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Latin America: UN Drug Office Blames Central American Crime and Violence on Drugs, Not Prohibition

Central America's stability and development is being thwarted by crime and violence, much of it caused by the drug trade, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in a report released Wednesday. However, the report called for an intensification of the prohibitionist policies that helped create the problems in the first place.
global and tunnel vision at the same time
When a multi-billion dollar drug trafficking industry and the violence it generates is added to a witch's brew of social problems, including poverty, income disparity, gang violence, high homicide rates, easy access to firearms, weak political and social institutions, and widespread corruption, the weak Central American nations are under siege, the report warned.

"The warning signs are evident in this report -- gun-related crime, gang violence, kidnapping, the proliferation of private security companies," said UNODC executive director Antonio Maria Costa in a press release accompanying the report. "But these problems are in no way inherent to the region. They can be overcome."

Sandwiched between the coca and cocaine producing regions of South America and the insatiable market for cocaine in North America, Central America sees nearly 90% of cocaine headed north. While little of it falls off the truck -- Central American usage rates are low, according to UNODC -- violence and corruption associated with the black market drug trade take their toll.

"Where crime and corruption reign and drug money perverts the economy, the State no longer has a monopoly on the use of force and citizens no longer trust their leaders and public institutions," Mr. Costa said, underscoring that development is stunted where crime and corruption thrive. "As a result, the social contract is in tatters and people take the law into their own hands."

Countries in the region and beyond need to work together to strengthen their criminal justice systems, and break the links between drugs, crime, and underdevelopment, the UNODC advised. "Cooperation is vital," Costa said. "The problems are too big, too inter-linked and too dangerous to be left to individual states."

But rather than revising the global drug prohibition regime that generates the huge black market flows of cash, drugs, and guns at the root of many of Central America's problems, Costa and the UNODC simply call for more of the same. "We have a shared responsibility and common interest in helping the countries of Central America to withstand external pressures and to strengthen their internal resistance to the damaging effects of drugs and crime," Costa said. "Let us unlock the potential of this region."

If Costa and the UNODC suffer from tunnel vision when it comes to drug prohibition, at least they displayed a nuanced understanding of the youth gangs or "maras" that are so quickly demonized in the press. "Heavy-handed crackdowns on gangs alone will not resolve the underlying problem. Indeed, it may exacerbate them," Costa noted. "Gang culture is a symptom of a deeper social malaise that cannot be solved by putting all disaffected street kids behind bars. The future of Central America depends on seeing youth as an asset rather than a liability."

In Memoriam: Medical Marijuana Researcher, Advocate Dr. Tod Mikuriya Dead at 73

Dr. Tod Hiro Mikuriya, MD, a psychiatrist, prominent researcher, and medical marijuana advocate, died Sunday night at his Berkeley, California, home. He was 73 years of age.
Tod Mikuriya
Mikuriya, who was a member of DRCNet's Board of Advisors, earned a medical degree at Temple University, then completed a psychiatric residency at Southern Pacific General Hospital in San Francisco before joining the US Army Medical Corps. After military service and serving at state hospitals in California and Oregon, he directed marijuana research at the National Institutes of Mental Health in 1967, but quickly quit, citing political interference with research results.

He turned to a private practice in psychiatry, but his clinical interest in marijuana never waned. In 1973, he published the pioneering "Medical Marijuana Papers," an anthology of journal articles on cannabis therapeutics, and he later founded the Society of Cannabis Clinicians.

Mikuriya was deeply involved in the campaign for Proposition 215, the groundbreaking 1996 initiative that made California the first state to legalize the medicinal use of marijuana. After Prop 215 passed, Mikuriya served as Medical Coordinator of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, the Hayward Hempery, and the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers' Club -- organizations established to provide access to medical marijuana for patients.

In 2000, Mikuriya founded the California Cannabis Research Medical Group, a nonprofit organization "dedicated to conducting quality medical marijuana research, to ensuring the safety and confidentiality of all research subjects, and to maintaining the highest quality of standards and risk management."

