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Video on Abuse of the Environment -- and of People -- in Colombia's Drug War, from "Witness for Peace"

"Shoveling Water" is a 25-minute documentary from the organization Witness for Peace on the impact of chemical spraying of Colombia's coca crop, in the words of people living with the effects on the ground. I have always felt this part of "Plan Colombia" as launched by President George Herbert Walker Bush -- expanded into the "Andean Initiative" by President Clinton -- to be particularly reckless. It doesn't take a chemist, nor even a medical doctor, to expect that dumping poisons into the environment might be bad for the life forms inhabiting that environment, including humans. Hopefully the madmen pushing for aerial fumigation of Afghanistan's opium crop will lose that fight at least, as they have so far. The tide is slowly turning in Andean drug policy as well. In the meanwhile, check out "Shoveling Water":

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "God's Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre," by Richard Grant (2008, Free Press, 288 pp., $15.00 PB)

"God's Middle Finger" is not a book about drug policy. It's not really even a book about drugs; it belongs to the travel literature genre. But if you're interested in drugs, drug production, and drug policy, especially when it comes to the Mexican drug trade, this is a book you'll want to read.

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And when you get done, you'll thank me, because this book is a real treat. Written by footloose British journalist Richard Grant, who came to this hemisphere in search of strangeness (his earlier book, "American Nomads," focused on drop-outs, hobos, and other oddities north of the border), "God's Middle Finger" is the sprawling, appalling, and sometimes frightening tale of his abortive quest to travel the length of Mexico's Sierra Madre mountain chain, a historically lawless and violent place where the presence of the Mexican state is only barely and rarely felt.

If you stand on the US-Mexican border at someplace like Douglas, Arizona, or Columbus, New Mexico, you can see the northern end of the Sierra Madre just a few miles to the south. From there, the massive, rugged range -- with peaks up to 11,000 feet -- extends nearly 900 miles to the south, cutting through the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Sonora, Nayarit, Sinaloa, and Durango in a series of massifs carved by spectacular and not easily traversable canyons. Historically the home of outlaws, hermits, cowboys, and renegade Indians (surviving bands of Apache were hiding out there as late as the 1930s, Grant reports), the contemporary Sierra Madre is now the haunt of outcasts, cave-dwelling Tarahumara Indians, Mormons, opium growers, pot farmers, vicious narcos, and -- every once in awhile -- marauding Mexican soldiers and police.

These days, the treasure of the Sierra Madre isn't gold, but the drug crops that grow there, and nobody needs any stinking badges. Or, even if they're wearing badges, it doesn't seem to make much difference. In one tale, Grant relates an evening in a bar in a mountain town where two lip-twitching, beer-swilling local cops insist he buy them caguamas (40 ouncers) of beer and share their cocaine, or perico (parakeet, because it makes you chatter like one). "Call me paranoid," Grant wrote, "but the idea of doing cocaine with Mexican cops makes me nervous." But given the alternative -- pissing off a pair of coked-out, half-drunk cops who would be mightily insulted in he turned down their offer -- Grant joined them in snorting lines off the table until, luckily for him, his money ran out and he could make his escape.

(I had a similar experience with a coke-shooting cop in a small town in Veracruz back in the mid-1990s. It was at that point that I began to understand that some of the cocaine diverted from the Caribbean smuggling route after a Reaganite crackdown in the mid-1980s and now flowing north through Mexico was "falling off the back of the truck." You didn't used to see a whole lot of cocaine in Mexico, and you certainly didn't run into coked-out cops. My, how things have changed!)

Grant writes that he was warned repeatedly not to travel the Sierra Madre, that he was likely to be killed if he traveled by himself. But, obsessed by those mountains, he went anyway, usually relying on local contacts to keep him safe. It didn't always work. The prologue to "God's Middle Finger" has him fleeing for his life on foot through the mountains at night, chased by drunken, coked-out narcos apparently ready to kill him for the sport of it. On another occasion, Grant tells about how he ruined his vehicle's motor after being forced at gunpoint to tow the broken-down car of some strangers up a mountain pass.

