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Historic Challenge to Drug War Looms at Cartagena Summit [FEATURE]

In just a couple of days, President Obama will fly to Cartagena, Colombia, to attend this weekend's Organization of American States (OAS) Sixth Summit of the Americas. He and the US delegation are going to get an earful of criticism of US drug policies from Latin American leaders, and that makes it an historic occasion. For the first time, alternatives to drug prohibition are going to be on the agenda at a gathering of hemispheric heads of state.

group photo at 2009 Summit of the Americas (whitehouse.gov)
It's been building for some time now. More than a decade ago, Uruguayan President Jorge Batlle became the first Latin American sitting head of state to call for a discussion of drug legalization. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox joined the call, albeit only briefly while still in office through some media quotes, much more frequently after leaving office in 2006. Honduran President Manuel Zelaya issued a similar call in 2008, but didn't move on it before being overthrown in a coup the following year.

Meanwhile, drug prohibition-related violence in Mexico exploded in the years since President Felipe Calderon called out the army after taking office in December 2006. As the savagery of the multi-sided Mexican drug wars intensified and the death toll accelerated, surpassing 50,000 by the end of last year, the call for another path grew ever louder and more insistent.

In 2009, a group of very prominent Latin American political leaders and public intellectuals led by former Brazilian President Henrique Cardoso, former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo formed the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, calling for a fundamental reexamination of drug policy in the hemisphere and a discussion of alternatives, including decriminalization and regulation of black markets. That was followed last year by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which includes the Latin American ex-presidents, as well as former Switzerland President Ruth Dreiffus and other prominent citizens such as Richard Branson and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, echoing the Latin American Commission's call for reform.

As the commissions issued their reports, the violence in Mexico not only worsened, it spread south into Central America, where governments were weaker, poverty more endemic, and violent street gangs already well-entrenched. Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, in particular, saw homicide rates soar in recent years, well beyond Mexico's, as the Mexican cartels moved into the region, a key transit point on the cocaine trail from South America to the insatiable consumers of the north.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, the secretary of defense under his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, and a man who knows well just what a sustained war on drugs can and cannot achieve, has been among the latest to pick up the torch of drug reform. Santos has made repeated statements in favor of putting alternatives to prohibition on the table, although he has been careful to say Colombia doesn't want to go it alone, and now he has been joined by another unlikely reformer, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, a rightist former general who campaigned on a tough on crime agenda.

It is Perez Molina who has been most active in recent weeks, calling for a Central American summit last month to discuss alternatives to drug prohibition ranging from decriminalization to regulated drug transit corridors to charging the US a "tax" on seized drugs. That summit saw two of his regional colleagues attend, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla and Panamian President Ricardo Martinelli, but no consensus was achieved, no declaration was issued, and three other regional leaders declined to show up. But that summit, too, was a first -- the first time Latin American leaders met specifically to discuss regional drug law reform.

All of this has not gone unnoticed by policymakers in Washington. Vice-President Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano, State Department functionaries and US military brass have all been flying south this year, reluctantly conceding that drug legalization may be a legitimate topic of debate, but that the US is having none of it.

"It's worth discussing," Biden told reporters in Mexico City last month. "But there's no possibility the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on legalization. There are more problems with legalization than non-legalization."

But along with discussing an end to prohibition, the Latin Americans have also offered up proposals between the polar opposites of prohibition and legalization. Options discussed have included decriminalization of drug possession and marijuana legalization to different approaches to combating the drug trade to maintaining addicts with a regulated drug supply. In Colombia, Santos has sponsored legislation to decriminalize possession of "personal dose" quantities of drugs, restoring a policy mandated by the country's Constitutional Court but undone by a constitutional amendment under President Uribe.

And it's not just Latin American political leaders. The calls for change at the top are reflected in a civil society movement for drug reform that has been quietly percolating for years. In fact, an international, but mainly Latin American, group of non-governmental organizations this week issued an Open Letter to the Presidents of the Americas calling for decriminalizing drug use and possession, alternatives to incarceration for non-serious drug offenses, a regulated market for marijuana, a public health approach to problematic drug use, alternative development, respect for traditional uses, and a more focused war on organized crime that is less broadly repressive than current models. In Mexico, a social movement led by poet Javier Sicilia, whose son fell victim to cartel violence, has called for an end to the violence and pressed Preident Calderon on drug reform.

After decades of US-imposed drug war, from US military operations in Bolivia in the 1980s to the multi-billion dollar Plan Colombia, with its counterinsurgency and aerial herbicide spraying, to the blood-stained Mexican border towns and the drug gang-ridden slums of Rio de Janeiro, Latin America is growing increasingly ready to strike out on a different path.

That's what awaits President Obama and the US delegation in Cartagena. The most vibrant discussions may well take place in hallways or behind closed doors, but the US is now faced with yawning cracks in its decades-long drug war consensus.

Joe Biden with Mexican Pres. Calderon last month (whitehouse.gov)
"It's very clear that we may be reaching a point of critical mass where a sufficient number of people are raising the questions of why not dialog on this issue, why not discuss it, why peremptorily dismiss it, why does the president laugh when the subject of drugs is brought up, is he so archly political that it becomes a sort of diabolical act to seriously discuss it, why isn't some new direction being ventured forth?" said Larry Birns, executive director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

"It seems the public is approaching the point where it has become credible to say quite frankly that the drug war hasn't worked. The real menace to society is not so much legalization but the failure to confront the hard fact that after decades of effort and hundreds of billions of dollars, a successful prohibition strategy has not been created, nor is there any likelihood of it being created," he said.

