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MN Marijuana Legalization Bill Advances Again, Colombia Peace Talks with ELN, More... (2/14/21)

Four federal legislators file a bill to strengthen the drug war in the Caribbean, a Hawaii bill to ease the way toward the therapeutic use of psilocybin and MDMA passes the Senate, and more.

Coast Guard seizes $7.5 million in cocaine in the Caribbean. (USCG)
Marijuana Policy

Minnesota Marijuana Legalization Bill Wins More Committee Votes. The effort to legalize marijuana continued to bear fruit this week, with the House version of the bill, House File 100 being approved Monday by the House Human Services Policy Committee and the companion Senate bill being approved that sa me day by the Senate Transportation Committee. The actions mark the eighth approval by a House committee and the sixth by a Senate committee. With majorities in the House and Senate, as well as control of the governorship, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party is confident the bill will become law this year. It looks like there are only four committee votes to go before the bill heads for floor votes in the two chambers.

Opiates and Opioids

Idaho Bill Would Lower Heroin Penalties, Create Mandatory Minimums for Dealing Fentanyl. A bill before the legislature, House Bill 67, would raise quantity thresholds and reduce sentences for heroin dealing while creating a mandatory minimum sentence for fentanyl dealing. The amount of heroin required for a trafficking charge would jump from two grams to seven in the bottom tier and from 10 to 14 grams in the middle tier. Sentences for the top tier of heroin trafficking offenses would drop from 15 years to 10 and sentences for the middle tier would drop from 10 years to five. The bill would also make possession of more than seven grams of fentanyl a felony chargeable as "trafficking." Those caught with more than seven grams would face a three-year mandatory minimum, while those caught with more than 14 grams would face a five-year mandatory minimum, and those caught with more than 28 grams would face a 10-year mandatory minimum. The Idaho Chiefs of Police, Idaho Sheriffs Association and the Idaho Prosecuting Attorneys Association are all in favor of House Bill 67.

Psychedelics

Hawaii Psilocybin and MDMA Research Bill Wins Committee Vote. The Senate Health and Human Services Committee has approved Senate Bill 1531, which is aimed at promoting research into the therapeutic uses of MDMA, psilocybin, and other alternative mental health treatments. The bill would create a Beneficial Treatments Advisory Council that would review the scientific literature on using such substances for mental health treatment as well as exploring state and federal regulations on them. The council would be required to develop a "long-term strategic plan to ensure the availability of therapeutic psilocybin, psilocybin-based products, and [MDMA] that are safe, accessible, and affordable for adults twenty—one years of age or older." A companion bill in the House has yet to move.

Drug Policy

Old School Prohibitionist Bill to Fight Caribbean Drug Trafficking Filed in Congress. On Monday, three Republicans and one Democrat, Sens. Rick Scott (R-FL) and Alex Padilla (D-CA) and Reps. Jenniffer González-Colon (R-PR) and Stacey Plaskett (R-VI) introduced the Caribbean Border Counternarcotics Strategy Act , which aims "to stop the illegal trafficking of deadly drugs in the Caribbean, specifically between Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands and Florida." The bill would "ensure the Federal government has a strategy in place to prevent the flow of illicit drugs through the Caribbean region and into the United States by codifying in statute the requirement for ONDCP to issue a Caribbean Border Counternarcotics Strategy—just as Congress has codified the requirement for the Southwest Border and the Northern Border Counternarcotics Strategies." It would also clarify that US territories are included in the definition of "state" and "United States." 

International

Colombian Government in Peace Talks with Leftist Rebels Who Demand "Alternative Drug Policies." The government of President Gustavo Petro and the country's largest remaining rebel group met in Mexico City to restart peace talks aimed at resolving a conflict dating back to the 1960s. The communist-inspired National Liberation Army (ELN) is calling for a "temporary, nationwide cease-fire" and that any agreement should include "an alternative anti-drug policy that is no longer based on repression and war." The ELN has a presence in some 200 Colombian township, mostly in areas of widespread coca cultivation and cocaine production. Like the larger FARC, which signed a peace agreement with the state in 2016, the ELN is involved in the drug trade and has replaced the FARC in many areas. But even though it is involved in the drug traffic, the ELN is adamant that it should not be treated like a drug trafficking organization but as a political force. This is the second round of talks since Petro took office last year. The first round did not achieve much. 

