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The Year on Drugs 2009: The Top Ten US Domestic Drug Policy Stories

As 2009 prepares to become history, we look back at the past year's domestic drug policy developments. With the arrival of a highly popular (at least at first) new president, Barack Obama, and Democratic Party control of the levers of power in Congress, the drug reform gridlock that characterized the Bush years is giving way to real change in Washington, albeit not nearly quickly enough. A number of this year's Top 10 domestic drug stories have to do with the new atmospherics in Washington, where they have led, and where they might lead.

But not all of them. Drug reform isn't made just in Washington. Under our federal system, the 50 states and the District of Columbia have at least some ability to set their own courses on drug policy reforms. In some areas, actions in the state legislatures have reflected trends -- for better or worse -- broad enough to earn Top 10 status.

And Washington and the various statehouses notwithstanding, movement on drug reform is not limited to the political class. Legions of activists now in at least their second decade of serious reform work, a mass media that seems to have awakened from its dogmatic slumber about marijuana, a crumbling economy, and a bloody drug war within earshot of the southwestern border have all impacted the national conversation about drug reform and are all pushing politicians from city councilmen to state legislators to US senators to rethink drug prohibition.

For drug reformers, these are interesting times, indeed. Herewith, the Top 10 domestic drug policy stories of 2009:

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marijuana plants (photo from US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia)
Marijuana Goes Mainstream

Wow. This year has seen the US enter the beginnings of a sea change on policies and attitudes toward the recreational use of marijuana. The first hint that something had changed was the Michael Phelps bong photo non-scandal. When the multiple Olympic gold medal winner got outed for partying like a college student, only one corporate sponsor, fuddy-duddy Kellogg, dumped him, and was hit by a consumer boycott -- and arguably by falling stock prices -- in return. Otherwise, except for a deranged local sheriff who tried fruitlessly to concoct a criminal case against somebody -- anybody! -- over the bong photo, America's collective response basically amounted to "So what?"

Post-Phelps it was as if the flood gates had opened. Where once Drug War Chronicle and a handful of other publications pretty much had the field to ourselves, early this year, the mass media began paying attention. Countless commentaries, editorials and op-eds have graced the pages of newspaper and those short-attention-span segments on the cable news networks, an increasing number of them calling for legalization. The conversation about freeing the weed has gone mainstream.

The sea change is also reflected in poll numbers that, for the first time, this year showed national majorities in favor of legalization. In February, a Zogby poll showed 44% support nationwide -- and 58% in California. By late spring, the figures were generally creeping ever higher. An April Rasmussen poll had support for "taxation and regulation" at 41%, while an ABC News/Washington Post poll found 46% supported "legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use." Also in April, for the first time, a national poll showed majority support for legalization when Zogby showed 52% saying marijuana should be "legal, taxed, and regulated." In July, a CBS News poll had support for legalization at 41%.

In October, a Gallup poll had support for legalization at 44%, the highest ever in a Gallup survey. And a few weeks ago an Angus-Reid poll reported 53% nationwide supported legalization. Legalizing pot may not have clear majority support just yet, but it is on the cusp.

Marijuana law reform was also a topic at statehouses around the country this year, although successes were few and far between. At least six states saw decriminalization bills, but only one passed -- in Maine, which had already decriminalized possession of up to 1.25 ounces. This year's legislation doubled that amount. And then there were legalization bills. Two were introduced in the 2009 session, in California and Massachusetts, and two more have been pre-filed for next year, in New Hampshire and Washington. Both the California and Massachusetts bills got hearings this year, and the California bill is set for another hearing and a first committee vote in the Assembly in two weeks. In Rhode Island, meanwhile, the legislature voted this year to create a commission to study marijuana law reform; it will report at the end of January.

And then, finally, there is the excitement and discussion being generated by at least three separate marijuana legalization initiative campaigns underway in California. Oaksterdam medical marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee's Tax Cannabis 2010 initiative has already announced it has sufficient signatures to make the ballot. Time will tell if the others make it, but at this point it is almost certain that voters in California will have a chance to say "legalize it" in November.

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medical marijuana dispensary, Ventura Blvd., LA (courtesy wikimedia.org)
Medical Marijuana: The Feds Butt Out and the Floodgates Begin to Swing Open

During his election campaign, President Obama promised to quit siccing the DEA on medical marijuana patients and providers. In February, new Attorney General Eric Holder announced there would be no more federal raids if providers were in compliance with state law, and pretty much held to that promise since then. In October, the Justice Department made it official policy when it issued a policy memo reiterating the administration's stance.

The new "hands off" policy from Washington has not been universally adhered to, nor has it addressed the issue of people currently serving sentences or facing prosecution under Bush administration anti-medical marijuana initiatives, but it has removed a huge looming threat to growers and dispensary operators and it has disarmed a favored (if intensely hypocritical) argument of medical marijuana foes that such laws should not be passed out of fear of what the feds would do.

Meanwhile, California rolls right along as medical marijuana's Wild West. Like countless other localities in the Golden State, the city of Los Angeles is grappling with what to do with its nearly one thousand dispensaries. The issue is being fought city by city and county by county, in the state courts and in the federal courts. And while the politicians argue, dispensary operators are creating political facts on the ground as their tax revenues go into hungry state and local coffers.

