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The War on Marijuana = Federal $$$ for Local Cops

If you've ever wondered how police departments can afford to send so many officers off into the woods looking for pot plants, the Wall Street Journal just figured it out:



IGO, Calif.—Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko, his budget under pressure in a weak economy, has laid off staff, reduced patrols and even released jail inmates. But there's one mission on which he's spending more than in recent years: pot busts.

The reason is simple: If he steps up his pursuit of marijuana growers, his department is eligible for roughly half a million dollars a year in federal anti-drug funding, helping save some jobs. The majority of the funding would have to be used to fight pot. Marijuana may not be the county's most pressing crime problem, the sheriff says, but "it's where the money is."

Every year, more money is spent and more marijuana is discovered. The growers then respond by planting still more. New records are set every harvest season, keeping growers and the police who pursue them steadily employed. The big losers in this ridiculous cycle of idiocy are the taxpayers, who spend billions on this stupid self-perpetuating escapade while neighborhood crimes go unsolved.

Just because some people think legalizing marijuana might "send the wrong message," we're instead stuck in a massive domestic war that we can't afford, and we're losing worse every year. Meanwhile, cops and criminals just continue cashing in.

For more, check out this interesting exchange between MPP's Mike Meno and a California reporter who's been following the story.

Police Cut Down 400 Pot Plants, Then Realize it's Not Marijuana

Further proof that police aren't exactly experts on botany:

I suppose it's ok to laugh at this one, since nobody got shot. On the other hand, it's probably just a matter of time before a similar mistake results in someone getting a gun shoved in their face. Oh wait, it's already happened.

Prohibition: Drug War is a Failure, Associated Press Reports

In a major, broad-ranging report released Thursday, the Associated Press declared that "After 40 Years, $1 Trillion, US War on Drugs Has Failed to Meet Any of Its Goals." The report notes that after four decades of prohibitionist drug enforcement, "Drug use is rampant and violence is even more brutal and widespread."

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The AP even got drug czar Gil Kerlikowske to agree. "In the grand scheme, it has not been successful," Kerlikowske said. "Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified."

The AP pointedly notes that despite official acknowledgments that the policy has been a flop, the Obama administration's federal drug budget continues to increase spending on law enforcement and interdiction and that the budget's broad contours are essentially identical to those of the Bush administration.

Here, according to the AP, is where some of that trillion dollars worth of policy disaster went:

  • $20 billion to fight the drug gangs in their home countries. In Colombia, for example, the United States spent more than $6 billion, while coca cultivation increased and trafficking moved to Mexico -- and the violence along with it.
  • $33 billion in marketing "Just Say No"-style messages to America's youth and other prevention programs. High school students report the same rates of illegal drug use as they did in 1970, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says drug overdoses have "risen steadily" since the early 1970s to more than 20,000 last year.
  • $49 billion for law enforcement along America's borders to cut off the flow of illegal drugs. This year, 25 million Americans will snort, swallow, inject and smoke illicit drugs, about 10 million more than in 1970, with the bulk of those drugs imported from Mexico.
  • $121 billion to arrest more than 37 million nonviolent drug offenders, about 10 million of them for possession of marijuana. Studies show that jail time tends to increase drug abuse.
  • $450 billion to lock those people up in federal prisons alone. Last year, half of all federal prisoners in the US were serving sentences for drug offenses. [Editor's Note: This $450 billion dollar figure for federal drug war prisoners appears erroneous on the high side. According to Department of Justice budget figures, funding for the Bureau of Prisons, as well as courthouse security programs, was set at $9 billion for the coming fiscal year.]

The AP notes that, even adjusted for inflation, the federal drug war budget is 31 times what Richard Nixon asked for in his first federal drug budget.

Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron told the AP that spending money for more police and soldiers only leads to more homicides. "Current policy is not having an effect of reducing drug use," Miron said, "but it's costing the public a fortune."

"President Obama's newly released drug war budget is essentially the same as Bush's, with roughly twice as much money going to the criminal justice system as to treatment and prevention," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance. "This despite Obama's statements on the campaign trail that drug use should be treated as a health issue, not a criminal justice issue."

"For the first time ever, the nation has before it an administration that views the drug issue first and foremost through the lens of the public health mandate," said economist and drug policy expert John Carnevale, who served three administrations and four drug czars. "Yet... it appears that this historic policy stride has some problems with its supporting budget."

Of the record $15.5 billion Obama is requesting for the drug war for 2011, about two thirds of it is destined for law enforcement, eradication, and interdiction. About one-third will go for prevention and treatment.

The AP did manage to find one person to stick up for the drug war: former Bush administration drug czar John Walters, who insisted society would be worse if today if not for the drug war. "To say that all the things that have been done in the war on drugs haven't made any difference is ridiculous," Walters said. "It destroys everything we've done. It's saying all the people involved in law enforcement, treatment and prevention have been wasting their time. It's saying all these people's work is misguided."

Uh, yeah, John, that's what it's saying.

NEW LOCATION: Reformers to Call for New Approach TODAY at Marijuana Eradication Conference

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                                                                                 

MAY 10, 2010

Reformers to Call for New Approach TODAY at Marijuana Eradication Conference

Location Changed for Today’s Press Conference; Former Law Enforcement, Clergy Members, Other Advocates Will Call for End to Wasteful, Ineffective Eradication Campaigns

CONTACT: Aaron Smith, MPP California policy director …………… asmith@mpp.org or 707-291-0076

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA — At a press conference today, reform-minded advocates will make the case for ending the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), which, since 1983, has inarguably failed to achieve its stated goal: reducing marijuana use and availability by eradicating illegal grow sites.

