Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

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Monday, April 7, 2014

If it clearly cost thousands of innocent lives through heroin abuse, would most everyone oppose modern marijuana reforms?

I engendered an intriguing debate over research data, criminal drug reform and public safety concerns in my post at Sentencing Law & Policy last week titled "If it clearly saved thousands of innocent lives on roadways, would most everyone support medical marijuana reforms?".  I am hoping to engender a similar debate with the question in the title of this new post, which is my sincere inquiry, directed particularly to those most supportive of modern marijuana reform movements, as a follow-up to this notable new Washington Post article headlined "Tracing the U.S. heroin surge back south of the border as Mexican cannabis output falls."  Here are excerpts:

The surge of cheap heroin spreading in $4 hits across rural America can be traced back to the remote valleys of the northern Sierra Madre. With the wholesale price of marijuana falling — driven in part by decriminalization in sections of the United States — Mexican drug farmers are turning away from cannabis and filling their fields with opium poppies.

Mexican heroin is flooding north as U.S. authorities trying to contain an epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse have tightened controls on synthetic opiates such as hydrocodone and OxyContin. As the pills become more costly and difficult to obtain, Mexican trafficking organizations have found new markets for heroin in places such as Winchester, Va., and Brattleboro, Vt., where, until recently, needle use for narcotics was rare or unknown.

Farmers in the storied “Golden Triangle” region of Mexico’s Sinaloa state, which has produced the country’s most notorious gangsters and biggest marijuana harvests, say they are no longer planting the crop. Its wholesale price has collapsed in the past five years, from $100 per kilogram to less than $25. “It’s not worth it anymore,” said Rodrigo Silla, 50, a lifelong cannabis farmer who said he couldn’t remember the last time his family and others in their tiny hamlet gave up growing mota. “I wish the Americans would stop with this legalization.”

Growers from this area and as far afield as Central America are sowing their plots with opium poppies, and large-scale operations are turning up in places where authorities have never seen them....

The needle habit in the United States has made a strong comeback as heroin rushes into the country. Use of the drug in the United States increased 79 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to federal data, triggering a wave of overdose deaths and an “urgent and growing public health crisis,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. warned last month.

Although prescription painkillers remain more widely abused and account for far more fatal overdoses, heroin has been “moving all over the country and popping up in areas you didn’t see before,” said Carl Pike, a senior official in the Special Operations Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

With its low price and easy portability, heroin has reached beyond New York, Chicago and other places where it has long been available. Rural areas of New England, Appalachia and the Midwest are being hit especially hard, with cities such as Portland, Maine; St. Louis; and Oklahoma City struggling to cope with a new generation of addicts. Pike and other DEA officials say the spread is the result of a shrewd marketing strategy developed by Mexican traffickers. They have targeted areas with the worst prescription pill abuse, sending heroin pushers to “set up right outside the methadone clinics,” one DEA agent said.

Some new heroin users begin by snorting the drug. But like addicts of synthetic painkillers who go from swallowing the pills to crushing and snorting them, they eventually turn to intravenous injection of heroin for a more powerful high. By then, experts say, they have crossed a psychological threshold — overcoming the stigma of needle use. At the same time, they face diminishing satisfaction from prescription pills that can cost $80 each on the street and whose effects wear off after four to six hours. Those addicts are especially susceptible to high-grade heroin offered for as little as $4 a dose but with a narcotic payload that can top anything from a pharmacy.

Unlike marijuana, which cartel peons usually carry across the border in backpacks, heroin (like cocaine) is typically smuggled inside fake vehicle panels or concealed in shipments of legitimate commercial goods and is more difficult to detect. By the time it reaches northern U.S. cities, a kilo may be worth $60,000 to $80,000, prior to being diluted or “cut” with fillers such as lactose and powdered milk. The increased demand for heroin in the United States appears to be keeping wholesale prices high, even with abundant supply.

The Mexican mountain folk in hamlets such as this one do not think of themselves as drug producers. They also plant corn, beans and other subsistence crops but say they could never earn a living from their small food plots. And, increasingly, they’re unable to compete with U.S. marijuana growers. With cannabis legalized or allowed for medical use in 20 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, more and more of the American market is supplied with highly potent marijuana grown in American garages and converted warehouses — some licensed, others not.  Mexican trafficking groups have also set up vast outdoor plantations on public land, especially in California, contributing to the fall in marijuana prices.

