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Chronicle AM: INCB Head Frets Over Pot, MS Welfare Drug Test Fiasco, SWAT Fights Back, More (12/5/14)

Global anti-drug bureaucrats are grumbling about marijuana legalization in America, one New York county decides to do asset forfeiture for misdemeanor drug offenses, Mississippi's food stamp drug testing program comes up snake-eyes, the SWAT boys fight to keep their military toys, and more. Let's get to it:

Marijuana Policy

Missouri Legalization Initiative Petition Open for Public Comment. A legalization initiative petition sponsored by Show-Me Cannabis has been submitted to the secretary of state's office, and Missouri residents now have 30 days to comment on the initiative petition. They can do so here (it's Petition 2016-009). This is essentially the same petition submitted a month ago, but has been resubmitted with grammatical fixes.

INCB Head Complains About Legalization in US States. Lochan Naidoo, president of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) is concerned about the implications of marijuana legalization in US states. "Legalization for recreational use is definitely not the right way to go," he told Reuters in an interview. "We do know about the damage that cannabis does to the brain," the South African physician said. "I'm not sure how well people are going to be able to protect their children." Naidoo added that the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs requires countries to comply with its provisions banning marijuana, and the US should do so in "all its territories."

Asset Forfeiture

New York County Approves Asset Forfeiture for Misdemeanor Drug Cases. Legislators in Orange County Thursday approved a law that allows authorities to seize cash and cars from defendants in misdemeanor drug cases, but only after they have been convicted. The measure passed on a party-line vote with Republicans voting for it and Democrats against despite fierce opposition from sitting Democrats and audience members. DA David Hoovler has portrayed the measure as means of keeping seized assets in the county instead of sending the money to the general fund in Albany, as required under the state's asset forfeiture law.

Drug Testing

Mississippi Welfare Drug Testing Program Has Only Two People Testing Positive. The state law that went into effect in August has so far resulted in 3,656 Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, the food stamp program) applicants being screened for drug use, 38 being selected for drug testing, and a grand total of two testing positive for drugs. It's not clear how much the state has spent implementing the program, but Cassandra Welchin, policy director of the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative, said the result was clear. "It's just a waste of money," she said. "Poor working families don't need a barrier to services and this is just another barrier."

Law Enforcement

SWAT Lobby Fights Back Against Policing Reforms in Wake of Ferguson. The National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA), which represents more than 1,500 SWAT teams across the country, has mobilized to protect the federal program that provided military surplus equipment to local law enforcement. NTOA sent emails to all 535 members of Congress urging them not to end or tighten up the Pentagon's 1033 program, which transfers equipment including armored vehicles, grenade launchers, and bayonets to local departments. NTOA executive director Mark Lomax has also been busy, reaching out to congressional offices and testifying before both the House and Senate Homeland Security committees. And it looks like it worked -- Congress will take no action on the program as this year's session winds down. Click on the link for much more.

Chronicle Book Review: Mexico on the Brink

Hidden Dangers: Mexico on the Brink of Disaster by Robert Joe Stout (2014, Sunbury Press, 210 pp., $16.95 PB)

Today is the official 104th anniversary of the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. The uprising that began then lasted for nearly two decades and by the time it was over, nearly two million Mexicans were dead, and the country was changed forever. That revolution overthrew a sclerotic, encrusted dictatorship that advanced the country materially and brought it to the brink of the modern era, but which ignored the interests of the vast majority of Mexicans.

Are we about to see a repeat? That's probably premature, but it's notable that authorities in Mexico City have canceled the official commemorative parade set for today, afraid of trouble breaking out. There has already been trouble in Mexico City today, anyway -- with masked demonstrators attempted to block access to the international airport -- so that decision may well be a prudent one.

What is motivating the protests today -- and for nearly the last two months -- is the disappearance (and almost certain murder) of 43 radical students from a provincial teachers' college in the south central state of Guerrero. It seems clear that the students and their threats of demonstrations were seen as a threat by Maria de los Angeles Pineda, the wife of Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca. Pineda, who has been identified as a leader of the Guerreros Unidos organized crime group (commonly referred to as cartels), is believed to have ordered Iguala municipal police to "take care of" the unruly students.

According to a version of events delivered by Mexican Attorney General Jesus Karam Murillo, Iguala police shot up the commandeered public buses the students were riding in (commandeering buses is not unusual in political protests), killing some of the students on the spot. The remaining students were then allegedly turned over by Iguala police to Guerreros Unidos gang members, who, according to Karam, killed them all, burned their bodies, chopped them to bits, and threw them in a river.

Of course, it took Karam a month to make that announcement, and in the meantime, anger over the disappearances grew by the day. Demonstrators attacked and burnt part of the state capitol complex in Chilpancingo; they attacked and burnt municipal buildings in Iguala; they fought pitched battles with police on the road to the Acapulco airport. And the demonstrations and solidarity protests are spreading.

This is a brutal scandal that has shaken even brutal scandal-plagued Mexico. Federal authorities have now arrested the mayoral couple, along with dozens of police men and gang members (some are undoubtedly both). The governor of Guerrero has been forced to resign. And President Enrique Nieto Pena and his government are now besieged, even though the mayor and the governor belonged to another political party.

This may be the landmine that sets off a long pent-up social explosion south of the border. I use the word "landmine" deliberately, for that is the precise term used by long-time journalist and current Oaxaca resident Robert Stout in his new book, Hidden Dangers. Although it appears to have been largely written before Pena Nieto took office nearly two years ago, it seems remarkably prescient.

