Marijuana Legalization

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Rasmussen Poll Finds 47% Say Legalize, Tax Marijuana

Support for legalizing and taxing marijuana out-muscled opposition to it in the latest Rasmussen poll to ask respondents about the issue. Support was at 47%, while opposition was at 42%, with 10% undecided in the poll released last Thursday.

Respondents were asked the following question: "To help solve America's fiscal problems, should the country legalize and tax marijuana?"

Rasmussen conducted a telephone survey of 1,000 adults nationwide this week. The poll has a margin of error of +/- 3%.

Support is up four points since Rasmussen last asked that question in July 2010. That's in line with most recent national polls, which show a continuing upward trend for legalization, which is now hovering on the cusp of majority support. Angus Reid polled support for legalization at 55% in August, while Gallup had at it 50% in October, continuing long-term upward trends in support. A November CBS News poll had support at only 40%, a decline from its previous number, but it is the downside outlier.

Colorado and Washington will vote on marijuana legalization initiatives in November, but the Rasmussen poll doesn't provide cross-tabs and geographic breakdowns to anyone except paying subscribers, so regional data is unavailable. Most other polls show higher levels of support for marijuana legalization in the West than in the country as a whole.

Chronicle Review Essay: Mexico's Drug Cartels

Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars, by Sylvia Longmire (2011, Palgrave/Macmillan, 248 pp., $26.00 HB)

El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency, by Ioan Grillo (2011, Bloomsbury Press, 301 pp., $27.00 HB)

Gangland: The Rise of Mexico's Drug Cartels from El Paso to Vancouver (2012, Wiley, 276 pp., $22.95 PB)

I recall traveling by bus (one second-class standby was Flecha Amarilla -- the passengers used to joke that the rickety line's motto was "Better dead than late") through the southern Mexican states of Guerrero and Oaxaca in the 1980s and being stopped regularly at military checkpoints replete with prominently displayed signs announcing they were part of the Mexican government's Permanent Campaign Against Drug Trafficking. The signs were bilingual, one supposes for the edification of any passing Americans, so that they would know Mexico was hard at work doing our government's bidding in the war on drugs.

The soldiers would order everyone off the bus, then randomly inspect luggage. Afterwards, everyone would trudge back onto the bus, and off we'd go, past a last sign proclaiming, "Thank you for your cooperation in the permanent campaign against drug trafficking." I never saw the soldiers actually find anything.

Funny thing about those checkpoints -- they never moved. Year after year, there they were in the same places. Of course, everyone in the area, including the dope growers up in the mountains and the traffickers who moved the weed, knew exactly where they were and simply went around them or paid the local military commander to look the other way when a load needed to pass.

But those checkpoints were there, and the Mexican government could point to them and say, "Look, we're doing our part." That Potemkin village-style "war on drugs" worked for Mexico for many years. In the '70s, the '80s, the '90s, observers would note sardonically that Mexico was not suppressing the drug trade so much as managing it.

Of course, it helped that Mexico was then under the venerable grip of "the perfect dictatorship," the one-party rule of the PRI that had governed the country more or less since the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1919. The lines of authority were clear, PRI officialdom was happy to take traffickers' bribes and keep a semblance of order in the underworld, and those bundles of pot trickling down out of the mountains became a roaring river of reefer flowing to the insatiable north.

While government complicity kept the trade running smoothly -- with the occasional high-profile bust of a "kingpin" or two when the heat from Washington grew too intense -- a handful of what sophisticated Mexicans would consider country bumpkins from the mountainous western state of Sinaloa were creating the drug trafficking arrangements that evolved into the terrifying killing machines we today know as the cartels (although they are not really cartels in the normal sense of the word, as Ioan Grillo takes the time to explain, tracing the use back to descriptions of Colombian drug traffickers in the 1970s, when the Arab oil embargo was a fresh memory).

Back then, one man, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, was the undisputed godfather of the Mexican drug trade. To avoid unnecessary strife, he and his lieutenants divvied up the plazas, or franchises for a particular smuggling location, among themselves, creating the Tijuana cartel (the Arrellano Felix brothers), the Sinaloa cartel ("El Chapo" Guzman and the Beltran Leyva brothers), the Juarez cartel (Amado Carrillo Fuentes, "The Lord of the Skies," and family), and the Gulf Cartel (Osiel Cardenas). Business was good. Profits from pot were plentiful, and in the 1980s, a new revenue stream, Colombian cocaine, only added to the permanent fiesta.

Yes, there were drug killings back then. You don't rise to the top of a ruthless Mexican drug trafficking outfit by being an overly nice guy. But the violence was minimal compared to the bloodletting that has gone on since 2008, when, under pressure from President Calderon's all-out offensive against them, the cartels turned on each other in a bloody fratricidal struggle, as well as going to war against the police and the military. The killing continues to this day, as does the flow of drugs north and cash and guns south.

And the alarm bells are ringing across the land, thus this spate of books. Former California state intelligence analyst Sylvia Longmire, veteran British-born Latin America reporter Ioan Grillo, and Canadian journalist and author Jerry Langton all describe the evolution of the cartels from their humble Sinaloa roots to their positions today as hugely wealthy, murderously violent drug trafficking organizations with a global reach, although they all bring different perspectives into play.

