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October 2019
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US Aids Mexico’s Drug Cartels

Systemic corruption due to drug war activity south of the border keeps the drug cartel fires lit and the acid vats ready for intrepid journalists who expose secrets that might derail the intricate and exploitative system perpetuating America’s drug hysteria, one that includes a quid pro quo system resembling an ad hoc business co-op with Mexico. Other than greater death tolls and profits, little has changed in the US-Mexico drug war since John Gibler provided a few gritty details in his 2011 book, To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War:

Who would believe…that the warden of a state prison would let convicted killers out at night and loan them official vehicles, automatic assault rifles, and bulletproof vests, so that they could gun down scores of innocent people in a neighboring state and then quickly hop back over the state line and into prison, behind bars, a perfect alibi? …Prison director Margarita Rojas Rodríguez…left instructions for the prisoners to be allowed back inside without a fuss. [Kindle pp. 7-8]

…impunity cannot hold without silence. Hence Mexico has become the most dangerous country in the hemisphere for journalists…whose labor requires voice…How many of those murder cases have been solved? Not one. How many of the disappeared journalists have been located? Not one. [Kindle pp. 19-20]

THIS IS WHAT THEY DO NOT WANT YOU TO SAY: The Mexican army and federal police have administered drug trafficking for decades. Drug money fills the vaults of Mexico’s banks, enters the national economy at every level, and, with traffickers’ annual profits estimated at between $30 billion and $60 billion a year, rivals oil as the largest single source of cash revenue in the country. (And Mexico is not the only place where this is so.)…The federal police forces are the main recruitment center for mid-level drug-trafficking operators. The army and the state police are the main recruitment centers for the enforcers, the paramilitary units in charge of assassinations, and the armed protection of drugs and mid- and high-level operators…people working for the various illegal narcotics businesses have directly infiltrated more than half of the municipal police forces in the country. During the seventy-one-year reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party…the Mexican army controlled the division of territory for drug production and trafficking routes, allocating sub-divisions to local franchises, colloquially called cartels. A given territory under a cartel’s control is known as a plaza. […]

High-level federal officials in United States government know all of this and go along with the theatrics, because, among other reasons, the U.S. economy is also buoyed by the influx of drug money. The defense industries profit handsomely from arms sales to armies, police, and the drug gangs themselves; the police are addicted to asset forfeiture laws; prison guard unions are addicted to budget increases; and the criminalization of drugs has proven a durable excuse to lock people of color in prison in a country still shackled by racism. [Kindle pp. 24-26]

…when approving or covering U.S. aid to the Mexican federal government, such as the $1.4 billion Mérida Initiative. U.S. officials and the press routinely neglect to mention that the Mexican army and federal police very often are drug traffickers… [It is] estimated that the drug organizations’ control over human trafficking along the border brings them another $3 billion a year…The report calculates that drug gangs participated in 30 percent of the recent kidnappings while soldiers and police made up 22 percent of the nation’s kidnappers. [Kindle p. 30, 35]

U.S. intervention in Mexico is simultaneously a grounded historical fear-and-loathing in the population…the insistence of U.S. politicians on an ideological commitment to prohibition that seeks to veil prohibition’s use for social control…Essentially prohibition has been a technique of informal American cultural colonisation.” [Kindle p. 42, 43, 53-54]

Journalists and researchers penetrating the drug war netherworld might want to do a bit of homework first. In Mexico and across the world it’s been a record year for murders of journalists. Anthropologist Jeremy Slack’s recent book, Deported to Death, Appendix, “A Note on Researching in Violent Environments,” provides some useful survival tips.

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Migrant Eradication in the Mexican Drug War

Criminalizing drugs generates other crimes, often making innocent people’s lives more violent or unsafe. A classic example of drug war collateral damage is the US Mérida Initiative (2007) that prompted Mexican President Felipe Calderón to militarize Mexico’s drug war.

