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Feature: Afghan Opium Production Declines Slightly From Record Levels

With the West's occupation of Afghanistan now nearing the seven-year mark and plagued by an increasingly powerful and deadly insurgency revitalized by massive profits from the opium trade, Western officials gained some small solace this week when the United Nations announced that opium production there had declined slightly from last year's record level. But the small decline comes as the Taliban and related insurgents are strengthening their grip on precisely those areas where opium cultivation is highest, and the light at the end of the tunnel is, at best, only a distant glimmer.

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2008 Afghan opium cultivation chart from the UN report
According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Afghanistan Opium Survey 2008, released Tuesday, total Afghan opium production this year will be 7,500 metric tons, down 6% from last year's all-time record of 8,200 tons. Also, according to the survey, the amount of land devoted to opium production declined 19%. The UN said the total crop had decreased by a smaller number than the amount of land because farmers in key opium-producing provinces were producing bumper crops.

The UN attributed the decline in production to drought conditions and the efforts of a small number of Afghan governors and tribal and religious leaders to persuade farmers to give up the illicit crop. It also crowed that the number of opium-free provinces in the country had risen from 13 to 18, although it failed to mention that farmers in those provinces had, in many cases, merely switched from growing poppies to growing cannabis.

This year, almost all opium cultivation -- about 98% -- is now concentrated in seven provinces in south-west Afghanistan that house permanent Taliban settlements and are home to related trafficking groups that pay taxes to various Taliban factions on their opium transactions. The Taliban is making between $200 and $400 million a year off taxing poppy farmers and traders, Costa said earlier this year. In the report, Costa referred to Helmand province, one of the most Taliban-dominated in the country. "The most glaring example is Helmand province, where 103,000 hectares of opium were cultivated this year -- two thirds of all opium in Afghanistan," Costa wrote. "If Helmand were a country, it would once again be the world's biggest producer of illicit drugs."

The UN said that manual eradication played almost no role in the decline, affecting only about 3% of the crop. What manual eradication did accomplish was the deaths of some 77 anti-drug workers and police at the hands of insurgents and angry farmers. On Wednesday, Costa told Afghan President Hamid Karzai that he should abandon manual eradication as useless and even counter-productive.

While Afghan poppy production is down slightly, it still surpasses global demand for its illicit end products. And after several years of crops greater than global demand, it is likely that Afghan traders are sitting on huge stockpiles of opium, so even if production were to be slashed substantially, it would cause no significant disruption in the global markets for opium and heroin.

Still, with the war news from Afghanistan seemingly growing worse by the day, UN and Western officials were eager to jump on any good news they could find. "The opium flood waters in Afghanistan have started to recede," Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the Vienna-based UNODC, wrote in the report. "This year, the historic high-water mark of 193,000 hectares of opium cultivated in 2007 has dropped by 19 percent to 157,000 hectares."

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Chronicle editor Phil Smith interviewed former opium-growing Afghan farmers outside Jalalabad in fall 2005
The Bush administration welcomed the report, saying it provided vindication for its much-criticized anti-drug policies in the country. But a State Department spokesman told the Washington Post, "the drug threat in Afghanistan remains unacceptably high. We are particularly concerned by the deterioration in security conditions in the south, where the insurgency dominates."

The US Agency for International Development (USAID), in charge of efforts to provide alternative development for farmers as part of the broader US counter-drug and counter-insurgency strategy, also looked for the silver lining in the storm clouds over Afghanistan. Its efforts are "paying off for Afghanistan in the war against poppy production," it said in a press release Tuesday.

The British foreign office also joined the chorus, with FCO Minister Lord Malloch-Brown releasing a statement welcoming the report's findings. "This shows that the Afghan government's Drug Control Strategy is starting to pay dividends," he said.

Still, Malloch-Brown warned there is a long way to go. "However, there is no room for complacency," he said. "Afghanistan is still the world's biggest supplier of heroin. High cultivation levels are concentrated in the unstable south, where we are working with the government of Afghanistan, local governors, and international partners to build security and governance."

Other, non-governmental observers were much less sanguine about what the slight decline in opium production signified. "I don't think there has been any real progress made at all," said Raheem Yaseer, assistant director of the University of Nebraska-Omaha Center for Afghanistan Studies. "But there has been so much money and pressure invested that they feel they have to justify their efforts. It's true that cultivation has ended in some provinces, but other areas are compensating for that."

A large part of the problem is that too many important players are involved and profiting from the trade, said Yaseer. "There are lots of strong, powerful people involved -- influential people in the Afghan government, governors, parliamentarians, provincial police commanders -- and unless they are suppressed, nothing will change. There is lots of concern expressed, but the business is hot and everyone is making money," he said.

Yaseer also pointed to the increasing ability of insurgents to wreak havoc. "Security is horrible, it's getting worse and worse precisely in those growing areas, and where the security gets worse, there are more opportunities for the drug business," he said. "Everyone takes advantage of the lack of security and the chaos."

The UNODC reports provides only "false hope," said the Senlis Council, the Paris-based drugs and security nonprofit that has long proposed buying up illicit poppy crops and diverting them into the licit medicinal market as a means of getting a handle on illicit production and the support for political violence it provides.

"Opium is the cancer destroying the south of Afghanistan," said Emmanuel Reinert, the group's executive director in a Wednesday statement. "Current counter-narcotics policies are failing to address the loss of the southern provinces to the dual scourges of poppy production and terrorism."

