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People & Power

Marijuana Wars - Part Two

In the second half of a special investigation, we look at legalisation and drug violence in the US and Latin America.

Last updated: 06 Mar 2014 11:45
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Filmmaker: Bob Abeshouse

After the recent legalisation of marijuana in two US states, campaigners hope the rest of the country will follow suit. But their opponents believe that would open the floodgates to greater narcotics abuse of all kinds.

In the first part of People & Power's special report, we asked who is right and if the US has reached a tipping point in its war on drugs.

In part two of Marijuana Wars, we explore attitudes toward cannabis legalisation in the southern states of the US, like Louisiana, where possession can result in life behind bars.

We also examine legalisation efforts in Latin America aimed at combatting drug cartel violence.

Watch Part One here

Filmmaker's view

In Colorado, adults can now legally buy recreational marijuana, and they will soon be able to in Washington State as well. Reformers hope the 2012 voter-approved ballot initiatives in these states that allow the legal sale and production of cannabis mark the beginning of a wave that will sweep across America. But, in places like Louisiana in the southern United States, legalisation is off the agenda. The state has the country’s highest incarceration rate and some of its strictest marijuana laws.

In Louisiana, there is a three-strike policy on marijuana offenses. The first arrest for minor possession can get you six months in prison; the second arrest can result in a sentence of up to five years; the third arrest can get you 20 years and, possibly, life in prison.

Donna Weidenhaft is a public defender in New Orleans, the state’s largest city and the jurisdiction where the greatest concentrations of marijuana arrests occur. Many of her clients are from drug-related cases.

One of them, Bernard Noble, was sentenced to 13 years in jail last year after he was stopped with 2.8 grams of cannabis - about three marijuana cigarettes. Noble had a prior record of arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana and cocaine, but his most recent arrest had been nine-and-a-half-years before.

“Bernard Noble is not a drug dealer, no,” Weidenhaft says. “The only convictions that Bernard Noble has are for possession of drugs for personal use .… And he was never accused of a crime of violence.”

The judge in Noble’s case assessed his character and the offense and sentenced him to five years in prison, still a serious sentencing for a minor possession charge. However, after the New Orleans district attorney appealed the ruling on three different occasions, the case reached the Louisiana Supreme Court, which ordered Noble to go to prison for 13 years. For Derwyn Bunton, the chief public defender in New Orleans, the ruling was just another example of what he says is any unequal criminal justice system where drug prohibition plays a large role.

“We in the south are part of the Bible belt, very Christian part of the country, that has produced some very conservative values that play themselves out in our criminal justice system. There is also the history of slavery and racism in the south, “said Bunton. “It becomes easy to sort of make a political name prosecuting very vigorously drug offenses.”

Noble’s family and drug policy reformers within the state placed a lot of hope in marijuana reform legislation considered in the state legislature last year. The bill would have reduced the penalty for third time marijuana possession to five years. It passed the House but was prevented from being voted on in the Senate.

The measure failed because of the economic incentives at stake, according to George Steimel, a lobbyist for the Louisiana Defense Lawyers Association who tried to get the marijuana reform legislation through. He says the bill would have jeopardised the hundreds of millions of dollars the sheriffs get from housing state inmates.

“The state pays the sheriffs a per diem for each of the state inmates. And a great deal of those state inmates are serving time in local jails for drug offenses,” says Steimel. “And they also want to keep as many people on the payroll,” by providing corrections jobs, he says. “Because that boosts their political popularity.”

Public safety

In the 1970s, federal judges ruled that the state’s prisons were so overcrowded that they violated the US Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which protects against “cruel and unusual punishment”. Financially strapped and unable to build more state prisons, lawmakers encouraged and even partially subsidised local sheriffs to build more jails, promising that a certain portion of those cells would always be filled. The result was a building boom of prisons of unprecedented scale. Today, over 50 percent of all the state’s inmates are housed in sheriff-run local jails.

I think the war on drugs was like the war in Iraq. It was something we should not have really gotten into.

Dana Rohrabacher, Republican congressman

“In the northern part of the state, in the rural parishes, housing state inmates have become economic development tools. While we should be producing manufacturing jobs we’re producing jobs, low paying, low-skilled correctional workers jobs,” Steimel says.