There are three countries in North America, and it's as if each one gets a book here. Langton is Canadian, and Gangland has Canadian concerns and connections; in Cartel, Longmire seems to speak to and from the perspective of US law enforcement and national security; while, with El Narco, Grillo seems to be most in tune with the realities on the ground in Mexico. While all three have their strengths -- Langton, for example, follows the blow-by-blow of the cartel wars in a way that really helps you make sense of those occasional blips about gangland killings that appear in the American media -- if I had to choose only one, it would be Grillo and El Narco.

Grillo has spent years working in Mexico, and it shows. He feels more attuned to Mexican culture, although Langton provides some excellent historical background, and his book is the most interested in the broader social phenomena surrounding Mexico's drug wars. Grillo takes the reader into the world of the narcocorridos, the border ballads celebrating the exploits of the traffickers, and their singers, quite a few of whom have been killed for their efforts. He also explores Santa Muerte, the peculiarly Mexican church (or cult, depending on whom you ask), favored by the poor, the delinquent, and the dopers.

Our authors disagree on just exactly what the cartels are. For Langton, they are essentially just frighteningly overgrown criminal gangs; for Grillo, they are a "criminal insurgency;" for Longmire, she of the national security optics, they are closer to terrorists, of whom she cites Al Qaeda and Colombia's FARC in the same breath.

I don't know that I can buy either the criminal insurgency or the terrorist appellation, though. Both insurgency and terrorism imply political, or, more precisely, ideological goals. While the cartels can be said to have political goals, such as putting a paid-off politician in a powerful post, those goals are merely means to the cartels' real ends: making money. Unlike the FARC, who have a strong (if fraying at the edges) revolutionary socialist platform, or Al Qaeda types, with their Islamic fundamentalist credos, as far as anyone can tell, Shorty Guzman could care less about anything other than making money.

Which is not to say the cartels aren't scary as hell. They are an insurgency in so far as they represent a serious challenge to the Mexican state's monopoly on the use of force. And they do. These guys are heavily armed, thanks in part to "straw buyer" weapons purchased in the US, some of them have police or military training (the Zetas in particular have proven to be a paramilitarized menace even to the Mexican armed forces), and they are capable of acts of exemplary savagery. They are also known to roll through cities in convoys dozens of vehicles long, all full of heavily-armed men, in brazen displays of power.

Grillo notes a key turning point: the effort to arrest Gulf cartel head Osiel Cardenas in 2004, a couple of years after he formed the Zetas out of former US-trained elite anti-drug troops. In the good old days of Mexico's "war on drugs," the occasional arrest was understood as part of the game and took place in an almost gentlemanly fashion, at least at the top. But Cardenas didn't go down like that. Instead, his Zetas engaged the military in a day-long running gun battle, viciously defending their chief against the odds until his capture, and continuing to attack even as the military fled with its captive to a local airport and then back to Mexico City. Now, that's what you call a challenge to the state's monopoly on force.

And that was just the beginning. Now, you can go to web sites like El Blog del Narco and read about almost daily pitched battles between narcos and soldiers. And narcos and police. And narcos and narcos. And police and soldiers. And federal police and state police. There is truly multi-sided mayhem going on.

So, what is to be done about it all? None of the authors are very optimistic that anything will turn this around anytime soon. Unsurprisingly, there seems to be unanimity among them that reforming the hopelessly corrupt, complicit, and outgunned Mexican police forces is high on the agenda. A single national police force may be an answer, but that will take years, if it ever happens at all.

Longmire in particular argues for smarter and more law enforcement on both sides of the border, but concedes that it's unlikely to make much difference. In the end, even she suggests that maybe we should think about legalizing marijuana. Grillo suggests that, too, noting that the cartels are making billions a year on Mexican brick weed. All of them note the utter futility of trying to eradicate the trade.

But while Longmire and Grillo talk about legalizing weed, Langton correctly points out that that's a long shot, and even if you legalize marijuana, that still leaves cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and Ecstasy for the cartels to traffic and grow rich off of.

None of them directly confront the fundamental root cause of the problem: drug prohibition. The cartels are the Frankenstein's monster of drug prohibition, created by the mad policymakers of Washington and their hunch-backed global anti-drug bureaucracy assistants in Vienna ("Yeesssss, master") and energized by an unending flow of black market dollars. Langton is right -- legalizing marijuana isn't going to do the job by itself, even if it does attack one cartel revenue stream (though that is not an argument against legalizing it).

At this point, even legalizing everything will not make the cartels vanish. They are now too wealthy, too well-established. They've diversified into extortion, kidnapping, and other crimes. They own businesses. They are integrating. Still, ending drug prohibition would take substantial wind out of their sails, much as ending alcohol Prohibition severely weakened, but did not kill off, the US mob. That may be the best we can hope for.

Or, barring that, Langton mentions another possibility, one not spoken much of aloud these days, but one that is being quietly murmured as the PRI appears set to retake the presidency after the July elections. Mexico can either continue down the path of the drug wars and hope the violence subsides, as with the crack epidemic in the US in the 1980s, he writes, "or they can go back to collaborating with the cartels, allowing them to keep the peace in their own way."

Mexico

Massachusetts Marijuana Legalization Bill Gets Hearing

A bill that would legalize the possession of and commerce in marijuana got a hearing at the Massachusetts legislature's Joint Committee on the Judiciary Tuesday. While even the bill's sponsor conceded it was unlikely to pass, it helps lay the groundwork for a proposed marijuana legalization initiative down the line.

