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Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda," by Gretchen Peters (2009, Thomas Dunne Press, 300 pp., $25.95 HB)

Gretchen Peters certainly has a sense of timing. She spent the last decade covering Afghanistan and Pakistan, first for the Associated Press and later for ABC News, and managed to bring "Seeds of Terror" to press just as the US and its NATO allies in Afghanistan begin lurching toward a new approach to drug policy there. Just this past weekend, the US announced it was giving up on trying to eradicate its way to victory over the poppy crop, and for the past few weeks, news accounts of US and NATO attacks on traffickers, opium stockpiles, and heroin labs have been coming at a steady, if not escalating, pace.

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Afghan opium
Peters' thesis -- that the immensely lucrative opium and heroin trade is funding the Taliban and Al Qaeda to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year, which they use to wage their insurgency against the West and allies in Afghanistan -- while portrayed as stunning and shocking, is nothing new to readers of the Chronicle, or anyone else who has been following events in Afghanistan since before the 2001 US invasion.

But where "Seeds of Terror" shines is in its unparalleled detail and depth of knowledge of the drug trade, the Taliban/Al Qaeda insurgency, the Pakistan connection, and the intricate and complicated linkages between the actors. With access to government and security officials from the US, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan, and through interviews with everyone from simple famers to fighters to opium traders and even some amazingly high-up people in the international heroin trade, Peters is able to navigate and share with readers the murky, ever shifting nature of the beast.

She is especially useful in unraveling the various groupings that are simplistically referred to as "the Taliban." There is no single Taliban, Peters explains; there are rival warlords (Hekmatyar, Haqqani, Mullah Omar) running their drug empires and fighting to drive out the Westerners, their jihadist convictions clouded more each year in a haze of opium smoke and illicit profits. And then there are what are in essence criminal drug trafficking organizations. They, too, will identify themselves as Taliban for pragmatic reasons -- the intimidation factor, mainly -- but have little interest in holy war, except as it provides the chaotic cover for their underground trade.

Actually, as Peters details, the story goes back a generation further, to the last great American intervention into this Fourth World country on the other side of the planet. Then, during the Reagan-era sponsorship of the Afghan mujahedeen fighting to drive out the Soviet Red Army, millions of Afghans fled into refugee camps in Pakistan, and would-be warlords and foreign jihadis (including a young Osama bin Laden), tussled for the billions of dollars coming from Washington and doled out by Pakistani intelligence, or, alternately, from funding sources in Saudi Arabia.

Those warlords turned Pakistan, particularly the refugee-ridden Northwest Frontier territories into a leading opium producer during the 1980s, to ensure sources of funding for their armies, and secondarily, to turn as many Russian soldiers into junkies as they could. The Pakistani drug trafficking networks, including some very highly placed army and other officials, set up then are still the main conduits for the opium and heroin leaving Afghanistan today. Man, talk about your blowback.

Peters has a keen grasp of local affairs, knows how to write, and has constructed a gripping and informative narrative. But, faced with a counterinsurgency effort that has floundered, in good part because of profits from the illicit drug trade keeping the Taliban well-supplied with shiny new weapons, she cannot resist the temptation to try her own hand at recommending more effective policies. Here, unfortunately, she is decidedly conventional and unquestioning of the prohibitionist paradigm.

For example, the proposal floated by The Senlis Council in 2005 to simply buy up the poppy crop and divert it into the legitimate medical market gets remarkably short shrift. Peters devotes a mere paragraph to the plan, dismissing it as not pragmatic -- a position not universally held by experts.

Similarly, her policy prescriptions, while including such progressive developmentalist planks as alternative livelihood programs, strengthening institutions, and opening new markets for new crops, also include a call to "arrest or kill" drug kingpins, heroin lab chemists, and even mid-level traffickers. She also advocates air strikes against smuggling convoys, "smarter" counterinsurgency, and beefed up law enforcement against the "bad guys."

Peters' thinking on drug policy may be decidedly inside the box, but her contribution to our understanding of the complex nexus between the illicit drug trade in Afghanistan, local insurgencies, and global jihadi ambitions is important and chilling. This is the best layperson's guide to that nexus out there.

Latin America: Mexican Drug War Targets Informal Saints of the Poor and the Narcos

Beware San Malverde! Watch out, Santa Muerte! The enemies of Mexico's violent and thriving illicit drug trade are after you. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported last weekend that Mexican authorities destroyed dozens of religious shrines paying homage to Santa Muerte (Saint Death), an informal Catholic saint favored by the poor as well as by criminals and drug traffickers, and San Malverde, a similar figure based on a peasant highwayman of the late 19th century.