By 2008, migrants traveling from or through Mexico to cross over into the US were being scapegoated as drug traffickers, making it easier for the two governments to dismiss their deaths or disappearances—more than 32,000 so far. The Mérida Initiative, championed and extended by Sec. of State Hillary Clinton, set drug cartels free to exploit migrants, kidnapping them, robbing them, demanding ransoms from contacts in the US, or torturing people to recruit them into smuggling 80-pound bales of marijuana across the border—and worse. Twelve-year-old migrants have been abducted, asphyxiated, and their organs harvested for transplants. People deported to Mexico from the US face worse survival odds than migrants. Jeremy Slack’s 2019 book, Deported to Death: How Drug Violence is Changing Migration on the US-Mexico Border, exposes the corruption at much risk to his own life:

…corruption has acted as a buffer, with clear ties between drug traffickers and politicians serving to lessen the public nature of violence, as targeting the population at large is avoided in return for being allowed to traffic drugs openly and with impunity. [Kindle 954]

Mexico’s political system has often been referred to as the “perfect dictatorship,” because the one-party system was able to remain in power for almost seven decades…subtle forms of oppression, intermixing extreme violence and corruption with government handouts, a populist front, and media-savvy politicians—all combine for a particularly sophisticated form of pseudo-authoritarianism. [Kindle 1209-10]

What is clear is that the movement between places becomes a commodity, something to be prized, nurtured, understood, and controlled…Recruitment of migrants by drug cartels has become a polemic topic, as the anti-immigrant Right has for years conflated migration with terrorism and cartel violence spilling across the border, while the pro-immigrant Left will not touch the topic. [Kindle 1546, 1942]

Drug cartels work as a kind of pyramid scheme, with those on the streets making very little money, taking on most of the risk, and often dying quickly. Those at the top, with real power and influence, need hordes of people working for them, and replacing them can be a challenge. This has, broadly speaking, led to increased reliance on blind mules, and on those trafficking drugs under duress. [Kindle 1974]

…the idea that it is completely natural for the government to kill drug traffickers has provided unique cover for the same type of atrocities committed during the dirty wars, with even less scrutiny. The military still runs rampant in Mexico, frequently using torture and even sexual violence as a method of interrogation. Yet, internationally, there is no outcry. “This is not a ‘dirty’ war; it’s a drug war” is a common refrain. What is wrong with combating drugs? [Kindle 2456]

What’s wrong is the drug war. Effective control of drugs can be achieved with decriminalization and regulation, as cannabis legalization recently illustrates.

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Standoff in the Bolivian Rainforests

The Reagan administration launched its drug war against Bolivian coca and cocaine production between 1980-2 with attacks meant to terrorize the Quechua-speaking people growing coca in Chapare. Bullets from aircraft penetrated the tin rooftops of Bolivian homes, killing women, children, and men inside. As was his style, Ronald Reagan’s war failed to stop coca production.

The coca growers, comprising male ‘cocoleros’ and women ‘cocoleras,’ sought protection from US funded paramilitaries and death squads by sleeping in the jungles. They formed a growers’ union (sindicato) using sindicato-funded FM and shortwave radios to organize and protect coca growers from non-sindicato sources of information. The union flexed its coca political muscle to arrange an agreement with the Bolivian government that distinctly clarified the national laws: coca was to be legal and its growers and coca plots were not to be harmed, while cocaine was made someone else’s problem. In his book, Coca Yes, Cocaine No (2019), Thomas Grisaffi summarizes the results:

The projection of the coca leaf as a symbol of national sovereignty, captured by the union’s call to arms, “Long live coca, death to Yankees,” served in part to tie national movements together to bring about the process that put [President] Evo Morales in power….

Morales and the MAS [Movimiento al Socialismo] never had to be explicit on coca’s relationship with cocaine: in the face of repressive policing, the promise was simply to end the war on drugs, to demilitarize the region, and to defend traditional coca leaf use…in 2013 the United Nations accepted the right to traditional coca consumption within Bolivian territory. [Kindle Edition pp. 20-21]. […]

Any cocalero or cocalera will explain that U.S.-led efforts had absolutely nothing to do with tackling the illicit drug trade, but rather were about obliterating organized peasant resistance to the neoliberal development model. In a 2006 interview, Doña Apolonia Bustamante, a leader in her mid-forties, put it this way: “The United States, they want to snuff out oppositional movements that don’t fit with their vision. They saw that we were unionized. They were scared about a powerful social movement here in the Tropics. And so they thought about it, and they decided to do away with the organizations, and that is why they attacked us repeatedly.” She went on to explain how the focus had previously been the fight against communism, “but today it’s the war on drugs.” […]

“Behind the war on drugs there are other interests. Interests in natural resources, and in dismantling the unions of the Chapare.” He went on to explain that the aim was to move peasant farmers off the land so that transnational companies could take control and employ them as a cheap labor force. [Kindle Edition, p. 43].

