Executive Branch

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Trick Question on the DEA Job Application?

Anyone applying for a job at the Drug Enforcement Administration must answer this question:



That's funny, I thought there was no such thing as "legally prescribed" marijuana under federal law. Either this is an idiot test for prospective applicants, or we've come so far that the DEA is beginning to lose track of its own ideology.

My Published Criticism of the Drug Czar

I got the following comments published as a Letter to the Editor in both the online and print versions of my local newspaper, the Fresno Bee, http://www.fresnobee.com/ --- I am a medical marijuana patient. I am appalled that our Drug Czar, Gil Kerlikowske, has come to my home town and declared that "marijuana is a dangerous drug and has no medical value" [story July 23]. President Obama has told us that there will be a policy change that will recognize medical marijuana users as legitimate in states with such laws. When will this happen so that we don't have to listen to the same tired old rhetoric? Once again, I am very disappointed with our Drug Czar, and I feel that he should return to Fresno and correct his false statements so that patients like myself will be properly represented. Tommy Hawkins Jr. Fresno http://www.fresnobee.com/277/story/1561006.html ========== I also e-mailed and called the ONDCP and left the same message for them.

Drug Warriors for Sensible Drug Policy

Some interesting comments from former drug czar Barry McCaffrey at Huffington Post:

Our traditional justice system has been inadequate to the task of breaking the cycle of substance abuse and crime. Four out of every five offenses are committed by someone with a drug or alcohol problem; and we just keep locking them up!

Given the abysmal outcomes of incarceration on addictive behavior, there's absolutely no justification for state governments to continue to waste tax dollars feeding a situation where generational recidivism is becoming the norm and parents, children and grandparents may find themselves locked up together.

And here's Robert Weiner, former spokesman at the drug czar's office, writing in the Baltimore Sun:

Why…is the Obama administration proposing to spend an even higher percentage of its anti-drug resources on law enforcement than the administration of George W. Bush?

Mr. Kerlikowske has said, "It is only through a balanced approach - combining tough but fair enforcement with robust prevention and treatment - that we will be successful in stemming both demand and supply of illegal drugs." Yet, in the 2010 budget, there is a 3.3 percent reduction in treatment and prevention initiatives since 2008, exacerbating the bias toward enforcement, which now represents 65.6 percent of the budget, even higher than the last administration's 62.3 percent.

So why are these prominent drug warriors now criticizing U.S. drug policy for its perpetual focus on enforcement and incarceration? The short answer is probably that they now work as consultants with clients in the drug treatment industry who love seeing editorials like these.

But I'd like to think that on some level they feel maybe just a little bit responsible for their role in filling our prisons with an unfathomable number of people who don't belong there.

Feature: Winds of Change Are Blowing in Washington -- Drug Reforms Finally Move in Congress

Update:Needle exchange legislation was passed by the full House of Representatives on Friday afternoon.

What a difference a change of administration makes. After eight years of almost no progress during the Bush administration, drug reform is on the agenda at the Capitol, and various reform bills are moving forward. With Democrats firmly in control of both the Senate and the House, as well as the White House, 2009 could be the year the federal drug policy logjam begins to break apart.

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US Capitol, Senate side
While most of the country's and the Congress's attention is focused on health care reform and the economic crisis, congressional committees are slowly working their way through a number of drug reform issues. Here's some of what's going on:

