Breaking News:Against Jeff Sessions for Attorney General

Executive Branch

RSS Feed for this category

LEAP Confronts The Drug Czar at a Press Conference




The irony is truly remarkable. Kerlikowske claims legalization isn't in his vocabulary, yet the whole purpose of the press conference is to present a report that discusses legalization at great length. The drug czar's strategy of trying not to legitimize our position is completely at odds with the approach of the UN, thus he ultimately just comes across as unprepared. And that's exactly what he is. He's so unprepared to defend the drug war, he must pretend that legalization doesn't exist. It isn't going to work.

Click here to help our friends at LEAP send a message to the UN that it's time to move beyond the war on drugs.

Feature: America's War in Afghanistan Becomes America's Drug War in Afghanistan

As summer arrives in Afghanistan, it's not just the temperature that is heating up. Nearly 20,000 additional US troops are joining American and NATO forces on the ground, bringing foreign troop totals to nearly 90,000, and an insurgency grown wealthy off the opium and heroin trade is engaging them with dozens of attacks a day across the country. But this year, something different is going on: For the first time, the West is taking direct aim at the drug trafficking networks that deliver hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the insurgents.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/opium-smaller.jpg
the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
Last week, hundreds of British and Afghan troops backed by US and Canadian helicopters and US jets engaged in a series of raids in southern Helmand province, the country's largest opium producing and heroin refining region, seizing 5,500 kilograms of opium paste, 220 kilos of morphine, more than 100 kilos of heroin, and 148 kilos of hashish. They also uncovered and destroyed heroin labs and weapons caches, fending off Taliban machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade attacks as they did so.

"This has been an important operation against the illegal narcotics industry and represents a significant setback for the insurgency in Helmand Province," said Lt. Col. Stephen Cartwright, commanding officer of some of the British troops. "The link between the insurgents and the narcotics industry is proven as militants use the money derived from the drug trade as a principle source of funding to arm themselves with weapons and conduct their campaign of intimidation and violence. By destroying this opium and the drug making facilities we are directly target their fighting capability. The operation has been well received by the Afghan people."

It wasn't the first Western attack on the Afghan drug trade this year, and it certainly won't be the last. Operating since last fall on new marching orders, Western troops and their Afghan allies are for the first time engaging in serious drug war as part of their seemingly endless counterinsurgency. And they are drawing a sharp response from the Taliban, which must be seen not so much as a monolithic Islamic fundamentalist movement, but as an ever-shifting amalgam of jihadis, home-grown and foreign, competing warlords, including the titular head of the movement, Mullah Omar, disenchanted tribesmen, and purely criminal drug trafficking organizations collectively called "the Taliban."

So far this year, 142 NATO and US troops have been killed in the fighting, putting 2009 on a pace to be the bloodiest year yet for the West in the now nearly eight-year-old invasion, occupation, and counterinsurgency aimed at uprooting the Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies. Also dead are hundreds, if not more, Taliban fighters, and an unknown number of Afghan civilians, victims of Western air strikes, twitchy trigger fingers, and unending Taliban attacks on security forces and public places.

There will be "tough fighting" this summer and beyond in Afghanistan, top US commander Gen. David Petraeus said Wednesday in remarks to reporters in Tampa. As US and NATO troops go on the offensive "to take back from the Taliban areas that they have been able to control, there will be tough fighting," he said. "Certainly that tough fighting will not be concluded just this year. Certainly there will be tough periods beyond this year," he added, noting that the Taliban insurgency is at its bloodiest levels since 2001.

That rising insurgency, financed in large part by drug trade profits, has sparked a rethinking of Western anti-drug strategy, as well as the deployment of nearly 20,000 additional troops, with some 7,000 of them headed for Helmand, which, if it were a country, would be the world's largest opium producer.

Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, laid out the new thinking in testimony to the Senate last month. The West is losing the battle against opium production, he said, so instead of merely going after Taliban militants it is time to "go after" the powerful drug lords who control the trafficking and smuggling networks in Afghanistan.

"With respect to the narcotics -- the threat that is there -- it is very clearly funding the insurgency. We know that, and strategically, my view is that it has to be eliminated," Mullen said. "We have had almost no success in the last seven or eight years doing that, including this year's efforts, because we are unable to put viable livelihood in behind any kind of eradication."

While the new approach -- de-emphasized eradication of farmers' fields and targeting the drug trade, especially when linked to the insurgency -- is better than the approach of the Bush years, it is still rife with problems, obstacles, and uncertainties, said a trio of experts consulted by the Chronicle.