"This is the first major gathering of heads of state at which alternatives to prohibitionist drug control policies, including decriminalization and legal regulation of currently illegal drugs, will be on the agenda," said Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Arguments that were articulated just five years ago primarily by intellectuals and activists, and three years ago by former presidents, are now being advanced, with growing sophistication and nuance, by current presidents. There is now, for the first time, a critical mass of support in the Americas that ensures that this burgeoning debate will no longer be suppressed."

"A lot of countries don't want to do the US's dirty work anymore -- enforcing the prohibitionist policies that are unenforceable and hypocritical," said Laura Carlson, director for Latin America rights and security in the Americas program at the Center for International Policy. "Everybody knows that it's impossible to wipe out the illicit drug business without making it legal, and most people know that the efforts aimed at ostensibly doing that are not 100% honest and certainly not effective. Many Latin American countries don't want the degree of US intervention in their national security that the drug war entails either," she noted.

"Having said that, the US government is determined to put down any talk of alternatives and particularly alternatives that begin with regulation rather than prohibition. The recent visits of Napolitano, Biden, [US State Department Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William] Brownfield and the military leaders all carried that message," the Mexico City-based analyst continued. "Small and dependent countries -- El Salvador is the example here, after reversing its position on legalization -- are afraid to stand up to the US on this, and progressive countries don't seem to want to get involved, both because they find the issue a political hot potato and because they are focusing efforts on strengthening alternative organizations to the OAS."

"I think the US strategy of Brownfield and the State Department will be to say that legalization was brought up and rejected by the Latin American leaders," offered Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. "They will use dichotomous rhetoric, they will try to maneuver the discussion into either prohibition or heroin in vending machines, but this is about the whole spectrum of regulatory possibilities. That's what we need to be talking about instead of that false dichotomy."

Still, to even deign to discuss policy alternatives to prohibition is a notable step forward for the US, even if it is only to dismiss them, Nadelmann argued.

"The shift in the public posture of the US government -- from rejecting any discussion of legalization to acknowledging that 'it is a legitimate subject of debate' -- is significant, notwithstanding the clear caveat by the Obama administration that it remains firmly opposed to the notion," he noted. "That said, it is safe to assume that the US government will do all it can to suppress, ignore, distort and otherwise derail the emerging dialog.  US officials are handicapped, however, by the remarkable failure of government agencies over the past thirty years to contemplate, much less evaluate, alternative drug control strategies. They also must contend with the fact that the United States has rapidly emerged -- at the level of civil society, public opinion and state government -- as a global leader in reform of marijuana policies."

The discussion on drug policy at Cartagena isn't taking place in a vacuum, and there is at least one other issue where the US finds itself at odds with its host and most of the region: Cuba. The US has once again insisted that Cuba not be allowed to attend the summit, and President Santos reluctantly acceded, but the whole affair leaves a sour taste in the mouth of Latin Americans. Ecuadorian President Correa is not coming because of the snub, and the issue only plays into hemispheric discontent with Washington's war on drugs.

"The US won the day in persuading Santos not to invite Cuba," said Birns, "but the political cost of that action is high, and the whole drug issue is twinned to it, not because Castro has an enlightened position on drugs, but because of anti-Americanism in the region. This means Cartagena is the city where a lethal blow against the status quo will be achieved."

"The United States is not going to listen," said Birns, "but this era of non-discussion of drug legalization and refusal to countenance the possibility of dialog on the issue may be coming to an end. More and more people who aren't known as drug reform crusaders are coming forth and saying it's not working, that we need another approach, and that's probably decriminalization and legalization. We're very much closer to liberation on this issue than we've ever been before."

"Liberation" may now be within sight, but diplomatic dissent is not yet close to being translated into paradigmatic policy shifts. Whatever discussion does take place in Cartagena this weekend, don't expect any official breakthroughs or even declarations, said Carlson.

"I am not optimistic about there being any formal commitment, or perhaps even mention, of legalization per se," she said. "The implementation group for the Sixth Summit is already working on the final declaration and it contains a section on 'Citizen Security and Transnational Organized Crime.' I think that as far as it will go is to state that transnational organized crime is a growing problem and that the nations of the Americas agree to work together, blah, blah, blah," she predicted.

"The United States will reiterate its 'shared responsibility' and commitment, but will not mention the need to change a failed model," Carlson said. "There will be more rhetorical emphasis on social programs for 'resilient communities' and especially on police and judicial reform, although the former will not be reflected in what are largely military and police budgets. I think the best we can hope would be a mandate for a policy review and a commitment to continue to discuss alternatives. The specific proposals to legalize transit, to create a regional court for organized crime cases and US payment for interdictions will not likely be resolved."

"This is a long process, not an immediate objective," said Tree. "In Central America, it's going to take a year or two of thoughtful -- not sensational -- media coverage. When people see anarchy, they want order. With a more thoughtful dialog, we can begin to get traction."

"It is too soon to predict that this Summit of the Americas represents any sort of tipping point in global or even regional drug control policy," Nadelmann summed up. "But the odds are good that this gathering will one day be viewed as a pivotal moment in the transformation from the failed global drug prohibition regime of the twentieth century to a new 21st century global drug control regime better grounded in science, health, fiscal prudence and human rights."

