Until the spring of 2011, Mexican writer Javier Sicilia was best known for his fiction, poetry, and essays. Then, on March 8 of that year, his son and six other friends were kidnapped, tortured, and suffocated by hit men for complaining about a theft in the parking lot of a narco-run nightclub.
The killers, Sicilia later explained, were from one of many gangs jockeying for dominance after narco boss Beltrán Leyva was killed by Mexican Special Forces in late 2009. (Coincidentally, a photo of Leyva's corpse, guarded by a masked soldier, wound up being the image that accompanied this Stranger article about US drug prohibition that ran just a few months before Sicilia's son was killed.)
After his son’s death, Sicilia began a series of protests against the runaway corruption and carnage of the drug war. The protests grew into a movement called “Estamos Hasta la Madre” (“We’ve Had It Up to Here”) that galvanized Mexico. Tens of thousands marched in cities across Mexico, including one march that started in Cuernavaca—not far from where both Leyva and Sicilia’s son were killed—and ended in Mexico City, 54 miles away, with 200,000 in attendance.
This fall, Sicilia came to Seattle with fellow activist Teresa Carmona, whose son was also killed by narcos, as part of a North American tour. We spoke shortly after he delivered a lecture at the Seattle University Law School. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.
Answer: None of them!
Cocaine is like cocaine, heroin is like heroin, and neither of them is anything like kratom—but CBS news and this hacky story by Kristine Johnson won't let little things like thorough research get in the way of a good drug-scare story.
Quick background on kratom, which The Stranger wrote about last year: People have been chewing kratom leaves and brewing them in teas in Southeast Asia for centuries. The leaf has mild psychoactive properties that can be stimulating or sedating, depending on how much is taken, what strains are taken, etc. There have been reports of chemical dependence (as there are about caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol) but not a single reported overdose death in all of human history—which puts kratom well above alcohol on the safety scale. Thailand banned the leaf in the 1940s, but a 2010 report by the Thai government admitted the ban was mostly about trying to profiteer off the opium market and suggested that, after decades of "unproblematic use" by Thai citizens, the ban should be lifted.
A few years ago, kratom hit the US market as a mild intoxicant and, perhaps more importantly, a legal and inexpensive means for opiate addicts to transition off harder drugs and control their withdrawal symptoms. Some lazy politicians and journalists who don't know anything about kratom, but know that "drugs = evil" is an easy way to score points with their constituencies, have seized on kratom as a phantom menace. There is no robust evidence for this. But there needs to be more research about it—research that will be very difficult to fund if the lazy journalists and politicians have their way and whisk it into the prohibition bin without seriously considering its benefits and drawbacks.
Kratom is sought after for its euphoric and more intense effects, and is considered one of the most dangerous drugs currently for sale in the United States.
What? By whom? Did they forget the part about zero overdose deaths in the history of mankind, and the fact that alcohol kills tens of thousands of people every year? And legal prescription drugs, which also result in overdose deaths, are far more dangerous than kratom. CBS does not cite a source for this wild claim. If kratom were a person, it could sue for libel.
Most reviews of 25 Saints dwell on its first few seconds, when playwright Joshua Rollins lays out his story's awful stakes. The lights come up on the interior of a run-down shack, cluttered with gas masks and other telltale meth-making gear. A reggae version of John Denver's "Country Roads" plays for a few quiet bars before the door bangs open and four people charge through: two young men carrying a sheriff's deputy, and a screaming young woman. They're all panicked, shouting, and covered in blood. The young men wrestle with the wounded deputy before shoving him into a large wooden chest and beating him with a hammer until he stops moving. They slam the lid closed and sit on it, panting. One turns to the other and says: "So. Now what?"
That question is the rest of the play—Rollins could've used Now What? as an alternate title. The three young people deliberate about what to do (burn the body or sink it in the lake? Cook one last batch of meth to pay off their debts and skip town? Run immediately?), giving Rollins time to fill us in on who they are, how they got here, and the corrupt Appalachian world they're trapped in. In fact, 25 Saints is almost all exposition, which is the play's essential weakness—but the tensions are high and the lead performances are urgent, making that flaw easy to overlook.
The central presence in 25 Saints is actually an absence—a young man who racked up major debts with local meth kingpins, knocked up his girlfriend, and blew up a meth lab before disappearing.
Yeah! You know how we do
A lil' something for the non-believers
For the underachievers
Ya'll know what time it is
Big Snoop Dogg up in this motherfucka one time
I want ya'll to sing this shit wit me
It go like this, check it out.
Snoop D.O. Double G, the way you rip so love-ely
It sound so viciously...
What killed him? According to KIRO—and a claim filed by the man's mother—a combination of food allergies and medical neglect.
