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Chronicle AM: Decriminalize Nature Hits DC, Colombia Coca Eradication Fight, More... (1/10/20)

Vermont lawmakers begin a push to tax and regulate marijuana sales, the Decriminalize Nature movement arrives in the nation's capital, Colombia's president and governors disagree about aerial eradication of coca crops, and more.

Will Washington, DC, deprioritize magic mushrooms and other natural psychedelics? (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Vermont Lawmakers Push for Legal Marijuana Sales. Lawmakers who want to pass a law to tax and regulate marijuana sales in the state held a news conference Thursday to urge the legislature to move forward on a bill that passed the Senate last year. It has not been acted on in the House, and proponents are hoping it will move in the next few months. Proponents are hopeful a bill can be acted upon with the next few months.

Law Enforcement

West Virginia Governor Creates Narcotics Intelligence Unit. Gov. Jim Justice (D) issued an executive order Thursday creating the West Virginia Narcotics Intelligence Unit to crack down on drug trafficking. The unit will be under the state Department of Military Affairs (!) and Public Safety's Intelligence Fusion Center. "Tonight I am ordering Secretary Jeff Sandy to form a new unit called a Narcotics Intelligence Unit -- a new unit at the Fusion Center -- it will be a strike force," Justice said. "I'm going to ask you for $1.9 million and I'm going to ask you to give us that to stop this terrible effort. That's all there is to it."

Psychedelics

DC Group Wants to Decriminalize Magic Mushrooms, Natural Psychedelics. A group calling itself Decriminalize Nature DC is beginning an effort to reduce penalties for the use, possession, and cultivation of magic mushrooms and other natural psychedelics. Members are working on a ballot initiative that would ask Metro police to make enforcement of drug laws against psychedelics the lowest law enforcement priority. The DC Board of Elections will weigh in next month on whether the language violates a congressional ban on easing any laws regarding Schedule I substances.

International

Colombia Says It Eradicated a Quarter Million Acres of Coca Crops. President Ivan Duque announced Tuesday that Colombia had eradicated 247,000 of coca fields in 2019. That's up from about 200,000 acres eradicated in 2018. "From now on we will without a doubt face the challenge of re-planting, but Colombia has clear its goal to reduce by 50% the area that is planted with illegal crops by the end of 2022 or 2023," Duque said in a televised statement. The government used manual eradication teams to destroy the crops but wants to return to the aerial spraying of herbicides, a practice ended in 2015.

Colombia Governors Reject Plans to Resume Aerial Spraying of Coca Crops. The governors of Colombia's coca growing provinces have come out against the government's plans to resume aerial spraying of coca crops. The governors of Antioquia, Narino, Cauca, Putumayo, and Norte de Santander said they supported alternative development and voluntary crop substitution and want President Duque to implement the 2016 peace deal with demobilized FARC guerrillas.

The Top Ten International Drug Policy Stories of 2019 [FEATURE]

(See our Top Ten Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2019 feature here.)

We're looking at 2019 through the rearview mirror now, but before we turn our sights to 2020, it's worth taking a few moments to look back at the last year in international drug policy. From marijuana law reform to the push for drug decriminalization, from the coca fields of Colombia to the poppy fields of Afghanistan, and from the killing fields of Mexico and the Philippines, there was a lot going on. Here are ten of the biggest international drug policy stories of 2019, in no particular order.

Medical marijuana was on the move in 2019 -- sort of -- at the UN's Vienna headquarters.
1. Marijuana Legalization and Decriminalization Advances

The wall of marijuana prohibition continued to crumble in 2019, albeit at an achingly slow pace.

A lot of the activity was in Europe. In March, Switzerland announced plans to let up to 5,000 people legally smoke marijuana in pilot studies aimed at shaping rules for recreational use of the drug.

In the Netherlands, the government finally moved in August to address the longstanding "backdoor problem," where marijuana is allowed to be sold but there is no legal source of supply. It announced a pilot program to begin in 2021 in which cannabis cafes in ten Dutch cities will be supplied with legally grown marijuana. The big cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam opted out because of worries that problems could arise if they all abandoned their illicit suppliers simultaneously.

In Denmark, the city council in Copenhagen, the country's capital and largest city, voted overwhelmingly in August to support a pilot program that would see marijuana sold legally across the city. The council has long pushed for this, but now there is a new left-wing government, so perhaps it will be allowed to happen.

Also in August, Luxembourg looked set to become the first European country to free the weed, as the government confirmed plans to legalize it, saying that residents 18 and over should be able to use and purchase it within two years. In December, though, the government said it will still be at least two years, citing "delays in working on policy related to the legislation."

And just at year's end, in Italy, the Supreme Court ruled that the small-scale personal cultivation of marijuana is legal, triggering calls for further legalization. The court declared that laws against growing drug crops should not apply to "small amounts grown domestically for the exclusive use of the grower."

And Israel decriminalized marijuana possession as of April 1. Possession of small amounts of marijuana in private homes is no longer to be treated as an offense, criminal or otherwise, while public possession will generate a fine of around $275, with that fine doubling for a second offense within five years. Only people who commit a third public possession offense within seven years will face the possibility of criminal prosecution.

In Australia, Canberra, the national capital, became the first city in the country to legalize marijuana personal use and cultivation. The law legalizes up to 50 grams and two plants per person, but not sales. It is set to go into effect on January 31, 2020, but conflicts with national marijuana prohibition, so stay tuned. And in nearby New Zealand, the governing coalition announced in May it would hold a binding referendum on marijuana legalization during the 2020 elections. In December, it unveiled a government web site with information on the proposed legalization bill that will be put before the voters.

In the Western hemisphere, Uruguay and Canada have led the way on marijuana legalization, but Mexico looks set to be the next over the line. After legislators there failed to pass legalization by a Supreme Court-imposed deadline at the end of October, the court gave them an extension until June 1 to get it done. Lawmakers got very close late in 2019 but were unable to close the deal because of disputes among competing business interests. There was action in Colombia, too, where an opposition senator filed a legalization bill in August. That bill is reportedly backed by former President Juan Manuel Santos, but it is the votes of the Liberal Party that will determine whether it advances.