We'll see what happens this weekend, but at the very least, the taboo on serious discussion of reforming the drug prohibition regime at the highest levels has been shattered. Look for a report on the summit itself next week.

Cartagena
Colombia

Review Essay: The Border and Mexico's Drug Wars

Border Junkies: Addiction and Survival on the Streets of Juarez and El Paso, by Scott Comar (2011, University of Texas Press, 214 pp., $24.95 PB)

Border Wars, by Tom Barry (2011, MIT Press, 171 pp., $14.95 HB)

Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the US and Mexico, by Beto O'Rourke and Susie Byrd (2011, Cinco Puntos Press, 119 pp., $12.95 PB)

El Sicario: The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin, edited by Molly Molloy and Charles Bowden (2011, Nation Books, 209 pp., $15.99 PB)

In addition to an ever-increasing death toll, now more than 50,000 since President Calderon sent in the army in December 2006, Mexico's drug wars are generating an increasing level of concern and interest in the US, including a burgeoning literature. Next week, we'll review a trio of new works that seek to describe the emergence and significance of the so-called cartels, but this week, we look at a quartet of books that focus on the drug wars (and the drug scene) along the border.

If there's anywhere in America more attuned to the Mexican drug wars -- by which I mean the prohibition-related violence among competing drug trafficking organizations, between them and Mexican law enforcement and the military, and, sometimes, even between different factions of the Mexican security apparatus -- it's El Paso, just across the Rio Grande from one of the epicenters of the drug trade and the violence, Ciudad Juarez.

That's reflected in these titles. One is written by a pair of El Paso politicians, two more are largely set in the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez bi-national metroplex, and the last covers the US border region of which El Paso is front and center. The view from El Paso, staring across the river at the killing and mayhem, can be frightening, but also enlightening.

In Dealing Death and Drugs, El Paso city council members Susie Byrd and Beto O'Rourke (he of the famous city council resolution calling for a discussion of legalization and now running for Congress) bring a home-town perspective on the drug wars, provide some lessons on the economics of the illicit marijuana business and present a concise, yet cogent, argument for legalizing weed as a means of weakening the cartels and reducing the violence.

Marijuana is critical for the cartels, Byrd and O'Rourke argue, because unlike cocaine, which must be purchased from producers elsewhere or methamphetamine, which requires imported precursor chemicals, the cartels control it from farm to market, generating profits each step of the way. They take you from the pot fields of the Sierra Madre Occidental, where a pound costs $23 to Juarez, where it goes for $73 a pound. Getting it past the border and into El Paso drives the price up to $240, and getting it past the Border Protection Service checkpoints a few miles into Texas gets it to its final US wholesale price of about $550 a pound.

US and Mexican law enforcement seized or eradicated 22 metric tons of Mexican weed in 2008, Byrd and O'Rourke note. That's as much as 90% of high end estimates of all the pot smoked in the US, which means either those estimates are way low or that the business is way profitable. And throwing billions of dollars at the problem through law enforcement hasn't helped.

Legalizing, regulating, and taxing the marijuana market is "the least bad" solution, Boyd and O'Rourke write. Their argument, like the book itself, is pithy, yet compelling, and, as Boyd notes in an afterword, even Calderon is starting to come around. But not yet most policymakers in the US.

With El Sicario, we take a deep, dark turn toward the underbelly of the Mexican drug wars. Border sage and drug war critic Charles Bowden and translator and Juarez body count keeper Molly Molloy bring the terrifying realities of the business into chilling focus through their interviews with a former cartel hitman now in hiding with a contract on his head. This may be the single scariest book I've read about the Mexican drug wars, not for its calm and collected accounts of horrifying acts of brutality, which can be truly stomach-turning, but for the picture it paints of absolutely corrupted and complicit law enforcement, including the military.

Can you imagine if you don't know whether that cop who just stopped you is going to write you a ticket or shoot you dead without warning, or kidnap and torture you because he's actually working for the cartels? That's the case in Mexico now. Our interlocutor in El Sicario attended the Chihuahua state police academy, rose to the rank of comandante, and underwent training by the FBI, all while carrying out killings, kidnappings, and tortures for the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels. Even more perversely, while he was running the anti-kidnapping squad for the state police, he was using police vehicles to kidnap people and transport drugs.

And he is by no means alone. According to the hit man, about a quarter of his graduating class at the police academy were on the cartel payroll -- from the very beginning of their law enforcement careers! The Mexican police are heavily salted with cartel men; it's a long-term business strategy that has paid handsomely for the cartels, but has absolutely shredded any trust the public has in state and local law enforcement there.

But it's not just rotten on the Mexican side of the border. The hit man details how he and his colleagues transported tens of millions of dollars worth of drugs across the border and how he personally paid a US Customs officer $50,000 to let cars full of drugs get through. El Sicario shows that dirty knows no borders, even if the cartels are smart enough to keep the blood-letting almost entirely south of the border.

But there are other ways US law enforcement is benefiting from the Mexican drug wars. In Border Wars, journalist and Center for International Policy analyst Tom Barry uses a series of interlocking essays to argue that since the September 2001 Al Qaeda attacks, the US has spent billions of dollars "securing the border" against a triple threat of illegal immigration, drugs, and terror, and has accomplished little good, quite a bit of bad, and plenty of stupid.

