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What Comes Next in the Philippine Drug War and Will Duterte Pay for His Crimes? [FEATURE]

As the month of June came to an end, so did the term in office of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, notorious for presiding over a bloody and still-continuing "war on drugs" that has left more than 30,000 dead at the hands of police and shadowy vigilantes, according to Filipino and international human rights organizations. Duterte's human rights violations sparked the interest of the International Criminal Court (ICC), whose Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) opened an investigation into the matter last year.

ICC headquarters, The Hague, Netherlands
Following a formal request by the Duterte administration in November, OTP paused the investigation in order to reevaluate whether government's accountability efforts touted by the administration were sufficient and credible. Late last month OTP requested court authorization to resume it.

Replacing Duterte is Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., known as "Bongbong." Marcos comes with his own baggage; he is the son of former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda, infamous for her shoe collection. And his vice president is none other than Duterte's daughter, Sara Duterte. Between them, the pair provide a double dose of strongman genes for a population that has proven eager to embrace them.

With the Duterte government now in the rear view mirror, the question now are what happens next in the Philippine drug war and will there ever be justice for the crimes of the past six years?

In a parallel event to the UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development on Thursday, "Building Back with Justice? Marcos, Duterte, the ICC, and the Philippine Drug War," took on those issues. Sponsored by DRCNet Foundation (also known as StoptheDrugWar.org -- publisher of this newsletter), a US-based NGO in consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council, and the Italy-based Associazone Luca Coscioni, the event was moderated by StoptheDrugWar.org executive director David Borden and Italian former senator Marco Perduca of the Associazone. The event focused on Goal 16 of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, "Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions."

In the virtual event conducted via Zoom, participants heard from three Filipino experts: human rights activist Justine Balane, Ruben Carranza of the International Center for Transitional Justice, and Dr. Aurora Parong of the Philippine Coalition for the ICC and the Philippines branch of Amnesty International.

"One of the goals is #16, is peace, justice, and strong institutions. Issues like human rights, accountability and so forth fall within that topic," said Borden, who noted, "Our first event held in March 2017 at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, where we were privileged to present a video from then Vice President Leni Robredo, a video which became controversial in the Philippines due to attacks being made on her for it by political opponents. Robredo was in the first year of her term as vice president, having narrowly defeated Bongbong Marcos to win that post."

"I will lastly note it's nearly 5 ½ years since then Senator Leila de Lima was jailed [on bogus charges for criticizing Duterte's drug war], and we share the widespread hopes in the international community that she will be released soon, particularly since... three of her key initial accusers have recanted their accusations and stated that they were made under pressure."

Perduca followed with a short history of the ICC, explaining that the core crimes with which it is concerned are war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity, with the crime of aggression added later.

"The court has jurisdiction over countries that have signed and ratified or have acceded to the treaty, and have... put in place all the necessary measures to... allow the court to take action if local authorities are unwilling or unable to pursue alleged criminals, at any level of the state hierarchy," he explained. "[W]e have made the case before competent authorities at the ICC... that the way in which the war on drugs in the Philippines had been waged amounted to crimes against humanity. It was massive and systematic, and it was the result of a specific order given by someone in charge... The Philippines was party to the treaty until a few years ago [when Duterte withdrew from it], so some of those heinous actions still fall under the jurisdiction of the ICC."

The new boss looks too much like the old boss, according to Balane, who in his day job serves as Secretary General of the organization Akbayan Youth.

"In the first half of the year, during the campaign season, the streets were blaring with the jingle of the new president and vice president, which started with the lines "Bagong Pilipinas, Bagong Mukha." It roughly translates as new Philippines and new faces," he said. "But in reality, it's not. In the first half month under Marcos and Duterte, we're been shown the same drug war tactics and the same level of government oppression... The killings haven't stopped with Duterte leaving... and how the killings have remained largely uninvestigated, and the killers let loose under Duterte and possibly Marcos."

"Data from the University of the Philippines (UP) Third World Study Center show that there have been 155 deaths for the first half of the year," Balane noted. "Even in Duterte's final year in office, the killing of children in the drug war continued... [including] two children in the last month of Duterte in Malacanang (the Philippines' executive branch headquarters)." In UP's research, from January to July 2022, 68 of the deaths were carried out by state agents... I'm relying on this UP data because there is a huge underreporting crisis on drug war numbers... This year, before Duterte left office, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency reported that there have been a total 6,248 drug war deaths since Duterte took office. This is a figure that is at least 24,000 lower than the estimates of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights and other human rights groups... [I]t's even lower than the figure provided by the office of Duterte... [I]n 2017... the presidential office... admitted... that the drug war killed 20,000 people and listed in its annual accomplishments report, under the section 'fighting illegal drugs in 2017.' This... report became the basis of the Supreme Court order to the Duterte government to explain and release data on the 20,000 deaths which could be state sponsored," Balane said.

Balane was critical of the Duterte government's claim that it would investigate the killings, obviating the need for the ICC to step back in.

"Last year... the Philippine Department of Justice vowed to the international community that they are able and willing to conduct a domestic review of the drug war cases, just to show that the justice system is still working... But this year, the Department of Justice announced to the United Nations that only four cases have led to actual new prosecutions. Imagine that!" he exclaimed. "Four cases out of more than 30,000 reported or suspected cases under the drug war... [T]hat's showing this government has been noncommittal and not... serious about its obligations to the international community, not upholding its human rights obligations."

The Duterte government clearly failed to pursue the police and shadowy vigilante groups behind the killings, Balane said.

"To date, there remains only one case that has led to a guilty verdict against killer cops, and that was in 2018... That's because the norm is of acquitting and letting killer cops go scot-free... Seriously, the prospects of investigation bringing to justice the cases and the killings that happened under the Duterte admnistration remain bleak."

Balane was not optimistic about the prospects under the new Marcos administration.

"As we enter Bongbong Marcos's presidency, one person a day is killed, approximately. This is according to [UP data]... An official of the Marcos government also vowed that the drug war will be as intensive as before. Even President Marcos himself during the campaign trail said that he would continue the drug war with the same vigor but a different approach. But we continue to question the government's seriousness to put into law any program that is an alternative to what the law enforcement agencies have already been accustomed to under Duterte, because they have already been so comfortable with getting away with their crimes," he charged.

As early as 2017, Senator Risa Hontiveros of Akbayan already filed a bill in the Senate providing a framework for a public health approach on the drug problem. But until now there has been no push from others in the Senate or anyone else in the legislative chamber or the executive to pass it or adopt elements of it highlighting harm reduction instead of the punitive, violent and largely failed approach of the Duterte administration."

Balane concluded by noting, "Marcos Jr., who sits in the office of the president, refuses to be accountable for the extrajudicial killings that happened under his family's regime in the '70s.

"It's important to note that the drug war is not over," said Carranza of the International Center for Transitional Justice. "There's this famous quote from The Wire, that TV show about drug wars, that 'drug wars are not actual wars, because drug wars never end.'

Carranza explained, "On the first day of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as president... there were drug war killings in the University of the Philippines... involving two brothers who were... from a very poor family... The brothers were invited by a supposed friend to help fix a car, but instead they were taken by plainclothes armed men in a car that was unmarked, taken from the university, and then their bodies were found two days later," he noted.