  • A bill that would eliminate the notorious sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine by removing all references to crack from the federal law and sentencing all offenders under the current powder cocaine sentencing scheme passed its first subcommittee test on Wednesday. This one was bipartisan -- the vote was unanimous. (See related story here)
  • The ban on federal funding for needle exchanges has been repealed by the House Appropriations Committee, although current legislation includes language barring exchanges within 1,000 feet of schools. Advocates hope that will be removed in conference committee. (Update:Needle exchange legislation was passed by the full House of Representatives on Friday afternoon.)
  • The Barr amendment, which blocked the District of Columbia from implementing a voter-approved medical marijuana law, has been repealed by the House.
  • Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank's marijuana decriminalization bill has already picked up more cosponsors in a few weeks this year than it did in all of last year.
  • Virginia Sen. Jim Webb's bill to create a national commission on criminal justice policy is winning broad support.
  • The Higher Education Act (HEA) drug provision (more recently known as the "Aid Elimination Penalty"), which creates obstacles in obtaining student loans for students with drug convictions, is being watered down. The House Education and Labor Committee Wednesday approved legislation that would limit the provision to students convicted of drug sales and eliminate it for students whose only offense was drug possession. (See related story here.)
  • The "Safe and Drug Free Schools Act" funding has been dramatically slashed in the Obama administration 2010 budget.
  • Funding for the Office of National Drug Control Policy's youth media anti-drug campaign has been dramatically slashed by the House, which also instructed ONDCP to use the remaining funds only for ads aimed at getting parents to talk to kids.

"All the stars are now aligned on all these issues," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "I've never felt so optimistic about drug policy reform in DC."

Looking into his crystal ball, Piper is making predictions of significant progress this year. "I have a strong sense that the Barr amendment and the syringe funding ban will be eliminated this year. The Webb bill will probably be law by December. There's a good chance that HEA reform and the crack sentencing reform will be, too. If not, we'll get them done next year," he said.

"Things are heating up like I've never seen before," Piper exclaimed. "It's like a snowball rolling downhill. The more reforms get enacted, the more comfortable lawmakers will be about even more. Cumulatively, these bills represent a significant rollback in the drug war as we know it."

Former House Judiciary committee counsel Eric Sterling, now head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, was a bit more restrained. Congress is just beginning to come around, and there are dangers ahead, he said.

"We're seeing windows being opened where we can feel the first breezes of spring, but it's not summer yet," Sterling said. "There are people asking questions about drug policy more broadly, there is more openness on Capitol Hill to thinking differently. Liberals are not as afraid they will be attacked by the administration. The climate is changing, but my sense is we're still at the stage where members of Congress are only beginning to take their shoes off to put their toes in the water."

What progress is being made could be derailed by declining popularity of Democrats, the drug reform movement's failure to create sufficient cultural change and a stronger social base to support political change, and the return of old-style "tough on drugs" politics, Sterling warned.

"People need to be aware that as unemployment continues to rise, Democrats will be feeling afraid of repercussions at the polls," he said. "If the economic stimulus does not seem to be generating jobs, if there is a widespread sense of trouble in the country, the drug issue can easily be recast as a bogeyman to distract people. Members of Congress could start talking again about 'fighting to help protect your families.' Those old ways of thinking and talking about these issues are by no means gone," Sterling argued.

That is why he is concerned about building a social base to support and maintain drug reform. "The drug reform movement needs to create cultural change to support political change, and I fear we haven't done enough of that," he worried.

Sterling also warned of a possible reprise of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the emergence of a parents' anti-drug movement helped knock drug reform off the agenda for nearly a quarter-century. The administration's effort to defund the Safe and Drug Free Schools Act in particular could spark renewed concern and even a reinvigorated anti-drug mobilization, he said.

"The administration says the Safe and Drug Free Schools program hasn't demonstrated its effectiveness and grant funds are spread too thin to support quality interventions, which may well be true," he said. "But little dribs and drabs of that get spread around the states, and that means a lot of people could be mobilized to fight back. The parents' community and prevention professionals will mobilize around these issues with renewed vigor," he predicted.

The Wild West show that is California's marijuana reality could also energize the anti-reform faction, Sterling said. "For those of us outside California, it's hard to fathom what's going on there. I don't think anyone back East can imagine a dispensary operating every quarter-mile along Connecticut Avenue," he explained. "I ask myself if this is growing in a way that could create a potential powerful reaction like we saw in the 1970s. There has already been a smattering of stories about marijuana use in school by patients. Will there be exposés next fall about medical marijuana getting into the schools, kids getting stoned? People in the movement have to be aware that very real and powerful emotions can be unleashed by these changes," he warned.

