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House Postpones Marijuana Legalization Vote Until After Election Day, BC Expands "Safe Supply" of Drugs, More... (9/17/20)

There will be no House vote on marijuana legalization until after the election, Vermont lawmakers reach agreement on regulated legal marijuana sales, British Columbia moves to expand access to a "safe supply" of drugs to replace street drugs, and more.

The House punts on passing marijuana legalization right now. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

House Postpones Vote on Marijuana Legalization Bill Until After Election Day. A House Democratic member and several aides said Thursday that a pending vote on the MORE Act marijuana legalization and expungement bill will not happen until after Election Day. The bill was set to be voted on next week, but there were already reports that it would be pushed back to allow the House to concentrate on getting a pandemic relief package passed. Some moderate House Democrats have been expressing concern that passing a marijuana bill before the relief bill was passed would leave them open to attacks by Republicans.

Pennsylvania Governor Reiterates Call for Marijuana Legalization. At a news conference Wednesday, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) once again pleaded with lawmakers to move on legalizing marijuana in the state. Republicans control both chambers of the legislature and have said legalization is not on the table. "The COVID-19 pandemic has caused enormous disruptions to Pennsylvania's economy, and with the additional federal aid stagnating in Congress, we need to do everything we can right here in Harrisburg right now, to help ourselves recover from this pandemic," Wolf said. "Some states that have legalized adult use cannabis have received literally hundreds of millions of dollars in additional revenue."

Vermont: Lawmakers Finalize Marijuana Retail Sales Legislation. A legislative conference committee has finalized an agreement on Senate Bill 54, which would allow for the regulated commercial production and retail sale of marijuana to adults. Now, the revised language must be approved by the House and Senate and then be signed by Gov. Phil Scott (R).

International

British Columbia Moves to Increase "Safe Supply" of Drugs. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry issued a public-health order on Wednesday that will allow registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses to prescribe, make more medications available, and expand eligibility to people who are at risk of overdose, including those who may not necessarily be diagnosed with a substance use disorder. "We know the pandemic has only made the street drug supply in BC more toxic than ever, putting people who use drugs at extremely high risk for overdose," Dr. Henry said in a statement. "Giving physicians and nurse practitioners the ability to prescribe safer pharmaceutical alternatives has been critical to saving lives and linking more people to treatment and other health and social services." Since the COVID crisis began, the province already allowed doctors to prescribe take-home doses of pharmaceutical alternatives to street drugs. Now, they will be available to anyone at risk of overdose.

House to Vote on Protecting All State-Legal Marijuana Programs, Bolivia Coca Cultivation Up, More... (7/29/20)

An amendment to block the Justice Department from using its funds to go after state-legal marijuana programs is headed for a House vote, Maryland's Supreme Court rules that the smell of weed isn't enough for a police search and arrest, and more.

Maryland Supreme Court rules smell of weed not sufficient for arrest or search. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

House Will Vote on Protecting All State Marijuana Programs This Week. The House is prepared to vote this week on an amendment from Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Tom McClintock (R-CA), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) that would protect both medical and recreational marijuana programs in the states, territories, and tribal lands. The amendment would bar the Justice Department from using its funds to impede the implementation of state-legal marijuana programs.

Maryland Supreme Court Rules Smell of Marijuana Alone Not Sufficient for Police Search and Arrest. The state's high court has ruled that police may not search or arrest people based on the smell of marijuana alone. "The odor of marijuana, without more, does not provide law enforcement officers with the requisite probable cause to arrest and perform a warrantless search of that person incident to the arrest," the court held in a unanimous ruling. The decision builds on an earlier ruling by the same court that police can't arrest and search someone based on observing amounts of marijuana smaller than 10 grams.

International

Bolivia Coca Cultivation Up Last Year, UNODC Says. Coca cultivation was up 10% over 2018 last year, according to the latest Coca Cultivation Monitoring Report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The Yungas region of La Paz accounted for nearly two-thirds of cultivation, while the Tropics of Cochabamba accounted for nearly all the rest. Meanwhile, the Bolivian government reported a roughly 20% decrease in eradication.