"I mention this because... part of what Duterte unleashed has been the creation of a national death squad that has now come to exist apart from Duterte himself... [So] I don't think we can reckon with accountability in the drug war based on who the president of the Philippines is. It's important to look at the institutions that enforce the drug war, both the formal state institutions, the Philippine National Police, and the non-institutional and yet much more powerful creations that the drug war has led to. A death squad that used to be local -- Davao City -- has become national under Duterte, and this national death squad continues." "Vicente Danao, the current police chief, was Duterte's former police chief in Davao City. Vicente Danao has a record, not just of being involved in the drug wars in Davao, but also domestic abuse, for which he was exposed by his wife and had to take a leave from his police duties in Davao -- until Duterte, of course, forgave him and said that he will back him up," Carranza explained.

"Vicente Danao is likely to be one of those that, if the prosecutor goes ahead with the investigation that has already been authorized previously by the pre-trial chamber of the ICC.. [will] be investigated," he continued. "It's difficult to say at this point whether Vicente Danao, or anyone else for that matter, will be charged. But obviously those who have been linked to the death squad in Davao, and now operate on a national scale, are likely to be those who will be investigated and potentially charged. This isn't only because of their links to the death squads in Davao and then nationwide. This is also because the ICC prosecutor, with the approval of the pre-trial chamber, has actually extended the coverage of the investigation of the Philippines drug war to the period when Duterte was mayor of Davao, in other words after the ICC treaty took effect for the Philippines in 2011, and years before Rodrigo Duterte became president... During this period, Rodrigo Duterte was mayor, but there were periods when his daughter was mayor of Davao because they took turns being mayor."

It's important to remember... that the International Criminal Court is not the only institution that can pursue accountability for the drug war. It's important to remember that prosecution is not the only measure by which extrajudicial killings, crimes against humanity committed in the drug war, can be pursued and those behind them be held accountable. Justice doesn't only equate with courts; justice can be pursued elsewhere, outside of courts," Carranza argued.

"There are two ways in which I think accountability and justice for the drug war can be pursued even outside of the International Criminal Court process. One is through a truth-telling process that can be organized at the local level, perhaps at the community level in the Philippines among the urban poor communities that have been targeted by the drug war," he said. "Part of that work is being done now by priests like my friend Father Flavie Villanueva and the exhumations and the reburials and cremations of those whose bodies were buried in cemeteries whose families cannot afford to... pay for the burial plots. That process of removing remains and then having -- my friend as well, one of the forensic pathologists in the Philippines, Dr. Raquel Fortun -- exhume and examine the bodies, conduct autopsies -- is a truth-telling process. It's important for the international community to support that, because this not only empowers communities, empowers families of the victims into acting on their demands for justice, but gives them some hope that even if there's no formal state process that seeks accountability within the Philippines, even if the ICC prosecutor will take longer to actually conduct the investigation, and even if... the ICC as a court cannot proceed because the Philippines does not cooperate... that there are local processes going on that are outside of court processes," he said.

"The second approach to justice for the drug war involves reparations for families of the drug war victims. Reparations isn't new in the Philippines; the Philippines actually passed a law in 2013... to provide reparations for victims of the Marcos dictatorship."

Carranza pondered, "It is possible to give reparations to be given to victims of the drug war, but it is possible under Marcos? ... The sister of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., a senator, Imee Marcos, actually supported a bill that became a law... that gave reparations for those who were victimized and displaced in the siege in Marawi City involving a conflict between a violent extremist group in the Philippine south and the government," Carranza continued.

"But will Marcos Jr. pursue the killings, pursue accountability of those involved in the killings in Duterte's drug war? That is a question that will be fully answered over time, but two things we need to take into account: Marcos Jr. is no stranger to maintaining impunity. He and his family have an interest in maintaining the impunity of Duterte, because any action that might open accountability of presidents past, and even further in the past, will obviously reopen questions around the accountability of the Marcos family," he argued. And "The Marcoses will defend their ill-gotten wealth for as long as they can."

Finally, Carranza argued, "Marcos Jr. will say what the global north's elites will want to hear, what the west, particularly the Europeans in the western part of Europe want to hear, that he will pursue accountability for human rights violations. He has said this... That he will pursue preventive health-related policies for drug users... This is, of course, appealing to Westerners, but does not deal with the root causes of drug use in urban poor communities in the first place, and the economic and social rights violations that then lead to drug use in the Philippines."

Parong and the Philippine Coalition for the ICC are not giving up on the international community.

"The [coalition] is calling on the UN to review and assess the effectiveness of its technical assistance, and review its decision not to probe into the war on drugs. Given the findings of Dr. Raquel Fortun, and of course also the statement of Prosecutor Khan of the ICC that there is no effective investigation, and looking into the systematic nature of the crimes... and therefore have called for the UN Human Rights Council to review its decision..." she said.

"There should be key result areas, or impact assessment of its assistance to the Philippines. Perhaps one would be effective prosecution of perpetrators of the killings in the war on drugs, and then a result that should be achieved. Because there should be changes in the behavior and values of those who are trained during this technical assistance. And then of course there should be the effort to really look at the enablers, those who made it possible that there are >massive killings in the tens of thousands," the humanitarian law expert suggested.

"We also believe that if President Marcos Jr. is really committed to high accountability and to pursue the control on drugs within the rule of law, they should develop a program against drug abuse that integrates a human rights and public health perspective," she continued. "And of course, the Philippine government has to really give complete results of what it says it will pursue the fight against drugs within the rule of law and make high accountability possible, then it should now come out with a very, very complete plan... There has to be specific, there has to be terms of reference, items on the plan, and concrete results in key result areas that can be measured, and not just those general commitments to the rule of law or accountability."

Parong had a specific suggestion for the Marcos-Duterte administration too: "If they really want unity as well as peace so that we can get out of this pandemic crisis... they should review the withdrawal from the International Criminal Court, and consider the possibility of getting back, if they really want higher accountability."

But given the workload of the ICC -- the Office of the Prosecutor is looking at abuses in 16 countries right now, it lacks the resources to do all it needs to be doing," she said.

"We think that the internationally community, especially the Assembly of States Parties of the Rome Statute, should in fact provide the resources which the court needs in order to be able to really act as a court of last resort and deliver justice. Faster also, rather than being at the back burner for investigation, and then it's only after some time that the court can act on them, because they have no resources that is adequate enough to pursue all these cases that they are either investigating, on preliminary investigations, or even those which are on trial. So there has to be more resources and support, not just from the state parties... because if other members of the UN really believe in international justice and support it, then they should support whatever is in the international court's purview to review and make decisions."

And it's not just funding but having the back of the ICC when it is attacked.

"The Philippine president has in the past attacked the ICC as an institution," she noted. "He also attacked UN officials and ICC personnel... During the campaign, the current presient said he would only allow the ICC personnel to come in as tourists, not as investigators... We think the UN members, as well as the Assembly of States Parties of the Rome Statute, should be giving political support to the ICC when there is an effort to attack them or diminish their capacities to do their work because they don't have access to the countries that need to be investigated."

For those seeking radical change away from Duterte's drug war, some of the early indicators -- especially the continuing killings -- are not good. And while Bongbong is talking about some limited reforms, it remains to be seen whether he will pursue even those modest goals. For those seeking justice and accountability for Duterte's crimes, the path remains arduous, but that has not stopped them.

Poll Shows Strong Support for Legal Marijuana Banking Access, Police Paying Billions to Settle Misconduct Claims, More... (3/9/22)

The Washington Post has a major piece on police misconduct payouts, an expungement bill advances in California, and more.

