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Feature: It's Time for a New Drug Policy Paradigm, Say Latin American Leaders

A blue-ribbon commission of Latin American leaders has issued a report saying that the US-led war on drugs has failed and it is time to consider new policies, particularly treating drug use as a public health problem and decriminalizing marijuana. The report is an attempt to intervene not only in Latin American, US, and European drug policy debates, but also in the United Nations' ongoing 10-year review of global drug policies, which will culminate next month in a ministerial meeting in Vienna.

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The report, Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift, is the work of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, a 17-member panel that includes former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, and former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria. Other commission members include the writers Paulo Coelho, Mario Vargas Llosa, Sergio Ramírez and Tomás Eloy Martínez as well as leading scholars, media members and politicians.

Latin America is the leading exporter of both cocaine and marijuana. As such, it has faced the ravages of heavy-handed American anti-drug interventions, such as Plan Colombia and earlier efforts to destroy the Bolivian coca crop, as well as the violence of drug trafficking organizations and politico-military formations of the left and right that have grown wealthy off the black market bonanza. And while the region's level of drug consumption has historically been low, it is on the rise.

"The main reason we organized this commission is because the available evidence indicates the war on drugs is a failed war," said Cardoso at a Wednesday press conference in Rio de Janeiro to announce the report. "We need a different paradigm to cope with the problem of drugs. The power of organized crime is undermining the very foundations of democracy in some Latin American countries. We must acknowledge that these policies have failed and we must break the taboo that prevents us from discussing different strategies."

In the report, the commission calls for more humane and effective drug strategies. It emphasizes the following broad themes:

  • Treat drug use as a public health issue;
  • Reduce consumption through information and prevention actions;
  • Focus on enforcement against organized crime.

The commission also called on governments and civil society around the globe to "assess in the light of public health and advanced medical science the possibility of decriminalizing possession of marijuana for personal consumption."

"We need to break the taboo that's blocking an honest debate," Cardoso said, repeating one of the phrases of the day. "Numerous scientific studies show that the damage caused by marijuana is similar to that of alcohol or tobacco," said the well-respected former Brazilian leader.

"Decriminalization is only part of the solution," warned former Colombian President Gaviria. "You need to do what the Europeans are doing, which is helping addicts. That's what the US doesn't do; it just puts them in jail," he scolded. "You tripled the jail population in the US in the last 20 years because of prohibitionism. The half million people in jail because of drug consumption, is that reducing consumption?" he asked. "The excuse is that people commit crimes to get money, but you deal with that putting addicts under a doctor and helping them with their problem."

The commission has three objectives, said Gaviria. "We want to create a Latin American policy around the consumption of drugs, we want to promote a debate in the US -- we are very concerned that there is no real public debate on the politics of drug trafficking in US politics -- and we want the European Union countries to take more responsibility for drug consumption," he said. "They are not doing enough to reduce the consumption of drugs."

"This report represents a major leap forward in the global drug policy debate," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, who addressed a commission session in Bogotá last September. "It's not the first high-level commission to call the drug war a failure, nor is it the first time any Latin American leader has criticized the prohibitionist approach to global drug control. But it is the first time that such a distinguished group of Latin Americans, including three highly regarded ex-presidents, have gone so far in their critique of US and global drug policy and recommendations for what needs to be done."

The commission report is on "the cutting edge" of the global drug policy debate, said Nadelmann. "This is evident in its call for a 'paradigm shift,' in its recognition of the important role of harm reduction precepts and policies, in its push for decriminalization of cannabis, and in its critique of 'the criminalization of consumption.'"

Now it is on to Vienna -- and beyond -- said commission members. It is past time for a new approach, not only in the US, but internationally, they said.

"We hope the meeting in Vienna will not produce a result like previous meetings, where they just kept pushing back the date on which drugs will disappear," said Rubem Cesar Fernandes of the civil society organization Viva Rio. "The main discussion in Vienna should be whether the world should adopt European harm reduction policies. Most Latin American countries are supporting the approach of dealing with this as a health problem, not a criminal one."

Fernandes looked with guarded optimism at the new Obama administration. "We hope the Obama administration will at least be able to open that possibility because now the US totally opposes harm reduction as good policy," he said. "The world is not moving to follow the US jail policy. The US needs to think about whether putting people in jail is really solving the problem."

"Discussions in Vienna are not enough," said Cardoso. "We need national debates in all our countries, as well as inside the US. A clear dialog with the US is very important. We will try to get in contact with the Obama administration."

And so the pressure builds, on both the UN and the US. Will it be enough to force dramatic changes in Vienna or Washington? Probably not yet. But the global prohibitionist consensus is crumbling, clearly if slowly.

Feature: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly -- The Top 10 Drug Policy Stories of 2008

With 2008 now rapidly receding in the rear-view mirror, it's time to reflect on the year that was in drug policy. Drug War Chronicle published around 500 separate articles on all aspects of drug policy in 2008 -- national and international, state and local -- and while it's difficult to winnow it all down, below are the stories, processes, and themes we think make up the 10 most important drug reform stories of the year (in no particular order):

Massachusetts Voters Overwhelmingly Pass Marijuana Decriminalization

Marijuana legalization still appears a distant chimera, but three decades after the initial spurt of states decriminalizing marijuana, we may be seeing the beginnings of a new round of successful decriminalization moves. Nevada decriminalized, or defelonized, in 2001, becoming the first state to do so since the 1970s, and in November, Massachusetts approved a decrim initiative with 65% of the popular vote. It goes into effect today, making the Bay State the 12th state to make the possession of small amounts of pot an infraction, not a crime.