There was progress in the Caribbean, too. In Trinidad & Tobago, non-commercial marijuana legalization went into effect in December, allowing people to possess up to 30 grams and grow four plants. A regulated marijuana marketplace is likely coming in 2020. In St. Kitts and Nevis,the government in midsummer filed a bill to legalize marijuana for "medicinal and scientific, religious, and recreational purposes." It remains pending at year's end. A similar effort is underway in the British Virgin Islands, where a draft bill to legalize marijuana is being reviewed by government officials.

2. Medical Marijuana on the Move

Acceptance of medical marijuana on the global stage continued to increase in 2019, and the year got off to a good start in January when the Israeli Cabinet gave final approval to exports, making it the third country, after Canada and the Netherlands, to do so. The following month, the European Parliament approved a resolution to advance medical marijuana in countries that form the European Union.

Meanwhile, Thailand formally embraced medical marijuana when King Maha Vajirlongkorn signed a decree legalizing it and kratom; and later in the year, a member of the country's ruling coalition government filed a bill that would allow people to grow up to six plants for personal medicinal use. And in the Philippines, a bill to legalize medical marijuana was reintroduced in 2019. Similar bills have been filed each year since 2014. Last year, the bill passed the lower house but failed to get out of the Senate.

In Latin America, Peru joined the ranks of medical marijuana countries more than a year after it became law when the government finally approved regulations to cover its production and use. In Mexico, the Supreme Court in August gave the federal health ministry until January to issue regulations on medical marijuana.

In the Caribbean, in August, Barbados introduced legislation to establish the legal foundation for a local medical marijuana industry, joining Jamaica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines as well as Antigua and Barbuda in approving marijuana cultivation.

Medical marijuana was sort of on the move at the United Nations too. In late January, the World Health Organization recommended the removal of marijuana from Schedule IV of the global drug treaties, the most restrictive category, along with other related reclassifications of substances involving marijuana's components or synthetic substitutes for them. This would stop short of the kind of full stamp of approval WHO gives to many drugs -- marijuana would not become an "essential medicine" -- but it would eliminate a designation that some governments might find constraining in terms of allowing medical use in their own countries. Most importantly, it would be widely seen as recognition by the UN of marijuana as a medicine (though international law does not ban medical use of marijuana now).

The Commission on Narcotic Drugs -- the subset of UN member states that sets drug policy for the UN -- was supposed to vote on the WHO recommendations during its March meeting, but that didn't happen because the recommendations were delayed at the end of 2018, leaving several countries to complain that they needed more time to study them.

"You can't arrest your way out of a drug problem." So why not try decriminalization? (Creative Commons)
3. Drug Decriminalization on the Move

Beyond marijuana legalization, the decriminalization of drug use and possession is probably the most significant means within current political striking range for reducing the criminal justice harms of drug prohibition. Portugal, which decriminalized in 2001, remains a shining example to emulate.

In Canada, in May, the House of Commons Health Committee called on the federal government to study Portugal's drug decriminalization and see how the model could be "positively applied in Canada." The following month, British Columbia nurses called urgently for decriminalization, but in September, as he campaigned for reelection, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said decriminalization was not on the agenda, even though the national Liberal Party caucus in 2018 passed a resolution calling to "reclassify low-level drug possession and consumption as administrative violations" rather than criminal ones. The conversation is advancing north of the border.

The conversation is also advancing in the United Kingdom, where the Scottish National Party formally endorsed drug decriminalization, as did the British Parliament's Health and Social Care Committee and Parliament's Scottish Affairs Committee. Britain's leading medical journal, The Lancet, came out hard for decriminalization in a special drugs issue released in October. The following month, Britain's largest drug treatment providers called for radical drug policy reforms, including decrim. But the ruling Conservative Party with Boris Johnson freshly installed as prime minister, remains opposed -- for now.

It's not just Canada and Great Britain, either. In Mexico, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in May submitted a decriminalization plan to Congress, while in Malaysia, the government announced in June that it planned to drop criminal penalties for drug use and possession. The following month, in Colombia, the legislative opposition and the center-right block filed a bill to decriminalize there.

In Australia, the New South Wales Special Commission of Inquiry into Ice (methamphetamine) released recommendations in October calling for harm reduction approaches and decriminalization. In the United States, an effort to put a decrim initiative on the 2020 Oregon ballot got underway in the fall, and a national movement to decriminalize psychedelics got underway.

The push to decriminalize is also working its way through the global drug control bureaucracy, as was evident in March when a key UN organization called for global drug decriminalization. The UN Chief Executives Board (CEB), representing 31 UN agencies including the Office on Drugs and Crime, adopted a position calling on member states to adopt science-based, health-oriented approaches to drug policy -- namely decriminalization. The policy shift -- or rather, recognition of what the policies of UN agencies on this already were -- came in January but was not publicly announced.

4. Harm Reduction and Human Rights

Along with decriminalization, harm reduction and concern about human rights gained momentum in 2019.

In March, a coalition of UN Member States, UN entities and leading human rights experts meeting at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna launched a landmark set of international legal standards around drug policy: the International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy. The following month, more than 300 NGOs called for harm reduction and drug decriminalization at the 26th International Harm Reduction Conference in Lisbon.

In the United Kingdom, both the British Labour Party and Parliament's Scottish Affairs Committee called for safe injection sites, while in Ireland, a Dublin safe injection site was moving closer to reality at year's end.

In Australia, the New South Wales Special Commission of Inquiry into Ice (methamphetamine) recommended harm reduction approaches in October, and the New Zealand government in December announced a pilot program to examine pill-testing at festivals, marking the first time such a study will have been done in the country.