Grant has a great flair for story-telling and introduces the reader to a whole ensemble of vivid characters and local histories, but his love for the Sierra Madre curdles a bit when faced with the violent, rapacious realities of the lawless life. Private gun ownership is forbidden in Mexico, but as one of his informants tells him, every home has at least a shot gun and a pistol, and AK-47s are a badge of macho honor. Murder is common in the region, so is rape, and so is revenge killing. Mix in a hyper-violent population of narcos hopped up on blow and booze, and the stark beauty of the Sierra Madre gets pretty damned ugly and scary.

As Grant puts it: "What you had, in other words, was a hillbilly vendetta culture that was up to its eyeballs in the world's most dangerous business: illegal narcotics. Its existing tendencies toward violence, vengeance, and ruthlessness had become supercharged."

So supercharged that Grant, sick of the fear and tension and the macho posturing, cut short his trip about half-way down the cordillera. Prudence and revulsion may have won out over obsession, but with "God's Middle Finger," Grant provides a highly memorable set of glimpses into the mountain heartlands of some of Mexico's meanest narcos.

"God's Middle Finger" is fast-paced, full of intriguing detail and strange doings. Reading it is going to make you want to follow in Grant's footsteps... or run just as fast as you can in the other direction. In either case, you'll have had a fascinating education into a strange but not so distant world inextricably linked to our own through our appetites for some of the products it produces.

Feature: The Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy -- More, Better Drug War?

The Obama administration last Friday unveiled its Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy to deal with the unremitting prohibition-related violence plaguing Mexico, and especially its border cities. Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon enlisted the military in his offensive against the so-called cartels in December 2006, some 11,000 people have died in the violence, and the streets of Mexican border towns have at times resembled battlefields.

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US Border Patrol
In recognition of the continuing violence and heedful of Mexican criticism that the US is not doing enough on its end to undercut the cartels, the administration responded first with increased funding for border law enforcement in March and now with the new counternarcotics strategy. The new strategy will emphasize reducing demand in the US and targeting the flow of money and weapons south. It includes:

  • Building visual shields near border-crossing points so drug cartel spotters can't alert approaching motorists about inspections.
  • Improving non-lethal weapons technology to help officers incapacitate suspects and disable motor vehicles and boats used by traffickers.
  • Reviving an interagency working group to coordinate intelligence.
  • Using more intelligence analysts to uncover drug-dealing networks.
  • Helping Mexico bolster its judicial system through training in the United States.
  • Focusing on combating corruption among US law enforcement and elected officials.
  • Delivering an additional $60 million to border law enforcement agencies.

"This new plan, combined with the dedicated efforts of the government of Mexico, creates a unique opportunity to make real headway on the drug threat," said Gil Kerlikowske, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), at an Albuquerque press conference unveiling the new strategy.

"International cooperation is very, very key," said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, taking time to praise Calderon for his efforts. "We have an unprecedented opportunity to work on drug trafficking on both sides of the border," she said. "We should not let this opportunity go by."

According to the Justice Department, Mexican and other South American drug trafficking organizations are laundering between $18 billion and $39 billion a year in drug profits in the US. Some of that money then goes to purchase weapons in the lightly-controlled US gun market. Traffickers use those weapons against each other, as well as Mexican police and soldiers, as evidenced dramatically last weekend in the Acapulco shootout that left 18 people dead, including two soldiers, and the killings of 13 people in Ciudad Juarez last Friday despite the presence of more than 5,000 soldiers patrolling the city.

Reducing demand in the US is a key part of the struggle, said Napolitano. "We can't just fight drugs at the border. We can't just fight drugs by fighting traffickers. We must fight drugs in the United States," Napolitano said.

"This strategy is tough, it's strong, and it's balanced," said Attorney General Eric Holder, adding that it will be "an effective way forward that will crack down on cartels and make our country safer."

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cross-border smuggling tunnel
Others weren't so sure that would be the case. "The new plan simply calls for rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic," said Aaron Houston, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project. "The plan ignores the central problem, which is that our policy of marijuana prohibition has handed the Mexican cartels a massive market that keeps them rolling in cash, not just in Mexico, but according to the Department of Justice, in 230 American cities."