A medicinal psilocybin task force bill advances in Hawaii. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Poll: Two Thirds of Americans Want Congress to Allow Licensed Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Services. A new poll from Morning Consult conducted on behalf of the American Bankers Association shows strong support for ending federal restrictions that block state-legal marijuana enterprises from accessing financial services. The poll found that 65 percent of respondents "support allowing cannabis businesses to access banking services (e.g., checking accounts, business loans) in states where cannabis is legal." An even higher number -- 68 percent -- said that Congress should pass legislation so those businesses can "access banking services and products in states" where it is legal. Backers of legislation that would do that, the SAFE Banking Act (HR 1996), have, though, so far been thwarted by Senate leadership, which is more interested in trying to pass a full-on legalization bill.

California Marijuana Expungement Bill Wins Committee Vote. A bill that would automatically expunge past convictions for marijuana offenses that are no longer illegal if such expungements have not been challenged by prosecutors by January 1, 2023, Assembly Bill 1706, passed out of the Assembly Public Safety Committee Monday. It now goes to the Assembly Appropriations Committee before heading for a potential Assembly floor vote.

Psychedelics

Hawaii Senate Approves Psilocybin Task Force Bill. The Senate on Tuesday approved Senate Bill 3160, which would create a working group to study the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin mushrooms and develop a long-term plan to ease access to psychedelics for medicinal use for people 21 and over. The bill passed on a unanimous 25-0 vote. It now goes to the House. "Because the State has a shortage of mental health professionals, the State should actively consider novel, innovative, and safe solutions to treat its residents," the bill says.

Law Enforcement

Cops Paid Out More Than $ Billion in Last Decade to Settle Misconduct Claims, Many for Repeat Offenders. In a major investigative piece, the Washington Post reports that law enforcement agencies across the country have paid out more than $3.2 billion to settle misconduct claims -- with thousands of police officers repeatedly accused of wrongdoing. The Post found more than 7,600 officers whose misconduct resulted in more than one claim, with the cost of those claims from repeat offenders reaching $1.5 billion. More than 1,200 officers were the subjects of at least five settlements and more than 200 had 10 or more. The Post suggested that the pattern of repeat settlements showed a lack of police accountability that costs taxpayers.

The Top Ten International Drug Policy Stories of 2021 [FEATURE]

With 2021 now receding in the rear view mirror, we look back at the good, the bad, and the ugly in the arena of drug policy around the world.

1. The International Criminal Court Eyes Philippines Drug War Killings

Protestors denounce Duterte's bloody drug war. (hrw.org)
Rodrigo Duterte's term as Filipino president may be coming to an end, but his bloody legacy of drug war murders is going to haunt him. For us, last year actually begins in December 2020, when the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced its preliminary examination of the Filipino drug war showed evidence of crimes against humanity, clearing the path toward a formal investigation into what are estimated to be more than 30,000 killings. At that point, the ICC had to determine whether the Philippine justice system has is responding to the killings in a legitimate way. If the Philippines couldn't or wouldn't hold perpetrators accountable, the court could take the case.

ICC attention was only one piece of the mounting international pressure over the Duterte killings. For example, in February, US Senators Edward J. Markey (D-MA), top Democrat on the East Asia and Pacific Subcommittee, Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) called for the full exoneration and release of Philippines drug war critic Senator Leila De Lima, who had then been detained on bogus, politically-motivated charges for four years. Now, it's been nearly five years, and she is still behind bars.

In May, a blustering Duterte vowed he would not open up police records about the killings and warned drug dealers that: "If I am there, I will really kill you. I don't care if there's TV around. I will really kill you."

In June, the ICC Office of the Prosecutor concluded its preliminary investigation and announced there was sufficient evidence to request authorization to proceed with an official investigation, which prompted the Duterte administration to say it would not cooperate with the ICC investigation.

In August, Duterte again resorted to bluster, this time taunting the ICC during his last State of the Nation address and daring the court to record his threats against those who would "destroy" the country, saying: "I never denied -- and the ICC can record it -- those who destroy my country, I will kill you. And those who destroy the young people of my country, I will kill you, because I love my country."

But while Duterte blustered, his Justice Department was attempting to blunt the ICC investigation by announcing it had finished a review of 52 drug war killing cases. It was a weak effort though: The cases represented only a tiny fraction of the more than 6,000 killings for which the Philippines National Police took responsibility. And it wasn't enough to stop the ICC, which announced in September that it would open an official investigation into the killings, setting the stage for summonses and possible arrests warrants if requested by Prosecutor Karim Khan.

In October, once again moving to blunt the investigation, the Justice Department announced that 154 police could be liable for drug war misconduct and then announced it would review thousands of drug war killings. The government also invoked a provision of the ICC's Rome Treaty to suspend the investigation while its request to defer it got considered. The following month, the ICC temporarily did suspend its official investigation, as per the treaty. "The prosecution has temporarily suspended its investigative activities while it assesses the scope and effect of the deferral request," ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan wrote.

The year ended with human rights groups urging the ICC to get back to investigating Duterte: "We ask the ICC not to allow itself to be swayed by the claims now being made by the Duterte administration," said the National Union of People's Lawyers, which represents some victims' families. The national justice system is "extremely slow and unavailing to the majority of poor and unrepresented victims", the statement said. The Duterte government's claim that existing legal mechanisms could bring justice to Duterte's victims was "absurd," said Human Rights Watch. "Let's hope the ICC sees through the ruse that it is," said Brad Adam, HRW Asia director.

2. Afghanistan's Government Falls, Opium Remains

Afghanistan has been the world's largest producer of opium since the 1990s, except for one year when the Taliban banned it the first time they held power. Opium never went away during the nearly two-decade long occupation by the US and NATO forces, and despite Taliban declarations to the contrary, it does not look like the trade is going anywhere.

When the Taliban completed their conquest of the country by seizing Kabul in August, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid vowed that their new government would not let Afghanistan become a full-fledged narco-state: "We are assuring our countrymen and women and the international community that we will not have any narcotics produced," Mujahid said. "From now on, nobody's going to get involved (in the heroin trade), nobody can be involved in drug smuggling."

By October, the price of opium was rising in local markets, having tripled since the Taliban took power as buyers anticipated an opium shortage because of the possible ban, but the ban has yet to materialize.

And a UN Office on Drugs and Crime report that same month made it clear why the ban is unlikely to materialize. In a country now in economic crisis because the foreign spending that propped up the previous regime has vanished, UNODC reported that the spring opium crop had generated between $1.8 and $2.7 billion for the Afghan economy, also noting that "much larger sums are accrued along illicit drug supply chains outside Afghanistan."

The 2021 crop was some 6,800 tons, up 8% over 2020. Given the devastation of the Afghan economy and the unlikelihood that the Taliban will move against a crop that supports hundreds of thousands of Afghan families, it's entirely possible that the crop next spring will be even larger. As one farmer told the UNODC, "There is no work, all the families are in debt, and everyone's hope is opium."

3, Mexican Drug War Violence Just Keeps Going

Sixteen years after then-President Felipe Calderon called out the military to combat rising violence, Mexico's drug prohibition-related violence continued unabated in 2021, with more than 25,000 killed by the end of November.

Amidst the quotidian violence, some notable incidents stand out: in March, an attack on a police convoy in Mexico state left 13 officers dead; in May, presumed cartel gunmen ambushed Joel Ernesto Soto, director of the Sinaloa State Police, on Monday, killing him on the outskirts of Culiacan, the state capital; in June, gunmen in SUVs representing warring factions of the Gulf Cartel ranged across the border town of Reynosa, just across the Rio Grande River from McAllen, Texas, leaving a toll of at least 14 and as many as 18 dead; in August, masked men claiming to represent the Jalisco New Generation Cartel released a video where they threaten to kill Milenio TV anchor Azucena Uresti over what they called "unfair" coverage. And on and on.