5. Mexico Ravaged by Prohibition-Related Violence for Another Year

In January, Mexican authorities reported that the number of murders in 2018 hit an all-time high with more than 33,000, many of them directly linked to violence among competing drug cartels and between cartels and the state. A lot happened between then and now, but at the end of 2019, this year's death toll was at just under 32,000. At least it didn't get worse, but those numbers are still horrifying, and the year-old administration of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador hasn't been able to turn the corner yet. It's not for lack of trying or willingness to embrace new ideas.

In February, the Mexican Senate approved a plan for a new National Guard to fight crime and drug trafficking, but only after amending it to ensure that the new security force is headed by civilians, not the military, which has been linked to numerous human rights violations.

In May, Lopez Obrador called for an end to Plan Merida, under which the US provided security assistance to fight the drug war, with the president saying he wants the US to end the anti-drug Merida Initiative and instead invest in economic development in southern Mexico and Central America. Saying the plan "hasn't worked," Lopez Obrador added that, "We don't want cooperation on the use of force, we want cooperation on economic development. We don't want the so-called Merida Initiative."

In June, the murder rate topped 2,000 a month for this first time, a toll linked to the rise of the Jalisco New Generation cartel, which is seeking to supplant the Sinaloa cartel formerly headed by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who is now serving a sentence in the US. In north-central Guanajuato state, the JNGC has been duking it out with yet another faction, the Santa Rose de Lima cartel, leaving more than 3,200 dead in that state alone by year's end.

By August, a Catholic bishop issued a call for dialogue between the government and armed groups, including drug cartels. That was Bishop Salvador Rangel Mendoza of Chilpancingo-Chilapa (Guerrero state), a key opium-growing region. Responding to the government's announcement that it was in talks with so-called community police groups and self-defense militias, but not the cartels, the bishop chided the government, saying, "To get peace you have to dialogue, even with Satan, with whomever it might be to get peace."

As cartel clashes raged through the summer and fall, the government tentatively explored alternatives to continuing drug war. In September, Lopez Obrador said he was considering a referendum on drug legalization, and in October, the ruling MORENA Party's leader in the Chamber of Deputies, Mario Delgado Carrillo, proposed legalizing all drugs to combat cartel violence. His comments were in response to one of the more brazen cartel actions in 2019, when Sinaloa Cartel gunmen forced the release of El Chapo's son after he was captured by security forces in the cartel heartland city of Culiacan and they turned the city into a war zone until Ovidio Guzman was freed, greatly embarrassing the government.

That same month, in another brazen attack, gun men from the JNGC ambushed police in Michoacan, killing more than a dozen and leaving signed placards on their bodies warning police not to support rival crime groups, such as Los Viagras.

In yet another act of gruesome violence -- and one that caught the attention of Americans long bored with the violence south of the border -- in November, cartel gun men killed nine women and children with dual US-Mexico citizenship, prompting President Trump to suggest he could use the US military to "wage war" against the cartels. Lopez Obrador declined that offer [Ed: wisely, for them and for us].

6. Coca, Cocaine and Chaos in Colombia

According to both the UN and the US, Colombia accounted for around 70% of global cocaine production in 2017, when the country produced 1,275 tons of cocaine, the most ever. In 2018, production declined by a tiny percentage, but remained near record high levels. There are no figures available yet for 2019, but there is no reason to suspect much has changed.

The high levels of coca cultivation and cocaine production have made a return to aerial spraying of coca crops a key goal of the rightist government of President Ivan Duque, who in March asked the Constitutional Court to ease restrictions on spraying, which President Juan Manuel Santos banned after the World Health Organization classified glyphosate as a likely carcinogen. That position won the support of US Secretary of State Pompeo in June, when, ignoring the global criticism of glyphosate and any other strategies for reducing cultivation, he called spraying "an important tool they need" to reduce coca production.

But in July, the Constitutional Court upheld the ban, although it also said spraying could resume if the government met certain conditions. At the end of December, the government announced plans to resume spraying, publishing a draft law that would allow fumigation flights under supervision of the national police. The proposal also calls for the creation of an independent agency that would oversee complaints related to aerial spraying including any potential impacts on rural communities.

Meanwhile three years after a peace deal between former President Santos and the leftist guerrillas of the FARC was signed, violence and chaos in the countryside are increasing. In March, coca farmers clashed with police in Cordoba, saying they were returning to coca after two years of waiting for economic and security assistance that never arrived. In April, a UN report found massacres on the increase, reflecting new criminal dynamics in key areas of the country.

In June, the government reported a jump in murders, driven largely by battles for control over coca-growing areas that had previously been controlled by the leftist the FARC, leaving FARC dissidents, other guerrilla groups, and criminal drug trafficking groups fighting over who will control the fields. And in August, a new report from Human Rights Watch found that renewed fighting over control of the cocaine trade in the Catatumbo region had forced some 40,000 people to flee their homes. Human Rights Watch accused the Colombian government of "not meeting its obligations" to protect civilians in the area.

And speaking of the FARC, they're back. In June, a military intelligence report said as many as a third of FARC fighters had picked up their guns again. They were joining dissident FARC groups operating in coca-growing regions. Disarmed FARC rebels were supposed to have been reintegrated into society, but that has been stymied by violence and discrimination. At least 139 former FARC members have been killed since disarming.

A couple of month later, FARC dissidents made it official. In August, dissident FARC leaders announced they were rejoining the path of armed struggle. Three years after an historic peace agreement between the leftist guerrillas of the FARC and the Colombian state, the dissidents said that the rightist government of President Ivan Duque had betrayed the peace accord. Led Ivan Marquez (Luciano Marin), they said they were ready for a "new stage of fightingm," citing the murders of more than a hundred former FARC members and labor activists, as well as the government's failure to provide sustainable development assistance to areas formerly under their control. "The state has not fulfilled its most important obligation, which is to guarantee the life of its citizens and especially avoid assassinations for political reasons," said Marquez. The number of dissidents affiliated with Marquez is estimated at around 2,000-3,000. The civil war with the FARC that began in 1964 left more than 220,000 people dead.

