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Border Meth Seizures Surge, VT Lawmakers Aim for Accord on Legal Marijuana Sales, More... (8/19/20)

Vermont legislators look to reconcile House and Senate legal marijuana sales bills, UN officials in Colombia denounce an increasing number of massacres, and more.

methamphetamine (dea.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Vermont Lawmakers Meet to Advance Legal Marijuana Market. A group of lawmakers are meeting today to try get a bill approved that would allow for legal marijuana sales in the state. The House approved a bill with a 20% sales tax in February; the Senate approved a bill with a 16% sales tax last year. Now, a conference committee of lawmakers will try to iron out the differences. Some nonprofits and small businesses are opposing the current Senate bill, S.54, because they say it fails to provide opportunities for Black people to participate and it fails to include local families and small businesses.

Methamphetamine

US Border Officials See Methamphetamine Resurgence. Meth seizures on the border are rising, US officials say, pointing to the seizure earlier this month of nearly 800 pounds of meth valued at $16 million on the Pharr International Bridge near McAllen, Texas. Days later, another 650 pounds of meth was discovered in a semi-truck crossing the border at San Diego. According to Customs and Border Patrol statistics, its officers have seized 59 tons of meth in the fiscal year beginning last October. That's one and a half times the amount seized in the previous fiscal year, and we still have two months to go.

International

UN Peace Mission Condemns Spike in Colombia Massacres. The UN's peace mission in Colombia, set up to monitor adherence to the 2016 peace deal with the FARC, is condemning what it calls spiraling violence around the country. The mission says it has documented 33 massacres so far this year. It also said it was investigating the killings of 97 human rights defenders since then and that at least 41 former FARC combatants had been killed. In the past week alone, at least 13 people were killed, including eight gunned down at a birthday party in Narino department and five Afro-Colombian teenagers whose bodies were found in a field outside Cali. The UN defines a massacre as the killing of three or more people in the same event by the same group.

State Treasurers Lobby for Marijuana Banking in COVID Bill, Journalists Harassed in Colombia, More... (8/18/20)

A coalition of state treasurers is urging Congress to pass marijuana banking reforms as part of any coronavirus relief package, Arizona's Maricopa County improves the way it handles smalltime pot busts, and more.

Can the marijuana industry catch a break with the coronavirus relief bill? (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

State Treasurers Group Lobbies for Marijuana Banking in Coronavirus Bill. A coalition of state treasurers from around the country are calling on Congress to include marijuana banking reforms in the next coronavirus relief package. The move would boost the economy by giving it a much-needed infusion of capital, while protecting workers in the sector, the treasurers argued. The House included the SAFE Banking Act in the relief bill it passed in May, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who has long opposed marijuana reforms, sharply criticized House Democrats for including marijuana in the bill. Negotiations on the relief bill are currently going nowhere.

Arizona's Most Populous County Will Defer Pot Possession Prosecutions if Offenders Get a Medical Marijuana Card. Maricopa County (Phoenix) Attorney Allister Adel has announced that anyone who gets arrested in Maricopa County on a simple marijuana possession charge can apply for a medical marijuana card to avoid prosecution. "In cases where the defendant was not in compliance with the AMMA [Arizona Medical Marijuana Act] at the time of the crime solely because the person did not have a valid medical marijuana card, MCAO will dismiss a charge involving any crime covered by the AMMA if the defendant obtains a medical marijuana card and provides proof by the [initial pretrial conference]," the new policy says. That's a vast improvement over past practice under former County Attorney Bill Montgomery. Under the reign of Montgomery and his predecessors, low-level, first- and second-time marijuana offenders were sent to a drug treatment program called TASC, where they would shell out thousands of dollars and submit to frequent urine tests. The county attorney's office would get a cut of the profits.

Drug Policy

Minneapolis Suburb Repeals "Crime-Free, Drug-Free" Ordinance. The city council in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park voted unanimously Monday to repeal a controversial housing ordinance that police used to order landlords to evict tenants over suspected criminal activity. Tenants who were never convicted or even charged with a crime lost their housing, and once a local news station went public with its investigation, the city council moved quickly to repeal the policy.

