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Chronicle Book Review: The Dope [FEATURE]

The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade by Benjamin T. Smith (2021, W.W. Norton, 462 pp, $30 HB)

This past weekend, top-level American officials were in Mexico City meeting with their Mexican counterparts to discuss rebuilding cooperation in the endless struggle against Mexican drug trafficking organizations. The meeting comes nearly 15 years after then-President George W. Bush and then-Mexican President Felipe Calderon initiated the Merida Initiative to fight drugs, crime, and violence. In 2007, when the Merida Initiative began, there were about 2,300 drug-related deaths in Mexico. Fifteen years and $1.6 billion in US security assistance later, the annual Mexican death toll is north of 30,000, American overdose deaths largely linked to Mexican-supplied fentanyl are at an all-time high, and despite killing or capturing dozens of "kingpins," the so-called "cartels" are more powerful than ever.

In The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade, Mexico historian Benjamin T. Smith relates the story of another meeting between American and Mexican officials more than 80 years ago. It was at the League of Nations in 1939, and Mexican diplomat Manuel Tello was trying to sell the assembled narcotics experts on a novel approach to opioid addiction: Post-revolutionary Mexico had just passed a new drug law that allowed for state-run morphine dispensaries. Doing that could treat addiction and allow users to get their fix without resorting to a black market, he argued.

That proposal, one much in vogue in harm reduction and public health circles these days, was shot down by none other than Harry Anslinger, head of the American Federal Bureau of Narcotics and self-appointed dope cop to the world. He made it clear to the Mexicans, who had also irked him by challenging his Reefer Madness propaganda, that no such nonsense would be tolerated. That encounter, Smith's narrative makes clear, is emblematic of the US-Mexico relationship when it comes to drugs. The US, with its insatiable appetite for mind-altering substances, has for decades leaned on Mexico to repress the trade its citizens demand, and the results have for decades been dire.

As Smith shows, US pressure on Mexico to ramp up its anti-drug efforts, particularly in the 1940s and 1970s, produced temporary results but also long-term pathologies. Where Mexican authorities had been happy to manage the trade rather than repress it, Washington demanded strict enforcement and aggressive action. Harsher enforcement, including the resort to torture and murder (with the knowledge, encouragement, and sometimes the participation of DEA agents), produced a meaner criminal underworld. Smith especially notes the American insistence on a broad strategy of relying on informants as an aggravating factor in escalating trafficker violence, as traffickers turned on each other for revenge or to protect themselves from potential rats.

Smith also clarifies that the drug trade has always been seen not just as a scourge but as a resource by elements of the Mexican state. Early on, a post-revolutionary governor in Sinaloa taxed the opium traffickers and used the proceeds for public works. Governors in border states like Baja California and Chihuahua followed suit, taxing the trade, protecting favored traffickers and making exemplary busts of those without favored status to please the Americans. Although, as he notes, the politicians increasingly tended to forget the public works and just pocket the money themselves.

Smith described the structure of the relationship between the Mexican state and the drug traffickers as more a "protection racket" than an adversarial one Prior to the 1970s, the racket was carried out at the state level, with the governors and the state police forces providing the protection. Levels of violence were generally low, but likely to spike when a change of administration meant a new set of players in the racket and a new set of favored and disfavored traffickers. The favored traffickers could get rich; the unfavored ones could get jailed or killed as sacrificial lambs to appease the Americans.

In the 1970s, though, both the repression and the protection racket went national, with the mandate to fight the drug trade (and the license to manage it) going to the dreaded federales and their masters in the Ministry of Justice and the presidential palace. The levels of violence increasingly dramatically as the federales and the armed forces pleased the Americans by arresting, torturing, and killing marijuana- and opium-growing peasants as well as traffickers. Traffickers who could once accommodate themselves to the occasional exemplary short prison sentence now fought back when faced with death or years behind bars.

But in this century, thanks largely to fabulous profits from the cocaine trade, the drug traffickers have flipped the script. They no longer work for the cops; the cops now work for them. It's a process Smith refers to as "state capture," even if the state function that is being captured is illicit. Now, cops and politicians who don/t understand who is charge end up in unmarked graves or starring in horrid torture/murder videos.

The Dope is a fascinating and sobering tale, full of colorful characters like Dr. Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra, the crusading post-revolutionary physician who argued that marijuana was harmless and whose government office was behind the morphine dispensary plan, and La Nacha, Ignacia Jasso, the dope queen of Ciudad Juarez for decades, along with a veritable rogue's gallery of traffickers, cops, spooks, and politicians, all of whom vie for control of the trade and its incredible profits.