New Hampshire could have become the next decrim state last year after a decrim bill surprisingly passed in the House, but it was later killed in the Senate. Suburban Chicago Heights, Illinois, however, adopted decrim in December, and local initiatives making adult marijuana possession offenses the lowest law enforcement priority -- which would result in de facto decrim if law enforcement actually obeyed them -- passed in Hawaii County, Hawaii, and Fayetteville, Arkansas, adding them to a list that now includes Ann Arbor, Denver, Seattle, a half-dozen California communities, and Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

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signs of life in Congress
Michigan Voters Overwhelmingly Pass Medical Marijuana

Medical marijuana continues its long march across the states. The biggest victory this year came in Michigan, where voters approved a medical marijuana initiative with 63% of the vote, making Michigan the 13th medical marijuana state and the first in the Midwest. That will undoubtedly help ongoing legislative efforts in states like Kansas, Illinois, Minnesota, and Ohio. In Minnesota, a bill that had passed the Senate in 2007 stalled in the House in the face of veto threats, while in New York, the Assembly passed a medical marijuana bill only to have it see no action in the Senate. Kansas saw its first legislative hearing ever on a medical marijuana bill, although that bill died a few weeks later. Last month, a New Jersey medical marijuana bill won a Senate committee vote and is still alive.

NORA Goes Down to Defeat in California

If marijuana fared well in the November elections, the same thing can't be said for a massive sentencing reform initiative in California. The Non-Violent Offenders Rehabilitation Act (NORA) would have broadened and deepened the Proposition 36 sentencing reforms passed in 2001, but, faced with powerful and deep-pocketed opponents, including drug czar John Walters, the California prison guards' union, and drug court professionals, NORA went down in defeat with only 39% of the vote.

There was more bad news, too: While rejecting NORA, voters approved the Crime Victims Bill of Rights Act, which blocks local authorities from granting early release to prisoners to alleviate overcrowding and mandates that the cash-strapped state -- officials say they will begin issuing IOUs instead of cash payments as soon as March -- fully fund corrections to ensure no prisoners are released early. At least, voters rejected an even more onerous initiative, the Safe Neighborhoods Act, which, while aimed mainly at gang members, violent criminals, and criminal aliens, would also have increased sentences for meth offenses and provided for the expulsion from public housing of anyone convicted of a drug offense. It looks like "tough on crime" still trumps "smart on crime" in the Golden State.

Signs of Life in Congress

After six years of Republican domination of both the executive and legislative branches in Washington, Democrats took back control of the Congress in the November 2006 elections, and by 2008, some small stirrings on drug reform were becoming evident. Not that we expect to see congressional Democrats end the drug war, but every little bit helps.

In February, efforts to finally begin to undo the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity got a boost when a House committee held hearings on it. The next month, the Senate passed the Second Chance Act, which had already been passed by the House and which will provide assistance to prisoners reentering society. President Bush signed that bill in April. Even the Republicans seem to have come around a little bit. Several of them supported bills that would address the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity, and Republican votes helped get the Second Chance Act over the top.

One bill that Bush would never sign -- it is unclear whether Obama would -- is Rep. Barney Frank's (D-MA) federal marijuana decriminalization bill, the first such bill introduced in decades. Don't hold your breath on this one, but even getting a bill filed in Congress represents progress. In another sign of changing times, in August, Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY) and 25 cosponsors introduced a bill to end the federal ban on needle exchange funding. A similar bill by Serrano lifted Congress's ban on the District of Columbia government spending its own resources on needle exchange.

Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) also played an increasingly prominent role in pushing for sentencing and drug policy reform. Using the Joint Economic Committee as his pulpit, he held a 2007 hearing on sentencing and followed that up with a June hearing on the economic and social costs of current drug policies. We sure didn't see anything like that during the years the GOP controlled the Congress.

Not that it's all good on the Hill. Congressional Democrats continued to play the politics of tough on crime and drugs, especially around the issue of funding federal grants to support those multi-jurisdictional anti-drug law enforcement task forces. But from a drug policy perspective, 2008 was a much better year on the Hill than any in this decade. As for 2009, well, that's another article.

Salvia Divinorum and the Prohibitionist Impulse

Efforts to ban the hallucinogenic Mexican plant salvia divinorum picked up pace in 2008, a perfect expression of the reflex prohibitionist response to any new substance. Although the plant has been used by Masatec shamans for centuries, it is new on the recreational drug scene, and that's enough for cops and legislators to want to shut it town, even though the DEA, which has studied it for years, has not moved to do so. Given the scant -- at best -- evidence of any harm done by using it, the only justification for banning it is the idea that somebody somewhere is getting high and must be stopped.

In 2008, California made Salvia sales to minors a misdemeanor (effective yesterday, 1/1/09), while Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi, and Virginia all banned it or its active ingredient, Salvinorin A. At this writing, a similar bill is on the desk of Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland. Other states where salvia ban efforts were underway in 2008 include Nebraska, South Carolina, Alabama, Massachusetts, and Texas.