Still, "momentum is on our side," Piper said. "Webb's bill has bipartisan support, the sentencing stuff is taking off in a bipartisan way, and the crack bill has the support of the president, the vice-president, the Justice Department, and some important Senate Republicans. That's probably the steepest hill to climb, but I think we're going to do it."

These are all domestic drug policy issues, but drug policy affects foreign policy as well, and there, too, there has been some significant change -- as well as significant continuity in prohibitionist policies. And that situation is exposing some significant contradictions. Here, it is the Obama administration taking the lead, not Congress. The Obama administration has rejected crop eradication as a failure in Afghanistan, yet remains wedded to it in Colombia, and it has embraced the Bush administration's anti-drug Plan Merida assistance package to Mexico.

"The really exciting thing is Afghanistan and special envoy Richard Holbrooke's ending of eradication there," said Sanho Tree, drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies. "That's huge, and it has repercussions for the Western Hemisphere as well. The US can't have two completely divergent policies on source country eradication. On Latin America, I suspect there is a power struggle going on between the drug warriors and the Holbrooke faction. We need a Holbrooke for Latin America," he said.

The media spotlight on Mexico's plague of prohibition-related violence may be playing a role, too, said Sterling. "The mayhem in Mexico certainly created a lot of thinking about how to do things differently earlier this year," he noted. "The media climate has changed, and perhaps that's more important at this stage than the climate inside the Beltway."

But the Mexico issue could cut against reform, too, he suggested. "Where is all that marijuana in California coming from?" he asked. "If someone can make the case that Mexican drug cartels are supplying the medical marijuana market there, that could get very ugly."

As the August recess draws nigh, no piece of drug reform legislation has made it to the president's desk. But this year, for the first time in a long time, it looks like some may. There are potential minefields ahead, and it's too early to declare victory just yet. But keep that champagne nicely chilled; we may be popping some corks before the year is over.

Afghanistan: US War Planes Bomb the Hell Out of a Bunch of Poppy Seeds

US war planes dropped bombs on a 300-ton pile of opium poppy seeds in southern Helmand province Tuesday afternoon. The US military dropped 1,000 pounds on the pile of seeds, then followed up with strikes from helicopters to make sure they were really dead.

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opium poppies
The publicity stunt was designed to win hearts and minds of Afghan poppy farmers, a State Department official told CNN. "There is a nexus that needs to be broken between the insurgents and the drug traffickers," State's Tony Wayne said. "Also, it is part of winning the hearts and minds of the population because in some cases they are intimidated into growing poppies."

The US has recently shifted its approach to poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, which supplies more than 90% of the world's opium and its derivative, heroin. The US is ending support for eradication programs and instead targeting drug traffickers, especially those linked to the Taliban, which is estimated to earn hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the black market industry.

The US and its NATO allies are also trying to win over poppy farmers through alternative development programs. But those programs are difficult to put in place in areas outside the effective control of the Afghan government or Western military forces.

The attack on the seed pile comes as US and NATO forces are enduring their bloodiest month yet in the nearly eight-year-old invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. According to the war casualty monitor I Casualties, 63 Western troops have been killed so far this month, making it far and away the deadliest in the war. The previous monthly highs were 46 each in June and August 2008.

ONDCP: Drug Czar Again Reveals Shocking Gap in Vocabulary, Knowledge Base

In Fresno, California, Wednesday to witness a massive marijuana eradication bust, Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) head Gil Kerlikowske once again revealed a startling gap in his vocabulary. Kerlikowske claimed not to know a word that should be de rigeur in any drug policy debate, and he claimed the president was unaware of it, too.

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Gil Kerlikowske
"Legalization is not in the president's vocabulary, and it's not in mine," he admitted to the Fresno Bee.

It's not the first time Kerlikowske has relied on that trope. In fact, it appears to be one of his favorite stock phrases.

Not content with displaying his lack of vocabulary, Kerlikowske went on to display an equally stunning lack of knowledge about the emerging consensus on the myriad medicinal uses of marijuana. "Marijuana is dangerous and has no medicinal benefit," he said, ignoring an ever-growing pile of research finding just the opposite.