            Today through Wednesday, local, state, and federal law enforcement officers will gather at the U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego to begin organizing this year’s eradication campaign, the wisdom of which has been increasingly called into question as Californians prepare to vote on a November ballot initiative that would end the state’s prohibition on adult marijuana use.

         “It’s time to stop this insanity of repeating the futile exercise of CAMP and instead replace marijuana prohibition with a system of taxation and regulation,” said Aaron Smith, California policy director for MPP, who is leading Monday’s press conference.

         Today’s press conference was originally planned to be held in the same hotel as the CAMP conference, but organizers were informed at the last minute and without explanation that they would not be able to hold the event in the same hotel. 

         NEW LOCATION: Westin Gas Lamp Quarter Hotel, Coronado Room, (3rd floor), 910 Broadway Circle, San Diego, CA 92101

         WHAT: Press conference to call for an effective marijuana policy and an end to eradication campaigns

         WHEN: Monday, May 10, at 11:00 a.m.

         WHO: Speakers who will question the wisdom behind CAMP will include:

Leo Laurence, a retired deputy sheriff and former legal researcher for the San Diego County District Attorney’s office, now a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

The Rev. Canon Mary Moreno-Richardson, an Episcopal priest and coordinator for Hispanic Ministries at St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, who has worked extensively to prevent violence in the community and help at risk youth.

         With more than 124,000 members and supporters nationwide, the Marijuana Policy Project is the largest marijuana policy reform organization in the United States. MPP believes that the best way to minimize the harm associated with marijuana is to regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol. For more information, please visit www.mpp.org.

####

Location: 
San Diego, CA
United States

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Opium: Uncovering the Politics of the Poppy," by Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy (2010, Harvard University Press, 256 pp., $28.95 HB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer/Editor

For more than a decade, French researcher Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy has been cementing his reputation as one of the world's leading experts on opium and the opium trade, and now, with "Opium," he makes his work accessible to an English-speaking audience. In doing so, he reveals the long and fascinating history of the opium poppy and explores the dynamics behind the ever-mutating patterns of cultivation and distribution that mark the trade for the past century. He also explains why decades of aggressive anti-drug policies by the US and the United Nations have failed to suppress or even reduce illicit poppy production.

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Chouvy's knowledge of the trade is extensive -- he has spent years trudging around the backwaters of Asia, from Burma and Laos to Afghanistan and Pakistan -- and his grasp of its motors and contours is impressive. As he traces the 20th Century evolution of the opium trade, he also shows how damnably difficult it is to suppress the pain-relieving poppy.

Chouvy takes the reader through China's (at least temporarily) successful opium ban of the 1950s and demonstrates how the ban stimulated production just south of the border in Thailand, Laos, and Burma. Similarly, he shows how opium bans in Turkey and Iran around mid-century stimulated production in Pakistan and now Afghanistan.

Along the way, Chouvy reveals the futility of drug war approaches by unveiling the symbiotic relationship between drug economies and war economies. A trade that thrives on the poverty and underdevelopment created by violent conflict cannot be defeated militarily. Thus, the logic of the drug war is almost completely backwards, he argues.

It's not that opium bans or eradication can never work, Chouvy notes. They have worked, at least locally, whether through harsh repression, as in China in the 1950s or Burma in the 2000s, or in combination with economic development efforts, as in Thailand in the 1970s and 1980s. But to reduce opium cultivation requires alternative livelihood programs and economic and social development programs that are well-constructed, adequately funded, and long-lived because "poverty and food insecurity are the main drivers of illicit opium production."

(One could argue that demand drives production, although opium is the sort of commodity that creates its own demand, or that artificially inflated prices due to the global prohibition regime drive production, but for Chouvy, the appetite for opium and the reality of drug prohibition are givens.)

That has not generally been the case, Chouvy rather convincingly chronicles. Especially in areas dominated by US and UN drug war paradigms, the approach has been ass-backwards, with eradication done before alternative development is in place and with development assistance tied to eradication. A key issue here is sequencing. Development must come before eradication or bans, or it is unlikely to work.

Similarly, the amount of resources devoted to alternative development programs has been so paltry in comparison to resources devoted to eradication and interdiction that most programs have been doomed to failure or, at best, limited local success.

A third problem with alternative development programs is that, until recently, they have been designed as "one size fits all" without taking into account differences in poppy cultivation patterns between countries and, especially, within countries. In Afghanistan, for example, poor farmers suffering from food insecurity will supplement their wheat crops with poppy, while wealthier farmers grow poppy not out of desperation but out of the desire to gain profits. Development programs must be targeted with acute specificity to fit local needs and conditions, Chouvy writes.

But reducing illicit opium cultivation faces even more fundamental challenges. "It is necessary to identify and address the causes of poverty and food insecurity, no matter how diverse they might be, if illegal poppy cultivation is to be reduced or suppressed," Chouvy writes. "Ultimately, since illicit opium production stems from the need of farmers to cope with poverty and food insecurity, what is required in order to achieve drug supply reduction is broad and equitable economic development, especially in rural areas."