British Columbia Bill to Require Youth Overdose Victims to Be Detained Put on Hold. Canada's British Columbia has paused movement on a bill that would allow for people under age 19 to be detained after they suffer a drug overdose. The proposed changes in the provincial Mental Health Act would allow teens to be detained in a hospital for up to a week after an overdose, but the bill has been paused in the face of opposition from children and youth advocates and drug reform activists. They say it should be withdrawn completely.

CDC Says Fatal Drug ODs Up Last Year, FL Supreme Court Orders Rare Second Hearing in MedMJ Case, More... (7/15/20)

After the first decline in drug ODs in decades in 2018, the number jumped again last year, the CDC says; Canadian psychotherapists want the ability to use psilocybin themselves to better treat patients using the drug, and more.

Drug overdose deaths were up last year, according to preliminary data from the CDC. (Creative Commons)
Medical Marijuana

Florida Supreme Court Asks for Rare Second Round of Arguments in Medical Marijuana Case. In a rare move, the state's high court Tuesday ordered a second round of arguments in a battle about whether the state has properly carried out a 2016 constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana. The case is a lawsuit filed by Florigrown, a Tampa company that has questioned whether a 2017 law passed to implement the voter-approved constitutional amendment is itself constitutional. The case centers on parts of the law around licensing companies to operate in the industry.

Drug Use

CDC Preliminary Data Shows Increase in Overdoses Last Year. After declining for the first time in decades in 2018, drug overdose deaths rose 4.6% in 2019, according to preliminary data from the Centers on Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to the data, which won't be finalized until year's end, there were 70,980 overdose deaths last year, up from 67,850 in 2018. Experts fear drug deaths will be even higher this year during a global pandemic that has disrupted health care and drug markets, isolated millions of people, and left millions more jobless.

International

Canadian Psychotherapists Petition Government for Permission to Dose Themselves to Better Treat Patients. A nonprofit group of psychedelic therapists, TheraPsil, is asking Health Canada for permission to be able to dose themselves with psilocybin in a bid to better help their patients. The move comes as a group of terminally ill patients awaits permission from the ministry to use magic mushrooms for end of life care. The group says therapists need firsthand experiences with the drug's effects: "The fundamental reason to expose therapists to their own experiences with psychedelics is that, unless you have visited these realms, you are unlikely to understand their importance." Going to a psychedelic therapist who hasn't used psychedelics would be like "going to a sex therapist who's never had sex before," said the group's executive director, Spencer Hawkswell.

OR Drug Decrim Will Go to Voters, VA Marijuana Decrim Now in Effect, More... (7/1/20)

The Old Dominion decriminalizes pot possession, Oregon will vote on decriminalizing all drugs, drug overdoses are jumping during the pandemic, and more.

Virginia. Now not just for lovers, but for tokers, too. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Virginia Marijuana Decriminalization Now in Effect. As of July 1, marijuana decriminalization has gone into effect in Virginia. Now, people caught with an ounce or less will face a maximum penalty of a $25 fine. A celebration is planned for the state capital Wednesday. "Richmond hasn't burned this hard since 1865!" the event's anonymous organizers wrote. In 2018, the last year for which full data is available, 29,000 people were arrested on marijuana charges.

Medical Marijuana

Nebraska Petitioners Prepare to Hand in Signatures. With a deadline to hand in signatures for their initiative Thursday, Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana has stepped up signature-gathering in recent weeks. The group needs 121,000 valid voter signatures and says they are very close. Stay tuned.

Drug Policy

Drug Overdoses Soar Amidst Coronavirus Pandemic. Based on data from ambulance teams, hospitals, and police, the Washington Post is reporting that drug overdose deaths have jumped and keep jumping during the coronavirus pandemic. The Post's data showed overdose deaths up 18% in March, 29% in April, and 42% in May. The Post points to continued isolation, economic devastation, and disruptions in the drug trade as contributing factors.

Ohio Senate Passes Drug Sentencing Reform Bill. On a vote of 25-4, the state Senate Tuesday approved Senate Bill 3, which would reclassify many low-level drug possession felonies as misdemeanors. The bill would also make it easier for people convicted of drug possession crimes to get their records sealed, and it would give judges the option of delaying and possibly dismissing cases if a defendant successfully completed a rehabilitation program. And it doubles the state's already generous limit for decriminalized marijuana possession from 100 grams to 200 grams -- nearly half a pound of pot.