The decrease in poppy cultivation will have a minimal effect on the drugs trade, given the exponential growth in opium production since 2002. "This decrease is no more than a ripple in the ocean," Reinert added. "Without an urgent change of direction in the country's counter-narcotics policies, the international community will be unable to prevent the consolidation of opium production in the south of the country, and the consolidation of the Taliban which is financed by the illegal drugs trade."

Instead of pushing farmers into the waiting arms of the Taliban and related insurgent groups by pursuing crop eradication, the West and the Afghan government should revisit the Senlis proposal, which was rejected out of hand when introduced in 2005, said Senlis policy analyst Gabrielle Archer. "It is clear that a long-term, sustainable solution is required to solve Afghanistan's opium crisis -- and prevent the insurgency's funding by illegal cultivation," she said. "Poppy for Medicine would allow farmers to diversify their crops, and give Afghanistan an opportunity to be part of a legal pharmaceutical industry. We need the Afghan people on our side if we are to be successful there, and this initiative could go a long way to winning back much-needed hearts and minds, which would be highly beneficial for our troops fighting there."

The hearts and minds of the Afghan population are turning increasingly against the West and the country's occupation by foreign troops, warned Yaseer, ticking off a seemingly endless series of incidents where Afghan civilians have been killed by coalition forces, the most recent being the reported deaths of 90 civilians -- 60 of them children -- in a NATO bombing raid last week. That raid prompted Afghan President Hamid Karzai to call this week for a reevaluation of the foreign military presence in his country.

"Everyday there are new uproars in parliament and local councils," said Yaseer. "They say there is no difference between the Soviets and the coalition forces. They bombard whole villages in the middle of the night because they hear four or five Taliban are there. These killings keep happening all the time, and people are fed up with it. This is all developing very rapidly now. 'Why did you bring this war to Afghanistan?' the people ask. The gap between the people and the government is growing larger every day," Yaseer said.

With coalition military casualties on the rise, the Taliban grown fat off opium profits and ever more aggressive, and growing hostility to the West in the Afghan population, a minor down-turn in opium production doesn't look so impressive.

Feature: California Attorney General Issues Medical Marijuana Guidelines -- Mostly Good But Some Problems, Say Advocates

After more than a decade of roiling confusion over what California's groundbreaking medical marijuana law and subsequent enabling legislation do and do not allow, state Attorney General Jerry Brown sought to clarify matters Monday by issuing a long-awaited set of guidelines for patients, providers, and law enforcement. In addition to clarifying what is permissible under state law, Brown also hoped to damp down the ongoing conflict between state and federal authorities over medical marijuana in California.

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California medical marijuana bags (courtesy Daniel Argo via Wikimedia)
Under the guidelines, medical marijuana dispensaries must operate as not-for-profit collectives or cooperatives, and are prohibited from buying marijuana from growers who are not themselves patients or registered caregivers. The only fees dispensaries can collect are those covering overhead and operating expenses.

The guidelines strongly urge patients to obtain state medical marijuana ID cards and advise police to accept such cards as proof of legitimate medical need. The guidelines also call on police to return seized marijuana to patients who are later proved to be legitimate. They prohibit medical marijuana patients from lighting up near schools and recreation centers or at work, unless employers approve.

Affirming that California's medical marijuana law is not preempted by federal law, the guidelines further direct "state and local law enforcement officers [to] not arrest individuals or seize marijuana under federal law" when an individual's conduct is legal under state law.

But while providing protections to patients and non-profit dispensaries organized as co-ops or collectives, the guidelines could provide a green light for law enforcement to go after the store-front dispensaries that have sprung up like mushrooms in some areas of the state. In ballyhooing a Friday raid against a Northridge dispensary by California Bureau of Narcotics Agents, Brown signaled Monday that a crackdown could be looming.

Accusing the Today's Healthcare dispensary and its operators of criminal behavior by operating a profitable business, Brown went on the offensive. "This criminal enterprise bears no resemblance to the purposes of Proposition 215, which authorized the use of medical marijuana for seriously sick patients," he said. "Today's Healthcare is a large-scale, for-profit, commercial business. This deceptively named drug ring is reaping huge profits and flaunting the state's laws that allow qualified patients to use marijuana for medicinal purposes."

California law enforcement pronounced itself pleased with the guidelines. Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, praised Brown for promulgating them. "Since Proposition 215 was passed, the laws surrounding the use, possession and distribution of medical marijuana became confusing at best. These newly established guidelines are an essential tool for law enforcement and provide the parameters needed for consistent statewide regulation and enforcement."

Despite the apparent threat to non-compliant dispensaries and their suppliers, most medical marijuana advocates also pronounced themselves generally satisfied with the guidelines. The medical marijuana defense group Americans for Safe Access has been working with Attorney General Brown and his predecessor, Bill Lockyer, for several years in an effort to see guidelines promulgated. ASA spokesman Kris Hermes said this week that while the guidelines are not perfect, they are a step in the right direction.

"We've been urging them to come out with an official statement that can direct law enforcement and stop what has been rampant disrespect for state law in some areas," he said. "From that perspective, the guidelines are a huge step forward. They provide a blueprint for local law enforcement to develop sensible policies around patient encounters, and they recognize the validity and law-abiding nature of medical marijuana dispensaries in California. That's huge," said Hermes. "These guidelines are a boon for patients, police, and everyone else in the state and will greatly advance the implementation of state law."