Bipartisan Group of Lawmakers Call on Biden to Deschedule Marijuana, Belize Coca Bust, More... (12/23/22)

There's a big payout for a Georgia woman falsely arrested on cocaine charges, British police chiefs call for drug decriminalization, and more.

Coca, traditionally grown only in the Andes, is popping up in Central America and Mexico. (DEA)
Marijuana Policy

Bipartisan Group of Lawmakers Urge Biden to Deschedule Marijuana. After marijuana reforms failed to pass as the current Congress winds down, a bipartisan group of 24 lawmakers called on President Biden to "recognize the merits of full descheduling" of marijuana. Despite the spread of marijuana and marijuana legalization in the states, marijuana remains a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, in the same schedule as heroin and LSD. They reminded Biden that he had launched the first formal review of marijuana scheduling back in October, which they called "a crucial and laudable step," but they called for more action.

"Marijuana does not belong in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, a classification intended for exceptionally dangerous substances with high potential for abuse and no medical use," the lawmakers wrote. "The decision to schedule marijuana was rooted in stigma rather than an evidence-based process, and it is time to fully remedy this wrong. While Congress works to send you a comprehensive legalization bill, the administration should recognize the merits of full descheduling." The signatories were 20 Democrats, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and four Republicans.

Law Enforcement

Federal Jury Awards Georgia Woman $1 Million After Wrongful Cocaine Arrests, Extended Jail Stay. A federal jury in Atlanta has awarded a Georgia woman $1 million in damages after an Atlanta police officer falsely accused her of drug possession and she was jailed for months -- even after testing showed she did not possess cocaine. The officer stopped her on the street for jaywalking and falsely accused her of hiding cocaine inside an exercise ball. She spent a month in jail before the Georgia Bureau of Investigation completed an analysis that found the substance in question was not cocaine and then inexplicably spent another four months in jail before being released. The arresting officer was initially ordered to pay the damages and his pay began to be garnished, but Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens has since said the city will take responsibility for the costs.

International

Belize Armed Forces Destroy More Than 100,000 Coca Plants. The Belize Defense Force, the Coast Guard, and the national Police Department destroyed more than 100,000 coca plants in a joint raid southwest of Graham Creek Village this week. No arrests were made, and the plants were burned. Coca has traditionally been cultivated only in the Andes, but in recent years, the international criminal organizations that run the traffic have experimented with coca plantations in Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, as well as Belize.

British Police Chiefs Call for Decriminalization of First-Time Drug Offenses. The National Police Chiefs' Council and the College of Policing are calling for the decriminalization of first-time drug possession offenses, with the use and possession of drugs by first-offenders treated as a public health -- not a law enforcement -- matter. Under the plan, people caught with illegal drugs would be offered drug education or treatment programs, but those who do not comply or complete the programs would be subject to criminal prosecution. Police in 14 of the country's 43 police forces have already adopted similar policies, but the plan is opposed by the Conservative government, which has been floating proposals to stiffen drug penalties, including for marijuana.

Opiate Treatment Program (OTP) Barriers, Schumer Says Progress on SAFE Banking Act +, More... (11/1/22)

There's a drug crackdown going on in India's Punjab, Afghan drug prices are rising despite questions about whether the Taliban ban is actually happening, and more.

An Aghan opium poppy field. It is almost planting time again. Will the Taliban ban actually take place? Stay tuned. (UNODC)
Marijuana Policy

Schumer Says Senate Close to Passing Marijuana Banking, Expungements Bill After Talks with Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said Sunday that Congress is "very close" to filing and then passing the SAFE Banking Act + bill, which includes provisions including banking protections for state-legal marijuana businesses and expungements of past marijuana convictions. Schumer cited progress he had made in talks with a "bunch of Republican senators."