Around 5:46, a group of inmates arrived to serve breakfast and men began lining up. While others sat to eat, the camera first captured Saffioti at the guard's desk, holding his tray. Saffioti suffered from extreme dairy allergies and took regular pains to protect himself...
The video shows Saffioti apparently discussing his food with the guard, servers and fellow inmates.
He took a few bits of what seems to be oatmeal and then, "within a few minutes, [Michael] Saffioti was back at the guard desk, using his inhaler."
According to the legal claim, he asked to see a nurse. Instead, he was sent to his cell.
Over the next half hour, the video shows other inmates looking in Saffioti's cell as he jumped up and down.
The legal claim says he pressed his call button and was ignored.
About 35 minutes after he ate, a guard found Saffioti unconscious in his cell.
Paramedics were unable to revive him. It was the eighth prisoner death at the Snohomish facility in three years.
Four months later, marijuana was legalized in Washington state.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who earlier today admitted to smoking crack, says he intends to stay on as mayor and run for reelection.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford says the people will decide on whether or not he stays as mayor on election day in October 2014 - @CP24— Breaking News (@BreakingNews) November 5, 2013
Man, why does Toronto get all the good politics?
Slog tipper my mom just directed my attention to this prize of an AP tweet:
BREAKING: Embattled Toronto mayor says he smoked crack 'probably a year ago' during a 'drunken stupor.'— The Associated Press (@AP) November 5, 2013
Funny, if you replaced "smoked crack" with "fucked your dad" and "a year ago" with "30" the mayor of Toronto could very well be re-telling the story of my conception.
HAHAHA, jk mom!
Toronto police announced on Thursday that they had recovered a video that is alleged to show the city's mayor, Rob Ford, smoking crack cocaine.
Ford just held a press conference, and he said he wasn't gong to resign because he has "no reason to resign." Gawker has video of the conference. This is not some sort of weird Canadian Halloween trick on the rest of the world. It is really happening.
What does Washington’s legalization of marijuana look like from a Mexican perspective? Javier Sicilia is coming to tell us at two events today, the first at Seattle University and the other at the South Park Community Center. In 2011, after his son and six others were killed by narcos, Sicilia—a poet, journalist, and novelist—began leading estamos hasta la madre (or “we’ve had it”) protests across the country.
Writer, activist, and international anti-drug war icon Javier Sicilia is coming to tell us at two events tomorrow, the first at Seattle University (at 1 pm) and the other at the South Park Community Center (at 6 pm). In 2011, after his son and six others were killed in a drug-war crossfire, Sicilia—a poet, journalist, and novelist—began leading estamos hasta la madre (or “we’ve had it”) protests across the country. He became the face of public indignation about corruption and the drug war. Both events are free and highly recommended.
This week, I asked Sicilia some questions over email about his thoughts on the drug war, Washington's legalization of marijuana, and what he'll be sharing with us tomorrow.
The Q&A is below. (It was partly translated by Sicilia's people and partly by me. I wanted to preserve his cadence and phrasing as much as possible, so please forgive any strange constructions.) After his first talk tomorrow, I'll interview him in person, so look for more on that.
Slog is late to this party, but in case you're as slow as we are: Last Friday, this item appeared on the Seattle police blotter:
Donating to thrift shops is a terrific way to give a second life to your well-loved velcro sneakers, keyboards or flannel zebra jammies. However, thrift stores cannot accept the following items:
Large bags of marijuana
We thought this reminder might be helpful given that thrift store employee called police Thursday afternoon after finding a large bag of marijuana in a donation bin in North Seattle.
The employee was removing items from the bin near N. 100th Street and Aurora Ave N. at about 1 pm yesterday, when he found a garbage bag containing 2.5 pounds of marijuana.
An officer took the marijuana and placed it into evidence for destruction.
That's quite a "donation"—at going prices, probably over
$1,000 $5,000 worth.
Was somebody trying to screw over a rival—or former business partner—by giving the drugs away? (But if so, why wouldn't they keep and/or sell the drugs?) Was the donation bin a dead drop and now somebody is in a lot of trouble for not getting there in time? Did someone get paranoid and decide to sacrifice the stash instead of getting caught with it?
Did someone smoke the other 2.5 pounds and lose their grip on reality?
So many questions...
Thanks to Fnarf for the tip.
From Drugs Inc: Wasted In Seattle - Season 4 Episode 8, on the National Geographic Channel. Here is the description, as it is posted to YouTube:
"Since the days of Kurt Cobain and grunge music, Seattle has been nicknamed Junkietown. The city's liberal laws and high demand for drugs is attracting gangsters and dealers looking to get rich. From the competitive crack business in Belltown to fashionable Molly users on the electronic dance music scene, this film explores the highs and lows of Seattle's drug business. Meet Gator, who has built up a reputation as the man with the best quality crack; and Ozu, the gourmet of crack cooking."
