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Hemp On the Menu in Bismarck, North Dakota

Bismarck's Bistro restaurant is known for its fine, grass-fed North Dakota beef and fine wines, but the menu last night included a tasty garden salad with hemp oil dressing. Hemp isn't usually on the menu--at least so far--but the folks at the Bistro added it in honor of the plaintiffs in a case that is being heard at the federal courthouse here this morning. In a little less than an hour, North Dakota farmers Wayne Hauge and Roger Munson, who is also a state senator, and their attorneys, will be in federal court to argue motions in their case against the DEA for refusing to act on their applications to grow hemp. The farmers have the support of the state government, which, in the face of DEA intransigence, has acted to get the DEA out of the way, as well as the hemp industry, some of whose representatives were at the dinner table at the Bistro last night. The attorneys told me last night the most likely outcome of today's hearings is that the judge will not rule immediately, but take the motions under consideration with a ruling to come shortly. The government will ask for a dismissal, but the hemp attorneys think that's unlikely. The hearing will last until about noon, then there will be a post-hearing press availability, which I will attend before heading back to central South Dakota. Yesterday, on the way up here, my gas mileage sucked as I fought bitter winds out of the northwest. Local TV news reported gusts of 74 mph yesterday. The wind is still blowing, but at least this afternoon it'll be at my back as I scoot across the lonely prairies. Look for a feature article on the hemp hearing on Friday.
Location: 
Bismarck, ND
United States

Feature: New, Less Severe Federal Crack Cocaine Sentencing Guidelines Go Into Effect, But Will They Be Retroactive?

Since Congress failed to act by Thursday to stop them, new, less severe federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenses promulgated by the US Sentencing Commission are now in effect. That means some 4,000 federal crack defendants each year can now count on marginally shorter sentences. For those serving the longest sentences that could mean years off.

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DEA crack cocaine photo
"We're very encouraged about this reform," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. "What the Sentencing Commission is doing is terrific and long overdue."

Under federal drug laws adopted by Congress in the mid-1980s, crack offenders are treated much more severely than powder cocaine offenders. Selling five grams of crack carries a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence, while it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to merit the same treatment.

The Sentencing Commission, whose job it is to set federal sentencing guidelines, responded to the mandatory minimums by adjusting the guidelines to incorporate them, resulting in guideline sentences that were above the mandatory minimums. The Commission also tried, in 1995, to reduce crack cocaine sentences to match those for powder cocaine, a move that prompted Congress to reverse the Commission's recommendation for the first time in its history. Now, in frustration with congressional failure to deal with the rising clamor over the inequities of the federal cocaine laws, the commission has amended the guidelines to lower the base offense levels for crack convictions.

The differences this time are marginal, but will still make a difference for those facing federal crack time. For example, instead of a sentencing range of 12 to 15 years for a certain drug quantity, defendants will face 10 to 12 years.

But the Sentencing Commission has not yet decided whether to make those changes retroactive, a move that, according to a Sentencing Commission impact analysis published in October, could bring relief to nearly 20,000 crack defendants currently behind federal prison bars -- about 85% of them black. It has the authority to do so; the question is whether it has the political will. The commission recently extended the period for public comment on the retroactivity issue from October 1 to November 1, and has scheduled a November 13 public hearing.

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prison dorm
The response has been intense, with the commission reporting that more than a thousand comments have been received -- most of them favoring retroactivity. That is at least in part because groups like Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) have launched a campaign to support the commission's long-held position that the racial disparity in cocaine sentences undermines the objectives of the country's sentencing laws.

It's not just FAMM. The American Bar Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Federal Public and Community Defenders, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and numerous other groups have weighed in in support of retroactivity.

"Retroactivity is huge," said Nora Callahan, executive director of the November Coalition, an anti-prohibitionist group that concentrates on drug war prisoners. "If it isn't retroactive, it isn't justice," she said.

"The commission has for years acknowledged the adverse impacts of the current sentencing structure, and that hasn't gone unnoticed," Callahan continued. "The system lacks transparency, consistency, and fairness. That's not the commission's fault, but it is the commission's responsibility to address these issues. Reducing the racial disparities resulting from the crack laws cannot be accomplished without retroactivity. If there is no relief, that will only breed more despair and disrespect for the law," she said.