The six states that banned it in (or whose previously passed bans went into effect in) 2008 joined Delaware, Louisiana, Maine, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, which had all banned it since 2005. 2008 also won the dubious distinction of being the year of the first known arrests in the US for salvia charges. In North Dakota, Kenneth Rau was arrested after ordering $40 worth of salvia leaves on eBay and faced years in prison. It's not known what happened in his case. And in Nebraska, Lincoln shop owner Christian Firoz was arrested for selling salvia even though the plant is not illegal there. He was creatively charged under a law banning the sale of substances for the purpose of intoxication. His trial is pending.

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Salvia Divinorum Google ads continued to run on South Dakota news sites after Rau was busted.
Great Britain Embraces Reefer Madness, Moves Backward on Marijuana

Britain had taken a bold step forward when, heeding the recommendations of numerous advisory panels, it downgraded marijuana from a Class B to a Class C drug in 2004. But in May, desperate to burnish its tough on drugs and crime credentials, a flailing Labor government announced it was returning marijuana to Class B. Labor was aided and abetted in turning public opinion against marijuana by a Reefer Madness-style tabloid campaign that would have made William Randolph Hearst blush. For weeks on end, credulous tabloid readers were treated to headlines along the lines of "Son twisted by skunk knifed father 23 times," "How cannabis made me a monster," "Escaped prisoner killed man while high on skunk cannabis," "Boys on skunk butchered a grandmother," and "Teen who butchered two friends was addicted to skunk cannabis" -- and that's just from one newspaper, the Daily Mail.

Since then, the Reefer Madness campaign has subsided somewhat, only to be replaced by a steady diet of "cannabis factory" bust stories, with grow ops being busted on a daily basis and their operators too often hustled off to gaol. The steady drumbeat of sensational press stories may help explain declining support for drug reform in recent polls. In any case, marijuana goes back to being a more serious offense at the end of this month, and Britain marches resolutely backward into the last century.

America Wages Ineffective War Against Poppies and Islamists in Afghanistan

2008 was the bloodiest year yet for American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, where 155 American troops and 138 NATO troops were killed, along with uncounted thousands of Afghan rebels and civilians. While the country saw a slight reduction in opium cultivation and production, Afghanistan still produces more than 90% of the global opium supply, and that fact leaves the West with a terrible paradox: Try to eliminate the drug trade and face driving Afghan peasants into the waiting arms of the Taliban, or ignore the drug trade and let the Taliban profit to the tune of $100 million a year or more. That buys a lot of shiny new weapons to shoot at foreign troops and their Afghan government allies.

NATO and the US military want nothing to do with pissing off poppy-planting peasants, much to the dismay of the State Department and the drug warriors, but in October reluctantly agreed to enlist in the war on poppies by targeting drug traffickers associated with the Taliban -- but not those associated with the government in Kabul. Afghanistan is possibly the most serious foreign policy crisis facing the United States, the situation is deteriorating, and the drug war and drug prohibition were right in the middle of it.

America Gets High, Mexico Bleeds

Mexican President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006 and immediately sent in the army to battle that country's so-called cartels. It hasn't gone well: Since then, more than 7,000 people have been killed in prohibition-related violence, with 2008's toll alone climbing above 5,000 as the multi-sided violence escalated. The Chronicle was there -- in person -- reporting on the military takeover of Reynosa in February, covering a conference on alternatives to the drug war in Sinaloa Cartel hometown Culiacán in May, and reporting on efforts to address military impunity for drug war human rights violations on that same trip.

Since then, matters have only deteriorated, with little sign of any improvement on the horizon. And the US is determined to make matters worse, with the Bush administration and the Congress approving a three-year, $1.4 billion "Plan Mérida" aid package to provide anti-drug assistance to the Mexican police and military. But with drug corruption scandals in law enforcement there occurring on an almost weekly basis, it is difficult to see how even a massive aid package is going to make much difference.

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marijuana legalization march, Mexico City
The continuing violence -- and its roots in American appetites for drugs and desires to prohibit them -- is having a perhaps not unexpected result: As the casualties mount and the costs increase, the Mexican public and Mexican politicians of all stripes have begun debating whether there might be a better path. In August, the opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) said it was time to put legalization on the table, a move that won some favor with Mexicans in a poll the following month. A week later, President Calderón announced his party would consider decriminalizing possession of small amounts of all drugs, and the following month, majority members of the Mexico City city council introduced a bill to decriminalize marijuana possession and allow for cannabis coffee shops in the Mexican capital.

Mexico is living with the bloody results of drug prohibition that makes the violence of American cities pale by comparison. And that is provoking, finally, some outside the box thinking.

The Endless War Against Coca and Cocaine

There was little for American policymakers to applaud when it came to the Andean drug war last year. Nine years and $5 billion after Plan Colombia commenced, Andean coca production is essentially unchanged, and the GAO reported that it had not succeeded on its own terms. Still, Washington remains committed to Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, one of its few friends remaining in the region, despite the ineffectiveness of eradication and interdiction and despite continuing human rights violations as denounced by Amnesty International in a November report.

