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Colombia After the Peace Accords: A Conversation with Vanda Felbab-Brown [FEATURE]

Four years ago, Colombia's decades-long civil war officially came to an end when the leftist rebels of the FARC signed a peace agreement with then-President Juan Manuel Santos. The accord envisioned the demobilization of the FARC as a military force and the use of alternative development to wean peasant farmers from their coca crops and end the country's reputation as a cocaine capital.

Colombian peasant harvesting the coca crop. (DEA.gov)
Four years on, it is probably unfair to call the peace deal a failure, but it hasn't exactly produced the hoped-for results. President Santos completed his term and was replaced by rightist Ivan Duque, who is much less enthusiastic about the accords and whose administration has lagged at implementing the alternative development provisions of the peace deal.

The FARC did demobilize, but last year, after at least 139 FARC members who had laid down their guns were murdered, dissident FARC leaders announced they were rejoining the path of armed struggle, taking several thousand fighters with them. In taking up arms once again, the FARC dissidents rejoined a vicious, multi-sided fight for control of the cocaine trade that never went away. That fight includes gangs from across the border in Venezuela, rightist paramilitary bandas, two different factions of the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN), the Colombian military, and at least two major Mexican drug cartels, Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation.

Efforts under Duque to cut coca and cocaine production have not worked. With Duque's government only grudgingly supporting crop substitution and rural development programs that are broadly considered more effective, instead promoting forced eradication, Colombian cocaine production hit a record high last year.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration now views Colombia less as a principal ally in the region and more as a chess piece to be used against the Venezuelan regime of Nicholas Maduro. When it comes to the issue of coca and cocaine, the administration has taken a hard line that harkens back to the days of Plan Colombia. This year, Trump has demanded that Columbia resume spraying of coca crops, proposed an assistance package that slashes economic development aid while nearly doubling anti-drug funding, and deployed a US army brigade to Colombia on a drug-fighting mission.

This week, Drug War Chronicle got on the phone with Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. She is the co-director of the Brookings series on opioids: "The Opioid Crisis in America: Domestic and International Dimensions." Previously, she was the co-director of the Brookings project, "Improving Global Drug Policy: Comparative Perspectives Beyond UNGASS 2016," as well as of another Brookings project, "Reconstituting Local Orders." Felbab-Brown is an expert on international and internal conflicts and nontraditional security threats, including insurgency, organized crime, urban violence, and illicit economies. Her fieldwork and research have covered, among others, Afghanistan, South Asia, Burma, Indonesia, the Andean region, Mexico, Morocco, Somalia, and eastern Africa. She is a senior advisor to the congressionally mandated Afghanistan Peace Process Study Group.

Here's what she had to say:

On the disappointing results of the 2016 accord:

"The peace deal was significant, but produced incomplete results," said Felbab-Brown. "One reason is that non-state actors persisted. The other reason is that the Duque government doesn't like that deal, so it has a policy of death by a thousand cuts, doing the minimum necessary to appear to comply with the law produced by the peace deal while really doing very little."

"The deal was extremely optimistic both in process and in implementation," she argued, pointing to the example of Thailand, where some 30,000 acres of opium poppies were being grown in the 1960s and even with a highly sustained commitment from the Thai monarchy, it took 30 years to end the practice.

"That's only one-tenth of the issue Colombia struggles with," she noted. "The idea that peace would eliminate coca production was unrealistic, but it was necessary to sell the peace plan to the public. People thought that if there was coca, the fighting would persist. And the need to sell it to the United Nations meant people had to emphasize it as part of alternative development."

"Development was the right policy stress, but it was unhampered by a realistic assessment of how long it would take, how much coca would persist untampered by a realistic assessment of how long it would take and how much coca would persist. A fundamental difficulty for Colombia, among others, is that the resources of the state to do rural development and create alternative livelihoods are quite limited."

"The notion that everyone would be asked to get rid of their coca to go through the compensation process created the mess we are seeing now," she said. "Even if it was not possible to bring in enough resources to accomplish this at the national level, it was worsened by Duque's dislike of the policy and his slowing down of rural development efforts. But it still wasn't going to happen in three years of payments and then no more coca. They've tried that about 20 times before, and it always crashed. There's no reason to believe this would be any different."

