicago, police are doing crisis intervention training, and the first hundred of them are all Iraq and Afghanistan vets. They'll try to grab these guys at first contact and get them into treatment instead of jail. These sorts of peer-led interventions work very well. We need to catch this on the front end, so we don't have 200,000 homeless vets on the streets like we do now."

Another stumbling block is the Department of Veterans Affairs current policy on drug treatment for vets. The VA is willing to offer treatment, but not for vets behind bars.

"We need the Department of Veterans Affairs to lift their ban on drug treatment of incarcerated vets," said Tarantino. "We're pleased that the department now has a justice coordinator at every VA hospital, but they're waiting outside the prison door, not inside, when the vets need it most. This is a regulation they can change with the stroke of a pen," he said.

Yet another problem for vets, especially those with substance abuse issues, is the lack of access to proven treatments. And because the insurance provided to soldiers by the armed forces also covers their families, lack of access to treatment affects them as well.

"Vets don't qualify for substance abuse treatment unless they are diagnosed with PTSD," said Abel Moreno, a former Army sergeant who saw service in both theaters and who now works with veterans through his organization Vets 4 Vets. "We are fighting two wars at once. It's obvious PTSD exists, and it's clear there are going to be substance abuse issues. We've created a subgenre among today's vets where there is a pain pill-popping mitigation ideal. We need quantified data so we can attack this situation head on," he said.

It's not only in failing to provide drug treatment absent a PTSD diagnosis where the DOD falls down, said Dr. Bob Newman, MD, director of the Rothschild Chemical Dependency Institute at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. "Tricare, the Department of Defense insurance plan refuses to pay for maintenance treatment of addiction with methadone or buprenorphine," he noted. "Maintenance therapy is not a new idea. It's endorsed by agencies such as NIDA, SAMHSA, the Institute of Medicine, and the World Health Organization. The US government supports this, yet DOD has an insurance plan that excludes maintenance treatment without explanation. That's outrageous," he said.

Tricare insures not only military personnel, but also their families. Tricare's refusal to pay for maintenance therapy nearly cost Teresa Bridges her daughter. Teresa's daughter, Amanda, married a soldier, Sgt. Shawn Dressler. Dressler was killed in combat shortly after the couple were wed, and Amanda retreated into a haze of Lortab and Tramitol. Tricare paid for her treatment, but after a year, her doctor noted on her records that she was being subscribed maintenance doses of Suboxone.

"Suddenly, Tricare dropped her like a hot potato," Bridges said. "Tricare believes taking Suboxone is just substituting one addictive drug for another -- at least that's what they told me. Amanda has done well on Suboxone, and if she stops taking it, she will eventually relapse. Fortunately, she is now in a temporary assistance program, but that will end after a year."

There are potential reforms that could ease the plight of returning vets, the report said. Among them are:

  • Changes in state and federal statutes to focus on treatment instead of incarceration for veterans who commit nonviolent drug-related offenses.
  • Adoption by government agencies of overdose prevention programs and policies targeting veterans who misuse substances or take prescription medications.
  • Significantly expanded access for veterans to medication-assisted therapies such as methadone and buprenorphine to treat opioid dependence.

"The care and feeding and support of vets is a national concern and responsibility," said Gen. Stephen Xenakis, MD, Special Adviser to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs for Staff, Warrior & Family Support . "We are looking to knit together all the various services and institutions so that the soldier who has served and come home and ends up having problems or maybe ended up incarcerated gets treatment from all the sources available."

One of the big problems, said Tarantino, is lack of hard information. He noted that the Justice Department numbers in the report are from 2004. "In 2004, there were over one million fewer vets than there are today," he said. "We don't know how many vets are behind bars right now. We have no method for tracking vets unless they interact with some social services. We need to have DOD and DOJ compare lists. We need data," he said.

Lack of coordination among agencies dealing with vets is part of the problem, said Xenakis. "We need to better configure what we're doing," he said. "Records are not shared. The Department of Justice doesn't have access to Department of Defense records. We need to get organized so we can track people over time."