Oregon Drug Decriminalization, Treatment Initiative Qualifies for November Ballot. The secretary of state's office has confirmed that the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act (IP44) has qualified for the November ballot by handing in more than 116,622 valid voter signatures. The initiative would decriminalize the possession of personal use amounts of drugs and channel marijuana tax revenues into drug treatment.

Dem Congresswomen File COVID Decarceration Bill, Vancouver Activists Rally for Safe Drug Supply, More... (6/23/20)

Iowa's capital and largest city moves toward marijuana law reform, Vancouver activists march to demand a safe drug supply, progressive Democratic congresswomen roll out a public health-minded bill to reduce incarceration, and more.

The InSite safe injection site in Vancouver. Now activists are calling for a safer drug supply, too. (vch.ca)
Marijuana Policy

Des Moines Creates Task Force to Study Marijuana Decriminalization. Iowa's capital and largest city is moving toward making enforcement of marijuana possession the lowest law enforcement priority. On Monday night, the city council took the first step in that process by voting unanimously to create a task force to study marijuana decriminalization. That task force will study the issue and make recommendations to the council by October 1. The resolution was part of an anti-racial profiling ordinance also unanimously passed by the council Monday.

Psychedelics

Iowa Amendment to Decriminalize Psilocybin Defeated. State Rep. Jeff Shipley (R-Fairfield) last week filed an amendment to a budget bill that would have removed psilocybin and psilocin from the state's controlled substances list. But members questioned how germane the amendment was to the budget bill and the presiding officer agreed, ruling the measure "not germane." Still, it got a vote and was handily defeated,76-17. Shipley last year filed a bill to legalize psilocybin and MDMA for medical use.

Sentencing Policy

Democratic Congresswomen File Bill to Dismantle Mass Incarceration. Last week, Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib (MI), Ayanna Pressley (MA), and Barbara Lee (CA) introduced the as yet unnumbered Dismantle Mass Incarceration for Public Health Act, which would require the release of eligible individuals who are currently in custody in a jail or prison during the COVID-19 crisis and for one year after the crisis ends. "This pandemic should not be a death sentence for anyone," said Congresswoman Tlaib. "We already know that Black and Brown folks are disproportionately affected by this virus outside prison walls. We also know that they’ve been disproportionately incarcerated for decades. These factors make for a unique urgency to get this bill passed, so we ensure incarcerated individuals and their loved ones have a fighting chance to see each other again."

International

Vancouver Activists Rally and March in Downtown Eastside for Safe Drug Supply. With last month being the deadliest for drug overdoses in years with more than 170 dead in the city, Vancouver activists rallied and marched through the Downtown Eastside, the epicenter of hard drug use in the city, to demand access to a safe supply of drugs for users. While acknowledging federal and provincial government efforts to ease access to such drugs, lockdowns related to the coronavirus pandemic have resulted in interruptions to the drug supply and led to the local manufacture of substitutes cut with more dangerous and toxic ingredients. The rally was led by the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU).

End Drug Prohibition to Fight Organized Crime, World Leaders Say [FEATURE]

For nearly a decade now, a collection of former heads of state, high political figures, businessmen, and cultural figures have been working to reform drug policy at the national and international levels. Known as the Global Commission on Drug Policy, this group of planetary elders has been busy issuing reports at the rate of one a year on how to reduce the harms of prohibitionist drug policies and what would be more effective and humane alternatives.

members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy (globalcommissionondrugs.org)
Now they've just released their latest report, Enforcement of Drug Laws: Refocusing on Organized Crime Elites, which takes on the perverse and insidious ways drug prohibition actually empowers and encourages criminal enterprises, and counsels nations and the global anti-drug bureaucracy to find a better way. That includes pondering the possibility of drug legalization and the taming of illicit markets through regulation -- not prohibition, which has demonstrably failed for decades.

The commission rolled out its report Thursday with a virtual presentation on YouTube.

"This report has a new perspective on the problem of organized crime," said commission member Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand and former head of the United Nations Development Program. "Organized crime is a challenge in every society, and if it gets into the political realm and starts corrupting political systems, that is a huge issue, and it has done that," she said.

"Where the commission comes from is that we're saying 'drugs are being caught up in this' because of the refusal of the international community to accept that drugs need to be responsibly regulated," Clark continued. The attempt to prohibit them has actually been a license for organized crime to build a half-trillion dollar a year industry peddling stuff. Could we take drugs out of that through responsible regulation?

