Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity

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Video: Crack Sentencing Reform Petition Delivered to Congress -- Former Prisoners, Family Members and Advocates Speak Out

Last month the "Crack the Disparity" Coalition delivered petitions signed by tens of thousands of people, calling for an end to the draconian US crack sentencing laws, to the offices of Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) and Pat Leahy (D-VT), respective chairs of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees. This short video on ColorOfChange.org shows one of the deliveries, and features comments from Karen Garrison, whose two sons were unjustly caught up in these laws; and from Nkechi Taifa, who heads up justice reform efforts at the Open Society Policy Center. The ColorOfChange.org page devoted to this petition also features audio from the press conference, including former Major League baseball star Willie Mays Aikens, who served 14 years in federal prison after an untreated cocaine addiction drew him into the federal system with crack charges.

Rethinking Federal Sentencing Policy

Congressional Black Caucus Justice and Civil Rights Taskforce and Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice at Harvard Law School presents Rethinking Federal Sentencing Policy: 25th Anniversary of the Sentencing Reform Act. For more information, contact: Bernard Moore, PhD, Senior Policy Fellow, Office of Congressman Danny K. Davis at 202-360-7551 or Bernard.moore@mail.house.gov. Schedule: Welcome and Opening remarks by Rep. Danny Davis (5 minutes) Rep. Charles Rangel (5 minutes) Welcome and Introduction of A.G. by CBC Justice & Civil Rights Task Force, Rep. John Conyers (5-10 minutes) Remarks by Eric Holder, Attorney General (15 minutes), U.S. Department of Justice Introduction of Justice O’Connor by Sen. Patrick Leahy, Charles Hamilton Houston, Institute for Race & Justice (5 minutes) Remarks by Hon. Sandra Day O’Connor (15 minutes), Supreme Court of the United States Mandatory Minimums Panel One: Rep Maxine Waters (CA) History of Mandatory Minimums Hon. Terry Hatter, Judge, U.S. District Court for the Central District of California Hon. J. Spencer Letts, Senior Judge, U.S. District Court for the Central District of California Eric Sterling, President, Criminal Justice Policy Foundation Charles E. Black, formerly Incarcerated Panel Two: Rep. Bobby Scott (VA) the need for repeal and how to repeal, including legislative update Hon. Ann Williams, Circuit Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals, 7th Circuit A.J. Kramer, Federal Defender, Federal Public Defender of the District of Columbia Julie Stewart, President, Families Against Mandatory Minimums Disparity between Crack and Powder Cocaine Panel Three: Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (TX) Hon. Reggie B. Walton, Judge, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Hon. William Sessions, Vice Chairman, U.S. Sentencing Commission Brace Nicholson, Legislative Counsel, American Bar Association David Kirby, Former United States Attorney for the District of Vermont Good Time Panel Four: Rep. Danny K. Davis (IL) Hon. Consuelo B. Marshall, Senior Judge, U.S. District Court for Central District of California Nancy Gertner, Judge, U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts Marc Mauer, Executive Director, Sentencing Project Harley G. Lappin, Director, Federal Bureau of Prisons (Discuss overcrowding)
Date: 
Wed, 06/24/2009 - 4:30pm - 7:30pm
Location: 
Orientation Theater-South
Washington, DC
United States

Sentencing: Obama Administration Tells Congress to End Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity

In a break with the Bush administration, Justice Department officials called Wednesday for the first time for Congress to pass legislation that would undo the vast disparities in sentences for those convicted of crack and powder cocaine possession offenses. For years, drug reformers, civil rights groups, and even the US Sentencing Commission have called for the disparities to be undone, saying they have had a racially disproportionate impact on poor and minority communities.

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/durbin-crack-hearing.jpg
Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) opens the hearing
Under federal sentencing laws adopted in the midst of the crack hysteria of the 1980s, it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to generate a mandatory minimum five-year federal prison sentence, but only five grams of crack to generate the same sentence. Historically, blacks have accounted for more than 80% of all federal crack convictions, with whites accounting for less than 10%.

Competing bills have been introduced to eliminate or reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences, but in previous years they have not gotten far. With the administration now behind eliminating the disparity, this year could be different.

Justice Department Criminal Division Chief Lanny Breuer told a Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee Wednesday that the administration supported bills that would equalize punishments for crack and powder cocaine offenses. The disparity should be "completely eliminated," he said.

"Now is the time for us to reexamine federal cocaine sentencing policy, from the perspective of both fundamental fairness and safety," Breuer told the Judiciary subcommittee on crime and drugs. He added that a Justice Department panel is reviewing a broad range of criminal justice topics, including sentencing reforms.

It's about time, said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), the Senate majority whip, citing the racially disproportionate crack conviction figures. "These racial disparities profoundly undermine trust in our criminal justice system and have a deeply corrosive effect on the relationship between law enforcement and minority communities," Durbin said.

US District Judge Reggie Walton, representing the Judicial Conference, also addressed the committee. The crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity is "one of the most important issues confronting the criminal justice system today," he said. "No one can appreciate the agony of having to enforce a law that one believes to be fundamentally unfair to individuals who look like me," said the judge, who is black.