Massachusetts State House, Beacon Hill, Boston (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana possession was decriminalized by popular vote in 2008, but people can still be fined and have their marijuana seized, and marijuana commerce remains illegal.

The bill, House Bill 1371, sponsored by Rep. Ellen Story (D-Amherst), would legalize marijuana and "establish a tax on the cannabis industry."

"The state needs to make money," Story told her colleagues in the committee. "This would allow the state to benefit from marijuana by regulating it."

Story said she decided to sponsor the bill after a non-binding resolution to legalize marijuana won the approval of 70% of her constituents in the 2010 municipal elections.

"There are a number of legislators who said to me privately that they think it is an excellent idea, but they are nervous about saying it publicly," Story said. "Nobody wants to be seen as soft on drugs."

But some committee members were skeptical.

"If it's OK with marijuana, should we legalize cocaine and LSD?" asked Rep. Sheila Harrington. "I'm not sure that the justification is people are breaking the law all the time and we should just open it up."

Also testifying was Suffolk University senior and campus NORML head Sean McSoley. He related how he was stabbed six times on Boston Commons by men who wanted to take his bag of weed.

"There is nothing about marijuana that makes people violent," he said. "The prohibition is the reason for the crime surrounding marijuana and not the plant itself. This would have never happened if it were a pack of cigarettes or a six pack of beer," he said. "By legalizing this plant, these incentives to rob and kill would no longer exist."

Professional anti-reform activist Kevin Sabet, this time wearing the cap of the Massachusetts Prevention Alliance, testified that the bill was unnecessary, it would increase drugged driving accidents, and it would cause mental health issues.

"There's no need for legalization," Sabet said. "No one's going to jail for small amounts. If we're worried about Big Tobacco, we need to be worried about Big Marijuana because they're going to be coming up right behind them."

No vote was taken and the bill remains in committee.

Boston, MA
United States

Oregon Marijuana Legalization Initiatives Moving [FEATURE]

The clock is ticking on marijuana legalization initiatives in Oregon. There are currently four different initiative campaigns underway, but at this point, four months away from when signatures must be handed in, only two look like they have any chance of success this year, and both of them are still tens of thousands of signatures from getting on the November ballot.

view of Mount Hood from Portland (photo from usgs.gov)
If one or both of them makes the ballot, the Pacific Northwest could be a real hotbed of marijuana reform activity this fall. An initiative to tax and regulate marijuana is already on the ballot next door in Washington, and nearby, sparsely populated Montana is also the site of an active initiative signature-gathering campaign for legalization with at least decent prospects of making the ballot.

The two best positioned Oregon initiatives are the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act of 2012 (OCTA) and the Oregon Marijuana Policy Initiative (OMPI), which are well into their signature-gathering campaigns. Essentially serving as placemarkers for the next electoral cycle are the Control, Regulation, and Taxation of Cannabis Act (CRTC), which was just approved for a draft title, and an initiative from Sensible Oregon, which has yet to be approved for a draft title.

The initiative currently furthest down the path toward the ballot box is the OCTA (Initiative Petition #9), sponsored by veteran activist and medical marijuana entrepreneur Paul Stanford. It would allow adult Oregonians to possess and grow their own marijuana. It would allow Oregon farmers to grow hemp. And it would license Oregon farmers to grow marijuana to be sold at state-licensed pot stores. An earlier version of OCTA failed to make the ballot last in 2010.

OCTA campaign spokespersons said it had so far collected more than 50,000 signatures. It needs some 87,000 valid voter signatures to make the ballot, so OCTA's goal is to gather about 130,000 to have a comfortable cushion to account for invalid signatures.

Also well-placed is the OMPI, a constitutional amendment (Initiative Petition #24) to repeal the state's marijuana laws. It is supported by numerous in-state groups. "Except for actions that endanger minors or public safety, neither the criminal offenses and sanctions nor the laws of civil seizure and forfeiture of this state shall apply to the private personal use, possession or production of marijuana by adults 21 years of age and older," the amendment says. "The State may enact laws and regulations consistent with this amendment to reasonably define, limit and regulate the use, possession, production, sale or taxation of marijuana under state law."

The OMPI campaign, operating as Citizens for Sensible Law Enforcement, reported 46,200 signatures handed in as of Sunday. But because it is a constitutional amendment, OMPI must meet a higher signature threshold than other initiatives. It needs 117,000 valid signatures to make the ballot, and the campaign is aiming at turning in 185,000.

The CRTC (Initiative #44) would remove marijuana from the state controlled substances act and give the legislature the ability to enact laws to control, regulate, and tax commerce in marijuana and industrial hemp.

The Sensible Oregon initiative "would remove existing civil and criminal penalties for adults twenty one years of age, who cultivate, possess, transport, exchange or use marijuana" and require the legislature to come up with a regulatory scheme.

The Sensible Oregon initiative has gathered 746 of the initial 1,000 signatures needed to win a ballot title. Activists are gathering them on a volunteer basis.

Doug McVay, a long-time activist now (again) working for Voter Power, the group behind Oregon's successful 1998 medical marijuana initiative, said Voter Power supports any and all of the initiatives, but is concentrating its limited resources on the OMPI and a second initiative that would create a state-regulated medical marijuana dispensary system.