International

Committee to Protect Journalists Calls for Investigation After Colombian Soldiers Shoot at Journalist, Threaten Reporters Covering Coca Protests. The Committee to Protect Journalists called Monday for Colombian authorities to undertake a thorough and transparent investigation into an incident where soldiers fired weapons at journalists Fernando Osorio and Edilson Álvarez as they covered a coca grower protest, then detained them for six hours and accused them of being left-wing guerrillas. "Colombian authorities should thoroughly investigate soldiers' brazen attacks on journalists Fernando Osorio and Edilson Álvarez and ensure that all those responsible are held to account," said CPJ Central and South Americas Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick, in New York. "The fact that this is the second shooting attack by soldiers on Osorio highlights the disregard that some in the Army appear to have for journalists. Impunity in these attacks will only perpetuate violence against journalists."

Maine Marijuana Stores to Finally Open, KY "Breonna's Law" Banning No-Knock Raids Filed, More... (8/17/20)

After years of delay, Maine regulators say retail marijuana outlets will be open in October, eight people were killed in a Colombian region where different leftist guerrillas are fighting each other for control of the drug trade, and more.

Breonna Taylor (family photo)
Marijuana Policy

Maine Marijuana Retail Shops to (Finally) Open in October. It's been nearly four years since Mainers voted to legalize marijuana, and finally, the state is ready for the outlets to open. The state Office of Marijuana Policy will issue its first recreational marijuana business licenses on September 8, giving stores a month to harvest, test, and package their products before the October 9 opening date. "Today's announcement is a major milestone in honoring the will of Maine voters and a significant step toward launching a new industry in the state," OMP Director Erik Gundersen said in a statement.

Law Enforcement

Kentucky Bill Named for Breonna Taylor Would Ban No-Knock Raids. State Rep. Attica Scott (D) announced Sunday that she was filing a bill named "Breonna's Law" that would ban no-knock search warrants statewide. Under the bill, police would have to knock and announce their presence, police would be subject to alcohol and drug testing after killing someone, and police body cameras to be turned on for at least five minutes before and after serving a warrant. Breonna Taylor was an Emergency Medical Technician shot and killed by Louisville Metro Police officers serving a no-knock warrant for a drug raid. No drugs were found, but her boyfriend opened fire on the late-night home invaders, injuring one officer, and officer fired back wildly, killing Taylor. Her cause has been taken up by the Black Lives Matter movement, and her death has sparked months of protests in Louisville.

International

Eight Gunned Down in Colombia Coca-Growing Region. Unknown gunmen shot and killed eight people in one of Colombia's primary coca-growing regions, officials said Sunday. The killings took place in the town of Samaniego in Narino department, where 20 people have been gunned down in the last two month. Narino borders Ecuador, making it a strategic location on a favored route for smuggling drugs north to Central America and the US. Leftist FARC rebel dissidents are fighting for control of the region with another leftist guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army.

MA MJ Industry Unionization Battles, Bolivian Coca Growers Mobilize, More... (8/12/20)

A former crime-fighting prosecutor and attorney general who now wants to legalize marijuana is Joe Biden's vice-presidential pick, a Wyoming judge frees some hemp farmers from a spurious prosecution, and more.

Joe Biden has selected Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), the sponsor of a marijuana legalization bill, as his vice-presidential pick.
Marijuana Policy

Joe Biden Selects MORE Act Sponsor Kamala Harris for VP. Presumptive Democratic Party presidential nominee has selected Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) to be his vice-presidential pick. For drug reformers, Harris's record as San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general is a mixed one, but she is currently sponsoring a federal marijuana legalization bill, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act (S.2227). The Senate version of the bill hasn't moved, but the House version, HR 3384) made history last year by passing out of the House Judiciary Committee, the first time a legalization bill won a vote in Congress.

Massachusetts Marijuana Cultivation Workers Unionize. Workers at Cultivate Holdings in Leicester voted by an "overwhelming majority" to join the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union Local 1445, the latest victory for organized labor in the industry. In July, workers at Mayflower Medicinals in Holliston voted to join the UFCW. But the union isn't winning every vote; recently, workers at New England Treatment Access voted down unionization. The UFCW accused management of "anti-union tactics" in that case.