In 2003, Mikuriya was placed on probation by the Medical Board of California after an investigation into allegations of unprofessional conduct in 16 cases since 1998. Mikuriya and his supporters said he was being targeted for his medical marijuana advocacy. He appealed the board ruling, and continued to practice up until his death.

Dr. Mikuriya remained an ardent and animated advocate of medical marijuana, and more broadly, social justice, up until the end. His vision, principles, and perseverance are to be emulated. They will certainly be missed.

Mikuriya contributed a collection of papers that are available in DRCNet's Drug Library, Schaffer Library section, online here.

Listen to the DrugTruth Network's half hour tribute, including interviews with Mikuriya and remembrances of friends and family, here.

Medical Marijuana: Connecticut Bill Passes House, Heads for Senate

A bill that would legalize the medicinal use of marijuana for some patients has passed out of the Connecticut House of Representatives on a vote of 89-58. It now heads for the state Senate, which approved a similar measure in 2005. That bill was defeated in the House. The vote came after six hours of debate in the House, where lawmakers cited their own experiences with debilitating illness.

"The message is simple: We have compassion for people who are suffering in this state," said Rep. Themis Klarides (R-Derby) during the debate.

"Today, we have the opportunity to give relief to Connecticut residents who are sick, who are dying, who are wasting away, who are losing their quality of life," she said. "And we can tell those Connecticut residents that the state of Connecticut no longer will prosecute you," said Rep. Penny Bacchiochi (R-Somers), who led the fight for the bill.

The bill, HB 6715, would allow physicians to certify an adult patient's use of marijuana after determining he or she has a debilitating condition and could potentially benefit from marijuana. Patients and their primary caregivers would then register with the state's Department of Consumer Protection. Patients and caregivers could grow up to four plants four feet high in an indoor facility.

The bill was supported by a broad coalition including The Alliance Connecticut, United Methodist Church of Connecticut, Connecticut Nurses Association, Dr. Andrew Salner -- Director of the Helen & Harry Gray Cancer Center at Hartford Hospital, A Better Way Foundation, the Drug Policy Alliance Network, and the Drug Policy Alliance.

It was opposed by law enforcement and by Rep. Toni Boucher (R-Wilton), who led a virtual legislative crusade against it. Boucher filed 50 hostile amendments to the bill before Thursday's vote, but gave up after the first eight got shot down. Her proposals included informing police departments of the names of registered medical marijuana users and requiring the state Agriculture Department to set up a pilot program.

House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero put on his best street hustler accent as he opposed the bill. "How do you get it?" he asked, referring to the seeds for starting the four plants allowed under the bill "You've got to buy it. How do you buy it? As Rep.(Michael) Lawlor said, you've got to hit the streets folks -- nickel bag, dime bag. You gotta make a drug deal, baby."

Cafero's Scarface imitation notwithstanding, the bill has passed and now heads to the Senate, where it faces committee votes.

Middle East: Opium Poppies Flower Again in Iraq

Ancient Iraq is the source of some of the earliest written accounts of opium poppy production. As far as 5,000 years back, the plant known to the ancient Sumerians as Hul Gil, the "joy plant," was cultivated in the fertile plains of Mesopotamia. Now, according to the London newspaper The Independent, opium production is once again underway in Iraq.
the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
Rice farmers along the Euphrates river west of Diwaniya have switched to opium poppies, the Independent reported, citing "two students from there and a source in Basra familiar with the Iraqi drug trade." The newspaper noted that the area, which is the scene of power struggles between rival Shiite militia groups and outside the effective control of the national government, is too dangerous for Western journalists to visit.

While concern has been rising since the US invasion in 2003 about Iraq's role as a conduit in the international drug trade, particularly the distribution of Afghan heroin smuggled through Iran, into Iraq, and thence to wealthy Middle Eastern and Western European markets, the apparent turn toward poppy cultivation in Diwaniya is a first.