"Given the vagueness of the initiative and the statutes, the guidelines are pretty good," said Bruce Mirken, San Francisco-based communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "They establish parameters within which the distribution of medical marijuana is to be treated as legitimate and legal. That's important because some prosecutors have been adamant that there is no legal authority for dispensaries -- period. This cuts the legs out from under them," he said.

"They were about what we expected," said Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML. "Most of the guidelines are consistent with what our attorneys have been saying and advising their clients to do all along. There are a few problem areas, but these guidelines will help fill the vacuum."

One problem Gieringer pointed out was that the guidelines say dispensaries may possess and distribute only lawfully cultivated marijuana, and that they cannot purchase from or sell to non-members. "There is nothing in either federal or state law against purchasing marijuana, so we don't see any legal basis for saying it's illegal to buy from outside vendors," he said.

Another potential problem is that the guidelines say that co-ops and collectives should document their activities and record the source of the marijuana they purchase, Gieringer said. "That is going to be problematic until we have some assurance of protection from being arrested by the DEA, and we don't want to see the cops come in and seize the records, and then bust the growers."

"While there is much about the guidelines that is positive, we also have some worries about some of the dispensary language," Mirken said. "Requiring dispensaries to be non-profit is just silly. Is Jerry Brown going to demand that Walgreen's and Riteaid become charities, too? If society thinks private enterprise and the profit motive are a logical way to distribute goods and services, why not medical marijuana?"

Still, said Mirken, the guidelines are a step in the right direction. "Given that we have all these issues here in California, anything that moves us in the direction of an orderly system with some legal clarity is a good thing. When you have local authorities who just don't like medical marijuana and are looking for an excuse to bust people, which some of them have been doing all along, this is going to provide protection."

But at least one Bay Area dispensary operator was not so impressed. "Let's see how it all plays out," said Richard Lee, proprietor of Oakland's Bulldog Coffee Shop and SR-71 dispensary and key promoter of the Oaksterdam scene. "Hopefully, it will help people in more repressed redneck areas and not hurt people in more progressive areas like Oakland and San Francisco."

Although Brown's guidelines call for dispensaries to be organized as co-ops or collectives, Lee has not incorporated in that manner and has no plans to. "We've been here eight years," he said. "We were here before they even passed SB 420. Oakland has a system that allows reasonable profits; it's set up for the clubs to run like any other business, and we are fine with that. Does Jerry Brown really want to come in and mess with Oakland's system that works?"

While the guidelines could result in a temporary decrease in the number of dispensaries as non-compliant ones either close their doors or have them closed for them by law enforcement, the end result will most likely be more dispensaries opening in areas of that state that are currently underserved because of local law enforcement or official hostility.

"I'm not too worried about a short term decrease in the dispensaries if it brings a little more rigor," said Gieringer. "Things have been fast and loose, and we have some rogue operators who wouldn't normally be operating in a legal market. We will lose some of those people, which could result in a short term decrease in availability, but in the medium term, this should be balanced out by the increase in availability in currently underserved areas."

While not everyone is happy with all aspects of the guidelines, the state of California has now taken a big step toward legitimizing its medical marijuana industry, reducing the confusion surrounding the state's medical marijuana law, and sending a strong signal to the DEA that it intends to police itself.

Law Enforcement: LEAP Barred From Asian-American Cops Meeting in Virginia

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), the 10,000-strong organization of police, judges, prosecutors, DEA and FBI agents, and others calling for an end to drug prohibition, was declared persona non grata at the conference of the National Asian Peace Officers Association (NAPOA) in Crystal City, Virginia, on Tuesday. LEAP member Howard Wooldridge--best known as the guy in the cowboy hat with the "Cops Say Legalize Drugs" t-shirt--was forced to remove himself and his booth from the conference after federal agents there complained about his presence, LEAP said in a Wednesday press release.

According to the press release: "Acting under pressure from unnamed federal officials, Reagan Fong, president of the NAPOA, insisted on the immediate removal of LEAP from the conference vendor roster. It appears that some of the event's other exhibitors took exception to the LEAP message and put pressure on the event organizer to expel LEAP from the event."

Wooldridge reported that federal agency representatives, including DEA, Federal Air Marshals, and the Coast Guard had vendor booths at the conference. On Monday, Wooldridge visited the DEA booth and described the DEA agent there as "decidedly unhappy" with having to hear an opposing viewpoint.

Although NAPOA head Fong has not yet responded to LEAP requests for clarification and rectification, LEAP believes he took the action at the request of the DEA agent. LEAP is asking for an apology and demanding that Fong reveal the identity of the agent who leaned on him.

"We ask that Mr. Fong identify the individual, agency or group that lobbied for our eviction from the event," LEAP said. "If this was an independent effort then he or she was acting outside the scope of authority and should receive administrative punishment for unprofessional actions. If this action was sanctioned by upper level management then the managers need to explain their behavior in an open forum. If this was sanctioned official action by the US government it is a serious matter which requires serious and immediate attention."

Southeast Asia: DEA Bringing Drug War Tactics to Vietnam

DEA agents are in Vietnam this month to train Vietnamese anti-drug officers how to conduct drug raids American-style, but local UN officials say you can't police your way out of a drug problem. Still, that's not stopping the American drug warriors from teaching door-kicking-in and other skills they consider necessary for their paramilitarized approach to drug law enforcement.