"It's a tough row to hoe to get enough signatures for a constitutional amendment, but we're still working closely with the campaign, and they're well on track to get there," said McVay. "And OCTA, well, God bless them, removing all criminal penalties would be good, and it would be wonderful if they can get it done."

Time is running out on Sensible Oregon, said McVay.

"When they finally turn in their 1,000 signatures to the Secretary of State, it's going to take a minimum of 50 business days before they can start signature-gathering, and that's if there are no challenges," he explained. "They wouldn't be able to start until mid-May at the earliest, and they only have until July 6. They need to fish or cut bait."

"Unfortunately, our effort is suffering from a lack of resources. We don't have strong outreach," said Oregon NORML's Madeline Martinez, wearing her Sensible Oregon hat. "We feel strongly that it has the best language for a draft title, and our years dealing with the legislature and lobbying lead us to believe people will be less likely to vote for a constitutional amendment for marijuana," she said.

But the Sensible Oregon initiative is struggling even to get those first 1,000 signatures. "We would like to at least get those signatures so we can get a draft title and poll on that," Martinez said, "but the chances for this year are pretty slim unless we get that draft title and poll well and people start throwing money at us."

Similarly, Anthony Johnson, proponent for the CRTC, which is just getting its draft title, was setting his sights down the road. "We'll get and improve on our ballot title and do some polling," he said. "We're playing for 2014 and 2016. It looks like the OMPI has the best chance of qualifying and passing, but even if it did pass, there would still be a need to reform the law."

OCTA proponents did not respond to requests for comment this week, but in a recent communication to activists, Stanford said the campaign had 15 paid signature-gatherers and was in the process of hiring 20 more, as well as more than 900 volunteers. He said he had polls that showed OCTA could win with 60%, but copies of those polls were not available.

"We have the money in the bank to pay to put OCTA on the ballot this year and we will do it," he vowed.

But OMPI is also making a big and well-organized push in the final months.

"I have 220 circulators on the street and we're hiring continuously," said OMPI proponent Robert Wolfe. "We have money in the bank or pledges to make it all the way. I think I-24 is a lock for the ballot."

Wolfe said OMPI had polling numbers, but declined to share the actual poll results or crosstabs.

"We see a standard response that every quasi- or full legalization question gets, in the mid-50s, but we are heartened by crosstabs that show we have strong support among youth and the middle aged voters," he said. "Our polling also tells us that a couple of messages resonate. The statement 'We shouldn't be wasting valuable police time and resources arresting marijuana users' polls over 70%, while the statement 'Individuals shouldn't go to jail for growing plants for personal use polls at 68%."

While the OMPI still needs to gather more than 100,000 signatures, it is confident enough to be looking beyond making the ballot to the actual campaign itself. The effort is looking to tie itself to the strong progressive elements that permeate Oregon politics.

"We are hopeful that we are going to gain the support of the progressive infrastructure here, including labor and the Democratic Party," said campaign strategist Adam Smith. "We feel that our ability to motivate and turn out young voters will be a very valuable part of the progressive campaign here in Oregon. Close to 70% of Democrats here already support legalizing marijuana and a majority of voters overall. This is not a radical idea here; it's not going to be a huge political step for people to get behind it," he said.

They have a fundraising strategy for the general campaign, Smith said.

"We're reaching out to the business community. Like all the states, Oregon is short on resources, and we're spending tens of millions of dollars enforcing low-level marijuana violations," he noted. "Everyone understands that money could be better spent actually protecting people. We think people here in the state will step up. Everyone understands we have a real chance to win," he said.

"We're also hoping that the general momentum of having for the first time multiple states ending marijuana prohibition will get the attention of folks around the country who care about the issue, and they can make donations on our web site or Facebook page. Those small donations are key, because the large donors look to see that we have a lot of individual people behind us."

Factionalism and infighting has been the bane of the marijuana movement in Oregon, as in so many other places, but this time around, there is hope that once the dust settles, people will buckle down and support an initiative even if it was the one they supported in the beginning.

"I believe that as it becomes clear we're making the ballot and the others don't have the resources, they will in the end coalesce behind us," OMPI's Wolfe predicted. "The old style of marijuana politicking has not worked for some time in Oregon; it's time to view this as an important social justice issue like gay rights, equal opportunity, and unions. We're modernizing and mainstreaming this. We will not be having smoke-ins, but we will be putting on ties."

"I'm supporting whatever makes the ballot and I think can win," Martinez said. "I'm on that bus; I don't care who's driving. I just don't want to lose again at the ballot box. Every time they see us lose, it chips away at our credibility."

But first, one or more of the initiatives has to qualify for the ballot. It is by no means a done deal, but it is looking doable.

OR
United States

Colorado to Vote on Regulating Rather Than Prohibiting Marijuana

And then there were two. Voters in Colorado will join voters in Washington in deciding whether to legalize marijuana after Colorado election officials Monday said the Colorado initiative had qualified for the ballot.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/breckenridge.jpg
the ski town Breckenridge, Colorado (which voted for legalization in 2009)
According to the Colorado Secretary of State's office, the initiative to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol handed in 90,466 valid voter signatures; it needed 86,105 to qualify. The initiative campaign had earlier handed in more than 160,000, but fell about 2,400 short after election officials examined them. Under Colorado law, the initiative campaign had two weeks for a final push to make the ballot, and it gathered an additional 14,000 signatures then.