In Hidden Dangers, Stout identifies several festering -- and interconnected -- problems facing Mexico, the result of ongoing economic and political changes.Looming large among the potential landmines are emigration, the war on drugs, rising popular political movements of resistance, official corruption and impunity, and increasing environmental degradation.

With the case of the missing 43 students, Mexico is stepping on two of those landmines: the war on drugs and the problem of official complicity and corruption. As Stout makes clear, Mexico's drug corporations (he never uses the word "cartels") have thrived in an atmosphere of violence and corruption and official complicity. I wouldn't say that drug money has corrupted Mexico's institutions because they have been deeply corrupted for years, as Stout illustrates throughout the book, but it has deepened the corruption and blurred the line between organized crime and state power.

What Stout has to say about the drug cartels and the counterproductive policies adopted on both sides of the border to stop them is probably not new to regular readers of these pages. Through violence and cold, hard cash, the cartels manage to suborn security forces, elected officials, and legitimate businesses alike. And heavy-handed, militaristic attempts to quash them, especially with an army that seems to have no notion of human rights, has only resulted in more violence and more mistrust of government.

But it is complicated, and looking at Mexico solely through the prism of its war on drugs is too narrow a focus to get a good grasp on the country's realities. Mexico's drug cartel problem doesn't exist in a vacuum; it is part and parcel of a deeper social and political malaise, which, in Stout's view, is related to the country's authoritarian, unresponsive government and its inability or unwillingness to address the country's aching concerns.

And it's not just the PRI, the party that emerged from the Revolution to govern the country as "the perfect dictatorship" until the election of Coca Cola executive Vicente Fox in 2000. One of Stout's contributions to our understanding is his explication of the authoritarian character that defines all political parties in Mexico. Whether it’s the PRI or the rightist PAN or the leftist PRD, all have adapted the same top-down, strongman politics that characterized the PRI in its heyday.

It is worth noting that the mayor of Iguala and his wife are members of the PRD, which is a sad reflection on the Mexican left. But Mexicans don't need to read Stout's book to understand that the same rot grips all the parties, and that's part of the reason even the PRIista Pena Nieto is feeling the heat over the Iguala disappearances. The problem is systemic, Mexicans understand this, and that's why they're so angrily taking to the streets right now.

Hidden Dangers does a very good job of tying together the disparate "landmines" facing Mexico right now. Especially for readers who have approached the country primarily through the lens of drug policy, it is a welcome opening of perspective. And, at only a bit more than 200 pages, it's a relatively quick read, packed with information and plenty to ponder. Check it out. 

Chronicle AM: OR Measure 91 Race Tightens, ACLU Petition on Police Militarization, Chile MedMJ, More (10/29/14)

There's a scary poll out in Oregon, the Drug Policy Alliance grades the House of Representatives, the ACLU has a petition to stop the Pentagon sending surplus military equipment to police forces, and more. Let's get to it:

Announcing the first permitted medical marijuana planting in Chile today. (fundaciondaya.org)
Marijuana Policy       

Latest Poll Has Oregon Measure 91 in Dead Heat. The latest poll from the Oregonian has the Measure 91 legalization initiative trailing in a tight race, but within the poll's margin of error. The poll of likely voters had 44% supporting the measure, with 46% opposed and 9% undecided or refusing to answer. The poll's margin of error is +/- 5%. An earlier survey by Oregon Public Broadcasting had the measure leading with 52%. One possible explanation for the difference in the polls is the age breakdown among the respondents. The OPB poll had a higher number of younger voters, who tend to support the measure, but who also tend to be less likely to vote than older voters.

Drug Policy

Drug Policy Alliance Voters' Guide Grades US Representatives. The Drug Policy Action Network, the lobbying and campaign arm of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), has released its 2014 Drug Policy Reform Congressional Voter Guide, which grades members of Congress on how they voted on seven key drug policy issues this year and last. The guide names 10 representatives as "champions of reform." They are Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Steven Cohen (D-TN), Sam Farr (D-CA), Barbara Lee (D-TX), Thomas Massie (R-KY), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Beto O'Rourke (D-TX), Jared Polis (D-CO), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), and Bobby Scott (D-VA).  DPA says the guide is not just to educate voters, "but also to send a firm message to elected officials that they will be held accountable for supporting draconian policies that exacerbate the worst harms of the drug war." It names 141 representatives who failed to get a passing grade. 

Law Enforcement

ACLU Petitions to End Program Giving Surplus Military Equipment to Police Agencies. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has begun a petition drive designed to "stop arming local and state law enforcement with military equipment" and "impose a moratorium on the 1033 program to temporarily halt equipment transfers and create transparency and safeguards within this program." 1033 is the program under which surplus US military equipment, such as Humvees, armored personnel carriers, and the like are given free of charge to local and state police. The program has come under increased fire in the wake of heavily militarized police deployments in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police shooting of Michael Brown. Go to the link to sign the petition, then spread the word on social media platforms.

International

Mexico Announces Arrest of Four Drug Gang Members in Case of Missing Student Teachers. Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam Tuesday announced the arrest of four Guerreros Unidos cartel members who allegedly confessed to participating in the disappearance of 43 student teachers a month ago after they were detained by police. Murillo said that two of those arrested had admitted receiving the students and were about to reveal their location. The case, which unveiled close ties between drug gangs and local authorities, has roiled Mexican politics ever since the students went missing.