"Rather than trying to make America's 15 million monthly marijuana consumers go away, we need to gain control of this market by regulating marijuana like we do beer, wine and liquor," Houston continued. "Any anti-drug effort that leaves the marijuana trade in the hands of the cartels is nothing but a full-employment plan for professional drug warriors and cartel bosses alike, not a serious proposal to address the problem," he said.

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) was a bit more diplomatic. "The violence on the US and Mexico border is spiraling out of control because of the Mexican drug war. We are hopeful that Obama's new strategy will bring real change, and not more of the same policies that are failing our nation and communities," said Julie Roberts, acting director of Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico. "It is disappointing that our federal officials today remained focused on targeting the supply side of the Mexican drug war. Of course we need solutions that improve public safety and keep our country safe, but we also need to develop a public health plan for safely reducing drug demand in this country."

"The time has surely come to give serious consideration to taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol," added DPA executive director Ethan Nadelmann. "That wouldn't solve all of Mexico's and America's prohibition-related problems, but it would prove invaluable in breaking the taboo on open debate and honest policy analysis, without which there can be no long term solutions to today's challenges."

While the criticism from drug reformers was blunt, some Latin Americanists had a more nuanced response. "This is the Obama administration's response to Mexico's criticism about the US not doing enough on arms trafficking, money laundering, and drug consumption," said Maureen Meyer of the Washington Office on Latin America. "The idea of enhanced cooperation among the different US agencies involved is an important step forward, and enhanced cooperation with Mexico is also important."

But while the administration is talking a good game, said Meyer, a look at the federal drug budget reveals a drug policy on cruise control. "The ONDCP drug control budget is a continuation of the same focus in US drug policy, with its objectives focusing a lot on interdiction and law enforcement, and not so much on arms trafficking. There is a slight increase in funding for treatment programs, but a reduction in funding for prevention. I don't see any shift in the balance," she said.

"When it comes to Mexico, what we need to see is a larger focus on some of the structural issues, such as reforming the police and the judicial system," Meyer said. "That is going to have more of a long-term impact than just providing more equipment for the police and the military."

For Larry Birns, executive director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, the new strategy appeared mostly symbolic. "I think the announcement of this strategy is way to put drug issues on the back burner for awhile while the administration deals with more pressing issues, like health care," he said. "The administration is trying to inoculate itself from criticism rather than undertaking an effort to effectively deal with drugs, which would involve the thornier border issues of immigration reform and the NAFTA traffic."

The border is a complicated place, affected not only by the drug trade but by licit trade, human migration, and weapons, among other issues. The drug trade in turn is driven by demand. Unfortunately, the Obama administration's Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy is largely more of the same old drug war, the critics suggest. Perhaps all the other issues would be better dealt without that drug war.

Drugs and Terror on the Daily Show


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Gretchen Peters
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Did you notice anything missing from this conversation? Seriously, if we're concerned about the drug trade funding terrorism, the only answer is to fundamentally rethink our drug policy. This problem didn't just arrive on our doorstep last year. We've been fighting a hopeless and counterproductive war against these guys for decades and they're more powerful now than ever before. The solution is to do the opposite of what we're doing, not to make little adjustments or try a little harder.

Europe: Oslo Police Plan Crackdown on Hash Users, Buyers

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Grønland
Police in Norway's capital, Oslo, have announced a crackdown on hashish buyers as part of a broader crackdown on street drugs sales and use. Hash is peddled by street dealers in neighborhoods including Grønland and Grünerløkka along the Akerselva River, according to online scene reports.

The Scandinavian countries are among Europe's toughest when it comes to drug use and sales. In Norway, penalties for simple drug possession include fines and jail terms of up to six months. For sales, you're looking at two years, 10 years if the offense is "aggravated," 15 years if a "considerable quantity" is involved, and up to 21 years for "very aggravating circumstances."

Under the newly announced crackdown, police are warning that people caught buying hash for their own use face arrest, loss of drivers' license, heavy fines, and even custody rights over their children. Some offenders caught with small amounts of hash have already been fined up to $1,560, according to early reports.

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug," by Paul Gootenberg (2008, University of North Carolina Press, 442 pp, $24.95 PB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer/Editor

Regardless of what you may think about cocaine -- party favor or demon drug -- one thing is clear: Cocaine is big business. These days, the illicit cocaine industry generates dozens of billions of dollars in profits annually and, in addition to the millions of peasant families earning a living growing coca, employs hundreds of thousands of people in its Andean homeland and across Latin America, and hundreds of thousands more in trafficking and distribution networks across the globe.