The west central state of Michoacan was particularly plagued by cartel violence in 2021, beginning with an April massacre by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) of rival gang members in the municipality of Aguililla. In May, warring cartels blocked highways and burned vehiclesin Aguililla and neighboring municipalities.

As violent clashes and blockades continued through the year, residents of those municipalities took to the streets in September took to the streets in Septemberto excoriate the military for staying in its barracks and demand military intervention to fight the cartels. It didn't work. That same month, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel beheaded five men manning a checkpoint on the edge of Tepalcatepec designed to keep the drug gangs out. And in November, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel struck again, killing five men and six boys near the town of Tarecuato in the north of the state near the border with the state of Jalisco as it pursued its war with local criminal gangs.

When it comes to US-Mexico cooperation in the war on drugs, 2021 was not a good year. It began with a huge diplomatic spat around the DEA's arrest in late 2020 of former Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos, who was subsequently released after loud protests from Mexico, with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who personally accusing the DEA of making up the case against Cienfuegos. The US retorted with the Justice Department sharply rebuking Mexico for releasing a massive trove of evidence in the aborted drug trafficking case against Cienfuegos. Mexico then countered with a call for a DEA internal probe of the "fabricated" case.

Amidst the controversy, US investigations into the cartels were paralyzed as a law enacted in December requiring US officials to report their law enforcement contacts in the country to Mexican officials, whom they view as largely corrupt, went into effect. In May, US and Mexican officials told Reuters the fight against Mexican drug trafficker had "ground to a halt"because of strained relations between the two counties.

But in October, there was a glimmer of hope for fans of continued anti-drug coordination between the two countries. Leading Biden administration officials including Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and Attorney General Merrick Garland met with their Mexican counterparts to try to create a new framework for cooperation on drugs, crime, and border issues. The high-profile meeting came after months of quiet talks to rebuild relations.

4. Mexico Didn't Get Marijuana Legalization Done (Again)

Two years after the Mexican Supreme Court found marijuana prohibition unconstitutional and ordered the government to legalize it, the Senate finally passed a legalization bill in late 2020. The measure appeared to have momentum on its side, especially after the Chamber of Deputies approved it in March. Under the bill, people 18 and up would be able to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow up to six plants (although one controversial change in the Chamber of Deputies would require home growers to register with the state). The bill also created a system of taxed and regulated legal marijuana commerce.

The momentum appeared to hold through April, when the bill won two Senate committee votes in as many days but then hit a last-minute snag when it ran into opposition from unhappy with the revised version of the bill. With that, the bill was dead in the water until the congress returned to work in September.

Progress remained slow when lawmakers returned. It was only in November that a draft legalization bill was being circulated among senators, and while there were hints that a vote could happen in December, it didn't. Maybe in 2022.

5. Bangladesh Drug War Killings Draw Pushback

In May, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina approved an anti-drugs campaign aimed at methamphetamines, and by mid-month police had killed 86 people and arrested 7,000. About the killings, police claimed they were only defending themselves in confrontations with drug traffickers, but family members and activists claimed they were executions. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) also said the anti-drug campaign was part of an effort to target and intimidate it.

By the end of May, the toll had risen to 115, with more signs of extrajudicial killings and complaints from the BNP that some party workers had been killed during the campaign despite no connection to the drug trade. Authorities continued to claim that dead dealers had died in crossfire or in gunfights with police, but more families complained that their relatives had been arrested and then killed in custody. Most of the raids were carried out by the RAB (Rapid Action Battalion), a controversial force that human rights groups have repeatedly accused of abuses, including forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.

By June, the United Nations was responding, with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein saying the extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers must be "immediately halted" and the perpetrators brought to justice. "Every person has the right to life and they do not lose their human rights because they sell drugs," he added. At that time, the toll stood at 130 dead and 13,000 arrested.

After that, the campaign quieted down, but there is no sign of any Bangladeshi investigations into the killings and human rights abuses in in the late spring. The United States, however, was paying attention, and in December, imposed sanctions on the RAB for human rights abuses, abductions, and hundreds of extrajudicial killings going back to 2018, targeting not only drug dealers, but also opposition party members, journalists, and human rights activists.

6. Pushing the Boundaries in Canada

Canadian cities, provinces, and activists pressed the Liberal federal government on drug reform issues throughout the year, with important struggles being waged around drug decriminalization and the vanguard issue of a safe drug supply, as well as a noteworthy milestone reached in opioid maintenance therapy.

The Liberals started the year off by introducing a sweeping criminal justice reform billthat would make arrests for drug possession only one option for police, end all mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, end some other mandatory minimums, and open the way for conditional (probationary) sentences for a variety of offenses. But critics who demanded deeper reforms scoffed that it was too little, too late.

In April, British Columbia showed what deeper reforms might look like when it formally requested permission from the federal government for provincial drug decriminalization. That same month, saying the Liberal's reform bill didn't go far enough, the New Democratic Party's health critic, MP Don Davies filed a federal drug decriminalization bill.

VANDU is the vanguard.
The city of Vancouver also sought an exemption from federal drug laws to enact decriminalization.The city recommended the decriminalization of one gram or 10 rocks for crack cocaine, 1.5 grams for amphetamines, two grams for opioids such as heroin and fentanyl, and three grams for cocaine. That did not sit well with the city's vanguard drug user activists, who harshly criticized the possession limits. At that point, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) announced that it is withdrawing from talks with the city, and it and other drug policy advocates complained that drug users were largely excluded from the decriminalization process and that police have too large a role.

The push for decriminalization continued throughout the year. In October, nearly 70 organizations across the country, including the HIV Legal Network, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, and the National Association of Women and the Law, urged Prime Minister Trudeau to decriminalize drug possession. And in November, Toronto moved toward decriminalizationas the city's top health officer, Dr. Eilenn de Villa, recommended that the board of health approve a request to the federal government to exempt city residents from criminal charges for small-time drug possession.

But even though decriminalization is in the Liberals' platform, the party under Justin Trudeau is not ready to go there yet. After calling elections in August, necessitating a restart on January criminal justice reform bill, and despite the rising clamor for decriminalization, the Liberal government refiled the bill anyway.

In the summer, an even more direct challenge to drug prohibition was underway as British Columbia moved toward providing a "safe supply" of illicit drugs to street users.A provincial policy directive in British Columbia requires all local health authorities to develop programs to provide pharmaceutical quality opioids and stimulants to street drug users in a bid to reduce overdose deaths.

A Vancouver elected official and local activists got in on the action, too, when Councilwoman Jean Swanson and a pair of drug user advocacy groups, Drug User Liberation Front (DULF) and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) handed out free cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine to drug users in the Downtown Eastside in a bid to dramatize the need for a safe drug supply. They also wanted to "raise awareness of the deeply flawed aspects of the Vancouver Model of decriminalization, including disproportionate influence of the Vancouver Police Department, unreasonably low drug thresholds, and lack of provisions for safe supply."

The following month, they were at it again, handing out a "safe supply" of drugs to mark International Overdose Awareness Dayto show the "life-saving potential of a community-led response to the crisis of prohibition in Canada" as an alternative to Vancouver's proposed model of decriminalization. And in September, DULF and VANDU formally asked the federal government to allow buyers' clubs for hard drugs. They requested a formal exemption from federal criminal drug laws so that no one is prosecuted for operating a "compassion club" to distribute those drugs.

And in October, the province of Alberta expressed interest in a safe drug supply. The prairie province's United Conservative government proposed that a committee of Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) look into the pluses and minuses of offering pharmaceutical versions of opioids and other addictive substances to people dependent on them.