"I'm encouraged about retroactivity because there have been thousands of comments sent to the commission supporting it," said Mauer. "The commission has both a moral and a practical reason to support retroactivity. In terms of equity issues, there is a strong argument for retroactivity there. The commission has been on record since 1995 recommending reform of the crack penalties, and it seems to us that anyone sentenced since then should certainly be eligible to receive these reductions. If the commission supports retroactivity, it would be entirely consistent with what it has been recommending for years."

The Sentencing Commission's crack sentencing guideline amendment that went into effect this week and its pending decision on retroactivity come as the federal crack laws are under attack from all sides. The Supreme Court is considering them in the recently heard Kimbrough case, and at least three bills to address the crack-powder sentencing disparity are pending in Congress.

"There is more momentum now than at any time since the laws were established two decades ago," said Mauer. "It is that overdue recognition that the laws don't make sense, they're ineffective, and they are having a terrible racial impact. It's very encouraging to see this critique of the crack laws coming from all these different directions. We don't know how it will all play out, but there is a growing consensus that some reform will take place."

Hopefully it will include those already imprisoned under the draconian federal crack laws, some of whom have been behind bars since 1992. If not, the bulging federal prison system could see ominous rumbling like it hasn't seen for a decade -- the last time crack prisoners got their hopes up, only to see them dashed.

Latin America: Ecuador President Jerks Washington's Chain Over Manta Air Base

If the US wants to keep using a drug war air base in Ecuador, it must let Ecuador open a military base in Miami, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa told Reuters in an interview in Italy Monday. Correa, a popular leftist leader, promised during the 2006 election campaign that he would never renew the 10-year lease for the air base at Manta, in northern Ecuador.

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President Correa
"We'll renew the base on one condition: that they let us put a base in Miami -- an Ecuadorian base," Correa said in Italy. "If there's no problem having foreign soldiers on a country's soil, surely they'll let us have an Ecuadorian base in the United States."

US officials consider Manta critical to anti-drug surveillance on Pacific drug-smuggling routes. The lease on the base, negotiated with a previous government, is set to run out in 2009. Correa said earlier that he would chop his arm off before he renewed the lease.

According to a US embassy in Quito fact sheet, over 60% of illegal drug seizures in the eastern Pacific in recent years resulted from intelligence gathered thanks to the air base. The fact sheet said that 15 permanent and up to 150 rotating US military personnel involved in anti-drug activities are stationed at the base at any given time.

The fact sheet sought to portray the base in the best possible light, even resorting to noting that the base's "full-time Ecuadorian employees include persons with physical challenges whom the [base] is helping to integrate into the workforce through an innovative program" and that the base "provides financial support to multiple local charities in an effort to be good citizens and guests in Manta. US personnel help tutor English in a local community center and support charities including orphanages and a school for children with disabilities."

But embassy PR wheedling notwithstanding, Correa is tapping into broad public resentment of the base, much of which is rooted in dislike for Plan Colombia and suspicion about what other uses the US could put the base to. Correa campaigned strongly against Plan Colombia in the 2006 election, as tensions between the neighbors heightened over US-backed aerial fumigation of Colombian coca groups and its impact on adjacent Ecuadorian territory.

"The nationwide position not to involve Ecuador in Plan Colombia is the first reason why Ecuadorians do not want the US military to remain in Manta," Fredy Rivera, professor and researcher with the Ecuadorian branch of the Latin American University for Social Sciences, told ISN Security Watch during a recent interview. A second reason for Ecuadorian opposition to the base was suspicion over US plans, he said. "The surveillance equipment can be used to watch activity in Colombia, Peru, parts of Venezuela and Bolivia, and of course Ecuador," Rivera said, adding, "this is official discourse."

But even though Correa is refusing to renew the base's lease and has publicly called President Bush a "dimwit," he rejected the idea that rejecting the base should hurt US-Ecuadorian relations. "This is the only North American military base in South America," he said. "So, then the other South American countries don't have good relations with the United States because they don't have military bases? That doesn't make any sense."