Medical Marijuana Planted Today in Chile. After authorities in the La Florida district of Santiago, the Chilean capital, gave their permission, medical marijuana supporters today planted marijuana plants that will be harvested in April and turned into a cannabis oil to be used to treat pain in cancer patients. The project is being run by the Daya Foundation, and will also include a clinical study of marijuana's effectiveness as a pain reliever. 

Chronicle AM: Joe McNamara Passes, Rand Paul Speech, OAS Drug Resolution, More (9/22/14)

Oregon's Measure 91 picks up a nice endorsement, a marijuana legalization vote in York, Maine, is snuffed out, decrim advances in the US Virgin Islands, Rand Paul tells the GOP to reach out on drug policy, Joe McNamara dies, the OAS passes a drug policy resolution, and more. Let's get to it:

Joseph McNamara in his days as San Jose Police Chief. (SJPD)
Marijuana Policy

Oregon Legalization Initiative Endorsed By Former US Attorney. Former Oregon US Attorney Kris Olson today endorsed Measure 91, the Oregon marijuana legalization initiative. "I enforced our marijuana laws, and they don't work," she said. "Filling our courts and jails has failed to reduce marijuana use, and drug cartels are pocketing all the profits." Olson was US Attorney for Oregon from 1994 to 2001. Meanwhile, the Oregon State Sheriff's Association has made a $100,000 donation to the No on 91 campaign.

York, Maine, Effort to Get Marijuana Vote on Ballot Thwarted. A state court judge last Friday rejected an effort to put a local marijuana possession legalization on the ballot in York. York County Superior Court Judge Paul Fritzsche sided with town councilmen, who had rejected two citizen petitions seeking the vote. Fritzsche ruled that York cannot regulate marijuana because it is governed by state and federal law. Two other Maine towns, Lewiston and South Portland, will vote in November. The state's largest city, Portland, approved a similar initiative last year.

US Virgin Islands Decriminalization Bill Wins Committee Vote. A bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana was approved by the Virgin Islands Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Public Safety, and Justice last Thursday. The measure is Bill 30-0018. It would make possession of an ounce or less of weed a civil offense punishable by a fine of between $100 and $200, with the possible forfeiture of the contraband.

Medical Marijuana

Today is Deadline Day for Illinois Medical Marijuana Business Applicants. People who want to operate medical marijuana businesses have until 3 pm CDT to hand in their applications to state agencies. The Illinois Medical Marijuana Pilot Program has more information.

Drug Policy

Rand Paul Calls on Republicans to Embrace Drug Reform, Other Non-Traditional GOP Planks. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) used a speech Saturday to the California GOP convention to call on the party to reach beyond its base by embracing issues such as drug reform, privacy in personal communications, voting rights, and an anti-interventionist foreign policy. Republicans need to "show compassion for people," especially young black and brown people disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. "If you look at surveys, it's not that they're using drugs more than your kids are using drugs, it's because they're getting caught because they live in an urban environment with more patrols, they have less good attorneys, they don't have the resources, and some of the laws are still frankly wrong," he said.

Law Enforcement

Pentagon Surplus Arms Program Let Military Weapons Go to Police Forces That Abused Civil Rights. The Pentagon's program to distribute surplus military equipment to US civilian police forces allows even agencies that have been censured by the Justice Department for civil rights violations to receive lethal weaponry. The Defense and Justice Departments have apparently not been coordinating on the program, the Associated Press reports.

Obituaries

Drug Reforming Police Chief Joe McNamara Dies at 79. One of the earliest law enforcement voices for drug reform is no longer with us. Former San Jose Police Chief Joseph McNamara died last Friday at his home in Monterey, California. He is credited with bringing progressive reforms to the San Jose Police Department in the 1970s. After retiring as police chief in 1992, he went to work at the Hoover Institution, where he continued and sharpened his criticism of the war on drugs. "He was the police chief who became the most deeply involved in the drug policy reform movement," said Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, who had worked with McNamara on issues for the past 25 years. "He was convinced the drug war was a total disaster and he needed to speak out about that."

International

OAS Issues Resolution on Drug Policy. At its 46th Special Session in Guatemala City last Friday, the Organization of American States passed a resolution calling for states to "regularly review the drug policies adopted, ensure that they are comprehensive and focused on the well-being of the individual, in order to address their national challenges and assess their impact and effectiveness." The resolution also called on states to develop drug policies "that prevent social costs or contribute to their reduction; and, when appropriate, reviewing traditional approaches and considering the development of new approaches, based on scientific evidence and knowledge." And it calls for states to develop comprehensive approaches that examine "the structural causes, triggers, and the multiple factors that contribute to violence and crime" with a view to taking them into account when drafting the 2016-2020 Hemispheric Plan of Action on Drugs. Click on the link to read the OAS press release.

Bill Filed to Rein in Police Militarization [FEATURE]

Concerns about the militarization of American policing have been on the increase for some time now, but have crystallized in the wake of the heavy-handed police response to the killing earlier this summer of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Soldiers or police? It's the latter. (hankjohnson.house.gov)
For years, observers have noted the SWAT mission creep, where sending paramilitarized police units to deal with rare mass attacks and hostage-taking events has transmuted into the routine use of SWAT for things like serving drug search warrants. A recent ACLU report documented this trend, finding that 62% of all SWAT teams had been deployed for drug raids. And public anger over police killings -- especially of young men of color -- has been on the increase as well.