Hemp

Wyoming Judge Throws Out Drug Trafficking Charges Against Hemp Farmers. Late last week, a Laramie County judge threw out drug trafficking charges brought against a pair of hemp advocates and farmers and two of their workers after the Division of Criminal Investigation raided their farm last November. Prosecutors sought to bring marijuana manufacture, delivery, possession, and cultivation charges against all four, but the judge ruled that the farmers had intended to produce hemp, not marijuana. Under Wyoming law, hemp has to have less than 0.3% THC. This crop contained less.

International

Bolivian Coca Growers Mobilize, Blockade Roads in Rising Protests Against Delayed Elections

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org's 501(c)(4) lobbying nonprofit, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this website. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

DC Natural Psychedelic Initiative Qualifies, DPA Federal Drug Decrim Push, More... (8/10/20)

Residents in the nation's capital will vote on whether to effectively decriminalize natural psychedelics, the Arizona pot legalization initiative survives a legal challenge, the Drug Policy Alliance pushes for federal drug decriminalization, and more.

Decriminalize Nature DC street signs
Marijuana Policy

Arizona Marijuana Legalization Initiative Fends Off Legal Challenge. The Smart and Safe Arizona marijuana legalization initiative has survived a legal challenge from foes. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge James Smith ruled late Friday that the measure's summary did not mislead voters and the measure can be on the ballot. "At 100 words, the summary also cannot include everything," he wrote. "That is why the full initiative must accompany the petition. This initiative is plain: It wants to legalize recreational marijuana," the judge wrote. "That is the principal provision. It is unlikely electors signing these petitions would be surprised by cascading effects of legalizing a formerly illegal substance."

Drug Policy

Drug Policy Alliance Proposes Federal All-Drug Decriminalization, Releases New Legislative Framework. The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) released a new federal legislative proposal Dismantling the Federal Drug War: A Comprehensive Drug Decriminalization Framework, which provides a roadmap to effectively end the criminalization of people who use drugs and begin repairing the harm drug law enforcement has caused to communities of color. The DPA model decriminalization legislation -- the Drug Policy Reform Act -- takes the first steps in dismantling the punitive apparatus built up over the past 50 years. To begin refocusing federal drug policies, the legislation shifts the authority for classifying and regulating controlled substances from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The legislation eliminates criminal penalties for all possession of personal-use quantities of controlled substances, and shifts federal resources away from futile enforcement strategies to supportive initiatives to protect the public health and safety.

Methamphetamine

Senators Feinstein and Grassley File Methamphetamine Response Act. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) last Thursday introduced the Methamphetamine Response Act, a bill declaring methamphetamine an emerging drug threat which would require the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) to develop, implement and make public a national plan to prevent methamphetamine addiction and overdoses from becoming a crisis.

Psychedelics

Washington, DC, Natural Psychedelics Initiative Qualifies for the Ballot. The DC Board of Elections announced last Wednesday that Initiative 81, the Entheogenic Plant and Fungus Policy Act of 2020, has qualified for the November ballot. The act would effectively decriminalize the use and possession of natural psychedelics by making the enforcement of laws against them the lowest priority.

International

World Anti-Doping Association to Shorten Punishments for Recreational Drug Offenses. Beginning next January, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) will no longer issue long suspensions for athletes testing positive for recreational drugs out of competition. Instead of being banned for two years, the athletes will now be banned for one to three months. "If the athlete can establish that any ingestion or use occurred out of competition and was unrelated to sport performance, then the period of ineligibility shall be three months," WADA's new code says. "In addition, the period of ineligibility calculated... may be reduced to one month if the athlete or other person satisfactorily completes a substance of abuse treatment program approved by the Anti-Doping Organization."

British Tory Drug Reform Group Calls for Rescheduling Psilocybin. The Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group (CDPRG) has published a new report with the Adam Smith Institute outlining the potential medical benefits of psilocybin and urging the UK Home Office to reschedule the compound for research purposes. The not-for-profit group also urges the Home Office to reduce regulatory restrictions on the compound to allow for research into its medical efficacy. The report is Medicinal use of psilocybin: Reducing restrictions on research and treatment.

Colombia's Former President Uribe Placed on House Arrest During Investigation of Ties to Drug Cartels, Paramilitary Groups. Last Thursday, President Ivan Duque announced that former President Alvaro Uribe will be held in custody as the Supreme Court investigates allegations of witness tampering. Uribe, president of Colombia from 2002 to 2010, has long been accused of criminal activities, including having ties to drug cartels and paramilitary groups. He is currently accused of being a founding member of a rightist paramilitary group involved in the decades-long conflict between the government and leftist rebels.