This year also marked the emergence of a medical marijuana industry infrastructure -- growers, grow shops, dispensaries, educational facilities, pot docs -- beyond California's borders, most notably in Colorado, where the dispensary scene exploded in the wake of the removal of the federal threat, and in Michigan, where last year's passage of a medical marijuana law has seen the creation of the Midwest's first medical marijuana industry.

While medical marijuana is legal in 13 states (and now, the District of Columbia), it remains difficult to win victories in state legislatures. There were medical marijuana bills in at least 18 states, but only two -- Minnesota and New Hampshire -- were approved by legislatures, and they were vetoed by prohibitionist governors. Bills are, however, still alive in six states -- Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin -- with New Jersey and Wisconsin apparently best positioned to become the next medical marijuana state. In Rhode Island, which already approved a medical marijuana law in 2007, the legislature this year amended it to include a dispensary system.

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salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid.org)
The Reflexive Prohibitionist Impulse Remains Alive -- Just Ask Sally D

Despite evident progress on some drug reform fronts, a substantial number of Americans continue to hold to prohibitionist values, including a number of state legislators. The legislative response to the popularity of the fast-acting, short-lived hallucinogen salvia divinorum is the best indicator of that.

The DEA has been reviewing salvia for five years, and has yet to determine that it needs to become a controlled substance, but that hasn't stopped some legislators from trying to ban it. Appalled by YouTube videos that show young people getting very high, legislators in 13 states have banned or limited sales of the herb.

This year, four more states joined the list. The good news is that legislators in seven other states where salvia ban bills were introduced had better things to do with their time than worry about passing them.

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drug testing lab
"We Must Drug Test Welfare and Unemployment Recipients!"

In another indication that the drug warrior impulse is still alive and well -- as are its class war elements -- legislators in various states this year continued to introduce bills that would mandate suspicionless drug testing of people seeking unemployment, public assistance, or other public benefits. Never mind that Michigan, the only state to pass such a law, saw its efforts thrown out as an unconstitutional search by a federal appeals court several years back.

Such efforts exposed not only public resentment of benefits recipients, but also a certain level of ignorance about the way our society works. A common refrain from supporters was along the lines of "I have to get drug tested for my job, so why shouldn't they have to get drug tested?" Such questioners fail to understand that our system protects us from our government, but not from private employers.

But if welfare drug testing excited some popular support, it also excited opposition, not only on constitutional grounds, but on grounds of cost and elemental fairness. In the four states where drug testing bills were introduced -- Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri and West Virginia -- none of them went anywhere. But even in an era when drug reform is in the air, such bills are a clear sign that there will be many rear-guard battles to fight.

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unjust, but also unaffordable
Rockefeller Drug Law and Other State Sentencing Reforms

Reeling under the impact of economic downtowns and budget crises, more and more states this year took a second look at drug-related sentencing policies. Most notable of the reforms enacted at the state level this year were reforms in New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws, which went into effect in October. Under this newest round of Rockefeller drug law reforms, some 1,500 low-level drug offenders will be able to seek sentence reductions, while judges gain some sentencing power from prosecutors, and treatment resources are being beefed up. But still, more than 12,000 will remain in Empire State prisons on Rockefeller drug charges.

New York wasn't the only state to enact sentencing reforms this year. This month, New Jersey legislators passed a bill giving judges the discretion to waive mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. Last month, Rhode Island mandatory minimum reforms went into effect. Earlier this year, Louisiana finally acted to redress the cruel plight of the "heroin lifers," people who had been sentenced to life without parole for heroin possession under an old state law. A new state law cut heroin sentences, but did not address the lifers. As a result, some lifers remained in prison with no hope of parole while more recent heroin offenders came, did their time, and went. Now, under this year's law, the lifers are eligible for parole.

Sentencing reforms are also in the works in a number of other states, from Alabama to California and from Colorado to Michigan. In some cases, reform legislation is in progress; in others, legislators are waiting for commissions to report their findings. In nearly every case, it is bottom-line budget concerns rather than bleeding heart compassion for the incarcerated that is driving the reforms.

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PolitickerMD cartoon about the Berwyn Heights raid
Swatting SWAT

It was only one bill in one state, and all it required was reporting by SWAT teams of their activities, but the Maryland SWAT bill passed this year marked the first time a state legislature has moved to rein in aggressive paramilitary-style policing. More precisely, the bill requires all law enforcement agencies that operate SWAT teams to submit monthly reports on their activities, including when and where they are used, and whether the operations result in arrests, seizures or injuries.

In took an ugly incident involving the mayor of a Washington, DC, suburb to make it happen. Marijuana traffickers sent a load of pot to the mayor's address to avoid having police show up on their doorstep in the event something went wrong, but something did go wrong, and police tracked the package. When the mayor innocently carried the package inside on returning home, the SWAT team swooped, manhandling the mayor and his mother-in-law and killing the family's pet dogs. The cops were unapologetic, the mayor was apoplectic, and now Maryland has a SWAT law. A new bill just filed in Maryland would take it further, requiring police to secure a judge's warrant before deploying a SWAT team.