That effort has the support of the Pentagon, Xenakis said. "Our leadership heartily endorses this," he said. "It is really important that this information that this information is out there now, and that we follow it with the best action plans we can create. As a country, we have a responsibility to support our vets."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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5. Latin America: Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debussman Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year trafficking illegal drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed over 12,000 people, with a death toll of over 5,800 so far in 2009. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest of several high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war:

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Ciuded Juárez (courtesy Daniel Schwen, Wikimedia)
Thursday, October 29

In Guerrero, a body was found hanging from a highway overpass. The unidentified man had been shot in the head, and left with two notes with messages from "La Familia." In Ciudad Juárez, a high-ranking police intelligence official was killed when he was attacked by heavily armed gunmen as he ate in a restaurant. One policeman was killed, and the official and two bodyguards were wounded. A sign was later found taking responsibility for the attack, which was apparently ordered by "El Chapo" Guzman, the head of the Sinaloa Federation. Additionally, nine other murders were reported in Ciudad Juárez, four in Sinaloa, one in Tijuana, and four bodies found in the trunk bed of a truck in Michoacán.

Saturday, October 31

In Sonora, a well known union leader was killed along with 14 others, including four children. Margarita Montes Parra, 56, was ambushed by gunmen armed with AK-47's. It is unclear whether his death was ordered by drug traffickers or as a result of his union work. One of his sons, Adrian, was killed two years ago in what is thought to be a drug-related murder. Parra made headlines by publicly accusing the governor of Sonora of protecting his son's killers. He also accused the Veracruz state government of being complicit in drug trafficking.

Monday, November 2

Officials identified four bodies that had been found executed in an SUV in Mexico City. Three of the men had the word "kidnappers" handwritten on their body with marker, and a sign was found in the vehicle which read "for kidnapping, the boss of bosses". This is the nickname of Beltran-Levy cartel boss Arturo Beltran-Levy. There has been an increase of violence against kidnappers and petty criminals in recent months on the part of vigilantes working with drug traffickers and elements of the police. Additionally, in Tijuana, 13 suspected cartel gunmen were captured after a firefight that wounded one soldier and one gunman.

Tuesday, November 3

In the town of San Pedro Garza Garcia, near Monterrey, the mayor announced the death of a drug trafficker hours before the body was actually found. After being sworn in, Mayor Mauricio Fernandez was quoted as saying that "Black Saldana, who is apparently the one asking for my head, was found dead today in Mexico City." His announcement came 3 ½ hours before the blindfolded corpse of "Black Saldana" (otherwise identified only by his first name, Hector) was found. While at first he evaded questions about his prior knowledge of the incident, Fernandez later claimed that he had been tipped off by US officials that he was going to be targeted, and then found out about Black Saldana's death through unspecified means.

In Durango, a journalist who specialized in police matters was found dead after being kidnapped by armed men on his way to work. Alongside the body was found a note, whose contents were not revealed to the public. Vladimir Antenna Garcia, who wrote for El Tempo de Durango, is the third journalist killed in Durango this year, and the eighth journalist killed in Mexico.

In Chihuahua, 18 people were killed in a 48 hour period. Nine of these murders occurred in Ciudad Juárez. Among them was a municipal police officer who was gunned down in a hair salon where he was accompanying his wife. Additionally, in the state of Veracruz, a high-ranking member of the Zetas organization, nicknamed "El Gonzo" or "Z-20" was killed after being shot by Mexican naval personnel. Four people were arrested during the operation.

Wednesday, November 4

In the city of Chihuahua, police and soldiers shot dead a federal policeman who was driving one of three cars that failed to stop for them. The police and troops were on a joint patrol when they attempted to stop the suspicious vehicles. The three vehicles ignored orders to stop, sparking off a gun battle that left the federal agent and left another unidentified man wounded.

In Ciudad Juárez, six people were gunned down in a bar. Among them was off-duty US Air Force Staff Sgt. David Booher, who was based at Holloman Air Force base outside Alamogordo, New Mexico. The motive for the attack was unclear, but it bore all the hallmarks of a drug-related murder in Ciudad Juárez. The incident brings the number of deaths in Ciudad Juárez to 30 over the last four days. Additionally, in Garcia, Nuevo Leon, a recently appointed police chief was killed along with four of his bodyguards when they were ambushed by an unknown known of heavily armed gunmen.

Body count for the week: 111
Body count for the year: 6,286
Body count since December 2006: 15,000+

Read the last Mexico Drug War Update here.