Law Enforcement: Karen Tandy Resigns As DEA Chief

Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) head Karen Tandy is resigning, an agency spokesman announced Monday. Tandy, who was the first woman to hold the top job in federal drug law enforcement, served four years as director. She will leave to take a position as a senior vice president with Motorola.

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Karen Tandy
"It just doesn't get any better than this -- leading 11,000 extraordinarily gifted people in DEA around the world who sacrifice everything to live our dangerous mission 24-7, every day of the year, in order to protect America's children and communities," Tandy said in a statement announcing her resignation. "I will forever remain grateful to President Bush for this opportunity."

During Tandy's tenure, the DEA took credit for combating the growth of clandestine methamphetamine labs, which have declined by nearly two-thirds in four years. But the primary reason for the decline in home-cooked meth is the result of laws restricting easy access to precursor materials, both at the state and federal level. The decline in home meth labs has also resulted in meth of higher quality produced in Mexican super lab being imported into the US in greater quantities.

Tandy also expanded the DEA's presence in Afghanistan, now home to 93% of the world's opium supply. While the agency claims successes, including "historic extraditions of Taliban-connected drug lords," the poppy crop this year is 34% larger than last year, and the trade continues unabated.

But Tandy's most lasting legacy will probably be her leadership of the DEA as the agency cranked up its futile war against medical marijuana patients, producers, and dispensaries in California. Under Tandy's tenure, the DEA has conducted dozens of raids against operations legal under California law, in spite of the expressed opposition of state and local officials in many cases. The operations have been so unpopular in California that DEA raiders routinely have to call on local law enforcement to provide protection against outraged citizens protesting their raids.

Tandy, a former associate deputy attorney general at the Justice Department, will serve as Motorola's top spokesperson for public policy, focusing mostly on global telecom policy, trade and regulation.

Feature: San Francisco Ponders a Safe Injection Site, Would Be the Nation's First

San Francisco city officials last Thursday took a tentative first step toward opening the nation's first safe injection site for drug users. In an effort to reduce the city's high number of fatal drug overdoses, as well as slow the spread of blood-borne infectious diseases, such as HIV and Hepatitis C, the city's public health department teamed up with a coalition of health and social service nonprofit groups to present a daylong forum on safe injection sites, how they work, and how they can be established.

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O'Farrell St., Tenderloin district, SF (courtesy Wikimedia)
San Francisco's needle-using population is estimated at between 11,000 and 15,000, with many of them being homeless men. While injection-related HIV rates are relatively low, Hepatitis C is spreading quickly among drug users. About 40 San Franciscans die from drug overdoses each year.

Injection drug use is also a quality of life issue for businesses and residents in areas of the city like the Tenderloin, where public injecting is not rare and dirty needles can be found on the streets. The neighborhood, a center of services for down and out residents, is often mentioned as a potential location for a safe injection site.

Safe injection sites are up and running in some 27 cities in eight European countries, as well as Australia and Canada. They have been shown to reduce overdoses, needle-sharing, and the spread of disease, as well as entice some users into drug treatment -- all without causing increased drug use, crime or other social disorder.

The symposium was cosponsored by the Harm Reduction Coalition, the Drug Policy Alliance, and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, and was organized by a local consortium of community-based groups known as the Alliance for Saving Lives. That broad-based umbrella group includes public health officials, service providers, legal experts, injection drug users, and researchers.

"Having the conversation today will help us figure out whether this is a way to reduce the harms and improve the health of our community," said Grant Colfax, director of HIV prevention for the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

Vancouver's Insite safe injection site, the only one in North America, was held up as a model for a potential similar program in San Francisco. Both Dr. Thomas Kerr of the British Columbia Center on Excellence in AIDS, who has evaluated InSite, and the facility's program manager, Sarah Evans, addressed the forum about their experiences.

Evans described the Downtown Eastside Vancouver facility as a bland place where drug users can come in and inject in a safe, sterile environment under medical supervision, then relax in a "chill out" room where they are observed. "It looks kind of like a hair salon," Evans said of the bustling space. "If we were a restaurant, we would be making a profit."