Barry opens with the death of Jesus Manuel Galindo, who died for lack of proper medical treatment in 2008 in a privately operated, publicly owned federal immigration prison in remote Pecos, Texas. He recalls that until 2006, we typically handled illegal immigration administratively, often simply deporting Mexicans back across the Rio Grande. But since then, the Bush administration began treating illegal immigration as a criminal matter, and now some 20,000 people languish in those distant prisons. Barry paints chilling, Kafkasque scenes of assembly-line "justice" where judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys, all in the pay of the Us government, process dozens of shackled would-be immigrant laborers into the ever-expanding federal immigration detention system.

There is money to be made there, sucking off the federal teat, although more of it appears to go to lawyers, consultants, dealmakers and lobbyists than to the desperate rural towns hoping a private prison will provide them with a semblance of an economy. There's even more money to be made by border sheriffs and border state law enforcement entities in the seemingly endless billions of Department of Homeland Security dollars to fight drugs and terror.

Barry takes us to Texas and Arizona border counties where the numbers show little violent crime, but the sheriffs and politicians cry to high heaven about "spill over violence," Korans found on the border, and the threat of narco-Hezbollah conspiracies, for which there is no evidence. Some of these counties are among the poorest in the nation, lacking social and public services, yet in one of them, the sheriff's department is so awash in federal grant money that each deputy has two official vehicles, one patrol car and one SUV.

Along the way, he exposes the ugliness of border security politics and some of it practitioners, such as Govs. Rick Perry of Texas and Jan Brewer of Arizona, who use a politics of fear and hate to firm up support among their most reactionary supporters, who hype nonexistent violence on this side of the border, and who constantly tout their border security efforts "without help from Washington" even as they take in billions from Washington to pay for their loudly-touted initiatives. It's rank cynicism, opportunism, and hypocrisy at its worst, and Barry nails it.

For Barry, the central problem is our inability to enact comprehensive immigration reform, a goal always pushed further into the future as we "secure the border" first. And, he says, we have to separate national security from public safety. The gargantuan Department of Homeland Security should worry about terrorists; a separate Customs and Border Protection Service should deal with illegal immigration and drugs.

"The standard of success for our border policy shouldn’t be how completely sealed and secured our border is," he writes, "but rather how well it is regulated. New regulatory frameworks for immigration and drug consumption are fundamental prerequisites for a more cost-effective border policy." And a more sane and human one. 

Finally, with Border Junkies, University of Texas-El Paso borderlands historian Scott Comar takes us back to "the good old days" in Juarez, a decade ago, before the city earned its blood-drenched reputation. In an eye-opening work of auto-ethnography, Comar tells mainly his own story of his descent into abject addiction, in which he moved with appalling speed from owning his own moving truck to panhandling on the streets to feed his habit.

In telling his own story, though, Comar unveils a never-before-written-about world, that of the street junkies of Juarez. His account, based largely on his journal entries, details the day-to-day struggle of the border junkies, the strategies they adopt to survive and score -- and not necessarily in that order -- the kinship and friendship networks that envelop them, the heroin distribution systems that feed their insatiable appetites. For those with a taste for anthropological examinations of the junkie life, this is fascinating stuff, right up there with the work of Philippe Bourgois.

Border Junkies is notable in one other respect: I don't think there is one mention of the cartels in it. Comar recounts constant harassment by the Juarez police (and the El Paso police, too) and petty corruption, he mentions that some of his fellows belonged to gangs, though only passingly, but the existence of the cartels, the source of their dope, is so distant from their daily lives that it is as if they don't exist.

Of course, that was before the death toll in Juarez started climbing to thousands every year. Now those street gangs that in Comar's time seemed to be engaged mainly in minor thuggery, a little smuggling, and posing with pistols have, in the pressure cooker of the Mexican drug wars, morphed into true killing machines like Barrio Azteca, the Artist Assasins, and La Linea. Those guys who quietly peddled smack on the corners or out of their houses in Comar's day died by the hundreds when the violence swept through just a few years later.

Wretched as the border junkie's existence is, it is doable. Comar did it for three years, commuting over the river to panhandle in El Paso, then back across to cop and nod. It was a gritty, miserable existence, but Comar makes it seem almost routine, banal. And, along the way, he has some interesting things to say about addiction and recovery, too.

Perhaps it's fitting to end with the image of the junkie straddling the border, because the root causes of Mexico's drug wars certainly do. Whether it's America's never-ending appetite for Mexican weed, the cartels' addiction to money and power, their alcohol and cocaine-numbed killers, or border state and federal law enforcement's addiction to immigration/drugs/terror funding booty, it's all entangled there on the line.

Mexico may be another country and, thankfully, the violence, at least, remains on that side so far, but we are all in this together. Legalizing marijuana or even ending drug prohibition in the US won't make the cartels magically disappear, but failing to do so will only ensure that they grow ever more entrenched, while continuing to provide sustenance to malign political forces and authoritarian, if not downright Orwellian, policing tendencies here.