Bernard Noble was sent to a sheriff-run local jail in Concordia Parish, a rural area in the northern part of the state. The New Orleans district attorney who sent Noble away for 13 years declined an interview for this story, as did the executive director of the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, which lobbied successfully against marijuana reform last year.

“Mass incarceration is a for-profit business. People have made millions of dollars off of incarcerating their fellow human beings,” says Ezekiel Edwards, the director of the Criminal Law Reform Project for the American Civil Liberties Union. “The more people you arrest and criminalise, the more you’re going to need the services potentially of private entities or actual prisons themselves to deal with this kind of mass prison-industrial complex.”

Bob Bushman, who spent 30 years as a narcotics enforcement officer in Minnesota, says that public safety, not economic incentives, drive the country’s war on drugs. Despite the evidence of harsh sentencing and possible racial biases in cases like Noble’s in Louisiana and elsewhere, Bushman says, ultimately, the numbers of people incarcerated for marijuana possession “aren’t very many” and that it should be up to individual states to decide on how to prosecute drug cases.

“If legalisation is up to the people of Colorado then why can’t the people of Louisiana have it the other way if that’s the way they want to have it?” Bushman says. “What we’re talking about here is people deciding what they want to do.”

That is exactly what federal legislation introduced last year on Capitol Hill by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) would allow. The Respect State Marijuana Laws Act, or H.R. 1523, would amend the Controlled Substances Act “to provide that provisions of such Act related to marijuana shall not apply to any person acting in compliance with state laws,” rendering the federal government powerless to interfere. The bill garnered over 20 co-sponsors from both parties and Rohrabacher says he hopes it can begin a long overdue debate within Congress on re-evaluating the nation’s drug policy.

“People understand the military industrial complex over there. And understand how we are spending a lot of money on the military. And there is a group of people that then support that spending. I mean Eisenhower warned us about that. Well, we have the same thing with drug laws,” said Rohrabacher, who served as President Ronald Reagan’s senior speechwriter, making him an unlikely advocate for marijuana legalisation. “I think the war on drugs was like the war in Iraq. It was something we should not have really gotten into.”

Congressman Rohrabacher says one of the unintended consequences of marijuana prohibition in the US has been years of devastating violence linked to drug trafficking in Mexico. Since 2006, when President Felipe Calderon declared the country’s 'War Against Drug Traffickers', more than 60,000 people have died in addition to over 20,000 disappearances as rival cartels have fought for control of lucrative transit routes to the US, which is the world’s largest market for drugs.

“We have created a flow of wealth and power into the hands of a criminal element,” said Rohrabacher.

Cartel violence

In Mexico and other Latin American countries, the legalisation of marijuana is seen by many as the only way to combat the cartel violence that has traumatised families.

“That’s necessary to take the power away from all those people who are using it to do everything that they are doing to us. Whether that’s buying weapons or transporting drugs from one place to another without any problem,” said Maria, whose two sons disappeared in August 2008. She was one of a group of protesters this past October outside of the Mexican National Congress in Mexico City calling on the government to investigate what happened to their loved ones and thousands of others who have disappeared in the drug war.

Another protester at the rally, Francisco, lost his son to violence when he refused to sell drugs for a Mexican trafficker. For Francisco, the conflict will end only when there is “regulation both from here [Mexico] and from the United States’ government,” which he says can only come about through legalisation.

A bill to legalise the production and sale of marijuana was introduced in the Mexican Congress last year. However, the measure has garnered little support and President Enrique Pena Nieto has spoken out in opposition.

“The president has said that he is not in favour of legalisation. Mexico, a few years ago now, opted for decriminalisation. Decriminalisation is not the same as legalisation,” said Roberto Campa, the deputy minister of the Interior and head of the Pena Nieto administration’s violence prevention programme.

In Mexico, small amounts of drug possession for personal use are allowed, but sales are illegal. Critics say Mexico’s apparent reluctance to at least explore alternative policies on drugs may have to do more with pressure from the US than domestic interests. Campa acknowledges that outside influences certainly play a role in shaping Mexican drug policy, but not more so than any other country.

“On the drug issue, I think it’s practically impossible for a country to make decisions in an isolated manner,” said Campa. “Not only regarding the analysis on the suitability of legalisation but also in the fight against drug trafficking.”