On the Trump administration's Colombia policy:

Brookings scholar Vanda Felbab-Brown (Brookings.edu)
"The Trump administration has been back to the 1980s with a rigid, doctrinaire view centered on supply-side policies," she observed. "That said, it has come up with some surprising mutations that you wouldn't expect from a regular Republican administration, as when in 2017 it threatened to decertify Colombia as not living up to US-imposed drug fighting objectives. Republicans were consternated, and so were the Colombians, who expected that Trump would be close to Duque. Trump likes rightist governments and a heavy military emphasis. The administration has been weak dealing with the opioid crisis at home and focused on heavy eradication in Colombia. And Trump has really degraded Colombia. Previous administrations saw it as a principle ally and partner in South America, but Trump views Colombia principally as a platform against Venezuela."

"Trump has two objectives in Colombia: Venezuela and drugs," Felbab-Brown said. "On the drug side, he wants aerial spraying with US contractors. It depends on the day or the month whether drugs or Venezuela is first on the agenda, but Venezuela tends to dominate."

Whether the Trump administration can bend the Colombian government to a deeper role in its anti-Maduro machinations remains to be seen, but that may be a dead end now, anyway, Felbab-Brown said.

"Coca kind of competes with Trump's focus on Colombia as a source of policies against Venezuela, and while Duque is more forward leading in that regard than former president Santos, he realizes he can't risk war or meltdown in Venezuela," she said. "So they've been trying to satisfy Trump without causing a real blowup without any real strategy. After that Guaido stunt with the food aid, both the US and Colombia have been left without any kind of way forward."

On best policies moving forward:

If she were advising the Colombian and US governments, Felbab-Brown said, she would emphasize consolidating the zonas de futuro, where the Duque government is trying to introduce a government presence in five abandoned regions where armed groups and drug trafficking flourish, making up less than three percent of the national territory, instead of worrying about coca eradication.

The "future zones" are Colombia's bid to exert sovereign control over ungoverned parts of its territory. (fupad.org)
"A key line of effort would be to think through how the zonas could be made viable, how best to maximize the policy engagement in the zonas and how to expand them. A key problem with earlier versions of this strategy is that if you succeed, you end up with patches of government presence unconnected to anything else. They need to be made contiguous and connected," she argued.

"I would not care about eradication that much," Felbab-Brown said. "Although it would be unrealistic for a US administration to say that, it could strongly suggest it is not our metric. While Congress can put on pressure for more eradication, I would try to think about where it doesn't cause too much harm to the objective of stabilization. Much of the thinking in both governments is that eradication enhances stability, but it actually hampers it," she said.

"Instead, think about progress in reducing violence in strategic areas. How can we minimize the presence of the bandas, the Venezuelan groups, the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels, both of whom are active in Colombia? How can we neuter them or push them out? This is what I would be thinking."

"At a broader strategic level, I would try to persuade Duque to make a much greater effort in rural development and equity, all that. We'll never make Duque into Santos, but perhaps a better version of himself.

On legalization as a solution:

Felbab-Brown was leery of legalization as a solution.

"It's a fantasy in terms of feasibility," she said. "Who is going to legalize cocaine? Not even Switzerland or the Netherlands would go there. And I'm not persuaded it would address the reasons why Colombia is so violent. If you legalized the coca crop, what is the guarantee that these same actors wouldn't be able to get their hands on the coca fields?" she asked.

"There is also a big fallacy in believing that violent actors have control because the commodities are illegal," she argued. "If anything, the conflict isn't just about coca, but timber, gold, and rare minerals -- all legal commodities. These non-state actors are deeply involved in those economies, the dissident groups are interested in the diversification of their portfolios. In Choco, for instance, where there is some of the most intense fighting, some of it is about coca, but more of it is about control of timber and the port. The FARC dissidents, the bandas, the ELN, Sinaloa and Jalisco, they're all there."

"The issue is not fundamentally about whether the commodity is legal or not. Look at the fighting over avocados in Mexico. You can argue for legalizing marijuana or poppies, but legality or illegality is not the crux of the issue. If Mexico wants to legalize poppies, it needs to fix its collapsed law enforcement first."

[Ed: Our organization's view is that global drug prohibition drives up the value and prices for coca and its derivatives, generating tremendous profits for criminal organizations, which get reinvested in other areas of crime and which contribute to their ability to influence political systems. If it would be impossible to secure licit coca grows in Colombia from being taken over by bad actors, another option would be to establish competing operations in other countries with stronger legal systems, providing coca and its derivatives for less than the crime organizations do. We do recognize that transitions between systems have the potential to go wrong, and we don't expect legalization to solve every problem that's become intertwined with prohbition.]

