Napolitano defends Drug War; Costa Rica breaking ranks?
US Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano on Feb. 28 defended the US-backed war on the drug cartels, despite the growing violence in Mexico and Central America. On a five-day tour of the region, Napolitano insisted in a joint press conference with Mexican Interior Minister Alejandro Poire that the US and Mexico would maintain “a continuing effort to keep our peoples from becoming addicted to dangerous drugs.... It’s a different type of crime and it's a different type of plague, but that's also why it is so important that we act not only bi-nationally, but in a regional way, to go after the supply of illegal narcotics.”
But a day after meeting with Napolitano in San José, Costa Rica’s President Laura Chinchilla publicly weighed in for opening a discussion on drug legalization as an alternative to the current policy. “If we keep doing what we have been when the results today are worse than 10 years ago, we'll never get anywhere and could wind up like Mexico or Colombia,” Chinchilla said. She said there needs to be a “serious” discussion of legalization even if the US opposes it, because Central American nations are “paying a very high price” and “we have the right to discuss it.”
Chinchilla joins Guatemala’s President Otto Pérez Molina, generally a right-wing hardliner who was elected on an anti-crime platform, in calling for a regional discussion on legalization. Pérez Molina said last month that he was open to legalizing to undermine the control of Mexican cartels operating in Central America. However, Honduras' President Porfirio Lobo dissented, saying legalization would make his country “a paradise” for drug traffickers.
In its annual report, released just as Napolitano arrived in the region, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) warned that trafficking levels in Central America have reached “alarming and unprecedented” heights, and that cocaine being transshipped through the region may be worth as much as 5% of the region's gross domestic product.
US chews out Peru on coca eradication; Bolivia chews back
The US State Department's 2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy report contains harsh words for Peru, lamenting the country’s “slow advance” in coca leaf eradication. The report says the country has 53,000 hectares under coca cultivation. Colombia has 100,000 hectares—but Peru's total has increased in recent years, while Colombia’s has dropped. (Although Peru has challenged these claims.) The report calls out Peru’s Customs Service, Coast Guard, Port Authority and Public Ministry as blocking progress in the anti-narcotics struggle.
As the report was released, Bolivia’s President Evo Morales admonished the meeting of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Vienna for continuing to ban the coca leaf. Actually brandishing a coca leaf before the august body, Morales said there was no data to show that the coca leaf has adverse effects on human beings. Said Morales: “I call upon you to correct, to repair an error that has gone on for more than 50 years. Because it is only just to recognize legal consumption of coca leaf chewing.” He plugged products such as coca marmalade, as well as the more traditional coca tea.
Morales, who withdrew Bolivia from the Single Convention treaty last year in protest of the coca ban, urged that his country be readmitted to the convention with an opt-out for coca. Some 40,000 Bolivians participated in nationwide public coca chew-in or akulliku in support of their president’s stance. (In 2009, Morales actually chewed coca leaf before the Vienna meeting.)
UN drug agency won’t take stand on executions
The UN International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) said Feb. 28 that it is taking no view on the Thai government’s plans to speed up the execution of convicted drug traffickers. The agency said it neither supports nor opposes the death penalty for drug-related offenses. “We are an impartial body and respect the rule of law and jurisdiction of countries,” INCB Thai board member Viroj Sumyai told the Bangkok Post.
Manhattan's “Westies” import Emerald Triangle bud: cops
The “Westies”—Manhattan’s “Irish Mafia,” notorious for running loan-sharking and extortion rackets in the West Side neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen 20 years ago—have suddenly resurfaced with a highly sophisticated scheme using a fleet of private jets to smuggle high-grade cannabis from Northern California to cities across the country, authorities told the New York Post.
At the head of the gang’s Manhattan operation is John Bokun, whose uncles, Billy and namesake John, were prominent Westies before the neighborhood was gentrified and turned upscale, authorities said. The younger Bokun lives in what is now known as the West Side’s Clinton neighborhood, and is accused of using his Dassault Falcon executive jet to distribute top-grade hydroponic cannabis across the country. He was recently indicted by Long Island federal prosecutors on trafficking charges. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents said they secretly observed Bokun loading his Falcon at an unnamed airport somewhere in the Emerald Triangle. ICE agents were waiting for him as he stepped off his jet after it landed in Farmingdale, Long Island, and watched as the plane was unloaded, prosecutors told a federal judge. Authorities seized $500,000 worth of cannabis. Bokun’s lawyer, Joseph Conway, told the Post: “Mr. Bokun has entered a not-guilty plea, and he looks forward to addressing all of the charges in court.”