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6. The Border: US Begins Turning Busted Smugglers Over to Mexico for Prosecution

For years, getting caught trying to smuggle drugs across the US-Mexican border meant being handed over to US authorities for prosecution. Problem was, US Attorneys on the border were so swamped with marijuana smuggling cases, the general rule was they wouldn't prosecute for less than 500 pounds. Instead, local prosecutors got those cases, but they were swamped, too. As a result, thousands of Mexican marijuana smugglers never faced prosecution in the US -- they were simply deported back over the border to Mexico.

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Reynosa/Hidalgo border crossing (courtesy portland.indymedia.org)
But now, according to the New York Times, under an agreement reached last month, US authorities have begun returning captured Mexican pot smugglers to Mexico for prosecution by Mexican authorities. Late last month, Sonora, Mexico, resident Eleazar Gonzalez-Sanchez won the dubious distinction of being the first person turned over to Mexican authorities after he was popped with 44 pounds by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Nogales, Arizona, border crossing.

The border agreement is a sign of "our effort to enhance cooperation between the US and Mexico on prosecuting drug trafficking cases," said Arizona US Attorney Dennis Burke.

There is plenty of work to do. In the past year, ICE opened 646 smuggling cases out of busts at the Nogales port of entry. In the fiscal year ending in October 2008, ICE busted 71,000 pounds of pot on the Arizona border.

The program is a pilot program currently operating in Arizona. US officials will be monitoring the cases returned to Mexico, and if satisfied with the results, may extend it all along the border.

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7. Drug Legalization: Senator Pushes Amendment to Censor Any Talk of That

Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), an inveterate drug warrior, doesn't want to hear the L-word in Washington. This week, the corn-belt conservative offered an amendment to Senator Jim Webb's (D-VA) pending bill, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, that would explicitly forbid any recommendations that even mention drug legalization or decriminalization.

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the face of ignorance and prejudice -- US Sen. Charles Grassley
Webb, a congressional champion of criminal justice and drug law reform, introduced the bill in a bid to fix what he considers a failing, costly, and inhumane criminal justice system, including the war on drugs. Webb's bill contemplates the creation of "a commission to look at every aspect of our criminal justice system with an eye toward reshaping the process from top to bottom." That would presumably include taking a close look at the impact of drug laws.

Grassley's amendment says its purpose is "to restrict the authority of the Commission to examine policies that favor decriminalization of violations of the Controlled Substances Act or the legalization of any controlled substances." The amendment in its entirety reads as follows:

The Commission shall have no authority to make findings related to current Federal, State, and local criminal justice policies and practices or reform recommendations that involve, support, or otherwise discuss the decriminalization of any offense under the Controlled Substances Act or the legalization of any controlled substance listed under the Controlled Substances Act.

Grassley's politically bowdlerizing ploy quickly drew the ire of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). "Senator Grassley's censorship amendment would block what Senator Webb is trying to achieve with this bill," said Jack Cole, a retired undercover narcotics detective who now heads the LEAP. "All along, Senator Webb has said that in the effort to fix our broken criminal justice system 'nothing should be off the table.' That should include the obvious solution of ending the 'drug war' as a way to solve the unintended problems caused by that failed policy."

As Grassley's amendment started to draw critical scrutiny, he attempted to defend himself. In a conference call with media this week, Grassley responded to a question about the amendment: "Well, my intent on that amendment isn't any different than any other amendments that are coming up. The Congress is setting up a commission to study certain things. And the commission is a -- is an arm of Congress, because Congress doesn't have time to review some of these laws. And -- and -- and the point is, for them to do what we tell them to do. And one of the things that I was anticipating telling them not to do is to -- to recommend or study the legalization of drugs."

When asked if his amendment would include limiting the discussion of medical marijuana, Grassley responded: "Yes, the extent to which it would be decriminalization, the answer is yes."

Grassley added that he had floated several amendments and that he would not necessarily introduce all of them. As of Thursday, he had not yet formally introduced his censorship amendment.

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

The drug war corrodes the integrity of law enforcement in multiple ways, as we see this week: Testilying, sexual extortion, thievery, and the usual just plain old corrupt practices. Let's get to it:

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hands in the cash
In Atlanta, federal prosecutors recently dropped charges accusing a felon of possessing a handgun after a US magistrate testimony from the Atlanta narcotics squad "less than candid." Members of the Atlanta police Red Dog drug unit testified that they pulled the man over after driving past his car and smelling marijuana. They said after the stop that they found a gun in the car. But US Magistrate Linda Walker suppressed the evidence, saying she could not believe the officers had actually smelled marijuana coming from the passing vehicle and thus had no legal reason to stop his vehicle. That's what's known as testilying.