"We are seeing a clear shift away from eradication being the dominant focus and a clear emphasis on rural development as a way to proceed, and that is a major positive development," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a scholar of drugs and insurgency at the Brookings Institution. "Interdiction was always nominally part of the package, but there is now a new mandate. Since October, NATO countries can participate in the interdiction of Taliban-linked traffickers. Certainly, the US and the UK are planning to vastly engage in this mission."

"The whole policy has changed," agreed Raheem Yaseer, assistant director of the Afghanistan Studies Center at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. "There was lots of criticism about the troops not going after the drug leaders and the trafficking. They were concentrating on the terrorists, but now they realize the opium traffic has actually been used to finance their activities, so now they are trying to eliminate the traffickers and promoters of the trade," he explained.

"There is more emphasis on reconstruction," said Yaseer. "There will be some compensation for people who are giving up the poppy, and shifting from poppy to saffron, things like that. Still, security is key, and there are some problems with security," he added in a masterful use of understatement.

"The administration appears at least to understand that eradication should target cartels rather than poor local farmers," said Malou Innocent, a foreign policy analyst with the libertarian leaning Cato Institute. "I hope they continue down that path; it's the best of many horrible options. The best policy would be legalization," she said, adding wistfully that she would prefer a more sensible drug policy.

"I have a feeling this is going to be a very bloody summer," said Malou. "There will be more violence because of the Afghan elections this August, as well as the Taliban's annual spring and summer offensive, which this year is going to be a sort of counteroffensive to the Western surge."

What the new emphasis on going after traffickers will accomplish remains to be seen, said Felbab-Brown. "Interdiction could provide a good reason for the Taliban to insert itself more deeply into the drug trade, or it could encourage traffickers to join the Karzai government," she said.

The effect of the new campaign on security in the countryside also remains to be seen, Felbab-Brown said. "Our reconstruction capacity is so weak after decades of neglect and a systematic effort to destroy those projects," she noted. "At bottom, though, the effectiveness of rural development programs depends on security. Without security, there is no effective program."

Western military forces also have some image-building to do, said Yaseer. "Because of wrong policies of the past and high civilian casualties, the original favorable perception of the foreign troops has changed from favorable to antagonistic. It will take some time to get back the good image."

Yaseer also had doubts about the utility of the massive foreign, mainly US, troop increase now underway. "Unless the sources of the problem, which lie in Pakistan, are attacked, adding more troops will not be very useful," he said. "They will just make the region more volatile and create more resentment, and they will provide the insurgents with a larger target than before," he said.

"The new administration's desire to change the policy makes one a bit optimistic, but again, time will tell whether the West is serious about them," Yaseer continued. Progress will depend on the nature of the operations and whether the new policies are actually implemented, whether this is real."

For Malou, the clock is ticking, and Western soldiers have no good reason to be remaining in Afghanistan for much longer. "We haven't found bin Laden in eight years, and most of the high-level Al Qaeda we've captured have been the result of police detective work, not military force. The foreign military presence in Afghanistan is perceived as a foreign occupation by many people in the region on both sides of the border, and that's poisoning the well even further," she said.

The US needs to be planning an exit strategy, said Malou. "When you look strategically and economically, the US just doesn't have a vital interest impelling us to stay in the region indefinitely," she said. "We need a timeframe for withdrawal within the next several years. We need to narrow our objectives to training security forces. I don't see any reason why we need to stay in this region any longer."

Medical Marijuana: Barney Frank Introduces Federal Bill to Get DEA Out, Reschedule as Medicine

Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced legislation Monday that would reschedule marijuana as a Schedule II drug and eliminate federal authority to prosecute medical marijuana patients and providers in states where it is legal. Titled the Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act (HR 2835), the bill currently has 16 sponsors and has been sent to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/frank.jpg
Barney Frank
Frank introduced similar legislation in the last two Congresses, but the bills never got a committee vote or even a hearing. Advocates hope that with a Democratically-controlled Congress and a president who has at least given lip service to medical marijuana, Congress this year will prove to be friendlier ground.

"We are encouraged by the federal government's willingness to address this issue and to bring about a more sensible and humane policy on medical marijuana," said Caren Woodson, government affairs director for Americans for Safe Access. "It's time to recognize marijuana's medical efficacy, and to develop a comprehensive plan that will provide access to medical marijuana and protection for the hundreds of thousands of sick Americans that benefit from its use."

When it comes to reining in the feds, the bill would bar the use of the Controlled Substances Act or the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act for prohibiting or restricting doctors from prescribing marijuana and patients, caregivers, and co-ops or dispensaries from using, possessing, transporting or growing marijuana in accordance with state law.

