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Looking Back: The Biggest International Drug Policy Stories of the Past 20 Years [FEATURE]

With a thousand issues of Drug War Chronicle under our belts, we look back on the biggest international drug and drug policy stories of the past 20 years. (A companion piece looks at the biggest US domestic drug policy stories.) Here's what we find:

The 1998 UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs. We've made some progress since then. (Creative Commons)
1. Global Prohibitionist Consensus Starts to Crumble

In 1998, the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS), with anti-prohibitionist voices in the room but metaphorically on the outside, pledged itself to eradicating drugs in 10 years. That didn't happen. Now, nearly 20 years later, it is duly chastened, and the chorus of critics is much louder, but the UN still remains a painfully slow place to try to make change in global drug policy.

Yet, despite the foot-dragging in Vienna and New York, albeit at a glacial pace. The 2016 UNGASS couldn't bring itself to actually say the words "harm reduction," but acknowledged the practice in its documents. It couldn't bring itself to resolve to be against the death penalty in drug cases, but a large and growing number of member states spoke out against it. It couldn't officially acknowledge that there is "widespread recognition from several quarters, including UN member states and entities and civil society, of the collateral harms of current drug policies, and that new approaches are both urgent and necessary," even though that's what the UN Development Program said. And the UN admitted to having dropped the ball on making opioid analgesics available in the developing world.

It certainly wasn't ready to talk about drug legalization in any serious fashion. But despite the rigidity within the global anti-drug bureaucracy, driven in part by the hardline positions of many Asian and Middle Eastern member states, the global prohibitionist consensus is crumbling. Many European and Latin America states are ready for a new direction, and some aren't waiting for the UN's imprimatur. Bolivia has rejected the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs' provision criminalizing the coca plant, and Canada and Uruguay have both legalized marijuana with scant regard for UN treaty prohibitions. And of course there is Portugal's broad decriminalization system, encompassing all drugs.

There's a real lesson in all of this: The UN drug treaties, the legal backbone of global drug prohibition, have proven to be toothless. There is no effective mechanism for punishing most countries for violating those treaties, at least not relative to the punishing effects they suffer from prohibition. Other countries will take heed.

2. Afghanistan Remains the World's Opium Breadbasket

When the US invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, it entered into a seemingly endless war to defeat the Taliban and, along with it, the opium trade. Sixteen years and more than a trillion dollars later, it has defeated neither. Afghanistan was already the world's leading producer of opium then, and it still is.

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, in 2000, the country produced more than 3,000 tons of opium. The following year, with the Taliban imposing a ban on poppy planting in return for US aid and international approval, production dropped to near zero. But in 2002, production was back to more than 3,000 tons, and Afghan poppy farmers haven't looked back since.

In the intervening years, Afghanistan has accounted for the vast majority of global opium production, reaching 90% in 2007 before plateauing to around 70% now (as production increases in Latin America). It has consistently produced at least 3,000 tons a year, with that amount doubling in selected years.

For years, US policymakers were caught in a dilemma, and drug war imperatives were subordinated to anti-Taliban imperatives. The problem was that any attempt to go after opium threatened to push peasants into the hands of the Taliban. Now, the Trump administration is bombing Taliban heroin facilities. But it hasn't bombed any heroin facilities linked to corrupt Afghan government officials.

Holland's famous cannabis cafes were the first break with global marijuana prohibition. (Creative Commons)
3. Movement Toward Acceptance of Recreational Marijuana

Twenty years ago, only the Netherlands had come to terms -- sort of -- with marijuana, formally keeping it illegal, but, in a prime example of the Dutch's policy of gedogen (pragmatic tolerance), with possession and sale of small amounts allowed. (The Dutch are only now finally dealing with the "backdoor problem," the question of where cannabis cafes are supposed to get their supplies if it can't be grown legally).

The first entities to legalize marijuana were the US states of Colorado and Washington in 2012, and Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize marijuana in 2014. Canada will become the second country to do so next year. In the meantime, six more US states and the District of Columbia have also jumped on the bandwagon.

While full legalization may yet be a bridge too far for most European and Latin American countries, marijuana decriminalization has really taken hold there, with numerous countries in both regions having embraced the policy. Marijuana has now been decriminalized in Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia (you can possess up to 22 grams legally), Costa Rica, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Equador, Estonia, Georgia, Greece, Italy, Jamaica, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Moldova, Paraguay, Peru, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, and Ukraine, among others. Oh, and Iran, too.

4. Andean Whack-A-Mole: The Fruitless Quest to Quash Cocaine

The United States, and to a much lesser degree, the European Union, have spent billions of dollars trying to suppress coca leaf cultivation and cocaine production in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. It hasn't worked.

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), coca leaf cultivation was just under 500,000 acres in 1998; this week, UNODC reported that coca leaf cultivation was at 470,000 acres last year -- and that's not counting the 75,000 acres under legal cultivation in Bolivia.

When it comes to actual cocaine production, it's pretty much the same story: Again according to the UNODC, cocaine production was at 825 tons in 1998, peaked at just over a million tons a year in 2004-2007, and is now at just under 800 tons. There have been peaks and troughs, but here we are, pretty much in the same place we started.

Military intervention didn't stop it. Military and anti-drug assistance hasn't stopped it. Alternative development programs haven't stopped it. The global cocaine market is insatiable, and nothing has been able to tear Andean peasant farmers from what is by far their best cash crop. Bolivia, at least, has largely made peace with coca -- although not cocaine -- providing a legal, regulated market for coca farmers, but in Peru and Colombia eradication and redevelopment efforts continue to spark conflict and social unrest.