Peru Fires Reformist Drug Czar

Ricardo Soberon, the reformist head of DEVIDA, the Peruvian drug agency, has been fired and replaced, the Peruvian government announced Tuesday. Soberon made waves last August when he implemented a temporary ban on forced eradication of coca plants, taking the US Embassy by surprise, but that was soon reversed on the orders of his boss, Interior Minister Oscar Valdes.

statues of coca leaves adorn a small town plaza in Peru (photo by author)
Relations between Soberon and Valdes never warmed, and he "resigned" on Tuesday after just five months in office. Soberon also found himself increasingly at odds with President Ollanta Humala, who had campaigned on a pledge to not aggressively pursue eradication, but who has shifted to the right on this and other issues since taking power.

Soberon had taken that same message to coca growers, with whom he had forged relationships after years of work in the field. His departure could mean an uptick in conflict in the already contentious relationship between coca grower unions and the government.

"Soberon's exit was a matter of time," Peruvian drug policy expert Jaime Antezana told the Washington Post. "There was no chance that Oscar Valdes would keep him in the job."

Soberon had been working on a five-year national drug strategy that would have called for vigorous pursuit of cocaine traffickers and money launderers and interdiction of incoming precursor chemicals and outgoing cocaine, but de-emphasized punishing the peasants who grow coca outside the government coca monopoly, ENACO. That strategy was never approved.

Peru is now arguably the world's largest producer of cocaine, having surpassed Colombia despite the latter country's having more acreage of coca planted, according to US officials. Peru's coca fields are higher-yielding because they are more mature, and the country had the potential to produce 325 metric tons of cocaine last year, compared to 270 tons in Colombia.

Peru eradicated about 15% of the crop last year, but at the political price of alienating thousands of coca growing farm families. Now, it appears ready to deepen that divide.

Lima
Peru

Fixing Our Drug Policy Will Require a Hatchet, Not a Scalpel

I have a new piece at Huffington Post discussing recent claims from the Drug Czar's office that the Obama Administration is working hard to "reform" our drug policy. We've reached an interesting moment in the debate when both sides are wrapping themselves in the flag of reform. 

Drug Crop-Killing Fungi Too Risky, Scientists Say

Using pathogenic fungi to eradicate coca, opium, or other illicit drug crops is too risky because there is not enough data about how to control them and what effect they could have on people and the environment, according to a panel of scientists commissioned to study the subject by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office).

fusarium oxysprorum (wikimedia.org)
The finding came in a report, Feasibility of Using Mycoherbicides for Controlling Illicit Drug Crops, which was released November 30 by a panel of scientists convened by the National Research Council (NRC). ONDCP requested the report after it was required do to so by Congress in its 2006 budget authorization bill.

Mycoherbicides are killer fungi that can be targeted at specific plants and reproduce themselves, staying in the soil for years. Hard-line drug control advocates have urged their use against coca in Colombia and opium in Afghanistan, seeing them as a potential "magic bullet" that could eliminate drug problems at the source. But Colombia rejected the use of mycoherbicides in 2002 and the Afghan government has strongly signaled that it is not interested in using them there.

The NRC scientists found that the evidence base to support using mycoherbicides was scanty. "Questions about the degree of control that could be achieved with such mycoherbicides, as well as uncertainties about their potential effects on non-target plants, microorganisms, animals, humans, and the environment must be addressed before considering deployment," they said.

The panel did not reject outright the use of mycoherbicides; instead, it recommended "research to study several candidate strains of each fungus in order to identify the most efficacious under a broad array of environmental conditions." But it warned that "conducting the research does not guarantee that a feasible mycoherbicide product will result, countermeasures can be developed against mycoherbicides, and there are unavoidable risks from releasing substantial numbers of living organisms into an ecosystem."

The use of mycoherbicides would require meeting multiple domestic regulatory requirements, as well as possible additional regulations and agreements before being used on drug crops in foreign countries, the report noted. That might also prove problematic because "approval to conduct tests in countries where mycoherbicides might be used has been difficult or impossible to obtain in the past."

Congressional and bureaucratic drug warriors are going to have to look elsewhere for their "magic bullet" to win the war on drugs -- unless they're in the mood to appropriate more funds for more research that may or may not come up with a workable mycoherbicide. Then all they would have to do is sell the idea to the government of the country they want to spray it on.

Washington, DC
United States

DEA Raids California, Colorado Medical Marijuana Operations

Putting some law enforcement muscle behind this month's words of warning from federal prosecutors that a new crackdown on medical marijuana distribution was getting underway, DEA agents late last week raided a model regulated medical marijuana grow in Northern California, a medical marijuana dispensary in Southern California, and a medical marijuana grow in Colorado.

"The California marijuana industry is not about providing medicine to the sick," claimed Laura Duffy, the San Diego-based US Attorney at the October 8 Sacramento press conference. "It's a pervasive, for-profit industry that violates federal law."

But the operation raided Thursday, Northstone Organics in Mendocino County, has been touted as a model medical marijuana grow. It holds a Mendocino County sheriff's permit to grow the 99 pot plants seized and destroyed by the feds, pays an estimated $8,500 annually in fees to remain compliant, and has even had sheriff's deputies testify favorably about it in a state court case where Northstone drivers delivering medicine to patients were arrested in Sonoma County.

Northstone Organics founder and owner Matt Cohen told the Ukiah Daily News Friday that heavily-armed agents raided his home and property early Thursday morning, destroying plants and hauling off evidence, but not charging him with a crime.