While InSite has seen some 800 drug overdoses, said Kerr, none of them had been fatal because of the medical supervision available at the site. His research has found increases in addicts seeking treatment and decreases in abandoned syringes, needle-sharing, drug-related crime and other problems since the clinic opened three years ago, he said. Those findings suggest it is worth doing elsewhere, despite the criticism it will attract, Kerr said.

But while the science appears to be on the side of such facilities, political reality is a different matter. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome's office has said that he does not support safe injection sites, and by this week, even public health department spokesmen were keeping mum. "We're not talking to the media at all any more," Colfax said on Tuesday in response to inquiries about what comes next.

While there has been community concern, the only vocal reaction has been coming from Washington, DC, where one senator, Republican James DeMint (SC), has introduced an amendment that would cut off federal health funds for any locality that starts a safe injection site, and where the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has attacked the idea via the press and its Pushing Back blog.

Bertha Madras, ONDCP deputy director of demand reduction, told the Associated Press the fact that the idea was even being discussed was "disconcerting" and "poor public policy." According to Madras, "The underlying philosophy is 'We accept drug addiction, we accept the state of affairs as acceptable.' This is a form of giving up."

But Hilary McQuie, Western Director for the Harm Reduction Coalition, and one of the guiding forces behind the push for a safe injection site in San Francisco, pronounced herself unworried about either DC opponent. "DeMint's measure is a rash overreaction that won't go anywhere," she predicted, "and as for ONDCP, well, I won't even debate them. It's none of their business; this is a local issue, not a national one."

It's a local issue that McQuie and others have been working patiently on for some time now. "We initiated the Alliance for Saving Lives about a year ago," she explained. "It's mostly agencies that work with drug users, and we've been meeting monthly. We've had some quiet conversations with the health department, and we decided it was time to take the next step."

Now it's time for advocates to build more community support for a safe injection site, including bringing the mayor and the Board of Supervisors on board. Even with science on their side, they have some work ahead of them.

"We know the issues and the science," said Randy Shaw, a long-time community activist working on homeless issues in the Tenderloin, "but no one here wants more of these kinds of facilities." "Why should the poor people of the Tenderloin have to live with all these problems? There are junkies in Golden Gate Park, there are junkies in SOMA, there's more drug traffic at the 16th Street BART station than anywhere in the Tenderloin," he said. "If some neighborhood wants to accept it, that's fine, we just don't want it in the Tenderloin."

City officials have made the neighborhood "a containment zone," Shaw complained. "We already have methadone clinics, needle exchanges, food programs, shelters, drug treatment programs. Now they don't even think about putting things in other neighborhoods." Some activists want to turn the Tenderloin into Hamsterdam, the industrial neighborhood turned into a drug trafficking free zone in the HBO show The Wire, Shaw said. "But we're a residential neighborhood."

"It's controversial," conceded Tenderloin Economic Development Project executive director Julian Davis, a supporter of the idea. "Some folks think the Tenderloin already has too high a concentration of these kinds of services, while others think like this sort of facility would enable drug users as opposed to ending drug addiction in the Tenderloin."

But Davis has a different perspective. "I look at the Tenderloin and I see that our city, our society is already enabling open drug use and drug dealing," he argued. "The idea behind the site is to get some of these users off the street and inside, where they can get access to services, and also to stop the needle-sharing and the spreading of HIV and Hep C. I see quite a few potential benefits from this."

And so the public discussion begins in San Francisco. It will be a long and twisting path between here and an actually existing safe injection site, with much work to be done at the neighborhood, municipal, state, and federal levels. It could take years, but advocates are confident its day will come.

"I think we will have a safe injection site eventually," McQuie predicted, "but how long that will take depends on how well we organize, who's in power, and how much pressure those in power locally feel from the feds."

Drug Czar Opposes Effort to Reduce Drug Overdoses

The Office of National Drug Control Policy hates harm reduction. It's strange because they're supposed to be helping people with drug problems and yet all they ever do is defend the government's authority to punish and injure these very people. Not only that, but they actually go out of their way to oppose programs that prioritize saving lives over making drug arrests.