5. Mexico's Brutal Drug Wars

During the 1980s and 1990s, accusations ran rampant that in a sort of pax mafiosi, the Mexican government cut deals with leading drug trafficking groups to not so much fight the drug trade as manage it. Those were the days of single party rule by the PRI, which ended with the election of Vicente Fox in 2000. With the end of single party rule, the era of relative peace in the drug business began to unravel.

As old arrangements between drug traffickers and political and law enforcement figures fell apart, so did the informal codes that governed trafficker behavior. When once a cartel capo would accept his exemplary arrest, during the Fox administration, the gangsters began shooting back at the cops -- and fighting among themselves over who would control which profitable franchise.

Things took a turn for the worse with the election of Felipe Calderon in 2006 and his effort to burnish his political credentials by sending in the army to fight the increasingly wealthy, violent, and brazen cartels. And they haven't gotten any better since. While American attention to Mexico's drug wars peaked in 2012 -- a presidential election year in both countries -- and while the US has thrown more than a billion dollars in anti-drug aid Mexico's way in the past few years, the violence, lawlessness, and corruption continues. The death toll is now estimated to be around 200,000, and there's no sign anything is going to change anytime soon.

Well, unless we take leading 2018 presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) at his word. This week, AMLO suggested a potential amnesty for cartel leaders, indicating, for some, at least, a pax mafiosi is better than a huge, endless pile of corpses.

6. Latin America Breaks Away from US Drug War Hegemony

The US imports its drugs and exports its prohibition-related violence, and the region grows tired of paying the price for America's war on its favorite vices. When once Latin American leaders quietly kowtowed to drug war demands from Washington, at least some of them have been singing a different tune in recent years.

Bolivia under Evo Morales has resolutely followed its own path on legalizing coca cultivation, despite bellows from Washington, successive Mexican presidents weary of the bloodshed turn an increasingly critical eye toward US drug war imperatives, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos sees what Washington-imposed prohibitionist policies have done to his county and cries out for something different, and so did Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina before he was forced out of office on corruption charges.

Latin American countries are also increasingly pursuing their own drug policies, whether it's constitutionally protected legalization of personal use amounts of drugs in Colombia, decriminalization of marijuana across the continent, or downright legalization in Uruguay, Latin American leaders are no longer taking direction from Washington -- although they generally remain happy to take US anti-drug dollars.

A North American first: Vancouver's safe injection site opened in 2003. (Creative Commons)
7.Safe Injection Sites Start Spreading

The notion of providing a place where intravenous drug users could shoot up under medical supervision and get access to referrals to public health and welfare services was derided by foes as setting up "shooting galleries" and enabling drug use, but safe injection sites have proven to be an effective intervention, linked to reduced overdoses, reduced crime, and moving drug users toward treatment.

These examples of harm reduction in practice first appeared in Switzerland in the late 1980s; with facilities popping up in Germany and the Netherlands in the 1990s; Australia, Canada, Luxembourg, Norway, and Spain in the 2000s; and, most recently, Denmark and France.

By now, there are nearly a hundred safe injection sites operating in at least 61 cities worldwide, including 30 in Holland, 16 in Germany, and eight in Switzerland. We are likely to see safe injection sites in Ireland and Scotland very soon.

It looks like they will soon be appearing in the United States, too. Officials in at least two cities, San Francisco and Seattle, are well on the way to approving them, although the posture of the federal government could prove an obstacle.

8. And Heroin Maintenance, Too

Even more forward looking as a harm reduction measure than safe injection sites, heroin maintenance (or opiate-assisted treatment) has expanded slowly, but steadily over the past two decades. The Swiss did the first trials in 1994, and now such programs are available there (after decisively winning a 2008 referendum on the issue), as well as Germany and the Netherlands.

Such programs have been found to reduce harm by helping users control their drug use, reducing overdoses, reducing drug-related disease, and promoting overall health and well-being, while also reducing social harms by reducing crime related to scoring drugs, reducing public use and drug markets, and promoting less chaotic lifestyles among participants, leading to increased social integration and better family life and employment prospects.

A Canadian pilot program, the North American Opiate Medication Initiative (NAOMI) produced similar results. Maybe the United States will be ready to get it a try one of these years.

9. New Drugs, New Markets

So far, this has been the century of new drugs. Known variously as "research chemicals," "designer drugs," or fake this and that, let's call them new psychoactive substances (NSPs). Whether it's synthetic cannabinoids, synthetic cathinones, synthetic benzodiazepines, synthetic opioids, or something entirely novel, someone somewhere is producing it and selling it.

In its 2017 annual review, the European Monitoring Center on Drugs and Drug Addictions (EMCDDA) reported in was monitoring 620 NSPs, up from 350 in 2013, and was adding new ones at the rate of over one a week.

These drugs, often of unknown quality or potency, in some cases have wreaked havoc among drug users around the world and are a prime example of the bad things that can happen when you try to suppress some drugs: You end up with worse ones.

The communications technology revolution that began with the world wide web impacts drug policy just as it impact everything else. Beginning with the infamous Silk Road drug sales website, the dark web and the Tor browser have enabled drug sellers and consumers to hook up anonymously online, with the drugs delivered to one's doorstep by Fedex, UPS, and the like.

Silk Road has been taken down and its proprietor, Ross Ulbricht, jailed for decades in the US, but as soon as Silk Road was down, new sites popped up. They got taken down, and again, new sites popped up. Rinse and repeat.

European authorities estimate the size of the dark web drug marketplace at about $200 million a year -- a fraction of the size of the overall trade -- but warn that it is growing rapidly. And why not? It's like an Amazon for drugs.