Schumer had blocked earlier efforts to pass the SAFE Banking Act, which has passed the House seven times, but now appears ready to move on it as prospects for a broader legalization bill fade. "We are getting very close," Schumer said. "I am working in a bipartisan way with Democrats and Republicans to take the SAFE Banking Act, which allows financial institutions to involve themselves in cannabis companies and lend money to them -- but it also does some things for justice, such as expunging a record. So, expunging the records is important, and we're getting clos We may be able to get something done rather soon. I'm working with a bunch of Republican senators, a bunch of Democratic senators, to get something passed."

Drug Treatment

State Opioid Treatment Program Regulations Put Evidence-Based Care Out of Reach for Many. Opioid treatment programs (OTPs) are the only health care modalities that can offer methadone as well as buprenorphine and extended-release naltrexone to patients. They are the only facilities that can offer methadone, but federal and state rules not based on evidence are curtailing access to high-quality OTP care, the Pew Trust reports in new research.

Among barriers to OTP treatment, Pew found that 20 states require a new OTP to seek state approval baed on demonstrating a need for services before opening, seven states impose restrictive zoning rules on OTPS that don't apply to other health are facilities, 10 states don't allow clients to take medication home in the first 30 days of treatment, 48 states allow OTPs to throw patients out of the program for not being abstinent from opioids or other drugs, and 23 states specify a counseling schedule for patients rather than providing individualized care. Click on the link for methodology and a full data set.

International

Afghan Drug Prices Soared After Taliban Ban, Despite Little Evidence of Enforcement. Illegal drug prices have skyrocketed in Afghanistan since the Taliban banned the drug trade in April, even though there is only limited evidence that the militants are enforcing the ban. Opium prices have increased more than 50 percent, while methamphetamine prices have also risen, according to countrywide data gathered by the private, UK-based satellite imagery company Alcis. While analysts said the ban is not yet widely enforced, prices are rising based on fears of a future crackdown. A new opium poppy planting season is about to get underway, and it is unclear to what degree local Taliban commanders intend to or even can enforce a ban on poppy production. Satellite data, though, has shown a crackdown on ephedra (used to manufacture meth) markets and meth labs already underway.

But any crackdown would come in the face of a massive nationwide economic crisis that could drive people away from supporting the Taliban. "The things that people used to survive on in the face of a drugs ban -- in terms of joining the [army], working in the cities in construction -- those options are gone," David Mansfield, a researcher on the report and expert on Afghanistan's drugs trade, said. "Do local Taliban... press on this and risk increasing a humanitarian crisis, alienating a population, or do they let it ride because of the fear of resistance?"

India's Punjab Police in Massive Drug Crackdown. Police in the Punjab have arrested 6,997 drug smugglers since July and registered 5,436 FIRs (first information reports -- the initial report of a possible criminal offense), of which 580 are for possessing large quantities of drugs. The crackdown is part of Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann's "war against the drug menace plaguing the state."

Between roadblocks and other searches, police have seized nearly 260 kilograms of heroin, as well as an additional 147.5 kilograms seized at the ports of Gujarat and Maharashtra. They also seized 300 kilograms of raw heroin, 197 kilograms of marijuana and nearly three million pills, capsules, and vials of pharmaceutical opioids. State police chief Gaurav Yadav has called on police to investigate all leads in every case no matter how small and to aggressively seize the assets of drug suspects.

CO Pot Sales Declining for Months, Biden Orders More Colombia Drug War, More... (8/11/22)

An Ohio harm reduction group is suing a state board over how $400 million in opioid settlement money is spent, an Uruguayan meth bust signals a possible shift in drug trafficking between Europe and South America, and more.

Joe Biden and new Colombian President Petro are not on the same page when it comes to drug policy. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Marijuana Sales Decline for Fourth Straight Month. For the fourth month in a row, marijuana sales in Colorado have declined. Sales in June were just $146 million, a 1% decline from the previous month, but a 22% decline from June 2021. So far this year, pot shops sold more than $906 million worth of weed, down from $1.1 billion during the same period last year. This is not the first time there has been a four-month decline in sales; it also happened between August and November 2020. The state has collected more than $30 million in sales tax revenues in only two months so far this year. It collected more than $30 million every month last year.