The initiative would amend the state constitution to legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and six plants by persons 21 or older. It would also direct the state Department of Revenue to come up with regulations for legal marijuana commerce by July 2013. It would also direct the General Assembly to set taxation rates, which could be no higher than 15%.

Driving while impaired by marijuana would remain illegal, as would possession by or sales to people under 21.

The initiative will appear on the November ballot as Amendment 64.

"This could be a watershed year in the decades-long struggle to end marijuana prohibition in this country," said Art Way, Colorado manager of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Marijuana prohibition is counterproductive to the health and public safety of our communities. It fuels a massive, increasingly brutal underground economy, wastes billions of dollars in scarce law enforcement resources, and makes criminals out of millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens."

"Supporters of rational marijuana policies everywhere should congratulate the residents of Colorado for placing this initiative on the ballot," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. "Regulating marijuana like alcohol will create jobs, allow police to focus on more serious crimes, provide much-needed tax revenue, and will do a far better job of keeping marijuana away from children than the current system does. A majority of Americans recognize that the government's war on marijuana is an expensive failure and think that marijuana should be legal for adults. This November, Coloradans will get a chance to lead the nation by becoming the first state to end marijuana prohibition."

But perhaps just by a couple of hours. As noted above, a similar measure to legalize and regulate marijuana commerce is on the ballot in Washington. Signature-gathering campaigns for legalization initiatives are also underway in California, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, and Oregon.

"Never before has support for legalizing marijuana been so widespread or so out in the open. It is truly exciting that voters in both Washington and Colorado have a chance to make history this year," DPA head Ethan Nadelmann. "I'm confident Colorado can lead the way in ending the follies of marijuana prohibition in favor of a responsible framework of regulation and taxation."

Denver, CO
United States

Review Essay: The Border and Mexico's Drug Wars

Border Junkies: Addiction and Survival on the Streets of Juarez and El Paso, by Scott Comar (2011, University of Texas Press, 214 pp., $24.95 PB)

Border Wars, by Tom Barry (2011, MIT Press, 171 pp., $14.95 HB)

Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the US and Mexico, by Beto O'Rourke and Susie Byrd (2011, Cinco Puntos Press, 119 pp., $12.95 PB)

El Sicario: The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin, edited by Molly Molloy and Charles Bowden (2011, Nation Books, 209 pp., $15.99 PB)

In addition to an ever-increasing death toll, now more than 50,000 since President Calderon sent in the army in December 2006, Mexico's drug wars are generating an increasing level of concern and interest in the US, including a burgeoning literature. Next week, we'll review a trio of new works that seek to describe the emergence and significance of the so-called cartels, but this week, we look at a quartet of books that focus on the drug wars (and the drug scene) along the border.

If there's anywhere in America more attuned to the Mexican drug wars -- by which I mean the prohibition-related violence among competing drug trafficking organizations, between them and Mexican law enforcement and the military, and, sometimes, even between different factions of the Mexican security apparatus -- it's El Paso, just across the Rio Grande from one of the epicenters of the drug trade and the violence, Ciudad Juarez.

That's reflected in these titles. One is written by a pair of El Paso politicians, two more are largely set in the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez bi-national metroplex, and the last covers the US border region of which El Paso is front and center. The view from El Paso, staring across the river at the killing and mayhem, can be frightening, but also enlightening.

In Dealing Death and Drugs, El Paso city council members Susie Byrd and Beto O'Rourke (he of the famous city council resolution calling for a discussion of legalization and now running for Congress) bring a home-town perspective on the drug wars, provide some lessons on the economics of the illicit marijuana business and present a concise, yet cogent, argument for legalizing weed as a means of weakening the cartels and reducing the violence.

Marijuana is critical for the cartels, Byrd and O'Rourke argue, because unlike cocaine, which must be purchased from producers elsewhere or methamphetamine, which requires imported precursor chemicals, the cartels control it from farm to market, generating profits each step of the way. They take you from the pot fields of the Sierra Madre Occidental, where a pound costs $23 to Juarez, where it goes for $73 a pound. Getting it past the border and into El Paso drives the price up to $240, and getting it past the Border Protection Service checkpoints a few miles into Texas gets it to its final US wholesale price of about $550 a pound.

US and Mexican law enforcement seized or eradicated 22 metric tons of Mexican weed in 2008, Byrd and O'Rourke note. That's as much as 90% of high end estimates of all the pot smoked in the US, which means either those estimates are way low or that the business is way profitable. And throwing billions of dollars at the problem through law enforcement hasn't helped.

Legalizing, regulating, and taxing the marijuana market is "the least bad" solution, Boyd and O'Rourke write. Their argument, like the book itself, is pithy, yet compelling, and, as Boyd notes in an afterword, even Calderon is starting to come around. But not yet most policymakers in the US.

With El Sicario, we take a deep, dark turn toward the underbelly of the Mexican drug wars. Border sage and drug war critic Charles Bowden and translator and Juarez body count keeper Molly Molloy bring the terrifying realities of the business into chilling focus through their interviews with a former cartel hitman now in hiding with a contract on his head. This may be the single scariest book I've read about the Mexican drug wars, not for its calm and collected accounts of horrifying acts of brutality, which can be truly stomach-turning, but for the picture it paints of absolutely corrupted and complicit law enforcement, including the military.