Cannabis and Obamacare: will high court case reveal double standard?
An odd irony has emerged around the pending Supreme Court decision on Obamacare. Liberal advocates of Obama's “individual mandate” are pointing to the 2005 high court decision Gonzales v. Raich, in which the justices upheld Congress’ ability to ban the growth of cannabis even in states that had legalized medical marijuana. Advocates note that Justice Antonin Scalia deviated from his “states’ rights” principles in siding with the majority. He wrote: “Congress may regulate even those intrastate activities that do not themselves substantially affect interstate commerce.... Congress may regulate even noneconomic local activity if that regulation is a necessary part of a more general regulation of interstate commerce.”
In a strange spectacle, liberals are suddenly lining up with the cannabis prohibitionists—and invoking Scalia! It will be interesting to see how Scalia will vote this time—whether he will suddenly remember his supposed “small government” principles now that the apparently confounding issue of the Evil Weed is absent.
Cannabis used to smear Trayvon Martin
The right-wing blogosphere has launched an effort to smear Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17-year old African American shot dead in late February in Sanford, FL, by self-appointed “neighborhood watch” vigilante George Zimmerman—who has notoriously still not been arrested. Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, said, “They killed my son, now they’re trying to kill his reputation.” Sleazy tricks apparently include circulation of a picture on Michelle Malkin’s website Twitchy of a tough-looking kid in baggie pants which was passed off as from Martin's Facebook page (it wasn't). Additionally, the Sanford Police leaked information that Trayvon was suspended from school for ten days “after being found with an empty marijuana baggie.” There is no evidence that Martin was under the influence of drugs at the time of his death. Right-wing blogger Dan Riehl also suggested that Martin was a drug dealer—on no evidence.
Multiple cannabis bills pending in Sacramento
Five bills have been introduced this year in Sacramento concerning cannabis and medical marijuana, winning varying degrees of support from activists and the cannabis industry. Most likely to pass is San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano's Assembly Bill 2312, which would regulate medical marijuana at the state level instead of letting each city and county take differing approaches to interpreting the law. AB 2312 would create a Board of Medical Marijuana Enforcement within the state Department of Consumer Affairs to approve or deny permits for growing, processing, testing, transporting, distributing and selling medical cannabis.
The bill is similar to a proposed ballot measure which failed to win enough signatures, the Medical Marijuana Regulation Control and Taxation Initiative—except that it does not impose a state tax, instead authorizing local taxes. Imposing a state tax requires a two-thirds majority in both houses, which would be nearly impossible to obtain, according to the Sacramento News & Review.
Less popular with advocates is Assembly Bill 2365, which would require all medical marijuana patients to get a state identification card and register the address where they are cultivating cannabis. AB 2365 would also amend the state code to require that family courts consider a parent’s documented use of prescribed drugs—including medical marijuana (although it is not technically "prescribed")—in child-custody proceedings.
Senate Bill 1506 would make the crime of possessing concentrated cannabis resin—that is, hashish—a misdemeanor. Currently, hashish possession can either be prosecuted as a misdemeanor or a felony. A felony hash possession conviction can land a sentence of 16 months to three years in prison.
California courts shoot down municipal bans on dispensaries
A Shasta County Superior Court judge on March 15 denied the city of Redding's request for a court order that would have closed down medical marijuana dispensaries across the town. Judge Stephen Baker’s ruling relied heavily on the 4th District Court of Appeal decision in City of Lake Forest v. Evergreen, issued Feb. 29. The appellate court in the Lake Forest case ruled the city violated state law with its attempt to ban dispensing of medical marijuana by declaring the dispensaries nuisances. The Orange County municipality tried to label its dispensaries nuisances solely because of their existence and not because of any illegal activity, the court ruled. In a similar case in Riverside County, a dispensary trying to open its doors scored a victory against the town of Rancho Mirage March 14, as a judge ruled the municipality cannot deny the dispensary’s request for a certificate of occupancy.