It also reveals some broad findings. First, economics is the driving force of the drug trade, and the economic opportunity it has provided (and continues to provide) to millions of Mexicans means it is not going away, Second, as noted above, authorities have sought to harness income from the drug trade, with the result that they are now harnessed to it. Third, aggressive anti-drug policies are driven more by moral panics, the need for bureaucratic fundraising, and scapegoating, and "are rarely implemented for their effectiveness." Nor do they work, even on their own terms, as our current overdose death numbers shout out. Fourth, the causes of violence originate "not from inside the drug trade, but inside the state," particularly with the churning of protection rackets with the arrival of new political leadership. "The other principal cause of violence has been the war on drugs itself."

There is an extensive mythology around the Mexican drug trade. Benjamin T. Smith has gone a long way toward dispelling those myths by providing an accurate, in-depth, well-sourced history of the trade and the domestic and international politics around it. To understand today's fearsome Mexican drug cartels, start here.

Lawmakers Urge Biden to Allow Buprenorphine Expansion, Honduran President Target of US Drug Investigation, More... (2/9/21)

A major new marijuana reform coalition has formed, a Hawaii asset forfeiture reform bill advances, so does an Idaho medical marijuana bill, and more.

buprenorphine (Pixabay)
Marijuana Policy

Major Marijuana Coalition Forms to Coordinate Legalization Push, But Some Key Advocacy Players Are Not Involved. A bunch of industry and advocacy groups have formed a new coalition, the United States Cannabis Council, to press forward on marijuana legalization. But while the group is headed by Marijuana Policy Project executive director Steven Hawkins on an interim basis, it does not include major advocacy groups such as NORML and the Drug Policy Alliance. It does include marijuana enterprises such as Acreage Holdings, Canopy Growth, Columbia Care, Cronos Group, Curaleaf, Eaze, iAnthus Capital Holdings, LivWell Enlightened Health, MedMen, PAX Labs, Schwazze, Scotts Miracle-Gro Company and Vireo.

Medical Marijuana

Idaho Medical Marijuana Bill Wins Committee Vote. A bill that would legalize medical marijuana in the state won a vote in the House Health and Welfare Committee Monday. Although sponsored by the committee, the bill was actually written by Sgt. Jeremy Kitzhaber, a US Air Force veteran with terminal cancer, who testified before the vote Monday. "I'm here to talk with you about my desire for medical cannabis to be legalized here in Idaho, with specific limitations and controls," Kitzhaber said. "I've spent years writing and editing this legislation, to make it something that would allow medical cannabis to reach those who need it, but not necessarily reach those who just want it."

Asset Forfeiture

Hawaii Senate Advances Asset Forfeiture Reform Measure. The state Senate has approved Senate Bill 294, which would end civil asset forfeiture by requiring a conviction on a felony count before seized property could be sold or otherwise disposed of. The bill would also direct proceeds from the sale of seized property to the state's general fund instead of a fund controlled by law enforcement. Gov. David Ige (D) vetoed a similar bill in 2019, citing concerns it would hinder law enforcement.

Drug Testing

Illinois Bill Would Require Drug Screening to Receive Food Stamps. A downstate Republican, Rep. Blaine Wilhour, filed HB 658 last Friday. The bill would require recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to undergo a drug screening upon being approved for benefits. The bill would also require them to agree to random drug screening while they are receiving the benefits. The bill has not yet been referred to a committee.

Drug Treatment

Lawmakers Urge Biden to Back Buprenorphine Expansion. A group of lawmakers led by led by Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and joined by four members in the House is calling on President Biden to allow more doctors to prescribe buprenorphine, a drug used for the treatment of opioid addiction. The Trump administration had loosened rules for buprenorphine prescribing, but in an early move, the Biden administration reversed that move, saying it was premature. The lawmakers are now reintroducing legislation to eliminate restrictive rules and are calling on Biden to "deliver on your promise to expand access to medication-assisted treatment."

Foreign Policy

US Prosecutors Are Investigating the Honduran President on Drug Trafficking Charges. In new court filing last Friday in the case of an indicted Honduran drug trafficker, federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York said that Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez and other "high-ranking officials" were targets of a drug trafficking investigation. In another filing last month, prosecutors said that by 2013 Hernandez had "accepted millions of dollars in drug trafficking proceeds" and in return had "promised drug traffickers from prosecutors, law enforcement, and extradition to the United States." Hernandez has been a key US ally in the region.