Meanwhile, magic mushroom shops were sprouting in Vancouver. A handful of shops selling magic mushrooms and other psychedelic substances are operating in in the city even though selling magic mushrooms remains illegal in Canada. One such shop, the Coca Leaf Café & Mushroom Dispensary on East Hastings Street, is owned by long-time drug activist Dana Larsen. "We're sitting in a place that is unique in the world. There's nowhere else where you can get the same range of substances and things that we do right here," Larsen said.

And last but not least, in September, a Vancouver clinic began providing take-home prescription heroin,a North American first. The program began as an emergency response to the COVID epidemic, when the provincial health authority allowed clinic staff to deliver syringes filled with heroin to patients so they could stay isolated for 10 to 14 days, but now the patients can take it home themselves.

7. Malta Becomes First European Union County to Legalize Marijuana -- Germany, Luxembourg Next?

The Maltese parliament approved a bill legalizing marijuanaon December 14, and President George Vella signed it into law four days later, making the country the first member state of the European Union to do so. The law allows citizens 18 and over to possess up to seven grams of marijuana and cultivate up to four plants at home, harvesting up to 50 grams from them. The law does not envision commercial sales but allows nonprofit cooperatives to produce marijuana to be sold to members, with an upper limit on membership per coop of 500.

Either Germany or Luxembourg could be next. In October, the government of Luxembourg unveiled its marijuana legalization proposal, which would allow people 18 and over to grow up to four plants and possess up to three grams in public. Like Malta, the Luxembourg law does not envision commercial sales, but people would be allowed to buy and trade marijuana seeds for their home gardens. The proposal still has to be approved by parliament.

And in November, the three parties who have formed Germany's new governing coalition -- the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Free Democrats -- agreed to legalize marijuana and its sale. The coalition is prepared to "introduce the regulated sale of cannabis to adults for consumption purposes in licensed stores," according to the coalition's health group's findings paper. It is not clear, however, whether home cultivation will be allowed.

8. Italy's Pending Referendum on Marijuana and Plant Psychedelics

Italy is on the cusp of a bold drug reform move. A number of pro-reform activist groups and political parties including the Radicals launched a ballot campaignin for a referendum to legalize the cultivation of marijuana and other psychoactive plants and fungi, such as psilocybin mushrooms. They faced several challenges: First, they had to obtain half a million valid voter signatures by month's end and have the signatures validated by the Supreme Court of Cassation, then the Constitutional Court would have to rule that the measure is in line with the constitution, and only then, President Sergio Mattarella would set the date for the referendum, which would ask whether that portion of the country's drug law criminalizing the cultivation of marijuana and psychoactive plants should be stricken.

In October, activists met their first challenge, turning in some 630,000 raw signatures. They were able to meet their signature-gathering goals so quickly because a pandemic-related policy change allowed them to collect signatures online instead of only in person.

Now, after having staved off an attempt by rightist parties to block it, the fate of the referendum is before the courts. If it wins final approval from the Constitutional Court, which will determine whether it conflicts with the constitution, international treaties, or the country's fiscal system, voters could go to the polls on the issue sometime between April 15 and June 15.

There's tons of cocaine around these days. (Pixabay)
9. Cocaine Production Has Doubled in the Course of a Decade

In June, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) released its annual estimate of coca cultivation and potential cocaine production in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru, the three perennial coca and cocaine producing nations. What is at first glance most striking in the current report is that for the first time, one nation -- Colombia -- produced more than 1,000 metric tons of cocaine.

But a closer reading of the report, which details coca cultivation and cocaine production going back to 2010, produces an even more striking finding: Over the decade that the report covers, the total amount of potential cocaine production in the three countries has more than doubled, from 914 tons in 2010 to a whopping 2,132 tons in 2020. In other words, Colombia alone produced more cocaine in 2020 than the whole region did a decade earlier.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) does its own annual estimates of global potential cocaine production, and while they differ from those of the United Status, they outline the same massive expansion of cocaine. According to UNODC numbers compiled at Statista, beginning in 2004, 1,000 tons or more (slightly more in most years) was produced every year except 2012, 2013, and 2014, when it dipped down into the 900s. That series, which ended in 2019, has cocaine production topping out at 1,976 tons in 2017.

In the most recent edition of the UNODC's World Drug Report, that organization also reported that cocaine production had doubled, but put the period of doubling from 2014 to 2019, when it registered 1,784 tons.

Take your pick of the numbers. Either way, there is a lot more cocaine being produced these days than just a decade ago, tons more of it.

10. World Health Organization Declines Move Toward Labeling Kratom a Controlled Substance

The World Health Organization's (WHO) Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) recommended in November that kratom not be subjected to a "critical review," which could have been a first step toward labeling it a controlled substance subject to international and national controls. The ECDD did a "pre-review" of kratom at its October meeting and found there was inadequate evidence to recommend a critical review.

WHO had begun the "pre-review" based in part on a "country-level report indicating the potential for abuse, dependence and harm to public health from" the chemical compounds in kratom. But it found concerns about fatalities associated with kratom to be overstated: "Kratom can produce serious toxicity in people who use high doses, but the number of cases is probably low as a proportion of the total number of people who use kratom," WHO stated in the document. "Although mitragynine [the active alkaloid in kratom] has been analytically confirmed in a number of deaths, almost all involve use of other substances, so the degree to which kratom use has been a contributory factor to fatalities is unclear."

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.

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)

ACLU Files Lawsuit Against San Francisco Cops for Targeting African-Americans in Drug Busts [FEATURE]

San Francisco's Tenderloin is a heavily populated, racially mixed neighborhood in the heart of one of America's iconic progressive cities. Yet when the San Francisco Police Department and the DEA targeted the neighborhood to crack down on drug dealing between 2013 and 2015 as part of "Operation Safe Schools," the only people they managed to roll up were black.

hustling in the Tenderloin (SFPD surveillance video screen grab)
When 37 black defendants -- and no defendants of any other race -- got hauled away, nobody noticed. That is until the defendants started showing up looking for federal public defenders. The federal public defenders noticed, and they began making noise about racial disparities and selective enforcement of the drug laws.

Their charges only grew louder with the posting in 2015 of undercover police surveillance video to YouTube revealing a police officer muttering "fucking BMs," police code for black males, as he monitored a group of young men on the street. The video also apparently showed an undercover informant turning down drugs being offered by an Asian woman to instead buy drugs from a black woman.

In January 2017, 12 of those charged in the operation won a discovery motion from a judge who found there was "substantial evidence suggestive of racially selective enforcement" in their arrests. Instead of allowing the proceedings to continue so a full accounting of police conduct could occur, prosecutors instead dropped the charges.

At the time, the presiding judge, US District Court Judge Edward Chen, made clear that while he was granting the dismissals because they were in the best interest of the defendants, he was concerned that doing so would prevent the allegations of police bias from being aired.

"These are serious issues, serious allegations regarding claims of discriminatory enforcement patterns," Chen said. "I think the defendants in this case have raised a very substantial prima facie case that, at the very least, raises some serious questions that would warrant a response and a full airing of the issues."

Now, a year and a half later, the ACLU of Northern California on Thursday filed a federal civil lawsuit on behalf of six of those rolled up in the busts. The lawsuit alleges the plaintiffs were targeted because of their race and cites a survey of Tenderloin drug users to bolster its case. That survey found racial diversity among Tenderloin drug sellers. About half were black, but 20 percent were Latino and 17 percent were white.

