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December 28, 2007 - Drug War Chronicle (US)

The Top Ten Drug War Stories of 2007

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

As 2007 winds down, it is time to look back at the year in drug policy. Here at Drug War Chronicle, we cranked out more than 500 stories about every aspect of drug policy in the US and around the world this year. But if we have to narrow it down to a handful of domestic and international stories or trends, the following are what we pick. Without further ado... the top ten drug war stories of 2007, according to Drug War Chronicle:

The Drug War Grinds On

While more than a decade of concerted drug reform activism has produced some encouraging changes, the drug war nevertheless continued to grind on throughout 2007. At mid-year, the Bureau of Justice Statistics announced that the US jail and prison population was at another all-time high, with more than 2.2 million people behind bars, including roughly 500,000 drug offenders. At the end of September, the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report came out, and it found marijuana arrests and all drug arrests were both at all-time highs, with more than 800,000 pot arrests last year and more than 1.8 million drug arrests. Nothing yet has succeeded in putting the brakes on the drug war juggernaut.

The Walls Begin Tumbling Down: A Hint of Justice for Crack Prisoners

After two decades of draconian treatment of crack cocaine offenders, 2007 saw significant albeit modest progress in achieving justice for the thousands of people -- almost all black and brown -- imprisoned under mandatory minimum federal crack laws. After years of fruitless pleading to Congress to change the crack laws, the US Sentencing Commission in May announced it would amend the federal sentencing guidelines to slightly reduce crack sentences, and two weeks later, it urged Congress to act to reduce them even further by addressing the 100:1 disparity in the quantity of crack versus powder cocaine it takes to earn mandatory minimum sentences. (The guidelines and the mandatory minimums are separate, intertwined sentencing regimes.) Early this month, the Sentencing Commission announced that its earlier sentencing adjustments would be retroactive, meaning that as many as 22,000 current crack prisoners can seek hearings to gain sentence cuts. And a few days later, in a pair of cases having to do with the now advisory federal sentencing guidelines, the Supreme Court ruled that judges can make downward departures in crack sentences. These changes are for the better, but they are at the margins. The real problem is the way the law is written, and that will take action by Congress to change. Pressure is mounting, a handful of bills have been filed, and 2008 could be the year that Congress finally acts.

California Medical Marijuana: The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

California continues to be a world apart when it comes to medical marijuana. Under the state's broadly written law, gaining a recommendation to become a legal medical marijuana patient is not a daunting task. Depending on the location, neither is visiting one of the hundreds of dispensaries selling the weed to patients. It's a different story when it comes to the dispensaries, however. Around 40 of them have been raided by the DEA (we did stories on mass raids in Los Angeles in January and again in July), usually operating in cahoots with recalcitrant local law enforcement, and more than 100 people face federal prosecution. This year, the DEA has also unveiled a new tactic: threatening dispensary landlords in Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Francisco. Meanwhile, the battle over medical marijuana in California is also being fought county by county, municipality by municipality, as local entities grapple with whether to allow dispensaries and how to regulate them. The state is collecting taxes off them, and one activist, the Drug Library's Cliff Schaffer, has put out an only partly tongue-in-cheek press release on behalf of the state's marijuana dealers to chip in a billion dollars of annual tax revenue to help the state overcome its budget crisis. The situation is fluid and rapidly changing in California, but it appears doubtful that even the feds can turn back the clock to the days before Proposition 215.

Medical Marijuana Continues to Expand

New Mexico became the 12th state to adopt a medical marijuana law this year, while Rhode Island made its law permanent. Connecticut passed a medical marijuana law, only to have it vetoed by Republican Gov. Jodi Rell. Serious medical marijuana efforts were also underway in the legislatures in Illinois, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, and Tennessee, while bills were introduced in about 15 more states. Wisconsin and Michigan are both on track to see serious efforts next year, the former in the legislature and the latter through the initiative process, while some of the states where efforts have been underway could get over the top next year. See our beginning of the year overview and our end of the season overview for more details.

Harm Reduction Makes Some Advances

After years of effort, the New Jersey legislature finally passed needle exchange legislation nearly a year ago, and last month, the state's first legal needle exchange program opened in Atlantic City. This month, Congress finally lifted its nine-year-ban on the District of Columbia using its own money to fund a needle exchange. Finally, the harm reduction benefits of needle exchanges appear to be losing some of their controversy. Meanwhile, back in April, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson signed the state's Good Samaritan law, protecting people who seek medical assistance for overdose victims. That's a first. On the West Coast, they are debating the boundaries of politically palatable harm reduction in the US with a San Francisco safe injection site discussion. That, too, would be a first. The fact that it is finally being looked at seriously somewhere in the US is significant in itself.

