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Sessions/Trump Pull Off an Amazing Feat -- Making the DEA Look Reasonable [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has never been known as a forward-thinking place when it comes to drug and crime policy, but these days, the hide-bound drug fighting agency is coming off as much more reasonable on drugs than its bosses, President Trump and Attorney General Sessions.

DEA doing its thing. (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
And as is the case with everyone from Republican elected officials to top corporate executives, the Trump administration's bad case of crazy is forcing even the DEA to distance itself from some of Trump's more ill-thought and insidious mouthings.

No, the DEA hasn't gone soft. It's still out there doing its best to enforce federal drug prohibition, and just last year it was old school enough to refuse to move pot out of Schedule I. But several recent incidents show a DEA behaving in a more responsible manner than the president or his attorney general:

1. The DEA has been accepting applications from scientists to grow marijuana for research purposes, only to be blocked by the Sessions Justice Department.

For years, researchers have complained that a government monopoly on marijuana grown for research purposes has both stifled useful research and illustrated the DEA's role in hindering science. Late in the Obama administration, though, the agency relented, saying it would take proposals from researchers to grow their own crops.

But The Washington Post reported last week that DEA had received 25 research proposals since it began accepting applications a year ago, but needed DOJ's approval to move forward. That approval has not been forthcoming, much like DOJ when queried about it by the Post. DOJ may not have had anything to say, but some insiders did.

"They're sitting on it. They just will not act on these things," said one unnamed source described by the Post as a "law enforcement official familiar with the matter."

Another source described as a "senior DEA official" said that as a result, "the Justice Department has effectively shut down this program to increase research registrations."

2. The DEA head feels compelled to repudiate Trump's remarks about roughing up suspects.

The Wall Street Journal obtained an email from acting DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg to staff members written after President Trump told police officers in Long Island month that they needn't be too gentle with suspects. Rosenberg rejected the president's remarks.

Saying he was writing "because we have an obligation to speak out when something is wrong," Rosenberg said bluntly that Trump had "condoned police misconduct."

Instead of heeding the president, Rosenberg said, DEA agents must "always act honorably" by maintaining "the very highest standards" in the treatment of suspects.

It is a strange state of affairs when an agency many people consider to be the very embodiment of heavy-handed policing has to tell its employees to ignore the president of the United States because he's being too thuggish.

3. The DEA has to fend off the Trump/Sessions obsession with MS-13.

Trump loves to fulminate against MS-13, the vicious gang whose roots lie in the Salvadoran diaspora during the US-backed civil war of the 1980s, and to use them to conflate the issues of immigration, crime, and drugs. His loyal attorney general has declared war on them. Both insist that breaking MS-13 will be a victory in the war on drugs and are pressuring the DEA to specifically target them.

But, the Post reported, Rosenberg and other DEA officials have told DOJ that the gang "is not one of the biggest players when it comes to distributing and selling narcotics."

In the DEA view, Mexican cartels are the big problem and MS-13 is simply one of many gangs the cartels use to peddle their wares. DEA administrators have told their underlings to focus on whatever is the biggest threat in their area -- not MS-13 -- because "in many parts of the country, MS-13 simply does not pose a major criminal or drug-dealing threat compared with other groups," according to unnamed DEA officials.

"The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they could face professional consequences for candidly describing the internal disputes," the Post noted.

The president and the attorney general are seeking to distort what the DEA sees as its key drug enforcement priorities so Trump can score some cheap demagogic political points, and the DEA is unhappy enough to leak to the press. We are indeed in a strange place.

Chronicle AM: Uruguay Marijuana Pharmacy Sales Begin, DPA Names New Chief, More... (7/19/17)

All New England states have now either decriminalized or legalized marijuana, the Drug Policy Alliance names a new head, Uruguay begins legal pot sales at pharmacies, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Massachusetts Legalization Implementation Bill Could Go to Governor This Week. Legislative leaders defended their compromise pot bill, House Bill 3818, Wednesday, and votes on the bill could come at any time. The measure is expected to pass the legislature and then head to the desk of Gov. Charlie Baker (R), who is expected to sign it. The bill increases taxes from 12% to up to 20%, and would allow authorities in localities that didn't vote in favor of the legalization initiative to ban pot businesses without a popular vote.

New Hampshire Governor Signs Decriminalization Bill. Gov. Chris Sununu (R) has signed into law House Bill 640, which eliminates criminal penalties for the possession of up to three-quarters of an ounce of marijuana. Instead of jail time, violators will face a $100 fine for a first offense, $200 for a second, and $350 for a third offense within three years of the original offense. With the state now adopting decriminalization, all of New England has now either legalized or decriminalized marijuana possession.

Drug Policy

Drug Policy Alliance Names New Executive Director. The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), the nation's most powerful drug reform organization, has selected a replacement for founder and long-time executive director Ethan Nadelmann, who stepped down earlier this year.The DPA board of directors announced Tuesday it had voted unanimously to appoint Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno as Nadelmann's successor. McFarland Sánchez-Moreno is moving over from Human Rights Watch, where for the past 13 years she served as Co-Director of the US Program, where she picked up plenty of domestic and international drug policy experience. She also pushed for the group to more directly take on the war on drugs as a human rights issue, and as a result, Human Rights Watch became the first major international human rights organization to call for drug decriminalization and global drug reform.

International

Uruguay Legal Marijuana Sales in Pharmacies Get Underway. Pharmacists in Uruguay began selling marijuana to customers Wednesday, the last step in a pioneering national legalization process that began more than three years ago. Uruguay is the first country in the world to completely legalize marijuana for recreational use. Canada is set to be next.