In Medina, Washington, a Medina police officer was arrested October 29 for having sex with a woman he arrested in return for arranging to get her marijuana possession charges dropped. Officer Ismael Garcia Ramirez is charged with official misconduct in the incident, which began when he pulled over the woman for driving on a suspended license. Garcia Ramirez then found marijuana in the car and said he arranged to meet with the woman later for sex. He promised to have her charged dropped, prosecutors said. The woman said the sex was not consensual.

In Lawrenceville, Georgia, two former Gwinnett County Sheriff's Office narcotics investigators were arrested for unrelated offenses October 29. Major David Butler, head of the narcotics and vice units until he resigned under pressure earlier this year, is charged with using a county credit card to buy unspecified items at an adult novelty store and to pay for a motel room. He is also charged with stealing $4,000 from the department's dope buy cash stash. He's out on $20,000 bail. Former narc Vennie Harden is charged with three counts of first-degree forgery and one count of violation of oath of office for forging a supervisor's name on a form authorizing payment of county funds between February and April of this year. He's out on $11,800 bail.

In Philadelphia, a former Philadelphia police officer was hit with more federal charges Wednesday. He had earlier been charged in an alleged violent plot to steal $1.5 million from a cocaine dealer. Former officer Alhinde Weems, 34, was charged Wednesday with conspiracy to commit robbery, drug distribution, and more. According to prosecutors, Weems twice distributed crack cocaine between December 2008 and January 2009, and attempted to peddle a kilogram of cocaine. Weems has behind bars since March, when he was charged in a plot to dress as a detective, enter a drug dealer's home, rob him, and shoot him if necessary. He is being held without bail.

In Miami, a former Miami Dade police officer was sentenced last Friday to two years in federal prison for participating in a drug smuggling conspiracy that was actually an FBI sting. Former officer Jorge Delgado, 31, admitted using his patrol car to protect what he thought was a shipment of Ecstasy in exchange for $2500. He pleaded guilty in July to aiding and abetting an attempt to possess Ecstasy with the intent to distribute. He could have gotten up to 20 years.

In Brownsville, Texas, a former US Customs and Border Protection officer was sentenced Wednesday to more than 11 years in federal prison for taking bribes to allow illegal immigrants and illicit drugs to pass into the country. Sergio Lopez Hernandez, 41, pleaded guilty in April to taking more than $150,000 in bribes to let car loads of people and drugs pass through his lane on the B&M International bridge between Brownsville and Matamoros, Mexico.

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9. Marijuana Legalization: California Poll of Primary Voters Finds Narrow Majority Say Keep It Illegal

A poll released this week suggests backers of California marijuana legalization initiatives have their work cut out for them. The Capitol Weekly/Probolsky Research poll of 750 primary voters in late October found 52% wanted to keep marijuana illegal, while 38% supported legalization.

An April Field poll found that 56% of respondents supported legalization. But that support came in the context of a polling question about legalizing and taxing marijuana in the context of California's ongoing budget crisis. In that poll, respondents said they favored "legalizing marijuana for recreational use and taxing its proceeds."

The difference in poll questions influenced the way people responded, said poll director Adam Probolsky. "By saying there is a chance to help solve the budget crisis, you'd push some people toward making it legal," he said. "It makes it more palatable to people. If we had asked the same question, and said some studies show we'd have 10,000 more highway deaths, you'd push it the other way."

The two polls also sampled different voter pools. The Capitol Weekly poll was based on likely June primary voters, which is a smaller and more conservative group than general election or registered voters. The Field poll looked at registered voters.

While the poll may be a shot across the bow for legalization initiative organizers, it may not accurately predict how such a campaign will fare, Probolsky said. "This doesn't test the push messages -- closing the state budget gap versus the public safety messages," he said. "You need to test half a dozen of those pros and cons to see where the initiative lies."