In the past decade, affairs have only accelerated as police departments around the land have availed themselves of Congress's largesse in letting them pick up surplus military equipment for free, bringing home Humvees and MRAPs, as well as all kinds of armaments and military get-up. Under the weight of all that gear, policemen who used to look like Officer Friendly have taken on the appearance of imperial storm troopers.

That has all taken place under the Pentagon's 1033 program, which allows the transfer of such equipment from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan state and local law enforcement agencies without charge. But, critics claim, while appropriate as war materiel, much of this equipment is not suited for civilian law enforcement purposes.

Law enforcement's resort to military equipment against largely peaceful civilian protestors in Ferguson, with armored vehicles moving in to confront teenagers wearing shorts and sniper rifles aimed from turrets at local residents put the issue front and center in the national consciousness.

There were congressional hearings on the topic last week, and today, a bipartisan pair of congressmen, Reps. Hank Johnson (D-GA) and Raul Labrador (R-ID), announced that they had filed a bill to rein in the Department of Defense program that transfers surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies.

Police militarization is an attitude, too. (BCSO)
"Militarizing America's main streets won't make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent," said Johnson in a statement announcing the bill. "Before another small town's police force gets a $750,000 gift from the Defense Department that it can't maintain or manage, it behooves us to press pause on Pentagon's 1033 program and revisit the merits of a militarized America."

The bill is HR 5478, the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act of 2014. It would:

  • Prevent transfers of equipment inappropriate for local policing, such as high-caliber weapons, long-range acoustic devices, grenade launchers, armed drones, armored vehicles, and grenades or similar explosives.
  • End incentives to use equipment in circumstances when the use is unnecessary. Under the 1033 program, local police are required to use the equipment within a year, incentivizing towns to use it in inappropriate circumstances.
  • Require that recipients certify that they can account for all equipment. In 2012, the weapons portion of the 1033 program was temporarily suspended after DOD found that a local sheriff had gifted out army-surplus Humvees and other supplies. This bill would prohibit re-gifting and require recipients to account for all equipment received from DOD.
  • Remove any reference to counterdrug operations from the program, thus ensuring that law enforcement is not incentivized to use the equipment to perform arrests of those suspected of being low-level, non-violent drug offenders.

"Our nation was founded on the principle of a clear line between the military and civilian policing," said Labrador. "The Pentagon's current surplus property program blurs that line by introducing a military model of overwhelming force in our cities and towns. Our bill would restore the focus of local law enforcement on protecting citizens and providing due process for the accused."

The bill also adds requirements to enforce tracking mechanisms that keep up with and control transfers of the equipment, implement policies ensuring that police agencies can't surplus the equipment for resale and define drones more clearly. It would also specify that the use of MRAPs, grenades, and drones is not appropriate for civilian law enforcement.

In addition to Johnson and Labrador, the bill's original cosponsors are Reps. Justin Amash (R-MI), John Conyers (D-MI), Tom McClintock (R-CA), and Jim Moran (D-VA).

The move is winning kudos from drug reform organizations.

Just what every small town police department needs. (Doraville PD)
"Very occasionally and with proper oversight and training, the use of some military equipment is appropriate -- school shootings, terrorist situations and the like," said Major Neill Franklin (Ret.), executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "But when it's routinely used against nonviolent drug offenders, it only serves to further strain police-community relations so vital to preventing and solving violent crime. This bill will correct some of the worst excesses of a potentially useful program hijacked by the war on drugs."

"In light of what we all saw in Ferguson, Missouri, the American people are clamoring for law enforcement to become less militarized. Grenades, drones, and tanks may belong on the battlefield; they certainly don't have a place on US streets," said Michael Collins, policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance's Office of National Affairs. "Such militarization is inextricably linked to the drug war, where SWAT teams and no-knock raids have become a routine part of drug arrests, even in the case of nonviolent offenders."

The bill is a good first step in reining in law enforcement militarization, he said.

"This legislation is a thoughtful attempt at tackling a very worrying problem -- the militarization of law enforcement," Collins said. "The Pentagon program is highly problematic because preferential treatment is given to those police forces that use their equipment to fight the drug war. This bill would end that, and move us away from a heavy-handed approach to drug policy."

Washington, DC
United States

End the Drug War "For the Kids" Coalition Forms [FEATURE]

In a move precipitated by the child immigration border crisis, but informed by the ongoing damage done to children on both sides of the border by law enforcement-heavy, militarized anti-drug policies, a broad coalition of more than 80 civil rights, immigration, criminal justice, racial justice, human rights, libertarian and religious organizations came together late last week to call for an end to the war on drugs in the name of protecting the kids.

The failures of the war on drugs transcend borders. (wikimedia.org)

"The quality of a society can and should be measured by how its most vulnerable are treated, beginning with our children," said Asha Bandele of the Drug Policy Alliance, the organization that coordinated the letter. "Children have every right to expect that we will care for, love and nurture them into maturity. The drug war is among the policies that disrupts our responsibility to that calling."

The groups, as well as prominent individuals such as The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander, signed on to a letter of support for new policies aimed at ending the war on drugs.