Today, thirty percent of Bolivians chew coca, including some middle class professionals, while coca remains a part of traditions thousands of years old. Coca increases the intake of oxygen in the lungs making it useful for altitude adaptations. In Cusco, Peru, coca tea is served to tourists for altitude sickness. Pope Francis, who’s had only one lung since an operation for a teenage lung infection, requested coca leaves on a visit to South America. Coca leaves can now be ordered served on silver trays in elite establishments in Argentina. Meanwhile, sindicato strategies against US interference have been adopted by resistance movements throughout the world. Given an impenetrable source of coca leaves, and with drug enforcement restricted to cocaine, prohibitionists may have found their holy grail—a drug war without end.

Thomas Grisaffi cites another possibility besides perpetual drug war: legalize coca leaves internationally so consumers can choose between cocaine and legal coca with its “vitamins, calcium, iron, fiber, protein, and calories.” Bolivians might have easy access to cocaine, but they prefer chewing coca. Survival of Bolivia’s traditions and transitions through decades of US drug war and propaganda suggests decriminalizing or legalizing coca leaves could cut deeply enough into cocaine markets to make cocaine wars obsolete.

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Drug War Gulags and Slaves

Drug war exceptions can be the rule in US law. Chief among domestic drug war violators are drug rehabilitation facilities that recruit and provide drug addicts to businesses where they work for no pay. The jobs can include plucking chickens on poultry farms, working 80-hour weeks in senior care centers, or laboring for wealthy corporations like Exxon, Shell, and Walmart, minus any labor or health protections, benefits or cash. The Center for Investigative Reporting has examined the legality of the practice:

…the regulatory agencies and laws don’t really matter. The judges don’t really care. They don’t look into this. They think they’re doing, what, God’s work, or—you know, because sometimes there’s a big Christian aura over the whole thing, and required church attendance, required Bible study. And now go out and pluck chickens on an assembly line. […]

…a common theme among all of these programs is that they tend to be unregulated. They’re not licensed, they don’t have medical staff or other aspects to their program that would typically have to fall under regulation in these states. On top of that, many of them are Christian-based or faith-based, and many Christian-based programs in the United States are eligible for licensing exemptions from state to state. […]

“We forget the founders faced a situation in society where we had a lot of people who were held in the stockade or something, because ‘Oh, you violated the terms of your employment,’ or what have you…” […]

The 13th Amendment basically outlawed slavery in the United States. And it states that involuntary servitude is not OK, except essentially as a punishment upon conviction of a crime. And so when you have participants who are getting sent by courts to these programs, ostensibly for rehab and treatment for their addictions, what lawyers have told us is there’s an argument that that violates the 13th Amendment. Because not only sometimes are there no convictions in these cases yet, but a lot of the time, even if there are convictions, the courts are saying: this is not for punishment. This is to rehabilitate you. This is to provide treatment so that you can recover from your addictions and become a productive member of society. […]

California requires licensing and regulation for non-medically assisted drug rehabs. Under the DHCS system, slaves and indentured servants are not allowed to compete in the job market no matter how disgusting the job. With the advent of marijuana legalization serving to spotlight these activities, non-medical rehabs in the states of Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Texas are being investigated or sued for illegal labor practices.

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Desisting DEA Deferrals and Delays

One thing we’ve seen for decades is that the DEA handles any challenges to its authority over marijuana by delaying, sometimes for many years (particularly with scheduling challenges). And they’d get away with it pretty much all the time.

That may be changing.

