Futile Pursuits

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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 percent 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.

Ohio Okays Curbside Medical Marijuana Pickup, DEA Seized More Plants But Did Fewer Busts Last Year, More... (4/14/20)

The DEA continued with its futile pursuit of marijuana eradication last year, a former Amazon worker wins a victory in a court battle over being fired for medical marijuana use, and more.

The DEA eradicated more pot plants last year than in 2018, but busted fewer grows and made fewer related arrests. (DEA.gov)
Marijuana Policy

DEA Seized More Pot Plants Last Year but Arrested Fewer People for Growing. According to a new annual report from the DEA, the agency seized more than four million plants last year, a more than 40% increase over 2018. But the number of indoor grows raided actually decreased by about 10%, suggesting that the DEA was raiding bigger grows rather than expanding enforcement efforts. And most of the seized plants -- 3.1 million of them -- came from California, where the agency seized only 1.8 million in 2018. And related arrests declined by 15%, from 5,600 in 2018 to 4,700 last year.

Medical Marijuana

Worker Fired by Amazon for Medical Marijuana Wins Key Decision in Federal Court. A former Amazon warehouse worker who sued in New Jersey state court after being fired for using medical marijuana has won a preliminary victory. Amazon had responded to the lawsuit by moving to have the case heard in federal court, where the worker had little chance of winning since marijuana remains prohibited under federal law. But late last week, the federal court allowed the worker's request to remand the case back to state Superior Court.

Ohio Okays Curbside Pickup for Medical Marijuana Sales. The state has determined that medical marijuana dispensaries are "essential" businesses during the coronavirus crisis and are being allowed to sell their products via curbside pickup. The stat Board of Pharmacy approved a temporary guideline to allow the practice last week. While a Cleveland-area dispensary is the first to implement curbside service, all dispensaries in the state have been cleared to do so as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chronicle AM: KY House Passes MedMJ Bill, DEA Announces New Anti-Meth Operation, More... (2/21/20)

A new poll shows Florida voters strongly support marijuana legalization, the DEA announces Operation Crystal Shield, the drug czar announces this year's version of a border strategy, and more.

The DEA announces a new operation targeting meth "transport hubs." (DEA)
Marijuana Policy

Florida Poll Has Strong Support for Marijuana Legalization. A new poll from the University of North Florida Public Opinion Lab and First Coast News has support for marijuana legalization in the Sunshine State at 64%. The poll asked whether respondents would support allowing up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana to be legally purchased, possessed, transported, displayed and used. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of Democrats supported legalization, and even a majority (52%) of Republicans did, too.

Medical Marijuana

Kentucky House Approves Medical Marijuana. The House voted 65-30 Thursday to approve HB 136, which would legalize medical marijuana in the state, but not in smokable form. The bill must pass the state senate and be signed by Gov. Andy Beshear (D) before it becomes law.

Methamphetamine

DEA Announces Launch of Operation Crystal Shield, Will Target Meth Transport Hubs. DEA Acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon announced Thursday that the DEA will direct enforcement resources to methamphetamine “transportation hubs” — areas where methamphetamine is often trafficked in bulk and then distributed across the country. While continuing to focus on stopping drugs being smuggled across the border, DEA’s Operation Crystal will target eight major methamphetamine transportation hubs: Atlanta, Dallas, El Paso, Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Phoenix, and St. Loius. Together, these DEA Field Divisions accounted for more than 75% of methamphetamine seized in the U.S. in 2019.

Drug Policy

White House Releases National Drug Interdiction Plan, Border Strategies. White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) Director Jim Carroll on Thursday released the National Interdiction Command and Control Plan (NICCP), which outlines the Trump Administration’s interdiction strategy to reduce the availability of illicit drugs in the United States. The plan includes both a southwestern border strategy and a northern border strategy. "Almost all of the drugs killing thousands of Americans originate from outside the United States. The Plan demonstrates how close coordination across Federal, State, territorial, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies is crucial to stopping these deadly drugs from coming into our country and making their way into our communities," ONDCP Director Jim Carroll said.

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