That's a tall order for a country like Afghanistan or Burma, and it demands the kind of economic, social, and political changes that may be inimical to the interests of major donor nations like the US.

With "Opium," Chouvy has made a major contribution to the literature of the poppy trade. His book needs to be read by academics, activists, policy-makers, development NGOs, and anyone else with a serious interest in the opium trade and how to deal with it.

Feature: Chronicle of an Offensive Foretold -- The Occupation of Marja, Afghanistan

America's twin wars without end -- the war on drugs and the war on terror -- continue to play out in the heart of Southwest Asia as the Obama administration beefs up US troop levels, but tries new tactics in its battle against the opium poppy and the Taliban insurgency grown wealthy off the drug trade. Eradication is out -- at least for now -- and interdiction and going after Taliban-linked drug lords is in.

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opium field in Marja (from unodc.org)
The thousands of new troops are to provide the muscle to wrest and hold territory from the Taliban. The new drug strategy is designed to win over Afghan farmers long enough for economic development projects to take hold once the troops and their NATO and Afghan Army counterparts secure key areas.

One of those is Helmand province in the south, producer of more than half of all the opium poppies in Afghanistan. If Helmand were an independent country, it would be the world's largest opium producer. Most of Helmand's opium is produced in the Helmand River valley, whose largest town, Marja (pop. 80,000), is a commercial hub for the opium and heroin trade. It is also the main Taliban stronghold in the province.

The Taliban generates anywhere from $100 million to $450 million a year in revenues with which it can buy lots of shiny new weapons and pay lots of impoverished Afghans to pick up arms against the foreigners and their "puppet regime" in Kabul. (With the total Afghan opium and heroin economy valued at $3 billion to $4 billion a year, clearly, a lot of people other than the Taliban are profiting from the trade as well.)

Because of the weakness of the Afghan state and the relatively small NATO and US military presence in Helmand up until now, the area has been largely under Taliban control for the past several years. Occasional Western military sweeps have driven the Taliban from different locales, but only temporarily. Once the troops pass through and once local inhabitants realize the government and the West have not come through on their promises of assistance and development, let alone a permanent presence, the Taliban reassert control.

The much ballyhooed Marja offensive now underway is designed to be different. This time, commanders say, the military occupation will be followed in short order by a "government in a box," a quick rolling out of Afghan police and officials accompanied by the provision of services and development and economic assistance. Once the military succeeds in driving the Taliban from Marja, the rapid-fire creation of a government presence will ensure that the local population switches loyalties from the insurgents to the national government.

Some 15,000 US, NATO, and Afghan Army forces are now one week into assault on Marja, a According to all accounts, the operation is going as expected, with Western and allied Afghan forces slowly occupying the town block by block. They raised the Afghan flag over Marja's central market Wednesday.

While the fighting is going as planned and the immediate result -- driving the Taliban from Marja -- is not in doubt, it hasn't been a cakewalk. While the local Taliban leadership and an unknown number of fighters fled before the fighting began, hundreds of fighters stayed behind to harass the incoming troops. NATO commanders report encountering a town laced with booby traps and bombs (IEDs), and soldiers have come under attack from machine gun and sniper fire. At least nine Western troops have been killed in the fighting so far, with Thursday being the bloodiest yet, with four killed.

And despite US commander Gen. Stanley McCrystal's repeated commitment to avoiding civilian casualties in order to squelch Afghans' anger at the death of their fellow citizens at the hands of foreign invaders, civilian casualties have occurred. At least 15 civilians have been killed, including 12 -- five children, five women, and two men -- were killed early on in a NATO missile strike. Three more died after being shot by NATO forces during an engagement with the Taliban.

Not everyone is buying Western assurances that this time will be any different than before. In an interview with the London newspaper The Independent, Afghanistan's "most famous woman," parliament member Malalai Joya, voiced deep skepticism about the operations aims and its impact on Afghan civilians.

"It is ridiculous," said Joya. "On the one hand they call on Mullah Omar to join the puppet regime. On another hand they launch this attack in which defenseless and poor people will be the prime victims. Like before, they will be killed in the NATO bombings and used as human shields by the Taliban. Helmand's people have suffered for years and thousands of innocent people have been killed so far."

Joya proved prescient on that count, with the NATO missile strike and shootings mentioned above and with repeated press accounts of the Taliban in fact using civilians as human shields. Reports have come of insurgent fighters shooting at troops from the second floor of a building while their family members stand on the third floor in a bid to either prevent retaliation against the shooter or to score propaganda points in the event Western forces kill or injure civilians.

She also scoffed at Allied claims that the West won't abandon Afghan civilians after the military surge. "They have launched such offensives a number of times in the past, but each time after clearing the area, they leave it and the Taliban retake it. This is just a military maneuver and removal of Taliban is not the prime objective."

Analysts who spoke to the Chronicle this week provided a decidedly mixed assessment of the offensive and what comes next. "That this is going well tactically is important progress," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on drugs and insurgencies at the Brookings Institution and author of the just published [and soon to be reviewed here] "Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs." "You have to remember that there have been a number of operations in Helmand where even tactically, we were losing because they were so under-resourced. Whether it will be a strategic success remains to be seen."