According to a report from Voice of America radio, DEA agents like Joe Boix, the agency's head firearms and tactical instructor in the state of Arizona, are showing the Vietnamese how it's done back home. As Boix watched, a column of masked Vietnamese police practiced raiding a drug den.

"Someone needs to be on that side of the door," said Agent Boix. The agents kicked in the door and enter the room. "Protect your back. Turn around now," continued Boix.

"The drug problem is an international problem, and it's killing children, and it's killing families, and it's all the same no matter where you go," Boix told VOA.

Although Vietnam is not a drug producer, it has seen rising levels of heroin addiction since it opened itself to foreign trade two decades ago. Amphetamines and ecstasy are also popular. But the DEA isn't particularly concerned about drug use in Vietnam; rather, it wants to crack down on the use of the country as a transshipment point in the global drug trade.

"Our main thrust is to go after the international organizations. We'll help them out. That's what this training is for, to help them deal with their internal problem. But we want to go after the bigger organizations, the large ones, international in scope," said Jeff Wanner, the DEA officer at the US Embassy in Hanoi.

While training exercises like the one now on-going may help increase cooperation between US and Vietnamese law enforcement, it is unlikely to reduce drug use rates in Vietnam, and may even exacerbate problems related to drug abuse, said Jason Eligh, a harm reduction specialist at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime Hanoi office.

"If police enforcement is extremely strong, extremely rigid, concerned about stopping all things related to drugs, imprisoning people, imposing strict fines, that's going to cause heroin users to flee from authority, Eligh told VOA. "In Vietnam, drug use is classified as a social evil and as a crime. Where there's strong enforcement, you're seeing drug users not want to engage in services," he said.

When tough law enforcement drives drug users underground, the result can be higher rates of HIV infection, Eligh said. Nor was he particularly enamored of the current Vietnamese approach to drug users, which is to intern them in mandatory rehabilitation camps, generally for two years, but sometimes for as long as five years, but then offers few services once drug users go back home.

"There are a number of better ways of dealing with drug dependence, and this is not one of them. Certainly methadone is by far the best approach to heroin dependence that we have in the world today," said Eligh.

Vietnam recently began implementing its first methadone maintenance programs. That's a more progressive and humane approach than either the rehab camps or American-style drug raids.

Feature: Feds Score Another Conviction Against a California Medical Marijuana Dispensary Operator

In a trial that garnered national attention because of the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws, a federal jury in Los Angeles Tuesday convicted the owner of a Morro Bay medical marijuana dispensary on five counts of violating federal drug laws. As was the case in previous federal prosecutions, the defense was not allowed to mount a medical marijuana defense or even mention the words "medical marijuana" during the course of the trial.

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Charlie Lynch (from friendsofccl.com)
Charles Lynch, 46, operator of Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers in San Luis Obispo County, faces a minimum of five years in prison and as many as 85 years after being found guilty of distributing more than 100 kilograms of marijuana, some of to people considered minors under federal law.

Federal prosecutors portrayed Lynch as a mercenary drug dealer, toting around backpacks full of cash and selling dope to minors. One minor, Owen Beck, actually took the stand in Lynch's defense. Beck suffers from bone cancer, and accompanied by his parents, he would visit the dispensary to purchase medical marijuana recommended to him by his Stanford University oncologist. But as soon as Beck mentioned that he was ill, Federal District Court Judge George Wu blocked his testimony.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times after reaching a verdict, jury forewoman Kitty Meese said jurors understood Lynch was no run-of-the-mill drug dealer, but that federal law made no provision for dispensary operators. "We all felt Mr. Lynch intended well," Meese said. "But under the parameters we were given for the federal law, we didn't have a choice." She added, "it was a tough decision for all of us because the state law and the federal law are at odds."

Lynch had run the dispensary in compliance with state law and with the blessing of local officials in Morro Bay, but after a fruitless, year-long investigation by San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Pat Hedges failed to find any violations of state law, the sheriff invited the DEA to come and raid the dispensary. The DEA did just that last year, and a few months later a federal grand jury indicted him.

Lynch is only the latest of at least six dispensary operators convicted under the federal drug laws, and his dispensary is but one of the dozens raided by the DEA in the last couple of years. With federal juries blocked from hearing about or considering the state's medical marijuana laws by federal judges in those cases, convictions are all but a foregone conclusion.

"This just goes to show the difficulty of getting a fair trial on this in federal court," said Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML. "The feds are batting a thousand when it comes to getting convictions in these cases. You cannot get a fair hearing."

"Charley got steamrolled by the federal government," said San Luis Obispo attorney Lou Koory, who represented Lynch in his dealings with local officials. "It's just not a fair fight when you can't tell the whole story," he said.

"The jury selection process revealed that potential jurors in Los Angeles had major questions about why the feds would be prosecuting someone like Charley when there are several dispensaries operating within walking distance of the courthouse there," Koory pointed out. "Those jurors were dismissed for cause, so we were left with citizens who were apparently not concerned about the federal government's actions in this case and who felt compelled to follow the judge's instructions."

"When you have things like Owen Beck being prevented from testifying, that only escalates the tragedy of this case," said Kris Hermes, spokesman for the medical marijuana defense group Americans for Safe Access. "The jury was not allowed to hear the whole truth in the larger context of the state law," he said.