Meanwhile, Bolivian President Evo Morales joined Washington bête noire Hugo Chávez of Venezuela in throwing out the DEA (Chavez did it in 2005, Morales in October), as relations between the Bolivarian allies and the US grew extremely chilly, especially after President Bush listed them as the only countries in the hemisphere to be decertified as not cooperating in US drug policy goals. Only part of the problems were directly related to drug issues, but Morales and Chávez proved adept at parlaying regional angst over America's drug war into a broader offensive against the colossus of the north. Now, Bolivia will go it alone on drug policy, leaving US desires behind.

In Peru, meanwhile, President Alan García's mid-year deployment of the military to coca growing zones in a twin bid to eradicate crops and weaken a resurgent Shining Path produced little more than unhappy results. Pressure on coca growers in the southern valleys produced coca grower incursions on indigenous lands, while the fight against the Shining Path produced only the highest military and police death toll since the bloody insurgency was defeated in the early 1990s. Now, largely stripped of its Maoist ideology, but equipped with shiny new weapons bought with the profits of prohibition, the Shining Path is reemerging.

The Prohibitionist Consensus Erodes in Latin America

2008 saw significant movement toward alternatives to prohibition and the drug war in Latin America, some of the most important ones coming from the courts. In April, an Argentine court threw out drug possession charges against two young men on the grounds they were unconstitutional, and five weeks later, a Brazilian appeals court ruled the same way. One week after that, another group of Argentine jurists threw out marijuana possession charges against a young man, saying criminalizing drug possession without demonstrating harm to others was unconstitutional. By July, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was calling for decriminalization of drug possession.

Meanwhile, in London in May, Colombian Vice-President Francisco Santos called for debating cocaine legalization, and at the end of July, Ecuadorian President Rafeal Correa pardoned hundreds of low-level drug mules, saying it was absurd to imprison them. In October, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya joined the growing chorus, saying that drug possession should be decriminalized and hinting at larger legalization.

And, as noted above, there are the legalization noises now coming from Mexico, as well as the disdain for US prohibitionist policies from Bolivia and Venezuela. While Washington has been distracted, it looks like a sea change is getting under way down south.

Feature: Gazing Into the Crystal Ball -- What Can We Expect in 2009?

In the other feature article in this issue, we looked back at last year, examining the drug policy high and lows. Here, we look forward, and not surprisingly, see some of the same issues. With a prohibitionist drug policy firmly entrenched, many issues are perennial -- and will remain issues until they are resolved.

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gazing into the future of drug policy reform '09 (picture from wikimedia.org)
Of course, America's drug war does not end at our borders, so while there is much attention paid to domestic drug policy issues, our drug policies also have an important impact on our foreign policy. In fact, Afghanistan, which is arguably our most serious foreign policy crisis, is inextricably intertwined with our drug wars, while our drug policies in this hemisphere are also engendering crisis on our southern border and alienation and loss of influence in South America.

Medical Marijuana in the States

In November, Michigan voters made it the 13th medical marijuana state and the first in the Midwest. Now, nearly a quarter of the US population resides in medical marijuana states, and it is likely that number will increase this year. Legislative efforts are underway in Kansas, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New York, among others, and chances are one or more of them will join the club this year. Interest in medical marijuana is also emerging in some unlikely places, such as Idaho, where one legislator has vowed to introduce a bill this year, and South Dakota, where activists who were defeated at the polls in 2006 are trying to get a bill in the legislature this month.

California's Grand Experiment with Medical Marijuana

As with so many other things, when it comes to medical marijuana, California is a different world. With its broadly written law allowing virtually anyone with $150 for a doctor's visit to seek certification as a a registered medical marijuana patient, and with its thriving system of co-ops, collectives, and dispensaries, the Golden State has created a situation of very low risk for consumers and significant protections even for growers and sellers.

With tax revenue streams from the dispensaries now pouring into the state's cash-starved coffers, medical marijuana is also creating political facts on the ground. The state of California is not going to move against a valuable revenue generator.

And if President-Elect Obama keeps his word, the DEA will soon butt out, too. But even if he doesn't, and the raids against dispensaries continue, it seems extremely unlikely that the feds can put the genie back in the bottle. The Bush administration tried for eight years and managed to shut down only a small fraction of operators, most of whom were replaced by competitors anyway.

The state's dispensary system, while currently a patch-work with some areas well-served with stores and other whole counties without any, is also a real world model of what regulated marijuana sales can look like. Despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth by pot foes, the dispensaries have, for the most part, operated non-problematically and as good commercial and community neighbors.

California's medical marijuana regime continues to evolve as the state comes to grips with the reality the voters created more than a decade ago. We will continue to watch and report as -- perhaps -- California leads the way to taxed and regulated marijuana sales, and not just for patients.

What Will Obama Do?

It will be a new era in Washington, DC, when President-Elect Obama becomes President Obama in less than three weeks. While the president cannot pass laws, he can provide leadership to the Congress and use his executive powers to make some changes, such as calling off the DEA in California, which he has promised to do.

The one thing we know he will not do is try to legalize marijuana. In response to publicly generated questions about marijuana legalization, his team has replied succinctly: No.

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What will President Obama do?
One early indicator of Obama's proclivities will be his selection of a replacement for John Walters, the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. While there has been speculation about some possible candidates, none of them very exciting for drug policy reformers, no candidate has yet been named.

President Obama will also submit budgets to Congress. Those documents will provide very clear indications of his priorities on matters of interest to the reform community, from the controversial program of grants to fund anti-drug law enforcement task forces to spending levels for drug prevention and treatment, as well as funding for America's foreign drug war adventures.