Blunting Trump's Mass Deportation Plans With Drug Reform [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

As President Trump ratchets up the machinery of mass deportation, supporters of a humane, comprehensive approach to immigration are seeking ways to throw sand in its gears. When mass deportation is touted because of the "criminality" of those targeted, one solution is to reduce criminalization, which is not to turn a blind eye to violent or dangerous criminals, but to recognize that we live in an over-criminalized society. That means school kids can now be arrested for behavior that would have sent them to the principal's office in years past (especially if they're a certain color). The US also generates the world's largest prison-industrial complex, and has criminalized tens of millions of people for the offense of simply possessing a certain plant, and millions more for possessing other proscribed substances.

ICE arrests an immigrant in San Jose. (dhs.gov)
While Trump talks about "bad hombres" as he ramps up the immigration crackdown, data shows that the net of criminality used to deport not just undocumented workers, but also legal immigrants and permanent resident aliens, is cast exceedingly wide. It's overwhelmingly not gang members or drug lords who are getting deported, but people whose crimes include crossing the border without papers, as well as traffic and minor drug offenses.

The report Secure Communities and ICE Deportations: A Failed Program , which examined Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation records, found that the top three "most serious" criminal charges used to deport people and which accounted for roughly half of all deportations were illegal entry, followed by DWI and unspecified traffic violations.

The fourth "most serious" criminal charge used to deport people was simple marijuana possession, with more than 6,000 people being thrown out of the country in fiscal years 2012 and 2013, the years the study covered. Right behind that was simple cocaine possession, accounting for another 6,000 in each of those years. "Other" drug possession charges accounted for nearly 2,500 deportations each of those years.

Nearly 3,000 people a year were deported for selling pot, and more than 4,000 for selling cocaine, but only about 2,000 a year for the more serious offense of drug trafficking, accounting for a mere 1% of all deportations in those years.

ICE raid in Atlanta. (dhs.gov)
This has been going on for years. In the same report, researchers estimated that some 250,000 people had been deported for drug offenses during the Obama administration, accounting for one-fifth of all criminal deportations. Now, the Trump administration gives every indication it intends to be even tougher.

In light of the massive use of drug charges to deport non-citizens, drug reform takes on a whole new aspect. Marijuana decriminalization and legalization may not generally be viewed through the lens of immigrant protection, but they shield millions of people from drug deportation in those states that have enacted such laws. Similarly, efforts to decriminalize drug possession in general are also moves that would protect immigrants.

Now, legislators and activists in vanguard states are adopting prophylactic measures, such as sealing marijuana arrest records, rejiggering the way drug possession cases are handled, and, more fundamentally, moving to decriminalize pot and/or drug possession. In doing so, they are building alliances with other communities, especially those of color, that have been hard hit by the mass criminalization of the war on drugs.

In California, first decriminalization in 2011 and then outright legalization last year removed pot possession from the realm of the criminal, offering protection to hundreds of thousands of immigrants. But the California legalization initiative, Proposition 64, also made the reduction or elimination of marijuana-related criminal penalties retroactive,meaning past convictions for marijuana offenses reduced or eliminated can be reclassified on a criminal record for free. Having old marijuana offenses reduced to infractions or dismissed outright can remove that criminal cause for removal from any California immigrant's record.

Across the county in New York, with a charge led by the state legislature's Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus, the state assembly voted in January to approve AB 2142, which would seal the criminal records of people who had been unjustly arrested for simple possession of marijuana in public view, a charge police used to still bust people for marijuana after it was decriminalized in 1977. Like the Prop 64 provision in California, this measure would protect not only minority community members in general -- who make up 80% of those arrested on the public possession charge -- from the collateral consequences of a drug conviction, but immigrants in particular from being expelled from their homes.

"A marijuana conviction can lead to devastating consequences for immigrants, including detention and deportation," said Alisa Wellek, executive director of the Immigrant Defense Project. "This bill will provide some important protections for green card holders and undocumented New Yorkers targeted by Trump's aggressive deportation agenda."

"Sealing past illegitimate marijuana convictions is not only right, it is most urgent as the country moves toward legalization and immigrant families are put at risk under our new federal administration," said Kassandra Frederique, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Comprehensive drug law reform must include legislative and programmatic measures that account for our wrongheaded policies and invest in building healthier and safer communities, from the Bronx to Buffalo, Muslim and Christian, US-born and green card-holding."

Companion legislation in the form of Senate Bill 3809 awaits action in the Senate, but activists are also pushing Gov. Andrew Cuomo to include similar language as part of his decriminalization proposal in state budget legislation, opening another possible path forward.

One-way street? (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
"In New York State 22,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2016. The misdemeanor charge for public view of marijuana possession gives those people convicted a criminal record that will follow them throughout their lives, potentially limiting their access to education, affecting their ability to obtain employment, leading to a potential inability to provide for their families," said Sen. Jamaal Bailey, author of the Senate bill.

"Furthermore, and even more problematic, there exist significant racial disparities in the manner that marijuana possession policy is enforced. Blacks and Latinos are arrested at higher rates despite the fact that white people use marijuana at higher rates than people of color. Responsible and fair policy is what we need here," Bailey added. "We must act now, with proactive legislation, for the future of many young men and women of our state are at stake here."

Meanwhile, back in California, Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton) has reintroduced legislation explicitly designed to shield immigrants from deportation for drug possession charges, as long as they undergo treatment or counseling. Under her bill, Assembly Bill 208, people arrested for simple possession would be able to enroll in a drug treatment for six months to a year before formally entering a guilty plea, and if they successfully completed treatment, the courts would wipe the charges from their records.