The reported poppy planting comes amidst increasing, if largely unreported, conflict in southern Iraq between the Mehdi Army of firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Badr Organization, the armed wing of Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. At least one source told The Independent that the current fighting in the south started over control of opium production, but has since spread into a general turf war.

Europe: Finnish Left Party's Youth Organization Calls for Marijuana Legalization

The Left Youth of Finland, the youth organization of the Left Alliance Party (link to official web site in Finnish here) narrowly approved a resolution calling for the legalization of marijuana use and home cultivation. The resolution passed by a two-vote margin at the group's annual convention last weekend, according to Finnish media reports.

While a four-year-old Left Youth drug policy statement said there should be no punishment for personal marijuana use or growing, the group had previously hesitated to call for legalization. In fact, the same policy statement that said marijuana use should not be punished also said that "Cannabis should not be legalized in Finland."

Passage of the resolution comes some six months after Left Youth's Satakunta area chairman was sentenced to a fine for growing and smoking marijuana.

Among those opposing the resolution was new Left Youth president Jussi Saramo. He said the matter needed more consideration and should have been debated in the broader context of overall policy toward intoxicants. "However, as chairman, I stand behind the decision," he added. "We don't need any more drugs, but victimizing the users does not help," Saramo added.

Passage of the resolution puts the Left Youth at odds with its parent organization, the Left Alliance. Party chairman Matti Korhonen criticized the youth group, saying holding a vote at a convention is not the proper way to decide important issues. "The party's starting point is one of zero tolerance," he added.

The Left Alliance, formed in 1990 from former socialist and communist parties, receives around 10% of the vote in Finnish elections. With three strong parties, Finnish governments typically involve multi-party coalitions. The Left Alliance joined coalition governments led by the left-leaning Social Democrats in 1995 and 1999, but it is not part of the current coalition government led by the conservative National Coalition Party.

Under current Finnish drug laws, which changed two years ago to include the offense of "drug use," possession of up to 10 grams of hashish or 15 grams of marijuana is typically punished by a small fine. Growing marijuana plants, however, is still considered a "drug production" offense and is punished more severely.

Hemp: California Bill Passes Assembly

A bill that would allow California farmers to grow non-psychoactive hemp passed the Assembly May 10 and now heads to the state Senate, where it is also expected to pass. A similar bill passed the legislature last year, only to be vetoed by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Authored by Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (R-Irvine), AB 684 would pave the way for California farmers to eventually -- not immediately -- grow the plant, which is used to make food, clothing, paper, body care, bio-fuel, and auto products. If the bill were to be signed into law, industry organizations like Vote Hemp and the Hemp Industries Association, as well as the California Certified Organic Farmers, have vowed to challenge the federal ban on hemp planting.

Schwarzenegger cited the federal ban when he vetoed last year's hemp bill. He claimed it would put farmers in jeopardy of federal prosecution. But proponents of this year's bill are hopeful the governor will relent.

"Passage of the hemp farming bill in the Assembly is a sign it is likely to reach Governor Schwarzenegger's desk for the second year in row," said Vote Hemp legal counsel and San Francisco Attorney Patrick Goggin. "The mood in Sacramento is this bill is consistent with California's effort to be leader on US environmental policy. Hemp is a versatile plant that can replace polluting crops such as cotton and is taking off as an organic food and body care ingredient. It is time to jump into the expanding market for hemp that California companies currently import from Canada and elsewhere."

American hemp product manufacturers currently have to import their raw material from China, Canada, or one of the more than 30 other countries that allow hemp production. It is the only crop that is illegal to grow in the US, but legal to import.

Sentencing: Maryland Governor Vetoes Bill To Give Two-Time Drug Sales Offenders Parole Eligibility

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) Wednesday vetoed a bill that would have provided the possibility of parole to people serving second-time drug sales sentences. Under current Maryland law, such offenders must serve a mandatory minimum 10-year sentence with no possibility of parole. The law would not have applied to violent offenders.