Predictably, therefore, ONDCP was quick to attack an effort to reduce drug overdoses in San Francisco by opening a safe injection site. As usual, their arguments aren't even related to the topic at hand:
Proposed "Safe-Injection" Site in San Francisco Ignores Proven Solutions to Treating Drug Addicts

Drug treatment works. How do we know? Today, there are millions of millions of Americans successfully recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. These courageous Americans are living proof that effective drug treatment can save lives and reduce our national drug problem.

That's why it's so troubling to see this…
It shouldn't even be necessary to point out that the effectiveness of drug treatment has nothing to do with safe injection. The idea here is to keep at-risk users alive long enough to get them into treatment. These programs create a vital point of contact for connecting users to medical professionals and treatment options.

ONDCP's childish protestations simply overflow with unintended irony:
Indeed, no one proposes aiding and sustaining an alcoholic by providing a supervised site for alcohol use.
Um, what? These supervised sites are called "bars," and no one ever gets alcohol poisoning at them. Alcohol poisoning is the hallmark of unsupervised parties where inexperienced underage drinkers consume surreptitiously. The circumstances under which drugs – be they alcohol or heroin – are consumed has everything to do with the relative safety of the user. What a simple concept that is.

But, as is often the case in the debate with ONDCP, the question is not what they understand, but rather what they really care about. To the Drug Czar, harm reduction is an "approach that accepts defeat." ONDCP only cares about reducing drug use. If drugs are used, then they feel "defeated," regardless of whether lives are saved.

For everyone else, "defeat" isn't defined solely by the frequency with which hits of dope are jacked into the veins of some bright-eyed youngster. Defeat is when that person's life is turned upside down, when they get sick, when they share a needle, when their lifeless body is found crumpled and cold on a park bench.

Preventing these things is the goal of the harm reduction community. It is an achievable goal, and those who stand in the way become apologists for disease, decay, and death.
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United States

DEA Director Resigns, Says She Had an Awesome Time

DEA Administrator Karen Tandy announced her resignation today, marking her 4-year tenure with another trademark Tandyism:
"It just doesn't get any better than this," Tandy said in a statement about her time at DEA. [Washington Post]
Well, at least somebody had a good time. Now Tandy is moving into the telecom industry:
Tandy told employees she was leaving to take a job as a senior vice president of Motorola, DEA spokesman Garrison Courtney said. Motorola is a leading sponsor of a DEA traveling museum exhibit about global drug trafficking and terrorism…

Did you guys hear that? Motorola is a major private funder of insidious drug war propaganda and decorates its highest offices with exhausted anti-drug soldiers. Let's all make a mental note of how socially conscious this company is.

In the meantime, I would encourage the Bush administration to takes its sweet time finding exactly the right replacement for her. Formerly a DOJ prosecutor, Tandy rose to fame by successfully taking down menace-to-society Tommy Chong for selling water bongs. She was appointed to DEA's top office forthwith.

In light of the Bush administration's already notorious difficulties filling the vacant directorships of various federal agencies, let me offer a couple possible replacements:

Assistant U.S. Attorney George Bevan is a hardcore drug war legal genius who fought for 5 years to get Ed Rosenthal a one-day sentence for supplying marijuana to sick people. Bevan is so aggressive that U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer had to throw out some charges and accuse him of malicious prosecution.

Better yet, former Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty prosecuted the totally-innocent pain management doctor William Hurwitz and was subsequently forced to resign in the U.S. Attorney firings scandal. If you need the law mutilated for political ends, this guy is a total pro.

Ultimately, finding qualified applicants to head the DEA shouldn't be too hard considering how famously delightful it is to work there.

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United States

Someone Tell the Drug Czar That Hemp Isn't a Drug

The brave drug warriors at ONDCP need so much help. They are just as confused as can be about so many things, but they wear industrial strength earplugs and never go on the internet except to periodically blog about how confused they are. It would be funny if they weren't destroying America.

So anyone who still thinks these people are serious should visit the Drug Czar's blog right away and read his recent post, "Terminated! Gov. Schwarzenegger Vetoes Pro-Drug Hemp Bill." It is downright delusional; a perfect encapsulation of the thinly-veiled psychosis that festers beneath the skin of the powerful Drug War Experts in Washington D.C.
While drug legalization groups extol hemp as some kind of miracle-plant, many Americans aren’t getting the full story. Industrial hemp and marijuana are not just "related" – they come from the same cannabis sativa plant.