Obama's Drug Czar Says Marijuana Is Dangerous and Isn't Medicine

For the first time since taking office, Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske has worked up the nerve to make a definitive statement about why he thinks marijuana is bad:

The nation's drug czar, who viewed a foothill marijuana farm on U.S. Forest Service land with state and local officials earlier Wednesday, said the federal government will not support legalizing marijuana.

"Marijuana is dangerous and has no medicinal benefit," Kerlikowske said in downtown Fresno while discussing Operation SOS -- Save Our Sierra -- a multiagency effort to eradicate marijuana in eastern Fresno County. [Fresno Bee]

After having declined for months to actually engage the marijuana debate, it looks like someone finally sat Kerlikowske down and explained that if he's serious about being drug czar, he's gotta start lying and trying to scare people. And as you can see, he sucks at that.

Still, his statement that marijuana has no medical value is surprising, not only because it's just false, but also because he serves at the pleasure of a president who has ordered an end to federal interference with state medical marijuana laws. There's a conflict here that's difficult to reconcile and I hope the press will push the administration for some clarification as to whether the president stands by this statement. It's not the position Obama's taken previously, nor does the current political climate look favorably upon this sort of antiquated anti-pot propaganda.

I shudder to think where Kerlikowske is going with this, but regardless of his present agenda, he should be cautioned against adopting the rhetoric of his widely discredited predecessor. Unfortunately, until the drug czar's office is no longer mandated by law to oppose legalization in any form, we can expect more of this nonsense from anyone who bears the drug czar title. In the meantime, I agree with Pete Guither that this guy is a riot.

Latin America: Washington, Bogota on Verge of Deal to Make Colombian Military Air Base Regional Hub for Counter-Narcotics, More

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that US and Colombian negotiators are nearing agreement on a plan to expand the US military presence in Colombia by allowing the US to base hundreds of Americans at a Colombian Air Force Base in the Magdalena River valley to support US anti-drug interdiction missions. A fifth and final round of talks later this month could seal the deal.

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anti-Plan Colombia poster (courtesy Colombia IndyMedia)
The base would take up the drug war slack left by the ending of interdiction operations from the international airport at Manta, Ecuador, which is set for this week. The Manta base had been home for some 220 Americans supporting E-C AWACS and P-3 Orion surveillance planes scouring northern South America and the eastern Pacific for vessels and planes they suspect are carrying drugs. But Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa refused to renew the US lease, saying the US military mission there violated his country's sovereignty.

Colombian officials told the AP the plan was to make Colombia a regional hub for Pentagon operations. The current draft of the plan, they said, would allow more frequent visits by US aircraft and warships to two naval bases and three air bases in Colombia, with the Palanquero air base being the centerpiece of the plan. Palanquero had been off limits to US forces until April for human rights reasons -- a Colombian military helicopter operating from Palanquero had killed 17 civilians in 1998.

But that's ancient history now. A bill already passed by the House and pending in the Senate would earmark $46 million for new construction at the base, which is home to the Colombian Air Force's main fighter wing. That funding would be released 15 days after an agreement is reached.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is one of America's few remaining staunch allies in the region, and acceptance of the base deal could further stress already strained relations between Colombia and its more left-leaning neighbors Ecuador and Venezuela. It's also certain to raise concerns about Latin Americans wary of US interventions in the region.

Such concerns are not helped by Pentagon planning documents that suggest that beyond its anti-drug mission, Palanquero could be a "cooperative security location" from which "mobility operations could be executed." In other words, a jumping off point for US military expeditionary forces.

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coca eradication
The US has pumped several billion dollars of primarily military and police assistance into Colombia since Plan Colombia began in 1999. Originally defined as a purely anti-drug program, under the Bush administration, it took on the additional burden of counter-insurgency, defining the rebel FARC guerrillas as narco-terrorists who must be defeated.

Despite all those billions of dollars in anti-drug aid, Colombia remains the world's largest coca and cocaine producer. Neighboring Peru is second, and Bolivia is third. Bolivia under President Evo Morales also forms part of the emerging left-leaning bloc in Latin America.