Opioids

Ohio Harm Reduction Group Sues State Board Over Opioid Settlement Money. Harm Reduction Ohio has filed a lawsuit against a foundation set up by the state to spend more than $400 million that it won in settlements with opioid makers and distributors for drug treatment programs. The lawsuit demands that the foundation, the OneOhio Recovery Foundation, be more transparent about how it will spend that money. The state received $808 million in settlements, and the OneOhio Recovery Foundation gets half. (The rest goes to state and local governments.)

Harm Reduction Ohio President Dennis Cauchon said the foundation's board is not following the state's open meetings law, and that could lead to future problems. "I say preschedule the indictments because in year eleven, if you've got $100 million to spend in a year, don't have to follow ethics law, you can spend on whatever you want," Cauchon said. "It's a formula for cronyism written all over it."

Cauchon also cited the board's makeup, which consists of appointees of Gov. Mike DeWine (R), state lawmakers, and local government leaders, saying it's important to include people with treatment and recovery program experience. "The combination of people in this case needs to include people who have suffered from opioids, the reason this money exists, and they have essentially been excluded entirely," Cauchon said. "If you don't know the population and you don't know the issue, you can't spend a half billion dollars wisely."

Foreign Policy

Biden Orders Continuation of Colombian Drug Interdiction Assistance. President Joe Biden has issued a memo directing the State and Defense departments to continue assisting Colombia to interdict aircraft "reasonably suspected to be primarily engaged in illicit drug trafficking in that country's airspace," given the "extraordinary threat posed by illicit drug trafficking to the national security of that country." The president noted that Colombia "has appropriate procedures in place to protect against innocent loss of life in the air and on the ground in connection with such interdiction," and which includes "effective means to identify and warn an aircraft before the use of force is directed against the aircraft." The memo was issued Wednesday, just three days after Colombian President Gustavo Petro was sworn-in. Petro has called the US-led war on drugs "a complete failure and has pledged to maintain a ban on spraying coca crops with the herbicide glyphosate, putting the two countries at odds around drug policy.

International

Uruguay Makes Historic Seizure of European Meth. Uruguayan authorities seized 43 kilograms of methamphetamine on August 5 in what is believed to be the largest-ever shipment of European meth to reach Latin America. It is a bust that marks a potential shift in the trade in synthetic drugs between the two continents. Underground labs in Europe have traditionally shipped MDMA to Latin America (among other markets), while Europe has imported cocaine and methamphetamine from Latin America. But Mexican chemists may have accompanied Mexican meth going to Europe and shared their manufacturing skills with underground chemists there. Europe's meth production is still small compared to the mountains of meth produced in Mexico, but it is now competing in South American markets. And because of high prices for European meth, it is likely it is being traded for cocaine destined for Europe.

Chronicle Book Review: Opium's Orphans

Chronicle Book Review: Opium's Orphans: The 200-Year History of the War on Drugs by P.E. Caquet (2022, Reaktion Books, 400 pp., $35.00 HB)

The history of drug prohibition is increasingly well-trodden territory, but with Opium's Orphans, British historian P.E. Caquet brings a fascinating new perspective embedded in a sweeping narrative and fortified with an erudite grasp of the broad global historical context. Although Asian bans on opium pre-dated 19th Century China (the Thai monarchy announced a ban in the 1400s), for Caquet, the critical moment in what became a linear trajectory toward global drug prohibition a century later came when the Qing emperor banned opium in 1813 and imposed severe penalties on anything to do with it, including possessing it. Precisely 100 years later, after two Opium Wars imposed opium on the empire followed by decades of diplomatic wrangling over how to suppress the trade (and for moralizing Americans, how to win favor with China), the 1913 Hague Opium Convention ushered in the modern war on drugs with its targeting not just of opium (and coca) producers or sellers but also of mere users for criminal prosecution. It urged countries to enact such laws, and they did.

What began at the Hague would eventually grow into an international anti-drug bureaucracy, first in the League of Nations and then in United Nations bodies such as the Commission on Narcotic Drugs and the International Narcotics Control Board. But it is a global prohibition regime that has, Caquet writes, straight-jacketed itself with an opium-based perspective that has proven unable or unwilling to recognize the differences among the substances over which it seeks dominion, reflexively resorting to opium and its addiction model. Drugs such as amphetamines, psychedelics, and marijuana don't really fit that model -- they are the orphans of the book's title -- and in a different world would be differently regulated.