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San Malverde picture, with Malverde pot leaf, Malverde keychain and Malverde pot leaf belt buckle (author's personal collection)
Images of both saints have been appropriated by Mexico's drug traffickers and have been found on walls, tattoos, pendants, belt buckles, even engraved into the grips of pistols. For US law enforcement, coming across either saint is strongly indicative of drug trade activity. But the saints are also widely revered by Mexico's Catholic poor. Marches for Santa Muerte have drawn thousands of adherents in Mexico City, and San Malverde branded beer is available in Sinaloa, his home state and home of the Sinaloa cartel.

Four shrines to Santa Muerte and one to San Malverde were destroyed last Saturday in Tijuana and nearby Rosarito Beach. Tijuana Mayor Jorge Ramos said it was a military action, but the military has not confirmed that. Two days later, city and federal officials destroyed 34 more Santa Muerte chapels that had sprung up in recent years along the highway between Monterrey and the border town of Nuevo Laredo.

For officials, the unsanctioned saints are, like the narcocorridos (drug ballads), celebrating the exploits of drug traffickers, evidence of the drug culture seeping into broader civic culture. "This is a subject that must open a great social debate in Tijuana," Ramos said in an interview last week. "Should we permit these spaces where hired assassins who kill children, families, police seek protection? What side are we on? I am on the side of tranquility and security."

Ramos, a member of President Felipe Calderón's National Action Party (PAN), is pushing censorship as a response to the spreading drug culture. He is agitating for a package of bills before the Baja California legislature that would ban the broadcast of narcocorridos, as well as videos and images that would "glorify" drug traffickers.

But such plans have their critics, who argue that destroying shrines will not accomplish anything and that the informal saints are adored by many who have nothing to do with drug trafficking. "Destroying these chapels is not going to do anything to diminish crime," said Jose Manuel Valenzuela, a researcher at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a Tijuana think-tank. "Someone who's going to commit a crime could just as easily go to a Catholic church as a Santa Muerte shrine, or go nowhere at all."

The people who came to the Tijuana shrines last week only to find they had been destroyed were not happy. "I feel so angry," said Zaida Romero, 33, a used-clothing vendor and single mother of seven, standing by the pile of rubble and twisted metal on the day the shrines were destroyed March 21. "She has helped me so, so, so much," said Romero, explaining that La Santa Muerte helped her overcome cancer.

Religious Freedom: Arizona Supreme Court to Hear Case on Spiritual Right to Marijuana

The Arizona Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to take up a case where the appellant is arguing that he has a constitutionally-protected right to use and possess marijuana as a sacrament of his church. Both the trial judge and a state appeals court rejected that argument. (See the appeals court opinion here.)

Daniel Hardesty is a member of the Church of Cognizance, an Arizona-based religion based on "neo-Zoroastrian tenets" that believes marijuana provides great spiritual benefits. He was convicted of marijuana and paraphernalia possession after being arrested in Yavapai County in 2005.

If the state high court rules in his favor, it would be the first time any Arizona court has recognized a religious defense for those who use marijuana. But it would not be the first time church members have been caught up in the courts. Last August, church founders Dan and Mary Quaintance pleaded guilty to possession and conspiracy to distribute marijuana after US District Court judge in New Mexico rejected their religious freedom claims.

But while no Arizona court has found a religious defense for marijuana use, courts there have found a religious defense for use of another drug: peyote. But the appeals court drew a distinction between peyote use and Hardesty's case. According to the appeals court, religious use of peyote by the Native American church amounted to use by a "discrete and well-defined group" and that prosecutors had never shown peyote was addictive or being used in harmful manners.

Expect oral arguments and then a ruling one of these months.

Marijuana: Arizona Supreme Court to Hear Case Asserting Religious Right to Use, Possess

The Arizona Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to decide whether there is a religious right to possess marijuana. The issue is being raised in Arizona v. Hardesty, in which Daniel Hardesty, a member of the Church of Cognizance, an Arizona-based church that practices neo-Zoroastrian tenets and believes marijuana provides spiritual enlightenment and a connection to the divine mind.

Hardesty was arrested for marijuana possession after being stopped for a burned out headlight in 2005 and convicted of marijuana and paraphernalia possession in district court despite arguing that First Amendment protections of the free exercise of religion entitled him to use and possess marijuana as a sacrament in his church. Hardesty appealed, but lost in the appeals court as well.