Hermes was quick to point out that Lynch was not the only victim of the DEA and its local law enforcement collaborators. "When Charles was raided, his was one of the only facilities in the whole region," said Hermes. "Now patients have to go much longer distances, sometimes hundreds of miles, to get their medicine. Not only has this destroyed Charlie's life, it has worsened the lives of hundreds of patients."

With the deck stacked against dispensary operators in these federal prosecutions, activists and advocates are looking for ways to change the status quo. Some involve fighting back against recalcitrant law enforcement officials like Sheriff Hedges, others looks to greater help from state officials, while still others are turning a jaundiced eye on the federal marijuana laws.

At least one of Lynch's patients has filed suit against Hedges, alleging that he violated patients' privacy protections by seizing patient records and violated both her state and federal constitutional rights by doing an end run around state law.

"The sheriff couldn't get a state search warrant, so he calls in the DEA and participates in the raid," said Koory. "In return for serving up Charley on a silver platter, the sheriff got access to all the evidence, including patient records," he explained. "The dispensary was a rock in the sheriff's shoe, so after a year's worth of failed investigation, Sheriff Hedges invited the DEA to come up to Morro Bay and raid the dispensary. That's the real story here."

While the idea of suing sheriffs sounds appealing, it's a long-shot, said Hermes. "They are certainly subject to litigation if someone wants to file a lawsuit against a local official for cooperating with the federal government, but it's a difficult legal challenge," he said. "There is no law that prohibits local law enforcement from cooperating with the feds. What officials like the sheriff are doing is wrongheaded, harmful, and unnecessary, but it will be difficult to win, I think."

In the meantime, said Hermes, there are other avenues to pursue in reining in renegade local officials. "One thing would be to get a pronouncement from Attorney General Jerry Brown directing law enforcement on appropriate conduct around these issues. We're expecting that to happen soon," he said. "Absence of direction from the attorney general has made it easier not only for federal law enforcement to come in and undermine the implementation of state law, but also to make it easier for local law enforcement to help in that effort."

Hermes said that recent state court decisions, including last week's slap-down of San Diego County's challenge to the law (see related story this issue) are also helping define the playing field. "We've had multiple appellate court rulings declaring the state's medical marijuana law is not preempted by federal law, that the two can coexist, and that local law enforcement should be upholding state law and not federal law," he said. "Between these rulings and the pending guidelines from the attorney general, there will be less and less wiggle room for local law enforcement to skirt the law."

There is also the ballot box. Sheriffs are elected officials, and they could be challenged at the voting booth over their medical marijuana misbehavior, but ASA's Hermes couldn't recall a case where someone was either defeated or elected over the issue. "It is certainly an issue to bring up in sheriffs' races," he said. "If there are renegade law enforcement officials trying to skirt state law, we can try to make them feel the political heat."

Still, Hermes predicted that given the state court rulings, the pending guidelines from the attorney general, and new set of faces in Washington next year, the renegade law enforcement problem will probably recede. "If it continues to happen," he said, "there will be a political battle I think public officials will be sorry they got into. I think we will see less and less cooperation between local law enforcement and the feds on this."

A new administration in Washington could make a huge difference, Hermes said. "If we elect Obama, and he follows through on his promise to end federal raids on dispensaries, then we will hopefully see less federal activity here in California."

But the ultimate solution is changing the federal law around marijuana. Legalization, decriminalization, rescheduling marijuana out of Schedule 1, or even passage of the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment, which would cut off funds for federal raids in medical marijuana states, are some of the steps that could be taken.

"We need to see either marijuana rescheduled as something other than Schedule 1, or the US Supreme Court's Raich decision needs to be revisited and overruled. The logic behind that decision -- that medical marijuana grown, distributed, and consumed within California affects interstate commerce -- is a stretch at best," said Koory.

"What we need is a comprehensive federal policy in the US," said Hermes. "Rescheduling or passing Hinchey would be easier than passing either decriminalization or legalization, but we would welcome any of those. We'll be working for a sweeping federal policy that includes rescheduling, further research, and allows for safe access to medical marijuana for patients all across the country."

Until the federal marijuana laws are reformed or eliminated, medical marijuana patients are not safe. Instead, they will be subject to the whims and political proclivities of whoever has hold of the levers of power in Washington.

Click here to watch Drew Carey's video about Charlie Lynch, on Reason TV.

Feature: Federal Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Has Its Coming Out Party

For the first time in decades, a marijuana decriminalization bill is before the Congress. Actually introduced by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) in April, the Act to Remove Federal Penalties for the Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults (H.R. 5843) got its coming out party Wednesday as Frank, a handful of other representatives, and leaders of prominent drug reform organizations held a Capitol Hill press conference to push for the bill.

In the eyes of many, the bill couldn't come soon enough. Since 1965, more than 20 million Americans have been arrested on marijuana charges, 830,000 in 2006. Of those, nearly 90% were for simple possession. In addition to the jail time and other costs imposed on offenders, marijuana law enforcement costs society more than $7 billion a year.

While passage of a federal decriminalization bill would have little direct impact -- only 160 people were charged with federal marijuana possession offenses last year -- its symbolic impact could help break the marijuana law reform log-jam that has endured since the days of the hippies.