President Duque also faces challenges to his hardline approach to drug policy in both the courts and the congress. The Constitutional Court threw out his ban on public pot smoking and drinking, meaning police can no longer confiscate drugs considered to be for personal consumption, and people are again allowed to smoke marijuana and drink beer in public. But it's unclear whether Duque will abide by the ruling.

And in June, the legislative opposition and a center-right bloc filed a package of four bills that seek to decriminalize drug use and ban glyphosate, the chemical the government wants to use to fumigate coca. What opposition lawmakers want is to curb drug abuse by strengthening health care and to fight drug trafficking via voluntary crop substitution and rural development.

Bolivia's coca grower president, Evo Morales, was forced from office late in 2019. (Creative Commons)
7. Farewell to Bolivia's Coca Grower President

Long-time Bolivian leader Evo Morales, a former coca growers union leader who won the presidency in 2005 and was reelected twice was forced from office and fled the country after extended protests in the wake of disputed elections in November. Morales resigned after he lost the support of the military, which called on him to quit after weeks of sometimes violent protests.

As president, Morales broke with US drug policy in the region and legalized the production of coca in the country. He also lifted millions of Bolivians out of poverty, through heavy investments in public works projects. He began to lose support after ignoring a referendum calling on him not to run again, which had followed a series of controversies and scandals. Chaos escalated after an unexplained 24-hour delay in vote-counting before he was declared the victor. The country is now ruled by an interim hard right regime, but elections are supposed to happen in the next three months.

8. Philippines Drug War Faces International Pushback

The international community turned up the heat on Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte and his bloody drug war in 2019, but Duterte was undeterred.

In 2018, the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened a preliminary examination into human rights abuses in the drug war, and that March, Duterte responded by quitting the ICC. But the ICC said its preliminary investigation into Filipino drug war abuses would continue. In December 2019 the ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced that the examination was in the "very late stages," and that a decision on whether to open an investigation would be made during 2020.

In April, human rights advocates and harm reductionists rallied against the Philippine drug war at the 26th Harm Reduction International Conference in Porto, Portugal. "The Philippine government's barbaric campaign against the drug trade is severely harming the health and security of its communities. The evidence that punitive drug policies don't work is irrefutable. People around the world have sent a clear message to the government today -- stop the killings and invest in the health and human rights of your people," Naomi Burke-Shyne, Harm Reduction International executive director, said.

In June, the Philippines National Police put the drug war's official death toll at 6,600, up from just under 5,000 seven months earlier. Human rights groups put the toll much higher, some as high as 30,000, with killings divided between police and shadowy vigilante groups.

That same month, UN experts called for a human rights probe of the Philippines drug war. A group of 11 United Nations human rights experts called or the UN's Human Rights Council to start an independent probe into rights violations in the Philippines, including illegal killings in President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody crackdown on drugs. The call gained momentum when a group of two dozen countries called for a UN investigation of drug war killings. A draft resolution submitted by Iceland and supported mainly by West European countries urged the government to halt extrajudicial executions and called on the UN Human Rights Council to address the crisis. And a major report from Amnesty International on drug war atrocities added fuel to the fire.

In July, the full UN Human Rights Council voted to begin an investigation into the mass killings. The Duterte government responded by refusing to grant the UN access to the country to investigate the killings and other human rights abuses. And Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin called the UN experts "bastards."

In November, representatives from 51 countries called for the Philippines to "STOP THE KILLINGS" at the Drug Policy Alliance's International Drug Policy Reform Conference in St. Louis. "With the world watching, we felt compelled to use our platform to draw attention to the horrendous crimes taking place every day in the Philippines, with the full-throated support of that country's president," said Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The Philippines is a stark example of how the drug war can so easily serve as an excuse for targeting vulnerable people, and harassing critics, and punishing opponents."

Also in November, Duterte engaged in some political flim-flam when he named strong drug war critic Vice President Leni Robredo as drug czar, then fired her less than three weeks later. Duterte accused Robredo of embarrassing the country by drawing international attention to his bloody war on drugs. But Robredo vowed to carry on the fight. "When I took this job, I asked you, are you ready for me? My question to you now is what are you afraid of? Are you afraid of what I might discover? Are you afraid of what the public might discover?," Robredo said at a news conference. "If they think I will stop here, then they don't know me, I am just starting," Robredo said.

"They cannot remove my determination to stop the killings and hold those responsible to account and win the fight against illegal drugs."

Meanwhile, another prominent political figure and drug war critic, Senator Leila de Lima remains behind bars, where she has been since arrested on bogus drug charges in February 2017. But she got some support from the US Congress late this year. In two separate moves in December, the Senate approved a Free Leila resolution (Senate Resolution 42) and approved a State Department spending bill that includes a provision barring entry "to foreign government officials about whom the Secretary has credible information have been involved in the wrongful imprisonment of Senator Leila de Lima."

The Duterte government has responded in typical fashion: It has now denied entry to three US senators, Ed Markey (D-MA), who authored the de Lima resolution, and Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT).

9. Sri Lanka and the Death Penalty for Drugs

Under the baleful influence of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, now former Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena early in the year announced plans to end a 43-year moratorium on the death penalty so drug offenders could be executed, kicking off his campaign with an advertisement announcing job vacancies for executioners. In April, Sirisena announced the first executions would be coming soon as he presided over the burning of seized cocaine.

"To curb the illegal drug menace, it is necessary to implement the death penalty," he said. "The death penalty will be implemented in the coming days. The list has been prepared and we have decided on the date too."

But with the country in shock after the Easter Islamic terror attacks that left more than 200 people dead, Sirisena had other issues on his mind -- although in July, Sirisena falsely blamed drug gangs for the attacks, saying they were designed to discredit his anti-drug drive.

Sirisena's blood lust has so far been thwarted by the courts. In June, the Supreme Court delayed the execution of four people set to be hanged in October for drug offenses.

In October, as Sirisena's term was running out, his plans to make the executions his last act of state was again thwarted, with the Supreme Court again staying the executions until March 20, 2020. Now it will be up to newly elected President Gotabaya Rajapaska to decide whether to continue Sirsena's aberration.