Starting at the 8:26 mark, "Belltown: One of the most lucrative, open-air drug markets in the city." Also, how does drug dealer, and Aryan Brotherhood gangbanger, "Todd" expect to find "work" with his face plastered all over TV and teh internets? How does THAT work?
Earlier this week, the FBI shut down the online drug marketplace The Silk Road, arrested its alleged mastermind (whose online handle was "the Dread Pirate Roberts" from The Princess Bride) in San Francisco, and seized millions of dollars worth of Bitcoins.
This comes just a few months after a lengthy—and swaggering—interview the pirate gave to a Forbes reporter. (One wonders how closely the reporter was watched by the FBI and whether he left any digital breadcrumbs that helped agents track the suspect down.)
So: The FBI has shut down what was basically an open-air drug market—and an ongoing embarrassment for them—used by people who browse the internet on (easily downloaded and installed) Tor technology. Good for them. But at what cost? What harms has the FBI introduced by shutting down one of world's safer, cleaner, better-regulated drug markets? (Not to say it was ideal—the FBI indicates that it also trafficked in some predatory hacking trades and at least threats of murder-for-hire.)
That question would have been practically unaskable in most mainstream publications ten years ago. But Conor Friedersdorf over at the Atlantic is among the journalists who is asking and answering. This is the center of his argument:
It's easy to see why computer-savvy buyers preferred getting their drug of choice on The Silk Road. The purchase could be made without ever identifying oneself to a drug dealer (or undercover cop)... User reviews meant the product was a known quantity. And apparently the drugs were high quality — the FBI said it made numerous purchases on The Silk Road, and that “samples of these purchases have been laboratory tested and have typically shown high purity levels.”
Elsewhere, the FBI states that:
“Silk Road has been used by several thousand drug dealers and other unlawful vendors to distribute hundreds of kilograms of illegal drugs..."
"Based on the postal markings on the packages in which the drugs arrived, these purchases appear to have been filled by vendors located in over ten different countries...”
“The narcotics sold on the site tend to be sold in individual-use quantities...”
Think of what that means...
Scientific American has a nice, calm, and rational interview with Edward Boyer (a professor of emergency medicine and director of medical toxicology at the University of Massachusetts medical school) about kratom, an obscure but increasingly popular leaf with mild narcotic properties.
Boyer has also been a primary source for some of The Stranger's coverage on kratom and how it's being talked about—often in shrill, alarmist tones with little or no grounding in fact-based research—by US politicians and journalists.
I keep covering kratom because we're in a moment of transition in the US attitude towards drug prohibition, partly thanks to The Wire, Breaking Bad, increasing awareness of the drug-related carnage in Latin America, and state-by-state attempts to legalize and regulate the marijuana market. The way the US chooses to deal with kratom—knee-jerk prohibition? More research and then restriction? No regulation at all?—is a test case for this new stage of drug policy.
The Scientific American interview is a well-informed and plainspoken introduction to what kratom is (and isn't), why it was never picked up for serious pharmacological research (Smith, Kline & French, now part of GlaxoSmithKline, looked at it briefly in the 1960s), and its potential to treat depression, pain, and serious drug dependency.
One interesting tidbit: The Thai government, which originally banned kratom about 70 years ago (ostensibly to keep a better handle on profits from the opium trade) is now talking about legalizing the plant. Thai government officials have framed this as an attempt to cut down on meth use by providing people with a safer alternative, but Boyer disputes this claim:
They can decriminalize kratom until they’re blue in the face but the reality is that kratom is indigenous to Thailand—it’s readily available and always has been. Yet drug users are still opting for methamphetamines, which are stronger than kratom, not to mention dirt cheap and widely available. I suspect that Thailand is just trying to say that they’re doing something about their meth problem, but that it might not be that effective.
If the Thai government isn't serious about legalizing kratom to solve its meth problem, why the sudden interest in ending a nearly century-old (and, by most reports, never really enforceable) prohibition?
Maybe it's just a public-relations band aid for Thailand's drug issues, but one Slog reader emailed me this morning with another theory:
I have heard other theories for the move to legalise K in Thailand, mainly that since the bulk of the global heroin and opium production has moved out of the golden triangle and into Afghanistan the Indochinese countries, crime and interconnected government syndicates are looking to use a booming domestic and Western demand for kratom to recoup some of their lost revenue. This is the main reason the governments in those countries banned kratom in the first place, in order to keep opium as their number-one cash export.
Interesting idea. By reversing an expensive and impossible-to-enforce prohibition into a growth industry, you don't just save money—you make money!
