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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.

No One Takes the Drug Czar's Office Seriously (Not Even the President)

At a White House meeting earlier today:

The new director of the Office of National Drug Policy, former Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, was on hand as well. But not even Obama's retentive mind could recall his full title.

"I just wanted you to know, as well as the new director of our office of -- I always forget the full name of this -- I call it the Drug Czar . . .

"I'm fine with that," Kerlikowske interrupted. [Seattle Post-Intelligencer]

The Office of National Drug Control Policy has been such a joke for so long now that it comes as no surprise that the President can't even remember what it's called. No wonder the office was downgraded from cabinet status.

What an embarrassment. Can we please just cancel ONDCP altogether and save everyone the humialtion of trying to remember what it stands for?

Afghanistan: Coalition Death Toll Mounts as Fight for Opium Center Helmand Province Ratchets Up

US and NATO casualties in Afghanistan jumped sharply this week as some 4,000 US Marines and 650 Afghan army troops poured into Helmand province, Afghanistan's largest producer, which supplies more than half of the world's opium by itself. According to the war monitoring site icasualties.org least 23 US and NATO soldiers were killed in fighting this week, although not all the casualties came from Helmand.

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war-torn Afghanistan (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith, 2005)
The pace of casualties this month, with 26 already, is set to easily surpass last year's June toll of 30. Every month this year, the US and NATO death toll has eclipsed last year's figures. The only exception was April, which saw 14 NATO and US deaths in both years.

NATO and US military commanders have warned that this year's offensives against a Taliban insurgency flush with opium and heroin funds would be bloody, and they've been right. So far this year, 179 coalition troops have been killed, a pace that will easily eclipse last year's record 254 coalition deaths. In fact, each year since 2003 has seen a new record number of US and NATO troops killed.

Some 1,224 coalition troops have been killed in Afghanistan since the US invaded in late 2001. The US leads the casualty count with 728 killed, followed by Great Britain with 176, and Canada with 124. Several other NATO countries, including France, Germany, and Spain, have had dozens of troops killed.

As the center of opium production in Afghanistan and a stronghold of the Taliban, Helmand is a key battleground in the Afghan war. Unlike previous years, when the Western presence in Helmand was light and fleeting, this time the Marines are there to stay in a bid to woo the local population, provide security, and allow for the establishment of effective government
.
Key to winning popular support in Helmand is the new US strategy of ignoring poppy cultivation. Instead of alienating farmers by destroying their crops, the West will concentrate on traffickers and traders linked to the Taliban. It is a smarter strategy than eradication, but whether it is a smart strategy -- whether it will work -- remains to be seen.

Latin American: Mexican Army Accused (Again) of Torture in Drug War

Since Mexican President Felipe Calderón called on the armed forces to join the fight against violent drug trafficking organizations, observers have warned that involving the military in law enforcement is a recipe for human rights abuses. Yesterday, the Washington Post reported allegations from victims, families, political leaders, and human rights monitors that the army has carried out forced disappearances, illegal raids, and acts of torture as it wages war on the so-called drug cartels. It is by no means the first time such allegations have been made.

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poster of assassinated human rights advocate Ricardo Murillo
The Post report shows a clear pattern of human rights abuses across Mexico. In a mountain village in Guerrero, residents told how soldiers stuck needles under the fingernails of a disabled farmer, stabbed his 13-year-old nephew, fired on a preacher, and stole food, milk, clothing, and medicine. In Tijuana, 24 police officers arrested on drug charges in March allege that they were beaten and tortured in order to extract confessions.

It is an old story. Earlier this year, after the Mexican army roared into the border town of Ciudad Juarez to put an end to a wave of killings, residents there reported similar abuses. Last year, the Chronicle reported on soldiers killing civilians in Sinaloa and Sinaloa human rights activist Mercedes Murillo's campaign to rein in the abuses. More than 2,000 other cases, with allegations ranging from theft and robbery to rape, torture, and murder, have been filed with local and national human rights monitors.

"What happens is the army takes [suspects] back to their bases -- and of course a military base is not a place to detain people suspected of a crime -- and they begin to ask questions," said Mauricio Ibarra, who oversees investigations for the national human rights commission. "And to help them remember or to get information, they use torture."

The US supports the Calderón offensive against the cartels through the $1.4 billion Mérida Initiative, but under that legislation, 15% of those funds must be withheld until the secretary of state reports that Mexico has made progress on human rights. That report is due to be delivered to Congress within weeks. It is going to be hard for the State Department to argue that the human rights situation in Mexico is improving, but with drug war politics at stake anything could happen.