But Opium's Orphans isn't just dry diplomatic history. Caquet delves deep into the social, cultural, and political forces driving drug use and drug policies. His description of the spread of opium smoking among Chinese elites before it spread into the masses and became declasse is both finely detailed and strangely evocative of the trajectory of cocaine use in the United States in the 1970s, when it was the stuff of rock musicians and Hollywood stars before going middle class and then spreading among the urban poor in the form of crack.

Along the way, we encounter opium merchants and colonial opium monopolies, crusading missionary moralists, and early Western proponents of recreational drug use, such as Confessions of an English Opium Eater author Thomas De Quincey and the French habitues of mid-19th Century hashish clubs. More contemporaneously, we also meet the men who achieved international notoriety in the trade in prohibited drugs, "drug lords" such as Khun Sa in the Golden Triangle, Pablo Escobar in Colombia and El Chapo Guzman in Mexico, as well as the people whose job it is to hunt them down. Caquet notes that no matter how often a drug lord is removed -- jailed or killed, in most cases -- the impact on the trade is negligible.

For Caquet, drug prohibition as a global phenomenon peaked with the adoption of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Coming as it did amidst a post-World War II decline in drug use around the world, the treaty criminalizing coca, cocaine, opium and opioids, and marijuana seemed to ratify a successful global prohibitionist effort. (In the US, in the 1950s, when domestic drug use was at low ebb, Congress passed tough new drug laws.) But before the decade was over, drug prohibition was under flamboyant challenge from the likes of LSD guru Timothy Leary and a horde of hippie pot smokers. The prohibitionist consensus was seeing its first cracks.

And the prohibitionist response was to crack down even harder, which in turn begat its own backlash. Drug use of all sorts began rising around the world in the 1960s and hasn't let up yet, and the increasingly omnivorous drug war machine grew right along with it, as did the wealth and power of the illicit groups that provided the drugs the world demanded. As the negative impacts of the global drug war -- from the current opioid overdose crisis in the US to the prisons filled with drug offenders to the bloody killing fields of Colombia and Mexico -- grew ever more undeniable, the critiques grew ever sharper.

In recent years, the UN anti-drug bureaucrats have been forced to grudgingly accept the notion of harm reduction, although they protest bitterly over such interventions as safe injection sites. For them, harm reduction is less of an erosion of the drug war consensus than all that talk of drug legalization. As Caquet notes, perhaps a tad unfairly, harm reduction doesn't seek to confront drug prohibition head-on, but to mitigate its harms.

The man is a historian, not a policymaker, and his response to questions about what to do now is "I wouldn't start from here." Still, at the end of it all, he has a trio of observations: First, supply reduction ("suppression" is his word) does not work. Sure, you can successfully wipe out poppies in Thailand or Turkey, but they just pop up somewhere else, like the Golden Triangle or Afghanistan. That's the infamous balloon effect. Second, "criminalization of the drug user has been a huge historical blunder." It has no impact on drug use levels, is cruel and inhumane, and it didn't have to be that way. A century ago, countries could have agreed to regulate the drug trade; instead, they tried to eradicate it in an ever-escalating, never-ending crusade. Third, illicit drugs as a group should be seen "as a historical category, not a scientific one." Different substances demand different approaches.

Opium's Orphans is a fascinating, provocative, and nuanced account of the mess we've gotten ourselves into. Now, we continue the work of trying to get out of that mess.

NY Grey Market Pot Shop Crackdown, Trump Praises China's Death Penalty for Drugs, More... (7/11/22)

It looks like they will be voting to free the weed in North Dakota this year, Customs officers nail a 5,000 load of methamphetamine near the Mexican border, and more.

The former president lauded China for executing drug offenders and suggested we should do the same. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

New York Cracks Down on Grey Market Pot Shops. The state's Office of Cannabis Management has sent cease and desist letters to 52 shops across the state it has identified as illicitly selling marijuana. While the state legalized marijuana in March 2021, licensed sales have yet to commence, and the shops have been taking advantage of the interregnum to peddle weed without a permit. Now they must stop or face the prospect of being blocked from ever obtaining a retail marijuana sales license.