When measured by party affiliation, only 25% of Republicans supported legalization, compared to 45% of Democrats and nearly 48% of voters who declined to state a party preference. Voters over 65 were most likely to oppose legalization, with 56% saying prohibition should continue. But that was only one point higher than the 55% of 18-to-34-year-olds.

The poll was taken the same week the Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-SF) held a hearing on his marijuana legalization bill at the state capitol in Sacramento. It also comes as petition-gatherers for at least three different legalization initiatives pound the pavement for signatures.

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10. Europe: Dutch Cannabis Café Owner on Trial Over Amount of Pot on Hand

In what is widely viewed as a test case as the Netherlands tilts toward a tougher stance toward cannabis use and sales, the owner of one of the country's biggest cannabis coffee shops went on trial this week on drug trafficking charges. Meddy Willemsen, 58, owned and operated the Checkpoint coffee shop in Terneuzen near the Belgian border until it was shut down in May 2008.

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downstairs of a coffee shop (courtesy Wikimedia)
Now, he and 16 managers and suppliers are on trial in Middleburg. Prosecutors are calling them an organized crime ring.

Checkpoint was serving up to 3,000 customers a day, mainly Belgian and French, but was closed after investigators twice found large amounts of cannabis on the premises. They found 120 kilograms on premise in 2007 and 110 kilos in May 2008.

Under Holland's "tolerance" policy toward cannabis, people can purchase up to five grams per day at licensed coffee shops. Coffee shops are limited to having five pounds on hand. That law has been widely, if quietly, flouted. For a high-volume coffee shop like the Checkpoint, for example, five pounds could be going out the door every hour five grams at a time.

Like all Dutch coffee shops, the Checkpoint also suffered from the "back door" problem. While the Netherlands provides for legal sales, it does not provide for a legal cannabis supply to the coffee shops. That leaves the supply, a $4 billion a year black market business, to an ever-responsive criminal underground.

"The question is whether the conditions of the government's tolerance policy have been violated," Judge Saskia Meeuwis said at the start of the trial.

Prosecutors certainly thought so. "This is clearly a contravention of the spirit of the tolerance policy devised by the government to respond to local demand," said Middelburg prosecution spokeswoman Elke Kool. "This is the biggest-ever case of its sort. We are dealing with a real criminal organization here."

But Raymond Dufour of the Netherlands Drug Policy Foundation told Cannazine the case shows that the current system does not work. "Coffee shops are only allowed to have 500 grams of cannabis in stock," he said. "Everybody knows that if you have 2,500 clients a day, you need more than 500 grams. It's just a silly condition. Everybody in Terneuzen must have known this."

The trial comes as the Netherlands moves to tighten the reins on the coffee shops. The national government announced in September that it wanted to reserve coffee shops for local users -- not foreign drug tourists. The city of Amsterdam has moved to cut the number of its coffee shops in half, while other cities are imposing zoning restrictions on them. In southern Limburg province, 30 coffee shops will become members-only clubs next year, while in two border towns, local authorities are shutting down all coffee shops in a bid to defeat drug tourism.

In April last year, Checkpoint introduced a customer card system intended to prevent customers from exceeding the daily five gram limit and prevent minors from entering the shop.

A verdict in the Checkpoint case is expected December 2.

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11. LAST CHANCE: Help StoptheDrugWar.org (DRCNet) Win $50,000 in America's Giving Challenge

Update: This contest ended on Saturday, November 7th. Thanks to the many of you who supported us in it! Donations made here will still get to us, but they won't count toward the contest. Those wishing to support us can also do so via our regular donation page at http://stopthedrugwar.org/changingminds09/donate.

Dear Reformer:

Our organization, StoptheDrugWar.org (DRCNet), is a participant in "America's Giving Challenge," a contest to help nonprofits by offering prizes ranging from $500 to $50,000 to those who receive the largest number of donations through the "Causes" program by November 7 (TOMORROW). The key is not the size of the donation -- Causes will accept any gift of $10 or more, and any gift no matter how large or small counts equally in the contest. Supporters can make donations that count in the contest up to once a day.

Please donate today to help StoptheDrugWar.org win this much-needed funding -- http://www.causes.com/donations/select_donation_method?cause_id=205062 -- Causes is linked in to Facebook too, and that means you can help by asking your friends on Facebook to donate to StoptheDrugWar.org in the Challenge too.