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There is a flip-side: The cocaine industry has also resulted in the creation of an anti-cocaine enterprise, also global in scope, but centered in the United States. It, too, employs tens of thousands of people -- from UN anti-drug bureaucrats to DEA agents to prison guards hired to watch over America's imprisoned street-level crack dealers -- and generates billions of dollars of governmental spending.

It wasn't always this way, and, with "Andean Cocaine," commodity historian Paul Gootenberg of SUNY Stony Brook has made a magnificent contribution in explaining how in just under a century and a half cocaine went from unknown (discovered in 1860) to licit global commodity (1880s-1920s), to illicit but dormant commodity (1920s-1950s) to the multi-billion dollar illicit commodity of today.

In a work the author himself describes as "glocal," Gootenberg used previously untapped archival sources, primarily from Peru and the US, to combine finely-detailed analysis of key personages and events in the evolution of the trade in its Peruvian hearth with a global narrative of "commodity chains," a sociological concept that ties together all elements in a commodity, from local producers and processors to national and international distribution networks and, ultimately, consumers.

The "commodity chain" concept works remarkably well in illuminating the murky story that is modern cocaine. How else do you explain the connection between a Peruvian peasant in the remote Upper Huallaga and a street-corner crack peddler in the Bronx or between entrepreneurial Colombian cocaine traffickers, weak governments in West Africa, and coke-sniffing bankers in the city of London?

Still, Gootenburg is a historian, and his story ends -- not begins -- with the arrival of the modern illicit cocaine trade. He applies the commodity chain concept to cocaine from the beginning, the 1860 isolation of the cocaine alkaloid by a Francophile Peruvian pharmacist, who, Gootenburg notes, worked within an international milieu of late 19th Century European scientific thought and exchange.

Within a few short years, cocaine had become a medical miracle (the first step on the now all-too-familiar path of currently demonized drugs) and a nascent international trade in cocaine sulphate (basically what we now refer to as cocaine paste), primarily to German and Dutch pharmaceutical houses. At the same time, just before the dawn of the 20th Century, the dangers of cocaine were becoming apparent, and moves to restrict its use got underway.

The key player in last century's cocaine panic was the United States -- ironically, the world's number one consumer of cocaine's precursor, coca. US patent medicines of the ear featured numerous coca-based tonics and concoctions, the granddaddy of them all being Coca-Cola, whose monopoly on legal (if denatured) coca leaf imports played a shadowy role in US coca and cocaine policies well into the 1950s. But some of those patent medicines also contained cocaine, and more was leaking out of medicinal markets. By the first decade of the last century, cocaine was under attack in the US.

Cocaine was banned in the US before World War I, and by the 1920s, blues singers were singing sad songs about its absence. With use levels dropping close to absolute zero, cocaine use was largely a non-issue for the US for the next 50 years. But, Gootenburg strongly suggests that the US obsession with stifling cocaine production and use sowed the seeds of the drug's stupendous expansion in the decades since the 1970s.

A particularly fascinating section revolves around the social construction of the "illicit" cocaine trade in Peru during World War II. At that point, cocaine was still a legal and treasured, if slightly over-the-hill, commodity in Peru. But some of cocaine's most lucrative customers were in Germany and Japan, the Axis foes of the US and its Latin American allies. Peruvian producers, desperate to retain their markets, sold to their traditional clientele regardless of US wishes, becoming the first "illicit" Peruvian cocaine traffickers and paving the way for the reemergence of cocaine as a black market commodity.

For someone like me, who has more than a passing familiarity with the Andean coca and cocaine trades, "Andean Cocaine" is especially fruitful for deepening my historical understanding. Peruvian family surnames prominent in coca and/or cocaine decades ago -- Durand, Malpartida, Soberon -- continue to play prominent roles in Peruvian coca politics today.