Can you imagine if you don't know whether that cop who just stopped you is going to write you a ticket or shoot you dead without warning, or kidnap and torture you because he's actually working for the cartels? That's the case in Mexico now. Our interlocutor in El Sicario attended the Chihuahua state police academy, rose to the rank of comandante, and underwent training by the FBI, all while carrying out killings, kidnappings, and tortures for the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels. Even more perversely, while he was running the anti-kidnapping squad for the state police, he was using police vehicles to kidnap people and transport drugs.

And he is by no means alone. According to the hit man, about a quarter of his graduating class at the police academy were on the cartel payroll -- from the very beginning of their law enforcement careers! The Mexican police are heavily salted with cartel men; it's a long-term business strategy that has paid handsomely for the cartels, but has absolutely shredded any trust the public has in state and local law enforcement there.

But it's not just rotten on the Mexican side of the border. The hit man details how he and his colleagues transported tens of millions of dollars worth of drugs across the border and how he personally paid a US Customs officer $50,000 to let cars full of drugs get through. El Sicario shows that dirty knows no borders, even if the cartels are smart enough to keep the blood-letting almost entirely south of the border.

But there are other ways US law enforcement is benefiting from the Mexican drug wars. In Border Wars, journalist and Center for International Policy analyst Tom Barry uses a series of interlocking essays to argue that since the September 2001 Al Qaeda attacks, the US has spent billions of dollars "securing the border" against a triple threat of illegal immigration, drugs, and terror, and has accomplished little good, quite a bit of bad, and plenty of stupid.

Barry opens with the death of Jesus Manuel Galindo, who died for lack of proper medical treatment in 2008 in a privately operated, publicly owned federal immigration prison in remote Pecos, Texas. He recalls that until 2006, we typically handled illegal immigration administratively, often simply deporting Mexicans back across the Rio Grande. But since then, the Bush administration began treating illegal immigration as a criminal matter, and now some 20,000 people languish in those distant prisons. Barry paints chilling, Kafkasque scenes of assembly-line "justice" where judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys, all in the pay of the Us government, process dozens of shackled would-be immigrant laborers into the ever-expanding federal immigration detention system.

There is money to be made there, sucking off the federal teat, although more of it appears to go to lawyers, consultants, dealmakers and lobbyists than to the desperate rural towns hoping a private prison will provide them with a semblance of an economy. There's even more money to be made by border sheriffs and border state law enforcement entities in the seemingly endless billions of Department of Homeland Security dollars to fight drugs and terror.

Barry takes us to Texas and Arizona border counties where the numbers show little violent crime, but the sheriffs and politicians cry to high heaven about "spill over violence," Korans found on the border, and the threat of narco-Hezbollah conspiracies, for which there is no evidence. Some of these counties are among the poorest in the nation, lacking social and public services, yet in one of them, the sheriff's department is so awash in federal grant money that each deputy has two official vehicles, one patrol car and one SUV.

Along the way, he exposes the ugliness of border security politics and some of it practitioners, such as Govs. Rick Perry of Texas and Jan Brewer of Arizona, who use a politics of fear and hate to firm up support among their most reactionary supporters, who hype nonexistent violence on this side of the border, and who constantly tout their border security efforts "without help from Washington" even as they take in billions from Washington to pay for their loudly-touted initiatives. It's rank cynicism, opportunism, and hypocrisy at its worst, and Barry nails it.

For Barry, the central problem is our inability to enact comprehensive immigration reform, a goal always pushed further into the future as we "secure the border" first. And, he says, we have to separate national security from public safety. The gargantuan Department of Homeland Security should worry about terrorists; a separate Customs and Border Protection Service should deal with illegal immigration and drugs.

"The standard of success for our border policy shouldn’t be how completely sealed and secured our border is," he writes, "but rather how well it is regulated. New regulatory frameworks for immigration and drug consumption are fundamental prerequisites for a more cost-effective border policy." And a more sane and human one. 

Finally, with Border Junkies, University of Texas-El Paso borderlands historian Scott Comar takes us back to "the good old days" in Juarez, a decade ago, before the city earned its blood-drenched reputation. In an eye-opening work of auto-ethnography, Comar tells mainly his own story of his descent into abject addiction, in which he moved with appalling speed from owning his own moving truck to panhandling on the streets to feed his habit.

In telling his own story, though, Comar unveils a never-before-written-about world, that of the street junkies of Juarez. His account, based largely on his journal entries, details the day-to-day struggle of the border junkies, the strategies they adopt to survive and score -- and not necessarily in that order -- the kinship and friendship networks that envelop them, the heroin distribution systems that feed their insatiable appetites. For those with a taste for anthropological examinations of the junkie life, this is fascinating stuff, right up there with the work of Philippe Bourgois.

Border Junkies is notable in one other respect: I don't think there is one mention of the cartels in it. Comar recounts constant harassment by the Juarez police (and the El Paso police, too) and petty corruption, he mentions that some of his fellows belonged to gangs, though only passingly, but the existence of the cartels, the source of their dope, is so distant from their daily lives that it is as if they don't exist.