NJ Governor, Lawmakers Reach Agreement on Marijuana Bill, Mexico Strikes Back at DEA, More... (12/7/20)

South Dakota's attorney general's office intervenes against a challenge to the state's voter-approved marijuana legalization, New Jersey's governor and lawmakers reach an agreement on their marijuana bill, and more.

No random marijuana tests for NBA players next year -- and maybe ever.
Marijuana Policy

NBA Won't Test Players for Marijuana Next Year. In a continuation of a policy adopted this year, the National Basketball Association (NBA) will not drug test players for the presence of marijuana -- and it could be moving toward a permanent suspension of such testing. "Due to the unusual circumstances in conjunction with the pandemic, we have agreed with the NBPA [NBA Players Association] to suspend random testing for marijuana for the 2020-21 season and focus our random testing program on performance-enhancing products and drugs of abuse," an NBA spokesperson said. The pause only applies to random drug tests; a player could be tested for marijuana for cause.

New Jersey Governor, Lawmakers Approve Framework for Recreational Marijuana Bill. "We're proud to announce today that we've reached an agreement on legislation providing the framework for legalization, which is a critical step in reducing racial disparities and social inequities that have long plagued our criminal justice system," the office of Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said in a statement last Friday. Among the areas of agreement are that 70% of marijuana sales tax revenues will go to social justice programs and that licenses will be issued to 37 growers for the first two years. An amendment to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms will be removed and considered separately.

South Dakota Attorney General's Office Asks Judge to Dismiss Lawsuit Challenging Victorious Legal Marijuana Initiative. State Assistant Attorney General Grant Flynn last Thursday filed a request with a district judge to throw out a lawsuit challenging the legality of the voter-approved initiative that legalizes marijuana in the state. "The State respectfully requests that Contestants' Election Contest be denied in all respects and that Contestants' Complaint be dismissed with prejudice, in its entirety, and judgement be entered in favor of the state," says the filing authored by Flynn. The plaintiffs are arguing that the measure violates the state constitution because it deals with "a multitude" of topics, not just legalizing marijuana. Those include medical marijuana and hemp. "The State denies that Amendment A includes a 'multitude' of different subjects," Flynn wrote. Attorneys representing the initiative campaign have also joined the case. All sides have until January 8 to file motions and briefs.

Foreign Policy

Mexican President Proposes Stripping Diplomatic Immunity for DEA Agents. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has proposed removing diplomatic immunity for DEA agents working in Mexico. Under the proposal, DEA agents would have to submit all the information they collect in the country to the Mexican government. Also, any Mexican government officials contacted by the DEA would have to report on that contact to the Foreign Relations Department. A DEA spokesman said, however, that sharing information with Mexico "is not going to happen," citing corruption in the Mexican government. The proposal after former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos was arrested on drug and corruption charges in Los Angeles, only to see the charges dropped weeks later by US prosecutors who cited "sensitive and important foreign policy considerations."

Mexico Marijuana Legalization Bill Advances, Senate Approves Meth "Emerging Drug Threat" Bill, More... (11/19/20)

Madison WI ends penalties for pot use and possession, Vancouver, BC to take up a drug decriminalization ordinance, Mexican marijuana legalization bill heads for a Senate floor vote, and more.

seized methamphetamine in Georgia (Warner Robbins PD)
Marijuana Policy

North Carolina's Governor Racial Equity Task Force Calls for Marijuana Decriminalization, Study of Legalization. Gov. Roy Cooper's (D) Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice has recommended that the state study marijuana legalization and enact decriminalization in the meantime. Attorney General Josh Stein (D) who co-chairs the task force, made the case succinctly: "You cannot talk about improving racial equity in our criminal justice system without talking about marijuana," he said.

Madison, Wisconsin, City Council Votes to Remove Penalties for Marijuana Use, Possession. The city's Common Council unanimously approved three marijuana-related ordinances Tuesday that should reduce pot arrests in the state's capital. One allows adults to possess up to an ounce, another allows them to consume it on public or private property, and a third decriminalizes the possession of pot paraphernalia.

Methamphetamine

Senate Approves Meth Bill by Unanimous Consent. The Senate on Monday approved SB 4612, the Methamphetamine Response Act. The bill declares meth "an emerging drug threat" and requires the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) to come with a response plan within 90 days. That plan, which must be updated annually, must include an assessment of threat, as well as treatment and prevention programs and law enforcement programs. It must also set the level of funding needed to implement the plan. The House version of the bill, HR 8210, is parked in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is where it has been since being introduced.