As president of Colombia between 2010 and 2018, Juan Manuel Santos mediated a peace treaty with the leftist guerrillas of the FARC and won a Nobel prize for his efforts. He also presided over a country that is perennially in contention for being the world's largest cocaine producer. He knows about what drug prohibition can bring.

"I come from a country that has fought drug traffickers and drug trafficking for so long and has probably paid the highest price of any country in the world -- Colombia has lost its best leaders, best journalists, best judges, best policemen -- and we are still the number one exporter of cocaine to the world markets," Santos said. "Corruption and drug trafficking go hand in hand. The most dangerous and protected individuals often escape, while ordinary people who happen to use illicit drugs see their lives destroyed by the war on drugs," he argued.

"To fight organized crime, we must follow the money," Santos continued. "People are realizing that a war that has been fought for a half century and has not been won is a war that has been lost, and so you have to change your strategy and your tactics if you want to be successful. Corruption, violence, profits, and prohibition are very closely related. You do away with prohibition, you regulate, you bring down the profits, and immediately you will start to see an improvement in violence and corruption."

The commission's work centers around five pathways, explained commission chair and former Swiss president Ruth Dreifuss.

"It is putting health first," she said. "Second, it is also giving priority to the use of some of these substances for their medical benefits. It is one of the dramatic situations also, mainly in poor countries, that the people have no access to scheduled pain killers. The third pathway, which we think is very important, is to end the criminalization of people who use drugs. The fourth chapter of our reform program is that we have to deal with the criminality related to drugs, and that is why we issued this report today. And the last point is that we have to take control. The state -- reasonable and responsible people -- have to take control of drug markets and not let them stay in criminal hands."

While the 52-page report provides a detailed, evidence-based examination of the challenges of grappling with criminal groups that thrive under prohibition, it summarizes its findings with five basic recommendations for national governments and at the United Nations, whose anti-drug treaties form the legal backbone of global drug prohibition. These are:

  1. States must acknowledge the negative consequences of repressive law enforcement approaches to drug policies and recognize that prohibition forges and strengthens criminal organizations. Sharing such conclusions with the public must then feed national debates to support bold drug policy reform. (We all know the litany by now: From racially-biased and militarized policing and over-incarceration in the United States to bloody drug wars in Mexico and Colombia financed by prohibition profits, to the murderous and repressive anti-drug campaign in the Philippines, enforcing drug prohibition has dreadfully harmful consequences.)
  2. States must analyze the transnational and trans-sectorial nature of criminal organizations, to review and reform the current exclusive focus on law enforcement. (Drug trafficking organizations don't just traffic drugs; they tend to get their fingers in whatever illicit enterprises can turn a buck for them, from wildlife smuggling to counterfeiting to extortion. And maybe we'd be better off devoting more resources to treatment and prevention instead of trying to suppress and arrest our way out of the problem.)
  3. States must develop targeted and realistic deterrence strategies to counter organized crime and focus their response on the most dangerous and/or highest profiting elements in the criminal market. States must also reinforce interdepartmental cooperation to address criminal markets in a broad sense, not solely drugs, and develop effective transnational coordination against trans-border criminal groups and international money laundering. (It's both cruel and ineffective to target drug users and street-level dealers for arrest and prosecution. But the recent Mexican experience has shown that the alternative strategy of going after "kingpins" can lead to an increase in violence as gang lieutenants engage in murderous struggles to replace each capo killed or captured. It's a real dilemma -- unless you undercut them by ending prohbition.)
  4. States must consider the legal regulation of drugs as the responsible pathway to undermine organized crime. (This increasingly seems like a very reasonable approach.)
  5. UN member states must revisit the global governance of the international drug control regime in order to achieve better outcomes in public health, public safety, justice, and greater impact on transnational organized crime. (It's way past time to nullify or amend the anti-drug treaties that guide international drug policies.)

The Global Commission on Drug Policy has laid out a framework for radical reform. Now, it's up to the nations of the world and the international institutions that bind us together to act.