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shrine to San Malverde, Mexico's ''narco-saint,'' Culiacan, Sinaloa
America Finally Notices the Drug War Across the River

While Congress and the Bush administration got serious about Mexico's bloody drug wars in 2008, passing a three-year, $1.4 billion anti-drug aid package for Mexico and Central America, it was not until this year that the prohibition-related violence in Mexico really made the radar north of the border.

It only took about 11,000 deaths (now up to over 16,000) among Mexican drug traffickers, police, soldiers, and innocent bystanders to get the US to pay attention to the havoc being wreaked on the other side of the Rio Grande. But by the spring, Washington was paying attention, and for the first time, one could hear mea culpas coming from the American side. Mexico's drug violence is driven by demand in the US, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano echoed.

But just because Washington admitted some fault didn't mean it was prepared to try anything different. And while the Mexican drug wars brought talk of legalization -- especially of marijuana -- what they brought in terms of policy was the Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, which is basically mo' better drug war.

Mexico's drug wars show no signs of abating, and the pace of killing has accelerated each year since President Felipe Calderon sent in the army three years ago this month. The success -- or failure -- of his drug war policies may determine Calderon's political future, but it has for the first time concentrated the minds of US policymakers on the consequences of prohibition south of the border.

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syringes -- better at the exchange than on the street
Congress Ends Ban on Needle Exchange Funding, Butts Out of DC Affairs

After a decade-long struggle, the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs ended this month with President Obama's signature on an omnibus appropriations bill that included ending the federal ban, as well as a similar ban that applied to the District of Columbia. The bill also removed a ban on the District implementing a medical marijuana law passed by voters in 1998.

Removing the funding ban has been a major goal of harm reduction and public health coalitions, but they had gotten nowhere in the Republican-controlled Congresses of the past decade. What a difference a change of parties makes.

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Jim Webb at 2007 incarceration hearing (photo from sentencingproject.org)
Questioning the Drug War: Two Congressional Bills

The US Congress has been a solid redoubt of prohibitionist sentiment for decades, but this year saw the beginning of cracks in the wall. Two legislators, Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) and Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) introduced and have had hearings on bills that could potentially challenge drug war orthodoxy.

Engel's bill, the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act, which has already passed the House, would set up a commission to examine US eradication, interdiction, and other policies in the Western Hemisphere. While Engel is no anti-prohibitionist, any honest commission assessing US drug policy in the Americas is likely to come up with findings that subvert drug war orthodoxy.

Meanwhile, Sen. Webb's National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 comes at the issue from a much more critical perspective. It calls for a top-to-bottom review of a broad range of criminal justice issues, ranging from sentencing to drug laws to gangs and beyond, with an emphasis and costs and efficacy. Webb's bill remains in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but has 35 cosponsors. Webb has already held hearings on the costs of mass incarceration and the economic costs of drug policy, and even more than Engel's bill, the Webb bill has the potential to get at the roots of our flawed national drug policy.

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Sen. Durbin at May hearing on crack sentencing
The Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

The 100:1 disparity in the quantities of crack needed to earn a mandatory minimum federal prison sentence versus the quantities of powder cocaine needed to earn the same sentence has been egregiously racist in its application, with roughly 90% of all federal crack offenders being non-white, and pressure has been mounting for years to undo it. It hasn't happened yet, but 2009 finally saw some serious progress on the issue.

The move to reform the sentencing disparity got a boost in June, when Attorney General Holder said it had to go. The next month, a House Judiciary Committee subcommittee passed the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009. The bill is now before the House Judiciary and Energy and Commerce Committees.

On the Senate side, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced a companion bill in October, the Fairness in Sentencing Act. It hasn't moved yet, but thanks to a decade-long effort by a broad range of advocates, all the pieces are now in place for something to happen in this Congress. By the time we get around to the Top 10 of 2010, the end of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity better be one of the big stories.

Drop the Rock General Coalition Meeting

Please join us for the next Drop the Rock General Coalition meeting at the Correctional Association of New York’s office in Harlem. Pizza will be served. For more information, contact Caitlin Dunklee at 212-254-5700 (x339) or [email protected], or see www.droptherock.org.
Date: 
Thu, 01/07/2010 - 6:00pm
Location: 
2090 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. (at 125th Street), Suite 200
New York, NY 10027
United States

Christmas Day Drug War Vigil

Vigil to honor Americans arrested for marijuana and non-violent drug use... Christmas Day Vigil for Prisoners of the Drug WarThis Christmas Day Seattle Hempfest and the November Coalition invite anyone with a respectful, peaceful nature to join us at the King County Jail to stand in vigil against America’s marijuana laws, and to show our support for those unjustly incarcerated for non-violent drug crimes. We will be respectful and we will increase the peace with our presence. Vigil attendees are expected to be polite, non-confrontational and not to block access or any thoroughfare at any time. Every Christmas day since 2000, local members of the Seattle Hempfest and the November Coalition have been quietly holding a 2 hour vigil at the King County Jail. The vigil recognizes millions of Americans who have served, or are serving time for non-violent drug charges, the vast majority of whom are incarcerated for simple marijuana crimes. For the first time in decades there is a national discussion taking place about America’s draconian pot laws. Our failing economy has prompted many to re-examine both the social and financial cost of criminal penalties for marijuana, and awareness about medical marijuana and industrial hemp is growing rapidly. Still, there are more Americans annually sent to jails and prisons in the U.S. for marijuana offenses than for the crimes of rape, murder, robbery and aggravated assault combined. Americans are routinely denied custody rights of their children based upon casual marijuana use. Those convicted of pot crimes regularly have their assets seized, become branded with a felony conviction, and must live the rest of their lives marked as criminals. That said, neither of our organizations are anti-law enforcement, we are strictly focused on reforming current laws. We support our first responders, and thank them for their service to our communities. We grieve with our community and wish for healing for all. We often see violent offenders released early, often going on to commit other serious crimes while billions of dollars are being spent locking up Americans convicted of pot crimes. That just does not make sense. For those who have already served time, or for those currently incarcerated, any potential reform of America’s marijuana policies will come too late. Be a part of the change. For more information, contact Vivian McPeak at 206-522-0846, 206-295-7259 or [email protected].
Date: 
Fri, 12/25/2009 - 12:00pm - 2:00pm
Location: 
5th and James Street
Seattle, WA
United States