International

Vancouver Mayor to File Motion to Decriminalize Drug Possession. Vancouver, British Columbia, Mayor Kennedy Stewart announced Wednesday that he will file a motion to decriminalize the possession of illicit drugs in the city. "It's not a criminal issue, it's a health issue," he said, saying the move is "long overdue." If the council passes the measure, the city will ask the federal government to "decriminalize personal possession of illicit substances within the City's boundaries for medical purposes."

Mexico Denies Threatening to Expel DEA Agents After Ex-Defense Minister's Drug Arrest. President Andres Manual Lopez Obrador denied Thursday that Mexico had threatened to expel American DEA agents to retaliate for the arrest of ex-Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos upon arrival at LAX last month. At the same time, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said Mexico had threatened a review of security cooperation because the US did not provide advance notice that Cienfuegos was under investigation, but said there was no specific threat to expel DEA agents.

Mexican Senate Committees Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill. The marijuana legalization bill has been formally approved by the Senate Justice, Health, and Legislative Studies committees and is headed for a full floor vote soon. The bill would legalize the possession of up to an ounce by adults and allow the cultivation of up to four plants for personal use. It would also set up a taxed and regulated marijuana market.

Fed Judge Approves Purdue Pharma Settlement, US Drops Case Against Ex-Mexican Defense Minister, More... (11/18/20)

Mississuppi's higest court agrees to a hear a challenge to the voter-approved medical marijuana initiative, New York City public hospitals say no more drug testing pregnant women without their consent, and more.

Purdue Pharma will cop to serious felonies and pay $2 billion in a settlement with the DOJ. (Creative Commons)
Medical Marijuana

Mississippi High Court Takes Up Challenge To Medical Marijuana Measure. Whether voters will actually get the medical marijuana program they approved at the polls earlier this month is now in question after the state Supreme Court announced Tuesday it will take up a challenge to its validity. The challenge was filed by the mayor of the town of Madison days before the election. It argues that the measure is invalid because of a state signature-gathering requirement that is impossible for any initiative to actually comply with. Initiatives are supposed to only get one-fifth of their signatures from each congressional district, but the state now has only four.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Federal Judge Approves Purdue Pharma OxyContin Settlement. A federal judge in New York has approved a settlement in a case brought by the Justice Department against Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin. Under the agreement, the company must plead guilty to "multiple serious felonies" in coming days. It will cop to conspiracy to defraud the United States, breaking laws against kickbacks, and one other count. The settlement also includes a $2 billion payout, with the federal government getting $225 million and states getting $1.775 billion to fight opioid addiction.

Drug Testing

New York City Public Hospitals Will Stop Drug Testing of Pregnant Women. Responding to an announcement that the city's Commission on Human Rights is investigating racial bias in the drug testing and reporting to child welfare authorities of pregnant women at three major hospitals, the city's public hospitals have announced they will no longer drug test pregnant women unless they have written consent. This is a change from the previous policy of the City Health and Hospitals Corporation, under which doctors and nurses did not need to inform pregnant patients they were being drug tested.

Foreign Policy

US Abandons Drug Case Against Former Mexican Defense Minister. Federal prosecutors made the surprise announcement Tuesday that they are dropping drug charges against former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos, who was arrested at LAX after arriving in the US last month. The announcement came in a joint statement with Mexican attorney general's office. "The United States has determined that sensitive and important foreign policy considerations outweigh the government's interest in pursuing the prosecution of the defendant," prosecutors said. Cienfuegos was accused of using his position to shield the H2 cartel and going after its rivals. But his arrest without prior notification of Mexican officials has strained ties between the two countries, with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador threatening to look again at agreements allowing DEA agents to operate in the country.

International

Thailand Loosens Drug Laws to Allow Sale and Possession of Drugs for Research Purposes. The Public Health Ministry has issued new regulations loosening controls on Category II drugs, such as cocaine, opiates and opioids, and ketamine. Under the new rules, such drugs can be sold and possessed for medical and scientific research, medical treatment and disease prevention, or for other government purposes. The new rules go into effect in 240 days.

Former Mexican Defense Minister Busted at LAX, MT Legal Pot Initiative Faces Late Legal Challenge, More... (10/19/20)

Missouri and Virginia both saw their first legal medical marijuana sales this past weekend, the US Sentencing Commission reports more than 3,000 federal prisoners have secured sentence reductions under the First Step Act, and more. 