The bill would address a discrepancy between state law and federal immigration law. Under state drug diversion programs, defendants are required to first plead guilty before opting for treatment. But although successful completion of treatment sees the charges dropped under state law, the charges still stand under federal law, triggering deportation proceedings even if the person has completed treatment and had charges dismissed.

"For those who want to get treatment and get their life right, we should see that with open arms, not see it as a way of deporting somebody," Eggman said.

Eggman authored a similar bill in 2015 that got all the way through the legislature only to be vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who worried that it eliminated "the most powerful incentive to stay in treatment -- the knowledge that the judgment will be entered for failure to do so."

In the Trump era, the need for such measures has become even more critical, Eggman said.

"It might be a more complex discussion this year, and it's a discussion we should have," she said. "If our laws are meant to treat everyone the same, then why wouldn't we want that opportunity for treatment available to anyone without risk for deportation?"

Reforming drug laws to reduce criminalization benefits all of us, but in the time of Trump, reforming drug laws is also a means of protecting some of our most vulnerable residents from the knock in the night and expulsion from the country they call home.

Trump Vows to Win War on Drugs, But Doesn't Mention Marijuana [FEATURE]

In his inaugural address to Congress Tuesday night, President Trump echoed the ghosts of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan -- not to mention summoning the specter of Miguel Cervantes -- as he vowed to defeat drugs.

If there is a silver lining, his ire appears directed at heroin and other hard drugs. The word "marijuana" did not appear once in his speech.

"Our terrible drug epidemic will slow down and ultimately, stop," he promised as part of a litany of MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN accomplishments to come. ("Dying industries will come roaring back to life. Heroic veterans will get the care they so desperately need…")

And, having forgotten -- or more likely, never learned -- the lessons of the past half century of American drug prohibition, he's going to defeat drugs the old-fashioned way: with more war on drugs.

"To protect our citizens, I have directed the Department of Justice to form a Task Force on Reducing Violent Crime," Trump said. "I have further ordered the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice, along with the Department of State and the Director of National Intelligence, to coordinate an aggressive strategy to dismantle the criminal cartels that have spread across our Nation."

But talk is cheap. Drug law enforcement costs money. The DEA and other federal agencies are already waging a multi-billion dollar a year war on drugs; if Trump's budget proposals match his rhetoric, he will have to be prepared to spend billions more. Just when he wants to cut just about all federal spending but defense, too.

Trump can ratchet up the drug war in some ways without relying on congressional appropriations through his control of the executive branch. For instance, his Justice Department could direct federal prosecutors to seek mandatory minimum prison sentences in most or all drug cases, a practice eschewed by the Obama Justice Department. That, too, has budgetary consequences, but until some time down the road.

Trump did at least pay lip service to addressing drug use as a public health issue, saying he would "expand treatment for those who have become so badly addicted," but that doesn't gibe with his call to repeal the Affordable Care Act. If Obamacare is repealed, nearly three million Americans with addiction disorders with lose access to some or all of their health coverage, including nearly a quarter million receiving opioid addiction treatment.

Trump's Tuesday night crime and drug talk was interwoven with talk about the border, comingling immigration, drugs, and his border wall in a hot mess of overheated, but politically useful, rhetoric.

"We've defended the borders of other nations, while leaving our own borders wide open, for anyone to cross -- and for drugs to pour in at a now unprecedented rate," he said, ignoring the quadrupling in size of the Border Patrol in the past 20 years and the billions pumped into border security since 2001. "We will stop the drugs from pouring into our country and poisoning our youth."

Trump also said that he was already making America safer with his immigration enforcement actions.

"As we speak, we are removing gang members, drug dealers and criminals that threaten our communities and prey on our citizens. Bad ones are going out as I speak tonight and as I have promised," he said.

It's too early to see who is actually being deported in the opening days of the Trump administration, but if the past is any indicator, it's not "gang members, drug dealers, and criminals," but, in rank order, people whose most serious crime was crossing the border without papers, alcohol-impaired drivers, other traffic violators, and pot smokers. Those were the four leading charges for criminal immigration deportations in one recent year, according to Secure Communities and ICE Deportations: A Failed Program?

Trump's drug war rhetoric is triumphalist and militaristic, but so far it's largely just talk. The proof will be in budget proposals and Justice Department memoranda, but in terms of progressive drug policy, he's striking a very ominous tone. This does not bode well.

Chronicle AM: MA Bills Subvert Legalization Init, OR MJ Bill Protects Workers, More... (1/23/17)

A Democratic Massaschusetts state senator is out to seriously undercut the state's new, voter-approved marijuana legalization law, an Oregon bill seeks to protect marijuana users' employment rights, El Chapo gets extradited to the US, and more.

Marijuana Policy

DC Activists Hand Out 8,000 Joints for Trump Inauguration. The same folks who brought you legal marijuana in the District were on hand Friday for the inauguration of the incoming president. DCMJ activists handed out nearly double the promised 4,200 joints they promised. A good time was had by all. "Oh yeah, there's 10,000 people who showed up for free marijuana today, so it's really busy," DCMJ founder Adam Eidinger said. "The goal is really to get Donald Trump talking about marijuana, to show the tremendous support. To show that you can have Trump supporters and non-Trump supporters together in unity."

Arizona Decriminalization, Legalization Bills Filed. State Rep. Mark Cardenas (D-Phoenix) filed a bill to decriminalize pot possession (House Bill 2002) and one to legalize marijuana (House Bill 2003). Previous similar bills have never won even a committee hearing, but the state's felony marijuana possession law may finally be out of step with the times enough to give the decrim bill a hearing.