Of course, that was before the death toll in Juarez started climbing to thousands every year. Now those street gangs that in Comar's time seemed to be engaged mainly in minor thuggery, a little smuggling, and posing with pistols have, in the pressure cooker of the Mexican drug wars, morphed into true killing machines like Barrio Azteca, the Artist Assasins, and La Linea. Those guys who quietly peddled smack on the corners or out of their houses in Comar's day died by the hundreds when the violence swept through just a few years later.

Wretched as the border junkie's existence is, it is doable. Comar did it for three years, commuting over the river to panhandle in El Paso, then back across to cop and nod. It was a gritty, miserable existence, but Comar makes it seem almost routine, banal. And, along the way, he has some interesting things to say about addiction and recovery, too.

Perhaps it's fitting to end with the image of the junkie straddling the border, because the root causes of Mexico's drug wars certainly do. Whether it's America's never-ending appetite for Mexican weed, the cartels' addiction to money and power, their alcohol and cocaine-numbed killers, or border state and federal law enforcement's addiction to immigration/drugs/terror funding booty, it's all entangled there on the line.

Mexico may be another country and, thankfully, the violence, at least, remains on that side so far, but we are all in this together. Legalizing marijuana or even ending drug prohibition in the US won't make the cartels magically disappear, but failing to do so will only ensure that they grow ever more entrenched, while continuing to provide sustenance to malign political forces and authoritarian, if not downright Orwellian, policing tendencies here.

Seattle Mayor Says It's Time to Legalize Marijuana

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn (D) used his state of the city address last Tuesday night to make a heartfelt plea for marijuana legalization. The mayor's remarks came as a new poll showed that an initiative that would legalize marijuana is favored by voters.

Mike McGinn
"It is time we were honest about the problems we face with the drug trade. Drugs are a source of criminal profit, and that has led to shootings and even murders. Just like we learned in the 1920s with the prohibition of alcohol, prohibition of marijuana is fueling violent activity," McGinn said in his prepared remarks.

"Seattle is the kind of place that isn't afraid to try a different approach," he continued. "We support safe access to medical marijuana and made enforcement of possession of marijuana for personal purposes our lowest enforcement priority. But we've learned in the past year that with the federal war on drugs still intact, and with our kids still getting gunned down on the streets, we need to do more.

"I know every one of the city council members sitting to my left and right believe as I do: It's time for this state to legalize marijuana, and stop the violence, stop the incarceration, stop the erosion of civil liberties, and urge the federal government to stop the failed war on drugs."

Mayor McGinn's remarks came as Washingtonians prepare to decide the issue for themselves in the November elections. A marijuana legalization initiative, I-502, has already been approved for the ballot. Sponsored by New Approach Washington, the initiative would create a system of state-licensed and -regulated marijuana commerce and allow adults 21 and over to possess up to one ounce.

A Public Policy Polling survey released this week shows the initiative leading, although not with a majority. In the poll, 47% of voters said they're currently inclined to vote yes on the measure, with 39% saying they are opposed.

A similar initiative is poised to make the ballot in Colorado, having handed in four times the number of signatures it needed for its final push, while legalization initiative signature-gathering campaigns are underway in California, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, and Oregon.

Seattle, WA
United States

California Marijuana Initiatives Starving for Cash [FEATURE]

Proponents of four out of five of the California marijuana initiative campaigns came together to tout the merits of their various measures at a public meeting in Mill Valley, just across the Golden Gate Bridge and up the road from San Francisco, Tuesday night. But the take away message from the confab was that every single one of the initiatives is in serious trouble if it doesn't get a large cash injection -- and soon.

the crowd listens in Mill Valley
Three of the initiatives, Regulate Marijuana Like Wine 2012 (RMLW), the Repeal Cannabis Prohibition Act of 2012 (RCPA), and the California Cannabis Hemp & Health Initiative of 2012 (CCHHI), offer competing, though mostly similar, versions of legalization, while the  Marijuana Penalties Act of 2012 would expand decriminalization. The fifth initiative, the Medical Marijuana Regulation, Control and Taxation Act of 2012 (MMRCTA), seeks to bring statewide regulation to the state's confused and chaotic medical marijuana marketplace.

Disinterested but detailed summaries of each initiative are available at the state Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) initiative fiscal analysis web page, and are highly recommended reading for those interested in the finer picture of what each initiative does. But in summary, according to the LAO, each of the three legalization initiatives would change state law to legalize marijuana possession by adults and regulate the legal commerce in it.

Equally striking, in the LAO's analysis, each of the three legalization initiatives would save the state either "potentially tens of millions of dollars" (RMLW) or "potentially the low hundreds of millions" (RCPA, CCHHI) annually in pot prohibition enforcement costs foregone. At the same time, any of the three would generate "potentially hundreds of millions of dollars" annually in tax revenues, while the MMRCTA would generate "tens of millions of dollars" in potential additional revenues.

The LAO took care, however, to point out that its fiscal impact estimates, and especially its revenue estimates, depended highly on the nature of the federal response to marijuana legalization in California. The figures cited above happen only if the federal government allows  a legal marijuana commerce to thrive.

With that pot of green gold from legalization enticingly foreseeable, even if the path past federal intransigence is unclear, the frustration of initiative campaigners at their inability to raise money to get on the ballot is evident. With each day that passes without a paid professional signature-gathering campaign underway, the cost of gathering each signature goes up. And the clock is ticking. The initiatives have only until April 20 to turn in 504,000 valid voter signatures.