The Drug Policy Alliance is a funder of StoptheDrugWar.org.

New Federal Legalization Bill, Houston Narcs Indicted, Peru Coca Production Up (Maybe), More... (8/3/20)

Peru and the US are in a dispute over how much coca and cocaine is produced there, Houston narcs involved in a deadly botched drug raid get indicted, and more.

How much coca and cocaine is Peru producing?
Marijuana Policy

New Senate Bill Would Legalize Marijuana Like Tobacco. Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) has filed the Substance Regulation and Safety Act (S.4386), which would deschedule marijuana and require the Department of Health and Human Services to develop regulations that treat marijuana like tobacco. The bill would also create a national research institute to study the risks and benefits of marijuana, require the Department of Agriculture to set quality control standards and require the Department of Transportation to study methods for detecting THC-impaired driving.

Medical Marijuana

Louisiana Law Allowing Medical Marijuana for Any Debilitating Condition Now in Effect. A new law that broadly expands access to medical marijuana has now gone into effect. The new law allows doctors to recommend medical marijuana to patients for any debilitating condition. Under the state's old law, only a limited list of specified illnesses and conditions were eligible for medical marijuana.

Law Enforcement

Houston Ex-Cops in Deadly Botched Drug Raid Indicted. A Harris County grand jury has indicted six former Houston narcotics officers after their unit came under scrutiny in the wake of a 2019 raid in which an innocent pair of homeowners were killed. Prosecutors charge that the former officers falsified documentation about drug payments to confidential informants, routinely used false information to get search warrants, and lied in police reports. A total of 17 felony charges were brought against the officers, led by Gerald Goines.

International

ONDCP Releases Data on Coca Cultivation and Production in Peru. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) released the results of the annual United States Government estimates measuring coca cultivation and potential cocaine production for the Republic of Peru: "Coca (the plant used to make cocaine) cultivation in Peru significantly increased to 72,000 hectares in 2019, with potential pure cocaine production of 705 metric tons… "Coca cultivation in Peru and across the Andean Region of South America remains a significant threat to the American people. That's why President Trump ordered a surge in counternarcotics operations to take the fight directly to the drug cartels. This surge has already resulted in preventing 183,521 pounds of cocaine from entering the United States, resulting in $2.1 billion in lost revenue for drug cartels. As part of its partnership with the United States, Peru must expand its efforts to curb coca cultivation and production. The Trump Administration remains committed to bringing those who profit from drug trafficking to justice with the singular goal of saving American lives," ONDCP Director Jim Carroll said.

Peru Rejects US Estimates on Increased Cocaine and Coca Leaf Production. The Peruvian government on Saturday rejected an ONDCP report that said coca leaf and cocaine production had dramatically increased last year. The anti-drug office, Devida, said the report contained "a series of errors" because it did not consider the amount of coca eradicated nor the traditional consumption of coca and the country's licit coca industry, which does not produce cocaine.

SD Medical Association Opposes Marijuana Initiatives, ONDCP Touts Mexico Opium Reduction, More... (7/31/20)

Rhode Island's governor is once again pushing for marijuana legalization, the South Dakota state medical association comes out against both medical marijuana and marijuana legalization initiatives, and more.

Fewer opium poppies in Mexico these days... but more fentanyl. (UNODC)
Marijuana Policy

Rhode Island Governor Reiterates Support for Marijuana Legalization. Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) said in an interview Thursday that she continues to support marijuana legalization as one way to raise revenue. "I was in favor of it last year, so I'm continuing to be in favor of it," the governor said. "I'm going to put it back again."

South Dakota Medical Association Comes Out Against Marijuana Initiatives. Voters will have a chance in November to vote on both a marijuana legalization initiative, Constitutional Amendment A, and a medical marijuana initiative, Initiated Measure 26, but the South Dakota State Medical Association is opposing both of them and will write the opposition statement that will appear on the general election ballot. The association maintains that marijuana is a hazardous drug and a public health concern.