Drop The Rock Empowerment Day

In neighborhoods across the city and state, teams of volunteers will go out into their communities to educate the public about Drop the Rock’s campaign to reduce incarceration in New York. Teams will register voters and gather signatures on Drop the Rock’s new petition calling for prison closures, reforms of policies like work release, parole, and merit time, full repeal of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, and reinvestment in communities. Volunteers will be petitioning in supermarkets, public housing lobbies, and street corners. Help us kick off our new campaign in your neighborhood! To get involved please contact Caitlin Dunklee directly at 212-254-5700 (x339) or [email protected]. Empowerment Day will be the first event of the expanded Drop the Rock Campaign. We decided to hold this action during the holiday season to call attention to the impact which incarceration has on people in prison and their families and communities.
Date: 
Sat, 12/19/2009 - 11:00am - 3:00pm
Location: 
NY
United States

Budget Crunch: Tennessee Could Free 4,000 Prisoners in Bid to Cut Costs

Faced with a demand from Gov. Phil Bredesen (R) that all state agencies slash their budgets by 9%, the Tennessee Department of Corrections has responded with a plan to free somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 prisoners before they have finished serving their sentences. Those eligible for release under the plan would be nonviolent offenders, including drug offenders.

According to a TDC statistical report, drug offenders make up 19% of all Tennessee prisoners and serve an average of 10 years. The state prison population has increased by 80% since 1993, with some 28,000 people now behind bars in the Volunteer State. This year, the TDC's budget is $700 million.

The department would have no recourse but releasing prisoners early if it were to implement the cuts called for by Gov. Bredesen, said Corrections Commissioner George Little. The department has scaled back spending and has 400 positions it is leaving unfilled he said. "This isn't scare tactics," he said. "We've got to make ends meet... We would not propose these sorts of very serious and weighty options if we were not in such dire circumstances. We've, frankly, exhausted all of our options other than, frankly, prison population management," Little said.

Little's remarks came on the first day of state budget hearings and were intended to show how the TDC would proceed if Bredesen went ahead with his plan to slice 9% from all state department budgets. Bredesen has said that declining tax revenues and the end of the federal stimulus program may force the state to reduce spending by up to $1.5 billion by the end of the next fiscal year.

Before the hearing, Bredesen told reporters he would try to avoid letting prisoners out early. "I obviously am not interested in returning hardened criminals back to the streets," he said. "But I've told each of them (departments) to come in and tell me, if I say you've got to have 9%, tell me how you can get it... The best thing to do is to get all the possibilities on the table and sort through it."

To achieve a 9% reduction, the TDC could simply release about 3,300 prisoners held in local jails at a cost of $35 to $42 a day. Or it could close one or two of the state's 14 prisons, which would result in the release of about 4,000 prisoners.

Feature: 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conferences Opens Amid Optimism in Albuquerque

Hundreds, possibly more than a thousand, people poured into the Convention Center in downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico, as the Drug Policy Alliance's 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference got underway yesterday. Set to go on through Saturday, the conference is drawing attendees from around the country and the world to discuss dozens of different drug reform topics. (See the link above for a look at the program.)

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screening of near-final version of the next Flex Your Rights film, 10 Rules for Dealing with Police
This is the second time DPA has brought the conference to the distant deserts of the Southwest. In 2001, DPA rewarded libertarian-leaning New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (R) for becoming the highest ranking elected official in the US to call for ending drug prohibition by bringing the conference to his home state. Since then, the ties between DPA and New Mexico have only deepened.

As DPA New Mexico office head Reena Szczepanski explained at the opening plenary session, the Land of Enchantment is fertile ground for drug reform. "Back in 1997, when drug policy reform was little more than a twinkle in the eye, New Mexico passed a harm reduction act mandating the Department of Health to give out clean syringes for people with HIV/AIDS," she noted. "Then, when Gov. Johnson said it was time to end the war on drugs, DPA very wisely immediately opened an office here. In 2001, we passed the overdose prevention act, allowing for the distribution of naloxone. Then we passed opting out on the federal welfare ban, we passed asset forfeiture reform, we passed the 911 Good Samaritan Act -- saving somebody's life is more important than busting them for small amounts of drugs."