Industrial Hemp: Bill Passes Oregon Legislature, Heads for Governor's Desk

The Oregon House Monday passed SB 676 by a veto-proof margin of 46-11. The measure would allow for the production, possession, and commercialization of industrial hemp and its products. The measure passed the state Senate on June 19 an equally veto-proof 27-2 margin.

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hemp plants
During the House debate, hemp supporter Rep. Jules Bailey (D-Portland) used visual aids to demonstrate the diversity of hemp products, waving around bags of hemp tortilla chips and non-dairy hemp milk. He also held up a t-shirt emblazoned with the words "Senate Bill 676 is about rope, not dope."

"I am glad that Oregon has joined the list of states that have agreed that American farmers should have the right to reintroduce industrial hemp as an agricultural crop," said bill sponsor Sen. Floyd Prozanski (D-South Lane and North Douglas Counties). "By passing SB 676 with strong bipartisan support, the Oregon legislature has taken a proactive position to allow its farmers the right to grow industrial hemp, to provide American manufacturers with domestically-grown hemp, and to profit from that effort."

The industry association Vote Hemp said it was confident Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) would sign the bill. If he does, or if a veto is overridden, Oregon will become the ninth state to authorize industrial hemp production under state law. It remains forbidden by federal law.

"The time has come for the federal government to act and allow farmers to once again grow hemp, so American companies will no longer need to import it and American farmers will no longer be denied a profitable new crop," said Vote Hemp president Eric Steenstra. "Under current federal policy, industrial hemp can be imported, but it cannot be grown by American farmers. Hemp is a versatile, environmentally-friendly crop that has not been grown in the US for over fifty years because of a misguided and politicized interpretation of the nation's drug laws by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). While a new bill in Congress, H.R. 1866, is a welcome step, the hemp industry is hopeful that President Obama's administration will recognize hemp's myriad benefits to farmers, businesses and the environment," he added.

"We are looking forward to the opportunity to invest in hemp processing and production locally," says Hans Fastre, chief executive officer of Living Harvest, one of the numerous hemp product companies based in Oregon. "This bill represents another step towards heightening the hemp industry's profile within mainstream America and making hemp products more accessible to businesses and consumers."

If the bill becomes law, Oregon will become the second state to approve industrial hemp this year. Maine did so last month. Four other states, Montana, New Mexico, Vermont and North Dakota passed resolutions or memorials urging Congress to allow states to regulate hemp farming this year.

The states that have okayed hemp production are Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Montana, North Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia. North Dakota has even issued licenses to would-be hemp farmers for the past two years, but the federal prohibition has prevented any hemp planting.

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda," by Gretchen Peters (2009, Thomas Dunne Press, 300 pp., $25.95 HB)

Gretchen Peters certainly has a sense of timing. She spent the last decade covering Afghanistan and Pakistan, first for the Associated Press and later for ABC News, and managed to bring "Seeds of Terror" to press just as the US and its NATO allies in Afghanistan begin lurching toward a new approach to drug policy there. Just this past weekend, the US announced it was giving up on trying to eradicate its way to victory over the poppy crop, and for the past few weeks, news accounts of US and NATO attacks on traffickers, opium stockpiles, and heroin labs have been coming at a steady, if not escalating, pace.

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Afghan opium
Peters' thesis -- that the immensely lucrative opium and heroin trade is funding the Taliban and Al Qaeda to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year, which they use to wage their insurgency against the West and allies in Afghanistan -- while portrayed as stunning and shocking, is nothing new to readers of the Chronicle, or anyone else who has been following events in Afghanistan since before the 2001 US invasion.

But where "Seeds of Terror" shines is in its unparalleled detail and depth of knowledge of the drug trade, the Taliban/Al Qaeda insurgency, the Pakistan connection, and the intricate and complicated linkages between the actors. With access to government and security officials from the US, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan, and through interviews with everyone from simple famers to fighters to opium traders and even some amazingly high-up people in the international heroin trade, Peters is able to navigate and share with readers the murky, ever shifting nature of the beast.