MO and OK Inits Could Fall Victim to Pandemic, COVID-19 Spreads Behind Bars, More... (3/30/20)

The coronavirus pandemic is taking a toll on state-level marijuana legalization initiatives, Pennsylvania says needle exchanges are "life-sustaining" during the pandemic, Vancouver moves to allow "safe supply" of regualted drugs during the crisis, and more.

COVID-19 is in the nation's jails and prisons.
Marijuana Policy

Missouri Marijuana Legalization Likely to Fall Victim to Coronavirus Pandemic. Missourians for a New Approach, the folks behind the state's marijuana legalization initiative, are warning that the COVID-19 pandemic will likely mean that the effort will not be able to gather enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot. The campaign needs 160,000 valid voter signatures by May 3, but at this point has only 60,000 raw signatures. "Yes, it's a terrible setback," said Dan Viets, board chair of the group. "When there's no public gatherings, when people stay in their homes… it's very difficult to find voters."

Oklahoma Marijuana Legalization Initiative in Doubt as State Shuts Down Signature Gathering. The campaign to put a marijuana legalization initiative, State Question 807 is likely to fall victim to the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of a 30-day statewide emergency declaration, Secretary of State Mike Rogers has ordered a pause to all initiative signature gathering activities. The campaign needs to collect 178,000 signatures in 90 days to qualify for the November ballot. It would be "really difficult, if not impossible to imagine a scenario in which an initiative petition campaign could responsibly and feasibly collect the signatures necessary in order to make the 2020 ballot if that campaign doesn't already have the signatures on hand," said campaign spokesman Ryan Kiesel.

Harm Reduction

Pennsylvania Needle Exchanges Are "Life-Sustaining," State Says. Needle exchanges are technically illegal in the state, but the state Department of Health has deemed them a "life-sustaining" service, allowing them to stay open amid the shutdown of other businesses and nonprofits. Some 20 such programs operate in the state, and advocates are hoping this designation could lead to their legalization down the line.

Incarceration

Coronavirus Spread Accelerates in US Jails and Prisons. Jails and prisons across the US are reporting an accelerating spread of COVID-19 with more than 226 inmates and 131 staff with confirmed cases. In New York City alone, at least 132 inmates and 104 jail staff have been infected. Jails and prisons are responding in varying ways, including releasing thousands of inmates from detention, some with little or no screening before they are released.

International

Vancouver Moving to Allow Take-Home Doses of Regulated Drugs. Canada's British Columbia is moving to provide drug users with take-home supplies of regulated substances, including opioids, stimulants, tobacco, and alcohol. Vancouver has long called for "safe supply" for drug users, but the combination of two public health crises -- the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing overdose epidemic -- has finally made it a reality, with the city drafting new guidelines to allow the practice. "These guidelines enable us to provide a safe supply for people and to ensure that they're able to comply with our public-health advice around isolation or quarantine, should that be required," said Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry. Recent changes to the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and provincial prescribing guidelines made the move possible.

Mexican Opium Poppy Cultivation Drops 9%, UNODC Says. The land area under opium poppy cultivation decreased by 9% between July 2017 and June 2018, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported Monday. Land under cultivation fell from 78,000 acres to 70,000 acres. Poppy cultivation was centered in the Golden Triangle region of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range, Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua meet, but was also grown in northern Nayarit and in the Sierra Madre del Sur of Guerrero. Analysts said the likely explanation for the decrease was a sharp decline in opium gum prices caused by rising demand for synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl.

Two Takes on the Global Drug War and Global Drug Cultures [FEATURE]

America shows signs of emerging from the century-long shadow of drug prohibition, with marijuana leading the way and a psychedelic decriminalization movement rapidly gaining steam. It also seems as if the mass incarceration fever driven by the war on drugs has finally broken, although tens if not hundreds of thousands remain behind bars on drug charges.

As Americans, we are remarkably parochial. We are, we still like to tell ourselves, "the world's only superpower," and we can go about our affairs without overly concerning ourselves about what's going on beyond our borders. But what America does, what America wants and what America demands has impacts far beyond our borders, and the American prohibitionist impulse is no different.

Thanks largely (but not entirely) to a century of American diplomatic pressure, the entire planet has been subsumed by our prohibitionist impulse. A series of United Nations conventions, the legal backbone of global drug prohibition, pushed by the US, have put the whole world on lockdown.