But wait, there's more. "Thanks to Gov. Bill Richardson, we became the 12th state to have legal access to medical marijuana for seriously ill people," Szczepanski continued. "We're working on treatment instead of incarceration, we're working to end the war on drugs in New Mexico and this country. This is a very special place for drug policy reform."

New Mexico is also right next store to one of the drug war's bloodiest battlegrounds: the mean streets of Ciudad Juarez, just across the Rio Grande River from El Paso, Texas, which in turn in borders New Mexico. More than 2,200 people have died in prohibition-related violence in Juarez this year alone.

That violence just across the river inspired El Paso City Councilman Beto O'Rourke to turn a motion expressing sympathy for El Paso's sister city into one that also asked for an open and honest debate on ending drug prohibition. The resolution passed the city council by a unanimous vote, only to be vetoed by the mayor. Then, as the council scheduled an override vote, the pressure came down.

"Each of us on the council got a call from Rep. Silvestre Reyes, our congressman and a very powerful figure," O'Rourke told the crowd Thursday. "He told us if we went forward with this, it will be very hard to get your district the federal funding you need. That's a powerful threat, since we rely on federal funding to deliver basic services. It was enough to get four members to change their votes."

While the resolution was defeated, the debacle opened the door for serious debate on drug policy in El Paso and generated support for ending prohibition as well, O'Rourke said. "Our local Students for Sensible Drug Policy chapter came out very strongly and helped organize a global policy forum in El Paso. I received hundreds of calls, letters, and emails of support from around the country and the world," O'Rourke related to sustained applause.

If Councilman O'Rourke was a new face, Ira Glasser is a familiar one. Former executive director of the ACLU and president of the DPA board of directors, Glasser told the crowd he was more optimistic about the prospects for change than ever before.

"Today we stand on the brink of transformative progress," he said. "I have never said that before. We can almost touch the goals we have sought, the unraveling of the so-called war on drugs, which is really a war on fundamental freedoms and constitutional rights, on personal autonomy, on our sovereignty over our minds and bodies, a war against people of darker skin color."

Just as Jim Crow laws were the successor to the system of slavery, said Glasser, so the drug war has been the successor to Jim Crow. "It's no accident that after the civil rights revolution ended with the passage of the last federal civil right law in 1968, Richard Nixon was elected on the southern strategy against progress on civil rights," he noted. "Within months of taking office, Nixon declared the modern war on drugs."

Glasser wasn't the only one feeling uplifted. "I am feeling good, better than ever before," said DPA executive director and plenary keynote speaker Ethan Nadelmann. "The wind is at our back. We are making progress like never before. We have to move hard and fast. Historically speaking, there are moments when everything comes together," drawing a pointed comparison with the successful temperance movement that managed to get alcohol banned during Prohibition. But Prohibition generated its own counter-movement, he said, again drawing a pointed parallel.

"Now, we're in another moment," Nadelmann said. "We're hurting with the recession, state budgets are hemorrhaging. More and more people are realizing we can't afford to pay for our prejudices, we can't continue to be the world's largest incarcerator."

But it's not just the economy that is opening the window, he continued. "What's happening in Mexico and Afghanistan, where illicit drugs are ready sources of revenues for criminals and political terrorists, that has people thinking. We have two major national security problems causing people to think afresh."

Nadelmann had a suggestion: "Ending marijuana prohibition is a highly effective way of undermining that violence," he said. "Until we end it, buy American."

Just after the opening plenary session ended, reporters and other interested parties repaired to a Convention Center conference room to see the US unveiling of the British Transform Drug Policy Foundation publication, After the War on Drugs: A Blueprint for Regulation, a how-to manual on how to get to drug reform's promised land. Transform executive director Danny Kushlick was joined by Jack Cole of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Studies, Deborah Small of Break the Chains, and DPA's Nadelmann as he laid out the case for moving beyond "what would it look like."

"There's never been a clear vision of a post-prohibition world," said Kushlick. "With this, we've tried to reclaim drug policy from the drug warriors. We want to make drug policy boring," he said. "We want not only harm reduction, but drama reduction," he added, envisioning debates about restrictions on sales hours, zoning, and other dreary topics instead of bloody drug wars and mass incarceration.

"As a movement, we have failed to articulate the alternative," said Tree. "And that leaves us vulnerable to the fear of the unknown. This report restores order to the anarchy. Prohibition means we have given up on regulating drugs; this report outlines some of the options for regulation."

That wasn't the only unveiling Thursday. Later in the evening, Flex Your Rights held the first public showing of its new video, 10 Rules for Dealing with Police. The screening of the self-explanatory successor to Flex Your Right's 2003 "Busted" played to a packed and enthusiastic house. This highly useful examination of how not to get yourself busted is bound to equal if not exceed the break-out success of "Busted."

The conference, of course, continued Thursday afternoon and will go through Saturday, but your reporter was busy getting this week's Drug War Chronicle ready to go. Come back next week for fuller reports on the 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference.

Feature: Veterans Incarcerated and Ignored When They Could Be Getting Help, Report Finds

Roughly 200,000 US veterans are in prison or jail, many of them there because of substance abuse or mental health issues, according to a new report released Wednesday. The report outlines the problem and suggests reforms that could ease the plight of American soldiers returning from the war zone and trying to make the transition back to civilian society.