The lawsuit is "an opportunity to hold the actors in the San Francisco Police Department and the city itself accountable for the police department's longstanding practices of engaging in racially discriminatory law enforcement," said ACLU attorney Novella Coleman, who is representing the plaintiffs.

It's also about financial relief for the plaintiffs, Coleman allowed. "The court will determine how to monetize that," she said.

Not an Anomaly

Racially biased policing is nothing new in San Francisco. In fact, as Ezekiel Edwards, director of the national ACLU's Criminal Law Reform Project, pointed out in a post announcing the lawsuit, the city has the dubious honor of setting precedent for the idea that law enforcement targeting people based on their race is unconstitutional. In an 1886 case, Yick Wo v. Hopkins, the city attempted to deny laundry permits to Chinese people while granting them to non-Chinese. Such an action could only be explained by the city's "hostility to the race and nationality" of the applicants, a violation of the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and the evidence that the city's penchant for targeting non-whites for harsher treatment remains intact just keeps piling up. Numerous studies in the past few years have documented racially biased policing practices, including a 2002 ACLU report on SFPD racial profiling and a city-commissioned study by a national expert on biased policing.

Those studies uncovered a range of bias-related problems and made concrete recommendations for reform. Those were ignored. As the rotten policing practices festered, more reports detailing racial and ethnic disparities across the criminal justice system came out in 2013 and 2015.

Then, in 2015, as "Operation Safe Schools" was winding down, SFPD was hit by a new scandal when officers were caught exchanging racist text messages. Some used the N-word, others referenced cross burnings. Officers were caught calling black residents "savages," "wild animals," and "barbarians," and one officer told his sergeant "All n[ -- ] must fucking hang." Another officer sent a text with an image of a white man spraying a black child with a hose above the caption "Go be a n -- somewhere else."

That finally got the attention of city fathers -- as well as the Obama-era Justice Department. The city district attorney convened a Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability, and Fairness in Law Enforcement that documented SFPD's history of racially disparate enforcement and concluded that it was "in urgent need of important reforms." In 2016, the Justice Department weighed in with its own report finding that the department still engaged in racially biased policing, especially around traffic stops and police use of deadly force.

It's Not Just San Francisco

The ACLU's Edwards concisely makes the case that San Francisco is no exception when it comes to racially biased policing:

"Unequal treatment by race is commonplace among police departments large and small in cities across a range of ideological leanings. This is the reason for the racial profiling lawsuits filed in New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Maricopa County, Arizona. This is the motivation, prior to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for Justice Department consent decrees seeking to end racially discriminatory police practices in Seattle, Los Angeles County, New Orleans, Baltimore, Newark, East Haven CT and Ferguson MO. This is why the ACLU has found racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests across the country, in drug possession arrests more broadly, in stops and frisks in Boston, in seatbelt enforcement in Florida, and in arrests for low-level offenses in Minneapolis."

When will things ever change?

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Four White Louisiana Narcs Choked This Young Black Man to Death in a Low-Level Drug Bust

New Orleans resident Keeven Robinson, 22, died after being arrested by Jefferson Parish narcotics officers last week. Police originally tried to blame his death on asthma, but now the Jefferson Parish coroner is telling a very different tale.

Keeven Robinson (Demone Robinson)
At a press conference Monday, Coroner Gerry Cvitanovich laid out what initial autopsy results uncovered: "Our initial autopsy findings reveal significant traumatic injuries to the neck, the soft tissue of the neck," he said. "These findings are consistent with compressional asphyxia. We are confident that at the end of our process, this is going to be the cause of death. Regarding manner of death, at this point, manner of death is homicide."

Cvitanovich was quick to point out that when he said "homicide," he did not mean in the legal sense, but in the sense that Robinson died as a result of the actions of others.

According to the sheriff's office, four undercover narcotics deputies, who Sheriff Joe Lopinto did not name but identified as white, were surveilling Robinson, a black man, as part of a drug dealing investigation and followed him to a gas station on Jefferson Highway late last Thursday morning.

When Robinson noticed the agents, who wore badges, approaching him, he attempted to drive off, but jumped from his car about a block away after running into two sheriff's vehicles. The narcs pursued Robinson in a foot chase as he leaped over fences before catching him in the back yard of a residence.

Again, according to the sheriff's office, the deputies then struggled with Robinson, who was carrying what they suspected to be heroin, before they managed to handcuff him. At that point, he stopped breathing. He was rushed to Oshsner Medical Center nearby, but died there.

Jefferson Parish sheriff's deputies do not wear body cams.

Robinson was not armed, though Sheriff Lopinto said a gun was found in his car.

Lopinto originally said investigators were looking into whether Robinson's history of asthma contributed to his death, but his family immediately expressed skepticism about that possibility. They said they feared the narcs had either beaten or strangled him to death.

And the coroner's report is proving them correct. Jefferson Parish NAACP President Gaylor Spiller said she was pleased the coroner's office issued a ruling on Robinson's death so quickly and that "there was no cover up."

But Spiller was speaking prematurely. The investigation into the killing of Keeven Robinson is just getting started, and the inevitable finding that no one is criminally responsible is still months away. Call me cynical , or call me a student of what happens when police kill people.

In this case, an unarmed black drug suspect was choked to death by four white narcs. Who wants to bet on any of them being charged with a crime?

Trump's Afghanistan "Taliban Heroin Lab" Bombing Campaign is Just More Drug War Theater [FEATURE]

On the night of November 19, small-time Afghan opium trader Hajii Habibullah finished his day's business at the local opium bazaar in Musa Qala, in Helmand province, and headed home to his family. He never saw the sunrise.

Afghan poppy fields account for about 90% of the global opium crop. (UNODC)
Helmand province is a poppy-growing powerhouse that for years has been hotly contested terrain in the battle between Taliban insurgents and the Afghan government and NATO forces. Under new authority from the Trump White House allowing the US military to "attack the enemy across the breadth and the depth of the battle space, and also functionally, to attack their financial networks, their revenue streams," US and Afghan warplanes mounted bombing raids on "Taliban drug labs," targeting three districts in Helmand. That night, Musa Qala was target one in a dramatic escalation in US Afghanistan policy.

In a press briefing two days later, Gen. John Nicholson, commander of US forces in Afghanistan guided reporters through videos documenting the attacks, with bomb blasts destroying small structures as the general narrated strikes by US B-52s and F-22 Raptors. The raid in Musa Qala destroyed "millions" in "opium cooking at the time of the strike," repeatedly emphasizing how careful the raids were to minimize "collateral" casualties.

But the first bombs to fall on Musa Qala didn't fall on a "Taliban narcotics production facility." They fell on Hajii Habibullah's house, killing him, his wife, his seven-year-old daughter, four sons aged between three and eight, as well as a visiting adult daughter and her year-old daughter. Only the son-in-law sleeping in a guest house on the property survived.

That's according to on-the-scene field research contained in a report released last month by the London School of Economics International Drug Policy Unit. The analysis, written by Dr. David Mansfield, who has been conducting research on rural economies and poppy cultivation in Afghanistan for the past two decades, is sharply critical of the Trump administration's aggressive new turn. Mansfield isn't the only one sounding alarms. Warnings that the policy is expensive and unlikely to achieve its objectives while having serious negative consequences are coming from other academic analysts, too, and even from the watchdog agency charged with overseeing the US Afghan war.

Last month, in a Pentagon briefing, spokesmen claimed the campaign of airstrikes, which have continued after that first attack in November, was crippling the Taliban's ability to fund itself though the drug trade. Defense officials claimed the raids had destroyed $80 million worth of heroin, resulting in a $16 million loss for the Taliban, who make money taxing the trade.