Sentencing reform advocacy groups were also on hand for the hearing. Mary Price, vice president and general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) told the subcommittee the sentencing disparity has a discriminatory impact on blacks, including people like FAMM client Eugenia Jennings, now serving a 20-year prison sentence for twice trading small amounts of crack for designer clothes.

"This hearing gives new hope to thousands who have loved ones serving harsh sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses," Price said.

Even former DEA head and enthusiastic drug warrior Asa Hutchinson had little good to say about the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. "When significant numbers of African Americans on the street question the fairness of our criminal justice system, then it becomes more difficult for the officer on the street to do his or her duty under the law," Hutchinson said.

A number of bills have been filed in both the House and the Senate to address the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. Now, the fight will be to ensure that eliminating the disparity means reducing crack sentences, not increasing powder ones.

Click here to view archived video of the hearing.

Obama Supports Ending the Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

Good news from Washington, D.C.:

Justice Department officials this morning endorsed for the first time proposed legislation that would eliminate vast sentencing disparities for possession of powdered versus rock cocaine, an inequality that civil rights groups say has disproportionately affected poor and minority defendants.

Newly appointed Criminal Division chief Lanny A. Breuer told a Senate Judiciary Committee panel this morning that the Obama administration would support bills to equalize punishment for offenders accused of possessing the drug in either form, fulfilling one of the president's campaign pledges.

Breuer explicitly called on Congress to act this term to "completely eliminate" the sentencing disparity. [Washington Post]

The cocaine sentencing disparity has been a festering indefensible abomination for decades, and now that we're finally on track to fix this mess once and for all, I don't hear anyone complaining. It's great that the new administration is following through on their promises to support sentencing reform, but it's also just appalling to think that it's taken this long to get any momentum going towards fixing this notorious injustice. There was never anything to be afraid of.

Fixing dumb laws is the duty of the Congress and they'd be hard pressed to find a dumber one than this. Don't make this more complicated than it has to be. Just fix it already.

TODAY is National Call-In Day: Call Your Representatives NOW

TAKE ACTION

Capital

 

     Today, be one of thousands of people across the country to phone your members of Congress to call for an end to the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. Your calls will make an important difference.
 
     This National Call-In Day is part of Crack the Disparity National Month of Advocacy, a month-long coordinated push to eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.
 
     The current law:

  • overstates the relative danger of crack cocaine compared to powder cocaine;
  • contributes to the growth of our prison population, increasing the financial burden on taxpayers;
  • disproportionately affects African Americans; and
  • uses limited federal resources on low-level street dealers rather than on the major drug traffickers.

      Twenty-three years of a failed policy is long enough!  It's time to end this unjust and disproportionate sentencing policy. To participate call the U.S. Capitol Switchboard right now at 202.224.3121, and ask to speak to your representatives in the Senate and House. Urge them to support and co-sponsor H.R. 265, the Drug Sentencing Reform and Cocaine Kingpin Trafficking Act in the House and legislation in the Senate that eliminates the 100 to 1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

    You should place three calls because you have one representative and two senators.
 
     Use this link to help you with your calls to Congress.

Click here for talking points and script

Take Action Alert: National Call-In Day Thursday, April 23

Dear Friends, On Thursday, April 23, thousands of people across the country will phone their members of Congress to call for an end to the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. We hope that you will mark your calendar and join us. Your calls will make an important difference. The National Call-In Day is part of Crack the Disparity National Month of Advocacy, a month-long coordinated push to eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The current law: • overstates the relative danger of crack cocaine compared to powder cocaine; • contributes to the growth of our prison population, increasing the financial burden on taxpayers; • disproportionately affects African Americans; and • uses limited federal resources on low-level street dealers rather than on the major drug traffickers. Twenty-three years of a failed policy is long enough! It's time to end this unjust and disproportionate sentencing policy. To participate, mark your calendar for April 23, call the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at 202.224.3121, and ask to speak to your representatives in the Senate and House. Urge them to support and co-sponsor H.R. 265, the Drug Sentencing Reform and Cocaine Kingpin Trafficking Act in the House and legislation in the Senate that eliminates the 100 to 1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine. You should place three calls because you have one representative and two senators. Use this link (talking points and script) to help you with your calls to Congress: http://sentencingproject.org/AdvocacyMaterialDetails.aspx?AdvocacyMateri... - The Sentencing Project

Save the date! National FAMM's Call-In to Congress, April 23

Families Against Mandatory Minimums logo

 

Dear Friends --

Call-In Day button

On Thursday, April 23, thousands of people across the country will phone their members of Congress to call for an end to the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. We hope that you will mark your calendar and join us.  Your calls will make an important difference.

The National Call-In Day is part of "Crack the Disparity" National Month of Advocacy, a month-long coordinated push to eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

The current law:
*   overstates the relative danger of crack cocaine to powder cocaine;

*   contributes to the growth of our prison population, increasing the financial burden on taxpayers;

*   disproportionately affects African Americans; and

*   uses limited federal resources on low-level street dealers rather than on the major drug traffickers.