If Thai kratom entrepreneurs can work out and market an at-home detox regimen for the world's millions of opiate-dependent drug users, they'll be sitting on a gold mine—plus a lot of irritated pharma companies and other drug barons.
Earlier today, I posted about the crackdown on oxy in North America, which physicians and community leaders predicted would lead to public health problems—without seriously ramping up readily available drug treatment, you'd have a lot of people in withdrawal desperately looking for a way to cure it, some of them not too concerned about the consequences.
In Canada, where the oxy crackdown has been more severe, black-tar heroin seems to have made a comeback and both Canada and the US are beginning to see signs of krokodil, a dangerous distillation of codeine with gasoline, ammonia, and other substances that causes serious tissue necrosis and gangrene.
Slog commenter venomlash puts it best:
This afternoon, a Slog reader forwarded me a 2012 artlce by Dr. Jean-Paul C. Grund (and others) titled "Breaking worse: The emergence of krokodil and excessive injuries among people who inject drugs in Eurasia."
Different continent, in some ways different universe, but similar problem: scarcity of cleaner drugs, lack of available drug treatment, social stigma, and a prohibitionist legal and social attitude have cultivated an environment where the drugs keeps getting more dangerous and the harms—for individuals, families, and communities—keep getting more severe.
Dr. Grund warns journalists against hysteria and fear-mongering when it comes to krokodil. So, at the risk of mongering fear, allow me to repeat some of the harms reported in the paper (besides the usual risk of simply dying from overdose or blood poisoning): soft tissue infections to the bone, rotting gums resulting in tooth loss, bone infection, decayed structure of the jaw and other facial bones, neurological damage, speech impediments, veins that ulcer and rot away from the inside, and rotting ears and noses and lips, and more.
So, yes, being addicted to oxy or other opiates is not ideal. But the alternatives can be even worse.
The illegal trade in oxycontin, as everybody knows, spawned drug empires, turf wars, and dramatic TV shows. It was typically cleaner than heroin—at least black tar heroin—since oxy is made in laboratories by Purdue Pharma, and contains fewer corrosive additives than many mystery batches of home-cooked drugs.
Despite oxy's smashing success on both markets—legal and illegal—Purdue responded to pressure in the US and Canada to make the drug more difficult to divert for off-label use with anti-counterfeit packaging, tracking features, and OxyNEO, a new pill design that supposedly makes the drug harder to crush for sniffing or injection.
In Canada, where OxyNEO is completely replacing oxy, doctors and First Nations leaders warned that switch could trigger a public-health crisis. From an article in February of 2012:
An Ontario First Nations leader says a catastrophe is looming with the decision to stop manufacturing the drug OxyContin.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Chief Stan Beardy says thousands of residents of Ontario reserves are addicted to the drug, which is up to twice as strong as morphine. The organization, which represents 49 First Nation communities in northern Ontario, estimates close to half its members are addicted to OxyContin...
For chronic OxyContin users to stop, they will either have to replace it with something else or go into withdrawal, Juurlink said...
"You respond to an epidemic as if it were an epidemic," [Dr. Claudette Chase] said. "When it was H1N1, there were extra nurses, there were flu clinics all over the north — help."
So what's filling the void? Some say heroin is making a comeback and, more worryingly, doctors are beginning to see signs of krokodil, a cheap injectable opiate recipe from Siberia (made by cooking codeine with gasoline, ammonia, iodine and/or red phosphorus, and more) that got its name from what it does to some users' skin: severe tissue damage, gangrene, and bleeding ulcers, which sometimes require amputations. (That link goes to a Russian medical site you might not want to visit before lunch.)
“Addicts, being as creative as they are, didn’t miss a beat,” Tom says. “Within weeks of Oxy being gone there was already stuff online about how to make these chemicals at home.”
... Rhonda Thompson, the StreetWorks co-ordinator at AIDS Niagara, is closely following rumours of the arrival of a “homemade heroin” imported from Russia called Krokodil that can cause brain damage and gangrene. “It’s really the Wild West out there now,” Thompson says. “We’ve never seen it like this.”
For the millionth time: People are going to use drugs—at this point, that's simply irrefutable—and the harder the forces of prohibition work to keep the safer drugs away, the more dangerous the alternatives will become.
It's no different from alcohol prohibition, which turned us from a nation of beer and wine drinkers into a nation of liquor drinkers. During those years, tainted liquor killed an average 1,000 Americans a year. All because some legislators decided booze was too dangerous for public consumption*. Drugs can be dangerous. Prohibition makes them more dangerous.
But you knew that already.