But don't just ask your friends to donate, as important as that is. Write your friends to tell them how important it is to reform drug policy and eventually end prohibition itself. Send them this week's issue of our Drug War Chronicle newsletter. Ask them to watch our video about abusive SWAT Raids. Tell them why you feel the drug war is wasteful and unjust and bad for our country. If you've donated -- through the Challenge today or in the past -- tell them that, it will make a difference.

Again, the amount of your donation is less important for this contest than the fact that you are giving through the contest. (Of course the larger the gift, the more it will help us directly, but the small gifts add up too.) And even if we don't end up winning, but come close, thousands of people giving money to their favorite nonprofits may see us in the runner-up list and come to check us out and join our cause too. So please visit http://www.causes.com/donations/select_donation_method?cause_id=205062 today, or by November 7 the latest, to support StoptheDrugWar.org in America's Giving Challenge.

Remember that we do what we can from Washington, but in the end it's YOU who represents the cause of stopping the drug war -- to your friends, on Facebook, in your community. If all of us come together, we can win -- not just in the Giving Challenge, but in the court of public opinion and then in Congress.

http://www.causes.com/donations/select_donation_method?cause_id=205062

Thank you!

Sincerely,


David Borden, Executive Director

P.S. If you'd rather not participate in the Challenge, but would still like to donate to us, you can do so here.

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12. Weekly: This Week in History

November 12, 1970: Keith Stroup forms the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

November 12, 1980: New York City Mayor Ed Koch admits to having tried marijuana.

November 6, 1984: The DEA and Mexican officials raid a large marijuana cultivation and processing complex in the Chihuahua desert owned by kingpin Rafael Caro Quintero. Seven thousand campesinos work at the complex, where between 5,000-10,000 tons of high-grade marijuana worth $2.5 billion is found and destroyed. Time magazine calls this "the bust of the century," and it reveals the existence of Mexico's sophisticated marijuana smuggling industry.

November 8, 1984: The international marijuana seizure record is set (still in effect today) -- 4,260,000 lbs in Mexico.

November 6, 1985: Upping the ante in the battle against extradition, guerillas linked to the Medellin cartel occupy the Colombian Palace of Justice. At least 95 people are killed when the Colombian military attack after a 26-hour siege, including 11 Supreme Court justices. Many court documents, including all pending extradition requests, are destroyed by fire.

November 8, 1987: The New York Times reports that Al Gore said he last used marijuana when he was 24. He said he first tried the drug at the end of his junior year at Harvard and used it again at the beginning of his senior year the next fall. He also said he used the drug "once or twice" while off-duty in an Army tour at Bien Hoa, Vietnam, on several occasions while he was in graduate school at Vanderbilt University and when he was an employee of a Nashville newspaper (The Nashville Tennessean). Three days later Gore is quoted in UPI: "We have to be honest and candid and open in dealing with the (drug) problem."

November 11, 1988: The Anti-Drug Abuse Act establishes the creation of a drug-free America as a policy goal. A key provision of the act is the creation of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) to set priorities, implement a national strategy, and certify federal drug-control budgets.

November 6, 1989: Former President Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State George Shultz is quoted by the Associated Press: "We need at least to consider and examine forms of controlled legalization of drugs."

November 7, 2000: In California, citizens vote 61%-39% to pass Proposition 36, diverting nonviolent drug offenders into treatment rather than prison for first and second offenses. In Mendocino County voters approve a measure decriminalizing personal use and growth of up to 25 marijuana plants -- the Green Party-sponsored Measure G wins 52% of the vote.

November 9, 2001: The San Jose Mercury News reports that despite objections from former first lady Betty Ford and drug-treatment authorities, the US Senate Judiciary Committee approved the nomination of John Walters as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

November 9, 2001: The Newark Star-Ledger reports that the US Food and Drug Administration approved the use of Ecstasy in a study to treat victims of post-traumatic stress disorder.

November 10, 2001: The Austin American-Statesman reports that police publicly apologized to Maria Flores for a botched drug raid on May 16.

November 7, 2002: Ruling in favor of NORML Foundation and Media Access Project complaints, the Federal Communications Commission says that public service announcements broadcast under the auspices of the White House drug office advertising program must identify themselves as being part of that program. As a result of the ruling, broadcasters are forced to insert tag lines stating "sponsored by the Office of National Drug Control Policy."

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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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