US Deploys Air Force Planes to Curacao in Anti-Drug Effort, Israel Moves Closer to Pot Legalization, More... (6/22/20)

Georgia Senate Democrats have filed a police reform bill that includes marijuana decriminalization, the US is ramping up anti-drug operations near Venezuela, Israel takes a step toward marijuana legalization, and more.

With a Knesset committee vote, Israel takes another step toward marijuana legalization. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Georgia Police Reform Bill Includes Marijuana Decriminalization. Georgia Senate Democrats have filed the Georgia Justice Act, which covers a wide range of issues such as police body cameras, no-knock warrants, racial profiling, demilitarizing law enforcement and cannabis policy reform. It also includes a plank calling for marijuana decriminalization, under which possession of up to a half ounce would be a misdemeanor punishable by only a $300 fine. Under current state law, possession is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Medical Marijuana

Pennsylvania Bill Would Require Police to Prove Actual Impairment Before Charging Medical Marijuana Patients With DUI. A Republican state senator, Camera Bartolotta, has filed a bill aimed at protecting medical marijuana patients from being prosecuted for driving under the influence. The bill does so by exempting patients from the state's DUI law, which requires only the presence of marijuana metabolites to garner a DUI ticket. Instead, police would have to prove that the patient driver is actually impaired.

Foreign Policy

US Air Force Deploying Planes to Curacao in Ramped Up Anti-Drug Operation. The US Southern Command announced last Friday that four US Air Force planes will be deployed to Curacao, a Caribbean island nation just 40 miles off the coast of Venezuela, for counter-narcotics operations. An E-3 Sentry surveillance plane and an E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System plane, supported by two KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling aircraft, will fly detection and monitoring missions in international airspace, Pentagon officials said. The move is meant to "help U.S. and international law enforcement authorities disrupt and defeat transnational criminal organizations trafficking illegal narcotics in the region," the Southern Command said. The deployment will involve about 200 US personnel at the Cooperative Security Location, a complex used for regional training in counterterrorism and drug interdiction, in Williamstad, Curacao. The move comes several weeks after the Trump administration accused the Venezuelan government of being involved in drug trafficking.

International

Israel Knesset Committee Approves Marijuana Legalization Bills. The Ministerial Committee on Legislation on Sunday approved a pair of marijuana legalization bills that would legalize marijuana possession and consumption by adults 21 and over. This is only the first step on a process in which the bills must be discussed in committee and then approved at least three times by the full Knesset.

Mexican President Says He Ordered Freeing of El Chapo's Son to Prevent Bloodshed. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador acknowledged last Friday that he personally ordered the release of one of imprisoned Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's sons after he was captured by the military last fall in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa. "I ordered that this operation be stopped and that this presumed criminal be freed," he said, adding that he acted to prevent a slaughter. The capture of Ovidio Guzman Lopez resulted in hours-long gun battles and cartel roadblocks in Culiacan, leaving at least 14 people dead. The violence didn't end until the son was released. “If we hadn’t suspended [the operation] more than 200 innocent people … would have lost their lives,” the president said.

US Rep Calls for Drug Decriminalization, Prohibition-Related Violence in Colombia and Mexico, More... (6/11/20)

South Dakota marijuana activists launch their election campaign this week, Nevada's governor proposes mass pardons for small time pot possession charges, Michigan's governor signs a roadside drug testing bill into law, and more.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) is calling for drug decriminalization as part of a police accountability plan. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Nevada Governor Proposes Pardons for Minor Marijuana Convictions. Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) announced Thursday that he will propose a plan to pardon tens of thousands of people convicted on minor marijuana possession charges before the state legalized the drug in 2017. "The people of Nevada have decided that possession of small amounts of marijuana is not a crime," the governor said. "If approved, this resolution will clear the slate for thousands of people who bear the stigma of a conviction for actions that have now been decriminalized."

South Dakota Marijuana Advocates Kick Off Campaign for Both Legalization and Medical Marijuana Initiatives. With both a marijuana legalization initiative, Constitutional Amendment A, and a medical marijuana initiative, Initiated Measure 26, already qualified for the ballot, marijuana activists kicked off their election season campaign to get them both approved in November. If both were approved by voters, the state would become the first to legalize both recreational and medical marijuana on the same day.