But in an interview with the Associated Press explaining his veto, O'Malley said he considered drug dealing to be a violent crime in itself. "Drug dealing is a violent crime, and the morgues of many of our counties and state are filled with the bodies that have been taken far too early because of drug distribution," O'Malley said. Maryland already provides opportunities for second-offenders to get drug treatment, he claimed, adding that the bill "unnecessarily broadens current law and makes parole a possibility, however remote, for drug dealers who are driven by greed and profit supported by violence, not addiction."

The bill, HB 992, passed the legislature with bipartisan support and was backed by a broad coalition of drug reformers, the faith community, public health and law enforcement officials, and drug treatment providers, as well as the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun. The coalition is not happy with O'Malley.

"The veto is a disappointing mistake," said Justice Policy Institute executive director Jason Zeidenberg. "Instead of taking a baby step in the right direction towards treatment instead of prison, O'Malley is stubbornly clinging to the failed tough on crime policies of the past. The governor failed to show leadership and vision in this decision."

"Governor O'Malley has put Maryland out of step with other states that are moving in the direction of smarter, more effective sentencing policies," said Naomi Long, director of the Drug Policy Alliance District of Columbia Metropolitan Area project. "This veto was a lapse of leadership, and hurts Maryland's efforts to implement the kinds of real reforms that would actually make a difference."

The state of Maryland spends millions of dollars each year incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders, the vast majority of whom would be better served by drug treatment options. A recent report by the Justice Policy Institute found that Maryland's sentencing laws disproportionately affect communities of color and may be the least effective, most expensive way to promote public safety.

"The fight for more effective and fair sentencing policies isn't over," said Delegate Curtis Anderson (D-Baltimore), a sponsor of the legislation. "Maryland voters want more fair and effective sentencing policies. We will keep working with the governor to implement those reforms."

Pregnancy: New Mexico Supreme Court Strikes Down Law Criminalizing Drug Use By Mothers-To-Be

In a case that pitted hard-nosed legislators and prosecutors against an array of women's rights, public health, medical, and drug reform groups, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled May 11 that a state law expanding criminal child abuse laws to include drug use by pregnant women was unconstitutional. In a summary opinion, the state high court upheld a state Court of Appeals decision that reached the same conclusion.

The ruling came in the case of Cynthia Martinez, who was charged with felony child abuse in 2003 after her newborn child tested positive for cocaine. Under the law in question, she was charged with "permitting a child under 18 years of age to be placed in a situation that may endanger the child's life or health" by ingesting illicit drugs while pregnant.

While the state argued that a pregnant woman who is addicted to drugs should be sent to jail as a felony child abuser, both the appeals court and the state Supreme Court disagreed. During oral arguments, the justices appeared to be particularly concerned about issues raised in an amicus curiae brief submitted by the Drug Policy Alliance and National Advocates for Pregnant Women on behalf of nearly three dozen other leading medical and public health organizations, physicians, and scientific researchers. The justices repeatedly mentioned the DPA/NAPW brief and expressed grave concerns about the deterrent effect such prosecutions would have on women seeking prenatal care.

Such rulings are critical to avoid criminalizing poor women, said NAPW staff attorney Tiloma Jayasinghe. "Making child abuse laws applicable to pregnant women and fetuses would, by definition, make every woman who is low-income, uninsured, has health problems, and/or is battered who becomes pregnant a felony child abuser," she explained. "In oral argument, the state's attorney conceded that the law could potentially be applied to pregnant women who smoked."

Szczepanski said, "I hope that this case serves as a reminder that pregnant women who are struggling with drug use should be offered prenatal care and drug treatment, not prosecution. There are better ways to protect our children in New Mexico, and ensure that future generations will be safe and healthy."

Sentencing: Nevada Supreme Court Justices Ask Legislature for More Discretion, More Funding for Drug Courts

Two Nevada Supreme Court justices appeared before the state Senate Judiciary Committee Monday to argue for increased discretion in sentencing and increased funding for drug and mental health programs, including drug courts. Nevada enacted mandatory minimum drug laws in 1995 that have contributed to an ever-increasing prison population.