We here in the drug war homeland remain largely oblivious to the consequences of our drug policies overseas, whether it's murderous drug cartels in Mexico, murderous cops in the Philippines, barbarous forced drug treatment regimes in Russia and Southeast Asia, exemplary executions in China, or corrupted cops and politicians everywhere. But now, a couple of non-American journalists working independently have produced a pair of volumes that focus on the global drug war like a US Customs X-ray peering deep inside a cargo container. Taken together, the results are illuminating, and the light they shed reveals some very disturbing facts.

Dopeworld by Niko Vorobyov and Pills, Powder, and Smoke by Antony Loewenstein both attempt the same feat -- a global portrait of the war on drugs -- and both reach the same conclusion -- that drug prohibition benefits only drug traffickers, fearmongering politicians, and state security apparatuses -- but are miles apart attitudinally and literarily. This makes for two very different, but complementary, books on the same topic.

Loewenstein, an Australian who previously authored Disaster Capitalism and Profits of Doom, is -- duh -- a critic of capitalism who situates the global drug war within an American project of neo-imperial subjugation globally and control over minority populations domestically. His work is solid investigative reporting, leavened with the passion he feels for his subject.

In Pills, Powder, and Smoke, he visits places that rarely make the news but are deeply and negatively impacted by the US-led war on drugs, such as Honduras. Loewenstein opens that chapter with the murder of environmental activist Berta Caceres, which was not directly related to the drug war, but which illustrates the thuggish nature of the Honduran regime -- a regime that emerged after a 2009 coup overthrew the leftist president, a coup justified by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and which has received millions in US anti-drug assistance, mainly in the form of weapons and military equipment.

Honduras doesn't produce any drugs; it's only an accident of geography and the American war on drugs that we even mention the country in the context of global drug prohibition. Back in the 1980s, the administration of Bush the Elder cracked down on cocaine smuggling in the Caribbean, and as traffickers sought to evade that threat, Honduras was perfectly placed to act as a trampoline for cocaine shipments taking an alternative route through Mexico, which incidentally fueled the rise of today's deadly and uber-wealthy Mexican drug cartels.

The drug trade, combined with grinding poverty, huge income inequalities, and few opportunities, has helped turn Honduras into one of the deadliest places on earth, where the police and military kill with impunity, and so do the country's teeming criminal gangs. Loewenstein walks those mean streets -- except for a few neighborhoods even his local fixers deem too dangerous -- talking to activists, human rights workers, the family members of victims, community members, and local journalists to paint a chilling picture. (This is why Hondurans make up a large proportion of those human caravans streaming north to the US border. But unlike Venezuela, where mass flight in the face of violence and economic collapse is routinely condemned as a failure of socialism, you rarely hear any commentators calling the Honduran exodus a failure of capitalism.)

He reexamines one of the DEA's most deadly recent incidents, where four poor, innocent Hondurans were killed by Honduran troops working under DEA supervision in a raid whose parameters were covered up for years by the agency. Loewenstein engaged in extended communication with the DEA agent in charge, as well as with survivors and family members of those killed. Those people report they have never received an apology, not to mention compensation, from the Honduran military -- or from the United States. While the Honduran military fights the drug war with US dollars, Loewenstein shows it and other organs of the Honduran government are also deeply implicated in managing the drug traffic. And news headlines bring his story up to date: Just this month, the current, rightist president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, of meeting with and taking a bribe from a drug trafficker. This comes after his brother, former Honduran Senator Juan Antonio Hernández, was convicted of running tons of cocaine into the United States in a trial that laid bare the bribery, corruption, and complicity of high-level Hondurans in the drug trade, including the president.

Loewenstein also takes us to Guinea-Bissau, a West African country where 70 percent of the population subsists on less than $2 a day and whose biggest export is cashews. Or at least it was cashews. Since the early years of this century, the country has emerged as a leading destination for South American cocaine, which is then re-exported to the insatiable European market.

Plagued by decades of military coups and political instability, the country has never developed, and an Atlantic shoreline suited for mass tourism now serves mainly as a convenient destination for boatloads and planeloads of cocaine. Loewenstein visits hotels whose only clients are drug traffickers and remote fishing villages where the trade is an open secret and a source of jobs. He talks with security officials who frankly admit they have almost no resources to combat the trade, and he traces the route onward to Europe, sometimes carried by Islamic militants.

