May 22, 2013

Holder Acknowledges U.S. Citizens Killed in Drone Strikes

For the first time, the U.S. government has acknowledged killing four American citizens in lethal drone strikes far outside traditional battlefields, confirming information that had been widely known but has only recently been unclassified under orders of the president.

(David McNew/Getty Images)

May 22, 2013

Go East, Young Marijuana Dealer

Chuck used to sell marijuana in California. But the legalization of medical marijuana in the state meant he was suddenly competing against hundreds of marijuana dispensaries. So he moved to New York, where marijuana is still 100 percent illegal. Since making the move, he says, he's quadrupled his income. (For the record: His name isn't really Chuck.)

He spends pretty much every day dealing what he calls "farm-to-table" marijuana. On a recent afternoon in his dimly lit New York apartment, he was just about to complete a daily ritual: loading about 50 baggies of marijuana, worth a total of about $3,000 into his backpack, before heading out to make deliveries. "We're helping keep people stoned on a Friday night in New York City," he said.

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have now legalized marijuana, either for medical use or for fun. And, it turns out, when one state brings an underground market into the mainstream and another doesn't, there are economic consequences in both places.

Dealers aren't the only ones with an incentive to move marijuana out of California. The legalization of medical marijuana led to a rush of pot farmers with permits to grow marijuana legally. That in turn led to a supply glut — and plummeting wholesale prices. Some growers haven't been able to unload all their crops at the price they want on the local, legal market. So they break the law and send it out of state.

Special Agent Roy Giorgi with the California Department of Justice is supposed to stop the illegal flow of marijuana in California. That can mean crouching in the brush in some remote part of the mountains, or it can mean heading to a FedEx or UPS in California's pot country to take a look at all the outgoing parcels and try to detect marijuana inside.

He estimates that 1 in 15 packages he examines has marijuana in it. "Right now, Northern California bud, that trademark, that stamp, is really some of the best in the world," he says.

Of course, all of Giorgi's efforts to catch marijuana growers and dealers tend to drive people out of the illegal marijuana business. That, in turn, means Chuck has less competition — and can charge higher prices.

Chuck sells marijuana for about $60 for an eighth of an ounce; in California, it would be anywhere from $30 to $45. With his New York customers, Chuck talks about marijuana like it's a rare California wine. When he pours out the contents of his backpack to reveal strains with names like Girl Scout Cookies and AK47, his clients are wowed.

Because Chuck is working in an illegal market, his customers have a hard time finding other marijuana retailers. "There's plenty of weed in New York; there's just an illusion of scarcity, which is part of what I'm capitalizing on," he says. "This is a black market business. There's insufficient information for customers."

This is what economists call information asymmetry: Chuck knows more about the market than his customers do. If weed were legal, his customers could comparison shop — they could look at menus and price lists and choose their dealer. As it is, once they find Chuck, they're likely to stick with him.

Note: A version of this story originally aired as part of the WNYC series The Weed Next Door. The headline on this post was inspired by @MichaelMontCW

Rios Montt

(Luis Soto/AP)

May 21, 2013

Guatemala Annuls Ex-President’s Genocide Conviction

Guatemala's top court has thrown out the conviction for genocide and crimes against humanity of former military leader Efrain Rios Montt.

The constitutional court ruled that the trial should restart from the point where it stood on 19 April.

On 10 May, Gen Rios Montt was convicted of ordering the deaths of 1,771 people of the Ixil Maya ethnic group during his time in office in 1982-83.

The 86-year-old was sentenced to 80 years in prison. He denies the charges.

'Illegal proceedings'

Monday's ruling throws into disarray the historic trial of Gen Rios Montt, the first former head of state to face genocide charges in a court within his own country.

The three-to-two ruling by a panel of constitutional judges annuls everything that has happened in the trial since 19 April, when Gen Rios Montt was briefly left without a defence lawyer.

The defence team had walked out of the court on the previous day in protest at what they called "illegal proceedings".

The court ordered that he be represented by a public defence lawyer, which Gen Rios Montt rejected.

The general instead insisted on being represented by lawyer Francisco Garcia, who had been expelled earlier on in the proceedings for trying to have the judges dismissed "for bias".

Mr Garcia was again expelled on 19 April as he accused the presiding judge of failing to hear his legal challenges.

Monday's ruling said the trial should have been halted at this point while the challenges filed by Mr Garcia were being resolved.

According to the constitutional court ruling, the guilty verdict and the 80-year sentence handed down by Judge Jazmin Barrios on 10 May are therefore now void.

Human rights group Amnesty International said it was a "devastating blow for the victims of the serious human rights violations committed during the conflict".

Harrowing testimony

The constitutional court said that statements delivered in court before 19 April would stand, but that closing arguments would have to be given again.

During the hearings, dozens of victims gave harrowing testimony about atrocities committed by soldiers.

An estimated 200,000 people were killed in Guatemala's 1960-1996 civil war, the vast majority of them indigenous Mayans.

Gen Rios Montt's 17 months in power are believed to have been one of the most violent periods of the war.

The BBC's Will Grant in Guatemala City says Monday's low-key press conference contrasted sharply with the day the verdict was announced, when indigenous campaigners and relatives of victims hugged and cried with relief in the packed courtroom.

But he adds that the decision to annul the sentence does not signal the end of the legal battle, as both sides will now start preparing to return to court to replay the final weeks of the trial.

The general's lawyer said he would now demand his release from the military hospital where he was taken from prison after allegedly fainting.

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