* Have you heard about how the US government intentionally poisoned liquor—purposefully murdering people—to scare citizens away from illicit drinking in the 1920s? It's a strange, sad footnote in prohibition history.
Remember kratom? It's a Southeast Asian leaf that has been used as a mild narcotic (extremely mild—not one single overdose death has been reported in its centuries of use) and a kind of "herbal methadone" that cheaply and effectively helps people transition off harder, opiate-based drugs. (Some report relief from methamphetamine withdrawal as well.)
But in the US, those reports are mostly anecdotal. Kratom has only come onto America's radar screen in the past year or two. It's legal, and it's been used for centuries in Thailand and other SE Asian countries, but it hasn't been extensively researched by US or European scientists. (Though in a story last spring, I talked to a few of the researchers who are taking it seriously.)
But because kratom is a drug (a mild drug, but a drug) and because all drugs are bad (except for the ones that arbitrarily aren't), weaselly politicians and credulous reporters began squawking about the dangers of kratom as soon as they heard about it. Among the claims: It's fed to Islamist child soldiers of the southern Thai insurgency to make them ruthless killing machines, it causes kids to kill their parents, it causes hallucinations and overdose deaths, it "could wind up killing a child or blowing a child's mind forever." Even the DEA got into the act, and was particularly eager to circulate the "young Thai militants" meme.
Of course, those small-time politicians, drug warriors, and credulous reporters could not provide a scintilla of credible evidence to support their outrageous claims. (The most believable of which is that Islamist soldiers—child or otherwise—take it. But "soldiers take intoxicants" is not exactly a newsflash, and trying to examine the Islamist insurgency in southern Thailand through some cockeyed "kratom madness" squint is, at best, a total waste of time.)
One Iowa legislator I talked with took steps to ban kratom two hours after he heard about it on a talk-radio show. (No time for reading or research! To the ProhibitionMobile!) I asked him why. "It is banned in the two countries where it's grown," he said, "and banned in a whole bunch of European countries, like Australia [sic]."
That's the steadiest leg the knee-jerk prohibitionists have had to stand on—someone else banned it, so why shouldn't we?
In this week's paper, Dom dissects and enthusiastically celebrates attorney general Eric Holder's announcement that the feds intend to let states—starting with Washington and Colorado—experiment with marijuana.
It's good news, even excellent news, but my optimism is a little more cautious. Holder's announcement might be the beginning of the end of federal drug prohibition, which would be good for us, our neighbors, and other living things, but that will be a long game. And for every step we take forward, we might very well take a few steps back.
After all, AG Holder and deputy AG James Cole (here is a pdf of his memorandum) issued guidance, not marching orders. Any stubborn US attorney, who will probably still be on the job once Holder has left, is free to enforce federal law (which has not changed). Any future attorney general could reverse this "guidance" as abruptly as Holder announced it.
Furthermore, those eight conditions Holder and Cole specified (Washington marijuana shouldn't show up in other states, minors should have less access to marijuana than they do now, etc., all of which ) have given the feds broad latitude to intervene whenever it becomes politically expedient. They're letting the experiment run, for now, but this ain't the 21st Amendment. An enormous and intricate legal apparatus will have to be dismantled and rebuilt, brick by brick, before we see real change in the drug war. (And it's up to us to make it look like this guidance was a good idea. Let's not fuck it up.)
So optimism, yes. But cautious optimism.
Another reason to be optimistic, for progressives anyway, is the problem Obama (via Holder) has handed to the Republican class of 2016. Drug policy expert Sanho Tree, who's been a helpful source for several previous Stranger stories about the drug war, lays it out:
Holder has essentially placed a ticking time bomb on the GOP’s doorstep that could detonate during the 2016 presidential elections. Because federal law remains unchanged, the next administration can reverse his guidance on a whim and resume the war on pot.
All Republican candidates will be asked during the primaries where they stand on this key issue and any answer they can give will infuriate at least one of the GOP’s powerful factions. A nascent civil war is brewing between the social conservative and the libertarian wings of the party. Neither faction is known for compromising so this question can become a powerfully divisive wedge issue that could accelerate and exacerbate the GOP’s civil war. Whichever side wins, it will send the nominee into the 2016 election bleeding from the fight.
The voters of Washington state are way ahead of you, John.
Let people grow pot on farms—safely and legally—and they'll grow pot on farms. Ban growing pot on farms and people will grow it unsafely and illegally:
Six days after the Rim fire broke out in the middle of the Northern California forest, Twain Harte Fire and Rescue Chief Todd McNeal told a community meeting the blaze was definitely human-caused. In his Aug. 23 talk, a video of which has been posted on YouTube, McNeal said that the fire started in a section of the Stanislaus National Forest inaccessible by foot or vehicle and that it was “highly suspected” that an illegal marijuana growing operation that sparked the blaze.