But Mansfield demolishes that claim:

"At current prices for heroin, the losses USFOR-A refer to would amount to almost 73 metric tons of heroin, that's nearly 3 metric tons of heroin in each lab destroyed," he wrote.

With a conversion rate of between 9 and 13.5 kilograms of fresh opium per kilogram of heroin, this would require between 27,000 and 40,500 kilograms of fresh opium per lab. It would mean that the 25 labs destroyed were responsible for converting between 8 to 11 percent of the entire 2017 crop of 9,000 metric tons. There is little evidence from the nine buildings destroyed [in Musa Qala] to support such a claim.

Going on the tax rates levied on the [Musa Qala] labs, were the aerial campaign to have actually destroyed 73 metric tons of heroin, the loss in revenue to the Taliban would have been around $1.2 million, considerably less than the amount reported by USFOR-A.

Were the air attacks to have destroyed a series of houses rented out to cook opium in much smaller batches, as the case would appear to be in [Musa Qala], the loss in revenue to the Taliban would have been negligible. In fact, the 50 barrels of opium cooking at the time of the strike that [USFOR-A commander] General [John] Nicholson referred to as being worth 'millions of dollars' would have been worth at most $190,750 if converted to heroin and no more than $2,863 to the Taliban.

Brookings Institute senior fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on international and internal security threats and nontraditional security threats, including insurgency, illicit economies, and organized crime who has done fieldwork and research in Afghanistan, was also skeptical.

"The Pentagon has made various claims about the size of the impact on Taliban finances, but that is all highly speculative," said Felbab-Brown. "The logic is that a certain amount of heroin is destroyed per target and that heroin is assigned that same value per unit price, but we can't assume that. It could be there was no processed heroin there at all, only opium. The only value might be that it eliminated one Taliban financier who happened to present, or maybe disrupted one link in the trade, but we can't even assume that."

"By and large, the campaign will not make a significant dent in Taliban financing," argued Felbab-Brown. "They will have to be extremely lucky to destroy large portions of opium stockpiles that have been growing for years. And the Taliban has different local arrangements -- sometimes they tax the labs, sometimes they're further downstream -- so I don't expect any significant financial losses for them."

In its latest quarterly report, issued January 31, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a government watchdog agency, also took issue with the military's claims about the damage it was inflicting on Taliban finances -- and questioned the cost-effectiveness of the campaign.

In a special section on the drug lab bombing campaign, SIGAR says that the methodology the military uses to assess the value of the labs it destroys leaves it "unclear whether the DOD figure is an accurate estimate of how much revenue is eliminated by air strikes on drug labs."

What is known, SIGAR reports, is how much it costs to fly the planes dropping the bombs:

According to the latest DOD financial management report, an F-22 costs between $35,294 and $36,799 per hour to operate; a B-52 between $32,569 and $34,341 per hour; and an F/A-18 between $9,798 and $16,173 per hour, depending on the model. By contrast, the labs being destroyed are cheap and easy to replace. Afghans told Reuters it would take three or four days to replace a lab in Afghanistan. According to UNODC, the morphine/heroin labs need only simple equipment such as a stove, iron barrel, and locally made pressing machines.

SIGAR was also cognizant of the potential political risks involved in dropping bombs in the middle of settlements: "One danger of a sustained air campaign is civilian casualties, which could erode support for the Afghan government and potentially increase support for the insurgency," the report noted.

That was the case in Musa Qala, where Mansfield noted that Helmand members of parliament had voiced objections and where a local informant angrily declared: "These are not Taliban. They killed women and children, NATO killed them."

In rural Afghanistan, where opium is the backbone of the economy, it isn't just the Taliban involved. It's peasant farmers and field-workers, traders and middlemen, local officials and warlords. And that makes using military force to attack what is essentially a criminal problem especially problematic.

"That's one of the challenges of the campaign," said Felbab-Brown. "The military can go after 'Taliban-linked' targets, but what does that mean? In some cases the lab might belong to a trader, a local criminal actor, but in other cases, it will be operated by peasants. The tendency in the drug markets is to move away from very large labs and have many dispersed labs precisely to prevent significant disruption. These are mainly small labs operated by low-level peasants who have acquired the skills to do the processing," she added.

"There is a very significant risk of hitting a lot of very low-level people, while those with political connections get away with it," the Brookings scholar pointed out. "The risk is of pushing people into the hands of the Taliban and making them more dependent on the Taliban."

The Trump White House is pressing the "Taliban heroin lab" bombing campaign because things aren't going so well in Afghanistan, in terms of either counternarcotics or counterinsurgency. Nearly 17 years after the US first invaded to drive the Taliban from power, the insurgency is stronger than ever, with the Taliban reportedly controlling more than a third of the population, rising civilian and military death tolls, and a US-backed government in Kabul seemingly incapable of either fighting or governing effectively.

"Afghan government control or influence has declined and insurgent control or influence has increased overall since SIGAR began reporting control data in January 2016," the watchdog said in its report, while also noting that for the first time, the Pentagon prohibited it from publicizing the full district and land area under the control of the government and insurgent groups or reporting on the strength and capabilities of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.

Similarly, the war on drugs in Afghanistan isn't exactly being won, either. Since 2002, SIGAR reported, the US has spent $8.7 billion on counternarcotics efforts in the country, only to see it remain responsible for the great bulk of the world's opium production throughout the period. Last fall, just before the bombs began falling on the labs, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported in its Afghanistan Opium Survey 2017 that opium planting was at an all-time high, up 63% over 2016, with strong increases reported in almost all poppy-planting provinces.

For the Trump administration, going after opium and the Taliban seems like a natural, and going aggressive fits with Trump's militaristic bent, but all the sound and fury is unlikely to accomplish much.

"There is action for the sake of action because the White House and Sessions want to see action," said Felbab-Brown. "There is this domestic image being created about opiates, and various government officials and Republicans have been obliquely linking the US opiate epidemic to global markets, but there is no evidence whatsoever that the US market is in any significant way supplied by Afghanistan. Still, the Pentagon had to demonstrate that it was doing something, and the thing it can do most easily is bomb interdiction sites, those so-called heroin labs."

Although the county accounts for around 90% of the global opium supply, very little Afghan opium ends up as heroin consumed by American drug users. According to the DEA's annual 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment, only about 1% of heroin in the US comes from Afghanistan. Instead, Mexico accounts for 80% and Colombia and Guatemala make up the remainder.

Brookings Institution counternarcotics and counterinsurgency expert Vanda Felbab-Brown (YouTube)
"There is far more pressure from Trump on actors in Afghanistan to demonstrate results and far less comprehension that demonstrating results for its own sake with significant negative side effects is counterproductive," said Felbab-Brown. "Obama had much more comprehension of the risks of things like eradication, and Trump is more far more determined to revive doctrinaire old counternarcotics approaches, many of which harken back to the drug dogma of the 1980s and 1990s."

But trying to suppress the Afghan opium economy is a loser's game for the foreseeable future, she argued.

"There are real limits on what interdiction or eradication can do. There is much greater insecurity than at any point since 2002-2003, there are fewer US troops available for ground action, and Afghans can't provide adequate security for US personnel on ground interdiction, much less an air interdiction campaign that can demonstrate some numbers," she said. "There can never be a winning situation with respect to drugs unless and until conflict has ended and the state has a presence throughout the country," said Felbab-Brown. "It's extraordinarily difficult to replace a vast illicit economy, and in Afghanistan, where the opium trade accounts for 30% of GDP, it would be an enormous undertaking."