The conventional wisdom is that Obama is not going to expend political capital trying to undo decades of drug war policies, but perhaps the budget axe will do the talking. Goodness knows, we don't have any money to waste in the federal budget these days.

What Will the Congress Do?

Democrats now control not only the White House, but both houses of Congress. One area we will be watching closely is the progress, if any, of federal sentencing reform. There are now more than 100,000 federal drug war prisoners, too many of them low-level crack offenders serving draconian sentences thanks to the efforts of people like Vice President elect Joe Biden, a long-time congressional drug warrior. Several different crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity bills have been introduced. The best was authored by Biden himself, a sign of changing times, if only slowly changing. It is past time for one of these bills, hopefully a good one, to pass into law.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced a federal marijuana decriminalization bill last year. The best prediction is that it will go nowhere, but we could always stand to be pleasantly surprised.

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), head of the House Judiciary Committee, has emerged as a strong critic of federal interference in state medical marijuana programs. Conyers could use his position to highlight that issue, and possibly, to introduce legislation designed to address the problem of federal interference.

One area where the Congress, including the Democratic leadership, has proven vulnerable to the politics of tough on crime is the federal funding of those anti-drug task forces. In a rare fit of fiscal sanity, the Bush administration has been trying for years to zero out those grants, but the Congress keeps trying to get them back in the budget -- and then some. We will be watching those funding battles this year to see if anything has changed.

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Coca Museum, La Paz, Bolivia
Mexico

With the death toll from prohibition-related violence topping 5,000 last year, Mexico is in the midst of a multi-sided war that is not going to end in the foreseeable future, especially given America's insatiable appetite for the forbidden substances that are making Mexican drug trafficking organizations obscenely wealthy. With the $1.4 billion anti-drug military and police assistance known as Plan Merida approved last year by the Bush administration and the Congress, the US is now investing heavily in escalating the violence.

The National Drug Information Center has identified Mexican drug trafficking organizations as the nation's number one criminal threat, and chances are the violence south of the border will begin to ooze across the line. That will only add to the pressure among law enforcement and political figures to "do something." But given the current mindset among policymakers, just about anything they may be inclined to do to "help" is unlikely to be helpful.

The cartel wars in Mexico are also having an impact on Mexican domestic politics, with President Felipe Calderón's popularity suffering a significant decline. The angst over the escalating violence has already provided an opening for talk about drug policy reform in Mexico, with the opposition PRD saying that legalization has to be on the table, and Calderón himself announcing he wants to decriminalize drug possession (although how that would have any noticeable impact on the traffic or the violence remains unclear).

Look for the violence to continue, and watch to see if the resulting political pressure results in any actual policy changes. Drug War Chronicle will likely be heading down to Tijuana before too long for some on-scene reporting.

The Andean Drug War

... is not going well. Despite pouring billions of dollars into Plan Colombia, coca production there is at roughly the same level as a decade ago. Cocaine exports continue seemingly immune to all efforts to suppress them, although more appears to be heading for Europe these days. During the Bush administration, the US war on drugs in Colombia has morphed into openly supporting the Colombian government's counterinsurgency war against the leftist FARC rebels, who have been weakened, but, flush with dollars from the trade, are not going away. Neither are the rightist paramilitary organizations, who also benefit from the trade. Will an Obama administration try something new?

Meanwhile, Bolivia and Venezuela, the only countries singled out by the Bush administration as failing to comply with US drug policy objectives, have become allies in an emerging leftist bloc that seeks to challenge US hegemony in the region. Both countries have thrown out the DEA -- Venezuela in 2005, Bolivia last fall -- and are cooperating to expand markets for Bolivia's nascent coca industry. Bolivian President Evo Morales acknowledged this week that some coca production is being diverted to cocaine traffickers, but said that he does not need US help in dealing with it.

And in Peru, where President Alan García has sent out the army to eradicate coca crops in line with US policy, unrest is mounting in coca growing regions, coca farmers are pushing into indigenous territories, causing more problems, and the Shining Path insurgency, once thought decisively defeated, has reemerged, although apparently minus its Maoist ideology, as a criminal trafficking organization and protector of coca farmers. The Peruvian government blames the Shining Path for killing 25 soldiers, police, and anti-drug workers in ambushes last year. Look for that toll to increase this year.

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Afghan opium
Afghanistan

More than seven years after the US invaded to overthrow the Taliban and destroy Al Qaeda, Afghanistan is the world's largest opium producer, and has been each year since the Taliban were driven from power. While US drug war imperatives remain strong, they are in conflict with the broader objectives of the counterinsurgency there, and any efforts to suppress poppy planting or the opium trade will not only have a huge impact on the national economy, but are likely to drive Afghan farmers into the waiting arms of the resurgent Taliban, which is estimated to make hundreds of millions of dollars a year off taxing and protecting the trade. That buys a lot of guns to point at Afghan, American and NATO troops.

President elect Obama has vowed to reinvigorate the US war in Afghanistan by sending 20,000 additional troops, and NATO has reluctantly agreed to attack the drug trade by going after traffickers linked to the Taliban or various warlords -- but not those linked to the government in Kabul. Last year was the bloodiest year yet for coalition forces in Afghanistan; look for this year to top it.