Hawaii Marijuana Legalization Bill Filed.Speaker of the House Joseph Souki (D-District 8) has filed House Bill 205, which "authorizes persons 21 years of age or older to consume or possess limited amounts of marijuana for personal use. Provides for the licensing of marijuana cultivation facilities, product manufacturing facilities, safety testing facilities, and retail stores" and "applies an excise tax on transactions between marijuana establishments."

Maryland Appeals Court Upholds Search Based on Pot Smell, Despite Decriminalization. Even though the possession of small amounts of pot has been decriminalized in the state, the state's highest court has ruled that it remains a banned substance and thus give police probable cause to search a vehicle if they smell it. "Simply put, decriminalization is not synonymous with legalization, and possession of marijuana remains unlawful," Court of Appeals Judge Shirley M. Watts wrote in a unanimous opinion issued Friday. Defendants had argued that police should be required to cite factors leading them to believe the amount they smelled was greater than the 10 grams decriminalized under state law. But the court didn't buy that argument.

Massaschusetts Bills Would Gut Legalization Law. Hardline marijuana foe state Sen. Jason Lewis (D-Winchester) has filed legislation that would deeply curb the ability of state residents to possess and grow marijuana and threaten the ability of recreational pot shops to begin selling a full range of products next year. Lewis would delay the ability of pot shops, now set to open in July 2018, to sell edibles and concentrates for at least two more years, and he would dramatically increase the ability of local governments to reject marijuana businesses. Under the legalization law, they must go to the voters, but Lewis's legislation would undo that. Groups that led the successful November legalization initiative are vowing a vigorous fightback. His package of 14 bills was filed last Friday, the last day to do so.

Oregon Bill to Prevent Pot Smokers From Getting Fired Filed. State Rep. Ann Lininger (D-Lake Oswego) has filed Senate Bill 301, which would override a state Supreme Court decision saying employers can fire marijuana users even though it is legal in the state. The bill would bar employers from requiring workers or prospective workers to "refrain from using a substance that is lawful to use under the laws of this state during nonworking hours."

Virginia Legislators Punt on Decriminalization Bills. A state Senate committee Monday refused to approve a pair of decriminalization bills, instead opting to delay them while the Virginia State Crime Commission studies decriminalization. The bills were Senate Bill 1269 from Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) and Senate Bill 908 from Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth).

Asset Forfeiture

Illinois Bill Would End Civil Asset Forfeiture. State Rep. Al Riley (D-Hazel Crest) has filed House Bill 468, which would prohibit the state from seizing property without a criminal conviction. The measure would also block prosecutors from doing an end run around state law by passing cases off to the feds, who then return 80% of the money to the law enforcement agency involved. The bill has been referred to the House Rules Committee.

Drug Policy

California Bill Would Protect Immigrants from Deportation in Low-Level Drug Cases. Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton) Monday filed a bill to shield immigrants from deportation for minor drug offenses -- as long as they seek drug treatment or counseling. The bill would adjust state law so that defendants without prior convictions within the last five years could enroll in drug treatment before entering a guilty plea and have those charges wiped from their record upon successful completion. That would prevent them from being considered drug offenders eligible for deportation under federal law. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed a similar bill last year. The bill is not yet available on the legislative website.

Drug Testing

Missouri College Appeals to US Supreme Court Over Student Drug Testing. Linn State Technical College has appealed to the Supreme Court to overturn federal appeals court rulings that its program requiring mandatory drug testing of all incoming students is unconstitutional. The college has lost at just about every turn in this case, with a federal district court judge issuing an injunction to block implementation of the program, and the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals rejecting mass, suspicionless drug testing. The appeals court did allow the college to impose testing on students in five safety-sensitive programs.

International

El Chapo Extradited to the US. Longtime Sinaloa Cartel leader and repeat Mexican prison escapee Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman was extradited to the US last Thursday to face drug and other charges in New York City. "The government of the republic today delivered Mr. Guzmán to the authorities of the United States of America," the Mexican foreign ministry said in a statement.

German MPs Vote to Approve Medical Marijuana. The lower house of parliament last Thursday approved a measure legalizing the medicinal use of marijuana. The law limits the use of medical marijuana to "very limited exceptional cases" and patients will not be allowed to grow their own. Instead medical marijuana will be imported until state-supervised grow operations are set up in Germany.

Why Is the Administration Sending Refugees Back to Narco War Nightmare US Helped Create? [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

With the New Year, the Obama administration has unleashed a new campaign of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids targeting Central American women and children who fled to the US in 2014 to escape violence in their home countries. Some 17,000 are at immediate risk of being dragged from their homes and families and being detained and deported.

Salvadoran refugee walking toward the US border. (unhcr.org)
"Our borders are not open to illegal migration; if you come here illegally, we will send you back consistent with our laws and values," Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement announcing the action.

Some 121 people were arrested in raids last weekend, Johnson said, with many of them housed in euphemistically named "family residential centers" before their imminent deportation. The raids took place in Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas.

Johnson's statement noted that back in November, the administration had broadened its deportation actions beyond "criminals and threats to public safety" (including at least 250,000 people deported for drug offenses) to include those who threaten "border security" by having arrived uninvited after January 1, 2014.

The administration signaled last week that the raids will continue despite a growing outcry from some Democrats, progressives and immigrant rights groups.

Democratic presidential contenders Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley both railed against the raids, with Sanders saying that while he is an ally of the president, "I don't agree with him on this," and O'Malley decrying them, saying "Jesus himself was a refugee child."