Here is the text of the bill in its entirety:

"Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no penalty may be imposed under an Act of Congress for the possession of marijuana for personal use, or for the not-for-profit transfer between adults of marijuana for personal use. For the purposes of this section, possession of 100 grams or less of marijuana shall be presumed to be for personal use, as shall the not-for-profit transfer of one ounce or less of marijuana, except that the civil penalty provided in section 405 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 844a) may be imposed for the public use of marijuana if the amount of the penalty does not exceed $100."

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Reps. Lee, Frank and Clay at press conference (courtesy Drug Policy Alliance)
Frank and other advocates conceded the bill has no chance of passage this year, but lauded it as a long overdue beginning. Hearings could come next year, they said.

The federal government should stop arresting marijuana users, Frank said as he stood before the microphones flanked by Congressional Black Caucus members Reps. Lacy Clay (D-MO) and Barbara Lee (D-CA), and advocates Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML; Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, and Bill Piper, national affairs director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Existing laws aimed at marijuana users punish otherwise law-abiding citizens and sick people whose doctors have recommended the drug, disproportionately impact African-Americans, and waste law enforcement resources, Frank said. They also amount to an unwarranted intrusion into the private lives of Americans, he said.

"There is absolutely nothing wrong with the responsible use of marijuana by adults and this should be of no interest or concern to the government," said NORML's St. Pierre. "In fact, the vast majority of marijuana smokers are adults who cause no harm to themselves or to anyone else, so there is no reason for the state to be involved."

Marijuana use should be treated like alcohol use, St. Pierre continued. "With alcohol we acknowledge the distinction between use and abuse, and we focus our law enforcement involvement on efforts to stop irresponsible use. We do not arrest or jail responsible alcohol drinkers. That should be our policy with marijuana as well," he said, noting that there were more than 11 million marijuana arrests since 1990.

Reps. Clay and Lee both emphasized the inordinate number of arrests of minority pot smokers. The application of the marijuana laws unfairly targets blacks, said Clay.

Clay called marijuana prohibition part of "a phony war on drugs that is filling up our prisons, especially with people of color." It is time for a "practical, common sense approach" instead, he said.

Lee also noted the disproportionate impact of marijuana law enforcement on the minority community, but as a representative of a state where medical marijuana is legal also singled out another group that suffers under the law. "This bill is about compassion," she said. "The federal government has better things to do than send sick people to jail."

MPP's Kampia noted that marijuana arrests outnumber arrests for "all violent crimes combined," and suggested that law enforcement concentrate less on pursuing nonviolent marijuana offenders. "Ending arrests is the key to marijuana policy reform," he said. "It is important to eliminate the threat of arrest. For the many marijuana users who aren't arrested, they still live in fear of arrest."

Marijuana prohibition is "one of the most destructive criminal justice policies in America today," said DPA's Piper, noting that in addition to arrest and possible imprisonment, marijuana users face the loss of jobs, financial aid for college, federal benefits, and access to low-cost public housing.

Even while conceding the bill has virtually zero chance of passing this year, earlier in the week Piper said you have to start somewhere. "The goal is to raise the issue and have something that advocates can organize around," he said. "But just having this bill introduced is groundbreaking in itself."

It could also rub off at state houses across the land, Piper said. "This will encourage state lawmakers to introduce similar bills. This is also something we can now turn around and use to lobby with at state houses," he said.

"There's a growing sentiment in Congress that the prisons are overcrowded," said MPP spokesman Dan Bernath. "I think we are at or near a tipping point, and this bill is a good way to start chipping away at our marijuana laws," he said. "This will set the stage for sensible marijuana reforms at the state and local level, as well as more meaningful federal reforms in the future."

If reformers see little likelihood of anything happening this year, the federal government's anti-drug bureaucrats were taking no chances. Crashing the gate at the press conference were Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) chief scientist Dr. David Murray and two aides. They came carrying glossy ONDCP propaganda and hoping to immediately rebut any claims by reformers, but both press corps and event participants seemed more bemused by their appearance than interested in what they had to say.

Feature: Prescription Drug "Fatal Medical Errors" Rising Dramatically -- What Does It Mean?

A study released this week charted a startling increase in deaths from "fatal medical errors," particularly those associated with people mixing street drugs and alcohol with prescription medications at home. In this context, "fatal medical error" refers to people dying from taking prescribed medications, usually opioids, but also including other drugs, such as benzodiazepines (Valium, for example).

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the pain reliever Oxycontin
But while the numbers have some in the medical community calling for tighter restrictions on prescribing, they have some in the pain relief community worrying about just that possibility. And they're leaving other interested observers wondering just how accurate they are, what they mean, and just who is dying.

According to the study by University of California at San Diego sociologist David Phillips, which examined all US death certificates from the beginning of 1983 to the end of 2004, the overall death rate from fatal medical errors increased more than three-fold over that period, but the death rate from fatal medical errors when the drugs are taken at home and combined with alcohol and/or street drugs has increased a whopping 30-fold.

That means that accidental overdoses at home with alcohol or street drugs involved accounted for 17% of fatal medical error deaths in 2004. That's a seven-fold increase over the 2.3% reported in 1983.

In real numbers, the study found 22,770 fatalities from medication errors in 2004, with 3,792 of them attributed to mixing meds with alcohol or other drugs. In 1983, by contrast, only 92 people died from mixing drugs.