It isn't all up to the West, she noted. "What complicates things is that a lot of the outcomes aren't necessarily in the hands of NATO or the West, but will instead depend on the quality of the Afghan government," said Felbab-Brown. "This government-in-a-box plan has its drawbacks and flaws, but it is better than nothing. At least now there is some effort."

Watching the offensive unfold, Sanho Tree, international drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies, was reduced to quoting the ultimate realpolitiker, Henry Kissinger, on Vietnam. "As early as 1969, Kissinger wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs: 'We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed as psychological exhaustion. In the process we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war: the guerrilla wins if he does not lose; the conventional army loses if it does not win,'" Tree recited.

"This was a well-publicized invasion," Tree pointed out. "The leadership disappeared, but they'll be back to fight when the odds are better."

The Taliban weren't the only ones to take advantage of the warnings of a coming attack, said Raheem Yaseer of the University of Nebraska-Omaha Center for Afghan Studies. "The drug lords are very efficient," he said. "I'm sure they are all in safe havens now. NATO talked about the attack for so long that they've had time to take care of their commodities and themselves. The war on drugs part of this has not been very successful so far because of these warnings -- and these people are smart."

The offensive could cause some temporary disruptions of the drug trade in the area, Tree said, but was unlikely to make a major dent. "The lesson from the rest of the world is that these things don't really make much difference. Last year, it was a different 'opium capital,' next year, there will be another one."

The drug trade keeps shifting," agreed Yaseer. "When one place comes under attack, they go elsewhere. They buy the people, they buy the police; they will be the last to be affected."

"This won't have a great impact on the drug trade," said Felbab-Brown. "Marja doesn't determine what happens in Afghanistan -- that depends on interdiction and rural development, which is hard and takes a lot of time."

The ability of Western and Afghan government forces to conquer Marja was never in doubt. But the big question is whether they can build on the military success to turn the region into a bastion of support for the government, eliminate the insurgent threat once and for all, and continue to wage war on the opium poppy.

"Time will tell," said Tree. "Sequencing is key to a lot of this, and in terms of the drug stuff, sequencing is everything. That was the big argument with the advocates of eradication. They said eradicate first, then talk, but that was completely backwards. Now, with the hands-off policy for opium cultivation, you need to just let the prices fall, and people will switch to other crops, but that will only work until opium supplies shrink and prices go up again. So there is probably a one- or two-year window of opportunity to roll in infrastructure and install clean governance. You have to thread a lot of needles in a very short time, and the history of US involvement in Afghanistan doesn't suggest the odds are good."

"There will be a real temptation on the part of the West to define good government as suppressing poppies, but that could be just the opposite of how Afghans see it -- they will want to see economic development to replace their losses first," she said. "There will be a temptation for us to go for planting bans and suppression, but I don't think that's a model we should really be after. If a few months from now we decide it has stabilized and we try to prevent the harvest, people will be quite unhappy."

It's not a coincidence that the population is being somewhat receptive to the foreign troops, she said. "The troops are walking through poppy fields, not destroying them. The message is that the US is focusing on interdiction and development. If we eradicate later, that will result in great political destabilization.

"The Taliban have a lot of sympathizers there," said Yaseer. "The people are disillusioned with the government because for so long it couldn't do anything. And a lot of families have people on the payroll of the Quetta Shura [the now Pakistan-based Taliban led by Mullah Omar]. By some accounts, they were paying each household $700 a month. But now the pressure is on them to quit the Taliban."

Rapid economic and security development is key, said the Afghan scholar. "Destroying the poppy fields will help, but then you have to have an alternative ready," he said. "You can distribute food, help them grow wheat, provide fertilizer, things like that."

Taliban hard-liners will leave the area voluntarily to live to fight another day, Yaseer said, but unless an effective state presence is in place, they will come back. "The promises have to be kept and the aid has to move in immediately," he said. "They have to move in humanitarian assistance, reconstruction projects, sustenance for the people. And it has to be isolated from neighboring provinces where the Taliban will infiltrate back in from if those routes are not protected."

The military battle of Marja is winding toward its inevitable conclusion. Now, the battle for the hearts and minds of its residents is about to get underway. Meanwhile, the opium trade hiccups with minor disruptions, but lives on largely untouched, and the West remains mired in a land war in Asia fighting the twin ephemera of a war on an abstraction (terrorism) and a war on an inert substance (opium).

The Year on Drugs 2009: The Top Ten US Domestic Drug Policy Stories

As 2009 prepares to become history, we look back at the past year's domestic drug policy developments. With the arrival of a highly popular (at least at first) new president, Barack Obama, and Democratic Party control of the levers of power in Congress, the drug reform gridlock that characterized the Bush years is giving way to real change in Washington, albeit not nearly quickly enough. A number of this year's Top 10 domestic drug stories have to do with the new atmospherics in Washington, where they have led, and where they might lead.

But not all of them. Drug reform isn't made just in Washington. Under our federal system, the 50 states and the District of Columbia have at least some ability to set their own courses on drug policy reforms. In some areas, actions in the state legislatures have reflected trends -- for better or worse -- broad enough to earn Top 10 status.

And Washington and the various statehouses notwithstanding, movement on drug reform is not limited to the political class. Legions of activists now in at least their second decade of serious reform work, a mass media that seems to have awakened from its dogmatic slumber about marijuana, a crumbling economy, and a bloody drug war within earshot of the southwestern border have all impacted the national conversation about drug reform and are all pushing politicians from city councilmen to state legislators to US senators to rethink drug prohibition.