Drug Policy

White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) Announces Record Reduction in Poppy Cultivation and Potential Heroin Production in Mexico. "The annual United States Government estimate of "Mexican Poppy Cultivation and Heroin Production" found poppy cultivation in Mexico decreased by 27 percent, from 41,800 hectares in 2018 to 30,400 hectares in 2019," ONDCP said. "Similarly, potential pure heroin production decreased by 27 percent, from 106 metric tons in 2018 to 78 metric tons in 2019. This 27 percent decrease in the potential production of heroin marks a milestone by meeting a goal set by the Trump Administration's National Drug Control Strategy two years early." What ONDCP didn't say is that Mexican poppy cultivation is down not because of any US or Mexican policy initiatives but because the farmgate price for opium dropped dramatically beginning last year because of overproduction and the increasing resort to fentanyl as a substitute for heroin.

House to Vote on Protecting All State-Legal Marijuana Programs, Bolivia Coca Cultivation Up, More... (7/29/20)

An amendment to block the Justice Department from using its funds to go after state-legal marijuana programs is headed for a House vote, Maryland's Supreme Court rules that the smell of weed isn't enough for a police search and arrest, and more.

Maryland Supreme Court rules smell of weed not sufficient for arrest or search. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

House Will Vote on Protecting All State Marijuana Programs This Week. The House is prepared to vote this week on an amendment from Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Tom McClintock (R-CA), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) that would protect both medical and recreational marijuana programs in the states, territories, and tribal lands. The amendment would bar the Justice Department from using its funds to impede the implementation of state-legal marijuana programs.

Maryland Supreme Court Rules Smell of Marijuana Alone Not Sufficient for Police Search and Arrest. The state's high court has ruled that police may not search or arrest people based on the smell of marijuana alone. "The odor of marijuana, without more, does not provide law enforcement officers with the requisite probable cause to arrest and perform a warrantless search of that person incident to the arrest," the court held in a unanimous ruling. The decision builds on an earlier ruling by the same court that police can't arrest and search someone based on observing amounts of marijuana smaller than 10 grams.

International

Bolivia Coca Cultivation Up Last Year, UNODC Says. Coca cultivation was up 10% over 2018 last year, according to the latest Coca Cultivation Monitoring Report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The Yungas region of La Paz accounted for nearly two-thirds of cultivation, while the Tropics of Cochabamba accounted for nearly all the rest. Meanwhile, the Bolivian government reported a roughly 20% decrease in eradication.

British Columbia Bill to Require Youth Overdose Victims to Be Detained Put on Hold. Canada's British Columbia has paused movement on a bill that would allow for people under age 19 to be detained after they suffer a drug overdose. The proposed changes in the provincial Mental Health Act would allow teens to be detained in a hospital for up to a week after an overdose, but the bill has been paused in the face of opposition from children and youth advocates and drug reform activists. They say it should be withdrawn completely.

Reform Groups Call for Marijuana Legalization Amidst COVID Crisis, DEA Part of Federal Anti-Crime Surge, More... (7/23/20)

The initial draft of the Democratic platform calls for not interfering with state marijuana laws but doesn't call for legalization, a North Dakota legalization campaign comes up short, hospitals are warning of IV opioid shortages, and more.

The Mexican military is being cited (again) for human rights abuses in its prosecution of the drug war. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Democratic Draft Platform Does Not Include Marijuana Legalization. The initial version of the national Democratic Party platform, released by the Democratic National Committee's platform drafting panel, calls for allowing states to set their own marijuana laws, but stops short of calling for federal legalization. Various marijuana policy reforms in the draft include decriminalizing cannabis possession, automatic expungement of prior marijuana convictions, federal rescheduling through executive action, legalizing medical cannabis, and allowing states to set their own laws. The draft could still be amended when the full platform committee meets next Monday.

Coalition of Justice and Drug Reform Groups Call on Congress to Legalize Marijuana Amid Coronavirus Crisis. The ACLU, the Drug Policy Alliance, NORML, and Human Rights Watch are among a coalition of civil rights and drug reform groups calling on Congress to pass comprehensive marijuana legalization legislation that emphasizes restorative justice. Calling themselves the Marijuana Justice Coalition, the group says legalization is now especially urgent in the context of the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests over police brutality. Given the current situation, "marijuana reform as a modest first step at chipping away at the war on drugs is more relevant and more pressing than ever before," they wrote in a letter to Congress.