Former Mexican Defense Minister General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda busted on US drug charges. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Montana Marijuana Legalization Initiative Faces Last-Minute Legal Challenge in State Supreme Court. Opponents of the state's twinned marijuana legalization initiatives (one would legalize it; the other would allow a change in the state constitution to allow setting the legal age at 21) are preparing a last-minute legal challenge designed to knock the measures off the ballot. The opposition group Wrong for Montana said it is preparing to file a lawsuit arguing that the initiatives violate the state constitution by specifying where revenues generated by legal marijuana would go. Voting is already underway in the state.

Medical Marijuana

Missouri Sees First Medical Marijuana Sales. Legal medical marijuana went on sale for the first time in the state over the weekend. The first dispensaries opened in St. Louis county, one in Ellisville and one in Manchester. The state has already approved 65,000 patients to use medical marijuana.

Virginia Sees First Medical Marijuana Sales. Legal medical marijuana went on sale for the first time in the state over the weekend. Dharma Pharmaceuticals opened its doors to registered patients on Saturday morning. The shop was seeing patients by appointment only as a coronavirus precaution.

Sentencing Policy

More Than 3,000 Federal Prisoners Have Received First Step Act Sentencing Reductions. The US Sentencing Commission reports that 3,363 drug offenders have been granted sentencing reductions under the 2018 First Step Act. Those granted reductions saw their sentences decreased by an average of 71 months, a nearly 25% reduction. More than 90% of those receiving sentence reductions were Black.

Pennsylvania Report Recommends Reducing Incarceration for Probationers with Drug Violations. The state Commission on Sentencing has issued a report calling for less jailing and more access to drug treatment for people on probation who get caught using drugs. The report found that about one third of all probation revocations are for drug use. "This report shows that a greater emphasis needs to be placed on providing evidence-based drug treatment for those sentenced to community supervision in order to provide better outcomes for offenders and to avoid costly incarceration," Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery) and the chairman of the commission, wrote in a release.

International

Mexico's Former Defense Minister Arrested in US on Drug and Money Laundering Charges. Former Defense Minister General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda was arrested last Friday at Los Angeles International Airport by US authorities and is charged with taking bribes to allow a violent drug cartel to operate with impunity in Mexico. Cienfuegos was secretary of national defense from 2012 to 2018. He is charged with four counts: international heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana manufacture and distribution conspiracy, importation and distribution conspiracies, and conspiracy to launder narcotics proceeds, according to the US Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York.

MA Pot Shops Beginning Curbside Delivery, LA House Advances MedMJ Expansion, More... (5/19/20)

The Louisiana House votes to expand the state's medical marijuana program, the Georgia Department of Revenue gets caught mishandled seized asset forfeiture funds, and more.

Seized drug money provides temptation to ethically impaired police departments and government offices. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Massachusetts Pot Shops Can Start Curbside Pickup Next Week. Gov. Charlie Baker (R) has announced that recreational marijuana stores can reopen on May 25 for curbside pickup only. The move is part of a comprehensive statewide plan for reopening after the coronavirus shutdown. Massachusetts was the only legal marijuana state to not designate pot shops as essential businesses.

Medical Marijuana

Louisiana House Votes to Expand Medical Marijuana Program. The House last Friday overwhelmingly approved a pair of bills that allow dispensaries to deliver medical marijuana products to patients' homes and expand the list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana. The bills are House Bill 792 and House Bill 819. They now head to the Senate, which has less than two weeks to act before the session ends.

Asset Forfeiture

Georgia Department of Revenue Gets Caught Mishandling Seized Funds. The state Department of Revenue has ended its practice of keeping cash and assets seized in criminal investigations and returned $2.1 million to the state treasury after being outed in March for spending millions of dollars in seized cash on "engraved firearms, pricey gym equipment, clothing, personal items, even $130 sunglasses." The office spent $2.9 million of this money over the past four years. It only returned the $2.1 million after local media exposed the shenanigans.

Oklahoma City Police Department Can't Account for Some Seized Cash. An audit of the department office that handles seized cash and other assets was unable to account for some $27,000 and found the office failed to make timely deposits of currency and lacked adequate controls to prevent theft. The audit came in response to allegations of mishandled money. It found that two envelopes holding $10,775 had gone missing and that another $16,296 could not be accounted for. The department is instituting reforms, the audit said.