For drug reformers, these are interesting times, indeed. Herewith, the Top 10 domestic drug policy stories of 2009:

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marijuana plants (photo from US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia)
Marijuana Goes Mainstream

Wow. This year has seen the US enter the beginnings of a sea change on policies and attitudes toward the recreational use of marijuana. The first hint that something had changed was the Michael Phelps bong photo non-scandal. When the multiple Olympic gold medal winner got outed for partying like a college student, only one corporate sponsor, fuddy-duddy Kellogg, dumped him, and was hit by a consumer boycott -- and arguably by falling stock prices -- in return. Otherwise, except for a deranged local sheriff who tried fruitlessly to concoct a criminal case against somebody -- anybody! -- over the bong photo, America's collective response basically amounted to "So what?"

Post-Phelps it was as if the flood gates had opened. Where once Drug War Chronicle and a handful of other publications pretty much had the field to ourselves, early this year, the mass media began paying attention. Countless commentaries, editorials and op-eds have graced the pages of newspaper and those short-attention-span segments on the cable news networks, an increasing number of them calling for legalization. The conversation about freeing the weed has gone mainstream.

The sea change is also reflected in poll numbers that, for the first time, this year showed national majorities in favor of legalization. In February, a Zogby poll showed 44% support nationwide -- and 58% in California. By late spring, the figures were generally creeping ever higher. An April Rasmussen poll had support for "taxation and regulation" at 41%, while an ABC News/Washington Post poll found 46% supported "legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use." Also in April, for the first time, a national poll showed majority support for legalization when Zogby showed 52% saying marijuana should be "legal, taxed, and regulated." In July, a CBS News poll had support for legalization at 41%.

In October, a Gallup poll had support for legalization at 44%, the highest ever in a Gallup survey. And a few weeks ago an Angus-Reid poll reported 53% nationwide supported legalization. Legalizing pot may not have clear majority support just yet, but it is on the cusp.

Marijuana law reform was also a topic at statehouses around the country this year, although successes were few and far between. At least six states saw decriminalization bills, but only one passed -- in Maine, which had already decriminalized possession of up to 1.25 ounces. This year's legislation doubled that amount. And then there were legalization bills. Two were introduced in the 2009 session, in California and Massachusetts, and two more have been pre-filed for next year, in New Hampshire and Washington. Both the California and Massachusetts bills got hearings this year, and the California bill is set for another hearing and a first committee vote in the Assembly in two weeks. In Rhode Island, meanwhile, the legislature voted this year to create a commission to study marijuana law reform; it will report at the end of January.

And then, finally, there is the excitement and discussion being generated by at least three separate marijuana legalization initiative campaigns underway in California. Oaksterdam medical marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee's Tax Cannabis 2010 initiative has already announced it has sufficient signatures to make the ballot. Time will tell if the others make it, but at this point it is almost certain that voters in California will have a chance to say "legalize it" in November.

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medical marijuana dispensary, Ventura Blvd., LA (courtesy wikimedia.org)
Medical Marijuana: The Feds Butt Out and the Floodgates Begin to Swing Open

During his election campaign, President Obama promised to quit siccing the DEA on medical marijuana patients and providers. In February, new Attorney General Eric Holder announced there would be no more federal raids if providers were in compliance with state law, and pretty much held to that promise since then. In October, the Justice Department made it official policy when it issued a policy memo reiterating the administration's stance.

The new "hands off" policy from Washington has not been universally adhered to, nor has it addressed the issue of people currently serving sentences or facing prosecution under Bush administration anti-medical marijuana initiatives, but it has removed a huge looming threat to growers and dispensary operators and it has disarmed a favored (if intensely hypocritical) argument of medical marijuana foes that such laws should not be passed out of fear of what the feds would do.

Meanwhile, California rolls right along as medical marijuana's Wild West. Like countless other localities in the Golden State, the city of Los Angeles is grappling with what to do with its nearly one thousand dispensaries. The issue is being fought city by city and county by county, in the state courts and in the federal courts. And while the politicians argue, dispensary operators are creating political facts on the ground as their tax revenues go into hungry state and local coffers.

This year also marked the emergence of a medical marijuana industry infrastructure -- growers, grow shops, dispensaries, educational facilities, pot docs -- beyond California's borders, most notably in Colorado, where the dispensary scene exploded in the wake of the removal of the federal threat, and in Michigan, where last year's passage of a medical marijuana law has seen the creation of the Midwest's first medical marijuana industry.

While medical marijuana is legal in 13 states (and now, the District of Columbia), it remains difficult to win victories in state legislatures. There were medical marijuana bills in at least 18 states, but only two -- Minnesota and New Hampshire -- were approved by legislatures, and they were vetoed by prohibitionist governors. Bills are, however, still alive in six states -- Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin -- with New Jersey and Wisconsin apparently best positioned to become the next medical marijuana state. In Rhode Island, which already approved a medical marijuana law in 2007, the legislature this year amended it to include a dispensary system.

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salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid.org)
The Reflexive Prohibitionist Impulse Remains Alive -- Just Ask Sally D

Despite evident progress on some drug reform fronts, a substantial number of Americans continue to hold to prohibitionist values, including a number of state legislators. The legislative response to the popularity of the fast-acting, short-lived hallucinogen salvia divinorum is the best indicator of that.