The increase in fatal medical errors involving prescription drugs is larger than the increase in the use of prescription drugs themselves, which has increased about 70% in the last decade.

Fatal medical errors involving prescription drugs dispensed in a hospital or doctor's office setting increased only 5%, while such errors involving home use but no street drug or alcohol use and such errors involving medical settings and alcohol and/or street drug use both increased five-fold.

Phillips and his coauthors pointed their finger at the ongoing migration of prescription drug dispensing from medical professionals at hospitals and doctors' office to patients at home. The decades-long shift in the location of medication consumption from clinical to domestic settings, they said, "is linked to a dramatic increase in fatal medication errors."

It is not just people swallowing prescription pills at home, but the involvement of other drugs in the overdoses that is disturbing, they said. "Domestic fatal medication errors, combined with alcohol and/or street drugs, have become an increasingly important health problem."

The study recommended increased screening for patient abuse of prescription drugs, alcohol, or street drugs, as well as increased vigilance toward prescribing medicines with known dangerous interactions with alcohol or street drugs.

But others in the medical profession are taking the study's findings and running with them. One medical blogger looking to restrict access to pain meds put it like this: "What is going on here is a direct result of politicizing medicine by the pain rights movement and the organizations that have mandated liberal pain management into guidelines and enforcement standards. More recently the push to promote patient satisfaction in healthcare organizations has resulted in liberalizing of prescribing opioid medications to make patients happy. Whatever happened to do no harm? Medicine has lost its way. These numbers should serve as a wake up call and re-examination of pain management practices."

And that is, unsurprisingly, raising hackles in the embattled pain relief movement. Pain relief advocates have long argued that access to effective opioid pain medications is too restricted, pointing to numerous cases of doctors prosecuted and imprisoned for their prescribing practices -- and the patients being left in the lurch.

"The pain relief movement had made only modest gains when it was faced with a government-wide crackdown, led by the Justice Department," said Siobhan Reynolds of the Pain Relief Network. "Now, those who know that they could find help in the form of opioids, find themselves shut out of care and stigmatized by the entire system. I don't think I have ever seen a more destructive phenomenon sweep this country... all in the name of a drug free America, an America which could never exist."

It's not pain patients who are dying of opioid overdoses, said California pain management physician Dr. Frank Fisher. "I've analyzed dozens of these deaths now, and the field of forensic pathology is in such disarray that any time they find an opioid post-mortem, they label the death an overdose," he said. "But pain patients almost never overdose because of the phenomenon of tolerance -- unless it's a massive deliberate overdose, and then they have to take the benzos, barbiturates, or alcohol."

"It's true that it's very hard for an opioid tolerant person to overdose -- if they know what they're doing," said Dr. Matt Das Gupta, an epidemiologist working with North Carolina's Project Lazarus, a program that distributes the opioid antagonist naloxone (Narcan) to drug users to prevent overdoses. But mixing opioids with other drugs or alcohol can fell even the hardiest opioid tolerant patient, he warned.

Most pain patients are dying of cardiac disease, said Fisher. "Heart disease kills pain patients because they're sedentary because of their conditions and they're under stress from chronic pain. What I'm seeing is an epidemic of cardiac disease brought on or exacerbated by chronic pain. Medical examiners are calling them overdoses because they have opioids in their systems, but the medical examiners are wrong when it comes to chronic pain patients."

Suicides among pain patients are no surprise, said Fisher, but they tend to be undercounted. "Unless they leave a note, the medical examiner never calls it suicide, they will call it undetermined or accidental overdose. The medical examiners are giving us terrible data," he complained.

"Medical examiners not coding properly is a perennial problem," said Das Gupta. But that could go both ways. "There are people who died who probably should be included, but were not coded as ODs. For example, one code is chronic use of opioids. If you include that, the numbers go up by 10% or 15%."

(For more on the controversies surrounding drug-related deaths, cause of death coding issues, and associated topics, check out this page at Brian C. Bennett's web site, Truth: The Anti-Drug War.)

While pain relief advocates such as Reynolds and Fisher are concerned primarily with protecting patients' access to effective opioid pain relievers, harm reductionists such as Das Gupta are concerned primarily with preventing overdoses and other deaths related to drug use. While the harm reduction movement has traditionally focused on the use of street drugs, like cocaine and heroin, the rapid increase in prescription drug deaths may be a sign that it needs to broaden its focus.

"When you look at deaths at the state level and start to pull actual medical examiner case files, you find that the people dying are really a mix of pain patients, non-medical opioid users, and heroin users," said Das Gupta. "Here in North Carolina, we found that 80% of prescription overdose deaths were people with prescriptions. That doesn't mean they were chronic pain patients, though; they could have been people scamming docs. What we have is a really heterogenous mix, and the way things are coded doesn't offer enough nuance."

Project Lazarus is trying to adjust, he said. "We've been tweaking traditional programs to a different setting. Instead of using needle exchange programs, we're doing it through doctors' offices," explained Das Gupta. "Anyone who prescribes opioids for pain in North Carolina should be considering naloxone for specific populations," he said. "There is an ethical responsibility for physicians not to endanger their patients' lives."

"We're working on overdose prevention here in New York, but the people we have had access to are the heroin users," said Dr. Sharon Stancliff, medical director for the Harm Reduction Coalition, for whom she oversees drug overdose prevention projects in New York and San Francisco. "But the bigger problem is people misusing or abusing opioids. We need to be getting information out to the general practitioners who are prescribing these drugs. They need to be prescribing Narcan with all those meds," she suggested.