Latin America: Peru's Shining Path Making a Comeback?

In the 1980s, the Maoist Shining Path guerrilla organization conducted a bloody uprising against the Peruvian state in which nearly 70,000 people were killed. Defeated in the early 1990s, its leaders imprisoned, the group was reduced to a remnant of its former self. But now, fueled by profits from the black market trade in coca and cocaine, the Shining Path is back.

And it killed more soldiers this year than any year since the insurgency was crushed, the Peruvian military said on Monday. Defense Minister Ántero Flores reported that 25 police and soldiers died at the hands of the Shining Path this year, most in a series of brazen ambushes, including a military convoy blown up in a dynamite attack. The group is blamed for about 50 killings of soldiers, police, anti-drug workers, and civilians since President Alan García took office in July 2006.

The pace of killings has quickened since August, when García started sending soldiers into coca-growing zones to try to exterminate the Shining Path, which appears to by now have largely abandoned its earlier Maoist ideology. While the group now consisted of only about 300 fighters, it is better armed than ever thanks to profits from the illicit drug trade.

Defense Minister Flores said the military was prepared to take more casualties to regain control over Vizcatán, as well as the coca-growing regions of the Ene and Apurímac Rivers. "If you let Vizcatán become no man's land, or turn it over to the narco-terrorists, then there won't be deaths," said Flores. "But with combat there is always the risk of losses."

But Shining Path expert Carlos Tapia said the government was headed down the wrong path. Instead of launching military raids, the government should emphasize providing basic services in poor communities. Otherwise, the Shining Path, flush with prohibition-derived coca and cocaine profits, can simply buy friends.

"They have misdiagnosed the problem, which has resulted in a flawed strategy," Tapia said of the García government. "In these places, everybody is aligned with drug trafficking: vigilante groups, mayors, judges and even investigators," Tapia said.

Latin America: Venezuela Could Renew Cooperation With DEA, Chávez Says

In a Sunday interview, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said relations between his government and the US could improve dramatically under an Obama administration, including renewed cooperation with the DEA. Chávez, whose relations with the Bush administration have been tense and confrontational, threw the US anti-drug agency out of the country in 2005, charging it with spying and interfering with Venezuela's internal affairs.

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Chapare region, Bolivia, sign announcing construction of coca leaf industrialization plant financed by Venezuela (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith)
"There are winds in favor of relations between the Venezuelan government and the new president of the United States, Barack Obama. We must try energetically and with good faith to improve relations, and I am ready to do it," Chávez said on a Sunday political talk show, José Vicente Today, broadcast on a private television station. "But we can't be naïve," Chávez continued. "Worse than relations under Bush, impossible, but we must be cautious because Obama is the president of the empire, and all of its machinery is still intact."

The Bush White House has accused Venezuela of turning a blind eye to the trafficking of cocaine from neighboring Colombia -- a US ally and the world's largest producer -- but that is one of several areas where friendlier, more respectful relations could lead to renewed cooperation, Chávez said. "We are ready to work government to government on the energy issue, to combat drug trafficking," Chávez said. "We could even create a new agreement with the Drug Enforcement Agency."

But cooperation is a two-way street. Chávez is deeply interested in seeing fugitive terrorist Luis Posada Carriles extradited to Venezuela to face trial in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people. Posada escaped from a Venezuelan prison and showed up in the US years later, but US officials have refused to extradite him.

On Saturday, Chávez called on Obama to extradite Posada Carriles. "President Obama, send us the terrorist that we're requesting. He should be in prison and not free on the streets of the United States," Chávez declared.

Latin America: Bolivia's Morales Says Yes to Obama, No to the DEA

Bolivian President Evo Morales said at a Monday news conference at the UN that he would like to improve ties with the incoming administration of Barack Obama, but that the DEA would not be allowed back in Bolivia during the remainder of his term. The comments signal an effort to restore ties with the US that were badly frayed during the Bush administration while still retaining Bolivian sovereignty over its drug control policies.

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Evo Morales, probably holding a coca branch
"My interest is how to improve relations with the new president," Morales said after addressing the UN General Assembly. "I think we could have a lot of things in common.
If we talk about change I have some experience now," he said, referring to the Obama presidential campaign's slogans based on the need for change. "I think it would be good to share experiences with the new president-elect."

Morales, a former coca grower union leader who became the first indigenous person to become Bolivia's leader, compared himself to Obama, who is the first black man to win the US presidency. Better relations between the two countries would have to be based on "respect from one government to another," Morales said.

There has been tension between the US and Morales over his "zero cocaine, but not zero coca" policies, under which Bolivian farmers in certain areas are allowed to grow coca for traditional and industrial uses. But because the Morales government appears committed to battling the cocaine trade, US criticism of his coca policies was muted until recently.

In response to what it called US meddling in its internal affairs, Bolivia has this fall undertaken a number of measures to hit back. It ordered USAID to leave the Chapare coca growing region, and after unrest from right-wing separatists resulted in bloody conflict in September, Morales expelled the US ambassador. The US retaliated by expelling Bolivia's ambassador to Washington and by "decertifying" Bolivia as not cooperating in US drug war goals. After that, Morales first barred over-flights by US drug surveillance planes and then, two weeks ago threw the DEA out of the country.