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VA Medical Center, Columbia, MO
According to the report, 140,000 vets were in prison in 2004, with tens of thousands more serving time in jails. Nearly half (46%) of vets doing time in federal prison were incarcerated for drug offenses, while 15% of those in state prison were, including 5.6% doing time for simple possession. Three out five (61%) of incarcerated vets met the criteria for substance dependence or abuse.

The report, Healing a Broken System: Veterans Battling Addiction and Incarceration, comes at a critical time. With hundreds of thousands of soldiers currently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US faces a mounting challenge in caring for returning vets.

Many are returning home damaged by their experiences. According to the report, 30% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans report symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury, depression, mental illness, or other cognitive disability. These medical conditions, if left untreated, can contribute to problematic drug use, addiction, and fatal overdoses, as well as homelessness, suicide, and criminality, particular violations of the drug laws.

While the study mentions 200,000 vets behind bars, the number is most likely much higher. That's because owing to problems in data collection -- a problem in itself -- the last year for which hard numbers on vets behind bars is available was 2004. Since then, more than a million more vets have returned from their deployments and mustered out.

The report had its genesis about a year and a half ago, when the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) teamed up with a classroom of law students at Northeastern University in Boston to investigate the obstacles veterans were facing in obtaining adequate access to mental health and substance abuse services. In addition to a series of surprising and dramatic findings, the report also includes a list of specific recommendations about how to improve services for vets suffering mental health and substance abuse issues.

"We learned that far too many returning vets are falling victim to the war on drugs because of barriers to effective treatment," said DPA's Dan Abrahamson at a Wednesday press conference. "There are nearly a quarter million vets behind bars right now for crimes motivated in part by mental health or drug addiction problems. One third of returning vets report symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Also, vets suffer from traumatic brain injury, depression, and mental illness at higher rates than normal. All of those are contributory factors to substance abuse and drug addiction, as well as overdose, homelessness, suicide, and being arrested for a non-violent drug offense."

In the battle theater, soldiers are supposed to function despite high stress, and the military is more than willing to prescribe them whatever it takes to keep them fighting. But it's a different story when the vets come home.

"Service-related drug dependency is being talked about quite a bit in the veterans community, but is not well understood outside the military," said Tom Tarantino, an Iraq war veteran and now legislative associate for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "The ease of obtaining prescriptions in theater is staggering," he explained. "I know crack dealers who are more discriminating about issuing drugs than some of the medics I saw in Iraq. It's alarming how many people were just given anti-depressants instead of asking whether they were really fit for duty," said the veterans' lobbyist.

"Sometimes, it's just a matter of expediency and life in a combat zone, but then you have vets coming back from an environment where meds are very loosely prescribed and they are confronted with a medical system much more stringent about issuing drugs," Tarantino explained. "And that can cause problems."

"Let's be smarter than the problem," said veterans' advocate Guy Gambill. "We can't afford not to be. We arrest too many people and incarcerate them for too long. Then the mark of a criminal record keeps them from getting jobs, housing, and other services, and then the recidivism rate goes up."

There are things that can be done, Gambill said. States can change their incarceration policies. Localities can be more proactive.

"Chicago police and the LAPD are doing front-end interventions," Gambill noted. "In LA, trained peer specialists are doing ride-alongs with the LAPD so the officers will recognize Iraq and Afghanistan war vets. In Chicago, police are doing crisis intervention training, and the first hundred of them are all Iraq and Afghanistan vets. They'll try to grab these guys at first contact and get them into treatment instead of jail. These sorts of peer-led interventions work very well. We need to catch this on the front end, so we don't have 200,000 homeless vets on the streets like we do now."

Another stumbling block is the Department of Veterans Affairs current policy on drug treatment for vets. The VA is willing to offer treatment, but not for vets behind bars.

"We need the Department of Veterans Affairs to lift their ban on drug treatment of incarcerated vets," said Tarantino. "We're pleased that the department now has a justice coordinator at every VA hospital, but they're waiting outside the prison door, not inside, when the vets need it most. This is a regulation they can change with the stroke of a pen," he said.

Yet another problem for vets, especially those with substance abuse issues, is the lack of access to proven treatments. And because the insurance provided to soldiers by the armed forces also covers their families, lack of access to treatment affects them as well.

"Vets don't qualify for substance abuse treatment unless they are diagnosed with PTSD," said Abel Moreno, a former Army sergeant who saw service in both theaters and who now works with veterans through his organization Vets 4 Vets. "We are fighting two wars at once. It's obvious PTSD exists, and it's clear there are going to be substance abuse issues. We've created a subgenre among today's vets where there is a pain pill-popping mitigation ideal. We need quantified data so we can attack this situation head on," he said.

It's not only in failing to provide drug treatment absent a PTSD diagnosis where the DOD falls down, said Dr. Bob Newman, MD, director of the Rothschild Chemical Dependency Institute at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. "Tricare, the Department of Defense insurance plan refuses to pay for maintenance treatment of addiction with methadone or buprenorphine," he noted. "Maintenance therapy is not a new idea. It's endorsed by agencies such as NIDA, SAMHSA, the Institute of Medicine, and the World Health Organization. The US government supports this, yet DOD has an insurance plan that excludes maintenance treatment without explanation. That's outrageous," he said.