The real agenda of hemp enthusiasts is to legalize smoked marijuana and it is no coincidence that legalizing hemp would complicate efforts to curb the production and use of smoked marijuana by young people.
Now, I could explain that hemp actually is a useful plant. I could propose that a hemp bill can't be "pro-drug" because hemp isn't a drug. I could point out that the farmers who want to grow it don't care about marijuana legalization. I could argue that Americans already know it's a type of marijuana. And I could even prove that you can't grow commercial marijuana anywhere near it due to cross-pollination.

But that would be pointless, because the Drug Czar doesn't care about these things. All he cares about is that marijuana legalization advocates sometimes participate in criticizing U.S. hemp policy, and if those people want hemp, he will burn to the ground every damned stalk until they pry the flamethrower from his shriveled dead hands.

In fact, as a marijuana legalization advocate, I should maybe shut up about this, lest I fuel the Drug Czar's deranged fantasy that people who want to make pants and granola bars are actually part of a diabolical conspiracy to turn California into the world's biggest rehab clinic.
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United States

The Drug Czar's Blog Accidentally Admits That Drug Laws Ruin Lives

Yesterday, in a post titled "Random Drug Testing Can Save Lives," the Drug Czar once again blogged himself into a corner. The piece quotes extensively from a Kentucky newspaper article, which argues that random drug testing will save students from getting arrested:
"There was a tragedy in Scott County last week. A young man's future was ruined, and the events that took place will likely haunt him for the rest of his life.

Unless you've been on vacation, you've probably already heard that a superstar athlete on the Scott County basketball team was arrested on felony drug charges, which could result in him going to prison for as long as 10 years. [Georgetown News]

That's awful. But what does this have to do with random drug testing?

...Whether we realize it or not, the real tragedy is this young man wasn't caught sooner, through a less punitive program intended to help youthful offenders, not send them to prison. The greater tragedy, to my way of thinking, is that we, as a community and a school system, haven't seen fit to acknowledge reality and implement a random drug testing program in our high school, and perhaps our middle schools.

So what exactly did this young man do that could get him locked away for 10 years? He was arrested for 1.6 grams of crack on school grounds. Crack/powder sentencing disparity + school zone = 10 years for a one-day supply of drugs.

By conceding that this young man's life has been ruined, the Drug Czar does far more to indict our brutally unfair sentencing laws than to promote random drug testing. He is literally telling us that we should let him collect urine from our children, otherwise his drug soldiers will put them in jail for a decade.

And if that doesn't make your head spin, consider that cocaine leaves your system in 1-2 days and will rarely come up in a drug screen anyway. You can smoke crack all night on Friday and pass a drug test on Monday, so none of this whole insane conversation about saving people from crack laws with drug testing even makes sense to begin with.

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United States

When The Drug Czar Says We're Winning The Drug War, It Means Nothing

The insufferable Robert Caldwell at Human Events writes love letters to the drug war. His latest masterpiece begs presidential hopefuls to entice him by sharing their most hardcore drug war fantasies.

Oddly, Caldwell tries to explain the urgency of the matter by claiming that everything's going phenomenally well. His entire argument consists of a tiresome series of Drug Czar quotes. "John Walters…begs to differ", "Walters offered a slew of statistics", "Walters argued, persuasively", "Walters rightly cites", "Walters notes," and on it goes. The whole thing might as well have been signed by John Walters under the title, "My Awesome Drug War."

Yet, as Pete Guither notes in a helpful new page, it is literally the job of the Drug Czar's office to distort facts in support of the drug war. The GAO even admits it:

Given this role, we do not see a need to examine the accuracy of the Deputy Director's individual statements in detail.

So we really can dispense with the notion that the Drug Czar is available to give us unvarnished assessments of drug war progress. It is, in fact, illegal for him to do that. Asking the Drug Czar how the drug war is going is like asking Colonel Sanders if his chicken is any good.

(This blog post was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

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United States

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