"The DEA will not return whilst I am still president," Morales said, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. Nor does he want US anti-drug aid. He said he was working with other countries in the fight against drug trafficking. "We've discussed matters with Brazil, Russia and France, where they manufacture helicopters," he said. "We want to buy some, perhaps using emergency loans. There is interest in South American countries and Europe to join together to fight against a common problem, which is drug trafficking."

And Washington is the odd man out. Perhaps overall relations will warm with an Obama presidency, but not if the US insists that the DEA be allowed back.

Latin America: Plan Colombia Didn't Work, GAO Report Says

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coca eradication in Plan Colombia (courtesy SF Bay Area IndyMedia)
Washington's ambitious $6 billion investment in wiping out Colombia's coca crops and cocaine production has been a failure, the GAO said in a report released Wednesday. The aid program, known as Plan Colombia, had a goal of reducing Colombian coca and cocaine production by half between 2000 and 2006, but instead of shrinking, coca production was up 15% and cocaine production was up 4%, the review found.

Or, as the GAO diplomatically put it: "Plan Colombia's goal of reducing the cultivation, processing, and distribution of illegal narcotics by 50 percent in 6 years was not fully achieved."

By all accounts, Colombia has been and remains the world's number one coca and cocaine producer. It is estimated that 90% of the cocaine reaching the US is from Colombia. Despite years of aerial eradication with herbicides, as well as manual eradication, Washington and Bogotá have been unable to put a serious dent in the Colombian coca and cocaine trade. The inability to suppress coca and cocaine production "can be explained by measures taken by coca farmers to counter US and Colombian eradication efforts," the report said.

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anti-Plan Colombia poster (courtesy Colombia IndyMedia)
The report was commissioned by Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It could provide powerful ammunition for congressional foes of Plan Colombia, who are seeking to reduce US assistance to the government of President Álvaro Uribe, many of them citing human rights violations by the Colombian military and the right-wing paramilitaries, who have an ambiguous relationship with the Colombian government.

The report calls for aid cuts and advises US and Colombian officials to "develop a joint plan for turning over operational and funding responsibilities for US-supported programs to Colombia." It also called for USAID, which has administered more than $1.3 billion in alternative development funding, to come up with methods of measuring whether its efforts were having any impact.

The GAO did give Washington and Bogotá credit for improving Colombia's security climate "through systematic military and police engagements with illegal armed groups and by degrading these groups' finances." But, as we reported last week, Amnesty International has found that the human rights situation in Colombia remains atrocious, with thousands of killings each year and between two and three million Colombians displaced and living as refugees.

With Democrats in control of both Congress and the White House, Plan Colombia's days could be numbered, and a report like this one ought to kill the beast. But don't be surprised if it doesn't.

Latin America: Bolivia Suspends Operations By DEA

Already cool relations between Bolivia and the US grew even chillier over the weekend, as Bolivian President Evo Morales announced Saturday that he was suspending anti-drug operations by the US DEA within Bolivian territory. In making the announcement, Morales accused the DEA of interfering in internal Bolivian affairs and trying to undermine his government.

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US-funded FELCN (Special Force for the Struggle Against Narcotics) checkpoint between Cochabamba and Chapare, search being conducted for cocaine and precursors (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith, 2007)
"From today all the activities of the US DEA are suspended indefinitely," Morales said Saturday in remarks reported by the BBC. "Personnel from the DEA supported activities of the unsuccessful coup d'etat in Bolivia," he added, referring to a September massacre of Morales supporters that left 19 people dead. "We have the obligation to defend the dignity and sovereignty of the Bolivian people."

Morales, a former coca grower union leader who won the presidency in 2006, has embarked on a policy of "zero cocaine, not zero coca" in the Andean nation where the coca plant is widely chewed or drunk as a tea by indigenous people. Under Morales' program, farmers in specified areas are allowed to grow small amounts of coca for traditional and industrial uses.

While US officials earlier this year acknowledged Bolivian successes in the fight against cocaine trafficking, tensions have been rising -- not all of them to do with coca and cocaine. The Bolivian government limited DEA activities earlier this year, then expelled the US ambassador, charging that he had supported an effort to overthrow the government by separatist leaders of eastern provinces in September. The US retaliated by expelling Bolivia's ambassador to Washington, and last month, by adding Bolivia to the list of nations that had not adequately met US drug war goals.

Although Bolivia is only the third largest coca producer in the region, behind Colombia and Peru, it and Venezuela were the only countries in Latin America that were decertified. Venezuela kicked out the DEA in 2005, citing internal interference as well.

US officials denied Morales' claim of DEA interference. "These accusations are false and absurd," an unnamed senior State Department official told Time in response to Saturday's announcement. "The DEA has a 35-year track record of working effectively and professionally with our Bolivian partners," the official added.

Some 70 Bolivian citizens have been killed and about 1,000 wounded combating DEA-led coca eradication efforts since the late 1980s. Unrest over coca control policies helped vault Morales to the presidency in 2006.

The US currently funds Bolivian anti-drug efforts with $35 million a year. It is unclear what will happen to that funding.

Latin America: Citing Continuing Human Rights Violations, Amnesty International Urges US to Halt Military Aid to Colombia

The human rights group Amnesty International harshly criticized Colombia in a 94-page report issued Tuesday and urged the US to halt military aid to Colombia unless and until it manages to rein in the killings of civilians and other human rights abuses.