The DEA has been reviewing salvia for five years, and has yet to determine that it needs to become a controlled substance, but that hasn't stopped some legislators from trying to ban it. Appalled by YouTube videos that show young people getting very high, legislators in 13 states have banned or limited sales of the herb.

This year, four more states joined the list. The good news is that legislators in seven other states where salvia ban bills were introduced had better things to do with their time than worry about passing them.

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drug testing lab
"We Must Drug Test Welfare and Unemployment Recipients!"

In another indication that the drug warrior impulse is still alive and well -- as are its class war elements -- legislators in various states this year continued to introduce bills that would mandate suspicionless drug testing of people seeking unemployment, public assistance, or other public benefits. Never mind that Michigan, the only state to pass such a law, saw its efforts thrown out as an unconstitutional search by a federal appeals court several years back.

Such efforts exposed not only public resentment of benefits recipients, but also a certain level of ignorance about the way our society works. A common refrain from supporters was along the lines of "I have to get drug tested for my job, so why shouldn't they have to get drug tested?" Such questioners fail to understand that our system protects us from our government, but not from private employers.

But if welfare drug testing excited some popular support, it also excited opposition, not only on constitutional grounds, but on grounds of cost and elemental fairness. In the four states where drug testing bills were introduced -- Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri and West Virginia -- none of them went anywhere. But even in an era when drug reform is in the air, such bills are a clear sign that there will be many rear-guard battles to fight.

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unjust, but also unaffordable
Rockefeller Drug Law and Other State Sentencing Reforms

Reeling under the impact of economic downtowns and budget crises, more and more states this year took a second look at drug-related sentencing policies. Most notable of the reforms enacted at the state level this year were reforms in New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws, which went into effect in October. Under this newest round of Rockefeller drug law reforms, some 1,500 low-level drug offenders will be able to seek sentence reductions, while judges gain some sentencing power from prosecutors, and treatment resources are being beefed up. But still, more than 12,000 will remain in Empire State prisons on Rockefeller drug charges.

New York wasn't the only state to enact sentencing reforms this year. This month, New Jersey legislators passed a bill giving judges the discretion to waive mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. Last month, Rhode Island mandatory minimum reforms went into effect. Earlier this year, Louisiana finally acted to redress the cruel plight of the "heroin lifers," people who had been sentenced to life without parole for heroin possession under an old state law. A new state law cut heroin sentences, but did not address the lifers. As a result, some lifers remained in prison with no hope of parole while more recent heroin offenders came, did their time, and went. Now, under this year's law, the lifers are eligible for parole.

Sentencing reforms are also in the works in a number of other states, from Alabama to California and from Colorado to Michigan. In some cases, reform legislation is in progress; in others, legislators are waiting for commissions to report their findings. In nearly every case, it is bottom-line budget concerns rather than bleeding heart compassion for the incarcerated that is driving the reforms.

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PolitickerMD cartoon about the Berwyn Heights raid
Swatting SWAT

It was only one bill in one state, and all it required was reporting by SWAT teams of their activities, but the Maryland SWAT bill passed this year marked the first time a state legislature has moved to rein in aggressive paramilitary-style policing. More precisely, the bill requires all law enforcement agencies that operate SWAT teams to submit monthly reports on their activities, including when and where they are used, and whether the operations result in arrests, seizures or injuries.

In took an ugly incident involving the mayor of a Washington, DC, suburb to make it happen. Marijuana traffickers sent a load of pot to the mayor's address to avoid having police show up on their doorstep in the event something went wrong, but something did go wrong, and police tracked the package. When the mayor innocently carried the package inside on returning home, the SWAT team swooped, manhandling the mayor and his mother-in-law and killing the family's pet dogs. The cops were unapologetic, the mayor was apoplectic, and now Maryland has a SWAT law. A new bill just filed in Maryland would take it further, requiring police to secure a judge's warrant before deploying a SWAT team.

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shrine to San Malverde, Mexico's ''narco-saint,'' Culiacan, Sinaloa
America Finally Notices the Drug War Across the River

While Congress and the Bush administration got serious about Mexico's bloody drug wars in 2008, passing a three-year, $1.4 billion anti-drug aid package for Mexico and Central America, it was not until this year that the prohibition-related violence in Mexico really made the radar north of the border.

It only took about 11,000 deaths (now up to over 16,000) among Mexican drug traffickers, police, soldiers, and innocent bystanders to get the US to pay attention to the havoc being wreaked on the other side of the Rio Grande. But by the spring, Washington was paying attention, and for the first time, one could hear mea culpas coming from the American side. Mexico's drug violence is driven by demand in the US, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano echoed.

But just because Washington admitted some fault didn't mean it was prepared to try anything different. And while the Mexican drug wars brought talk of legalization -- especially of marijuana -- what they brought in terms of policy was the Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, which is basically mo' better drug war.

Mexico's drug wars show no signs of abating, and the pace of killing has accelerated each year since President Felipe Calderon sent in the army three years ago this month. The success -- or failure -- of his drug war policies may determine Calderon's political future, but it has for the first time concentrated the minds of US policymakers on the consequences of prohibition south of the border.