Tricare insures not only military personnel, but also their families. Tricare's refusal to pay for maintenance therapy nearly cost Teresa Bridges her daughter. Teresa's daughter, Amanda, married a soldier, Sgt. Shawn Dressler. Dressler was killed in combat shortly after the couple were wed, and Amanda retreated into a haze of Lortab and Tramitol. Tricare paid for her treatment, but after a year, her doctor noted on her records that she was being subscribed maintenance doses of Suboxone.

"Suddenly, Tricare dropped her like a hot potato," Bridges said. "Tricare believes taking Suboxone is just substituting one addictive drug for another -- at least that's what they told me. Amanda has done well on Suboxone, and if she stops taking it, she will eventually relapse. Fortunately, she is now in a temporary assistance program, but that will end after a year."

There are potential reforms that could ease the plight of returning vets, the report said. Among them are:

  • Changes in state and federal statutes to focus on treatment instead of incarceration for veterans who commit nonviolent drug-related offenses.
  • Adoption by government agencies of overdose prevention programs and policies targeting veterans who misuse substances or take prescription medications.
  • Significantly expanded access for veterans to medication-assisted therapies such as methadone and buprenorphine to treat opioid dependence.

"The care and feeding and support of vets is a national concern and responsibility," said Gen. Stephen Xenakis, MD, Special Adviser to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs for Staff, Warrior & Family Support . "We are looking to knit together all the various services and institutions so that the soldier who has served and come home and ends up having problems or maybe ended up incarcerated gets treatment from all the sources available."

One of the big problems, said Tarantino, is lack of hard information. He noted that the Justice Department numbers in the report are from 2004. "In 2004, there were over one million fewer vets than there are today," he said. "We don't know how many vets are behind bars right now. We have no method for tracking vets unless they interact with some social services. We need to have DOD and DOJ compare lists. We need data," he said.

Lack of coordination among agencies dealing with vets is part of the problem, said Xenakis. "We need to better configure what we're doing," he said. "Records are not shared. The Department of Justice doesn't have access to Department of Defense records. We need to get organized so we can track people over time."

That effort has the support of the Pentagon, Xenakis said. "Our leadership heartily endorses this," he said. "It is really important that this information that this information is out there now, and that we follow it with the best action plans we can create. As a country, we have a responsibility to support our vets."

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juarez," by Howard Campbell (2009, University of Texas Press, 310 pp., $24.95 PB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer Editor

Howard Campbell's "Drug War Zone" couldn't be more timely. Ciudad Juárez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, is awash in blood as the competing Juárez and Sinaloa cartels wage a deadly war over who will control the city's lucrative drug trafficking franchise. More than 2,000 people have been killed in Juárez this year in the drug wars, making the early days of Juárez Cartel dominance, when the annual narco-death toll was around 200 a year, seem downright bucolic by comparison.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/drugwarzone.jpg
The violence in Mexico, of which Juárez is the current epicenter, has been setting off alarm bells in Washington, and the US has responded with thousands more law enforcement agents on the border and more than a billion dollars in aid to the Mexican government. In other words, what we've been doing hasn't worked, so let's do even more of it, even more intensely.

We've all seen the horrific headlines; we've all seen the grim and garish displays of exemplary violence; we've read the statistics about the immense size of the illegal drug business in Mexico and the insatiable appetites of drug consumers in El Norte ("the north," e.g. the US). What we haven't had -- up until now -- is a portrayal of the El Paso-Juárez drug trade and drug culture that gets beneath the headlines, the politicians' platitudes, and law enforcement's self-justifying pronouncements. With "Drug War Zone," Campbell provides just that.

He's the right guy in the right place at the right time. A professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Texas-El Paso who has two decades in the area, Campbell is able to do his fieldwork when he walks out his front door and has been able to develop relationships with all sorts of people involved in the drug trade and its repression, from low-level street dealers in Juárez to middle class dabblers in dealing in El Paso, from El Paso barrio boys to Mexican smugglers, from journalists to Juárez cops, from relatives of cartel victims to highly-placed US drug fight bureaucrats.

Using an extended interview format, Campbell lets his informants paint a detailed picture of the social realities of the El Paso-Juárez "drug war zone." The overall portrait that emerges is of a desert metropolis (about a half million people on the US side, a million and a half across the river), distant both geographically and culturally from either Washington or Mexico City, with a long tradition of smuggling and a dense binational social network where families and relationships span two nations. This intricately imbricated web of social relations and historical factors -- the rise of a US drug culture, NAFTA and globalization -- have given rise to a border narco-culture deeply embedded in the social fabric of both cities.

(One thing that strikes me as I ponder Campbell's work, with its description of binational barrio gangs working for the Juárez Cartel, and narcos working both sides of the border, is how surprising it is that the violence plaguing Mexico has not crossed the border in any measurable degree. It's almost as if the warring factions have an unwritten agreement that the killings stay south of the Rio Grande. I'd wager they don't want to incite even more attention from the gringos.)