10.Massacring Drug Suspects in Southeast Asia

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has drawn international condemnation for the bloody war he unleashed on drug suspects upon taking office last year. Coming from a man who made his reputation for leading death squads while Mayor of Davao City, the wave of killings is shocking, but not surprising. The latest estimates are that some 12,000 people have been killed.

What's worse is that Duterte's bad example seems to be gaining some traction in the neighborhood. Human rights groups have pointed to a smaller wave of killings in Indonesia, along with various statements from Indonesian officials expressing support for Duterte-style drug executions. And most recently, a Malaysian member of parliament urged his own country to emulate Duterte's brutal crackdown.

This isn't the first time Southeast Asia has been the scene of murderous drug war brutality. Back in 2003, then Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched a war on drugs that saw 2,800 killed in three months.

Chronicle AM: ME Lawmakers Try to Save MJ Reg Bill from Veto, Denver SIF Advances, More... (11/6/17)

Maine's governor vetoes the marijuana regulation bill, but the legislature will attempt an override today; a plan for a safe injection site in Denver advances, a Michigan roadside drug testing pilot program gets underway this week, and more.

A move is afoot in the legislature to bring a safe injection site to Denver. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Maine Governor Vetoes Bill to Regulate Legal Marijuana Production, Sales. Gov. Paul LePage last Friday vetoed the bill that would regulate legal marijuana commerce in the state. In his veto message, he cited a number of concerns, including how the Trump administration is going to deal with the conflict between state and federal law. "Until I clearly understand how the federal government intends to treat states that seek to legalize marijuana, I cannot in good conscience support any scheme in state law to implement expansion of legal marijuana in Maine," the governor explained.

Maine Lawmakers Meet Today to Try to Override Governor's Veto. The legislature is set to meet at 4:00pm today in a bid to override Gov. LePage's veto of the marijuana regulation bill. The bill passed the Senate, but not the House, by a veto-proof majority earlier this year.

Medical Marijuana

Ohio Announces First Licensees for Medical Marijuana Production. State officials announced last Friday they had issued 11 Level II medical marijuana licenses. The licenses will allow holders to begin medical marijuana growing operations.

Drug Testing

Michigan Roadside Drug Testing Pilot Program Begins This Week. Michigan State Police are set to begin a pilot program in five counties to do roadside oral fluid drug tests of drivers in a bid to reduce drugged driving. The counties included are Berrien, Delta, Kent, St. Clair and Washtenaw. Under the program, officers trained in "drug recognition" will be able to require drivers to submit to a preliminary saliva test if they suspect he is impaired. The tests will look for the presence of marijuana, amphetamines, methamphetamines, benzodiazepines, cocaine and opiates.

Harm Reduction

Walgreen's to Carry Opioid Overdose Reversal Drug, No Prescription Needed. Walgreen's drugstores will soon stock the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan) at its thousands of locations across the US, and it will be available over the counter, no prescription needed. Walgreen's is the nation's second largest drugstore chain with more than 8,000 stores. "By stocking Narcan in all our pharmacies, we are making it easier for families and caregivers to help their loved ones by having it on hand in case it is needed," Walgreen's vice president Rick Gates said in a statement. "As a pharmacy, we are committed to making Narcan more accessible in the communities we serve."

Denver Starts Down Path Toward Safe Injection Sites. Seattle and San Francisco are the US cities closest to opening safe injection sites for drug users, but now Denver is making a move in the same direction. A legislative committee last week gave unanimous approval to a plan to open a pilot site in the city. But that's just a first step: The next step is to get the legislation through the General Assembly when the legislature convenes in January.

International

Colombia, UNODC Sign Cooperation Agreement on Coca and Cocaine. In a deal announced last Friday, Colombia and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) have agreed to cooperate on the county's coca reduction strategy. Under the deal, the UNODC will help Colombia implement "alternative and sustainable development programs in areas affected by coca cultivation," according to a press release from the Colombian presidency. The plan is estimated to require $315 million in funding over the next four years. The question is whether Colombia has the political will to come up with the money.

Chronicle AM: Dallas Ends Marijuana Possession Arrests, Drug Czar Nominee Names, More... (10/18/17)

Dallas gives up on arresting pot possessors, the DOJ gives up on prosecuting the Kettle Falls Five, there's a new list of possible drug czar nominees, and more.

No more small-time pot arrests in Big D. (Wikimedia Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Pro-Legalization Congressman Plans to Target Anti-Marijuana Lawmakers. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), one of the leading advocates for marijuana legalization on Capitol Hill, told a cannabis industry meeting Tuesday that he is taking the offensive against lawmakers who try to block marijuana reform measures. And his first target is House Rules Committee Chair Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), who has used his position to block numerous marijuana measures. "We're going to be putting up some billboards in Pete Sessions's district. It's going to feature a veteran and ask the question why Pete Sessions doesn't want him to have access to his medicine," Blumenauer said in remarks reported by Marijuana Moment. "We're going to make the point that there are consequences. This is not a free vote. People are going to take a position one way or another. And if they are going to be part of an effort to deny people access to medicine that can be transformational… this is going to be part of the political landscape this year."

New Hampshire Legalization Commission Meets, Hears Criticism. At the first meeting of a legislative commission charged with studying the effect of marijuana legalization, advocates criticized the commission's makeup and said it was squandering an opportunity for an honest review of issues around legalization. "Sadly, the commission includes staunch opponents of reform such as the Association of Chiefs of Police and New Futures, but supportive organizations such as the ACLU-NH were excluded in the language of the final bill," said Matt Simon, New England Political Director for the Marijuana, in remarks reported by NH1. "Additionally, none of the six legislators who were appointed to the commission has ever publicly expressed support for ending marijuana prohibition."