10. The Extent of the US's Drug War Fiasco in Afghanistan Becomes Achingly Apparent

In late October, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) issued its latest report on the seemingly endless US occupation of Afghanistan, and its analysis of American anti-opium efforts was particularly devastating. SIGAR found that although we've spent nearly $9 billion trying to suppress the opium poppy, Afghanistan remained far and away the world's largest opium producer throughout the US occupation.

The country produced a record high nine tons of opium in 2017, and although drought reduced last year's crop, SIGAR noted that "it remained at the second-highest level since the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) began monitoring it in 1994."

When it comes to suppressing illicit drug crops, there are three main approaches: eradication, interdiction and alternative development. According to the new SIGAR report, all three have proven ineffectual in Afghanistan. Interdiction activities -- drug busts -- have "minimal impact on the country's opium cultivation and production," SIGAR found, while eradication efforts "have had minimal impact on curbing opium-poppy cultivation." Alternative development was funded at low levels, and SIGAR found it "ineffectual at curbing opium cultivation."

Whew, that's pretty bad, but it gets worse. This month, the Washington Post published The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War, an extensive piece of investigative reporting that showed US officials consistently lied about making progress in the war even though they knew they weren't. The papers contain a section on opium, "Overwhelmed by Opium," that makes a thoroughly depressing read as it documents the myriad ways US anti-drug policy imploded. "Of all the failures in Afghanistan, the war on drugs has been perhaps the most feckless," the Post noted. That's saying something.

Chronicle AM: MD Marijuana Poll, USAID Bolivia Mission, Atlanta PD Disbands Dope Squad, More... (1/8/20)

The Atlanta Police are shutting down their dope squad to concentrate on violent crime, the Florida legislature and state attorney general try to block a marijuana legalization initiative, and more.

downtown Atlanta (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Florida Legislature and Attorney General Seek to Block Marijuana Legalization Initiative. Attorney General Ashley Moody (R) and the House and Senate have asked the state Supreme Court to reject a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana. They filed a brief with the court Monday arguing that the initiative should be invalidated because it doesn't fully inform voters that marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Because of federal pot prohibition, the initiative would not "permit" marijuana legalization and thus deceives the voters, the motion argued.

Maryland Poll Has Strong Support for Marijuana Legalization. A new Gonzales Maryland poll released Tuesday has support for marijuana legalization at nearly 57%, with 38% opposed and 5% undecided. Democrats (65.5%) and independents (59%) both support it, but only 39% of Republicans do.

Foreign Policy

Trump Sending Aid Mission to Bolivia After Evo's Ouster. In the wake of the ouster of former Bolivian President Evo Morales after disputed elections late last year and his replacement with a temporary right-wing government, the Trump administration will send an assessment team to La Paz this week to discuss the possible resumption of foreign aid. Morales expelled USAID from the country in 2013, accusing it of political interference. His replacement, Interim President Jeanine Anez, seeks improved relations with the US and a tougher line on coca farmers. Morales is a former coca grower union leader. The White House also announced Monday it was lifting a longtime ban on foreign aid imposed on Bolivia for failing to cooperate in US anti-drug efforts. Morales threw the DEA out of the country in 2008.

Law Enforcement

Atlanta Police Disband Narcotics Unit, Will Focus on Violent Crime Instead. The Atlanta Police Department will disband its narcotics unit and reassign its officers to other units in a move to emphasize fighting violent crime. The department isn't ignoring drugs, it said, but is "de-centralizing its Narcotics Unit in recognition that the violence that surrounds this trade should be the focus of the entire Department, not just one team."

Chronicle AM: South Dakota MJ Legalization Vote, Mexico's Toll of Disappeared, More... (1/7/20)

The MORE Act gets another push, there will be no decriminalization of marijuana in New Jersey during the lame duck session, a South Dakota marijuana legalization initiative qualifies for the ballot, and more.

South Dakotans will vote on both medical marijuana and marijuana legalization initiatives in November. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

House Small Business Committee Moves Marijuana Bill Forward. The House Small Business Committee has waived jurisdiction over the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act (HR 3884), making it the second House committee in the 116th Congress to advance legislation to end federal marijuana prohibition. The bill passed in the House Judiciary Committee in November. It would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act and incentivize states to facilitate the expungement of criminal records related to low-level marijuana offenses, among other changes.

New Jersey Senate President Says No Decriminalization During Lame Duck Session. Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) said Monday that lawmakers will not pass a bill to decriminalize marijuana during the lame duck session, which ends next Tuesday. "It's not getting done in lame duck," Sweeney said. After a legalization bill stalled last year, Sweeney had insisted that decrim could get done during this short session, but there is little evidence it was a top priority for any Democratic leaders. A binding voter referendum on whether to legalize marijuana will be on the November ballot.

South Dakota Marijuana Legalization Initiative Qualifies for Ballot. Secretary of State Steve Barnett said Monday that a marijuana legalization initiative sponsored by New Approach South Dakota has qualified for the November ballot. The measure would legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana, as well as require the state legislature to pass laws regarding hemp. South Dakotans will also be voting on an initiative to legalize the medical use of marijuana.

International

Mexico's Toll of the Disappeared Doubles, According to Government Figures. The government on Monday issued new figures on the number of people gone missing in the country, the vast majority of them victims of the country's prohibition-related violence. As recently as last June, the government put the toll at about 40,000, but it now says the number is 61,000. Nearly 98% of the missing have disappeared since then-President Felipe Calderon sent the army into the streets to fight cartels.

Chronicle AM: IL Legal Marijuana Sales Begin, FDA Bans Flavored Vape Cartridges, More... (1/2/20)

Legal marijuana sales get underway in Illinois, the Italian Supreme Court gives the okay to personal marijuana cultivation, Colombia wants to resume aerial spraying of coca crops with herbicides, and more.