Campbell compares the so-called cartels to terrorists like Al Qaeda. With their terroristic violence, their use of both high tech (YouTube postings) and low tech (bodies hanging from bridges, warning banners adorning buildings) communications strategies, their existence as non-state actors acting both in conflict and complicity with various state elements, the comparison holds some water. Ultimately, going to battle against the tens of thousands of people employed by the cartels in the name of an abstraction called "the war on drugs" is likely to be as fruitless and self-defeating as going to battle against Pashtun tribesmen in the name of an abstraction called "the war on terror."

But that doesn't mean US drug war efforts are going to stop, or that the true believers in law enforcement are going to stop believing -- at least most of them. One of the virtues of "Drug War Zone" is that it studies not only the border narco-culture, but also the border policing culture. Again, Campbell lets his informants speak for him, and those interviews are fascinating and informative.

Having seen its result close-up and firsthand, Campbell has been a critic of drug prohibition. He still is, although he doesn't devote a lot of space to it in the book. Perhaps, like (and through) his informants, he lets prohibition speak for itself. The last interview in the book may echo Campbell's sentiments. It's with former Customs and Border Patrol agent Terry Nelson. In the view of his former colleagues, Nelson has gone over to the dark side. He's a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

If you're interested in the border or drug culture or the drug economy or drug prohibition, you need to read "Drug War Zone." This is a major contribution to the literature.

Will Foster is Back in Prison in Oklahoma and Needs Your Help

Will Foster’s nightmarish saga continues. Foster, you may recall, is the medical marijuana patient who was sentenced to 93 years in prison for growing a few plants in 1997. Thanks in no small part to a publicity campaign by Stopthedrugwar.org, Foster’s sentence was eventually reduced to 20 years, and he was paroled to California. After three years on parole, California officials decided Foster no longer needed supervision, but Oklahoma officials disagreed. When Foster was arrested in California for driving on an Oklahoma drivers’ license, Oklahoma issued a parole violation extradition warrant, but Foster filed a successful writ of habeas corpus to quash that warrant. Then, last year, Foster was arrested on bogus marijuana cultivation charges--those California charges were dropped after he spent a year in jail--and Oklahoma again sought his extradition as a parole violator. Oklahoma officials took Foster from the Sonoma County Jail in California, and he is now residing in prison in Oklahoma until 2011--or 2015, as Oklahoma parole officials are now claiming. In Oklahoma, the governor ultimately decides on whether to revoke parole or not. Foster had an administrative hearing Tuesday, which unsurprisingly found he had indeed violated his parole (by refusing to sign paperwork agreeing that his sentence had been extended). An executive hearing will take place sometime in the next one to three months, then that decision goes to the governor for approval or rejection. Foster and his supporters are urging the public to write to the parole board to ask it to recommend pardoning him or commuting his sentence, and to write or call the governor asking for the same thing. Key points: * Foster is a non-violent medical marijuana patient seriously ill with rheumatoid arthritis; * Foster plans to return to California and never set foot in Oklahoma again; * The after-the-fact extension of his sentence from 2011 to 2015 is unfair and unwarranted; * It does not make fiscal or budgetary sense for the state of Oklahoma to spend thousands of scarce public dollars to incarcerate Foster again for this non-violent offense. I just spoke to the parole office in Oklahoma, and they don’t yet have the information in their system required to send letters to parole board members, so instead, fax your concise, respectful letters to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board at (405) 602-6437. Mention Foster’s full name, William Joseph Foster, and his prisoner number, ODOC #252271. Fax your letter to Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry at (405) 521-3353 or, better yet, call his office at (405) 521-2342. In either case, mention Foster’s full name and prisoner number, and be polite. Drug War Chronicle will continue following Foster’s saga. Look for a feature article on the latest twists and turns on Friday.

Medical Marijuana: Will Foster Extradited to Oklahoma

Medical marijuana patient Will Foster is behind bars in Oklahoma after being picked up last Friday by Oklahoma law enforcement officials. He had been held at the Sonoma County Jail in Santa Rosa, California, for the past 15 months as he fought bogus marijuana cultivation charges there -- he was a registered patient with a legal grow -- and, after the California charges were dropped, on a parole violation warrant from the Sooner State.

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Will Foster (medicalmarijuanaofamerica.com)
Foster had been arrested and convicted of growing marijuana in Oklahoma and sentenced to 93 years in prison in the 1990s. After that draconian sentence focused national attention on his case, he was eventually resentenced to 20 years in prison. He later won parole and moved to California, where he served three years on parole and was discharged from parole by California authorities.

That wasn't good enough for vindictive Oklahoma authorities, who wanted to squeeze more years out of Foster. He refused to sign Oklahoma paperwork requiring him to return there to serve out the remainder of his sentence. He also refused to sign paperwork that extended his original service. Oklahoma authorities issued a parole violation warrant, and the governors of both states signed it.

Foster had sought to block extradition by filing a writ of habeas corpus -- he had won a similar writ against Oklahoma earlier -- but that effort failed last Friday, and Oklahoma authorities were there to whisk him away. Foster is scheduled to be held at the Tulsa County Jail before being assigned to a prison in the Oklahoma gulag.

Efforts by Foster supporters to secure his release continue and are now focusing on Oklahoma parole authorities and the state governor. For more information about the Foster case, see our Chronicle story here and Ed Rosenthal's blog here.

Drug War Chronicle will continue to follow the Foster case. Look for a feature article next week.

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