Andean Drug War

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Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug," by Paul Gootenberg (2008, University of North Carolina Press, 442 pp, $24.95 PB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer/Editor

Regardless of what you may think about cocaine -- party favor or demon drug -- one thing is clear: Cocaine is big business. These days, the illicit cocaine industry generates dozens of billions of dollars in profits annually and, in addition to the millions of peasant families earning a living growing coca, employs hundreds of thousands of people in its Andean homeland and across Latin America, and hundreds of thousands more in trafficking and distribution networks across the globe.

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There is a flip-side: The cocaine industry has also resulted in the creation of an anti-cocaine enterprise, also global in scope, but centered in the United States. It, too, employs tens of thousands of people -- from UN anti-drug bureaucrats to DEA agents to prison guards hired to watch over America's imprisoned street-level crack dealers -- and generates billions of dollars of governmental spending.

It wasn't always this way, and, with "Andean Cocaine," commodity historian Paul Gootenberg of SUNY Stony Brook has made a magnificent contribution in explaining how in just under a century and a half cocaine went from unknown (discovered in 1860) to licit global commodity (1880s-1920s), to illicit but dormant commodity (1920s-1950s) to the multi-billion dollar illicit commodity of today.

In a work the author himself describes as "glocal," Gootenberg used previously untapped archival sources, primarily from Peru and the US, to combine finely-detailed analysis of key personages and events in the evolution of the trade in its Peruvian hearth with a global narrative of "commodity chains," a sociological concept that ties together all elements in a commodity, from local producers and processors to national and international distribution networks and, ultimately, consumers.

The "commodity chain" concept works remarkably well in illuminating the murky story that is modern cocaine. How else do you explain the connection between a Peruvian peasant in the remote Upper Huallaga and a street-corner crack peddler in the Bronx or between entrepreneurial Colombian cocaine traffickers, weak governments in West Africa, and coke-sniffing bankers in the city of London?

Still, Gootenburg is a historian, and his story ends -- not begins -- with the arrival of the modern illicit cocaine trade. He applies the commodity chain concept to cocaine from the beginning, the 1860 isolation of the cocaine alkaloid by a Francophile Peruvian pharmacist, who, Gootenburg notes, worked within an international milieu of late 19th Century European scientific thought and exchange.

Within a few short years, cocaine had become a medical miracle (the first step on the now all-too-familiar path of currently demonized drugs) and a nascent international trade in cocaine sulphate (basically what we now refer to as cocaine paste), primarily to German and Dutch pharmaceutical houses. At the same time, just before the dawn of the 20th Century, the dangers of cocaine were becoming apparent, and moves to restrict its use got underway.

The key player in last century's cocaine panic was the United States -- ironically, the world's number one consumer of cocaine's precursor, coca. US patent medicines of the ear featured numerous coca-based tonics and concoctions, the granddaddy of them all being Coca-Cola, whose monopoly on legal (if denatured) coca leaf imports played a shadowy role in US coca and cocaine policies well into the 1950s. But some of those patent medicines also contained cocaine, and more was leaking out of medicinal markets. By the first decade of the last century, cocaine was under attack in the US.

Cocaine was banned in the US before World War I, and by the 1920s, blues singers were singing sad songs about its absence. With use levels dropping close to absolute zero, cocaine use was largely a non-issue for the US for the next 50 years. But, Gootenburg strongly suggests that the US obsession with stifling cocaine production and use sowed the seeds of the drug's stupendous expansion in the decades since the 1970s.

A particularly fascinating section revolves around the social construction of the "illicit" cocaine trade in Peru during World War II. At that point, cocaine was still a legal and treasured, if slightly over-the-hill, commodity in Peru. But some of cocaine's most lucrative customers were in Germany and Japan, the Axis foes of the US and its Latin American allies. Peruvian producers, desperate to retain their markets, sold to their traditional clientele regardless of US wishes, becoming the first "illicit" Peruvian cocaine traffickers and paving the way for the reemergence of cocaine as a black market commodity.

For someone like me, who has more than a passing familiarity with the Andean coca and cocaine trades, "Andean Cocaine" is especially fruitful for deepening my historical understanding. Peruvian family surnames prominent in coca and/or cocaine decades ago -- Durand, Malpartida, Soberon -- continue to play prominent roles in Peruvian coca politics today.