Dallas to Join Other Major Texas Cities in Not Arresting Pot Possessors. A decade ago, the state legislature passed a law allowing police to ticket and release people caught with up to four ounces of marijuana, yet only a handful of localities have taken advantage of that law. Now, Dallas is one of them. The city council voted 4-1 Tuesday night to allow police to just issue tickets, joining Austin, Houston, and San Antonio.

Medical Marijuana

Justice Department Drops Kettle Falls Case, Concedes It Is Blocked From Prosecuting. The DOJ Tuesday filed a motion to stay the case of the Kettle Falls Five, a group of Washington state medical marijuana patients and producers who had been pursued and prosecuted after a 2012 raid. In the filing, Justice Department officials conceded that an amendment barring the use of federal funds to go after medical marijuana in states where it is legal blocked them from proceeding with the case.

Arkansas Regulators Swamped With Applications, May Push Back Licensing to 2018. Deluged with applications to grow and sell medical marijuana, the state Medical Marijuana Commission has set December 15 when it will start receiving applications, but says even that date could be pushed back as hundreds of applications come in. That means there's still no approximation of the data medical marijuana will actually be available on store shelves in the Razorback State.

Asset Forfeiture

Justice Department Sets Up Oversight Unit for Asset Forfeiture Program. Attorney General Sessions is setting up a Justice Department unit to oversee the equitable sharing asset forfeiture program, which allows state and local law enforcement to let the federal government "adopt" their cases so they can avoid state laws that limit where the proceeds go. Former Attorney General Eric Holder had stopped the controversial program, but Sessions reinstated it, calling it an "extremely valuable" tool for law enforcement. In a memo Tuesday, Sessions ordered Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to name a director to review the policy and take action if needed.

Drug Policy

With Marino Out, Here Are Possible Drug Czar Nominees. There's a short list of possible nominees to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy after Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) was forced to withdraw over his championing of a bill blocking the DEA from going after opioid pain pills it suspected were being diverted from legitimate medicinal use. Among the possibilities are former New Hampshire Republican congressmen Frank Guinta, who headed a congressional heroin task force; Trump opioid commission member and Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Bertha Madras, outgoing New Jersey Gov. Christ Christie (R), who heads the opioid commission; Florida Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi, and acting ONDCP head Richard Baum.

Foreign Policy

Trump Extends US "Emergency" Regarding Colombia Drug Trafficking. The White House announced Monday that it is maintaining a national emergency over the "extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy" posed by Colombian drug traffickers. The "emergency" has been in effect since 1995, and allows the government to quickly free up funds to protect threatened interests. Colombia is the home of the vast majority of cocaine consumed in the US.

Chronicle AM: Houston Quits Trying "Trace Amount" Drug Cases, US Chides Colombia, More... (9/28/17)

San Antonio quits arresting small-time pot violators, Houston quits prosecuting folks caught with trace amounts of drugs, Vermont begins pondering how to do pot legalization, the US chides Colombia on coca and the FARC, and more.

With moves in Houston and San Antonio, change is coming to the Lone Star State.
Marijuana Policy

Vermont Marijuana Commission Begins Legalization Study. The state Marijuana Advisory Commission is holding its first meeting today. The commission is charged with studying the best way to legalize marijuana in the state. Gov. Phil Scott (R) empaneled the commission after vetoing a legalization bill in May. In his veto message, Scott said he wasn't opposed to legalization, but had concerns about underage use and impaired driving. The commission is set to report back to the legislature in January.

San Antonio to Quit Arresting People for Pot Possession. Authorities in Bexar County (San Antonio) announced Wednesday that they will no longer arrest small-time marijuana and other misdemeanor offenders, instead issuing them citations. People cited must complete a program before charges are dismissed. San Antonio now joins Harris County (Houston) and Dallas in enacting policies to no longer arrest small-time pot offenders.

Medical Marijuana

Michigan Lawmakers Seek to Keep Dispensaries Open. As the state prepares to shift to a new regime allowing licensed dispensaries, the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs has tentatively asked all existing dispensaries to shut down by December 15 and seek licenses. But some legislators have filed House Bill 5014, which would allow dispensaries to stay open while their license applications are pending before the department. A Senate version of the bill is expected to be filed shortly.

Law Enforcement

Houston Stops Prosecuting Cases of Trace Amounts of Drugs. Harris County (Houston) District Attorney Kim Ogg has quit pursuing thousands of "trace drug" cases, where people are charged with drug possession based on drug residues left in baggies or syringes. Ogg actually quietly implemented the policy in July, but has gone public with it now. The move will save the county the cost of prosecuting somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 felony cases each year.

Sentencing

New House Bill Creates Incentives to Reduce Crime, Incarceration at Same Time. Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA) filed the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act of 2017 on Wednesday. Companion legislation, Senate Bill 1458, was filed in June by Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). The bill would essentially reverse the 1994 crime bill, which provided incentives to states to increase prison populations. It would instead pay states to decrease incarceration rates through incentivizing grants.

International

US Ambassador to Colombia Says FARC Has Not Complied With Peace Deal. "The FARC have not complied, in my opinion, with their obligations under the agreement," US Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker said during a recent interview with El Tiempo. Whitaker claimed the leftist rebels continued to encourage coca cultivation in some parts of the country and said they should not be involved in government-sponsored crop substitution programs. Whitaker's comments are in line with other US officials, who have become increasingly critical of the peace deal between the FARC and the government as coca and cocaine production have increased in the past two years.