Protestors gathered in Boston Friday for an event organized by the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coaltion (MIRA) echoed complaints being heard around the nation.

"I came to this country fleeing the terror of the Pinochet military dictatorship in Chile," said the Unitarian Universalist Rev. Maria Cristina Vlassidis Burgoa. "I know what it's like to be 12 years old and to live in fear that at any moment, an unmarked car will stop at your house and take your family away one by one. I know what it's like to fear that you will be the next one to disappear. My grandmother, my mother, and I were fortunate to find refuge here and build a life. Today, as a US citizen I denounce the massive deportations and raids as a violation of human rights."

"The home raids that terrorize the community, separate families, and wake up sleeping children must stop. Arresting, detaining, and deporting them is not the answer," said MIRA executive director Eva Millona. "Such crisis requires compassion and humane solutions."

ICE swears in agents for the family detention program. (ice.gov)
Those would include letting them stay in the country under Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Enforced Departure. The latter is the program that allowed Obama to regain some favor with the immigrant community when he used it to ensure that some five million young people whose parents brought them into the country illegally -- the Dreamers -- would be allowed to stay.

The people being targeted now are part of the 100,000 or so children and parents who fled gang violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras during the immigration "crisis" of 2014, when the specter of masses of Central Americans coming to the border and turning themselves in to seek asylum temporarily focused the nation's attention -- and the Republicans' ire -- on the issue.

Amid predictable calls for more walls, more border agents, and immediate deportation, many of the asylum-seekers were placed in "family detention centers," but others were released, often with GPS ankle bracelets. The vast majority were processed without legal counsel and without any real understanding of the legal proceedings that would determine their futures. The people being targeted now are those whose asylum applications were rejected or those who, for one reason or another, failed to show up at immigration hearings.

The cruel irony of the situation is that it is US policy to deport these people back to countries wracked by poverty and violence that is due at least in part to other US policies -- the imposition of US-style drug war on the region, and even earlier, Ronald Reagan's anti-communist crusade to thwart the region's leftist revolutionary movements in the 1980s. US policy helped to push these people out of Central America, and now US policy is to push them back in.

The US can't be blamed for all the woes of Central America, of course, but it has certainly been a contributing factor. The violent gangs that have helped turn the region into one of the deadliest on the planet, such as Mara Salvatrucha, Barrio 18, evolved in Salvadoran immigrant communities in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, DC, after hundreds of thousands fled the violent civil war in which Ronald Reagan and US taxpayers spent $4 billion to ensure that leftist revolution was neutered. Some 75,000 people died in that conflict.

After the young Central American immigrants learned the fine art of gang-banging up north, deported gang members brought those skills back with them to the old country, laying the groundwork for the emergence of increasingly powerful and deadly street gangs, particularly in El Salvador and Honduras.

And, thanks to the "success" of the Reagan administration in shutting down Caribbean cocaine smuggling routes into Miami in the early 1980s, the new deportees came home to countries increasingly awash in cocaine as Colombian smugglers began using the region as a trampoline, a transshipment point for drugs headed on to Mexico before reaching their ultimate destination in the US.

Central Americans didn't try to sneak into the country; they sought asylum. (wikipedia.org)
"Drug prohibition makes drug transshipment very lucrative for organized crime," said Adam Isacson, a drug policy analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America. (WOLA). "US efforts to interdict aerial and maritime drug shipments in the Caribbean in the 1980s and 1990s caused more and more cocaine to pass through Central America, a region recovering from civil war."

Another drug war "success" also had ramifications for the region, Isacson said.

"The mid-90s takedown of the big Colombian cartels -- the Medellin and Cali cartels -- gave more market share to the Mexican organizations, which relied more heavily on Central American territory," he explained.

"The groups transshipped drugs through Central America further corrupted and undermined already weak security and judicial institutions," Isacson continued. "And that made those institutions less able to protect their citizens."

And more vulnerable to hyper-violent Mexican drug trafficking organizations, such as El Chapo Guzman's Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas, who began expanding their presence in Central America as they came under pressure from Mexican authorities, bolstered by US anti-drug assistance, at home.

Now, Central America is one of the most violent regions in the world, and El Salvador has the highest murder rate the world has seen in 20 years, taking the dubious title of world's murder capital from neighboring Honduras, which claims an official decline in murders this year. Some observers are skeptical.

Jeannette Aguilar, director of Institute of Public Opinion at the Central American University in El Salvador, told USA Today the apparent reduction could be artificial because the cartels have learned that too many bodies is bad publicity and have become adept at disposing of them.

"Because of the evolution of dismembering bodies, decomposing them, incinerating them, it's difficult to know if homicides have really fallen," she said.

The American policy response to violence, much of it drug trade-related, and social decomposition has historically been heavy on assistance to the military and police forces, like the Central American Regional Security Initiative, but that looks like it is finally beginning to change this year. Just last month, Congress approved $750 million in aid for the region that shifts the focus away from security initiatives and instead targets structural issues that have crippled the region.

The bill stipulates that 75% of the funds can only be spent after government take on issues of corruption, transparency, immunity, and criminality. Equally important, it calls on regional governments to "support programs to reduce poverty, create jobs, and promote equitable economic growth in areas contributing to large numbers of migrants."

It will be up to the governments of those countries to try to make progress in alleviating the conditions causing so many to flee, but as our policy-makers decide the fates of the people who have already sought refuge here, they would be remiss to ignore our own role in helping this crisis to happen.

Chronicle AM: MedMJ Regulation Coming to CA, US Senate Passes Drug War Bill, More (10/12/15)

Legal marijuana moves ahead in Colorado and Washington, medical marijuana will be comprehensively regulated in California, Jerry Brown splits on a pair of immigration drug deportation bills, Mexican opium poppy production is up dramatically, and more.