Twenty-three years of a failed policy is long enough!  It's time to end this unjust and disproportionate sentencing policy.  To participate, mark your calendar for April 23. FAMM will send out contact information for your Congressional representative and two senators as well as talking points the day before the call-in.

Thank you --

Jennifer

Jennifer Seltzer Stitt

Federal Legislative Affairs Director
Sentences that Fit. Justice that Works.

 If you no longer wish to receive e-mail from us, please click here.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums: National Call-In Day

Thousands of people across the country will phone their members of Congress to call for an end to the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. We hope that you will mark your calendar and join us. Your calls will make an important difference. The National Call-In Day is part of "Crack the Disparity" National Month of Advocacy, a month-long coordinated push to eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The current law: * overstates the relative danger of crack cocaine to powder cocaine; * contributes to the growth of our prison population, increasing the financial burden on taxpayers; * disproportionately affects African Americans; and * uses limited federal resources on low-level street dealers rather than on the major drug traffickers. Twenty-three years of a failed policy is long enough! It's time to end this unjust and disproportionate sentencing policy. To participate, mark your calendar for April 23. FAMM will send out contact information for your Congressional representative and two senators as well as talking points the day before the call-in.
Date: 
Thu, 04/23/2009 - 12:01am - 11:59pm

The White House: Obama on Drug Policy

The incoming Obama administration has posted its agenda online at the White House web site Whitehouse.gov. While neither drug policy nor criminal justice merited its own category in the Obama agenda, several of the broad categories listed do contain references to drug and crime policy and provide a strong indication of the administration's proclivities.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/inauguration.jpg
But before getting into what the agenda mentions, it's worth noting what the agenda does not mention: marijuana. There is not a word about the nation's most widely used illicit drug or the nearly 900,000 arrests a year generated by marijuana prohibition. Nor, despite Obama campaign pledges, is there a word about medical marijuana or ending the DEA raids on providers in California -- which doesn't necessarily mean he will go back on his word. It could well be that the issue is seen as too marginal to be included in the broad agenda for national change. With the first raid on a medical marijuana clinic during the Obama administration hitting this very week, reformers are anxiously hoping it is only the work of Bush holdovers and not a signal about the future.

Reformers may find themselves pleased with some Obama positions, but they will be less happy with others. The Obama administration wants to reduce inequities in the criminal justice system, but it also taking thoroughly conventional positions on other drug policy issues.

But let's let them speak for themselves. Here are the relevant sections of the Obama agenda:

Under Civil Rights:

  • End Racial Profiling: President Obama and Vice President Biden will ban racial profiling by federal law enforcement agencies and provide federal incentives to state and local police departments to prohibit the practice.
  • Reduce Crime Recidivism by Providing Ex-Offender Support: President Obama and Vice President Biden will provide job training, substance abuse and mental health counseling to ex-offenders, so that they are successfully re-integrated into society. Obama and Biden will also create a prison-to-work incentive program to improve ex-offender employment and job retention rates.
  • Eliminate Sentencing Disparities: President Obama and Vice President Biden believe the disparity between sentencing crack and powder-based cocaine is wrong and should be completely eliminated.
  • Expand Use of Drug Courts: President Obama and Vice President Biden will give first-time, non-violent offenders a chance to serve their sentence, where appropriate, in the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior.
  • Promote AIDS Prevention: In the first year of his presidency, President Obama will develop and begin to implement a comprehensive national HIV/AIDS strategy that includes all federal agencies. The strategy will be designed to reduce HIV infections, increase access to care and reduce HIV-related health disparities. The President will support common sense approaches including age-appropriate sex education that includes information about contraception, combating infection within our prison population through education and contraception, and distributing contraceptives through our public health system. The President also supports lifting the federal ban on needle exchange, which could dramatically reduce rates of infection among drug users. President Obama has also been willing to confront the stigma -- too often tied to homophobia -- that continues to surround HIV/AIDS.

Under Foreign Policy:

  • Afghanistan: Obama and Biden will refocus American resources on the greatest threat to our security -- the resurgence of al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They will increase our troop levels in Afghanistan, press our allies in NATO to do the same, and dedicate more resources to revitalize Afghanistan's economic development. Obama and Biden will demand the Afghan government do more, including cracking down on corruption and the illicit opium trade.

Under Rural Issues:

  • Combat Methamphetamine: Continue the fight to rid our communities of meth and offer support to help addicts heal.

Under Urban Issues:

  • Support Local Law Enforcement: President Obama and Vice President Biden are committed to fully funding the COPS program to put 50,000 police officers on the street and help address police brutality and accountability issues in local communities. Obama and Biden also support efforts to encourage young people to enter the law enforcement profession, so that our local police departments are not understaffed because of a dearth of qualified applicants.
  • Reduce Crime Recidivism by Providing Ex-Offender Supports: America is facing an incarceration and post-incarceration crisis in urban communities. Obama and Biden will create a prison-to-work incentive program, modeled on the successful Welfare-to-Work Partnership, and work to reform correctional systems to break down barriers for ex-offenders to find employment.

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.

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

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