"We need to change the national agenda about overdose prevention," said Stancliff. "Naloxone is an answer, but it's not the only answer. We need naloxone, we need education, we need more research."

And, Stancliff added, the federal government needs to quit being an obstacle and start helping to solve the problem. "We don't have an early alert system, we have really bad surveillance, we're not getting the research done," Stancliff complained. "We don't know who is dying -- is it the people being prescribed the drugs? Is it people they're giving them to? Is it illicit drug users? We don't know enough. The Centers for Disease Control don't quite cover this, and it should be a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) issue, too. Maybe in the next administration, when harm reduction isn't a dirty word."

Medical Marijuana: DEA Seizes Medical Marijuana Seized By Seattle Police

Washington state has a medical marijuana law, and the city of Seattle has an ordinance making marijuana offenses the lowest law enforcement priority, but that didn't stop Seattle police from raiding the Lifevine medical marijuana co-op two weeks ago, seizing hundreds of patient files, as well as 12 ounces of dried buds and several pounds of leaf.

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California medical marijuana bags (courtesy Daniel Argo via Wikimedia)
In the wake of pointed criticism, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg declined to press charges against co-op operator Martin Martinez and ordered the return of the patient files. But police did not return the co-op's stolen property -- the medical marijuana.

Now, it has become clear the medical marijuana will never be returned. The Seattle Police announced Wednesday that the DEA, acting at the request of US Attorney Jeff Sullivan, took the medicine last Friday.

The DEA tersely confirmed it had seized the medicine. "Accordingly, the DEA has seized and processed the marijuana for destruction; that concludes this matter," agency spokesperson Jodie Underwood said in a statement reported by the Associated Press.

Medical Marijuana: Whole Plant Better Than Isolated Components in Pain Relief, Italian Study Finds

Scientists at the University of Milan have published a study finding that whole-plant marijuana extracts provide better relief for neuropathic pain than isolated components of the plant, like THC alone. The research is an intervention in the ongoing debate between medical marijuana supporters and herbal and alternative medicine advocates on one side and the US government, some politicians, and the pharmaceuticalized medicine industry on the other.

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Marinol advertisement on Google
"The use of a standardized extract of Cannabis sativa... evoked a total relief of thermal hyperalgesia, in an experimental model of neuropathic pain,... ameliorating the effect of single cannabinoids," the investigators reported. "Collectively, these findings strongly support the idea that the combination of cannabinoid and non-cannabinoid compounds, as present in extracts, provide significant advantages... compared with pure cannabinoids alone."

Congressional drug warriors like Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) have long argued that marijuana is not a medicine and that any medicinal compounds in the plant should be isolated or synthesized, as is the case with Marinol, which contains one of the hundreds of cannabinoids found in the plant. The DEA takes a similar approach.

But this latest research only adds to the evidence that that position is mistaken.

Southwest Asia: Former US Anti-Drug Official Accuses Afghan Government of Complicity in Drug Trade -- US and NATO Not Doing Much Either, He Complains

Former State Department official Thomas Schweich, who was the US government's point man in the effort to wipe out the opium and heroin trade in Afghanistan until last month, has accused Afghan President Hamid Karzai of protecting drug traffickers and obstructing anti-drug efforts in an article to be published in the New York Times magazine on Sunday, but which appeared on the newspaper's web site Wednesday night.

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opium poppies
"While it is true that Karzai's Taliban enemies finance themselves from the drug trade, so do many of his supporters," Schweich wrote. "Narco-corruption went to the top of the Afghan government," he wrote, adding that drug traffickers were buying off hundreds of police chiefs, judges and other officials. Schweich accused Karzai of resisting heightened anti-drug efforts and opposing the eradication of opium poppy fields, long a dream of US drug warriors.

"Karzai was playing us like a fiddle," Schweich wrote. "The US and its allies would fight the Taliban; Karzai's friends could get rich off the drug trade; he could blame the West for his problems; and in 2009 he would be elected to a new term."

The Karzai government wasn't the only problem, Schweich wrote. He criticized both the US military and NATO forces for indifference, if not outright hostility, toward the anti-drug battle and argued that failing to cut Taliban profits from the drug trade means fighting could continue indefinitely.

"The trouble is that the fighting is unlikely to end as long as the Taliban can finance themselves through drugs -- and as long as the Kabul government is dependent on opium to sustain its own hold on power," he said.

Almost everyone is to blame for the Afghan drug mess, the now-retired drug warrior fumed. "An odd cabal of timorous Europeans, myopic media outlets, corrupt Afghans, blinkered Pentagon officers, politically motivated Democrats and the Taliban were preventing the implementation of an effective counter-drug program," he said.

In a Thursday press conference in Kabul, Karzai rejected Schweich's charges."As I had said two years ago, Afghanistan never takes the blame (for the drugs threat). The Afghan nation due to desperation, war... has been forced to resort to this issue," Karzai replied when asked to respond to Schweich's comments. "Without doubt, some Afghans are drugs smugglers, but majority of them are the international mafia who do not live in Afghanistan," he said.

Afghanistan produces more than 90% of the world's opium. Production has expanded dramatically since the US invaded and overthrew the Taliban in late 2001.

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