Fighting the Rim fire has already cost California and the federal government more than $60 million dollars already and the fire is only 75% contained. So it's going to cost millions more. The cost of battling this fire should be added to the cost of fighting the idiotic, un-winnable war on pot.
Perhaps the thorniest question in the drug prohibition debate is what legalization and regulation would look like. Of course, there's no blueprint that will work for every country—each place has its own appetites, secret economies, and problems, so each place will have to begin to work on legalization on its own terms. New Zealand has just taken a very sensible step in curbing the dangers of its unregulated drug market by addressing designer drugs.
Designer drugs are much more popular there than in other countries for climate and remoteness reasons, so the government is starting with them. From the Economist:
Conventional hard drugs are scarce in the country, because traffickers have little interest in serving 4m people far out in the South Pacific. Kiwis therefore make their own synthetic drugs, which they take in greater quantity than virtually anyone else. The government shuts down more crystal-meth labs there than anywhere bar America and Ukraine. But the business has adapted. First it turned to benzylpiperazine, which a third of young New Zealanders have tried. When that was banned in 2008, dealers found plenty of other chemicals to peddle. Today the most popular highs are synthetic cannabinoids, which pack a harder punch than ordinary cannabis.
Sick of trying to keep up with drugmakers, the government is trying a new tack. Last month a law was passed which offers drug designers the chance of getting official approval for their products. If they can persuade a new “Psychoactive Substances Regulatory Authority” that their pills and powders are low risk, they will be licensed to market them, whether or not they get people high. Drugs will have to undergo clinical trials, which the government expects to take around 18 months—much less than for medicines, because the drugs will be tested only for toxicity, not for efficacy. Drugs that are already banned internationally, such as cocaine and cannabis, are ineligible. Only licensed shops will sell the drugs, without advertising and not to children.
Good on them for taking that first step. They won't regret it—letting the government test for toxicity instead of relying on the good faith of illegal basement chemists can only improve matters.
Thanks to Slogger Ken Mehlman for bringing it to my attention.
More and more American smokers are opting to get their nicotine fix using e-cigarettes instead of conventional smokes — and Big Tobacco is taking note. Several major tobacco companies have this year introduced their own versions of electronic cigarettes, joining a bevy of small purveyors who've been in the e-smoke business for years. And with Big Tobacco entering the fray, new estimates suggest the e-cigarette industry will crack $1 billion in revenue this year, and that sales could outpace traditional cigarettes by 2047.
I quit smoking some seven and a half years ago now; I'm not about to try an e-cigarette and break my streak. But I know some e-cigarette smokers, and they claim to love the things. Personally, I just can't wrap my head around them. They seem so affected and silly to me, but maybe if I was still smoking I'd understand the appeal.
What does Slog think?
Andy Greenberg at Forbes beat me to this story (and by "beat me," I mean he actually carved out the time to report on it instead of just occasionally thinking about it) regarding the Silk Road, a "booming" drug website. If you're running Tor, know the right people who can show you how to get there, and buy some Bitcoins, you can get pretty much any drug you want on the Silk Road, from old-fashioned, high-quality heroin to the latest, most finely tuned ecstasy analogue, and have it discreetly delivered via the US Postal Service to your doorstep.
Naturally, this drives the US government absolutely nuts. From the story:
All my communications with Roberts are routed exclusively through the messaging system and forums of the website he owns and manages, the Silk Road. Accessing the site requires running the anonymity software Tor, which encrypts Web traffic and triple-bounces it among thousands of computers around the world. Like a long, blindfolded ride in the back of some guerrilla leader’s van, Tor is designed to prevent me–and anyone else–from tracking the location of Silk Road’s servers or the Dread Pirate Roberts himself. “The highest levels of government are hunting me,” says Roberts. “I can’t take any chances.”
If Roberts is paranoid, it’s because very powerful people really are out to get him. In the last two and a half years Silk Road has grown into the Web’s busiest bazaar for heroin, methamphetamines, crack, cocaine, LSD, ecstasy and enough strains of marijuana to put an Amsterdam coffee shop to shame. The Drug Enforcement Administration won’t comment on whether it’s investigating Silk Road but wrote in a statement that it’s aware of the site and is “very proactive in keeping abreast” of the digital underground’s “ever-evolving technological advancements.” Senator Chuck Schumer has demanded Silk Road be shut down and called it “the most brazen attempt to peddle drugs online that we have ever seen … by light-years.”