"They destroyed our home and eradicated everything," Cohen said. "They came in, guns blazing. They calmed down and were pleasant at the end, but they came in with machine guns."

Cohen said the smash and grab raiders included six DEA agents, a state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement agent, and a Mendocino County sheriff's deputy, "who didn't know what he was walking into here."

Northstone is a strict cooperative, growing the plants it distributes to members in the area, as well as in San Francisco and Los Angeles. It is fully compliant with California's medical marijuana laws.

"If we're not legal, nobody's legal," Cohen said. "We actually are a legitimate not-for-profit corporation. We worked with the county to get where we are, and there are illegal growers all around us. We fell under what the US Justice Department said was the threshold for prosecution."

The message the feds are sending? "Go back underground, I guess; make our community a less safe place to be," Cohen said.

The Northstone Organics raid was "shameful and despicable," said Dale Gieringer of Cal NORML, which reported the raid as it was still going on Thursday morning. "The DEA is doing nothing but encouraging lawlessness and disobedience to the law, said Gieringer."This is a victory for the Mexican cartels."

A day earlier and several hundred miles to the south, DEA agents and Pomona police raided the Green Cross USA dispensary, seizing marijuana, marijuana edibles, and records. But unlike the Northstone Organics raid, the raid on Green Cross appears to have been instigated by local authorities, who called in the feds to help.

Pomona Police Capt. Paul Capraro told the Daily Bulletin that the dispensary owner and landlord had received threat letters from the US Attorney's office. The letters said "if they didn't close down they would be subject to criminal prosecution, civil prosecution, and property seizure," he said.

Pomona banned dispensaries with a March 2008 ordinance, and had cited the dispensary in March for operating without a business permit. The owner, Jeffrey Maul, was convicted of operating without a business license, but is appealing that conviction.

The joint city-DEA action sends a message to other dispensaries in Pomona, Capraro said. "Our message is simple, that dispensaries are not lawful businesses in Pomona."

But it's not just a local case, said DEA spokeswoman Sarah Pullen. "We seized contraband, but also gathered evidence for the ongoing investigation," she said, adding that arrests could be forthcoming and that the city and the DEA had worked together for months on the case.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, what originated as a local law enforcement raid against a medical marijuana grower who contracted to grow as part of a larger grow at Cherry Top Farms in Denver morphed during the day into a joint local-state-federal raid replete with carloads of DEA agents and US Attorney representatives.

"We are 100% compliant" with state medical marijuana laws, a Cherry Top Farms manager told Westword after the raid. "But when the feds walk in, they can do whatever the hell they want." Local police had issues with the contract grower who was the original target of the raid, the manager said. "They came to take care of him, but when they got here, they were unable to turn a blind eye, and they did a lot of damage," he complained.

When the first officers showed up late Thursday morning, "it was the Denver Police Department, and then it was the state Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division. Then there were the feds. When they got here, they decided they needed a search warrant for us, too," the manager explained. "They lined us all up and questioned us and took our phones and [state mandated ID] badges. Then they gave some of the option to leave, after they handed over their IDs. But a few of chose to stay, and we were forced to wait in a two-parking space area, probably 10 feet by 10 feet, from 11:00am to 11:00pm. They did let us go to the bathroom, but you definitely had to ask permission to take a piss."

The raiders cleaned out Cherry Top, the manager said. "They took all of our live plants, all of our medicine, all of our extracts, and all of our baked goods," plus at least one more thing. "We have these cute t-shirts, little tank-top titty shirts, and one of the female officers put one on and was dancing around. I said to one of the agents at the door, 'I'm not trying to be disrespectful, but that doesn't seem to be very professional.' And he said, 'It's been a long day. We're just trying to have some fun.'"

The t-shirt has vanished, the manager said. "It's not here. She took it."

After last week's threats from prosecutors in Sacramento, it now appears that the feds are backing up those threats with actions. The medical marijuana wars are heating up again.

Eradication Sparks Conflict in Peru's Coca Fields [FEATURE]

Newly installed Peruvian President Ollanta Humala is facing the first serious challenge to his authority as coca farmer unions have gone on strike to protest the resumption of coca plant eradication. Just last month, in a nod to growers whom he had promised he would halt involuntary eradication, Humala's government announced a temporary halt to eradication in the Upper Huallaga River Valley, but now eradication is again underway, and the coca farmer unions are up in arms.

CONPACCP members in the coca fields (photo by the author)
Earlier this week, strikers erected roadblocks on a major regional highway, and two people had been injured and seven arrested by the time Humala declared a 60-day state of emergency in the Ucayali region Tuesday night. Coca grower unions are threatening an "indefinite national strike" within two weeks if forced eradication isn't ended.

Coca has been grown in Peru for thousands of years and is an intrinsic part of Andean life. Although international anti-drug treaties consider it a controlled substance, tens of thousands of Peruvian farmers grow it legally under license from ENACO, the Peruvian state coca monopoly, which then sells the product for traditional, nutritional and industrial uses.

But tens of thousands of other coca farmers are not registered with ENACO, and their product often ends up being processed into cocaine for the insatiable North American, European, and Brazilian markets. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Peru has now surpassed Colombia as the world's largest coca leaf producer with 61,000 hectares planted, up 2% from last year.

"Eighty percent of the population here are farmers who want the government to redirect its eradication efforts," Jaime García, deputy mayor of the town of Padre Abad in Ucayali, told local radio in remarks reported by the Financial Times.