There is much, much more to this book -- suffice it to say it could be the basis of a post-graduate seminar or two -- but one lasting lesson Gootenburg seems to draw from his research is the futility, if not downright counterproductiveness, of the efforts to suppress cocaine and the cocaine trade. From the original "illicit" cocaine sales during World War II, which generated nascent trafficking networks to the crop eradications in the 1970s and 1980s in Peru and Bolivia, which turned Colombia, where indigenous coca production was almost nonexistent, into the world's leading coca and cocaine producer, every effort to stifle the trade has perversely only strengthened it. Perhaps someday we will learn a lesson here.

"Andean Cocaine" is an academic work written by an historian. It's not light reading, and, by the author's own admission, it concentrates on the Peruvian producer end of the commodity chain, not the US -- and increasingly, global -- consumer end of the chain. Nonetheless, it is a sterling contribution to the literature of cocaine, and should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand cocaine in context.

Latin America: Colombia's President Wants to Jail Coca Growing Farmers

Coca farmers, typically peasants in Colombia's most impoverished regions, have never been considered criminals, but that could change if President Álvaro Uribe has his way. Not content with waging war on the coca plant and the cocaine trade, as he has done throughout his two terms in office, or with recriminalizing drug possession, as he is currently attempting for the third time, Uribe now wants to go after the bottom of the drug supply chain too.

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coca seedlings
In an interview Sunday, Uribe said he wants peasants "who persist in growing coca to be put in jail." The change from current policy is necessary, said Uribe, because without drastic measures like sending peasant farmers to jail, the government will never be able to stop coca planting.

Under Uribe, Colombia has wholeheartedly embraced the Washington-inspired Plan Colombia, which has seen nearly $6 billion spent in the past decade, mostly on military and police equipment and fumigation of coca crops. But despite all the years and billions of dollars, Colombia remains the world's largest current coca producer, and production levels are similar to where they were a decade ago.

Latin America: Jimmy Carter to Harvest Coca Leaves on Evo Morales' Farm

At a Saturday meeting in the Bolivian capital of La Paz, former US President Jimmy Carter accepted an invitation from Bolivian President Evo Morales to go pick coca on Morales' coca farm in the Chapare, Agence France-Presse reported. The stop was part of a nine-day trip to Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru by the Nobel Peace Prize winning former president.

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Drying the leaves in the warehouse. The sign reads ''Coca Power and Territory, Dignity and Sovereignty, Regional Congress 2006-08''
Morales, a former coca grower union leader, launched the invitation amidst smiles at a press conference following a private meeting with the ex-president, saying that he had a long friendship with Carter, who had invited him to pick peanuts on his Georgia farm. "One time, he invited me to visit his family and house, and I harvested peanuts on his land in Atlanta," Morales said. "Now, I invite him to the Chapare to harvest coca... it will be the next time he comes."

"Since President Morales has come to my property and evidently picked some peanuts, I hope that in my next visit I can go to the Chapare, where he has invited me to go harvest coca leaves," Carter replied.

Carter is scheduled to be back in Bolivia in December. At that time, Bolivia will be undergoing general elections in which Morales is seeking reelection until 2015.

Bolivia is the world's third largest coca producer, behind Colombia and Peru. Under Morales, the country has embarked on a policy of "zero cocaine, not zero coca," which has brought it into conflict with the US and with the United Nations' international drug control apparatus. Bolivia expelled the US ambassador and the DEA last fall.

Feature: Mexico Decriminalization Bill Passes -- One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

Late last week, both houses of the Mexican Congress approved a bill that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs. The measure is part of a broader bill aimed at small-scale drug dealing and rationalizing Mexico's struggle against violent drug trafficking organizations.

The bill was sponsored by President Felipe Calderón, but support for it from his ruling National Action Party (PAN) has dwindled. Still, most observers who spoke to the Chronicle this week think he will sign the bill.

The Mexican Congress passed similar legislation in 2006, but then President Vicente Fox refused to sign it after hearing protests from the Bush administration. This time, though, there has not been a peep out of Washington either for or against the bill.
Among the bill's main provisions:

  • Decriminalizes "personal use" amounts of drugs;
  • Recognizes harm reduction as a guiding principle;
  • Does not require forced drug treatment for "personal use" possessors;
  • Recognizes traditional cultural drug use;
  • Allows states and municipalities to prosecute small-time drug dealing ("narcomenudeo"), an offense which currently is handled exclusively by federal authorities;
  • Allows police to make drug buys to build cases.