But Roberts says the Silk Road isn't just a way to get people high—it's a gateway drug (if you will) to a different way of thinking about citizenship, commerce, and an individual's relationship to government:
Roberts also has a political agenda: He sees himself not just as an enabler of street-corner pushers but also as a radical libertarian revolutionary carving out an anarchic digital space beyond the reach of the taxation and regulatory powers of the state–Julian Assange with a hypodermic needle. “We can’t stay silent forever. We have an important message, and the time is ripe for the world to hear it,” says Roberts. “What we’re doing isn’t about scoring drugs or ‘sticking it to the man.’ It’s about standing up for our rights as human beings and refusing to submit when we’ve done no wrong.”
You could say that's just good snake-oil p.r., but he has a point—a point illustrated by the recent subpoenas issued to "every important person in Bitcoin."
Things are getting serious for Bitcoin this month: a federal judge declared it real money, Bloomberg gave it an experimental ticker (XBT), and New York’s financial regulator announced an interest in regulating it. Declaring Bitcoin “a virtual Wild West for narcotraffickers and other criminals,” the New York State Department of Financial Services is stepping into the sheriff’s boots.
The recipients of the subpoenas are nationwide and include everyone on the “people making real money on Bitcoin” list, such as Bitcoin exchanges and processors, “ mining equipment” maker Butterfly Labs, and major investors, such as the Winklevosses, Marc Andreessen & Ben Horowitz, and Google’s venture fund.
All of this relates to larger—and fascinating—questions about the "dark web." (Not dark as in "sinister" but dark as in "obscure.") As usual, our technology has leapt way ahead of our ability to think about how to use it.
The dark web has immense power to do good—since governments can't control or monitor it (so far), it could be an extremely virtuous tool for, say, dissidents in Iran and Russia, workers'-rights organizers in China, and anyone else fighting for basic human dignity while living under oppressive regimes.
On the other hand, it's a natural marketplace for things you aren't allowed to trade openly, such as that high-quality smack (which doesn't bother me much) as well as slaves and exploitative child pornography (which does).
Anonymity, as we've seen in the past years of increasing revelations about state and business surveillance, both in the US and in other countries, is almost like a superpower these days. So how are people actually using it?
Who are the superheroes, who are the supervillians, and what are they up to? We don't know. (But if any of you out there are using that superpower I'd love to hear from you—whether or not I'd approve of your activities. I'm not interested in judging you, I just want to learn more about you. We can, of course, make arrangements for your anonymity. My email and the newsroom phone number are easy to find.)
With federal prisons running 40 percent above capacity, and the United States now home to 25 percent of all prisoners held in the entire world, Attorney General Eric Holder is announcing today that something needs to change:
In a major shift in criminal justice policy, the Obama administration will move on Monday to ease overcrowding in federal prisons by ordering prosecutors to omit listing quantities of illegal substances in indictments for low-level drug cases, sidestepping federal laws that impose strict mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses.
It's a roll-back of the "War on Drugs," and—best part—it's taking a cue from reforms that are already happening in conservative states like Texas and Arkansas.
About an hour ago, I mentioned that the legalization of marijuana was a progressive issue. Slog tipper Austin points out that now that it's a popular idea, conservatives have started to claim pot legalization as a conservative issue. I'm sure they'll claim gay marriage next. So, you know, that's a point in Ed "Not a Progressive" Murray's favor, I guess.
A few days ago, El Universal reported that US Senator Patrick Leahy, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, blocked $95 million from the Merida Initiative, which has been the main funnel of US money to the worse-than-futile drug war in Mexico. (What's worse than futile? Fatal.)
His decision was explained a few months ago in this report, which I missed at the time, as surprisingly commonsensical for drug-war politics—the US has been pouring money into a program that has led to corruption, violence, and doom. So, Sen Leahy (quite reasonably) asks, why keep funding it?
Senator Patrick Leahy, chair of the Appropriations Committee, blocked release of $95 million dollars in funding for the Merida Initiative, citing the lack of a clear strategy on the part of the U.S. State Department and the Mexican government.
“The whole things looks like just coughing up money with no accountability,”Leahy was quoted as saying in the legislative monitor, CQ Roll Call.
The decision is a long-overdue recognition that the drug war in Mexico has been a bloody fiasco. The Merida Initiative, a Bush-era plan to attack cartels in Mexico and reduce trafficking of prohibited drugs to the U.S. market, began in 2008. Congress has appropriated $1.9 billion dollarsfrom the federal budget for the program over the past five years, mostaimed at bolstering Mexican security forces. Since the drug war was launched and armed forces deployed to fight the cartels, the homicide rate in Mexico soared 150%, between 2006 and 2012.
Last August the State Department asked the committee to obligate some $229 million assigned to the Merida Initiative in the 2012 budget. At first, Leahy decided to hold up the entire amount, after receiving a two-and-a-half page explanation from the State Department that he felt failed to adequately describe spending and objectives.