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syringes -- better at the exchange than on the street
Congress Ends Ban on Needle Exchange Funding, Butts Out of DC Affairs

After a decade-long struggle, the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs ended this month with President Obama's signature on an omnibus appropriations bill that included ending the federal ban, as well as a similar ban that applied to the District of Columbia. The bill also removed a ban on the District implementing a medical marijuana law passed by voters in 1998.

Removing the funding ban has been a major goal of harm reduction and public health coalitions, but they had gotten nowhere in the Republican-controlled Congresses of the past decade. What a difference a change of parties makes.

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Jim Webb at 2007 incarceration hearing (photo from sentencingproject.org)
Questioning the Drug War: Two Congressional Bills

The US Congress has been a solid redoubt of prohibitionist sentiment for decades, but this year saw the beginning of cracks in the wall. Two legislators, Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) and Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) introduced and have had hearings on bills that could potentially challenge drug war orthodoxy.

Engel's bill, the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act, which has already passed the House, would set up a commission to examine US eradication, interdiction, and other policies in the Western Hemisphere. While Engel is no anti-prohibitionist, any honest commission assessing US drug policy in the Americas is likely to come up with findings that subvert drug war orthodoxy.

Meanwhile, Sen. Webb's National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 comes at the issue from a much more critical perspective. It calls for a top-to-bottom review of a broad range of criminal justice issues, ranging from sentencing to drug laws to gangs and beyond, with an emphasis and costs and efficacy. Webb's bill remains in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but has 35 cosponsors. Webb has already held hearings on the costs of mass incarceration and the economic costs of drug policy, and even more than Engel's bill, the Webb bill has the potential to get at the roots of our flawed national drug policy.

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Sen. Durbin at May hearing on crack sentencing
The Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

The 100:1 disparity in the quantities of crack needed to earn a mandatory minimum federal prison sentence versus the quantities of powder cocaine needed to earn the same sentence has been egregiously racist in its application, with roughly 90% of all federal crack offenders being non-white, and pressure has been mounting for years to undo it. It hasn't happened yet, but 2009 finally saw some serious progress on the issue.

The move to reform the sentencing disparity got a boost in June, when Attorney General Holder said it had to go. The next month, a House Judiciary Committee subcommittee passed the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009. The bill is now before the House Judiciary and Energy and Commerce Committees.

On the Senate side, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced a companion bill in October, the Fairness in Sentencing Act. It hasn't moved yet, but thanks to a decade-long effort by a broad range of advocates, all the pieces are now in place for something to happen in this Congress. By the time we get around to the Top 10 of 2010, the end of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity better be one of the big stories.

Afghanistan: US Anti-Drug Strategy Lacking, State Department Report Finds

The US counternarcotics mission in Afghanistan, a key element in Western efforts to defeat the Taliban, is short on long-term strategy, clear objectives, and a plan to hand over responsibility to Afghan authorities, the State Department said in a report released last Wednesday. The report was written by the State Department's Office of the Inspector General.

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opium poppies
The department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (known colloquially as "drugs and thugs") is responsible for shaping and administering counternarcotics policy in Afghanistan, but it is not doing its job very well, the report said. "The department has not clarified an end state for counternarcotics efforts, engaged in long-term planning or established performance measures," it noted.

With the Taliban making hundreds of millions of dollars a year off the Afghan opium and heroin trade, a smart, effective counternarcotics strategy is critical to US plans to defeat the Taliban by sending in an additional 30,000 troops. There are already 68,000 US and NATO troops in the country, where they have suffered their worst losses so far this year. The number of US military dead in Afghanistan this year sits at 310, exactly double the number killed last year. Overall US and NATO fatalities topped 500 this year, up from 300 last year.

While an effective anti-drug policy may be critical to US plans, it may also be impossible to achieve. As analysts consulted by the Chronicle five years ago -- when opium production was just beginning to reemerge as a problem area -- noted, opium is deeply implicated in the Afghan economy, with more than a million families dependent on it for a living.

"In this case, even if you support drug prohibition in general, the war on drugs is not something we can pursue if we want a rational, effective policy in Afghanistan," said Ted Galen Carpenter, an international affairs analyst for the Cato Institute. "It will undermine everything else we're trying to achieve. The international supply side drug war is complete folly no matter where it is applied, but even if you don't accept that analysis, one ought to be aware that our top priority needs to be going after radical Islamic terrorists, not Afghan farmers," he said.

But heeding the views of the bureau's hard-line drug warriors, the report said that poppy eradication was "essential" to the success of the strategy. But Richard Holbrook, Obama's emissary to the region, abruptly ended the US role in eradication earlier this year, arguing that it served only to alienate poor poppy farmers and drive them into the arms of the Taliban. Instead, Western forces have concentrated on capturing or killing traffickers linked to the Taliban.

Even so, the report found, the bureau had "no clear strategy for transitioning and exiting from counternarcotics programs in Afghanistan." It added that while Afghan contractors working on poppy eradication were meeting agreed-upon goals, vague performance measures in their contracts made it difficult to tell how effective they were.

The report did cut the bureau some slack, noting that it faced tough challenges in Afghanistan, including "a weak justice system, corruption and the lack of political will" in the Afghan government. It also acknowledged the powerful economic incentives for poor Afghan farmers to grow opium poppies.

It recommended setting "a defined end state" for US anti-drug programs, in-country monitoring of contractors, and establishing benchmarks for measuring the Afghan takeover of anti-drug programs.