Philippines Claims It Doesn't Allow Extrajudicial Killings in Drug War. In a statement released as Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano met in Washington with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the Philippines government denied it had a policy of killing suspected drug users and dealers. "Contrary to media reports, Cayetano also clarified to Tillerson that the Philippines does not have a state policy allowing extrajudicial killings, especially of illegal drug suspects," the statement read. The statement also welcomed further cooperation with Washington and reiterated the "seriousness" of the country's "drug problem." Thousands of people have been killed since President Duterte unleashed his drug war, but the Philippines claims it only kills suspects who were violently resisting arrest.

Chronicle AM: Las Vegas MJ Lounges Hit Snag, Utah MedMJ Init Polling Well, More... (9/20/17)

The Bay State's highest court just made it harder for cops to charge people with marijuana-impaired driving, Las Vegas-area county commissioners put a stop to talk of pot lounges anytime soon, Colombia's president speaks out against the drug war (again) at the United Nations, and more.

Don't hold your breathing waiting for marijuana lounges in Vegas. It could be awhile. (Wikipedia)
Marijuana Policy

Massachusetts Court Rules Drivers' Field Sobriety Tests Not Valid for Marijuana. The state's Supreme Judicial Court ruled Tuesday that the field sobriety tests used in drunk driving cases cannot be used as conclusive evidence that a driver was driving high. Police officers could testify as non-expert witnesses about how drivers performed in the field sobriety tests, but cannot tell juries if a driver passed or failed the test, nor provide their own opinions about whether a driver was too high to drive, the court held. The court noted that there is no reliable scientific measure for marijuana impairment, as there is with blood alcohol content.

Nevada's Clark County Says Not So Fast to Las Vegas Pot Lounges. Clark County commissioners are in no hurry to give an okay for marijuana social consumption clubs in Las Vegas. In a Tuesday meeting, they voted 6-1 to hold off on moving to allow and regulate such clubs. The move comes after attorneys for the state legislature issued an opinion saying there is no state law prohibiting the establishment of pot social clubs. Commissioners said they had regulatory concerns, as well as fears of "inviting the feds" to intervene.

Medical Marijuana

Utah Poll has Very Strong Support for Medical Marijuana Initiative. A proposed medical marijuana initiative from the Utah Patients Coalition has supermajority levels of support, according to a new UtahPolicy.com poll. The poll has support for the initiative at 74%, with only 22% opposed. More strikingly, it also has support among Mormon Church members at 63%, even the Mormon leadership has announced its opposition. The initiative push comes after the legislature has repeatedly refused to pass a medical marijuana bill.

Detroit Initiatives Qualify for November Ballot. Two local ballot measures that would open up business opportunities for medical marijuana in the city will go before voters in November. One measure would formally have the city join the state medical marijuana regulatory system and the other would amend the city's cannabis business zoning laws. The two measures overcame a challenge from the Detroit Elections Commission and have now been approved by the county election commission.

International

Colombian President Uses UN Speech to Call for New Approach to Drugs. President Juan Manuel Santos used the occasion of his final speech before the United Nations to repeat his call for a change in the way the world wages the war on drugs. Saying that under drug prohibition, "the remedy has been worse than the disease," he argued that the drug war "has not been won, nor is being won and we require new approaches and new strategies." Santos' remarks came just days after President Trump criticized Colombia for an increase in coca and cocaine production and threatened to decertify the country as cooperating with US drug war aims.

Chronicle AM: WA Ponders Personal NJ Grows, Trump Chastises Colombia Over Coca, More... (9/15/17)

The only legal marijuana state that doesn't allow personal cultivation will revisit the issue, the president chides Colombia and Colombia reacts, there's strong support for legalization in New Jersey, and more.

Colombian cocaine exports are on the increase. (Spanish police)
Marijuana Policy

California Governor Vetoes Marijuana Packaging Bill. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has vetoed Senate Bill 663, which would have specified conditions under which cannabis packaging would be deemed attractive to children and therefore banned. Although the bill was approved unanimously by the Assembly and Senate. Brown does not want new marijuana regulations except those developed through his office and regulatory agencies.

New Jersey Poll Has Strong Support for Legalization. A new Quinnipiac poll has support for legalization at 59% among state voters. But the poll questions didn't ask about regulated and taxed sales; it only asked whether respondents supported "allowing adults to legally possess small amounts of marijuana for recreational use." The state is expected to see a strong push for legalization in the legislature next year.

Washington to Consider Whether to Allow Personal Pot Grows. The state Liquor and Cannabis Control Board announced Thursday that it will hold a hearing on October 4 to seek public input on whether to allow residents to grow pot plants for their own use. Washington is the only legal pot state that bars personal grows, but the state legislature approved a bill telling the agency to look into options for allowing personal grows.

Medical Marijuana

Delaware Governor Signs PTSD Bill. Gov. John Carney (D) has signed into law a bill that allows people with PTSD to more easily qualify for medical marijuana. The new law allows PTSD patients to get a recommendation from any licensed physician; the old law required they receive recommendations only from licensed psychiatrists.

International

Trump Threatens to Decertify Colombia as Drug War Partner. In comments Wednesday as the State Department rolled out its annual list of reliable drug war partners, President Trump delivered not so veiled threats to Colombia over increased coca cultivation. Trump said he "seriously considered" decertifying the country because of the "extraordinary" growth in coca cultivation and cocaine production last year. He said he decided against decertification this year because the Colombian military is close partners with the US, but that he would keep it as an "option" and that he expected "significant progress" from Colombia in reducing output.