"Time is running out to get these initiatives on the ballot," RMLW campaign presenter Steve Collett, a Los Angeles attorney, told the crowd. "We're going to need to raise some money to do it. We think we need about $2 million to get on the ballot, and then we can reap $230 million a year forever."

Collett pointed to RMLW's list of endorsements and a poll it commissioned showing 62% support for the measure as enticements to potential funders. RMLW is going to need those funders, and it's in the best shape of any of the legalization initiatives.

The RMLW campaign had only raised $131,000 by the end of December, according to the California Secretary of State, and only another $20,000 since then. It currently has only 40,000-50,000 signatures gathered. The other campaigns are in even worse shape.

"We're all down to the last minute," said Oakland attorney Bill Panzer, spokesman for the RCPA campaign. "If we don't get money to get professional signature-gatherers, we don't get on the ballot," he added. "But," he reminded the audience, "with Proposition 215, we got most of the signatures in five weeks with the professionals."

Dale Gieringer of MMCTR and Bill Panzer of Repeal
CCHHI campaign spokesman Buddy Dusy was mum about fundraising, but said the campaign had 130 paid signature-gatherers. "We need to do it for Jack Herer," he said.

California NORML
head Dale Gieringer, who acted as spokesman for the MMRCTA campaign, said it was in do or die negotiations with potential funders right now and has a team of experienced campaign professionals ready to go.

"These are very critical negotiations going on right now, and we will know within another week or so if this comes through," he said. "If we don't get the money, we're not going to get on the ballot."

"Proposition 19 was the wrong election year, it was poorly drafted, and it was opposed by people in our movement who feared for patients' rights, but it still did very well," said Panzer. "Any of these initiatives can pass if they make it to the ballot."

But Gieringer argued that fixing medical marijuana needed to come first.

"All the polls I've seen show that legalization is very dicey in California, but when you talk about medical marijuana and the need for regulation, support is in the 60s," he told the crowd. "It's hard to call on the public to further liberalize the marijuana laws when they feel things are chaotic enough with medical marijuana. We have to demonstrate that we can regulate medical marijuana to make the public comfortable enough to move on to the next step, legalization."

Although there was talk Tuesday about forging unity, none of the initiative campaigns was prepared to give up and go to work for the other. That leaves three legalization campaigns and the medical marijuana initiative all competing for the same funding, and all of them -- so far at least -- coming up short.

While, barring a miracle, seeing marijuana legalization on the California ballot this year looks extremely unlikely, perhaps the movement can get its act together for 2014 or 2016. At least, the campaigns are starting to talk about it.

"We need a coalition of all the legalization people to create an organization that will be a true legalization coalition in California," said Collett. "We have the same long-term objectives, but differences about how to go about it. Sometimes egos get in the way, but we have to focus on the 70,000 Californians getting arrested for marijuana every year."

Mill Valley, CA
United States

Colorado Marijuana Initiative Turns in Final Signatures

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/colorado-ballot.gif
The proponents of a Colorado initiative to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol turned in more than 14,000 additional voter signatures Friday in a last bid to qualify for the November ballot. The initiative needs only 2,400 valid signatures to qualify, meaning a whopping four out of five signatures handed in would have to be invalidated to keep the measure off the ballot.

The campaign had earlier turned in 159,000 signatures, nearly twice the 86,000 needed to qualify. But on examining the signatures, state election officials found that nearly half were invalid, an usually high percentage.

The initiative would amend the state constitution to allow the use, possession, and limited growing of marijuana by persons aged 21 or over. It would also establish a system through which marijuana is taxed and regulated -- like alcohol.

If the initiative qualifies for the ballot, Colorado will become the second state to ask voters to choose to legalize marijuana this year. New Approach Washington has successfully placed a similar measure, I-502, on the Washington ballot. Legalization initiative campaigns are also underway in California, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, and Oregon, but none of those have passed the signature-gathering hurdle.

Denver, CO
United States

Detroit Marijuana Legalization Measure to Get Vote

A marijuana legalization initiative in Detroit was improperly barred from the ballot in 2010, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled Friday. The appeals court decision overturned the ruling of a Wayne County judge, who had sided with the Detroit Elections Commission's decision to keep the measure off the ballot because they thought it conflicted with state and federal law.

"It was outside the authority of (city officials) to consider the substance and effect of the initiative and defendants have a clear legal duty to place the matter on the ballot," the court held in a 2-1 decision.

That means that unless the city appeals the decision, the measure should be on the August municipal ballot.

[Update: Detroit law department corporation counsel Krystal Crittendon said this week that the city plans to appeal, and it did so Wednesday.]

Sponsored by the Coalition for a Safer Detroit, the initiative would remove from the municipal code all references to the adult possession of up to an ounce of marijuana in private from the municipal code, in effect legalizing up to an ounce within the city limits. The initiative would not change state law, which still criminalizes marijuana possession.

The appeals court ruling marked "a great day for voters' rights in the city of Detroit," the Coalition's Tim Beck told the Detroit Free Press Friday. The election commission's decision to deny the measure a spot on the ballot was "total hocus-pocus," Beck said. "We did everything right. Every 'i' was dotted, every 't' crossed."

There is an ongoing campaign led by the Committee for a Safer Michigan to put a legalization initiative on the statewide ballot in November, but it appears likely voters in the state's largest city will have the chance to make their voices heard well before then.

Detroit, MI
United States

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