In rejecting Hardesty's appeal, the appeals court held that while he has the right to believe what he wants, the First Amendment protections do not give him the right to commit criminal offenses for religious reasons. The appeals court also said the legislature has a legitimate interest in banning marijuana and the courts should not second-guess the legislature.

If the state Supreme Court overturns the lower court decisions, it will be the first time an Arizona court has allowed for the religious use of marijuana -- but not the first time an Arizona court has allowed for the religious use of a controlled substance. Arizona courts have ruled repeatedly that the possession of peyote for religious purposes by the Native American Church is allowable.

The appeals court argued that was different. With peyote, there was never any finding that the cactus was addictive or being used in quantities harmful to the health of participants. Also, peyote was used by a "discrete and well-defined group," the court held. Now, one of these months, we'll see if the state Supreme Court agrees.

Marijuana: Arizona Court of Appeals Rejects Religious Defense

In a July 31 decision, the Arizona Court of Appeals has held that there is no religious right to possess marijuana. In so doing, the court rejected the appellant's argument that his right to possess marijuana for religious reasons was protected by both the Arizona and the US Constitution.

The ruling came in Arizona v. Hardesty, a case that began when Daniel Hardesty was pulled over by a police officer in 2005 and subsequently charged with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia after the officer first smelled smoked marijuana in the vehicle, then found a joint Hardesty admitted tossing from his window. Hardesty, a member of the Church of Cognizance, argued at trial that he used marijuana for religious purposes and should be exempt from prosecution under both Arizona and federal law. The trial court disagreed.

Now, so has the appeals court. While the court accepted that Hardesty's religious beliefs were sincere, it rejected his arguments that under the free exercise of religion, he had the right to use marijuana as a sacrament. Hardesty had conceded that marijuana is a drug that could have harmful effects and that the state had a "compelling interest" in regulating it, but argued that it had not been regulated in a manner that was "least restrictive" when applied to religion.

In his opinion, Appellate Judge Sheldon Weisberg wrote that while the First Amendment guarantees an absolute right to hold a religious belief, it does not guarantee the same absolute right to put that belief into practice. Similarly, Weisberg held that provisions of Arizona law designed to protect religious freedom did not encompass the religious use of marijuana, citing the state legislature's outright ban on the use and possession of marijuana.

"This statute does not provide any religious exemptions nor does it contemplate an exemption for the use of marijuana that would be consistent with public health and safety," the judge wrote for the unanimous court. "By imposing a total ban, the legislature has deemed that the use and possession of marijuana always pose a risk to public health and welfare."

But the appeals court did leave open the possibility that it could decide differently if someone came before it persuasively arguing that marijuana is not as dangerous as the government suggests. In that case, the "compelling interest" of the state in maintaining a complete prohibition on marijuana would presumably be weakened.

Attorney Daniel DeRiezo, who represents Hardesty, told the Arizona Star after the decision that prosecutors had engaged in "Reefer Madness arguments" in alleging that marijuana use could result in serious harm. An appeal to the state Supreme Court is likely, he said.

Europe: Rastafarians Can Smoke Marijuana, Italian Court Rules

The Italian Court of Cassation, the highest criminal court in the land, has thrown out the drug trafficking conviction of a Rastafarian, saying the amount of marijuana he possessed was consistent with the heavy use that comes with his religious beliefs.

Under Italian law, using or possessing small amounts of marijuana is not a crime, but possessing larger amounts can bring a drug trafficking charge. That's what happened to an Italian Rastafarian from Perugia, who was sentenced to 16 months in jail and a $5,000 fine for possession of about 3 1/2 ounces of marijuana.

But the Court of Cassation said the court of first appeal had failed to consider that the man smoked because of his religious beliefs. According to the high court, Rastafarianism allows for smoking up to 10 grams a day. Rastas smoke the herb "with the memory and in the belief that the sacred plant grew on the tomb of King Solomon," the court said. They use it "not only as a medical but also as a meditative herb. And, as such [it is] a possible bearer of the psychophysical state of contemplation and prayer."

The conservative Italian government is not happy. The ruling "shatters the laws which forbid and proscribe penal sanctions for" the use of illegal drugs, an Interior Ministry spokesman said in remarks reported by London's The Independent.

"Today we learn a Rasta is free to go around with drugs. If somebody belonged to a religion which permitted them to eat their children, would they give them the go-ahead, too?" worried right-wing Senator Maurizio Gasparri.