People lined up by the hundreds in Chicago on New Year's Day to buy state-legal marijuana. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Florida Legalization Initiative Campaign Sues Over Early Deadline. The Make It Legal Florida marijuana legalization initiative campaign filed a lawsuit Tuesday charging that the state's new law regarding initiatives violates their rights by imposing a "stealth deadline" that effectively shortens the signature gathering period by a month. The campaign is seeking another month to submit petition signatures. The campaign has until February 1 to come up with 766,000 valid voter signatures, but says the new law creates a "stealth deadline" of January 2 to submit signatures to county supervisors for verification.

Illinois Governor Pardons 11,000 Marijuana Offenders Just Ahead of Legalization. Gov. JB Pritzker (D) on Tuesday issued more than 11,000 pardons to people with low-level marijuana possession convictions. The move came one day ahead of the commencement of legal marijuana sales in the state.

Illinois Marijuana Legalization, Sales Now in Effect. The first legal marijuana sales in the state began at 6:00am New Year's Day, with hundreds of people lined up at shops in Chicago and its suburbs. That makes Illinois the 11th state to legalize marijuana, and the first to also legalize sales through the legislative process as opposed to via an initiative.

Oklahoma Activists File Revised 2020 Marijuana Legalization Measure to Protect Medical Program. The activists behind a marijuana legalization initiative filed in December have withdrawn it and replaced it with a new initiative, State Question 808, that contains revised language aimed at protecting the state's existing medical marijuana program. The new initiative specifies that a 15% excise tax on sales would not apply to medical marijuana and says only existing medical marijuana dispensaries would be eligible for recreational licenses for the first two years after implementation.

Virginia Prosecutor Announces His Office Will Not Pursue Marijuana Possession Cases. Incoming Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Steve Descano used his first day on the job Thursday to announce that his office will not prosecute low-level marijuana possession cases. But the local judiciary is not cooperating: One judge has already rejected Descano's guidance and denied a motion to dismiss one such case, saying each case needs to be reviewed individually.

Vaping

FDA Announces Ban on Flavored Vaping Cartridges. The US Food and Drug Administration on Thursday issued a policy prioritizing enforcement against certain unauthorized flavored e-cigarette products that appeal to kids, including fruit and mint flavors. Under this policy, companies that do not cease manufacture, distribution and sale of unauthorized flavored cartridge-based e-cigarettes (other than tobacco or menthol) within 30 days risk FDA enforcement actions. The only vaping cartridges that will be allowed are those with tobacco and menthol flavors.

International

Colombia Proposes Resumption of Aerial Spraying of Coca Fields. The Ministry of Justice on Monday published a draft law that would allow for the aerial spraying of herbicides on coca fields. The previous government ended such spraying four years ago, citing health concerns. The new proposal also calls for the creation of an independent agency that would oversee complaints related to aerial spraying including any potential impacts on rural communities.

Italian Supreme Court Rules Growing a Little Marijuana at Home Not a Crime. The Supreme Court ruled on December 27 that growing small amounts of marijuana for personal use is not a crime. The court held that "at home, small-scale cultivation activities are to be considered excluded from the application of the penal code." It's unclear just what qualifies as "small-scale cultivation." The case before the court involved two plants.

Chronicle AM: CA Initiative Would Legalize Magic Mushroom Sales, Senate GOP Cartel Bill, More... (12/16/19)

The latest version of California's psilocbyin decriminalization initiative turns it into a legalization initiative, a group of Senate Republicans file a bill to treat drug cartels like terrorist organizations, and more.

Under the latest language in California's magic mushroom initiative, you could buy them at a store. (CC)
Psychedelics

California Psilocybin Decriminalization Initiative Now a Legalization Initiative. The latest version of the California Psilocybin Decriminalization initiative includes language that would legalize the production and sale of magic mushrooms, as well as decriminalizing their possession and use. "The personal, spiritual, religious, dietary, therapeutic, and medical use of Psilocybin Mushrooms by adults, including but not limited to the cultivation, manufacture, processing, production of edible products and extracts (with or without solvents) derived from Psilocybin Mushrooms, distribution, transportation, possession, storage, consumption, social consumption, on-site consumption, public events, farmers' markets, and retail sale, whether or not for profit, shall be lawful in this state and is a matter of statewide concern," the initiative now says.

Asset Forfeiture

Indiana Police Used $400K In Asset Forfeiture Funds to Boost Their Own Pay and Benefits, Audit Finds. A federal audit of Indiana law enforcement's use of federal asset forfeiture funds has found that police unlawfully used nearly $400,000 of those monies to increase their own pay and benefits. The federal "equitable sharing program" that distributes the funds does not allow police to use those monies for such expenses.

Kansas Lawmakers Punt on Asset Forfeiture Reform, Seek Review Instead of Passing Legislation. After an audit this past summer criticized law enforcement for taking advantage of vague asset forfeiture laws, lawmakers debated whether to enact legislation to remedy the situation. Now, they've decided not to act this year, but to instead ask a judicial advisory group to review any potential changes. The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony last month on several measures, including one to require a conviction before property is seized, but opted to send the bills to the Kansas Judicial Council, an advisory committee in the judicial branch. Chairman Blaine Finch said the council would be able to study the bills more extensively than the Legislature would.

Foreign Policy

Senate Republicans File Bill to Impose Sanctions on Drug Cartels. Led by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), a group of nine Republican senators last week filed the Significant Transnational Criminal Organization Designation Act, legislation that would subject certain foreign criminal organizations like drug cartels to sanctions, including immigration, financial and criminal penalties. The process would be similar to the system used for designating entities as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). Passage of the bill would allow the federal government to impose on the most significant Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) the same sanctions that apply to FTOs.

International

Thai Justice Minister to Speed Up Kratom Decriminalization. Justice Minister Somsak Thepsutin says he will speed up the decriminalization of kratom. He said the Justice Ministry has formed a committee to study kratom-based medicines. "I will proceed with this project as soon as possible because legalization will truly benefit society," he said. Although kratom is not considered a scheduled drug by UN treaties, it has been illegal in Thailand since 1943, with possession punishable by up to a year in jail.