North Dakota Legalization Initiative Comes Up Short on Signatures. The campaign to put a marijuana legalization initiative on the November ballot has come up short on signatures. The North Dakota Freedom of Cannabis Act needed some 27,000 valid voter signatures by Wednesday, but had only 24,000 raw signatures to hand in. A second legalization initiative campaign, Legalize ND, came up short earlier. Now, both groups say they are aiming at 2022.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Hospitals Say IV Opioid Painkillers Running Short Amid Coronavirus Crisis Because of DEA Quota Policy. One of the biggest hospital groups in the country, Premier, Inc., is warning that intravenous painkillers are in short supply during the pandemic because of the DEA's restrictions on legal opioid production. As part of the federal government's response to the opioid epidemic, DEA has slashed the amount of opioids producers can manufacture over the past two years. That's made them harder to get for everyone, including hospitals. Unless the agency gives hospitals more access to IV painkillers, hospitals will keep running short of the medications needed to help ventilate coronavirus patients and sedate patients before surgery, Premier Inc. wrote in a Wednesday letter to the DEA.

Law Enforcement

DEA Participating in Federal Law Enforcement Surge Aimed at Big Cities. As part of the Trump administration's surge of federal law enforcement in cities including Albuquerque, Chicago, and Kansas City, the DEA will participate in what the feds are calling Operation Legend. "The surge of violent crime in many of our great American cities is unacceptable and cannot be left unchecked," said DEA Acting Administrator Timothy J. Shea. "DEA plays a vital role in combatting violent crime by targeting drug trafficking organizations who employ violence and intimidation to further their criminal enterprise. Violence is an essential element of drug trafficking. Our agents, working alongside our state, local, and federal counterparts, will bring additional resources and specialized investigative skills to help reduce violent crime plaguing so many communities." Shea did not address the role of drug prohibition in encouraging violence.

International

Mexican Human Rights Commission Says Military Abducted 27 People at Border in 2018, 12 Later Found Dead. The Mexican government's human rights commission said Tuesday that Mexican marines abducted 27 people in the border town of Nuevo Laredo in 2018 and that 12 of them were later found dead. The other 15 haven't been seen. The commission more broadly accused the marines of engaging in "illegal searches and arbitrary detentions." At the time, the military was engaged in running battles with the Zetas cartel. The commission issued non-binding recommendations that criminal investigations be opened and changes be made in Navy patrol procedures.

Mexican Border City Sees 26 Killings in 72 Hours. Chihuahua Attorney General Cesar Augusto Peniche said Wednesday that Ciudad Juarez had seen 26 homicides in the past 72 hours and that they can be attributed to a rapidly escalating war between rival gangs fighting for control of the city's drug franchise. The groups at war are the Aztecas and the La Empresa cartel. The latest killings bring the death toll to 969 so far this year in the city.

The Drug Policy Alliance is a funder of StoptheDrugWar.org.

Book Review: Kilo: Inside the Deadliest Cocaine Cartels -- From the Jungle to the Streets [FEATURE]

Kilo: Inside the Deadliest Cocaine Cartels -- From the Jungle to the Streets, by Toby Muse (2020, William Morrow, 303 pp., $28.99 HB)

For the last 40 years, Colombia has been one of the world's leading coca and cocaine producers, vying with Peru and Bolivia for the title each year, and recently consistently coming out on top as the world's largest producer. This despite billions of dollars spent by the Colombian government and the United States to try to eradicate the crop and suppress the trade.

It's also -- and not coincidentally -- been one of the most violent countries on the planet. A decades-long civil war between the leftist militants of the FARC and the Colombian state left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced. And after coca and cocaine took hold beginning in the 1980s, that civil war morphed into a vicious, multi-sided conflict featuring not only more leftist guerillas of various stripes and Colombian military and police forces aided and abetted by the US, but also various rightist paramilitary forces controlled by drug lords and conservative wealthy landowners working in collusion with security forces.

With Kilo, Bogotá-based journalist Toby Muse dives deep inside Colombia's coca and cocaine trade to provide unparalleled reporting both on the industry and on the dance of death it provokes again and again and again. He starts at the beginning: in the coca fields of a Catatumbo province, near the Venezuelan border. There, refugees from the economic implosion across the line now form the majority of raspachines, the farm hands whose job it is to strip the bushy plants of their coca-laden leaves. At the end of each harvest day, they tote large bags filled with the day's haul to the farm scale to be weighed and paid. They might get $8 a day.