He also tells the tale of one exemplary drug bust carried out by a DEA SWAT team arguably in Guinean territorial waters that snapped up the country's former Navy minister. The DEA said he was involved in a "narco-terrorist" plot to handle cocaine shipments for Colombia's leftist FARC guerillas, who were designated as "terrorists" by the administration of Bush the Junior in a politically convenient melding of the wars on drugs and terror.

It turns out, though, there were no coke loads, and there was no FARC; there was only a DEA sting operation, with the conspiracy created out of whole cloth. While the case made for some nice headlines and showed the US hard at work fighting drugs, it had no demonstrable impact on the use of West Africa as a cocaine conduit, and it raised serious questions about the degree to which the US can impose its drug war anywhere it chooses.

Loewenstein also writes about Australia, England, and the United States, in each case setting the historical and political context, talking to all kinds of people, and laying bare the hideous cruelties of drug policies that exert their most terrible tolls on the poor and racial minorities. But he also sees glimmers of hope in things such as the movement toward marijuana legalization here and the spread of harm reduction measures in England and Australia.

He gets one niggling thing wrong, though, in his chapter on the US. He converses with Washington, DC, pot activists Alan Amsterdam and Adam Eidinger, the main movers behind DC's successful legalization initiative, but in his reporting on it, he repeatedly refers to DC as a state and once even mistakenly cites a legal marijuana sales figure from Washington state. (There are no legal sales in DC.) Yes, this is a tiny matter, but c'mon, Loewenstein is Australian, and he should know a political entity similar to Canberra, the Australian Capital Territory.

That quibble aside, Loewenstein has made a hardheaded but openhearted contribution to our understanding of the multifaceted malevolence of the never-ending war on drugs. And I didn't even mention his chapter on the Philippines. It's in there, it's as gruesome as you might expect, and it's very chilling reading.

Vorobyov, on the other hand, was born in Russia and emigrated to England as a child. He reached adulthood as a recreational drug user and seller -- until he was arrested on the London Underground and got a two-year sentence for carrying enough Ecstasy to merit a charge of possession with intent to distribute. After that interval, which he says inspired him to write his book, he got his university degree and moved back to Russia, where he picked up a gig at Russia Today before turning his talents to Dopeworld.

Dopeworld is not staid journalism. Instead, it is a twitchy mish-mash, jumping from topic to topic and continent to continent with the flip of a page, tracing the history of alcohol prohibition in the US at one turn, chatting up Japanese drug gangsters at the next, and getting hammered by ayahuasca in yet another. Vorobyov himself describes Dopeworld as "true crime, gonzo, social, historical memoir meets fucked up travel book."

Indeed. He relates his college-boy drug-dealing career with considerable panache. He parties with nihilistic middle-class young people and an opium-smoking cop in Tehran, he cops $7 grams of cocaine in Colombia and tours Pablo Escobar's house with the dead kingpin's brother as a tour guide, he has dinner with Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's family in Mexico's Sinaloa state and pronounces them nice people ("really chill"), and he meets up with a vigilante killer in Manila.

Vorobyov openly says the unsayable when it comes to writing about the drug war and drug prohibition: Drugs can be fun! While Loewenstein is pretty much all about the victims, Vorobyov inhabits the global drug culture. You know: Dopeworld. Loewenstein would bemoan the utter futility of a record-breaking seizure of a 12-ton load of cocaine; Vorobyov laments, "that's 12 tons of cocaine that will never be snorted."

Vorobyov is entertaining and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, and he brings a former dope dealer's perspective to bear. He's brash and breezy, but like Loewenstein, he's done his homework as well as his journalistic fieldwork, and the result is fascinating. To begin to understand what the war on drugs has done to people and countries around the planet, this pair of books makes an essential introduction. And two gripping reads.

Dopeworld: Adventures in the Global Drug Trade by Niko Vorobyov (August 2020, St. Martin's Press, hardcover, 432 pp., $29.99)

Pills, Powder, and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs by Antony Loewenstein (November 2019, Scribe, paperback, 368 pp., $19.00)

Chronicle AM: Drug Overdoses Declined in 2018, Bernie Sanders Marijuana Legalization Plan, More... (1/30/20)

The CDC reports that drug overdose deaths declined for the first time in decades in 2018, Colombia's coca farmers are increasingly unhappy, Bernie Sanders could use an executive order to legalize marijuana at the federal level, and more.