Few are more aware of the realities facing Mexico in the war on drugs than former Mexican President Vicente Fox. A former businessman, he served as president from 2000 to 2006, when the country’s drug cartels significantly enhanced their influence in the country. He, like Congressman Rohrabacher, believes that drug prohibition in the US has directly contributed to the violence that has paralysed his country for nearly a decade.

“It’s very insignificant, drug consumption in Mexico, and yet we have this war. Why? Because it’s to the convenience of United States. They want always war outside of the territory,” Fox says. “So Mexico’s in this trap, paying a price which is unbelievable. We have paid with many lives, blood. So this has to change.”

Today, in a sign of the times, President Fox is a forceful advocate for marijuana legalisation. He says a major portion of drug cartel profits comes from marijuana sales and that the only way to halt this profitable component of their criminal enterprise is by legalisation and state regulation of sales and distribution.

“It is 40 percent [of their profits] so it’s not small. If it’s 50 billion, 20 billion come from marijuana,” Fox says. “Imagine taking that money away from cartels. You will weaken the capacities. They’re not going to be able to buy the weapons that they buy in the United States and bring them to Mexico to kill kids on the street. They are not going to be able to bribe institutions and police clubs and even the army in Mexico; they’re not going to have the money to bribe them. So everything will change.”

Impact on farmers

Deep in the mountainous region of Sinaloa state lies one of the main marijuana producing areas of Mexico. Farmers there grow a high-quality strain of the drug known as chronic, which they sell to the highest bidder for transport to the US. However, these farmers say the impact of cannabis legalisation, both for medical and for recreational use, in the US has had an impact on the underground drug market.

To say that you’re going to eliminate the black market, you’re going to eliminate criminal activity by legalising it, I don’t think that’s true .... They’re [cartels] making a lot of money off methamphetamines, cocaine, heroin and the other drugs too.

Bob Bushman, National Narcotics Officers' Associations' Coalition

“They are growing it up there, and it’s really hurting us,” said one grower who did not provide his name for fear of retribution. “Buyers no longer come. It no longer has value. Before, one kilo costs 1,000 pesos, and now it costs 500 pesos for the good quality stuff.”

Farmers here fear profits will continue to fall if more US states begin to legalise marijuana but all agree such efforts would better combat drug violence. Critics, like Bushman, argue that even if a wave of legalisations in a number of US states take place in the coming years, the black market for drugs will not diminish.

“To say that you’re going to eliminate the black market, you’re going to eliminate criminal activity by legalising it, I don’t think that’s true,” said Bushman. “They’re [cartels] making a lot of money off methamphetamines, cocaine, heroin and the other drugs too."

Terry Nelson, a federal agent who was on the front lines of the drug war for 32 years, has a different take on how ending drug prohibition would affect the bottom line for cartels.

“I think it’d put them out of business and that’s the purpose of it,” said Nelson. “It’s to reduce the crime and violence and stop the killing. People are dying in this drug trade in Central and South America at staggering numbers, compared to the United States.”

In Uruguay, combatting drug cartel violence was a major aim of a marijuana legalisation effort successfully pushed last year by President Jose Mujica. Last December, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalise the production and sale of recreational marijuana.

Diego Canepa, Mujica’s presidential secretary, spearheaded the bill. Canepa and other Latin American officials participated in the Drug Policy Alliance’s conference of legalisation advocates in Denver late last year.

“The better way that we can help people in the world is that you show our policy is better for the population,” said Canepa. “So, you can discuss and say, Uruguay chose to change the policy, chose to have a radical movement and now we have a better result, why don’t we do it?”

In recent years, President Mujica and other Latin American leaders along with the Organization of American States have lobbied the United Nations for more support on rethinking drug policy. Their efforts were awarded with a commitment from the UN last year to hold a special 2016 session on drugs and the drug war.

Congressman Rohrabacher, who is in his late 60s, expects marijuana legalisation to spread to more than 25 states in his lifetime and to be an issue in presidential campaigns. “We’re going broke. We’re borrowing money from China in order to maintain every day expenses of our government,” he says. “I think we’ve reached a point where there can be a re-evaluation as to what the benefits are of channelling resources of our federal government into marijuana or the war on drugs.”

People & Power can be seen each week at the following times GMT: Wednesday: 2230; Thursday: 0930; Friday: 0330; Saturday: 1630; Sunday: 2230; Monday: 0930.

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Al Jazeera
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