“When you have a product losing value, you diversify, and that’s true of any farmer,” said David Shirk, a Mexico researcher at the University of California at San Diego. “The wave of opium poppies we’re seeing is at least partially driven by changes we’re making in marijuana drug policy.”

I find this article fascinating in part because it highlight one (or surely many dozen) serious unintended consequences of modern marijuana reforms in the United States. I also find it fascinating because, just as my prior post explored some possible public safety benefits of consumers switching from alcohol use to marijuana use, this article spotlights some possible public safety harms of producers switching from marijuana farming to opium farming.

Some recent related posts:

April 7, 2014 in International Marijuana Laws and Policies, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

"Immigration Law in the Age of Marijuana Decriminalization"

The title of this post is the title of this new post by Jordan Cunnings at the blog crImmigration.com.  The full post is worth a read, and here is how it starts:  

In a recent New Yorker interview, President Obama described marijuana use as a “bad habit and a vice, not very different from. . . cigarettes,” and not more dangerous than drinking. The President expressed concern with the disproportionate rates of criminal punishment for marijuana use in poor and minority communities, and spoke favorably of recent efforts to legalize small amounts of the drug in the states of Colorado and Washington.

While Obama’s comments may be a good sign for marijuana legalization advocates, his personal viewpoint is glaringly inconsistent with his administration’s consistently harsh enforcement efforts in the area of marijuana use and immigration. While marijuana use is legal in one form or another in twenty states and the District of Columbia, and banks now have the green light from the Treasury Department to finance legally operating marijuana dispensaries, noncitizens remain at risk for incredibly harsh and disproportionate immigration consequences when using small amounts of marijuana. Low-level marijuana charges often funnel noncitizens into the immigration law system, prevent otherwise-eligible noncitizens from obtaining lawful immigration status, and subject lawfully present noncitizens to deportation. Worse yet, marijuana laws are disproportionately enforced in poor and minority communities—as Obama himself noted, “[m]iddle class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do”—meaning that marijuana citations and arrests may disproportionately impact the people of color who make up the bulk of today’s immigrant groups.

Though recent prosecutorial discretion memos by the former head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency John Morton purport to refocus enforcement priorities away from individuals who have only minor criminal histories, immigration law enforcement statistics from the past two years show that this policy is not being followed. Marijuana laws are disproportionately enforced in poor and minority communities – as Obama himself noted, “[m]iddle class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do” — meaning that marijuana citations and arrests often serve as entry point into the criminal justice system and then the deportation system. A Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) review of ICE documents from fiscal years 2012 and 2013 found that marijuana possession was one of the top five most common offenses for which ICE issued immigration detainers against individuals. This means that thousands of noncitizens are funneled into ICE custody after being charged with low-level marijuana possession offenses. 

March 4, 2014 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, Federal Marijuana Laws, Policies and Practices, History of Marijuana Laws in the United States, International Marijuana Laws and Policies | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Readings on marijuana laws' impact on immigration and extradition issues

Especially because I tend to be under-informed about immigration laws and policies, I am very excited that the student-selected topic for discussion this week in my Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform seminar is the impact of marijuana laws on immigration and extradition issues. Here are the readings assembled by the students as background:

UPDATE: My students also have suggested that these issues merit consideration of "whether or not legalizing marijuana in the United States will thwart the drug cartels in Mexico [and how this impacts] the massive amount of Mexican asylum cases the US is currently receiving (and denying)."