Zambia Legalizes Marijuana Production, But for Export and Medical Purposes Only. The government has approved a proposal to legalize marijuana production, but it will be restricted to exports and medical purposes. The government wants a $250,000 annual license fee from companies wishing to get into the business. Approval came last Wednesday during a cabinet meeting.

Chronicle AM: MLB Drug Testing Accord, US Charges Former Mexican Top Cop for Cartel Bribes, More... (12/12/19)

Major League Baseball and its players' union have reached a drug testing agreement, Wisconsin's GOP Senate leader kills a medical marijuana bill, and more.

Major League Baseball players will no longer be tested for marijuana, but now will be tested for opioids. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Kansas Residents Want Marijuana Legalization, Poll Finds. The annual Kansas Speaks survey, conducted by Fort Hayes State University, finds that 63% of respondents either "strongly support" or "somewhat support" legalizing and taxing marijuana for adult use. Only 26% "somewhat oppose" or "strongly oppose" it. The state doesn't even have legal medical marijuana yet.

Medical Marijuana

Wisconsin GOP Senate Leader Snuffs Out GOP Medical Marijuana Bill. Republicans Rep. Mary Felzowski and Sen. Kathy Bernier tried Wednesday to get a medical marijuana bill moving, only to be shot down by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald once again rejected the bill, saying he personally opposed and that he didn't think it would pass the GOP-controlled Senate.

Drug Testing

Major League Baseball, Players Union Agree on Drug Testing Policy. Major League Baseball and the players' union have agreed on a new drug testing policy that will add opioid testing for major leaguers and will not punish either minor or major league players for marijuana use. The move comes five months after the death of Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs from an opioid overdose.

International

US Charges Former Mexican Top Cop with Taking Sinaloa Cartel Bribes. The US has charged former Mexican federal police overseer Genaro Garcia Luna with taking millions of dollars in bribes from Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's Sinaloa Cartel. He was arrested Monday in Texas after being indicted last week by a federal grand jury in Brooklyn on three counts of cocaine trafficking conspiracy and one count of making false statements for helping the cartel operate "with impunity" in Mexico. Garcia Luna served as Mexico's secretary of public security from 2006 to 2012 and has been living in the United States since 2012. If convicted, he faces a minimum of 10 years in prison and the maximum of a life sentence.

Chronicle AM: NJ Governor Now Calls for Pot Decrim, MA Bans Flavored Vaping Products, More... (11/27/19)

Mexico responds to President Trump's move to designate cartels as terrorist organizations, Massachusetts becomes the first state to ban flavored vaping products, and more. 

No flavored vapes for Massachusetts residents. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

New Jersey Governor Calls for Decriminalization as Interim Measure. With little chance of marijuana legalization until a proposed November 2020 voter referendum, Gov. Phil Murphy (D), a legalization proponent, has now announced he supports decriminalization as a short-term solution. In a Tuesday statement, Murphy said decriminalization "cannot be our long-term solution" but would provide "critical short-term relief" until voters weigh in next November. "Maintaining a status quo sees roughly 600 individuals, disproportionately people of color, arrested in New Jersey every week for low-level drug offenses is wholly unacceptable," Murphy said.

Foreign Policy

Trump Says He Will Designate Mexican Drug Cartels as Terrorists. President Donald Trump said Tuesday he will designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations. "They will be designated ... I have been working on that for the last 90 days. You know, designation is not that easy, you have to go through a process, and we are well into that process," Trump said. The move comes after nine US citizens were killed by suspected cartel members in northern Mexico earlier this month. Earlier, Trump offered in a tweet to help Mexico "wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth" in the aftermath of that attack.

Vaping

Massachusetts Bans Flavored Tobacco, Vaping Products. The state has become the first to ban the sale of flavored tobacco and vaping products, including menthol cigarettes after Gov. Charlie Baker (R) signed the ban into law. Flavored vaping products are banned immediately, while the ban on menthol smokes goes into effect on June 1.

International

Mexico Rejects US Interventionism in Wake of Trump Designating Cartels Terrorists. Mexico President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Wednesday rejected US "interventionism" after US President Donald Trump said he was working on designating Mexican drug trafficking organizations as terrorists. Lopez Obrador said he was sending his foreign minister to Washington to lead talks after the Thanksgiving holiday. "Cooperation, yes, intervention, no," Lopez Obrador said in a morning news conference when asked about Trump’s comments.

America's Afghanistan Anti-Drug Boondoggle Nears the $9 Billion Mark [FEATURE]

The amount of money the US government has spent trying to wipe out Afghan opium since it invaded the country in 2002 has now reached $8.94 billion, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) noted in his latest quarterly report to Congress on October 30.

Nine billion dollars later, Afghanistan's opium production rolls on undaunted. (UNODC)
Afghanistan is far and away the world's largest opium producer and has been for the entire period since the US invaded and occupied the country in late 2001. According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) 2018 Afghan Opium Survey, Afghan farmers were cultivating about 150,000 acres of opium poppies in the late 1990s, but around 300,000 acres a year in the mid-2000s.

As the US occupation dragged on, opium cultivation generally climbed throughout the 2010s, peaking at more than 800,000 acres in 2017. That equates to about nine tons of raw opium produced that year, with the heroin produced from it going into the veins of addicts and others from Lahore to London.

The SIGAR report also noted that although drought had caused poppy cultivation to drop by 20% last year, "it remained at the second-highest level since the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) began monitoring it in 1994."

So, despite spending nearly $9 billion, the US war on Afghan opium has not only not succeeded but has seen the poppy foe steadily gain ground. And even though drought struck the crop in 2018, opium still exceeded the value of all of Afghanistan's licit exports combined and accounted for between 6 and 11 percent of its Gross Domestic Product.

For Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies and a long-time observer of US policies aimed at drug producing countries -- not just Afghanistan -- the SIGAR report spoke volumes.

"Over a similar period in Colombia, the US wasted $10 billion," he said. "I guess we can conclude the drug war failed more efficiently in Afghanistan."