She is especially useful in unraveling the various groupings that are simplistically referred to as "the Taliban." There is no single Taliban, Peters explains; there are rival warlords (Hekmatyar, Haqqani, Mullah Omar) running their drug empires and fighting to drive out the Westerners, their jihadist convictions clouded more each year in a haze of opium smoke and illicit profits. And then there are what are in essence criminal drug trafficking organizations. They, too, will identify themselves as Taliban for pragmatic reasons -- the intimidation factor, mainly -- but have little interest in holy war, except as it provides the chaotic cover for their underground trade.

Actually, as Peters details, the story goes back a generation further, to the last great American intervention into this Fourth World country on the other side of the planet. Then, during the Reagan-era sponsorship of the Afghan mujahedeen fighting to drive out the Soviet Red Army, millions of Afghans fled into refugee camps in Pakistan, and would-be warlords and foreign jihadis (including a young Osama bin Laden), tussled for the billions of dollars coming from Washington and doled out by Pakistani intelligence, or, alternately, from funding sources in Saudi Arabia.

Those warlords turned Pakistan, particularly the refugee-ridden Northwest Frontier territories into a leading opium producer during the 1980s, to ensure sources of funding for their armies, and secondarily, to turn as many Russian soldiers into junkies as they could. The Pakistani drug trafficking networks, including some very highly placed army and other officials, set up then are still the main conduits for the opium and heroin leaving Afghanistan today. Man, talk about your blowback.

Peters has a keen grasp of local affairs, knows how to write, and has constructed a gripping and informative narrative. But, faced with a counterinsurgency effort that has floundered, in good part because of profits from the illicit drug trade keeping the Taliban well-supplied with shiny new weapons, she cannot resist the temptation to try her own hand at recommending more effective policies. Here, unfortunately, she is decidedly conventional and unquestioning of the prohibitionist paradigm.

For example, the proposal floated by The Senlis Council in 2005 to simply buy up the poppy crop and divert it into the legitimate medical market gets remarkably short shrift. Peters devotes a mere paragraph to the plan, dismissing it as not pragmatic -- a position not universally held by experts.

Similarly, her policy prescriptions, while including such progressive developmentalist planks as alternative livelihood programs, strengthening institutions, and opening new markets for new crops, also include a call to "arrest or kill" drug kingpins, heroin lab chemists, and even mid-level traffickers. She also advocates air strikes against smuggling convoys, "smarter" counterinsurgency, and beefed up law enforcement against the "bad guys."

Peters' thinking on drug policy may be decidedly inside the box, but her contribution to our understanding of the complex nexus between the illicit drug trade in Afghanistan, local insurgencies, and global jihadi ambitions is important and chilling. This is the best layperson's guide to that nexus out there.

Latin America: Obama Administration Declines to Restore Bolivian Trade Preferences, Cites Government's Acceptance of Coca Production

President Barack Obama has declined to restore trade benefits under the Andean Trade Preference Act to Bolivia, citing the Bolivian government's acceptance of coca growing. The decision came in a Tuesday report from the office of the US Trade Representative.

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coca leaves drying by highway, Chapare area of Bolivia
The report also complained about Bolivian nationalization of the hydrocarbon sector and increases in tariffs, but it was the pro-coca policies of the government of President Evo Morales that drew the sharpest language. Even while acknowledging that the Bolivian government continues to undertake significant interdiction efforts against the cocaine trade, the report criticized Bolivia for failing to adhere to US demands to decrease coca cultivation and for expelling the DEA from the country last fall.

Since assuming the presidency, Morales has dramatically changed Bolivian drug policy from "zero coca" to "zero cocaine, not zero coca." Coca production has seen slight annual increases under Morales, but Bolivia remains only the third largest coca and cocaine producer, behind Colombia and Peru.

"The current challenges include the explicit acceptance and encouragement of coca production at the highest levels of the Bolivian government; government tolerance of and attractive income from increased and unconstrained coca cultivation in both the Yungas and Chapare regions; and increased and uncontrolled sale of coca to drug traffickers," the report scolded. "The efficiency and success of eradication efforts have significantly declined in the past few years."

Tensions between La Paz and Washington have been high in recent years as Morales has defended the use and cultivation of coca and expelled US diplomats after accusing them of intervening in Bolivian internal affairs. Bolivia's close relationship with Venezuela under the leadership of President Hugo Chavez hasn't helped, either.

And this won't help, either. President Morales reacted angrily Wednesday, saying the move contradicted Obama's vow to treat Latin America countries as equals. "President Obama lied to Latin America when he told us in Trinidad and Tobago that there are not senior and junior partners," he told reporters. The report, he added, used "pure lies and insults" to justify its decision.

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