There is much, much more to this book -- suffice it to say it could be the basis of a post-graduate seminar or two -- but one lasting lesson Gootenburg seems to draw from his research is the futility, if not downright counterproductiveness, of the efforts to suppress cocaine and the cocaine trade. From the original "illicit" cocaine sales during World War II, which generated nascent trafficking networks to the crop eradications in the 1970s and 1980s in Peru and Bolivia, which turned Colombia, where indigenous coca production was almost nonexistent, into the world's leading coca and cocaine producer, every effort to stifle the trade has perversely only strengthened it. Perhaps someday we will learn a lesson here.

"Andean Cocaine" is an academic work written by an historian. It's not light reading, and, by the author's own admission, it concentrates on the Peruvian producer end of the commodity chain, not the US -- and increasingly, global -- consumer end of the chain. Nonetheless, it is a sterling contribution to the literature of cocaine, and should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand cocaine in context.

Latin America: Jimmy Carter to Harvest Coca Leaves on Evo Morales' Farm

At a Saturday meeting in the Bolivian capital of La Paz, former US President Jimmy Carter accepted an invitation from Bolivian President Evo Morales to go pick coca on Morales' coca farm in the Chapare, Agence France-Presse reported. The stop was part of a nine-day trip to Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru by the Nobel Peace Prize winning former president.

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Drying the leaves in the warehouse. The sign reads ''Coca Power and Territory, Dignity and Sovereignty, Regional Congress 2006-08''
Morales, a former coca grower union leader, launched the invitation amidst smiles at a press conference following a private meeting with the ex-president, saying that he had a long friendship with Carter, who had invited him to pick peanuts on his Georgia farm. "One time, he invited me to visit his family and house, and I harvested peanuts on his land in Atlanta," Morales said. "Now, I invite him to the Chapare to harvest coca... it will be the next time he comes."

"Since President Morales has come to my property and evidently picked some peanuts, I hope that in my next visit I can go to the Chapare, where he has invited me to go harvest coca leaves," Carter replied.

Carter is scheduled to be back in Bolivia in December. At that time, Bolivia will be undergoing general elections in which Morales is seeking reelection until 2015.

Bolivia is the world's third largest coca producer, behind Colombia and Peru. Under Morales, the country has embarked on a policy of "zero cocaine, not zero coca," which has brought it into conflict with the US and with the United Nations' international drug control apparatus. Bolivia expelled the US ambassador and the DEA last fall.

Latin America: Bolivian Cocaine Production Increasing, Official Says

Cocaine production in Bolivia is on the rise, Bolivian anti-drug police chief Óscar Nina told the Associated Press in an interview last week. Colombian and Mexican drug trafficking organizations are contracting to have Bolivian coca paste processed in situ rather than exporting the paste for processing Colombia, he said.

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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
Coca leaf is typically harvested by poor farming families. While much goes to traditional markets in this region where the leaf has been chewed for centuries, coca leaf destined for the black market is crushed and processed into coca paste, which is then smuggled abroad to be further refined into cocaine at sophisticated labs in Colombia and elsewhere.

But now, said Nina, middle men from Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and Bolivia are being hired by drug traffickers to do the final processing into cocaine in Bolivia. From there, the popular drug is smuggled by plane to Colombia and on to the insatiable markets of Europe and North America, or smuggled by men carrying backpacks walking into Peru or Brazil.

"There is more interest and investment in purifying coca paste here and exporting it, rather than sending it to Colombia for purification" as in years past, Nina said.

Police have raided three sophisticated cocaine labs in Bolivia's eastern lowlands this year, Nina said. In one bust, they seized 660 pounds of cocaine and arrested two Colombians. In other raids, no Colombians were found, but evidence of their presence was, said Nina without elaborating.

Bolivia is the world's third largest producer of coca. While Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former coca grower union leader, has supported continued coca cultivation, he has opposed cocaine production and trafficking under a policy of "zero cocaine, not zero coca."

Bolivian police last year busted some 3,000 smaller labs and seized a record 27 tons of cocaine. This year, they have already seized another nine tons and arrested 992 people.

Latin America: Colombia's Uribe Seeks to Recriminalize Drug Possession

Since a 1994 Colombian Supreme Court ruling that held criminalizing drug users violated their privacy and autonomy, drug possession has not been a crime in Colombia. But President Álvaro Uribe -- personal abstainer, ally of the US, and recipient of billions in US anti-drug assistance -- tried to recriminalize drug possession during the 2006 presidential election campaign, and now, the Global Post reported earlier this month, he's trying it again.