The US government has provided more than $5 billion in assistance to Colombia, the vast majority of it military, since the Clinton administration initiated Plan Colombia in 1999. Originally sold as a purely counter-narcotics package, the US assistance has since 2002 morphed into a counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism mission aimed primarily at the guerrilla army of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The FARC supports itself in part through participation in Colombia's coca and cocaine industry.

Washington has lauded Colombian President Álvaro Uribe for taking the fight to the FARC, and Colombia has seen a decrease in kidnappings and an increased sense of security in some big cities. But in the report, Amnesty questioned Uribe's claims that Colombia "is experiencing an irreversible renaissance of relative peace" and "rapidly falling levels of violence."

"Colombia remains a country where millions of civilians, especially outside the big cities and in the countryside, continue to bear the brunt of this violent and protracted conflict," the report says, adding that "impunity remains the norm in most cases of human rights abuses."

According to the report, more than 70,000 people, the vast majority civilians, have been killed in the past two decades of the 40-year-old war between the FARC and the Colombian state, with somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 "disappeared" and another 20,000 kidnapped or taken hostage. Colombia is also the scene of one of the world's worst refugee crises, with between three and four million people forcibly displaced.

And despite Uribe's protestations, for many Colombians, things aren't getting any better. According to the report, 1,400 civilians were killed in 2007, up from 1,300 the previous year. Of the 890 cases where the killers were known, the Colombian military and its ally-turned-sometimes-foe the rightwing paramilitaries were responsible for two-thirds. Similarly, the number of "disappeared" people was at 190 last year, up from 180 the year before.

Colombia's internal refugees didn't fare any better, either. More than 300,000 were displaced last year, up substantially from the 220,000 in 2006. Much of the displacement and many of the killings took place as paramilitaries attempted to wrest control of coca fields from the FARC and its peasant supporters.

In addition to pressure from donor countries, one key to improving the human rights picture is to get the Uribe administration to admit that it is in a civil war. Uribe refuses to do so, instead labeling the FARC belligerents as "terrorists."

"It's impossible to solve a problem without admitting there is one," said Marcelo Pollack, Colombia researcher at Amnesty International. "Denial only condemns more people to abuse and death."

The report also found that despite Uribe's claim that demobilization of the paramilitaries has succeeded, the paramilitaries remain active and continue to commit human rights abuses. Disturbingly, the report concluded that the FARC in the last year has been creating "strategic alliances" with the paramilitaries in various regions in the country as both groups seek "to better manage" the primary source of income, the cocaine trade.

Latin America: Bolivia Blocks US Anti-Drug Flights, Says It Doesn't Need or Want US Help With Coca Crop

Relations between Bolivia and the US, already strained by Bolivia's expulsion of the US ambassador last month for allegedly helping to instigate anti-government protests and the subsequent US "decertification" of Bolivia for failure to comply with US drug war aims, grew even colder over the weekend. Last Thursday, Bolivian President Evo Morales rejected a DEA request to overfly the country, and on Saturday, he launched a rhetorical attack on US anti-drug policy.

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Bolivian coca leaves drying in warehouse -- the sign reads ''Coca Power and Territory, Dignity and Sovereignty, Regional Congress 2006-08'' (photo by Phil Smith, Drug War Chronicle)
According to the Bolivian Information Agency, Morales last Thursday instructed his government to deny a written request from the US government to conduct surveillance flights over the South American nation. "Two days ago I received a letter from the US DEA asking a government institution for permission to fly over national territory," the agency quoted Morales as saying. "I want to say publicly to our authorities: They are not authorized to give permission so that the DEA can fly over Bolivian territory."

Bolivia is the world's third largest producer of coca, from which cocaine is produced. Since his election as president, Morales, who rose to prominence as a coca grower union leader, has embarked on a policy of "zero cocaine, but not zero coca." Under the Morales government, peasants are allowed to grow specified amounts of coca for traditional and industrial uses. In another sign of tension with the US, coca farmers loyal to Morales recently expelled US AID from the Chapare coca-growing region, saying its programs were ineffective.

On Saturday, Morales stepped up the rhetoric, saying Bolivia does not need US help to control its coca crop. He spoke before a crowd of coca growers outside La Paz.

"It's important that the international community knows that here, we don't need control of the United States on coca cultivation. We can control ourselves internally. We don't need any spying from anybody," Morales said in remarks reported by the Associated Press.

A State Department spokesman told the AP that the US had decertified Bolivia in part because it had chosen to follow its own path instead of Washington's lead. "We've certified Bolivia twice before under the Morales government, even though they have taken a very different approach to counter drugs, especially to eradication, than previous governments," said Thomas Shannon, the top US diplomat for Latin America. "But what we've noticed over the past couple of months," he added, "was a declining political willingness to cooperate, and then a very precise attempt by the part of some of the government ministries to begin to lower the level of cooperation and try to break the linkages" between US and Bolivian anti-drug efforts.

Although the Bush administration decertified Bolivia, it did not cut off anti-drug aid. It did, however, suspend Bolivia's exemption from US tariffs under a regional trade agreement. That could cost Bolivia up to 20,000 jobs, according to Bolivian business leaders. [Ed: What kind of jobs do people turn to sometimes when they lose their legal jobs?]

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