"In recent weeks," the letter says, "the plight of the 52,000 unaccompanied children apprehended at the US border since last October, many of whom are fleeing drug war violence in Central America, has permeated our national consciousness. The devastating consequences of the drug war have not only been felt in Latin America, they are also having ravaging effects here at home. All too often, children are on the frontlines of this misguided war that knows no borders or color lines."

Organizations signing the letter include a broad range of groups representing different issues and interests, but all are united in seeing the war on drugs as an obstacle to improvement. They include the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Center for Constitutional Rights, the Institute of the Black World, Presente.org, Students for Liberty, United We Dream, the William C. Velasquez Institute, and the Working Families Organization. For a complete list of signatories, click here. [Disclosure: StoptheDrugwar.org, the organization publishing this article, is a signatory.]

In the past few months, more than 50,000 minors fleeing record levels of violence in the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have arrived at the US border seeking either to start a new life or to reconnect with family members already in the country. The causes of the violence in Central America are complex and historically-rooted, but one of them is clearly the US war on drugs, heavy-handedly exported to countries throughout the Western Hemisphere in the past several decades.

Those northern Central American countries -- the so-called Northern Triangle -- have been especially hard hit by drug prohibition-related violence since about 2008, when, after the US helped Mexico bulk up its war on the drug cartels via the $2.4 billion Plan Merida assistance package (President Obama wants another $115 million for it next year), the cartels began expanding their operations into the weaker Central American states. Already high crime levels went through the roof.

Honduras's second largest city, San Pedro Sula, now has the dubious distinction of boasting the world's highest murder rate, while the three national capitals, Guatemala City, San Salvador, and Tegucigalpa, are all in the top 10 deadliest cities worldwide. Many of the victims are minors, who are often targeted because of their membership in drug trade-affiliated street gangs (or because they refuse to join the gangs).

Protesting for schools, not prisons in California (Ella Baker Center)
The impact of the war on drugs on kids in the United States is less dramatic, but no less deleterious. Hundreds of thousands of American children have one or both parents behind bars for drug offenses, suffering not only the stigma and emotional trauma of being a prisoner's child, but also the collateral consequences of impoverishment and familial and community instability. Millions more face the prospect of navigating the mean streets of American cities where, despite some recent retreat from the drug war's most serious excesses, the war on drugs continues to make some neighborhoods extremely dangerous places.

"In the face of this spiraling tragedy that continues to disproportionately consume the lives and futures of black and brown children," the letter concludes, "it is imperative to end the nefarious militarization and mass incarceration occurring in the name of the war on drugs. So often, repressive drug policies are touted as measures to protect the welfare of our children, but in reality, they do little more than serve as one great big Child Endangerment Act. On behalf of the children, it is time to rethink the war on drugs."

Although the signatory groups represent diverse interests and constituencies, coming together around the common issue of protecting children could lay the groundwork for a more enduring coalition, said Jeronimo Saldana, a legislative and organizing coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance.

"The idea was to get folks together to make a statement. Now, we have to figure out how to move forward. The letter was the first step," he said.

"The groups have been very positive," Saldana continued. "They're glad someone was speaking up and putting it all together. What's going on in Central American and Mexico is tied into what's happening in our own cities and communities. This crosses partisan lines; it's really obvious that the failed policies of the war on drugs affects people of all walks of life, and the images of the kids really brings it home. We hope to build on this to get some traction. We want folks to continue to make these connections."

Different signatories do have different missions, but a pair of California groups that signed the letter provide examples of how the drug war unites them.

Child refugee in a US border detention facility (presente.org)
"We have a history of working on behalf of youth involved in the criminal justice system and their families," said Azadeh Zohrabi, national campaigner for the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. "We see desperate families trying to stay connected, strong, and healthy, but mass incarceration is really making that difficult. We work both with families whos kids are involved in the justice system and with families with one or both parents in prison or who have lost custody of their kids because of their involvement in the criminal justice system," she explained.

"We are working to combat this, and we think the war on drugs overall has had disastrous consequences for families, both here and abroad," Zohrabi continued. "The trillions poured into policing and militarization has just produced more misery. It's time for drugs to be dealt with as a public health issue, not a crime."

"We signed on because the letter is very clear in addressing an important component of the discussion that hasn't really been out there," said Arturo Carmona, executive director of the Latino social justice group Presente.org. "This crisis on the border is not the result of deferring actions against immigrant child arrivals, as many right-wing Republicans have been saying, but is the result of one of the most deadly peaks in crime and violence in the Northern Triangle in recent memory," he argued.

"The violence there is one of the main push factors, and when we talk about this in the US, it's critical that we acknowledge these push factors, many of which are connected to the war on drugs," Carmona continued. "You'll notice that the kids aren't coming from Nicaragua, where we haven't been supporting the war on drugs, but from countries that we've assisted and advised on the drug war, where we've provided weaponry. This is very well-documented."

While Presente.org is very concerned with the immigration issue, said Carmona, there is no escaping the role of the war on drugs in making things worse -- not only in Central America and at the border, but inside the US as well.

"We're very concerned about the chickens coming home to roost for our failed war on drugs policy," he said. "The American public needs to be made very aware of this, and we are starting to see a greater understanding that this is a failed policy -- not only in the way we criminalize our young Latino and African-American kids here in the US, but also in the way this policy affects other countries in our neighborhood. As Nicaragua shows, our lack of involvement there has seen a lower crime rate. Our military involvement through the drug war is an abysmal failure, as the record deaths not only in Central America, but also in Mexico, shows."