In simple labs -- a wooden shack or maybe four poles and a tarp -- that dot the jungly countryside -- those humble leaves are pulverized and steeped in a chemical brew to create coca paste, one step away from the white powder, cocaine hydrochloride. A ton of leaves is transformed into a kilo and a half of paste, which the farmer can sell for about $400. That used to be good money, but the price has held steady for 20 years, there's more coca than ever, and costs have gone up.

But while the introduction of coca as a cash crop initially brought boom times, the smell of all the cash being generated inevitably attracted the attention of the armed groups, those strange hybrid revolutionary drug traffickers and rightist narco-militias. And that meant fighting and disappearances and massacres as the men with the guns fought to control the lucrative trade. Where coca comes, death follows, Muse writes.

Muse follows the kilo, now processed into cocaine, to the local market town, a Wild West sort of place where traffickers meet farmers, farmers get paid, and the local prostitutes -- again, now mostly Venezuelan -- get lots of business. He interviews all sorts of people involved in the trade or affected by it, from the $12 an hour sex workers to the drunken, just paid farmers and raspachines and the business hustlers who flock to the town to peddle flat screen TVs and the urban traffickers who come out to the sticks to pick up their cocaine.

And then it's on to Medellin, famed as the home of OG drug lord Pablo Escobar, and now a bustling, modern metropolis where cocaine still fuels the economy but where the drug barons are no longer flashy rural rubes but quiet men in suits, "the Invisibles," as they're now known. They may be lower profile, but they're still ruthless killers who hire poor, ambitious local kids, known as sicarios, to do the actual killing. Muse wins the confidence of a mid-level trafficker, a former policeman who learned the trade from the other side and now applies his knowledge to run an international cocaine network.

And he parties with the narcos at Medellin night clubs, techno music blasting, guests wasted on whiskey and cocaine and 2-CB ("pink cocaine," like cocaine with a psychedelic tinge, an elite party drug that costs $30 a gram while cocaine goes for $3). This glamorous life is what it's all about, what makes the constant fear or death or imprisonment worth it:

"The clubs feel like the center of this business of dreams. Cocaine has all the nervous energy of a casino where everyone keeps winning money, sex is everywhere, and at any moment, someone might step up and put a bullet in your head. This is the deal in cocaine and people are happy to take it."

Nobody expects to last too long in the trade, but they live the high life while they can. Muse's drug trafficker, Alex, doesn't make it to the end of the book, gunned down by somebody else's sicario. But before he is killed, that titular kilo makes its way out of the country and into the eager noses of London or Los Angeles.

Muse's descriptions of life in the cocaine business are vivid and detailed; his atmospherics evoke the tension of lives outside the law, where no one is to be trusted, and brutal death can come in an instant. A young sicario whom he interviews over a period of months, ages before our eyes, killing for his bosses, afraid of being killed in turn, and numbing himself in between hits with whiskey and cocaine. He wants out, but there looks to be no exit.

As a good journalist, Muse also interviews the drug law enforcers, the cops who bust mules at the Bogotá airport, the drug dog handlers running the aisles of massive export warehouses, the naval officers who hunt down the narco-subs. And it is only here, where the futility of their Sisyphean task is evident, that any critique of drug prohibition is articulated:

"">No one knows how widespread corruption is in the airports and ports. Police officers admit it's a huge problem, but only in private, off the record. That's the hypocrisy of the drug war. In formal interviews, officers point out how well they're doing, the positive results. And as soon as the interview is over, and the recorder stops, they sit back and tell you what's really happening. They tell you of the constant problem of corruption, how the war is unwinnable, and how the only solution is legalization. In private, to state that the war on cocaine can be won would make you look like an idiot. To admit the war is unwinnable in public is to end a career."

That's as close as Muse gets to any policy prescriptions. Still, Kilo digs as deep into the trade as anyone ever has, and he has the journalistic chops to make a bracing, informative, and very disturbing read. This may be as close to the Colombian cocaine business as you want to get.

Drug War Issues

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