Finally, a statewide plan for regulating medical marijuana in California (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Colorado's August Sales Topped $100 Million. For the first time, the state's monthly marijuana sales exceeded $100 million in August. Recreational marijuana came in at $59.2 million, while medical marijuana sales added another $41.4 million. That's $100.6 million in overall pot sales. The state collected $13 million in pot taxes that month.

Washington State Accepting New Retail Shop License Applications. As of today, the State Liquor and Cannabis Control Board is accepting and processing new applications for retail marijuana operations. Existing medical marijuana dispensaries will now need to be licensed, and will be prioritized in the licensing process.

Medical Marijuana

California Governor Signs Medical Marijuana Regulation Bill Package. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) last Friday signed into law a package of bills designed to bring comprehensive, statewide regulation to the state's thriving medical marijuana industry. The three-bill package will establish "a long-overdue comprehensive regulatory framework for the production, transportation, and sale of medical marijuana," Brown said in his signing statement. "This new structure will make sure patients have access to medical marijuana, while ensuring a robust tracking system," said Brown. "This sends a clear and certain signal to our federal counterparts that California is implementing robust controls not only on paper, but in practice."

Immigration

California Governor Signs One Bill to Block Immigrant Drug Deportations, But Vetoes Another. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) last Friday signed Assembly Bill 1352, which allows resident non-citizens convicted of a drug offense to seek deferred adjudication and, upon completion, withdrawal of a guilty plea to avoid triggering federal deportation proceedings. But he vetoed Assembly Bill 1351, which would have allowed immigrants to avoid pleading guilty to a drug offense in order to enter drug treatment.

Drug Policy

Senate Passes Transnational Drug Trafficking Act. The US Senate last Thursday approved S. 32, the Transnational Drug Trafficking Act. Sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the bill would make it a federal crime to manufacture or distribute drugs anywhere in the world if there is "reasonable cause to believe that such substances or chemicals will be unlawfully imported into the United States or waters within 12 miles of the US coast." The bill now goes to the House.

International

British Lib Dems Set Up Panel on Marijuana Legalization Ahead of Parliamentary Debate Today. As Parliament prepared to debate marijuana legalization today in response to a widely signed citizen petition, the Liberal Democrats announced they were creating an expert panel on the subject. Click on the link for much more.

Chile Will Allow Sale of Medical Marijuana Products in Pharmacies. Chilean Vice Minister of Health Jaime Burrows said last Friday that the country will modify its laws to allow the sale of medical marijuana products in pharmacies. Such sales would be allowed with "the authorization of a specialist, a prescription, and strict controls of stock," he said. A decree enacting the changes is now being reviewed by President Michelle Bachelet.

UN Commission on Human Rights Calls on Mexico to Retire the Army From the Drug War. The UN body said soldiers should retire from the streets and return to their bases because they are not trained to undertake policing work. "This must be propelled by a real sense of urgency," said the commission's Zaid Raad al-Hussein. "This is not something we can afford to wait months for without an end." The Mexican army has come under sustained criticism over human rights abuses in its war on drug trafficking organizations.

DEA Says Mexican Opium Crop Up By 50%. Jack Riley, the acting administrator of the DEA, told a House committee last week that there has been a 50% increase in poppy production in key Mexican opium-producing states this year. He added that most heroin consumed in the US comes from Mexico.

Chronicle AM: Pot Polls in MI & SC, CA Diversion Bill Goes to Governor; Ecuador Retrenches, More (9/10/15)

New polls show majority support for legalization in Michigan and overwhelming support for having the feds butt out in South Carolina, efforts to get a medical marijuana regulation bill passed in California are still alive, Ecuador's president wants to toughen sentences for small-time dealers, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Michigan Poll Has Support for Legalization at 56%. A new Public Sector Consulting/Denno Research/Michigan Public radio poll has support for legalization at 56.7%. Support was split between those who wanted only limited commercial production (21.2%), those who wanted to allow home growing (26.7%), and those who wanted to leave it to local governments (7.8%). The poll comes as several ballot initiatives are being developed.

South Carolina Poll Finds Voters Want Feds to Butt Out on Marijuana Policy. A survey commissioned by Marijuana Majority had 65% of respondents agreeing that "states should be able to carry out their own marijuana laws without federal interference, with only 16% agreeing that "the federal government should arrest and prosecute people who are following state marijuana laws."

Medical Marijuana

California Medical Marijuana Regulation Going Down to the Wire. The clock is ticking on the state's legislature, and Wednesday, officials from organized labor, local government, and law enforcement sent a letter to legislative leaders voicing concern about the legislature's inability to get a regulation bill done. "We note, respectfully, that there are no significant policy differences between the two houses of the Legislature on this issue, based on the latest versions of the language that each have produced and made available for distribution," states the letter from the UFCW Western States Council, League of California Cities, and state Teamsters and police chiefs organizations. "The existing differences between the houses on this issue therefore appear to reside elsewhere." One issue appears to be who gets to take credit for passing a regulation bill. More at the link.

New Jersey Appeals Court Rules Smell of Marijuana Is Still Enough for a Warrantless Search. Even though medical marijuana is legal in the state, an appeals court ruled Tuesday that the smell of marijuana can still be used by police as grounds for a warrantless search. The ruling came in the case of a man arrested after a vehicle stop in which the officer used the smell of marijuana to justify searching the vehicle.