Colombia, FARC Reach Accord on Drug Issues

The Colombian government and the Marxist guerrillas of the FARC have reportedly reached an agreement on how to deal with drug issues, the third item in a five-part agenda for peace talks that have ongoing in Havana since 2012.

Both Reuters and Business Week reported Friday afternoon that an agreement had been reached. Both cited Colombian government officials who spoke anonymously because the agreement hasn't been made public yet. And neither have the details.

[Update: The FARC and the Colombian government have now released a joint communique outlining the areas of agreement. They include programs for crop substitution, the end of aerial eradication--although the government maintains the ability to undertake it in extreme circumstances--a national drug use prevention education program, a national drug rehabilitation program, and Colombia challenging current drug control policies in international forums like the United Nations.]

The FARC has been at war with the Colombian state for half a century. Flush with profits from the coca and cocaine trade, it surged in the 1990s, but was beaten back by a vicious counterinsurgency led by the government of former President Alvaro Uribe and backed by billions of dollars in US anti-drug, and later, anti-terrorism assistance. Also aligned with the Colombian state were rightist paramilitary organizations involved in the drug traffic.

The government of President Juan Santos has attempted to end the seemingly perpetual conflict by engaging in the peace talks. Santos is up for reelection later this month against a hard-line Uribe ally, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, whose position is that the FARC must agree to lay down its weapons before engaging in peace talks. This apparent progress in the slow-moving talks could help Santos when voters go to the polls on May 25.

While the FARC has refused a cease-fire while talks are ongoing, on Friday it also announced that it would temporarily cease operations in the days just before and after the election.

The FARC had entered this phase of the negotiations with a 10-point program on the drug issue, including special protections for coca producers, alternative development programs, development of licit uses for coca, poppy, and marijuana crops, an end to aerial fumigation of drug crops, and an to militarized drug law enforcement, decriminalization of drug producers, workers, and consumers, and recognition of problematic drug use as a public health, not a criminal justice problem.

Havana
Cuba

Chronicle Book Review: Smuggler Nation

Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America, by Peter Andreas (2013, Oxford University Press, 454 pp., $29.95 HB)

Wow. With Smuggler Nation, Brown University political science professor Peter Andreas has hit the ball out of the park -- or over the border. This book should be required reading for not only for people interested in we got to our current mess in the war on drugs, but also for anyone interested in American history in general, and the twinned growth of illicit commerce and the ever-increasing policing resources designed to thwart it in particular.

What makes Smuggler Nation so essential for people primarily interested in drug policy is the manner in which it situates drug prohibition and efforts to suppress the drug trade within the larger historical context of state efforts to control -- or prohibit -- trade. The war on drugs (or at least its interdiction component) didn't drop on us out of the sky, but was built upon already existing national-level efforts to enforce proscriptions on free trade, dating back to Jefferson's abortive ban on US ships trading with any foreign nations, the more successful, but still long-lasting and highly contentious effort to ban the slave trade, and Prohibition-era border enforcement.

Andreas shows that, going back to colonial times, smuggling and illicit commerce played a crucial role in the creation and expansion of the American economy, and, indeed, in the anti-British sentiment that led the way to the American Revolution in the first place. Whether it was enriching Providence and Boston merchants in the triangular slave trade, stealing intellectual property from England at the start of the Industrial Age, selling American cattle to hungry British troops stationed in Canada during the War of 1812, allying with the smuggler-pirate Jean Lafitte in the Battle of New Orleans in that same war, selling contraband whiskey to Indians, smuggling guns into Mexico (in the 1840s, in addition to now) -- the list goes on and on -- smuggling and illicit commerce was, and continues to be, part and parcel of the American story.

Andreas also show that those efforts to control unsanctioned commerce led directly -- and continue to lead directly -- to ever larger, more expansive, more expensive, and  more unintended consequence-generating law enforcement efforts to suppress it. We saw it with the early growth of the US Navy to combat tax evading smugglers, and how those efforts rerouted, but did not defeat, illicit trade. We saw it with the expansion of drug war interdiction efforts in the 1980s, where blockading the Caribbean route for Colombian cocaine rerouted, but did not defeat, illicit trade, and helped provoke the metastasis of what had been largely low-key, local Mexican smuggling networks into the Frankenstein monster drug cartels of today.

We can see that at work today in the current debate over the immigration reform bill working its way through Congress. House Majority Leader Boehner thought he could sell the bill to his conservative caucus by agreeing to expansive provisions to "regain control of the border" or "secure the border" by spending billions of dollars and adding 20,000 more federal agents along the Mexican border. (Nevermind that even that's not likely to be enough to satisfy Boehner's caucus, some of whom might support the bill but others of which have charmingly compared Mexican immigrants to dogs and asserted that those DREAM Act kids are mostly drug mules.)

There were 3,000 border agents in the early 1990s, 7,000 by the late 1990s, and there are 20,000 right now. The immigration bill would double that number again. As Andreas, relying on the historical record, notes, that is unlikely to stop drug smuggling or people-smuggling (there are much deeper driving forces to such phenomenon than law enforcement), but merely to divert it or reroute it, to corrupt enforcers, and to inspire the smugglers to come up with new technologies to get around it and gain entrée into Fortress America.