Judge rules medical providers not shielded from federal prosecution
A judge for the US District Court for the Eastern District of California on Feb. 28 dismissed a lawsuit challenging the US Attorney’s authority to prosecute medical marijuana providers in the state. The suit was filed in November by Sacramento’s El Camino Wellness Center Collective, after the US Attorney’s Office sent a letter to the collective and its landlord warning that its activities violated federal law.
The plaintiffs relied on a 2009 Justice Department memorandum, referred to as the “Ogden Memo,” that said “certain marijuana users and providers would be a lower priority for prosecution than others,” specifically citing “individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.” Judge Garland Burrell ruled that the memorandum was not legally enforceable, and that the government’s enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act "is not inconsistent with the enforcement policy stated in the Ogden Memo.” In a statement, El Camino Wellness Center said it was disappointed with the court’s decision and they plan to appeal. This lawsuit is one of four similar suits filed in California after US Attorneys in the state announced their intent to prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries.
Activists divided on Washington state ballot measure
Washington's I-502—an initiative approved for the ballot in December—is creating a storm of dissension within the state’s cannabis community. The measure would legalize possession of up to one ounce of cannabis by adults 21 and over, but limit sales to state-licensed stores overseen by the liquor control board. It contains no provision permitting home grow. It also contains a Driving Under the Influence of Cannabis (DUIC) provision that would make anyone guilty if they test at above 5 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml) of active THC in blood. Critics call this an unscientific and arbitrary level.
Arrayed against I-502 are the Washington Safe Cannabis Act coalition (which is proffering an alternative proposal with no DUIC provision), Sensible Washington, and Patients Against I-502. It is supported by New Approach Washington, which is in turn supported by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU-WA).
Ninth Circuit upholds California law requiring DNA samples
The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled Feb. 23 that mouth swabs may be used to extract DNA samples from any adult arrested on felony charges in California. The 2-1 decision upholds a 2004 voter-enacted provision, Proposition 69, that requires law enforcement officers to collect such samples from all felony arrestees. This mandate was challenged by the plaintiffs as a violation of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. Justice Milan Smith, Jr. affirmed the lower court’s denial of plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction.
UFCW unionizes Los Angeles cannabis workers
United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 770 has decided to take Los Angeles area cannabis dispensary workers under its wing. The union announced March 22 that “health care and grocery workers will welcome the medical cannabis workers and their successful organizing campaign into their union.” Said Local 770 president Rick Icaza: “This is the next step in professionalizing and stabilizing this new sector of the health care industry. Unionization and collective bargaining bring better training, less turnover, and more stability to the health care industry. This is a positive step towards successfully integrating compassionate care into our system of health care.”
The UFCW has also unionized cannabis workers in Oakland and in Fort Collins, CO. It has supported mobilizations against the federal crackdown on California’s cannabis industry, and thrown its support behind a proposed ballot initiative that would establish statewide norms for regulating and taxing the industry.
Cannabis “ninja” robbers stalk California?
Two men dressed as ninjas who allegedly robbed a medical marijuana deliveryman in West Covina, Los Angeles county, remained at large, police said March 27. The two suspects allegedly wielded batons at a man delivering medicinal cannabis to a local home. The victim told police the robbers—dressed in black with masks over their faces—frightened him into dropping a bag containing an unspecified amount of cannabis and money. The suspects took the bag and fled. “It just sounds so unique and bizarre,” Lt. Alan Henley told the Los Angeles Times. “We haven't had any similar incidents.” Actually, there has been a spate of similar incidents in Santa Cruz, Humboldt and elsewhere in California recently.
San Diego’s Rep. Filner endorses medical marijuana tax initiative
Rep. Bob Filner became the first mayoral candidate Feb. 28 to endorse San Diego’s Compassionate Use Dispensary Regulation and Taxation initiative, which would tax and regulate medical marijuana in the city. “It just makes sense to regulate medical marijuana, otherwise, as a city, we limit our ability to conduct oversight,” Filner told the San Diego Reader. “If medical marijuana is prohibited, the city misses out on valuable revenue, and patients don't have legal access or the ability to manage pain and enjoy regular activities.”
The Patient Care Association, representing more than 60 cannabis collectives (many now closed), joined forces with Citizens for Patient Rights to qualify the initiative for November’s ballot with 62,057 signatures by May 22. The initiative’s campaign consultant, Cynara Velazquez said she is confident in the voters, citing “the desperation facing patients and caregivers, plus the resurgence of the cartel in the vacuum of regulated access.”