Radical Party Senator Marco Perduca was more concerned about practitioners of Italy's most popular religion. He suggested to ItaliaNews that Italian Catholic pot smokers should find their own saint to worship.

The reaction was also more upbeat at Rototom Sunsplash, Europe's largest reggae festival, which happened to be occurring as the ruling came down. "Finally the principle of religious pluralism is beginning to make headway," Filippo Giunta, president of the festival, said. "This judgment... underlines again the difference between this substance and so-called 'hard' drugs, alcohol included."

The ruling recognizing the spiritual use of marijuana is the first in Europe. Advocates of religious marijuana use have made little headway in the courts in the US, despite devoted efforts, although the Guam Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that a Guamanian Rasta charged with importing marijuana could not be prosecuted because his use was religious.

At the Shrine to San Malverde, Mexico's Narco-Saint

You don't find Culiacan, the capital city of Sinaloa, in the tourist guide books for some reason. But it is a thriving city of more than a million, and it is the home of one of the stranger manifestations of the drug wars of the last few decades: The shrine to San Malverde, (unofficial) patron saint of bandits, and now, drug traffickers. shrine to San Malverde, patron saint of the narcos (and others), Culiacan, Sinaloa -- plaque thanking God, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and San Malverde for keeping the roads cleans -- from "the indigenous people from Angostura to Arizona" (more pictures below the fold) I visited the shine in the heat of the afternoon sun today. During the half hour or so I was there, a few dozen people came to light candles to the santo, pay their respects, or otherwise recognize his alleged powers of protection. A handful of musicians for hire hung around, waiting for someone to pay them to play a tune to the saint, and about a dozen vendors sold San Malverde memorabilia--candles, plaques, good luck amulets, prayer cards, and the like. (Hmmm, do I feel an idea for a StoptheDrugWar.org premium gestating?) The vendors told me that dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people arrive each day, some to pray, some to light candles, some to make donations, some to put up plaques:
"Thanks to God and San Malverde for favors received." "Thanks to God, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and San Malverde for helping us move forward." "O miraculous Malverde, O, Malverde my Lord, Concede me this favor, And fill my heart with happiness."
Given the way Mexico's drug war is raging these days, I would imagine the good saint is getting a real work-out. Mexicans are so inured to the daily drug war death toll that the newspapers generally relegate it to box score-type accounts, but when you or a friend or a family member is working in the trade, you probably figure some supernatural help can't hurt. I'll spend the next few days here in Culiacan. I had wanted to go up to the drug-producing areas in the mountains nearby, but so far, everyone is demurring--it's too dangerous, they say. Nonetheless, I'll keep working that and see what happens. On Tuesday and Wednesday, I'll be attending and "International Forum on Illicit Drugs: The Merida Initiative and the Experiences of Decriminalization," organized by the brave journalists of the Culiacan news weekly Riodoce. While the other Sinaloa papers have largely gone silent in the face of threats and killings, Riodoce keeps plugging away. I'll be meeting with some of the Riodoce staff tomorrow, right after I meet with Mercedes Murillo, head of the local human rights organization the Sinaloa Civic Front, which just a couple of days ago filed what could be a historic court motion to have military personnel accused of crimes against civilians tried in civilian--not military--court. There have been several nasty incidents of soldiers killing civilians here since Calderon sent in the troops, and under current Mexican law, they seem to get away with it. Stay tuned. It should be an interesting week. And then it's back to Mexico City to visit Saint Death and attend the Global Marijuana Day demonstration at the Alameda. (more pictures below the fold) shrine of San Malverde, more plaques Musicians for hire -- they play for people making pilgrimages or offerings. the cathedral in Culiacan
Location: 
Culiacan, SIN
Mexico

Latin America: Mexican Catholic Church in Narco-Dollar Embarrassment

Several Mexican bishops this week strongly denied that the Catholic Church accepts donations from drug dealers, backtracking furiously away from remarks by the president of the Mexican bishops' conference, who said drug traffickers have been "very generous" to the church.

Bishop Carlos Aguiar Retes of Texcoco, president of the Mexican bishops' conference, made headlines last weekend when he acknowledged that the drug trafficking organizations responsible for murder and mayhem across the country provided money for churches and other public works in some of the country's poorest villages.

"They are generous and often they provide money for building a church or chapel," Bishop Aguiar said after the bishops' conference meeting April 1-4. "In the communities where they work... they will install electricity, establish communication links, highways (and) roads," he said in comments that received nationwide media attention. Aguiar said he was not condoning drug trafficking, just "saying how it is."