The same newspaper reported that Nelson Torres, head of the Ucayali chamber of commerce estimated the growers' road blockade was costing $3.6 million a day. He was dismissive of the Humala government's early steps to contain the conflict. "It's the same policy as the previous government," he told local radio. "You have to have to go on strike or create stoppages just to sit down and talk."

Perhaps Ricaro Soberon, the head of the Peruvian anti-drug agency DEVIDA, is belatedly getting that message. He finally met with coca growers on Monday, but not before he told reporters in Lima last week that the Humala government will implement a "sustainable" eradication program that replaces coca with alternative crops. The country will also increase anti-drug spending 20% next year, step up interdiction efforts, and institute tighter controls on chemicals used to process coca into cocaine, Soberon said.

"Crop reduction must be definitive, which means replacing coca with an economically viable alternative," said Soberon. "This problem is well beyond our ability to confront alone so we're worried about the trend of declining international aid."

Soberon, an attorney and drug policy expert who has been a critic of past eradication programs, has already faced calls for his resignation for being "soft" on coca, and the temporary halt to eradication also raised concerns in the US.

Now, though, Humala and Soberon have to balance their sympathy for coca farmers whose support they successfully sought during the election campaign, against demands from Washington and conservative factions inside Peru that they repress the crop. On Tuesday, the national coca growers' union CONPACCP (the National Confederation of Agricultural Producers of the Coca Valleys of Peru) issued a communique which announced that they would support an "indefinite national strike" against forced eradication within the next two weeks, even as they defended Soberon against attacks from the right.

"Coca or death" -- CONPACCP field office (photo by the author)
"Agents of US interests, like [former interior minister] Fernando Rospigliosi have unleashed a campaign of destruction against one of the few specialists in drug traffic, Ricardo Soberon," CONPACCP noted. "They say that Soberon's closeness to the cocaleros is a defect, when in reality, it is a logical consequence of his work as an analyst who has studied deeply the problematic of coca leaf cultivation and who could, if they let him do his job, propose solutions that transcend mere repression and criminalization of the weakest link in the chain, which in this case is the growers, and not the grand narcos and the apparatus that they have created around the commercialization of cocaine hydrochloride and its derivatives."

While defending Soberon, CONPACCP called for further meetings in a bid to find a nonviolent solution to the conflict and demanded that Humala fulfill his campaign promise to end forced eradication. It also had specific criticisms of the eradication program in Ucayali.

"The forced eradication campaign is going on in zones next to the highway that are affiliated with the CONPACCP, small parcels where farmers deliver their coca to ENACO, while they are not eradicating the grand plantations of coca that can be found 12 miles from the highway," the union complained. "They are taking photos and making recordings of these roadside eradications and then showing them next to images of [cocaine production] maceration pits as if they were at the same site in order to deceive the population."

Authorities are not going after the big plantations because they have "corrupted" the eradication program to be "untouchable," CONPACCP continued. To not eradicate the big plantations connected to the drug trade while eradicating small plots of registered farmers results in "incoherent anti-drug policies of the government," the union argued.

The eradicators themselves are behaving lawlessly, CONPACCP complained. "Besides the unjust eradication, they are robbing the animals and goods of the population" and have "unjustly detained" seven peasant farmers "whose immediate liberation we demand."

CONPACCP is supporting the current "indefinite strike" in Ucayali and is giving the Humala government two weeks to show good faith before it calls for a national coca grower strike. Humala and Soberon are going to have their work cut out for them as they attempt to chart a course that pleases both the coca growers and Washington.

Peru

Peru Halts Coca Eradication -- For Now

The government of newly elected Peruvian President Ollanta Humala announced last week that it is suspending the US-backed coca eradication program in the Upper Huallaga Valley, the only ongoing eradication program in the country. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Peru has surpassed Colombia as the world's largest coca leaf producer, although Colombia maintains a slight lead in cocaine production.

Town plaza with statues honoring the coca leaf in the VRAE (photo by the author)
The Upper Huallaga isn't Peru's largest coca growing area -- that distinction belongs to the Ene and Apurimac River Valleys (VRAE in the Spanish acronym), but that area is considered too lawless to even attempt eradication.

Newly appointed head of the National Commission for the Development of Life Without Drugs Ricardo Soberon told reporters last Wednesday that the program was being suspended so the Humala government could "evaluate the policies." Soberon added that the Humala government is in the midst of renegotiating anti-drug agreements with the US and that past anti-drug policies have failed, leading to an increase in cultivation.

Soberon is a well-known advocate of progressive drug policies and talks about reduction rather than eradication, saying efforts should be aimed at coca plots in national parks, near maceration pits where cocaine is produced, and that are beyond an "acceptable" size. His appointment as Peru's drug czar sends a strong signal that Humala wants to do something different when it comes to coca policy.

According to the UNODC, Peruvian coca production increased 2% over last year. The Andean nation is cultivating 150,000 acres of coca this year. Coca consumption is legal in Peru. So is production, as long as coca farmers register with ENACO, the government coca monopoly, which stockpiles coca for traditional and medicinal uses. But tens of thousands of Peruvian coca farmers grow without registering, and much of their production is destined to be turned into cocaine to be sold to ravenous North American, European, and Brazilian consumers.