Colombia Rejects Trump Criticism. The government of President Juan Manuel Santos took issue with Trump's comments: "Colombia is without a doubt the country which most has fought drugs, and which has had the most success on that front," the government said in an early morning statement. "No one has to threaten us to confront this challenge."

Ontarians Are Liking the Notion of Government-Run Pot Shops. A Campaign Research poll released Thursday found that the province's plan to restrict marijuana sales to a government monopoly has fairly strong public support. Some 51% backed the idea, with 35% opposed and 14% with no opinion.

Chronicle AM: House Blocks Sessions Civil Asset Forfeiture Move, More... (9/13/17)

The House votes to defund Attorney General Sessions' newly revived Equitable Sharing asset forfeiture program, Maine lawmakers want a 20% sales tax on weed, Duterte allies in the Philippines vote to defund the country's human rights commission over its critique of the drug war, and more.

The attorney general isn't smiling over the House's asset forfeiture vote. (senate.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Maine Lawmakers Want to Double Pot Sales Tax. In a draft bill released Tuesday, the legislature's marijuana legalization committee is recommending a 20% sales tax on recreational marijuana. Earlier, the committee had supported a 10% excise tax and a 10% sales tax, but now it's going all sales tax.

Medical Marijuana

Arizona Supreme Court Refuses to Lift Restrictions on Medical Marijuana for PTSD. The state Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected without comment an argument from the Arizona Cannabis Nurses Association that the former state health director had illegally imposed restrictions on when doctors can recommend the drug for PTSD. The high court's decision leaves intact an earlier Court of Appeals ruling upholding the restrictions. Attorneys for the association say they may take the case to federal court on equal protection grounds.

Asset Forfeiture

House Slaps Down Sessions' Move to Reinstate Equitable Sharing Program. In a surprise move, the House voted virtually unanimously Tuesday to curb federal asset forfeitures, a slap in the face to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions had reinstated a federal civil asset forfeiture program that allowed state and local law enforcement to evade state forfeiture restrictions by handing their cases over to the feds, with the feds then returning 80% of the money to the seizing agency. The move came in a voice vote on an amendment to the Justice Department appropriations bill, which was sponsored by strange bedfellows Reps. Justin Amash (R-MI), Mark Sanford (R-SC), Raúl Labrador (R-ID), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Don Beyer (D-VA).

Foreign Policy

Feinstein, Grassley Fret Over Colombian Cocaine. The two senior senators, chair and co-chair of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Affairs, expressed worries Tuesday that a peace deal between Colombia and the leftist rebels of the FARC had led to a surge of cocaine being imported into the US. Feinstein also used the Senate hearing to express concern that the Trump administration will not adequately fund interdiction law enforcement efforts.

International

Philippine Congress Budgets Measly $20 to Fund Human Rights Commission. No, that's not a typo, and no, we didn't forget some zeroes. Lawmakers allied with President Rodrigo Duterte voted Tuesday to allocate just 1,000 pesos (USD $20) for the Commission on Human Rights, which has repeatedly criticized Duterte's bloody drug war, which has left thousands dead at the hands of police and vigilantes. The funding move was explicit retaliation for the commission's criticism of the human rights disaster. In a Facebook post responding to the move, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings Agnes Callamard said Filipinos deserved an independent organization that could hold the government accountable for its misdeeds. "Instead they are getting a 'war on drugs' which, by the president's own account, has failed to curtail addiction rates, while creating a climate of fear and insecurity, feeding impunity, and undermining the constitutional fabrics of the country," she wrote. "If the Philippines Congress is looking for public money being wasted, damaging and hurting the Philippines society, this is it."

Trump BS Alert: The Border Wall Won't Stop Drug Smuggling [FEATURE]

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

The president doesn't let reality get in the way of rhetoric. (Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore)
President Trump sure loves his border wall. It was a staple of his campaign rhetoric, and despite Mexico's firm insistence that there is no way it's ever going to pay for it, Trump's desire for it is unabated. Now, he's threatening to shut down the government unless he can persuade the Congress to make American taxpayers pay for it.

Last week, Trump claimed that "building the wall will stop much of the drugs coming into the county." That claim is yet another example of what CNN contributor Fareed Zakaria pungently referred to as Trump's primary political product: bullshit.

Here's what Trump claimed during his joint press conference last Monday with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto:

"The wall will stop much of the drugs from pouring into this country and poisoning our youth. So we need the wall. It's imperative… The wall is needed from the standpoint of drug -- tremendous, the drug scourge, what's coming through the areas that we're talking about… So we will build the wall, and we will stop a lot of things, including the drug -- the drugs are pouring in at levels like nobody has ever seen. We'll be able to stop them once the wall is up."

And here's the reality: Trump's own DEA and outside experts agree that building a wall along the 1,700 mile land border with Mexico will have little impact on the drug trade. Not only do drugs from Latin America enter America by sea and air as well as across the Mexican border, but the vast majority of drugs crossing the land border do so not in unfenced desert expanses, but through official ports of entry.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations "transport the bulk of their drugs over the Southwest Border through ports of entry (POEs) using passenger vehicles or tractor trailers," the DEA said in its 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment. "The drugs are typically secreted in hidden compartments when transported in passenger vehicles or comingled with legitimate goods when transported in tractor trailers."

Here's how the DEA detailed trafficking methods for various drugs:

Methamphetamine: "Traffickers most commonly transport methamphetamine in tractor trailers and passenger vehicles with hidden compartments. In addition, traffickers send methamphetamine through various mail services or by couriers traveling via bus or commercial airline.

Heroin: "Most heroin smuggled across the border is transported in privately-owned vehicles, usually through California, as well as through south Texas."