Derailing of HEA Reform a Lesson in Congressional Fickleness and Pre-Election Drug War Politics

After winning a partial rollback of the Higher Education Act drug provision (aka "Aid Elimination Penalty") in 2006, repeal advocates were counting on the Democratic Congress to kill it completely this year -- or at least to try. Things looked decent early on when in June, the Senate HELP Committee approved removal of the drug question from the federal financial aid application, though without repealing the law itself, as part of the long-awaited HEA reauthorization bill. But then things went bad on the Senate floor, as committee Chair Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), who was floor managing the bill, allowed Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to offer an amendment removing that language without opposition. Still, there was hope that the House would pass repeal legislation that could survive conference committee, but that hope, too, was dashed when House Education & Labor Committee Chairman Rep. George Miller (D-CA) refused to allow a repeal amendment to be voted on because of its potential budgetary impact, instead allowing Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), the author of the drug provision, to offer his own amendment to further limit the scope of his measure. Now, what's that old saying about politicians and their promises?

Mexico's Drug Wars Intensify, and the US Prepares a Massive Aid Package

Incoming Mexican President Felipe Calderon began his first year in office by sending soldiers to occupy Tijuana and ended it by declaring the drug war his highest priority and sending soldiers to occupy Reynosa. In between, Calderon sent thousands of troops into various states and cities to fight the drug war. They arrested thousands and seized lots of drugs, but failed to make a perceptible dent in the flow of drugs north, and were accused of various human rights abuses. Despite Calderon's drug war, prohibition-related violence killed an estimated 2,500 people this year, a record high. Calderon may be criticized in Mexico, but he has been lionized in Washington, which is preparing a $1.4 billion anti-drug aid package. There are no signs that things are getting better in Mexico despite Calderon's efforts, and if "Plan Mexico" turns out anything like Plan Colombia, things could get much worse.

Coca Peace in Bolivia

We haven't written much about Bolivia this year, and that's a good sign. Since former coca grower union leader Evo Morales won the presidency in December 2005, he has shifted from the US-imposed "zero coca" policies of his predecessors to one of "coca, yes; cocaine, no," and, as a result, conflict in the coca fields has dropped dramatically. Coca farmers reported there was peace, if not prosperity, and while the US and the International Narcotics Control Board grumbled about Morales allowing a limited expansion of the coca crop, they haven't offered stiff opposition. Bolivia, the world's third largest coca producer, now stands in sharp contrast with number two Peru, where eradication efforts repeatedly sparked cocalero strikes and conflict, and number one Colombia, where despite more than $6 billion in US aid, production continues unabated, as does the festering guerrilla war. It is not completely lovey-dovey in Bolivia's coca fields, but it is a vast improvement in the economic, political, and human rights situation of the coca farmers.

In Canada, A Battle Royal Looms Over the Conservatives' Repressive Drug Policy Approach

For most of this decade, American reformers have viewed Canada as a bastion of reason and tolerance when it comes to drug policy. While that view was a bit overdone, things have certainly changed for the worse with the election of the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephan Harper. Only after a concerted national and international campaign did his government grudgingly grant an exemption to Vancouver's safe injection site, and then only for six months. Harper and his ministers have scoffed at the very notion of harm reduction, and this fall, they announced that their new National Anti-Drug Strategy would have no harm reduction funding. A few weeks later, the Tories introduced their new drug crime bill, with mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses, including growing marijuana. That has set off a huge fight, which will be played out next year. Will Canada march resolutely backward into the 20th Century? Stay tuned.

Afghanistan and Opium

Six years after the US invaded Afghanistan, neither the effort to defeat the Taliban nor the war on the opium poppy is going well. US and NATO casualties are up, and the poppy crop continues to hit new records every year. Afghanistan now accounts for 92% of the global opium supply, and the US and its NATO allies face a real dilemma: Go after the crops and drive the farmers into the waiting arms of the Taliban, or stand by and watch the Taliban profit handsomely from the traffic. Meanwhile, proposals to simply buy up the crop and divert it to legitimate medicinal uses are eroding the prohibitionist consensus, as everyone from Canadian think tanks to British parliamentarians to the European Parliament came on board to support such a plan. At year's end, the US government announced it had given up efforts to spray the poppies in the face of opposition from the Afghan government, NATO allies, and even the Pentagon and CIA. Now, the US is once again back to the drawing board, and Afghanistan is certain to remain a critical issue for the foreseeable future.

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