GOP Criticize COVID Bill Cannabis Provisions, Honduran Congress Head Tied to Traffickers, More... (5/14/20)

It looks like there will be a fight over marijuana provisions in the HEROES Act coronavirus relief bill, an Oklahoma pot breathalyzer pilot project bill passes the House, another member of the Honduran political elite is tied to drug traffickers, and more.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is throwing jabs at marijuana provisions in the HEROES Act. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Mitch McConnell and Other GOP Lawmakers Slam Marijuana Banking Provisions in Coronavirus Bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) criticized marijuana banking provisions included in the latest coronavirus relief package, complaining that Democrats had included funding to study diversity in the industry as part of the bill. McConnell also more broadly attacked the incorporation of language allowing the industry access to banking and other financial services. McConnell's plaints were echoed by several other Republican lawmakers.

Arizona Court Rules Marijuana Initiative Can't Collect Signatures Online The Arizona Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a request to allow online signature-gathering for proposed ballot initiatives, including the Smart and Safe Arizona marijuana legalization initiative. The good news is the initiative says it already has sufficient signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Oklahoma Bill for Marijuana Breathalyzers Passes House. A bill that would allow marijuana breathalyzers to be used for traffic law enforcement across the state has passed the House and now heads to the Senate. The bill would allocate $300,000 for a pilot project with a company that has developed a breathalyzer for marijuana.

International

President of Honduran Congress Linked to Cachiros Drug Cartel: Report. A report from the Central American magazine Expediente Publico details links between the head of the Honduran congress and a major drug trafficking clan, further exposing links between the drug underworld and the country's political elite. President of the National Congress Mauricio Oliva Herrera is named as buying a series of properties in Tegucigalpa from a company linked to a notorious Honduran drug trafficking family known as the Cachiros. Oliva Herrera has confirmed that he will run for president of the country in 2021. The current president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, also a member of the National Party, has also been implicated in drug trafficking scandals.

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.

US Imprisonment At Lowest Rate Since 1996, Dr. Bronner's Kicks In $1 Million for OR Psilocybin Init, More... (4/30/20)

The former Honduran National Police chief just got indicted on drug charges in New York City, Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps just bestowed a huge gift on the Oregon psilocybin initiative campaign, and more.

Dr. Bronner's Cosmic Engagement Officer (CEO) David Bronner. The company has just donated $1 million to the OR psilocybin init.
Marijuana Policy

California Coalition Pushes for Tax Breaks for State Pot Businesses. A coalition of advocacy groups, churches, and marijuana companies is asking Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) for a temporary cut in the state's marijuana taxes. The groups warn that the coronavirus crisis and the faltering economy will take an especially hard toll on minority-run businesses. The coalition includes the California NAACP, Los Angeles Metropolitan Churches, the Southern California Coalition, an industry group.

Psychedelics

Dr. Bronner's Kicks in a Million Bucks for the Oregon Therapeutic Psilocybin Initiative. Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps has donated one million dollars to IP 34, the initiative that would create a framework for the use of psilocybin therapy by mental health practitioners in the state. The campaign is about 90% of the way to qualifying for the November ballot, but faces signature-gathering challenges in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. This massive donation should help get the campaign over the top.

Sentencing

US Imprisonment Rate at Its Lowest Since 1996. The federal Office of Justice Programs reported Thursday that the combined state and federal imprisonment rate was 431 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 US residents in 2018, which was the lowest rate since 1996, when there were 427 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 residents, the Bureau of Justice Statistics announced today. The imprisonment rate for black inmates dropped by 28%, reaching the lowest rate since 1989. Louisiana had the highest rate (695 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 state residents), followed by Oklahoma (693 per 100,000), Mississippi (626 per 100,000), Arkansas (589 per 100,000) and Arizona (559 per 100,000). Minnesota, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont had the lowest imprisonment rates in the US, with each having fewer than 200 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 residents. During 2018, the total prison population in the US declined from 1.489 million to 1.465 million, a decline of 1.6% and the fourth consecutive annual decrease of at least 1%. Less than 15% of sentenced state prisoners were serving time for a drug offense at year-end 2017 (4% for possession), the most recent year for which offense-related data are available.

International

Former Honduran National Police Chief Charged in US with Drug Trafficking and Weapons Offenses. Federal prosecutors in New York City announced Thursday that Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares, the former chief of the Honduran National Police was charged in Manhattan federal court with conspiring to import cocaine into the US and related weapons charges. He allegedly abused his official position to protect cocaine shipments and murder a rival drug trafficker as part of a conspiracy involving high-ranking Honduran politicians and members of the National Police.

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