Andreas also makes an important point about "the threat" of transnational organized crime. That's pretty much just a fancy way of saying smuggling, he asserts, and it is nothing new. As he shows throughout Smuggler Nation, trade in contraband has been part of global trade since, well, forever. And now, given the rapid expansion of global commerce in recent decades, it would be surprising if contraband trade isn't expanding, too. It is, he argues, but possibly at a slower rate than the expansion of licit global trade. All of the hulaballoo over "the menace" of illicit trade is overdone, he dares to suggest.

Andreas is an academic who specialized in the US-Mexico border in his early career, and his publisher, Oxford University Press, is an academic press, but his writing is quite accessible to the lay reader. Smuggler Nation is chock full of great lost stories from American history, stories that hold serious lessons for us today as we struggle against the behemoth that our prohibition industry has become. Smuggler Nation will help explain how we got here, and you'll learn plenty and have lots of fun along the way.  This book needs to be on your bookshelf, and well-worn at that.

US-Mexican Caravan for (Drug War) Peace Gets Underway [FEATURE]

Last Sunday, dozens of Mexican activists led by poet Javier Sicilia crossed into the US at San Diego to begin a weeks-long Caravan for Peace and Justice that will take them more than 6,000 miles through 27 cities in a bid to focus attention on the drug war's terrible toll in both countries. They were met there by representatives of the more than 100 US organizations that are joining and supporting the Caravan as it makes its way toward Washington, DC.

"Our purpose is to honor our victims, to make their names and faces visible," Sicilia said. "We will travel across the United States to raise awareness of the unbearable pain and loss caused by the drug war -- and of the enormous shared responsibility for protecting families and communities in both our countries."

But it's not just about honoring the victims of the drug war; the Caravan also explicitly seeks policy changes on both sides of the border, and not only to drug policy. These policy areas and the Caravan's recommendations include:

Drug War policies: We propose the need to find a solution, with a multidisciplinary and intergenerational approach that places individuals, and their welfare and dignity, at the center of drug policy. We call on both the Mexican and the U.S. community to open and maintain a dialogue about alternatives to Prohibition based on evidence, and which is inclusive in its considerations of the diverse options for drug regulation.

Arms trafficking: We propose that the President of the United States immediately prohibit the importation of assault weapons to the United States. Assault weapons are often smuggled into Mexico, and have also been used too many times against innocent civilians in the US. We propose giving authorities effective regulatory tools and adequate resources to halt arms smuggling in the border regions, especially in border states like Arizona and Texas.

Money laundering: We call for governments on both sides of the border to take concrete steps to combat money laundering. We propose that financial institutions be held accountable for preventing money laundering through increased government surveillance, investigations, fines and criminal charges. We also call for the Treasury Department to immediately implement Congress’ 2009 call to close the “prepaid/stored value cards” loophole.

US foreign aid policy: We call for a change from the United States' "war" focus to one of human security and development that contemplates promoting the healing of Mexico's torn social fabric. We propose the immediate suspension of US assistance to Mexico's armed forces. The "shared responsibility" for peace that both governments share must begin with each country complying with its own respective national laws.

Immigration: We call for a change in the policies that have militarized the border and criminalized immigrants. These policies have generated a humanitarian crisis driven by unprecedented levels of deportations and incarceration of migrants. In addition, these policies have also inflicted immeasurable environmental damage. We call for protecting the dignity of every human being, including immigrant populations that have been displaced by violence who are fleeing to the US seeking safe haven and a better life.


The Caravan is a natural outgrowth of Sicilia's Mexican Movement for Peace and Justice with Dignity (MMPJD), which he formed after his son and several comrades were kidnapped and murdered by drug cartel gunmen in Cuernavaca in March 2011. It is designed to put names and faces on the estimated 60,000 dead, 10,000 disappeared, and 150,000 displaced by the prohibition-related violence pitting the so-called cartels against each other and the Mexican state.

In Mexico, the MMPJD struck a deep chord with a population increasingly angered and frightened by the often horrific violence raging across the country. Caravans organized by the MMJPD crisscrossed the country last year before bringing 100,000 people to mass in Mexico City's huge national plaza, the Zocalo in June. The mass outpouring of grief and anger convinced President Felipe Calderon to meet with Sicilia, who brought along photos of some of the dead depicting them as happy, smiling human beings.

"The powers that be were trying to tell us that all those who were dying were just criminals, just cockroaches," Sicilia explained. "We had to change the mindset, and put names to the victims for a change."

On last Sunday, Sicilia and the Caravan were met in San Diego by about 100 supporters from national groups such as the Drug Policy Alliance, Global Exchange, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the NAACP, the Washington Office on Latin America, and, as will be the case across the country, local immigrant rights, civil rights, religious, and drug reform groups.

"This movement brings together activists from both of our countries to shed light on the policies that have failed our families, neighbors, and nations," said Sicilia. "United, we will raise our voices to call for an end to a war on drugs that allows entire communities to become casualties, and we will demand a shift in attention to poverty and the lack of economic opportunity that helps breed the criminality."

"What we are trying to do is raise the level of conversation around this topic," said Global Exchange's Ted Lewis, one of the caravan's organizers. "We're trying to have a bi-national conversation and impact."

Javier Sicilia and Sheriff Joe Arpaio (caravanforpeace.org)
By last Friday, the Caravan had reached Las Cruces, New Mexico, after first stopping in Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Tucson. In Los Angeles, the Caravan wooed Hollywood, seeking support from the film community as it seeks to shift public opinion against prohibitionist drug policies that wreak havoc in both countries.