Drug Policy

Oregon US Congressman Calls for Drug Decriminalization as Part of Policing Reform Plan. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) released a police accountability plan on Tuesday that includes proposals to legalize marijuana and decriminalize other drugs to reduce over-policing of communities of color. "Reducing police interactions by using non-law enforcement to deal with minor crimes and activities, and repealing punitive drug laws could reduce the criminalization and over-policing of communities of color," the plan states. "We need to rethink the way police are used and encourage alternative policing models that address institutional racism as they are being created." Such a plan would include repealing "policies that incentivize over-policing of communities of color, including the prohibition of cannabis and the decriminalization of other drugs."

Drug Testing

Michigan Governor Signs Roadside Drug Testing Pilot Program Bill. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday signed into law Senate Bill 718, which establishes a statewide pilot program for roadside drug testing for drivers. The test will use saliva to detect the presence of amphetamines, benzodiazepines, cannabis (delta 9 THC), cocaine, methamphetamines and opiates.

International

Colombia's Coca-Growing Cauca Department Wracked with Violence. Armed groups fighting over control over the coca and cocaine trade have been engaging in targeted assassinations and gun battles in southwestern Cauca department. Dissident members of the FARC, which laid down its arms as part of a 2016 peace accord, have been going after their former comrades, while different factions of the National Liberation Army (ELN) clashed with each other. Meanwhile, the targeted killings of social leaders and activists have also continued, with more than 40 killed in the department so far this year.

Mexico's Guanajuato State Hammered by Weekend of Cartel Violence. Nearly three dozen people were killed in a spate of drug gang killings in the central industrial state of Guanajuato over the weekend. In the deadliest single incident, a group of gunmen attacked a drug rehabilitation center in Irapauto and killed 10 people. The violence is linked to a bloody turf war between the Jalisco Cartel and the local Santa Rosa de Lima gang.

Congressional Resolution Condemns Police Brutality and Drug War, West Coast Pot Shops Trashed, More... (6/1/20)

West Coast marijuana stores get looted in the upheaval gripping the land, a dozen members of Congress file a resolution calling for an end to police brutality and the war on drugs, the Louisiana legislature has been busy passing marijuana bills, and more.

A dozen members of Congress call for an end to police brutality and the war on drugs. (Pixabay)
Marijuana Policy

California, Oregon Marijuana Dispensaries Hit by Looters. California and Oregon marijuana dispensaries are among the businesses hit by the wave of unrest sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. A number of them have been looted and vandalized, including Harborside, Blu, ECO Cannabis, and Magnolia Wellness in Oakland, 10 dispensaries in San Francisco, and five more in Los Angeles. In Oregon, at least two dispensaries were hit in Portland and one in Oakland.

Louisiana Legislature Passes Marijuana Banking Bill. The state Senate last Friday gave final approval to House Bill 211, which would protect banks and credit unions serving marijuana businesses from facing penalties from state regulators. The bill has already passed the House, and now heads to the desk of Gov. John Bel Edwards (D).

Medical Marijuana

Louisiana Legislature Passes Medical Marijuana Expansion Bill. With a final vote in the House on Sunday, the legislature gave final approval to House Bill 819, which would allow doctors to recommend medical marijuana for any debilitating medical conditions. It now goes to the desk of Gov. John Bel Edwards (D).

Asset Forfeiture

Tennessee Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill Advances in House. A minor civil asset forfeiture reform bill, House Bill 0340, was approved by the House Judiciary Committee last Friday. The bill does not ban civil asset forfeiture, but instead eliminates the requirement that someone whose property has been seized through asset forfeiture post a $350 bond to appeal that seizure. Tennessee is one of only three states that have such requirements. The bill now heads to the House Finance, Ways, and Means Committee.

Drug Policy

Congressional Resolution Condemns Police Brutality, War on Drugs. A dozen members of the House filed a resolution last Friday that condemns police brutality and the racial injustice of the war on drugs. The resolution comes in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a police officer who suffocated him to death and Breonna Taylor in Louisville in a fatally flawed drug raid. The "system of policing in America, and its systemic targeting of and use of deadly and brutal force against people of color, particularly Black people, stems from the long legacy of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow laws, and the War on Drugs in the United States and has been perpetuated by violent and harmful law enforcement practices," the resolution says.