Drug Policy

California Legislature Passes Pretrial Diversion Bill to Protect Immigrants. The Assembly Wednesday gave final approval to Assembly Bill 1351, which would prevent deportation and loss of public benefits for minor drug law violations by diverting offenders out of the criminal justice system before adjudication of their cases. The bill now goes to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown (D).

International

Ecuador to Toughen Penalties for "Microtraffickers." In something of a policy reverse, President Rafael Correa has launched an effort to increase penalties for small-time drug dealers. His proposal would modify the country's drug sentencing scheme, which had effectively decriminalized the possession of up to a gram of heroin or 50 grams of cocaine. Correa introduced the sentencing reforms earlier in his term, but now says they amount to "impunity" for "microtraffickers."

The US Is Deporting Hundreds of Thousands for Drug Offenses, Many Minor [FEATURE]

(This article was written in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.)

The US government wants to throw Marsha Austin out of the country. The 67-year-old grandmother came from Jamaica to New York as a lawful resident in 1985, and has lived here ever since with her husband, seven children (two more are in Jamaica), grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. All are legal residents or US citizens.

Marsha Austin and her family in the Bronx (hrw.org)
By her own admission, she had problems with drugs. "I live in a drug-infested area," she said of her neighborhood in the Bronx, and she succumbed to the lure of crack cocaine in the wake of her mother's death. Jones racked up several minor convictions before getting popped for making a $5 purchase for an undercover officer in 1995.

That was "attempted criminal sale of a controlled substance in the third degree," to which she pleaded guilty on her public defender's advice. The attorney failed to tell her the conviction could lead to deportation.

Her convictions led to little or no jail time, but in 2010, as her husband's health faltered, she violated probation by drinking alcohol. She did 90 days in jail, but instead of walking out, she was seized by immigration authorities at the end of her sentence and spent the next 2 ½ years in immigration jail awaiting deportation.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) repeatedly opposed her release, claiming she was under mandatory detention for her drug offenses, but then released her unexpectedly in 2013. She's been in treatment since then and now proudly reports that she's been "clean as a whistle" for the past five years. Now, her husband's health is failing, as is the health of her daughter, who suffered a breakdown after her own daughter suffered a serious illness.

"My kids and my grandkids, that's what I'm living for now," she said.

But she remains in limbo. The US government still wants to send her back to Jamaica, arguing that she is subject to deportation for the "aggravated felony" of buying $5 worth of crack for a narc.

She's not alone. Beginning late in the George W. Bush years and continuing through the Obama administration, the US has been deporting and trying to deport immigrants for drug offenses at a record clip. According to a just released report from Human Rights Watch, more than 260,000 non-citizens -- legal residents and illegal immigrants alike -- were deported for drug offenses between 2007 and 2012. Shockingly, 34,000 people were deported for marijuana possession offenses alone.

The trend is upward. The number of people deported whose most serious offense was a drug crime was up 22% over that period, while the number of people deported whose most serious offense was a drug possession offense was up even more, at 43%.

Tens of thousands more have been or are being detained indefinitely in immigration jails fighting pending deportation orders. Such extended imprisonments wreak havoc on the families who husbands or fathers, wives or mothers, are caught up behind bars.

The sweeping action against non-citizens comes as part of the Obama administration's crackdown on "criminal aliens," but seems disproportionately harsh when applied to low-level drug offenders, especially people who have lived all or most of their lives here and have strong family and community roots in this country. It is also at odds with the trends toward drug decriminalization and even legalization now at play in the country.

The Human Rights Watch report, "A Price Too High: US Families Torn Apart by Deportations for Drug Offenses," documents how the US government is routinely breaking up families by initiating deportation proceedings for drug offenses, often ones decades old or so minor they resulted in little or no prison time. Researchers interviewed more than 130 affected immigrants, families, attorneys, and law enforcement officials, and incorporated new data obtained from ICE.

Here are some of the cases examined in the report:

"Raul Valdez, a permanent resident from Mexico who had grown up in the Chicago area from the age of one, was deported in 2014 because of a 2003 conviction for possession of cannabis with intent to deliver, for which he had been sentenced to 60 days in jail.

Ricardo Fuenzalida, a permanent resident from Chile now living in New Jersey, was held without bond for months fighting deportation in 2013 because of two marijuana possession convictions from 13 years earlier.

Jose Francisco Gonzalez, a permanent resident in Anaheim, California, was put into deportation proceedings and held without bond in 2014 because of a 2001 arrest for having two pot plants, despite having successfully completed a California diversion program that promised to erase his criminal record.

Abdulhakim Haji-Eda, a refugee from Ethiopia who came to the US at the age of 13, has been ordered deported as a drug trafficker for a teenage drug sale in Seattle. Now 26 years old, he has no other convictions, and is married to a US citizen with two US citizen children and another on the way.

"Antonio S.," who came to the US from Mexico when he was 12 and was eligible for a reprieve from deportation as a "DREAMer" under the executive program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was detained for over a year in Colorado and deported after a conviction for possession of marijuana, a municipal violation to which he pleaded guilty without an attorney.

"Alice M.," a 41-year-old graphic designer and Canadian citizen, [was barred] from living in the US with her US citizen fiancé because of a single 1992 conviction for cocaine possession she received in Canada in her last year of high school, a conviction that was pardoned long ago in Canada.

"Mr. V.," a refugee and permanent resident from Vietnam, was ordered deported in 2008 for a 1999 conviction for possession of crack cocaine. Although he has since been granted a full and unconditional pardon from the state of South Carolina, Mr. V. remains under a deportation order and only remains in the US because of restrictions on the repatriation of certain Vietnamese nationals."