Under that 1994 ruling, adults may possess up to 20 grams of marijuana, two grams of Ecstasy, and one gram of heroin or cocaine in the privacy of their own homes. It is not, however, a get out of jail free card. In practice, Colombian police are known to charge simple drug possessors with intending to distribute drugs.

Still, the law provides some protections to drug users, and users are mobilizing to defeat the rollback effort. At a recent demonstration outside the presidential palace, pot smoke wafted through the air as protestors made their opposition clear.

"Taking drugs is a private matter," said Daniel Pacheco, 27, a Colombian journalist who helped organize the march. "There are a lot more important things that the government should be concerned about."

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Álvaro Uribe Vélez
Not for Uribe, whose plan for recriminalization envisions drug users arrested and fined or sent to drug treatment -- or jail if they persist in their bad habits. Not only does the politics of recriminalization appeal to Uribe's conservative base in a country where the Roman Catholic Church remains powerful, it is also consistent with Colombia's hard-line fight with the drug trade.

"It's not right for the country to have this ethical contradiction of being severe when it comes to drug production and smuggling, but totally lax and permissive when it comes to consumption," Uribe said in a speech in February.

Still, it is unclear whether even his own administration supports the move. Attorney General Mario Igaurán said recently that the government should focus on high-level drug traffickers rather than worrying about what people do in the privacy of their own homes. And health experts question whether the measure will be effective in getting people into treatment or having success with coerced treatment.

Uribe and his hard-line stance on drugs are increasingly isolated in Latin America. With Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil relaxing some drug laws in recent years, with Argentina threatening to decriminalize drug possession, and with the Mexican Congress this week hosting a debate on legalization, Uribe seems the committed contrarian, marching boldly backward into the dark days of the 20th Century.

Latin America: Shining Path Kills 14 Soldiers in Peruvian Coca-Growing Area

Leftist guerrillas of the Shining Path killed 14 Peruvian soldiers in a pair of ambushes in Ayacucho province, in the remote and rugged coca-growing region of the VRAE (Apurímac and Ene River valleys) last week, and they are vowing to do it again. Last week's attack on the military was the deadliest since last October, when 13 soldiers and two civilians were killed in an ambush of a military convoy in neighboring Huancavelica province.

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difficult country for terrorist hunting
The Shining Path originated in Ayacucho province as a revolutionary Maoist movement with roots going back to the 1960s. In the 1980s, in an all-out bid for power, the Shining Path battled government forces in a ruthless insurgency and counterinsurgency that left 70,000 Peruvians dead before the group's founder and leader, Abimael Guzmán, was captured in 1992.

At its height, the Shining Path fielded 10,000 men, with countless thousands of supporters providing infrastructure, but today its numbers of armed combatants are estimated to be between 300 and 500. It is widely held that the group has largely shed its ideology and settled in to a life as a criminal drug trafficking organization. But it can still talk the talk.

"We will fight militarily those who defend imperialism and the government, and they are the armed forces and the police," Victor Quispe Palomino, who identified himself by his rebel name, Comrade José, said in a call to a radio station, Reuters reported.

The ambushes and threats are the group's strongest response yet to a Peruvian government effort to retake control of the VRAE, where some 40,000 families earn a living from coca fields. Since that effort got underway last August, at least 33 soldiers have been killed.

The move in the VRAE is part and parcel of President Alan García's broader effort to suppress coca production through eradication programs backed by the US. The world's second largest coca producer, Peru receives funds from the US for its eradication programs. García's plan also includes building schools and hospitals in remote towns, but it seems the army has a greater presence than the government's development teams.

But the Shining Path is also showing signs of deep pockets. Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, it is profiting from prohibition, and the results can be deadly, said critics of García's program. "The Shining Path is using more and more fire power in each attack," Fernando Rospigliosi, a former interior minister, told RPP Radio in Lima. "The plan has not produced results and the government keeps on insisting on the wrong strategy."

The situation was "unacceptable," said ex-Army chief Edwin Donayre. "There are principles applicable to conventional warfare that do not suffice for non-conventional war," he told RPP. "We have zero results so we need to reconfigure our strategy."

But President García is talking tough. "The terrorists won't hold us back," García said. "Our armed forces are trained to smash them."

Latin America: Peru to Export Coca Beer

A coca trade fair in Lima designed to demonstrate that coca is not cocaine showcased a number of products, but the star of the show was a coca leaf beer whose manufacturer has plans to export it to markets in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The fair was organized by the National Confederation of Agricultural Producers of the Coca Valleys of Peru (CONPACCP), the country's largest coca growers' union.