International

Honduras Passes Law Allowing it to Intercept Suspected Drug Smuggling Planes. In a move totally devoid of irony -- US prosecutors have accused high Honduran government officials of being corrupted by the drug trade -- the Honduran legislature has approved a law allowing security forces to intercept planes of smuggling drugs and to participate in more comprehensive intelligence sharing with the United States and other Latin American countries. Honduran officials said the law was aimed at "narco jets" mainly coming from Venezuela. The move comes as the Trump administration is increasing anti-drug operations in the Caribbean and sending US troops to Colombia.

COVID Impacts Cocaine Trade, Bolsters Dark Web Drug Market, More... (5/28/20)

Coronavirus is having differential impacts on the illicit drug trade, Michigan groups push to end the state's drug felon foodstamp ban, Colombian rebels call for a coronavirus ceasefire, and more.

Coca prices are down because of the pandemic, but the cocaine trade keeps on keeping on. (Pixabay)
Marijuana Policy

Arkansas Marijuana Legalization Initiative Campaign Gets Boost from Federal Judge's Signature-Gathering Ruling. A federal judge ruled Monday that a marijuana legalization initiative campaign, Arkansans for Cannabis Reform, can do electronic signature-gathering because of excessive burdens on in-person signature-gathering due to coronavirus pandemic social distancing. The judge ruled that the secretary of state must accept signatures not gathered in person or notarized. The campaign says it was on a path to gather sufficient signatures before in-person signature-gathering was suspended. It has until July 3 to hand in signatures.

Drug Policy

Michigan Bill Would Hike Heroin, Fentanyl Sales Penalties. State Rep. Brian Elder (D-Bay City) has filed a bill, HB 5627, that would increase penalties for the manufacture and delivery of heroin, fentanyl, and other synthetic opioid drugs. The bill is now before the House Judiciary Committee.

Michigan Groups Call on Governor to End Food Stamp Ban for Drug Felons. A coalition of 25 organizations led by the Center for Employment Opportunities is calling on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) and legislative leaders to end a longtime state policy that permanently bans residents with two or more drug felony convictions from receiving food stamps. The ban is federal, but most states have already moved to receive waivers to avoid enforcing it. The groups say the ban makes it more difficult for people to make the transition from prison to civilian life.

International

Coronavirus Drives Dealers Online as Drugs Supply Soars. The cyber intelligence company Sixgill is reporting that dark web drug sales offers soared nearly 500% over the first few months of this year as drug dealers took to the web to continue doing business in a time of social distancing. The number of drug items for sale on dark websites monitored by Sixgill jumped from 4,154 in December 2019 to more than 24,000 by April 2020. MDMA postings more than doubled, marijuana postings increased more than five-fold, and cocaine postings jumped 10-fold. "Feedback, while an imperfect metric for purchase volume, is a reliable indicator of the rate of transactions," Sixgill explained. "Feedback volume for cannabis, cocaine, and MDMA all nearly doubled over the past half year."

Coronavirus Hits the Cocaine Supply Chain. The coronavirus pandemic is destabilizing the delicate balance in the Andes that the cocaine trade relies on. Lockdowns enforced by soldiers and police have caused trafficking routes to constrict, driving down the price of coca for the more than 237,000 families in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia who depend on it. In the latter two countries, the price of coca has dropped to from one-third to one-sixth of previous levels. "We're concerned about feeding our families because the price of coca continues to drop," said Bolivian coca union leader Albino Pinto. "We face restrictions in moving coca and other goods to the central market. This is blocking both local consumption and export, but our production continues at the same level." But the cocaine trade continues: "Drug traffickers have become more agile in shifting routes and modifying strategies," according to Kathryn Ledebur of the Andean Information Network. "Given the harsh reality for those who survive at the lowest rungs of the cocaine trade, pandemic control, just like drug control doesn't stop this business."

Colombia ELN Rebels Would Back Temporary Ceasefire to Help Contain Spread of Coronavirus. The National Liberation Army (ELN), which remains in rebellion against the government in Bogota and is involved in coca and cocaine production, has said it would be willing to take part in a three-month ceasefire to help quash the coronavirus. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for a global ceasefire back in March. The ELN said it was waiting for a response from the government of President Ivan Duque.