The amounts of various drugs that are decriminalized for personal use are:

  • opium -- 2 grams
  • cocaine -- ½ gram
  • heroin -- 1/10 gram
  • marijuana -- 5 grams
  • LSD -- 150 micrograms
  • methamphetamine -- 1/5 gram
  • ecstasy -- 1/5 gram

The measure comes in the midst of ongoing high levels of violence as President Calderón attempts to crack down on Mexico's wealthy, powerful, and bloody-minded drug trafficking organizations -- the so-called cartels. Approximately 10,000 people have died in prohibition-related violence in Mexico since Calderón called out the armed forces against the cartels in early 2007. The multi-sided confrontation pits the Mexican state against the cartels, the cartels against each other, and even factions of the same cartel against each other.

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discussion growing: Feb. '09 drug policy forum held by Mexico's Grupo Parlamentario Alternativa (grupoparlamentarioalternativa.org.mx/node/227)
The US backs Calderón's war on the cartels, allocating $1.4 billion over three years for Plan Mérida. President Obama reiterated his commitment to the Mexican drug war during a visit to the country last month.

The measure also comes against a backdrop of increasing drug use levels in Mexico and increasing concern about the problems associated with that drug use. In recent years, the cartels have figured out that their home country is also an increasingly lucrative market for their wares. Now, if you travel to the right neighborhoods in virtually any Mexican city, you can find storefront retail illegal drug outlets.

"This looks like one step forward, two steps back," said Isaac Campos Costero, an assistant professor of history at the University of Cincinnati and visiting fellow at the University of California at San Diego's Center for US-Mexican Studies. "If we're talking about reducing the crisis of violence in Mexico, I don't think this bill does anything good, and may even exacerbate it. It won't reduce demand, and at the same time it seeks to prosecute small-time dealers more energetically."

"That this suggests growing support for decriminalization, reduces the criminality of drug users, embraces harm reduction, and acknowledges cultural uses is a good thing and consistent with what is going on elsewhere in Latin America," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The idea of decriminalization of possession based in part on human rights and public health grounds has gained real traction in the region, which is somewhat surprising given the long preoccupation with drugs and organized crime," he said.

"But there's this other part of it that is all about Calderón's war on the traffickers; it's part and parcel of empowering law enforcement," Nadelmann continued. "There is serious concern that law enforcement has lost the upper hand to the gangsters, and the risk here is that the new law will give police all the more opportunity to go after low-level distributors and addicts who sell drugs to support their habits, while diverting attention from serious violent criminals."

For Mexican drug reformers organized as the Collective for Integrated Drug Policy, while the bill is an advance, its failure to more fully incorporate public health and human rights perspectives runs the risk of creating negative consequences for the country. In a statement released after the bill passed the Congress, the group praised the legislation for distinguishing between consumers, addicts, and criminals, for increasing the amount of marijuana from two grams to five, for acknowledging the role of harm reduction, and for removing the provision that would have required drug treatment for those caught holding.

But the group also expressed its preoccupation with other parts of the bill. "The law only marginally considers the problem of drug consumption and limits itself to legally defining it," the collective noted. "On the other hand, it focuses on intensifying a military and police strategy that has proven to be a failure."

The collective also worried that "the law will criminalize a vast group of people who make a living off small-time drug dealing" who are not cartel members but impoverished citizens. "Imprisoning them will not diminish the supply of drugs on the street, nor will it improve public security; yet it will justify the war on drugs, since the government will be able to boast the number of people incarcerated with this policy," the group wrote.

The decriminalization quantities are too small, the group said, and that will lead to problems. "These amounts are not realistic in terms of the drug market (for example, the initiative allows a consumer to have a half-gram of coke, when coke is sold on the streets by the gram), and we thus can anticipate a significant increase in corruption and extortion of consumers by police forces," the statement said.

Jorge Hernández Tinajero, an advisor to Social Democratic Party Deputy Elsa Conde, is also the leader of the collective. "Elsa went to the session and loudly criticized the bill, saying it was not an integrated policy but a new way to make more corruption and put more people in jail, especially women who desperately need to work and earn some money," he recounted. "She said 70% of the women in jail are there because they are small dealers."