Effectively going after the opium economy would also involve going after people other than the Taliban, she pointed out.

"We should think about interdiction in the same way we think about interdicting high value targets," she said. "Use it to target those who pose the greatest threat to the Afghan state, and that's not just Taliban actors. There are Afghan politicians clamoring to bring down the government, and they have heroin assets. Interdiction shouldn't be seen just as a tool of limiting the Taliban, but as a broader stabilization tool. But that would require far greater authorization, which the US military doesn't currently have -- it can only go after Taliban financing."

The situation is unlikely to get better in the medium term, with the Taliban and other insurgent groups seemingly striking at will, the Afghan military seemingly unable to stop them, and the Afghan government focused on hotly contested presidential elections set for next year and oft-postponed parliamentary elections set for later this year.

"Things could become much worse," said Felbab-Brown, "and with any significant instability it will become that much more difficult to conduct counter-narcotics operations."

But that's where US policy in Afghanistan appears to be heading.

"Trump and Sessions have the inclination and the desire for many of the same doctrinaire drug war policies both domestically and internationally," she said. "There is huge pressure from them on Colombia to ramp up coca eradication, and we could get in a situation where there will be huge pressure from the White House to conduct aerial spraying of opium poppies. That would be the last nail in the coffin of Afghan counterinsurgency."

Chronicle AM: FBI: Drug Arrests Up Last Year, Colombia Coca Conflict, More... (9/25/17)

The FBI's latest Uniform Crime Report shows an increase in drug arrests last year, there's conflict in the coca fields in Colombia, British Columbia gets set to figure out how it's going to handle legal weed, and more.

There were more than 1.5 million drug arrests last year, an increase of more than 5% over 2015. (Wikimedia)
Medical Marijuana

Florida Medical Marijuana Law Challenged By Black Farmer. A state law designed to ensure that at least one medical marijuana cultivation license is reserved for a black farmer has been challenged by a black farmer. Panama City farmer Columbus Smith filed suit last Friday to challenge the law, arguing that it is so narrowly drawn that only a handful of black farmers in the state could qualify. The lawsuit names as a defendant the state Department of Health, which issues licenses, and seeks a temporary injunction blocking the issuance of licenses under that provision of the law.

Montana Dispensary Owner Wins Temporary Restraining Order to Block Billings Ban. Richard Abromeit, the co-owner of Montana Advanced Caregivers in Billings, and a patient filed a temporary restraining order against the city last Friday in a bid to block city officials from enforcing its new ordinance banning medical marijuana businesses. Now, the city cannot enforce the ban until a future court hearing decides the issue. The dispensary has operated in Billings for a decade, but city fathers voted last month to approve an ordinance that bans all medical marijuana businesses.

Law Enforcement

FBI Annual Crime Report Shows Jump in Drug Arrests Last Year. Despite the spread of marijuana legalization and strong public support for new direction in drug policy, the war on drugs just keeps rolling along. Statistics from the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report, released Monday, show 1.57 million arrests for drug law violations nationwide, up 5.63% over 2015. Unlike previous reports, this year's report did not make immediately available data on arrests for specific drugs, such as marijuana. But in recent years, simple pot possession along accounted for about 40% of all drug arrests. Drug possession (either or pot or other drugs) accounted for between 85% and 90% of all drug arrests in previous years.

International

British Columbia Begins Public Engagement Process on How to Legalize Marijuana. BC Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth has announced that the government is beginning an extensive process of public consultation about how best to legalize weed in the province. Questions to be determined include the legal age for use, what possession limits will be, how to deal with drug impaired driving, and issues around personal cultivation. The consultation will also address questions around how weed is to be sold. Canada is set to implement marijuana legalization on July 1, 2018.

Colombia Coca Farmer Protests Force Temporary Halt to Forced Eradication in Norte de Santander. Government officials and coca growers agreed last Wednesday on a temporary halt to forced eradication of coca crops in the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander state in the country's northwest. The agreement came after protests the previous weekend led to clashes and road blockades. Under the peace agreement negotiated between the government and leftist FARC rebels, coca farmers are supposed to have a chance to voluntarily eradicate their plants and join a crop substitution program, but the protestors said the anti-narcotics police, who are under pressure from the US, were engaging in forced eradication anyway.

How Reefer Madness Helped Kill Philando Castile

The Minnesota cop who was acquitted last week of killing Philando Castile used the fact that he smelled marijuana in the car as part of his defense. Whether Officer Jeronimo Yanez really believed Castile's presumed pot use made him more dangerous or whether the testimony influenced the jury's decision to acquit remains unknown, but its use in his defense illustrates the enduring power of the demonization of the plant and its users.

Castile's killing last year sparked angry demonstrations and made national headlines after his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, live streamed the immediate aftermath of the shooting on Facebook, with a bloodied, mortally wounded Castile moaning as Reynolds says "That police just killed my boyfriend, he's licensed, and he was trying to get his wallet out of his pocket, and he let the officer know he had a firearm and he was reaching for his wallet, and the officer just shot him in his arm."

In the video, Yanez is visibly agitated: "I told him not to reach for it; I told him to get hand up!" he yells.

"You told him to get his ID, sir," Reynolds responds, as her four-year-old daughter in the back seat attempts to comfort her. "Oh my God. Please don't tell me he's dead. Please don't tell me my boyfriend just went like that."

Castile did go just like that, though. He was pronounced dead at the Hennepin County Medical Center 20 minutes after Yanez opened fire, shooting seven bullets at him.

Dashcam video from Yanez's patrol car, not released until Tuesday, shows that it only took 30 seconds before Yanez opened fire.

(Click here to watch the video on YouTube.)

Yanez didn't mention marijuana in Reynolds' video, but in court transcripts of his testimony, Yanez said he opened fire on Castile in part because he could smell marijuana -- and he assumed that Castile had been using it in front of the child.

"I thought I was gonna die and I thought if he's -- if he has the guts and audacity to smoke marijuana in front of the five-year-old girl and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her secondhand smoke, and the front seat passenger doing the same thing, then what -- what care does he give about me?" Yanez said.

The argument apparently is that smoking pot in front of kids makes you a stone cold killer. Never mind the hyperbole of "risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her second-hand smoke," in Yanez's mind, someone who would smoke pot around kids is not only endangering their lives, but would be willing to kill a cop over a pot charge or a broken taillight (the original reason for the traffic stop), and that justifies pumping Castile full of lead.

Police did later find traces of marijuana in the vehicle, and defense attorneys used that and the marijuana smell to also insinuate that Castile was so high he was slow to comply with Yanez's demands. That made Yanez even more suspicious, the defense claimed.

But Yanez's claims about secondhand smoke border on the bizarre. Yes, ingesting secondhand pot smoke can be harmful, but secondhand smoke is quite different from intent to harm a police officer. And the most notorious source of unwanted secondhand smoke is cigarettes, yet no one insinuates that smoking them around kids makes you more likely to be a cop-killer. Yanez and his defense attorneys were singing a Reefer Madness tune with this claim.

Despite Yanez's claims and phobias, pot smokers are no more likely to behave violently than non-users, and in fact, some research shows they are less likely to. A 2014 study in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors found that marijuana use among couples was associated with lower risk of domestic violence.

Philando Castile was black. That was strike one. He was armed (and admitted it). That was strike two. And he was a pot smoker. That was strike three. Reefer Madness, either in the mind of Officer Yanez or the minds of the jurors, or both, helped kill Phil Castile.

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