Justice Jim Hardesty asked lawmakers to consider amending the sentencing laws to allow judges to deviate from the mandatory minimums as long as they submit written explanations of why the downward deviation was appropriate. Hardesty cited the senselessness of some drug sentences.

"It makes absolutely no sense for us to sentence a young man to 10 to 25 years in the Nevada state prison who gets paid $150 to drive a car from Sacramento to Utah" containing narcotics, Hardesty told the committee. He added that current law does not allow judges to deviate from sentencing rules or allow prosecutors to makes deals in such cases.

Hardesty was joined by Chief Justice Bill Maupin in asking committees that control spending to allot more money for drug and mental health court programs that can divert offenders from prison. "When I first heard about this program, I was very skeptical," Maupin told the committee. "What I found out was that mental health courts around this country have become very well recognized as having permanent success."

Hardesty added that the Supreme Court had requested $5 million in state general funds to pay for drug courts and treatment programs, but a budget subcommittee had only voted to approve $1 million. "Compared to what we requested, and compared to frankly what the demand is -- which is $30 million -- it was disappointing," said Hardesty.

While the justices have so far been unable to win increased funding for diversion programs, Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons (R) is calling on the legislature to spend $300 million on new prison construction. Nevada currently has more than 13,000 prisoners and is admitting more than 600 new ones each month, nearly double the rate of admissions in 1990.

As for sentencing discretion, Judiciary Chairman Mark Amodei (R-Carson City) told the justices he is open to the idea, but judges would have to be very careful not to arouse the wrath of victims' rights groups, who successfully demanded the tougher sentencing law in 1995. "Those mandatory sentencings were the result of rooms like this being packed with people who said, 'Hey, so and so got a sweetheart of a deal,"' said Amodei.

Latin America: Top Anti-Drug Official Gunned Down in Mexico City

Mexico's drug wars claimed a high profile victim Monday, as unknown gunmen assassinated Jose Nemesio Lugo Felix, the new head of a federal anti-drug intelligence unit, as he went to work in the southern part of Mexico City. The killing comes as the government of President Felipe Calderon is several months into an offensive against the drug trafficking organizations -- the so-called cartels -- that has seen thousands of Mexican police and soldiers sent into drug trafficking hotbeds in an effort to break the power of the cartels.

Lugo was driving to his office when his car was cut off by another vehicle carrying several gunmen, who fired at least three shots into his car, hitting him in the head and back. One of the assailants then jumped onto a waiting motorcycle and fled the scene, while the others drove away.

Lugo's assassination got the attention of US Ambassador Tony Garza, who issued a statement lamenting the killing. "A principled and tireless crime fighter, Mr. Lugo is the latest Mexican law enforcement official to have lost his life in a valiant stand against the criminals who seek to enrich themselves by destroying the very fabric of our society," Garza said. "American law enforcement officials who worked with Mr. Lugo admired him for his dedication and professionalism," he said.

Formerly the head of a unit in the federal attorney general's office that investigated trafficking of minors and illegal immigrants, Lugo was appointed just last month to lead an elite anti-drug intelligence unit in that same office. While other police and soldiers have been killed by the cartels -- including five soldiers killed in an ambush in Michoacan earlier this month -- Lugo's assassination marks the highest-level killing so far. His killing was also unusual in that in occurred in the capital, which has been spared most of the violence surrounding the Mexican drug trade and the efforts to suppress it.

Last year, prohibition-related violence killed more than 2,000 people, and this year the killing is occurring at an even more rapid pace, with an estimated 1,000 dead so far. Calderon's offensive, which has seen extensive military and police sweeps in border cities, Acapulco, and his home state of Morelos, has, instead of calming the situation, only thrown fuel on the fire.

Still, the Calderon government remains steadfast in its aggressive policy. "The deaths of the men and women who die while doing their duty is lamentable," Mexican drug czar Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos told the newspaper Reforma. "But in spite of this, we are winning this battle. We can't give ourselves the luxury of being cowed by organized crime."

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