North Dakota Marijuana Legalization Initiative Campaign Hands in Plenty of Signatures. Legalize ND, the group behind this year's marijuana legalization initiative, handed in more than 25,000 raw signatures Monday morning. The initiative requires 15,582 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot, meaning it has a cushion of some 10,000 signatures in case some of the raw signatures are invalidated. That is a big cushion that should ensure North Dakotans get a chance to vote on the issue in November. The initiative would legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana for people 21 and over and allow for its sale at registered businesses.

Law Enforcement

Trump Again Urges Death Penalty for Drug Dealers, Claims China Has No Drug Problem. In a campaign speech for his preferred gubernatorial candidate in Nevada last Friday, former President Donald Trump said the US should follow the lead of China on drug policy and swiftly execute drug dealers. "If you look at countries all throughout the world... the only ones that don't have a drug problem are those that institute the death penalty for drug dealers. They're the only ones, you understand that? China has no drug problem," Trump said to applause from the Republican crowd. Trump said he had asked Chinese Premier Xi Jinping whether China had a drug problem, then made up what he said XI was thinking: "Why would you have such a dumb question is that no, no, no, we don't have a drug problem. Why would we have a drug problem? There is no problem. Drug dealers get the death penalty. The trial goes very quickly. So instead of coming into China, they go someplace else. We've had big drug problems over the centuries, but we don't have a drug problem at all. Now, they don't deal in China," the former president said. Trump prefaced his remark by saying he would either "get a standing ovation" or "people are going to walk out of the room." In fact, China has rising levels of drug use, according to its own National Narcotics Control Commission.

Massive Meth Bust at Otay Mesa Border Crossing. US Customs officers seized a record-breaking 5,000 pounds of methamphetamine from a box truck that had crossed the border from Mexico into the US at the Otay Mesa border crossing near San Diego last Thursday. They tailed the vehicle to nearby National City, where they observed four men unloading dozens of boxes from the truck and into a van. They four men, all Tijuana residents, were arrested and charged with conspiracy to distribute meth, which exposes them to possible life sentences. The DEA crowed that the bust was "another win against drug cartels," but the cross-border drug trade remains very dynamic, with seizures accounting for only a small percentage of all drugs moving across the border.

Chronicle Book Review: "Transforming the War on Drugs" [FEATURE]

Transforming the War on Drugs: Warriors, Victims and Vulnerable Regions edited by Annette Idler and Juan Carlos Garzon Vergara (2021, Oxford University Press, 584 pp., $34.95 PB)

If you have been watching the growing fissures and fractures in the global prohibitionist consensus embodied in the United Nation's three-treaty international drug control regime (IDCR) and are expecting the whole thing to come crashing to the ground sometime soon, don't hold your breath. That is the message that comes through loud and clear in Transforming the War on Drugs, an essential collection that comprehensively analyzes the past and present of global drug policy and points the way to a different, better future.

As the contributors make clear, while the IDCR is suffering well-earned stresses, especially around its failure to succeed on its own terms -- reducing drug use and the drug trade -- and while the "Vienna consensus" may be fraying, the global reform movement that has been building since the failure of the 1998 UN General Assembly Session (UNGASS) on Drugs to meet its goal of eradicating drug use within a decade has yet to jell.

As Monica Serrano explains in "A Forward March Halted: The UNGASS Process and the War on Drugs," while Latin American nations such as Colombia and Mexico called for a reconsideration of the IDCR, paving the way for the 2016 UNGASS, they did not succeed in building alliances with other nations that could push the process forward. That was not only because of deficiencies in those countries' efforts, but also because, despite the ever-increasing calls for change, a majority of countries around the world still subscribe to the law enforcement-heavy tenets of the global drug prohibition regime.

That is despite the now quite clearly understood harms that the IDCR imposes on different countries and groups around the world. Whether it is enabling the rise of violent drug trafficking organizations, destroying the livelihoods of poor drug crop farmers, creating horrendous human rights violations, filling prisons around the world, or creating needless suffering for drug users, the international response to drug use and trafficking is creating real, calculable negative consequences.