The drug dealers come to church officials seeking spiritual solace, Aguiar said. "There has been a rapprochement with them as it's known that discretion is going to be kept," Bishop Aguiar said. "What they want is to encounter peace in their consciences. What they're going to get from us is a sharp response: Change your life."

This week, Mexican bishops lined up to deny they took drug money. Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City said the church condemns drug trafficking as a social evil and that it never accepts drug money. "The money that comes from narcotics trafficking is ill-gotten and therefore can't be cleaned through charity projects," he said in a Sunday statement released by the archdiocese.

Auxiliary Bishop Marcelino Hernández Rodríguez of Mexico City and Archbishop José Martín Rábago of León, former head of the Mexican bishop's conference, also joined the chorus. Hernández said that narco-donations to the church were unacceptable, while Martín said that while the church preaches salvation, it does not condone drug trafficking and would not accept "dirty money."

Europe: Vatican Updates List of Deadly Sins, Adds Drug-Taking, Drug-Selling

In an interview with the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano this week, the head of the Holy See's Apostolic Penitentiary announced that the Church had updated its list of mortal sins, and that drug-taking and -selling had made the list. The sale and use of drugs is sinful because they "weaken the mind and obscure intelligence," said Bishop Gianfranco Girotti.

Drugs aren't the only thing on the Vatican's mind. Along with drug-taking and -selling, the other new-fangled deadly sins are: polluting the environment; human experimentation, including cloning; excessive wealth; creating or deepening social injustice; abortion; and pedophilia.

The original seven deadly sins -- lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride -- were focused on individual behavior, but the modern version is aimed at the social context, said Girotti. "While sin used to concern mostly the individual, today it has mainly a social resonance, due to the phenomenon of globalization," he said.

Within the seven sins, drugs was not in the top tier. The greatest danger for modern man was the seductive allure of bioethics, according to Girotti. "You offend God not only by stealing, blaspheming or coveting your neighbor's wife, but also by ruining the environment, carrying out morally debatable scientific experiments, or allowing genetic manipulations which alter DNA or compromise embryos," he said.

Marijuana: Hawaii Supreme Court Rejects Religious Use Defense

In a split decision, the Hawaii Supreme Court has ruled against a Big Island man who claimed he smoked marijuana as part of his religion and thus should not be prosecuted. In its September 21 decision in State v. Sunderland, the Court rejected Joseph Sunderland's argument that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act protected him from prosecution, but failed to address his contention that privacy provisions of the Hawaii state constitution also protected him from arrest for using marijuana in his home.

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Volcano National Park, Hawaii Island
The case started in 2003, when a Big Island police officer searching for a missing child spotted a marijuana pipe on Sunderland's kitchen table. Sunderland admitted the pipe was his, said he had used it to smoke marijuana that morning, and told the officer he had a right to use it for religious purposes. Sunderland presented a membership card in The Cannabis Ministry, a religious organization headed by Roger Christie that uses marijuana as a sacrament.

Sunderland was subsequently charged with promoting a detrimental drug in the third degree, the Hawaiian version of a paraphernalia law violation. Before trial, Sunderland filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that his constitutional right to the free exercise of religion precluded his prosecution for using marijuana.

"I believe that God put the holy herb onto this earth to help mankind to better understand Him," Sunderland told the trial court.

The trial court disagreed with Sunderland's legal argument, and Sunderland was found guilty and fined $175. He appealed, and now the state Supreme Court has shot him down.

Citing precedent to reject the applicability of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to the states, the court held that under controlling law, the state has a legitimate "compelling interest" in regulating marijuana use, and thus, "the free exercise clause of the First Amendment is not a viable defense."

But there may still be a glimmer of hope for both Sunderland and the rest of Hawaii's pot smokers. The Supreme Court did not address Sunderland's contention that Hawaii privacy protections should immunize his in-house marijuana use, arguing that he had failed to present it in a timely fashion. But in his dissenting opinion Justice Levinson suggested that such a right indeed exists.

The framers of Hawaii's constitution meant to limit criminal sanctions to cases where people are harmed, Levinson argued. "The issue is whether... a fundamental right to privacy... constrains the state from criminalizing mere possession of marijuana for personal use. My thesis is that it does," Levinson wrote.

Sunderland's attorney, public defender Deborah Kim, said she planned to ask the high court to address the privacy issue. "The court has ducked the question of whether the right to privacy prevents the police from enforcing marijuana laws when someone is using marijuana in their home for religious purposes," Kim said. "The question is still very much open."

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