Here are additional readings on this topic:

And some conflicting views on whether or not marijuana legalization would stop Mexican cartels:

November 19, 2013 in Criminal justice developments and reforms, History of Marijuana Laws in the United States, International Marijuana Laws and Policies | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Readings providing international/comparative perspectives on drug laws (especially marijuana)

Especially because I tend to be pretty under-informed about to international/comparative  drug laws, I am very excited that the student-selected topic for discussion this week in my Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform seminar is the global regime regarding marijuana and its impact on legalization efforts in the US.  Here are the readings assembled by the students as background:

I. International Law 

International Regulation of Drugs

  • Controlled Substances casebook, pp. 801-804 (International Framework);
  • pp. 813-820 (Impact of United State Policy on Mexico);
  • pp. 836-845 (International Control of Illegal Drugs, "Preventing or Causing Human Rights Violations");
  • pp. 916-921 (US using trade policy to enforce drug laws under the 1986 Narcotics Act)

UN and the power to stop legalization of Marijuana

 

  II. Comparative Law 

Further Comparative law reading:

1 .  WHO report on correlation of drug laws and drug abuse  

2.   North Korea and a marijuana legalization regime

3.   North Korea's meth addiction: Grau, Cutting off the Building Blocks to Methamphetamine Production, 30 Hous. J. Int’l L. 157 (2007);

4.  Reform of North Korea drug laws

November 5, 2013 in Assembled readings on specific topics, International Marijuana Laws and Policies | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"Uruguay to sell legal marijuana for $1 a gram"

The title of this post is the headline of this new article from The Guardian, which reports that Uruguay has plans to become the locale with the lowest legal prices for marijuana in the world.  Here are the details:

Uruguay's drug tsar says the country plans to sell legal marijuana for $1 a gram to combat drug-trafficking, according to a local newspaper.

The plan to create a government-run legal marijuana industry has passed the lower house of Congress, and Uruguay's president, José Mujica, expects to push it through the Senate soon as part of his effort to explore alternatives in the war on drugs....

Marijuana sales should start in the second half of 2014 at a price of about $1 a gram, drug chief Julio Calzada told Uruguay's El País, on Sunday – an eighth or less of what it costs at legal medical dispensaries in some US states.  Calzada said one gram would be enough "for one marijuana cigarette or two or three slimmer cigarettes".

He said the idea was not to make money but to fight petty crime and wrench the market away from illegal dealers.  "The illegal market is very risky and of poor quality," he said.  The state was going to offer "a safe place to buy a quality product and on top of that, it's going to sell it at the same price"....  Sales would be restricted to locals, who would be able to buy up to 40g a month.

Smoking pot has long been legal in Uruguay, but growing, carrying, buying or selling it has been punishable by prison terms.  About 120,000 Uruguayans consume marijuana at least once a year, according to the National Drug Council.  Of these, 75,000 smoke it every week and 20,000 every day.

In the US, the states of Washington and Colorado have legalised marijuana and adopted rules governing its sale.  Unlike Uruguay, they will tax marijuana, seeing it as a revenue source, when it goes on legal sale next year.  In Washington, the state marijuana consultant has projected legal pot might cost $13-$17 a gram.  Marijuana in the medical dispensaries typically ranges from $8-$14 a gram in Washington depending on quality.

October 22, 2013 in Current Affairs, International Marijuana Laws and Policies | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 30, 2013

"Conservatives launching billion-dollar free market in medical marijuana"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new article via the Canadian Press.  Here is how the article gets started:

The Conservative government is launching a $1.3-billion free market in medical marijuana this Tuesday, eventually providing an expected 450,000 Canadians with quality weed. Health Canada is phasing out an older system on Monday that mostly relied on small-scale, homegrown medical marijuana of varying quality, often diverted illegally to the black market.

In its place, large indoor marijuana farms certified by the RCMP and health inspectors will produce, package and distribute a range of standardized weed, all of it sold for whatever price the market will bear. The first sales are expected in the next few weeks, delivered directly by secure courier.

“We’re fairly confident that we’ll have a healthy commercial industry in time,” Sophie Galarneau, a senior official with the department, said in an interview. “It’s a whole other ball game.”

The sanctioned birth of large-scale, free-market marijuana production comes as the Conservatives pillory Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s campaign to legalize recreational marijuana.

Health Canada is placing no limits on the number of these new capital-intensive facilities, which will have mandatory vaults and security systems. Private-dwelling production will be banned. Imports from places such as the Netherlands will be allowed. Already 156 firms have applied for lucrative producer and distributor status since June, with the first two receiving licences just last week.