Cocaine: "Tractor trailers and passenger vehicles are frequently used to transport multi-kilogram quantities of cocaine. Cocaine is hidden amongst legitimate cargo or secreted inside of intricate hidden compartments built within passenger vehicles."

Marijuana: "Large quantities of marijuana are smuggled through subterranean tunnels."

A May 2017 DEA intelligence report obtained by Foreign Policy echoed the 2015 assessment. It, too, found that drugs coming from Mexico went indeed cross the border, but they mainly do so concealed in vehicles using ports of entry -- not those unfenced expanses. That report also noted that drugs headed for the Northeast United States, especially from Colombia -- the world's leading cocaine producer, as well as source of opium and heroin second only to Mexico in the US market -- come more often by plane and boat.

Drug traffickers "generally route larger drug shipments destined for the Northeast through the Bahamas and/or South Florida by using a variety of maritime conveyance methods, to include speedboats, fishing vessels, sailboats, yachts, and containerized sea cargo," the report found. "In some cases, Dominican Republic-based traffickers will also transport cocaine into Haiti for subsequent shipment to the United States via the Bahamas and/or South Florida corridor using maritime and air transport."

That report did not address the border wall, but its examples of how and where drugs enter the country show that in many cases, building a wall wouldn't make a scintilla of difference: "According to DEA reporting, the majority of the heroin available in New Jersey originates in Colombia and is primarily smuggled into the United States by Colombian and Dominican groups via human couriers on commercial flights to the Newark International Airport," the report found.

The report concluded with recommendations for reducing the drug trade, but none of them were about building a border wall. Instead, targeting foreign drug trafficking networks within the US "would be an essential component to any broad strategy for resolving the current opioid crisis."

It's not just his own DEA that is giving the lie to Trump's bullshit. His own chief of staff, John Kelly contradicted the president's position at a congressional hearing in April. Illegal drugs from Mexico "mostly come through the ports of entry," he said. "We know they come in in relatively small amounts, 10, 15 kilos at a time in automobiles and those kinds of conveyances."

Drug trafficking experts agreed with Kelly and the DEA -- not Trump.

Brookings Institution senior fellow and long-time analyst of drug production and trafficking Vanda Felbab-Brown summed things up bluntly in an essay earlier this month: "A barrier in the form of a wall is increasingly irrelevant to the drug trade as it now practiced because most of the drugs smuggled into the US from Mexico no longer arrive on the backs of those who cross illegally."

"The wall won't stop the flow of drugs into the United States," she told Fact Check last week.

Other experts contacted by Fact Check concurred. University of Maryland criminal justice professor and founder of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center Peter Reuter pronounced himself skeptical that a wall would have any impact on the drug trade.

"The history is that smugglers eventually figure a workaround," he said. "There have been many promising interdiction interventions -- none of them have made more than a temporary dent."

And Middle Tennessee State University political science professor Stephen D. Morris, whose research has largely focused on Mexico, came up with two reasons the border wall would not stop drugs.

"First, as you say, most drug shipments come disguised as commerce and are crossing the border by truck or in cargo containers. Human mules, to my knowledge, bring in a small fraction," he said. "Second, smugglers adapt. Whether it is tunnels, submarines, mules, drones, etc., they are good at figuring out new ways to get drugs to those in the US who will buy them."

It is a shame that Donald Trump's ascendency has so coarsened and vulgarized our national political discourse. But his lies demand a forthright response. Bullshit is bullshit.

Chronicle AM: White House Seeks MA MedMJ Data, Ecstasy for PTSD Advances, More... (8/28/17)

The White House is sniffing around Massachusetts medical marijuana patient data, the FDA has granted breakthrough drug status for MDMA as a treatment of PTSD, the DEA warns of a looming tide of cocaine, the State Department's top anti-drug official calls it quits, and more.

Cocaine supplies and seizures are at record levels, the DEA says. (US CBP)
Medical Marijuana

White House Seeks Massachusetts Data On Medical Marijuana Users. The National Marijuana Initiative, part of the Trump administration's anti-drug task force, has asked the state Department of Public Health to provide data on the health conditions cited by medical marijuana users. The department has already provided data on patient by age and gender, but said it was considering whether to hand over additional data.

Tennessee Lawmakers to Study Whether to Legalize Medical Marijuana. Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R) and House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) announced in a letter last Friday that they are forming an ad hoc committee to study whether the state should legalize medical marijuana. The lawmakers said they would undertake a comprehensive review of the matter. The committee will consist of 10 legislators.

Ecstasy

FDA Grants Breakthrough Therapy Designation for MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy for PTSD. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) announced last Friday that Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted Breakthrough Therapy Designation to MDMA for the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). MAPS and the FDA have also reached agreement under the Special Protocol Assessment Process (SPA) for the design of two upcoming Phase 3 of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for patients with severe PTSD. MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is a novel treatment package that combines psychotherapeutic techniques with three administrations of MDMA as a pharmacological adjunct. By granting Breakthrough Therapy Designation, the FDA has agreed that this treatment may have a meaningful advantage and greater compliance over available medications for PTSD.

Drug Policy

State Department's Top Anti-Drug Diplomat Joins Exodus, Resigns. William Brownfield, the US Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs ("drugs and thugs"), has announced he is quitting at the end of September. Foreign Policy had reported that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was considering Brownfield for a position as top envoy to Latin America, but instead Brownfield is leaving. His departure is only the latest of top officials from Foggy Bottom, including Brownfield's wife, Kristie Kenney, one of the department's senior foreign service officers, a few months back. Also resigning Friday, was Tracey Ann Jacobsen, the acting director of the Bureau of International Organization Affairs. Earlier in the week, Foreign Policy reported that the department's top official for European affairs, John Heffern, was forced out of his job, adding to "concerns of a growing wave of resignations by foreign policy professionals who are either being pushed out or resigning over frustration with an administration that has downgraded the importance of Washington's diplomatic corps."