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Cerveza Apu coca beer (photo from malamarxa.blogspot.com)
The coca beer, sold under the brand name Apu by the entrepreneurial Alarcón family of Andahuaylas, is already being sold (and eagerly consumed) in Peru's Andean region, as well as markets in Lima. General manager Manuel Alarcón told Living in Peru the beer was a big hit with tourists at Machu Picchu. But with a production capacity of 180,000 bottles a month, Alarcón is looking outside the domestic market.

Alarcon said the paperwork is already underway to export Apu to China, South Africa, Argentina, and Venezuela. That seems like a breach of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotics, which sought to phase out use of the coca plant, excepting de-cocainized products such as Coca Cola. Some contest that interpretation of international law, however, and given that Venezuela has already inked deals with Bolivia to import coca products, it seems the treaty is sometimes observed only in the breach.

"Thankfully China is a country where coca leaves are accepted and its derivatives can easily enter the country," said Alarcón.

Peru is the world's second largest coca producer, after Colombia and ahead of Bolivia. While some of the country's hundreds of thousands of small producers are registered with the national coca monopoly and deliver their harvests to it, the majority of producers are not legally growing the plant, and much of it is destined for the insatiable international cocaine market.

The situation has led to years of conflict between coca growers and the Peruvian national government. If recent reports are to be believed, it is now leading to a resurgence of the Shining Path and an increasingly violent counterinsurgency operation by the Peruvian military in the Apurímac and Ene River valleys.

Federal Budget: House 2009 Appropriations Bill Contains Even More Drug War Funding Increases... And a Slight Cut to Plan Colombia

Just two weeks ago, the Congress passed the $787 billion economic stimulus bill, which included $3.8 billion for law enforcement, much of it destined for continuing the war on drugs. On Monday, the free-spending House Democratic leadership was at it again as it unveiled its fiscal year 2009 omnibus appropriations bill, and again there is more money for drug law enforcement.

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coca eradication in Plan Colombia (courtesy SF Bay Area IndyMedia)
To the undoubted dismay of drug reformers, taxpayer groups, fiscal conservatives, and good governance advocates alike, the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant program looks to once again get increased funding. The appropriations bill contemplates $2 billion for the Office of Justice Programs, a 16% increase over 2008's $1.679 appropriation. The biggest chunk of that will go to the Byrne JAG grant program.

While the Byrne JAG grants can be used to fund drug courts and drug prevention programs, they are most commonly used to fund multi-jurisdictional anti-drug law enforcement task forces, such as the ones that ran amok in Texas in recent years. Arguing that the spending had not proven effective, the Bush administration attempted to substantially reduce or even zero out Byrne JAG grant funding, but faced constant opposition from "tough on crime" representatives from both parties.

Besides funding the Byrne JAG grant program at higher levels than last year, the appropriations bill includes $550 million for the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, which got $1 billion just two weeks ago in the economic stimulus bill. It also includes another $3.2 billion for state and local law enforcement crime prevention grants -- another area where the Bush administration sought and got funding reductions. This grant program was cut from $4.7 billion to $2.7 billion during the Bush years.

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anti-Plan Colombia poster (courtesy Colombia IndyMedia)
The Drug Enforcement Administration is also a winner, garnering an $84 million increase over 2008 and pushing its annual budget to $1.9 billion. That includes $73 million earmarked "to fight meth including targeted areas in 'hot spots.'"

And so is the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The congressional response to a federal prison system straining under the results of harsh federal drug law enforcement and sentencing laws is to simply increase the prison budget. Under the bill, the BOP budget would jump nearly 10% to $6.2 billion.

There are also drug war spending increases -- and one notable decrease -- in the State Department and foreign operations section of the appropriations bill. The Merida Initiative to assist the Mexican state in its battle against violent drug trafficking organizations would get $405 million. That's on top of a $465 million emergency appropriation already passed. And the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement -- known colloquially as "drugs and thugs" -- is in line for a whopping 35% budget increase, from $557 million in 2008 to $875 million this year.

The one drug war loser in the appropriations bill is Plan Colombia, known as the Andean Counterdrug Program under the Bush administration. With the US having poured more than $5 billion into the program since 1999, only to see coca production increase, House Democrats are moving to shave just a few dollars from that failed program. Instead of the $405 million the Bush administration requested for 2009 or the $320 million that Plan Colombia received in 2008, the new appropriations bill has only $315 million for the Andean drug war.

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.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/mexicocitymarch.jpg
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.

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.

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