Campaign sign urging voters in the VRAE to vote for the coca leaf symbol and the parties it represents. (photo by the author)
Humala, a leftist nationalist, campaigned on a platform that included decriminalizing unregistered coca growers, and even low-level players in the cocaine trade, but he has said his government is committed to the anti-drug struggle. He counted major coca growers among his supporters during the election campaign.

But on Friday, the Associated Press reported that US officials said they had received assurances from Peru that it would continue to cooperate in anti-drug efforts.

"We do not believe that the temporary suspension of eradication this week represents a permanent shift in the Peruvian government's counternarcotics policy," the State Department said. Peruvian government officials "at the highest levels" assured the US Embassy in Lima "of their intention to continue close collaboration in the fight against narcotics trafficking and criminality, and to work together to continue to reduce the cultivation of illegal coca in Peru," it said.

Still, with President Evo Morales in Bolivia and now with President Ollanta Humala in Peru, the US-imposed orthodoxy of coca eradication in place since the 1980s is increasingly being replaced by policies more in line with the interests of Lima and La Paz rather than Washington.

Peru

Police Shouldn't Be Proud of Seizing Bigger Marijuana Crops Every Year (It's a Sign of Failure)

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If I didn't know better, some of this week's headlines might have me wondering if the American marijuana market is about to come to a crashing halt.

Record Marijuana Bust: $205 Million In Pot Plants Eradicated In Ventura County

Officials from the Venture County Sheriff's department pulled in a record haul at a massive marijuana bust last week, the department announced today.

According to the official press release, the interoffice effort between a number of local officials and the United States Forest Service (USFS) managed to collect 68,488 marijuana plants at a large growing operation in the Los Padres National Forest just north of the city of Ojai.

The estimated street value for the record breaking bust was $205,464,000. (Huffington Post)

Meanwhile in Mexico, there's plenty of excitement in the air as well:

Mexico Finds Large Marijuana Farm in Baja California
 
Mexican soldiers discovered one of the largest marijuana plantations ever found in the country, just 200 miles south of San Diego, Calif., the Mexican Defense Ministry said.

Mexican officials said on Thursday that the plantation, in Baja California, stretched as far as the eye could see—totaling some 120 hectares (296 acres). The crop would yield about 120 metric tons and be worth an estimated $160 million, the Defense Ministry said in a statement. (WSJ)

This is pretty typical stuff as far as celebratory drug prohibition press releases are concerned, but that hardly excuses the epic levels of drug war idiocy on display here. Let's just think critically for one second and consider how you'd feel if you were tasked with the responsibility of preventing marijuana cultivation, and you just kept discovering ever more mindblowingly enormous marijuana plantations every single year.

It is a sign of progress, yes, but not on the part of the vast drug war armies dedicated to stopping people from growing staggering amounts of marijuana all over the northern hemisphere. The only discernible progress any reasonable person could observe here would have to be credited to those whose mission it is to overwhelm law-enforcement with an ever-intensifying cultivation campaign that promises to make them rich regardless of whatever percentage happens to get hauled off by the cops.

You would never find an oncologist bragging that he's finding the biggest tumors of his career and calling it a victory in the fight against cancer. Marijuana is hardly cancer, of course, but I wouldn't bet these pot crusaders are entirely clear on the distinction, which is why I still struggle to comprehend their ongoing and obsessive tendency to boast about something they ought to find perfectly disturbing.

At this pace, we can look forward to the day when marijuana is literally the only thing still growing in our once-majestic wilderness, and as insane as it sounds, I wouldn't even be surprised to find law enforcement still bragging about their success as marijuana fields wind their way across every hillside from Orange Country to Olympia.

Lebanese Police Destroying Marijuana Fields Attacked

Lebanese anti-drug police on missions to destroy marijuana fields in the Bekaa Valley came under attack at least twice on Monday, the first day of annual eradication efforts aimed at the valley's deeply-embedded trade in hashish.

marijuana fields just before they are burned (image via wikimedia.org)
"Internal security forces in the Office of Drug Control cooperated with the Lebanese army to raze hashish fields in the northern Bekaa," NowLebanon.com reported early in the day before things started heating up. By day's end, Lebanese media would have reason to produce new reports as the clashes broke out.

The Lebanon Daily Star reported an early morning shoot-out on the Boudai Plain on the outskirts of the city of Baalbek. Later in the day, NowLebanon.com reported on a second clash near the town of Ollaq. No injuries were reported in either incident.

In the Boudai Plain incident, unknown assailants fired at least five rocket propelled grenades toward police razing the fields. The attackers fled after exchanging gunfire with security forces.

Later in the day, security forces again came under attack as they destroyed a marijuana field in the town of Ollaq. Armed men shot at the eradicators, as well as again launching missiles. The rockets damaged two cars, one belonging to the head of the anti-drug police, Col. Adel Mashmoushi, and one belonging to a Lebanese television network.

"The perpetrators fled the scene in four cars after then 10-minute fire fight," the Lebanese National News Agency reported.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's 2011 World Drug Report, Lebanon is the world's third largest hashish producer, accounting for 6% of global production. Morocco leads with about 19% of global production, followed by Afghanistan with about 10%, and then Lebanon.

After day one of this year's eradication effort, it appears Bekaa Valley hash producers aren't giving up without a fight.

Lebanon

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