Federal Court Orders DEA To Explain Marijuana Research Block

On Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit handed SRI an initial procedural victory, issuing an order that DEA “file a response to the amended mandamus petition, not to exceed 7,800 words, within 30 days of the date of this order.”

Not 10 years from now. 30 days.

They’ll still use every weapon in their arsenal to slow the process, but it’s going to get harder for them.

Of course, even better would be to remove marijuana from their authority altogether.

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Wild Songbirds Clarify Cannabis’ Effects

Dopamine receptors can be quantified using PET scans. For cannabis researchers this is tremendous news. A pair of studies demonstrate how stressful environments decrease the dopamine receptors of songbirds, while the other clarifies marijuana’s effects on dopamine release, PTSD and depression:

19-JUL-2019 – Louisiana State University Department of Biological Sciences Assistant Professor Christine Lattin, and colleagues conducted this study of wild songbirds showing that dopamine is important in responding to chronic stressors, which can help wildlife conservation efforts in response to environmental stressors such as habitat destruction, natural disasters, extreme weather events and increases in predation. […]

They found that one type of dopamine receptor decreased over time during captivity, which suggests that birds became less resilient to stress over time. The greater the decrease in dopamine receptors, the more they exhibited anxiety-related behaviors such as feather ruffling. All of the wild birds also decreased body mass.

“These physiological, neurobiological and behavioral changes suggest that songbirds are not able to habituate to captivity, at least over short periods of time. It is very important that scientists studying stress in wildlife find more ways to study them in their natural habitat,” Lattin said. […]

In a previous study, marijuana’s endocannabinoids were shown to affect the firing of dopamine neurons. University of Maryland School of Medicine scientists revealed the process:

…dopamine causally drives animals to avoid unpleasant or painful situations and stimuli. The results greatly expand the role that dopamine plays in driving behavior.

The researchers also examined the role that endocannabinoids play in this process. Endocannabinoids, brain chemicals that resemble the active ingredients in marijuana, play key roles in many brain processes. Here, Dr. Joseph F. Cheer and his colleagues found that endocannabinoids essentially open the gate that allows the dopamine neurons to fire. When the researchers reduced the level of endocannabinoids, the animals were much less likely to move to avoid shocks.

In both depression and PTSD, doctors already sometimes treat patients with medicine to increase dopamine and there are now clinical trials testing use of endocannabinoid drugs to treat these conditions. Dr. Cheer suggests that this approach may need to be used more often and should certainly be studied in more detail.

Dr. Cheer argues that the research sheds light on brain disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. In depression, patients feel unable to avoid a sense of helplessness in the face of problems, and tend to ruminate rather than act to improve their situation. In PTSD, patients are unable to avoid an overwhelming sense of fear and anxiety in the face of seemingly low-stress situations. Both disorders, he says, may involve abnormally low levels of dopamine, and may be seen on some level as a failure of the avoidance system. […]

About 34% of medicinal cannabis use is directed at treating depression. For many patients marijuana reduces the anxiety and emotional pain that form links in the chain to their illnesses. The current findings raise another possibility, and not just for house sparrows (Passer domesticus). Cannabis may be the treatment of choice for people arrested and confined in cages for consuming marijuana or any other illicit drug.

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Florida Cop Planted Drugs in Vehicles

Governments can employ drug wars for superficial purposes. Sometimes it’s to provide plausible denials for committing human rights crimes against minorities, or even political opponents. Several events in Florida and Russia illustrate the continuing problem of drug war human rights abuses:

In October 2017, Derek Benefield was driving in the Florida Panhandle’s Jackson County when he was pulled over for allegedly swerving into the opposite lane. Once at the car, sheriff’s deputy Zachary Wester claimed to smell marijuana and conducted a search of the vehicle, which, he reported, turned up methamphetamine and marijuana. Despite insisting the drugs weren’t his, Benefield, who was already on probation, was arrested, charged $1,100 in fines and court fees, and sentenced to one year in county jail.