"Even as many US states are legalizing and decriminalizing some drugs, or reducing sentences for drug offenses, federal immigration policy too often imposes exile for the same offenses," said Grace Meng, senior US researcher at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. "Americans believe the punishment should fit the crime, but that is not what is happening to immigrants convicted of what are often relatively minor drug offenses."

The report notes that the Obama administration has been sensitive to the injustices of the war on drugs and urges it to be as sensitive to the harsh effects of its deportation policies related to drug offenses. But it is not just the federal government that can act to improve the situation. Here are the group's recommendations:

"To the United States Congress

Eliminate deportation based on convictions for simple possession of drugs.

Ensure that all non-citizens in deportation proceedings, including those with convictions for drug offenses, have access to an individualized hearing where the immigration judge can weigh evidence of rehabilitation, family ties, and other equities against a criminal conviction.

Ensure that refugees and asylum seekers with convictions for sale, distribution, or production of drugs are only considered to have been convicted of a "particularly serious crime" through case-by-case determination that takes into account the seriousness of the crime and whether the non-citizen is a threat to public safety.

Ensure that non-citizens who are barred from entering the US and/or gaining lawful resident status because of a criminal conviction, including for drug offenses, are eligible to apply for individualized consideration, i.e., a waiver of the bar, based on such factors as the above mentioned.

Eliminate mandatory detention and ensure all non-citizens are given an opportunity for an individualized bond hearing.

Redefine "conviction" in immigration law to exclude convictions that have been expunged, pardoned, vacated, or are otherwise not recognized by the jurisdiction in which the conviction occurred.

Decriminalize the personal use of drugs, as well as possession of drugs for personal use.

To the Department of Homeland Security

Provide clear guidance to immigration officials that a positive exercise of prosecutorial discretion may be appropriate even in cases involving non-citizens with criminal convictions, with particular consideration for lawful permanent residents and non-citizens whose most serious convictions are for nonviolent offenses, including drug convictions, that occurred five or more years ago.

Provide all non-citizens who have been in detention for six months or more with a bond hearing.

To State and Local Governments

Ensure drug courts and diversion programs do not require a guilty plea from defendants that would constitute a conviction that triggers deportation, mandatory detention, and other immigration consequences even upon successful completion of the program.

Remove barriers to post-conviction relief for non-citizens convicted of nonviolent drug offenses through legal error, including through guilty pleas obtained without adequate advice from defense counsel on the potential immigration consequences of the plea.

Decriminalize the personal use of drugs, as well as possession of drugs for personal use."

To be comprehensive and thorough, drug reform must encompass immigration law reform, too.

Chronicle AM: Supreme Court Nixes Deportation for Pills, Texas Gov Signs CBD Bill, More (6/2/15)

Massachusetts politicians start to figure out that marijuana is going to be legalized, Congress is set to take up measures to protect legal marijuana states, Texas becomes the 15th CBD cannabis oil state, the Supreme Court nixes deportation of an immigrant for drug paraphernalia, and more.

This article contains a correction, in the Minnesota subsection.

The US Supreme Court rejects deportation of immigrant who had pills in a sock. (supremecourt.gov)
Marijuana Policy

House Getting Ready to Vote on Measures to Protect State Marijuana Laws. The US House is set to vote this week -- perhaps as early as tonight -- on a series of amendments to the Justice Department appropriations bill that would limit federal government interference in states that have legalized marijuana production and consumption. Reps. Tom McClintock (R-CA) and Jared Polis (D-CO) are sponsoring an amendment that would halt the federal prosecution of people involved in marijuana-related activities legal under state law. Last year, the Congress passed a similar measure barring the Justice Department from prosecuting people in medical marijuana states, but this year's amendment covers both legal and recreational states.

Massachusetts Senate President Floats Notion of 2016 Nonbinding Legalization Question. State Senate President Stan Rosenberg (D-Amherst) said Monday that lawmakers should consider putting a nonbinding question about marijuana legalization on the 2016 ballot. He said that would give lawmakers the political cover to craft their own legalization bill. But they may not get the chance: two separate groups are planning legalization initiatives for 2016, and if either makes the ballot and passes, Massachusetts will have legal weed without the legislature.

Medical Marijuana

Minnesota's Cannabis Oil Program Now Taking Registrants. As of Monday, patients can sign up for the state's cannabis oil program, which will go into effect July 1. The state estimates that some 5,000 people will sign up. [Ed: The initial version of this article initially described the Minnesota program erroneously as involving "CBD cannabis oil." While the program has limits including not allowing smoked or edible marijuana, it does not specify THC vs. CBD content.]

Texas Governor Signs CBD Cannabis Oil Bill. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) Monday signed into law the CBD cannabis oil bill, Senate Bill 339, which allows the use of the oil for treating severe forms of epilepsy. Texas is now the 15th state to allow the use of CBD cannabis oils.

Law Enforcement

US Supreme Court Rejects Deportation for Drug Paraphernalia. The Supreme Court ruled Monday that an immigrant could not be deported for possession of drug paraphernalia -- in this case, a sock that was used to hold Adderall pills. The immigrant in question was convicted of possession of drug paraphernalia and served a probated sentence, but was then targeted for deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Board of Immigration appeals upheld his deportation, ruling that his paraphernalia possession triggered deportation even though the drug his paraphernalia (the sock) contained was not federally scheduled. The Supreme Court found this untenable: "The incongruous upshot is that an alien is not removable for possessing a substance controlled only under Kansas law, but he is removable for using a sock to contain that substance. Because it makes scant sense, the BIA's interpretation, we hold, is owed no deference…" The case is Mellouli v. Lynch, Attorney General.

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