Bernie Sanders is looking at using an executive order to end federal marijuana prohibition. (senate.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Bernie Sanders Could Use Executive Order to End Federal Marijuana Prohibition. Aides to Vermont senator and Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders (I) have presented him with a list of executive orders he could use to unilaterally change federal policies, including one that would direct the Department of Justice to legalize marijuana at the federal level.

Virginia Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Advances. A bill that would decriminalize marijuana and hash oil for adults was approved Wednesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The measure, SB 2, now heads to the Finance and Appropriations Committee and, if it passes there, a Senate floor vote.

Cleveland, Ohio, City Council Approves Marijuana Decriminalization. The city council has voted 15-2 to approve a measure that would eliminates fines and jail time for low-level marijuana possession. And it's a pretty high low level: 200 grams. The legislation still needs to be approved by Mayor Frank Jackson (D), who has previously expressed support for it.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

CDC Reports Drug Overdose Deaths Declined in 2018. For the first time this century, overall drug overdose deaths declined in 2018, according to a new report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday. The report put the total number of overdose deaths at 67,000 in 2018, down from over 70,000 in 2017, a decline of 4%. But that still makes 2018 the second-worst year for drug overdose deaths in US history. The majority of overdose deaths involved heroin and fentanyl.

Asset Forfeiture

South Carolina Prosecutor to Appeal Circuit Court Judge's Ruling that Civil Asset Forfeiture Law is Unconstitutional. 15th Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson filed notice this week that he intends to appeal a local judge's 2019 ruling that the state's civil asset forfeiture law is unconstitutional under both state and federal law. The move comes a month after Circuit Court Judge Steven John reaffirmed his August ruling. Johns' decision struck down civil asset forfeiture in his district, but the appeal decision would apply statewide.

International

Colombia Coca Farmers Plan Mass Protests as Counternarcotics Strategy Collapses. Coca farmers are demanding the resignation of crop substitution program director Hernando London after he claimed that "coca substitution leaders have not been assassinated." The coca growers' federation says at least 56 community leaders promoting crop substitution programs have been killed since the program began in March 2017. The coca growers said they were fed up with the "bullshit" of President Ivan Duque's administration and would join national strikes set for next month. Duque's anti-coca policy faces collapse if the crop substitution program is not executed because it then cannot resume aerial spraying of coca crops, according to the Constitutional Court. Without voluntary eradication and aerial spraying, only labor-intensive and easily reversed manual eradication could be used -- and 80% of the destroyed crops are replanted.

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org's 501(c)(4) lobbying nonprofit, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this website. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Chronicle AM: Hawaii Bill Would De-Decriminalize Pot, Indiana Syringe Exchange Expansion Bill, More... (1/28/20)

Some Hawaii legislators want to roll back last year's marijuana decriminalization, Mexico's president says a government panel will be formed to make recommendations on how to legalize marijuana, and more.

Marijuana

Hawaii Bill Would Roll Back Decriminalization. Last year, the legislature approved marijuana decriminalization. This year, at least five legislators want to turn back the clock. House Bill 2018 was introduced by five Oahu representatives and argues that "Hawaii should be protected from suffering the dangers and risks increasingly occurring in states which have endorsed the possession and use of marijuana through means of decriminalization and legalization." The bill is not yet available on the legislative web site.

Harm Reduction

Indiana Syringe Exchange Access Bill Filed. A bill to allow syringe exchange programs to operate without the prior declaration of a public health emergency has been filed in Indianapolis. SB 207 would also repeal the July 1, 2021 expiration date of existing syringe exchange programs. The measure has been referred to the Committee on Health and Provider Services and was set for a hearing Wednesday morning.

International

Mexico's President Says A New Marijuana Panel Will Make Legalization Recommendations. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Monday that his government is forming a panel to make recommendations on how marijuana legalization should unfold. "A group is going to be formed to decide what will happen about that with a public health approach. We are about to comply with the recommendation of the Supreme Court," the president said. The high court ruled in 2019 that marijuana prohibition was unconstitutional and gave the government a limited time to rectify the situation. That clock runs out in April, and Lopez Obrador's allies in the congress say they will pass a legalization bill before then.

Drug War Issues

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