"What unites us is grief for what Mexico has lost, which is peace," said Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the Oscar-nominated director of "Biutiful" and "Babel," who was among the Hollywood stars greeting the Caravan.

In Phoenix on Thursday, Sicilia and the Caravan had an unexpected encounter with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio as they trekked to one of Arpaio's jails to see what the drug war looks like on the US side of the border. The feisty sheriff, who is notorious for his treatment of prisoners and anti-immigrant politics, got an earful from Sicilia, but didn't exactly roll over.

Sicilia chided Arpaio over the flow of American weapons into Mexico and the hands of the cartels and asked him to do a better job controlling the traffic, to which Arpaio retorted, "Control the flow of drugs."

Sicilia also urged Arpaio, who is under Justice Department investigation over his treatment of prisoners and illegal immigrants, to "be more human" in the way he handles people under his control. "We don't come in war but in peace to tell you that you have half of the responsibility for the war that there is in Mexico," he said. "I ask you whether treating migrants like dogs is a correct policy."

"I don't run the jails," Arpaio replied. [Ed: As noted above, Arpaio does run jails, and is being investigated for how prisoners are treated in them.]

Sicilia urged Arpaio to visit Mexico, but Arpaio demurred, saying that the cartels had a price on his head.

The Caravan for Peace is now less nearly two weeks into its journey across the county to Washington, DC. Organizers have not said yet whether they will seek a meeting with President Obama, but are planning on meetings on Capitol Hill. Between now and then, they hope the Caravan will succeed in raising consciousness among Americans about the toll of the drug war on both sides of the border. Whether policymakers will listen is an open question, but the media is certainly listening. Google lists 145 news articles about the Caravan so far. That's a good start.

Mexico President-Elect Wants Drug Legalization Talks

Mexico's likely president-elect, Enrique Peña Nieto, said in a PBS Newsmaker interview that aired Tuesday evening that Mexico should discuss legalizing drugs and regulating their sale, and that the US and other countries should be part of the discussion as well. But he also said that he wasn't calling for legalization and that he would continue using the military in Mexico's battle against its powerful drug trafficking organizations, the so-called cartels.

Mexican president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto (cddiputados.gob.mx)
While Peña Nieto is virtually certain to be Mexico's next president, it's not quite official yet. Mexico election officials are recounting half the ballot boxes because of inconsistencies in the tallies and expect to release final results Sunday. But with Peña Nieto holding a five-point lead over second place finisher Andre Manuel Lopez Obrador, the recount is unlikely to change the outcome.

[Editor's Note: For our feature article on what Peña Nieto might mean for Mexico's future drug policy, published just as the PBS interview aired, go here.]

"I'm in favor of opening a new debate in the strategy in the way we fight drug trafficking. It is quite clear that after several years of this fight against drug trafficking, we have more drug consumption, drug use and drug trafficking. That means we are not moving in the right direction. Things are not working," he told PBS's Margaret Warner in Mexico City. "I'm not saying we should legalize," he repeated. "But we should debate in Congress, in the hemisphere and especially the US should participate in this broad debate."

"So let the debate begin, but you're not taking a position yet?" Warner asked.

"That's right," he said.

Peña Nieto joins an ever growing list of Latin American leaders calling for frank discussions on alternatives to US-style drug war policies. The incipient rebellion has been brewing for years, but broke into the open on the hemispheric diplomatic this spring at the Organization of American States' Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia.

Although US media coverage of the summit was devoted almost entirely to the bright shiny object that was the Secret Service prostitution scandal, the summit saw Latin American leaders, including Colombian President Santos and Guatemalan President Perez Molina urge that formal discussions take place. And just days ago, Uruguayan President Mujica joined the ranks of the drug war dissenters, as his government put forth plans to establish a state monopoly on marijuana sales.

While Peña Nieto's comments on debating legalization won't be welcomed with open arms in Washington, his affirmation that he will largely continue the policies of his predecessor, President Felipe Calderon, will reassure politicians and policymakers worried that he was going to go soft on the cartels. While he would shift the focus from going after gang capos to reducing the violence, the Mexican state would continue to battle organized crime, he said.

"I know there is a concern around this issue, in terms of assuming this adjustment means not going after drug cartels involved in drug trafficking. No, absolutely not," he insisted.

"I will maintain the presence of a Mexican Army, and the Navy and police in the states of the Mexican Republic, where the problem of crime has increased," the telegenic former governor of Mexico state emphasized. "We will adjust the strategy so that we can focus on certain type of crimes, like kidnapping, homicide, extortion, which today, unfortunately, have worsened or increased, because we have a lot of impunity in some areas. The state's task is to achieve more efficiency, and to go back to the rule of law and enforce laws strictly in our country."

And while he said he wanted to intensify cooperation with the US, he made clear that he felt the US had failed to do enough to stop gun-running into Mexico. That has been a complaint of Calderon's as well.

"We have been insisting on getting the US more involved in arms control," Peña Nieto said bluntly. "Unfortunately, it has had no impact."

The cracks in the wall of global drug prohibition keep getting bigger, and that bleeding fissure opened up by Mexico's wave of prohibition-related violence has created yet another stress point on the prohibitionist consensus. We may not be there quite yet, but the time when that wall finally collapses is coming.

Mexico City
Mexico

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