"While the bill doesn't go far enough, it at least decriminalizes possession for personal use, and treatment is no longer mandatory if you get caught carrying your personal dose," said Dr. Humberto Brocca, a member of the collective. "Now, you will not have to show that you are an addict and thus a candidate for treatment," he said, referring to current Mexican law, which creates a loophole for addicts in possession of drugs.

"It's a mixed bag," said Ana Paula Hernández, a Mexico City-based consultant on drug policy and human rights. "The headlines will be that drug possession has been decriminalized, but when you look at it more closely, the consequences could be very serious," she said. "Now, state and local authorities will be able to prosecute crimes related to small-scale drug dealing. That would be good if Mexico were a different country, but corruption is so extreme at those levels that giving these authorities these powers could greatly increase their level of involvement in organized crime."

Whether the bill will have any impact at all on the major trafficking organizations who are ostensibly the target of the Mexican government's offensive remains to be seen.

"I don't think this is going to have any impact on the government's war against the cartels," said Hernandez. "For that to happen, we need to have a structural, democratic reform of police forces and the judiciary at the state and municipal level by reallocating resources for prevention and information campaigns on drug use with a risk and harm reduction perspective; and of course by other measures such as real decriminalization."

Brocca, too, foresaw more arrests as a result of the bill, but little impact on the violence plaguing the country. "Yeah, they will sweep up mostly small-timers so the party in power can look good," he said, "but it will probably have no impact whatsoever on the prohibition-related violence."

Whatever action Mexico takes is likely to have little impact on the violence without changes in US drug policies, Campos Costero said. Still, passage of the bill could have an important psychological effect, he said.

"From a symbolic point of view, once this goes into effect and Armageddon doesn't happen and society doesn't crumble, this may help break down attitudes a bit and pave the way for more substantive reforms in the future," said Campos Costero.

The bill could also undercut Mexico's historic opposition to relaxation of the drug laws north of the border. "Mexico has opposed US reform efforts on marijuana in the past, but by passing this bill, Mexico effectively reduces its ability to complain about US drug reform in the future," said Campos Costero. "And that's significant."

But that doesn't mean Mexicans would not raise a stink if the US moved toward radical drug reforms, Campos Costero noted. "For years and years, Mexicans have been hearing condescending remarks from the US about how they're not tough enough on drugs, so if the US were to pursue legalization, the Mexican public would go crazy. They see it as a demand problem, but of course, it's really a policy problem," he said. "If there were more rational drug policies, we could have demand at the same levels, but eliminate these problems."

Obama Goes to War Against Afghan Opium

In a renewed effort to stamp out the Taliban by cutting off their cash flow, Obama is sending 20,000 troops into opium producing regions of Afghanistan. It's going to be a disaster. Jacob Sullum dug through this New York Times story and found several reasons why this plan will fail spectacularly:

1. Although the Taliban "often fade away when confronted by a conventional army,"
they "will probably stand and fight" to protect their revenue stream.

2. "The terrain is a guerrilla's dream. In addition to acres of shoulder-high poppy plants, rows and rows of hard-packed mud walls, used to stand up grape vines, offer ideal places for ambushes and defense."  

3. "The opium is tilled in heavily populated areas...The prospect of heavy fighting in populated areas could further alienate the Afghan population."

4. "Among the ways the Taliban are believed to make money from the opium trade is by charging farmers for protection; if the Americans and British attack, the Taliban will be expected to make good on their side of that bargain."

5. Opium poppies are "by far the most lucrative crop an Afghan can farm."

6. "The opium trade now makes up nearly 60 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product, American officials say."

7. "The country's opium traffickers typically offer incentives that no Afghan government official can: they can guarantee a farmer a minimum price for the crop as well as taking it to market, despite the horrendous condition of most of Afghanistan's roads."

8. "Even if the Americans are able to cut production, shortages could drive up prices and not make a significant dent in the Taliban's profits."

There's also the fact that there's enough opium buried somewhere in Afghanistan to supply the entire world for years. Sorry guys, eradication won't work. Stop trying it.

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