As coeditor Annette Idler demonstrates in "Warriors, Victims, and Vulnerable Regions," the heedless harshness of the IDCR is embedded in its very DNA. From the beginning, the US "war on drugs" model and the rhetoric of drugs as "evil" and an existential threat to the security of nation-states has excused the sort of "state of emergency" measures -- criminalization, law enforcement crackdowns, militarization -- that, while not even managing to make countries more secure, manages to bring not security but insecurity to communities and drug using individuals.

Other contributors to the volume make that point in great detail in case studies of Latin America, Mexico and the Caribbean, West Africa, the Crescent (Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan), the Golden Triangle, and Russia. How can one argue that drug prohibition has brought security to Mexico, with thousands of killings each year and police forces so corrupted you don't know which department is working for which cartel? Likewise, West Africa, where drug prohibition has so corrupted some governments that "the state becomes a threat to its own self"?

Given current events, the case of Russia is particularly interesting. It is one of the staunchest supporters of the current IDCR, but not just because of its inherent authoritarianism. Russia didn't really have a significant drug control regime until the post-Soviet era of the 1990s, and then it modeled its apparatus on that of the DEA. But even though it looked to the West for drug war expertise, its drug concerns were primarily domestic: It has one of the world's most serious heroin problems, one driven by supply rather than demand, contributor Ekaterina Stepanova explains. That supply is coming from Afghanistan, and Russian addicts account for about one quarter of all Afghan heroin production. One more reason for Russia to be unhappy with the US and NATO, who, in two decades of occupying Afghanistan, never effectively suppressed the poppy crop.

One of the more fascinating chapters is on rethinking the metrics of measuring success in drug policy. Instead of measuring "securitized" items such as acres of drug crops eradicated, the amount of drugs seized, the number of traffickers arrested -- all of which really measure repressive enforcement activity -- contributors Robert Muggah and Katherine Aguirre argue for new metrics for a new framework for evaluating drug policies. With broad goals of improving the health and welfare of the population and enhancing the safety and security of people who use drugs and the broader public, instead of measuring busts and seizures, we should be quantifying metrics for decriminalizing drug use (is it decriminalized, how many legislative measures are aimed at it, how many civil society groups are involved, how many people are being arrested and imprisoned) and curbing drug harms through public health measures (number of drug overdose deaths, number of other drug-related deaths, prevalence of drug-linked infectious disease). This really make sense if we are actually interested in improving lives as opposed to the quixotic quest to eliminate drug use.

There is a whole lot more to this volume. It is a comprehensive, systematic effort to theoretically, conceptually, and empirically investigate the effects of the IDCR and offer a more human alternative. Anyone seriously interested in working to understand and change the global drug prohibition regime need a well-thunbed copy of this on his bookshelf.

Luxembourg Set to Legalize Marijuana, OH GOP Marijuana Legalization Bill Coming, More... (10/25/21)

New Hampshire continues as the lone northern New England holdout on marijuana legalization, Luxembourg is now set to become the first European country to free the weed, and more.

Colombian drug trafficker Dairo Antonio Usuga, "Otoniel," under arrest this past weekend. (ENC)
Marijuana Policy

Ohio GOP Lawmaker to File Marijuana Legalization Bill. State Rep. Jamie Callender (R-Lake County) is set to announce Tuesday that he will file a bill to legalize marijuana, including the growth, processing, and distribution of marijuana and marijuana products. The move comes as activists work to put a marijuana legalization ballot measure before voters in November 2022.

New Hampshire House Committee Kills Marijuana Legalization Bills. The House Criminal Justice Committee last Wednesday killed bills that would legalize and tax marijuana and allow people to grow up to six plants at home. The vote fell mainly along party lines with Republicans opposed and Democrats in favor. New Hampshire is the only northern New England state to yet approve marijuana legalization.

Psychedelics

Massachusetts Town Becomes Fourth in State to Pass Psychedelic Reform Measure. The Easthampton City Council voted unanimously last Wednesday to approve a resolution calling for the decriminalization of certain psychedelics and other drugs. The resolution is non-binding but sends a message to local law enforcement that the status quo of criminalization is eroding. The cities of Cambridge, Northampton, and Somerville have also passed psychedelic reform measures in recent months, and there are both decriminalization and psychedelic study bills awaiting action in the state legislature.