The old system fostered only a cottage industry, with 4,200 growers licensed to produce for a maximum of two patients each. The Mounties have complained repeatedly these grow-ops were often a front for criminal organizations.

The next six months are a transition period, as Health Canada phases out the old system by March 31, 2014, while encouraging medical marijuana users to register under the replacement regime and to start buying from the new factory-farms.

There are currently 37,400 medical marijuana users recognized by the department, but officials project that number will swell more than 10-fold, to as many as 450,000 people, by 2024.

The profit potential is enormous. A gram of dried marijuana bud on the street sells for about $10 and Health Canada projects the legal stuff will average about $7.60 next year, as producers set prices without interference from government.

Pretty interesting, eh?

September 30, 2013 in International Marijuana Laws and Policies | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Conservative voice from south of the border talking up marijuana legalization

Mexico mapThe Los Angeles Times has this lengthy new article about a notable voice in the marijuana reform discussion.  The full headline of this piece is "Mexico's Vicente Fox pushes marijuana debate to forefront: Conservative former President Vicente Fox has become an unlikely leading advocate of marijuana legalization. He says his change of heart stems from Mexico's mounting drug violence." Here is how the interesting article gets started:

Former President Vicente Fox grew up on a farm here in rural Guanajuato, one of Mexico's most conservative states. He is the kind of guy who wears big belt buckles, collects hand-tooled saddles and worships the free market. Ask him about his experience with the drug culture and the big man with the cowboy-movie mustache exhibits a kind of straight-laced pique: Never smoked pot, he says. Hardly knew anyone who did.

But Fox has always fancied himself a policy maverick. And these days, the former standard-bearer of Mexico's conservative National Action Party, or PAN, has emerged as one of Latin America's most outspoken advocates of marijuana legalization.

Fox, 71, came out for legalization a few years ago. But this summer he has significantly ramped up his efforts. In June, he declared that he would grow the plant if it were legalized — "I'm a farmer," he said — and added that he'd like to see marijuana sold in Mexican convenience stores.

Some see him as a visionary, others as a cynical promoter milking the issue for attention (and, perhaps, lucrative speaking fees). Many think he's simply nuts. In a poll published in the liberal Mexico City newspaper La Jornada, 43% of respondents agreed that the former president "had finally gone crazy," while 32% said he should be investigated for promoting criminality. Only 11% said he had the right idea.

It was an unsurprising response from the Mexican left, who have long considered Fox to be a rash bumpkin with an embarrassing history of speaking before thinking. But these days, it is arguably the right-wing Fox who has done the most to promote this pet cause of the left and finally force a serious debate in the Mexican mainstream.

Fox speaks like a true believer about legalization's potential to save his troubled country, at times lapsing into the giddy visionary jargon of online TED talks: It would be a "game-changer," he says, "a change of paradigm." A month after his pot-growing comments made international headlines, Fox built momentum for the cause with an attention-grabbing legalization symposium at his presidential library, the Centro Fox, here in the farming town where he grew up.

Since then, the national discussion has grown considerably. Mexican TV and newspapers are suddenly rife with articles debating the pros and cons. The mayor of Mexico City, Miguel Angel Mancera, has reiterated his promise to debate legalization in the left-leaning capital. More recently, the liberal governor of Morelos state, Graco Ramirez, said he would push to ease marijuana restrictions in his state.

Though Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto opposes the idea, it now seems possible that the nation might follow the pattern of the United States, where residents of Colorado and Washington voted to legalize recreational marijuana use, despite the continuing opposition of the federal government. The Mexican Congress decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2009.

Fox favors the eventual legalization and regulation of all drugs in Mexico. The idea is to rob the bloodthirsty drug cartels of their profits and power. Legal pot, he says, would be the first step. "This prohibition is the last frontier of prohibitions," Fox told The Times during a break in his July symposium. Revealing a marked libertarian streak, he argued that government efforts to regulate other personal behaviors had been found wanting: "The issue of abortion. The issue of same-sex marriage. The issue of gays. The issue of alcohol," he said. "These arbitrarily imposed prohibitions have ended. And they have ended because they don't work."

September 3, 2013 in Current Affairs, International Marijuana Laws and Policies | Permalink | Comments (0)