James Schmachtenberger, chair of the patient care group, said of Filner's endorsement, “Unlike other local politicians, [Filner] is not afraid to take a stand on important issues like patient access. The will of the electorate is with us and we look forward to announcing the support of many more local elected officials in the near future.”
State Assemblymember Tom Ammiano and former Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Stephen Downing have also endorsed the measure. The initiative is set up to pay for itself, making use of existing city agencies to implement more than a dozen regulations proposed for collectives seeking a Compassionate Use Dispensary permit. Regulations include background checks for all collective directors, and prohibitions on operating within a 600-foot radius of schools and playgrounds. The first round of permits will be limited to those established prior to the initiative’s passage.
Humboldt grower indicted for murder
A federal grand jury in San Francisco on March 2 indicted Mikal Xylon Wilde of Humboldt county with murder during narcotics offense, as well as conspiracy to manufacture and distribute 1,000 or more marijuana plants, use of a firearm during a drug trafficking offense, and other charges. Wilde is accused in the killing of Mario Roberto Juarez-Madrid, originally from Guatemala, who was working at the grow operation at the time of the murder in August 2010.
Colorado: legislators and voters face cannabis measures
Legislators in Colorado face a bill that would establish the nation’s first “responsible medical marijuana vendor” designation, giving cannabis business the option to train employees in a state-approved program. The state Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division already requires cannabis workers to undergo background checks. Employees must wear state-issued badges and be under video surveillance at all times they are handling cannabis seeds, plants or products. The proposed “responsible vendor” designation would go to businesses whose employees have had additional training in such issues as identifying legal medical marijuana cards.
Brian Vicente, head of Sensible Colorado, said, “It’s really an attempt by the industry to further establish clear regulation and responsibility.” Democratic state Sen. Lois Tochtrop, who sponsored the bill, said the additional training could give cannabis workers “more clarity,” and gives the public “more confidence in the industry.” Robert Hoban, head of the state Cannabis Business Alliance, called the designation “the next logical step” in medical marijuana regulation.
Colorado voters will meanwhile face a November initiative to legalize personal possession of cannabis in the state, as the “Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act” was approved for the ballot. State authorities certified that campaigners had achieved the needed number of signatures on Feb. 27. “This could be a watershed year in the decades-long struggle to end marijuana prohibition in this country,” Art Way, Colorado director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement.
Colorado: US attorney orders more dispensaries closed
Colorado’s top federal prosecutor ordered 25 medical marijuana dispensaries located near schools to close in a new series of letters issued March 23. US Attorney John Walsh warned owners of the establishments that they have 45 days to shut down or “action will be taken to seize and forfeit their property,” his office said in a press statement. Walsh’s office said the letters were sent to dispensaries that violate a state law requiring cannabis dispensaries be at least 1,000 feet from a school. He sent a similar ultimatum to 23 cannabis dispensaries that violated the buffer law in January. He said no enforcement measure was taken because those locations all ceased cannabis sales.
Colorado law specifies that dispensaries must be at least 1,000 feet from schools, but also allows local governments to decrease that distance. “I think it is absolutely offensive that John Walsh is usurping and interfering with the power of the state on this issue,” Lauren Davis, a Denver medical marijuana attorney, told Reuters. “These towns spent a lot of time considering these issues and writing the legislation they believe was reasonable and looking out for the safety of their community.”
Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett wrote Walsh a letter calling for the federal government to back off from targeting dispensaries that comply with the state medical marijuana law passed by voters in 2000. “I can see no legitimate basis in this judicial district to focus the resources of the United States government on the medical marijuana dispensaries that are otherwise compliant with Colorado law or local regulation,” Garnett wrote.
Added national cannabis advocate Aaron Houston: “Obama promised in 2007 that he would stop the DEA’s heartless raids on medical marijuana establishments and their caregivers. The US attorney has not pointed to a single case of students buying marijuana at dispensaries. It’s just not happening. If there are people redistributing, then they should focus on prosecuting those people.”
Veteran journalist Bill Weinberg is the former news editor of High Times magazine and now producer of the websites Global Ganja Report (globalganjareport.com), monitoring the global war on cannabis, and World War 4 Report, monitoring the global “war on terrorism.” His books include Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico (Verso, 2000) and Cannabis Trips: A Global Guide that Leaves No Turn Unstoned (Ivy Group, 2010).