Senator Leahy's financial holdup won't solve the problem, of course, but it's nice to see a senior sitting politician openly challenge the idea that we should continue to fund this enormously destructive, atavistic, and fantasy-based way of dealing with our international drug problems.
Remember when Republican Steve King said that some Mexican immigrants had "calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert?” That's the kind of dumb racist shit that doesn't even deserve a response, but I'm still glad that someone took a picture of what 75 actual pounds of actual marijuana looks like because it illustrates how fucking stupid and out-of-touch King is, and that's always satisfying.
Slog tipper Nafun lets us know that Hallam Hurt, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, recently completed the longest-running study of people exposed to cocaine in utero. In explaining her research, backed by $7.9 million from the federal government, she began with a PowerPoint presentation on the crack-baby hysteria of the 1980s and '90s:
After 25 years of tracking, that's not what she found:
A social worker on TV predicted that a crack baby would grow up to "have an IQ of perhaps 50." A print article quoted a psychologist as saying "crack was interfering with the central core of what it is to be human," and yet another article predicted that crack babies were "doomed to a life of uncertain suffering, of probable deviance, of permanent inferiority."
The researchers consistently found no significant differences between the cocaine-exposed children and the controls. At age 4, for instance, the average IQ of the cocaine-exposed children was 79.0 and the average IQ for the nonexposed children was 81.9. Both numbers are well below the average of 90 to 109 for U.S. children in the same age group. When it came to school readiness at age 6, about 25 percent of children in each group scored in the abnormal range on tests for math and letter and word recognition.
Other researchers also couldn't find any devastating effects from cocaine exposure in the womb. Claire Coles, a psychiatry professor at Emory University, has been tracking a group of low-income Atlanta children. Her work has found that cocaine exposure does not seem to affect children's overall cognition and school performance, but some evidence suggests that these children are less able to regulate their reactions to stressful stimuli, which could affect learning and emotional health.
Coles said her research had found nothing to back up predictions that cocaine-exposed babies were doomed for life. "As a society we say, 'Cocaine is bad and therefore it must cause damage to babies,' " Coles said. "When you have a myth, it tends to linger for a long time."
All of these scientists know full well that cocaine is harmful to fetuses, mothers, everyone. But what was really going on—what other factor was causing these babies to have lower IQs, worse outcomes than the general public at large? Poverty.
Last year, when Mexican president Calderon left office and Enrique Peña Nieto arrived, ushering in a new era of political power for the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, I predicted that would be bad news for the Zetas and good news for the old-boy narcos of the Sinaloa.
Last night, Mexican officials announced that they had captured Miguel Angel Trevino, the head Zeta, outside Nuevo Laredo. (The Mexican marines also scooped up eight guns, two million dollars, a bodyguard, and an accountant in the process.) It was, according to the Washington Post, "the first major blow against an organized crime leader by the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto."
The first major blow? And it was against the Zetas? What a coincidence!
The Post also correctly notes that while the capture makes for a good press conference, it will not slow the violence, supply, or demand of the drug market. In fact, it might exacerbate it—Trevino's capture could create a power vacuum that leads to more fighting and jockeying for power.
A brief history of the Zetas is in this post from 2010, and you can see their demise written into their origins—for as long as they've been around, they've been fighting the Sinaloa, whose fortunes seem to roughly rise and fall with those of the PRI:
They initially entered the drug war as a paramilitary force for the Gulf syndicate as it waged war against the Sinaloa syndicate (the oldest syndicate and most aligned with the Mexican government). They eventually realized they were the baddest asses around, so split off and have now been waging their own war against everybody and further destabilizing the drug trade.
Guess where Los Zetas got their hideously effective training? At the U.S. School of the Americas, where they were recruited and schooled in how to cut throats and smash the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas.
Back to the Post:
The debilitation of the Zetas has been widely seen as strengthening the country’s most-wanted man, Sinaloa cartel head Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who has overseen a vicious turf war with the Zetas from suspected hideouts in rugged western Mexico.
The one possible silver lining in this story—if I'm right and the PRI are helping the Sinaloa come back into control (not so farfetched, as Nieto has been photographed with senior Sinaloa narcos), it may mean an eventual cooling of the drug violence. It's possible that the Mexican government has learned its lesson—no matter how badly the US wants it to dismantle drug cartels, fighting them only makes things worse. But if one gang were tacitly allowed to hold a monopoly, perhaps there'd be less open warfare.
One way to achieve that: Keep taking US aid, use it to fight the Sinaloa's enemies, eventually let the Sinaloa take control, then hope the gamble has paid off and the chaotic and violent drug trade becomes just another orderly sideline in advanced corruption.