Development First: Lessons Learned in Promoting Rural Development and Reducing Illicit Crop Cultivation in Afghanistan and the Andes

The Washington Office on Latin America (in cooperation with Senator Bob Menendez, Chairman, Subcommittee on International Development Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and Representative John Tierney, Chairman, Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform) cordially invite you to this Capitol Hill briefing. FEATURED SPEAKERS INCLUDE: - Tom Kramer, Researcher, Drugs and Democracy Program, Transnational Institute (TNI), The Netherlands - Carlos Rosero, Founder, Black Communities Process (PCN), Colombia - Vanda Felbab-Brown, Fellow, Foreign Policy, 21st Century Defense Initiative, The Brookings Institution - James T. Smith, Independent Consultant, Former Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator, USAID Bureau for Economic Growth, Agriculture and Trade - Coletta Youngers, Senior Fellow, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) Refreshments will be provided. Mr. Rosero will present in Spanish, with simultaneous interpretation into English available. All other presentations will be in English. The event is free of charge and open to the public, but seating may be limited. If you plan to attend, please reply no later than Monday, December 7, to Rachel Robb at rrobb@wola.org or (202) 797-2171.
Date: 
Tue, 12/08/2009 - 3:00pm - 4:30pm
Location: 
Senate Visitor Center, Room 215 First and East Capitol Streets
Washington, DC
United States

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juarez," by Howard Campbell (2009, University of Texas Press, 310 pp., $24.95 PB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer Editor

Howard Campbell's "Drug War Zone" couldn't be more timely. Ciudad Juárez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, is awash in blood as the competing Juárez and Sinaloa cartels wage a deadly war over who will control the city's lucrative drug trafficking franchise. More than 2,000 people have been killed in Juárez this year in the drug wars, making the early days of Juárez Cartel dominance, when the annual narco-death toll was around 200 a year, seem downright bucolic by comparison.

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The violence in Mexico, of which Juárez is the current epicenter, has been setting off alarm bells in Washington, and the US has responded with thousands more law enforcement agents on the border and more than a billion dollars in aid to the Mexican government. In other words, what we've been doing hasn't worked, so let's do even more of it, even more intensely.

We've all seen the horrific headlines; we've all seen the grim and garish displays of exemplary violence; we've read the statistics about the immense size of the illegal drug business in Mexico and the insatiable appetites of drug consumers in El Norte ("the north," e.g. the US). What we haven't had -- up until now -- is a portrayal of the El Paso-Juárez drug trade and drug culture that gets beneath the headlines, the politicians' platitudes, and law enforcement's self-justifying pronouncements. With "Drug War Zone," Campbell provides just that.

He's the right guy in the right place at the right time. A professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Texas-El Paso who has two decades in the area, Campbell is able to do his fieldwork when he walks out his front door and has been able to develop relationships with all sorts of people involved in the drug trade and its repression, from low-level street dealers in Juárez to middle class dabblers in dealing in El Paso, from El Paso barrio boys to Mexican smugglers, from journalists to Juárez cops, from relatives of cartel victims to highly-placed US drug fight bureaucrats.

Using an extended interview format, Campbell lets his informants paint a detailed picture of the social realities of the El Paso-Juárez "drug war zone." The overall portrait that emerges is of a desert metropolis (about a half million people on the US side, a million and a half across the river), distant both geographically and culturally from either Washington or Mexico City, with a long tradition of smuggling and a dense binational social network where families and relationships span two nations. This intricately imbricated web of social relations and historical factors -- the rise of a US drug culture, NAFTA and globalization -- have given rise to a border narco-culture deeply embedded in the social fabric of both cities.

(One thing that strikes me as I ponder Campbell's work, with its description of binational barrio gangs working for the Juárez Cartel, and narcos working both sides of the border, is how surprising it is that the violence plaguing Mexico has not crossed the border in any measurable degree. It's almost as if the warring factions have an unwritten agreement that the killings stay south of the Rio Grande. I'd wager they don't want to incite even more attention from the gringos.)

Campbell compares the so-called cartels to terrorists like Al Qaeda. With their terroristic violence, their use of both high tech (YouTube postings) and low tech (bodies hanging from bridges, warning banners adorning buildings) communications strategies, their existence as non-state actors acting both in conflict and complicity with various state elements, the comparison holds some water. Ultimately, going to battle against the tens of thousands of people employed by the cartels in the name of an abstraction called "the war on drugs" is likely to be as fruitless and self-defeating as going to battle against Pashtun tribesmen in the name of an abstraction called "the war on terror."

But that doesn't mean US drug war efforts are going to stop, or that the true believers in law enforcement are going to stop believing -- at least most of them. One of the virtues of "Drug War Zone" is that it studies not only the border narco-culture, but also the border policing culture. Again, Campbell lets his informants speak for him, and those interviews are fascinating and informative.

Having seen its result close-up and firsthand, Campbell has been a critic of drug prohibition. He still is, although he doesn't devote a lot of space to it in the book. Perhaps, like (and through) his informants, he lets prohibition speak for itself. The last interview in the book may echo Campbell's sentiments. It's with former Customs and Border Patrol agent Terry Nelson. In the view of his former colleagues, Nelson has gone over to the dark side. He's a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

If you're interested in the border or drug culture or the drug economy or drug prohibition, you need to read "Drug War Zone." This is a major contribution to the literature.

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