International

Colombians Capture Most Wanted Drug Trafficker. Colombian police and military forces with assistance from the US captured, better known as Otoniel, at his jungle hideout near the Panamanian border Saturday. Otoniel is the leader of the country's most powerful drug trafficking organization, the Gulf Clan, taking control of the organization after Colombian police killed his brother nearly a decade ago. President Ivan Duque cheered the bust, saying it was the most significant blow to drug trafficking since the killing of Pablo Escobar in 1993. But analysts such as Sergio Guzman of Colombia Risk Analysis warned that Otoniel's arrest "is not going to move the needle in terms of the war on drugs. Soon we'll have another kingpin and another drug lord who may be much worse."

Luxembourg Set to Become First European Country to Legalize Marijuana. The national government announced last Friday that the country will legalize the possession, cultivation, and distribution of marijuana. Under the proposed legislation, people will be able to grow up to four plants at home. In the meantime, fines for the possession of up to three grams will drop from $291 to $29. While the new legislation has the backing of the government coalition, a vote in parliament is still required to approve it. No word yet on when that will happen.

NE MedMJ Activists Take Aim at 2022, Study Finds Heroin, Fentanyl Use Up During Pandemic, More... (10/16/20)

Virginia's governor signs a minor marijuana reform bill into, the Mexican government has captured a major cartel leader, heroin and fentanyl use is up during the pandemic, and more. 

Fentanyl use has gone up during the COVID pandemic, data from Quest Diagnostics shows. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Virginia Governor Signs Marijuana Reform Bill into Law. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has signed into law a bill, SB 5013, that will allow people to issued summonses for decriminalized marijuana possession to prepay their fines rather than having to show up in court. Other marijuana-related bills are still alive in the session, including one already on the governor's desk that would bar police from conducting searches bases solely on the odor of marijuana and a set of competing expungement proposals that are now in conference committee.

Medical Marijuana

Nebraska Medical Marijuana Legalization Activists Get Working on 2022. After qualifying for the 2020 ballot and then getting stiffed by the state Supreme Court, which held that the initiative embraced more than one subject, the two state senators who lead Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana Anna Wishart and Adam Morfeld, recently filed new petition language with Secretary of State Bob Evnen for voters to consider for the 2022 ballot. The new language is simple and straightforward: "Persons in the State of Nebraska shall have the right to cannabis in all its forms for medical purposes." Now, they will have to recreate the successful 2020 signature-gathering campaign to get back on the ballot in 2022.

Drug Policy

Quest Diagnostics Health Trends Study Finds Fentanyl and Heroin Misuse Skyrockets During COVID-19 Pandemic. A new Quest Diagnostics Health Trends study indicates that misuse of fentanyl, heroin and nonprescribed opioids are on the rise, potentially due to the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on healthcare access and support for individuals most at-risk for substance use disorder. The full study, from researchers at Quest Diagnostics and published online in the peer reviewed journal Population Health Management, can be found here. The researchers compared testing positivity rates for January 1, 2019-March 14, 2020 and March 15-May 16, 2020 (during the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak). Among individuals tested, the drug positivity rate increased 35% for non-prescribed fentanyl and 44% for heroin during the pandemic compared to the period prior to the pandemic. Nonprescribed opioids also increased, by 10%. The study also found a massive surge in the positivity rate of drug combining with non-prescribed fentanyl during the pandemic compared to prior to the pandemic. Positivity for non-prescribed fentanyl increased substantially among specimens that were also positive for amphetamines (by 89%), benzodiazepines (48%), cocaine (34%), and opiates (39%; P <0.01 for all comparisons).

International

Mexico Captures Major Cartel Leader. Mexican security forces have captured the head of the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel, Guanajuato Gov. Diego Sinhue announced Wednesday night. Adan Ochoa, known as "El Azul," rose to lead the cartel after the capture of its former leader Jose Antonio Yepez, known as "El Marro." The cartel has been involved in violent conflict with the Jalisco New Generation Cartel over which will control the drug trade in the central Mexican state.

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.

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