US Army Unit Heads to Colombia to Fight Drugs, LA Senate Approves MedMJ Expansion Bill, More... (5/28/20)

One Arkansas marijuana legalization campaign calls it quits for this year, the Louisiana Senate has passed a medical marijuana expansion bill, Tyson Timbs finally gets his Land Rover back, and more.

Montana medical marijuana patients will soon be able to shop at any dispensary they wish. (Sandra Yreul/DPA)
Marijuana Policy

Arkansas Marijuana Legalization Initiative Campaign Stops Signature-Gathering. Arkansas True Grass, which sought to place a constitutional amendment legalizing marijuana on the November ballot, has given up on this year, citing difficulties caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The group needed 90,000 valid voter signatures by July 3 to qualify, but now says it will turn its sights to 2022. Another initiative campaign, Arkansans for Cannabis Reform, continues to gather signatures.

Medical Marijuana

Louisiana Senate Approves Medical Marijuana Expansion Bill. The Senate voted 28-6 Wednesday to approve House Bill 819, which would end a rule requiring doctors to register with the state to recommend it and give them broad authority to recommend for any debilitating health condition. The bill has already passed the House but has to go back to the lower chamber to approve amendments made in the Senate.

Montana to "Untether" Medical Marijuana Users, Allowing Multiple Providers. As of next Tuesday, medical marijuana patients will no longer be stuck using a sole provider. Under a bill approved last year, patients will now be able to seek their medicine from any dispensary or provider. That bill allows patients to purchase up to one ounce per day, with a maximum of five ounces per month. But the daily purchase limit is temporarily suspended in a bid to reduce the number of in-store visits because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Oklahoma Activists Call for Legislature to Reconvene to Override Governor's Veto of Medical Marijuana Delivery Bill. After Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) last week vetoed a bill that would have allowed for medical marijuana deliveries, activists are calling on lawmakers to reconvene to override that veto. While other vetoes by Stitt were successfully overridden, the Senate refused to vote on this one, with the Senate leader's office saying "there was not enough support to override the veto in the Senate and it was not close."

Asset Forfeiture

Indiana Man in US Supreme Court Asset Forfeiture Case Finally Gets His Vehicle Back. Tyson Timbs, the Indiana man whose seized Land Rover resulted in a Supreme Court decision scaling back civil asset forfeiture, has finally gotten his vehicle back -- six years after it was seized over a drug bust. After the Supreme Court decision, a state court judge ordered the state to return Timbs' vehicle "immediately." That was April 27. Now, it's actually happened.

Foreign Policy

US Army Unit to Arrive in Colombia on Drug Fighting Mission. The US Embassy in Bogota announced Wednesday that a US Security Force Assistance Brigade will arrive in Colombia early next month. "SFAB's mission in Colombia is an opportunity to demonstrate our mutual commitment against drug trafficking and support for regional peace, respect for sovereignty and the lasting promise to defend shared ideals and values," said US Southern Commander Admiral Craig Faller in a statement. The move comes as Colombia's coca cultivation and cocaine production are a record high levels.

"Deaths of Despair" Plateaued in 2018, No COVID Shutdown for Colombia's Coca Eradicators, More... (5/21/20)

Virginia has now decriminalized small-time marijuana possession, a marijuana legalization bill is moving again in the US Virgin Islands, "deaths of despair" have leveled off, a study finds, and more.

Virginia has just decriminalized marijuana possession. (IRIN)
Marijuana Policy

US Virgin Island Governor Unveils Revised Marijuana Legalization Bill. Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. (D) has released a revised marijuana legalization bill and sent it to the territorial Senate for consideration. Bryan is emphasizing the potential for marijuana taxes to help fund the territory's retirement system for government workers. The revised bill would address social equity issues by creating a micro-cultivator permit and would allow patients but not recreational consumers to grow their own. The bill would also limit non-residents to buying seven grams a day, while residents could buy an ounce each day.

Virginia Governor Signs Marijuana Decriminalization Bills. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) on Thursday signed a pair of identical bills that decriminalize marijuana possession in the state, making it the 27th state to do so. The bills are SB 2 and HB 972. The legislature passed the measures in March, but Northam recommended a series of amendments and sent it back to the House and Senate for consideration. The legislators accepted 15 of 17 recommendations and sent the measures back to Northam, who was satisfied enough to sign them into law.