Benefield was seven months into his sentence when, in September 2018, the state attorney’s office dropped his case and those of 118 others. Largely thanks to the diligence of one assistant state attorney, Wester was suspected of routinely planting drugs during traffic stops over his two years in the department. […]

In Russia, human rights leader Oyub Titiyev of Chechnya was recently released from a Russian jail after serving 18 months for 207 grams of marijuana. His supporters say the charges were fabricated after his car was stopped for a documents check. In another case, Russian investigative reporter Ivan Golunov was arrested and charged with drug trafficking, leading to rebukes by Russian journalists and human rights activists that the authorities planted the drugs. Russia’s Interior Ministry was forced to drop the charges against Golunov due in part to Golunov’s status as a public figure, and because the Ministry couldn’t prove he owned the drugs. The incident inspired an ongoing public debate causing many Russians to reconsider their support for Russia’s drug war.

Whether it involves the planting of drugs on 1950s black motorists in Pasadena, California, to discourage them from moving into white neighborhoods, or the more recent performance of President Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippine drug war, a conflict the UN Human Rights Council sees as a homicidal attack on the poor—drugs notwithstanding; drug wars demonstrate how categorical thinkers in governments use law enforcement to harass or even eliminate an immense range of people deemed undesirable. It’s no surprise public perceptions of drug wars emerge that make the friendly local police officer on the beat look rare, even extinct, replaced by sanctioned predators, destroyers of lives and careers.

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How things have changed

Hearing tomorrow in the United States House Committee on the Judiciary:

Marijuana Laws in America: Racial Justice and the Need for Reform

Having a really hard time even wrapping my head around that concept, when I think back to what Congress was like on marijuana issues when this blog started in 2003.

We always said that the people would have to lead and eventually Congress would follow.

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Britain’s Drug War Problem

Few events are as likely to produce a marijuana legalization activist as the individual who gets busted for pot by their dad and then dumped into some medieval-minded drug rehab. Just ask his current highness the Duke of Sussex. Cannabis concerns in the UK have produced an unusual alliance between church and monarchy aiding legalization:

Now that the UK has the distinction of being the largest global exporter of cannabis for medicinal and scientific purposes, the Church of England appears to be blessing this bounty. As reported by The Times, “The Church Commissioners for England, who handle £8.2 billion of church assets, ban investment in companies that profit from recreational drugs but said for the first time that they would consider investing in companies that work with medicinal marijuana now that it is legal in the UK.” […]

So do these moves point to the advent of a new form of high Anglican church? Here the ICBC blog points to a not-so-surprising source, Meghan and Harry, a.k.a. the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. (Harry had to go to a rehab clinic after being caught by his dad for smoking cannabis, while Meghan handed out cannabis gift bags at her … wedding in 2016, and has a cannabis strain named after her called Markle’s Sparkle.) As this royal couple continues to break with tradition, will they be groundbreakers in normalizing cannabis on a global scale?

Some recently married couples with one or more partners arrested and felonized for marijuana or magic mushroom possession may not appear as optimistic as those now residing in opulent British palaces. Regrettably, US prohibitionist forces still retain control of vast land areas rife with poverty, suicides, opioid ODs, and unavailable or inadequate healthcare services due in part to a drug war that discourages safe medicinal and recreational options that can be astonishingly beneficial.

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Commenting on Illinois legalization

So, the local paper is aware that I’ve been pretty active in drug policy reform and decided to interview me (and others) about the new legalization of marijuana in Illinois.

In today’s Pantagraph, Marijuana legalization proponents, opponents look to future

Not bad, overall, although comments were shortened and sometimes lost context (it was an hour interview), and I’m a bit disappointed that nothing was included about the social justice parts of the new law (expungements, and helping those communities that had been disproportionately affected by the drug war).

A few opponents were also interviewed. The ones from the health care systems were relatively reasonable – concerned about future potential treatment needs, but not taking a major stand on legalization. But we had a real spouting of the old reefer madness from Paul Pederson – president of the Illinois State Medical Society — a lot of mixing correlations with causation, and a complete lack of any kind of preparedness from looking at the vast number of studies that exist, and the results in states where legalization has occurred.

[For those out of the country who couldn’t access the article, here is a pdf of it.]
Marijuana legalization proponents, opponents look to future

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