To be fair, the US effort against opium has faced huge hurdles. Because of its crucial role in the national economy, providing hundreds of thousands of jobs to farm workers and incomes to farmers, moves to suppress the crop meet entrenched resistance -- and that's where the national government is in control.

But the Taliban controls roughly half the country, and in those areas, it doesn't try to repress the opium trade, but instead taxes it. According to a BBC report, the Taliban generates somewhere between $100 million and $400 million from taxes on opium farmers, producers, and traders. That's not the bulk of Taliban revenues, but it is a significant boost for the insurgency.

When it comes to suppressing illicit drug crops, there are three main approaches: eradication, interdiction, and alternative development. According to the new SIGAR report, all three have proven ineffectual in Afghanistan.

Interdiction -- the effort to suppress the trade by arresting traffickers and seizing drugs -- has been the bailiwick of Afghan security forces funded by the US. But the SIGAR report notes that despite their "strong performance" and their "improved capabilities over the years," activities have had "minimal impact on the country's opium cultivation and production." It notes that all opium seizures since 2002 only add up to about 8 percent of the production of the single year of 2018.

Eradication isn't going very well, either. With the Afghan government announcing early this year that is was abolishing the Ministry of Counter Narcotics and moving its functions to other government entities, essentially no eradication took place this year, the SIGAR report round. Only about one thousand acres were eradicated last year and two thousand the year before. And Helmand province, the biggest poppy producer, saw no eradication at all between 2016 and 2018.

"Eradication efforts have had minimal impact on curbing opium-poppy cultivation," the SIGAR report concluded. "The Afghan government has struggled to perform eradication due to the security challenges in poppy-growing areas. Since 2008, on average, annual eradication efforts resulted in eradicating only 2% of the total yearly opium-poppy cultivation."

That may not be a bad thing, said Tree.

"Forced eradication usually forces peasant farmers into food insecurity," he explained. "Panic sets in. How will they feed their families next week, next month, or next year? What's the one crop they know how to grow, for which there ready and willing buyers, and doesn't require transportation infrastructure like bulky fruits and vegetables? Of course, farmers replant! But this time, they've had to borrow money from traffickers to survive and they become even more ensnared in the drug economy."

The third leg of the anti-drug effort is alternative development. But of the nearly $9 billion the US has invested in the Afghan drug war, less than 5 percent has gone to such programs. The USAID Regional Agricultural Development Plan has received $221 million since 2002, while another $173 million has been spent on alternative development programs. The Defense Department, meanwhile, spent $4.57 billion on counternarcotics during the same period.

But alternative development efforts seem to be waning. An important program, the Good Performers Initiative, which sought to encourage provincial level anti-drug efforts ended this year with the transfer of its last two programs to the Afghan government. But even here, the SIGAR report found, "the program was deemed ineffectual at curbing opium cultivation."

It appears that no matter how many billions the US spends to wipe out Afghan opium, its money flushed down the drain. Maybe it's time to try something different.

Chronicle AM: House Committee to Vote on Legal Pot Bill This Week, Bolivia Violence, More... (11/18/19)

We could see a historic congressional vote on marijuana legalization this week, Joe Biden embraces the gateway theory, security forces of Bolivia's new rightist government gun down protesting coca growers, and more. 

Filipino banner displayed at International Drug Policy Reform Conference in St. Louis last week. (Drug Policy Alliance)
Marijuana Policy

House Judiciary Committee to Vote on Federal Legalization Bill. The House Judiciary Committee will vote Wednesday on whether to approve the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act (HR 3884). The bill would end federal marijuana prohibition by removing marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act. It would also set aside funding to begin repairing the damage done by the war on drugs.

Joe Biden Demurs on Marijuana Legalization, Cites Gateway Fears. Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden said he opposed legalizing marijuana at the federal level because there was insufficient evidence to convince him it was not a gateway drug. "The truth of the matter is, there’s not nearly been enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether or not it is a gateway drug," Biden said. "It’s a debate, and I want a lot more before I legalize it nationally. I want to make sure we know a lot more about the science behind it." He also said that marijuana legalization should be left to the states.

New Jersey Marijuana Arrests Jumped in Recent Years. The ACLU of New Jersey has issued a report showing nearly 38,000 marijuana arrests in the state in 2017, up a full 35% over the 28,000 pot busts recorded in 2013. Meanwhile, politicians in the state have failed to get marijuana legalization passed.

Oregon Appeals Court Blocks Ban on Flavored Marijuana Vaping Products. The state Court of Appeals last Thursday blocked the statewide ban on flavored marijuana vaping products. The order comes a month after the court blocked a similar ban on nicotine vaping products. The ruling came in a legal challenge to an executive order by Gov. Kathleen Brown (D) banning flavored vaping products as a response to the outbreak of vaping-related illness this fall.

International

Bolivian Security Forces Gun Down Protesting Coca Growers. Security forces loyal to the ultra-right interim government that took power in La Paz after the forced departure of long-time President Evo Morales opened fire on protesting coca growers near Cochabamba on Friday night, killing nine of them. The coca growers back Morales, and their unions demanded Sunday that provisional leader Jeanine Anez step down "within 48 hours" and that new elections be held within 90 days. Morales was forced out by the military after weeks of demonstrations calling for his ouster over disputed elections last month.

DPA & Representatives from 51 Countries Stand Behind Efforts to ‘STOP THE KILLINGS’ in the Philippines at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference. Last week, at Drug Policy Alliance’s International Drug Policy Reform Conference, attendees from 51 countries protested the thousands of brutal killings that have taken place in the Philippines in the name of President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war, gathering under cultural collective RESBAK’s iconic ‘Stop the Killings’ banner in a united show of opposition. "With the world watching, we felt compelled to use our platform to draw attention to the horrendous crimes taking place every day in the Philippines, with the full-throated support of that country’s president," said Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The Philippines is a stark example of how the drug war can so easily serve as an excuse for targeting vulnerable people, and harassing critics, and punishing opponents."

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

(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.)

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