Former Colombian defense minister Rafael Pardo, who is running for president in the May 2010 elections, told the AP that the radar and communications interception ability of US surveillance planes extends well beyond Colombia's borders and could cause problems with its neighbors.

"If it's to launch surveillance flights over other nations then it seems to me that would be needless hostility by Colombia against its neighbors," Pardo said.

Afghanistan: The DEA Is on the Way

The Obama administration has shifted gears in Afghanistan, rejecting the Bush administration's emphasis on opium poppy eradication in favor of attacking Taliban-linked drug trafficking networks as it increases the number of US military personnel in the country to nearly 70,000. Along with that increase in American servicemen and women in Afghanistan, the administration is also ramping up the DEA presence in the country.

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opium poppies (incised papaver specimens)
The number of DEA agents in the country will increase five-fold this year, according to a report in the Baltimore Sun. The agency currently has 13 agents in Afghanistan; that number will jump to 68 by September and 81 by 2010. An unspecified number of additional agents are also being sent to Pakistan, through which a large portion of the Afghan drug trade flows.

Afghanistan produces more than 90% of the world's opium poppy supply, from which heroin is derived. One province now in the sights of a 4,000 strong US Marine expeditionary force, Helmand province, by itself produces more than half of all Afghan opium and if it were its own country, would be the world's largest opium supplier.

While all factions in Afghanistan have their fingers in the poppy pie, including numerous officials and warlords linked to the Karzai government, the US and NATO are especially interested in disrupting those portions of the drug trade that help finance the Taliban insurgency. The Taliban is estimated to make hundreds of millions of dollars a year from taxing poppy crops, acting as armed escorts for drug caravans, and running international drug trafficking operations.

In the past, the Taliban has benefitted from eradication campaigns in at least two ways. First, to the extent such campaigns are successful, they drive up the price of opium, which the Taliban has abundantly stockpiled. Second, the eradication campaigns have proven a fertile recruiting tool for the Taliban as farmers angry at seeing their livelihoods destroyed look to join those who ostensibly oppose eradication.

Latin America: Human Rights Watch Calls on Obama Administration to Block Some Anti-Drug Aid Over Human Rights Abuses

In a Monday letter to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the human rights group Human Rights Watch called on the Obama administration not to release tens of millions of dollars of drug war aid under the Mérida Initiative to Mexico. The letter says the aid should be blocked unless and until Mexico allows soldiers accused of human rights abuses in the drug war there to be tried in civilian -- not military -- courts.

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poster of assassinated human rights advocate Ricardo Murillo
Under the Mérida Initiative, designed to support Mexican President Felipe Calderón in his effort to suppress the country's powerful and violent drug trafficking organizations, the so-called cartels, the US is providing $1.4 billion over three years. But under the terms of the enabling legislation, the US government must withhold 15% of the aid unless the State Department certifies that Mexico is meeting certain human rights conditions. One of them is that civilian authorities investigate and prosecute abuses committed by troops and federal police "in accordance with Mexican and international law." The amount in question this year is about $100 million.

Calderón has enlisted the Mexican armed forces into his war against the cartels, and some 45,000 troops have been deployed to violence-wracked cities and drug producing regions in a bid to clamp down on traffickers. But at the same time, complaints of human rights violations by the military -- from unlawful entry and theft to kidnapping, rape, torture, and murder -- have been on the increase. The Human Rights Watch letter referred to a "rapidly growing number of serious abuses."

Of course, the Mexican military is not the only player engaged in behavior that violates human rights. More than 12,000 people have been killed in Calderon's war, most of them members of the various cartels killed by rival traffickers, often after having been kidnapped and tortured. Hundreds of Mexican and police have also been killed by the traffickers, including at least 12 federal police officers kidnapped, tortured, and killed, their bodies left beside a road in Michoacán over the weekend.

The State Department's certification (or not) of Mexico as complying with Mérida Initiative human rights conditions is due later this summer.

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