Search and Seizure

Indiana Appeals Court Rules Genital Search for Blunt too Intrusive. The state Court of Appeals ruled last week that a police officer's search that included touching a woman's genitals was unconstitutional. Taccasia Porter had been convicted of marijuana possession, but appealed her conviction, arguing that the marijuana found in her underwear shouldn't have been admitted as evidence because it was the fruit of an unlawful search. The appeals court agreed, saying that while an initial search was lawful, the hands-down-the-pants search was not. "While the initial pat-down search was permissible, we find that the subsequent search ran afoul of both the federal and state constitutions," wrote appellate Judge John G. Baker. "All of this took place in a public area on the side of a road, with no evidence that any precautions were taken to protect Porter's privacy from pedestrian or vehicular passers-by or the two men on the scene," the opinion said. No word yet on whether prosecutors will appeal.

International

DEA Report Says Colombia Cocaine Expansion Fueling Rise in Use and Supply in the US. An August DEA Intelligence Brief notes that US cocaine supplies are at the highest levels since at least 2007 and the usage has jumped to the highest levels since 2009. The report also says that cocaine production and US border seizures "have reached the highest levels ever observed. The DEA argued that cocaine supply and us in the US will continue to rise barring a change in US drug habits, cartel behavior, or "a significant shift in the Government of Colombia's policies."

Trudeau Government Not Decriminalizing More Drugs Than Marijuana. Responding to calls from public health and political figures in British Columbia to decriminalize drugs in a bid to combat the opioid overdose epidemic, federal Health Minister Jane Philpott says no way. "Our government is currently working on the legalization, strict regulation, and restriction of access to cannabis, in order to keep it out of the hands of youth, and profits out of the hands of criminals," she said in a statement last week. "We are not looking to decriminalize or legalize other illicit substances at this time."

Mass March for Philippine Teen Drug War Victim.More than a thousand people joined the funeral procession last Saturday for Kian Delos Santos, 17, who was gunned down by Philippines police days earlier as part of their bloody anti-drug campaign. His killing has galvanized opposition to the year-long campaign undertaken by President Rodrigo Duterte upon his inauguration last year, which has resulted in thousands of deaths and increasing attention to charges that police are systematically executing suspected drug users and dealers.

Chronicle AM: Sessions' Crime Task Force Doesn't Recommend Going After Legal Marijuana, More... (8/7/17)

The attorney general's crime task force has little new to say about grappling with legal marijuana, Sessions sends another letter to another governor, the US leans on Colombia over coca, and more.

Jeff Sessions is on a lonely crusade against marijuana legalization. (freethoughtproject.org)
Marijuana Policy

Sessions' Crime Task Force Refrains from Recommending Legal Marijuana Crackdown. The Justice Department's Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety has failed to come up with policy recommendations that could weaponize Attorney General Sessions' efforts to wage war on legal marijuana, the Associated Press reported Friday. The task force report instead urges officials to continue to study whether they want to roll back the clock on the Obama-administration's laissez-faire approach to states that have legalized medical or recreational marijuana. The report did, however, call for officials to continue to oppose congressional moves to block funding for the department to go after medical marijuana in states where it is legal.

Sessions Sends Letter to Colorado Questioning State's Management of Legal Marijuana. Attorney General Sessions has sent a letter to Colorado officials accusing the state of failing to keep marijuana from being diverted out of state or keeping it away from kids. The letter was dated July 24 and cited a Rocky Mountain HIDTA report from last September to raise "serious questions" about the states oversight of its legal marijuana program. "Please advise as to how Colorado plans to address the serious findings in the Rocky Mountain HIDTA report, including efforts to ensure that all marijuana activity is compliant with state marijuana laws, to combat diversion of marijuana, to protect public health and safety, and to prevent marijuana use by minors," Sessions wrote in the letter obtained by the Cannabist. Sessions has sent similar letters to the governors of Oregon and Washington.

Maine Public Safety Panel Rejects Per Se DUID for Marijuana. A Department of Public Safety committee charged with addressing marijuana and driving has decided the state does not need a DUID law for pot that sets a blood-level limit for THC. Committee Chair Scot Maddox said the state's existing laws against impaired driving would suffice, but that lawmakers should provide more money to train police to recognize pot-impaired drivers.

Medical Marijuana

Texas Bill Would Expand Medical Marijuana Qualifying Conditions. State Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) Senate Bill 79 last year, but it hoping it will be taken up during the legislature's special session, which still has 10 days left. Under current law, only people suffering from intractable epilepsy can use medical marijuana. This bill would expand the list of qualifying conditions to include PTSD, cancer, traumatic brain injury, and other "debilitating conditions."

International

US-Colombia Tensions Over Coca. At a congressional hearing last week, the State Department's Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs ("drugs and thugs") William Brownfield said the US could not support elements of Colombia's efforts at coca crop substitution and alternative development because the FARC is involved and the US considers the FARC a terrorist organization. But it is precisely the FARC with whom the Colombian government signed its peace deal. Brownfield also called for limits on voluntary coca eradication agreements and insisted the Colombian government implement "a robust forced manual eradication effort." In remarks to the press afterward, Brownfield threatened Colombia with "bilateral political problems" if a solution acceptable to Washington is not found, Insight Crime reported.

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