Drug Policy

"Deaths of Despair" Plateaued in 2018, Study Finds. Deaths from alcohol, drugs, and suicide -- so-called "deaths of despair" -- hit a peak in 2017 and leveled off in 2018, according to a study from the Trust for America's Health. The leveling off was largely attributable to a decline in drug overdose deaths that year, the first such decrease in a decade. But deaths due to alcohol, synthetic opioids, cocaine and suicide increased, particularly among people of color, according to the report.

International

Colombia Coca Eradicators Spared from Coronavirus Lockdown. Colombian President Ivan Duque has ordered a nationwide lockdown to combat the spread of the coronavirus but has created an exception that allows coca eradication campaigns to move forward largely unabated. The move comes amidst intense US pressure to reduce the country's cocaine production. The campaign has also led to at least two deaths in clashes between security forces and local residents.

Push to Help Marijuana Businesses in Next COVID Bill, Coca and Conflict in Bolivia and Colombia, More... (5/11/20)

Advocacy groups are pushing for marijuana businesses to be included in the next coronavirus relief bill, a pair of Oregon drug reform initiatives are teaming up for signature-gathering, and more.

Colombian coca grower at work (dea.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Marijuana Groups Ask Congress to Include Banking Access in Next Coronavirus Bill. A coalition of marijuana advocacy groups sent a letter last Friday to the House leadership asking them to include language allowing the marijuana industry to gain access to banking services as part of pending coronavirus relief legislation. The groups argue that while lack of banking access has been a serious problem for the industry, it is now made worse because such businesses can only accept cash, which hampers recommended social distancing practices. "As recent reports show that viruses can live on cash for up to 17 days, the public safety concerns of this cash-only system compound,"the letter says. "The lack of access to financial institutions places industry workers, government employees, and the public at-large at risk as banknotes circulate from consumers and patients to businesses to government."

Drug Policy

Oregon Drug Decriminalization and Therapeutic Psilocybin Initiative Campaigns Team Up for Signature-Gathering. Activists behind the IP 34 therapeutic psilocybin initiative and the IP 44 drug decriminalization initiative campaigns are joining forces to collect enough signatures for each to qualify for the November ballot. Both campaigns sent out email blasts over the weekend encouraging their supporters to sign petitions for the other measure.

International

Albania Close to Legalizing Medical Marijuana. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama announced Monday that the government is preparing a draft law that would legalize the cultivation of marijuana for medicinal purposes. He said the government had been working for the past year with foreign and local advisors and that the draft bill would soon be made public.

Bolivia Escalates Anti-Drug Campaign in the Chapare, Escalating Tensions. The rightist interim government has stepped up operations against drug trafficking in the Chapare, but its focus on coca-producing communities around Cochabamba is creating intensifying tensions with law enforcement. Rural mobile police officers have been ambushed by traffickers attempting to protect their cocaine labs, and residents in nearby towns broke quarantine rules to find police officers and evict them from the area. Meanwhile, authorities have halted coca eradication efforts, although probably less because of the coronavirus than because Cochabamba coca growers are well organized and close to the deposed former president, Evo Morales, and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) Party, which is expected to win forthcoming presidential elections. Sending armed state agents into the countryside to destroy farmers' crops poses political risks for the interim government.

Colombia Steps Up Coca Eradication During Lockdown. Despite ordering a full lockdown of the country, the Colombian government is doubling down on the manual eradication of coca plants in remote parts of the country. Coca growers' representatives and human rights groups are demanding the government cease eradication during the lockdown for health reasons.

Coronavirus Doesn't Halt Colombia Coca Offensive, MT Court Hears Pleas for Electronic Signature-Gathering, More... (4/29/20)

Whether Montana marijuana legalization campaigns can use electronic signature-gathering is now in the hands of a state judge, an Indiana judge orders the return of a Land Rover whose case changed federal asset forfeiture law, Colombia's campaign against coca continues despite the pandemic, and more.

The Colombian government isn't letting a nationwide coronavirus curfew interfere with its war on coca producers. (Pixabay)
Montana Court Hears Arguments Over Electronic Signature-Gathering for Marijuana Legalization Initiative. New Approach Montana, the group behind a pair of marijuana legalization initiatives, was in Lewis and Clark County District Court Tuesday in an effort to win permission to do electronic signature-gathering amidst the coronavirus pandemic. The group says the state's stay-at-home order and continued social distancing directives make it nearly impossible to gather enough in-person signatures to qualify their petitions for the November ballot. The hearing itself was held by telephone, a point New Approach's lawyer emphasized when arguing its case. Attorneys for the state argued against allowing electronic signature gathering, saying there is not enough evidence it can be done securely and that the group's injury was self-inflicted because it had not yet started signature gathering. Initiative-190 would legalize the use of recreational marijuana in the state. It requires over 25,000 valid voter signatures to appear on November's ballot. Constitutional Initiative-118 aims to amend the state constitution to set the age of marijuana consumption and possession at 21. It needs almost 51,000 valid voter signatures.

Asset Forfeiture

Indiana Judge Orders Return of Seized Land Rover That Led to US Supreme Court Asset Forfeiture Case. An Indiana Superior Court judge on Monday ordered the state to "immediately release" a seized Land Rover in a case that made history in the US Supreme Court when the court used it to overturn Indiana's civil asset forfeiture law, saying the seizure was disproportionate to the offense. The ruling comes seven years after police seized Tyson Timbs' $41,000 Land Rover when he was charged with a drug felony. But the state is continuing to appeal the case, so that "immediate release" is not going to happen just yet.

International

Colombia Carries on Major Offensive Against Coca Producers Amidst Pandemic Curfew. Although President Ivan Duque declared a nationwide curfew on March 24 to fight the coronavirus pandemic, massive military operations aimed at eradicating small producer coca plantations are continuing unimpeded. In the departments of Antioquia and Chocó, Norte de Santander, Nariño, Putumayo, and Caquetá, military and civilian eradication personnel are engaged in eradication efforts.

Swiss Parliament Passes Motion to Authorize Cannabis Production and Export. The Swiss Parliament has passed a measure that will allow producers in the country to export low-THC hemp, and doctors to prescribe medical marijuana directly. Currently, would-be patients must obtain prescriptions for the Federal Office of Public Health, an expensive and time-consuming process. The new law is expected to come into force sometime in the middle of next year. It will also include a pilot program for recreational use. The measure still has to be approved by the Council of States before it can proceed.

Peru Coca Prices Plunge Amid Pandemic, Louisiana Pot Poll Shows State Not There Yet, More... (4/27/20)

A Navy destroyer on an anti-drug mission is forced to return to port, Peruvian coca growers are taking a financial hit during the pandemic, Montana GOP elected officials are opposing an effort to get electronic signature-gathering for a marijuana legalization campaign, and more.

It's hard times in the coca fields, as pandemic lockdowns bring price plunges. (DEA.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Louisiana Poll Finds State Not There Yet on Marijuana Legalization. A new poll from Louisiana Public Opinion LLC shows that a majority of registered voters still oppose legalization -- but that number has decreased slightly. When respondents were asked if they favored legalization, only 37% said yes, compared to 54% opposed. That's up three points from the same survey conducted three years ago, but still well short of a majority.

Montana Republican State Officials Oppose Electronic Signature Gathering for Initiatives. Replying to a lawsuit from New Approach Montana, the sponsor of a constitutional initiative (Ballot Issue 11) that would set 21 as the legal age when people can use marijuana and a statutory initiative (Ballot Issue 14) that would set up a system of taxed and regulated marijuana commerce, the Republican secretary of state and attorney general officially responded that they oppose the electronic gathering of signatures for initiative campaigns impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, the state's top election official, and the state of Montana, represented by Attorney General Tim Fox, have asked the court to throw out the lawsuits, arguing that the circumstances arise out of a "health emergency," not unfair election laws.

Interdiction

US Naval Destroyer on Counternarcotics Mission Forced to Return to Port After Being Hit by Coronavirus Outbreak. The USS Kidd, a guided missile destroyer doing counternarcotic missions in the eastern Pacific Ocean, has been forced to return to port after at least 18 sailors aboard the ship tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The Navy said the number of those infected with the virus on the vessel was expected to rise. The Kidd is part of the Trump administration's deployment of more warships and aircraft to the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific to fight drug cartels.

International

Peru Sees Big Drop in Black Market Coca Prices as Pandemic Bites into Drug Trade. Prices for coca leaf sold to illicit economy drug gangs have plunged 70% since the country went on lockdown last month, according to a local growers' organization. While the country has a legal coca market, an estimated 90% of the crop is destined for the black market. Now, the growers are calling on the government to buy up excess coca inventory for use in licit coca industries.

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