The Obama administration has pledged to not use Justice Department resources to go after medical marijuana patients and providers in states where it is legal. Still, the DEA has continued to target medical marijuana providers, prosecutors continue to file drug charges against providers acting in accord with state laws, and federal judges continue to sentence medical marijuana providers who followed state laws, but were convicted under federal drug laws.

An Embarrassing Interview With the Drug Czar

Rolling Stone's June issue takes an in-depth look at the evolving political climate surrounding drug policy (a portion is available online), including a deliciously embarrassing visit with drug czar Gil Kerlikowske. Remember Kerlikowske's recent statement about not calling it a "war on drugs" anymore? Well, guess what he's got in his office:

…despite this sudden outbreak of sanity, rumors of the drug war's death are greatly exaggerated. Visitors to the drug czar's office in Washington – formally known as the Office of National Drug Control Policy – are greeted by the visage of Uncle Sam on a poster declaring, WE ARE AT WAR. ARE YOU DOING ALL YOU CAN?

You really couldn’t ask for a better exhibit in the total incoherence and rank dishonesty of the drug czar's claim that our drug policy isn’t a war. I don't blame him for trying and it's certainly encouraging that we've reached a point at which the drug war is so controversial that they're trying to change its name. But how could they possibly forget to take down the damn sign? I mean, really, did they forget that Rolling Stone was stopping by?

The story goes on to brilliantly juxtapose Kerlikowske's law-enforcement credentials against his comical inability to answer basic questions about the issues he works on:

Yet when faced with questions about national drug policy, he can turn as evasive as Sarah Palin without a teleprompter. Does the tripling of marijuana arrests since 1990 represent good policy? He'd like to look at the issue more closely. Would the feds respect the laws of states that vote to legalize marijuana consumption for adults? A great question, he says – but one he won’t venture to answer. Does the U.S. experience with Plan Columbia provide a template for dealing with the violent cartels in Mexico? He just doesn't know. "After three weeks, I'm still finding my way around the office," he says with a laugh.

The whole thing is a brutal embarrassment and a vivid illustration of the appalling intellectual bankruptcy that characterizes the government's position on drug policy in general. These are extremely basic policy questions, but they have serious implications. If you can't even begin to make informative statements about federal policy, then what right do you have to dismiss calls for reform? Is there even a shred of legitimacy to Kerlikowke's opposition to legalization if he can't even tell us what the current policy is supposed to be?

We spend billions of dollars and imprison millions of people in honor of this great anti-drug crusade and the people running the whole thing in Washington can’t even figure out what to call it, let alone give us a straight answer about why any of this is in the best interest of the nation. In fairness, Kerlikowske's reluctance to defend or even discuss drug policy is a product of the reform movement's success at politicizing the issue and his silence likely owes more to caution than bald ignorance. Still, one is generally considered to have won the debate when their opponent refuses to speak.

 At this point, I'd only be mildly surprised to see these guys just clam up entirely and announce that our drug policy can't be publicly discussed for national security reasons.

Medical Marijuana: House Appropriations Committee Asks for Clarification of Federal Stance on Raids

The House Appropriations Committee Tuesday approved language seeking clarification of the Obama administration's stance on medical marijuana in states where it is legal. Attorney General Eric Holder has made several statements suggesting the administration would not seek prosecutions of people acting in line with state laws, but some DEA raids have occurred in California, medical marijuana providers continue to be sentenced to federal prison, and federal medical marijuana prosecutions remain in the pipeline, all leading to confusion about where the administration actually stands.

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/mauricehinchey.jpg
Rep. Hinchey addresses a 2005 press conference on medical marijuana, as Montel Williams awaits his turn at the podium
Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) sponsored the addition of the following language: "There have been conflicting public reports about the Department's enforcement of medical marijuana policies. Within 60 days of enactment, the Department shall provide to the Committee clarification of the Department's policy regarding enforcement of federal laws and use of federal resources against individuals involved in medical marijuana activities."

Hinchey, along with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), has in past years sponsored the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment, which would have barred the DEA from using federal funds to raid medical marijuana providers in states where it is legal. Now, despite Holder's remarks, Hinchey and the committee are seeking to remove any ambiguity in the administration's position.

The language is part of the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related appropriation bill for fiscal year 2010. The full House will consider the measure sometime in the next few weeks.

"I'm very pleased that the House Appropriations Committee today approved a simple, straightforward provision that will provide clarity as to what the Obama administration's precise policy is on medical marijuana," Hinchey said. "I've been greatly encouraged by what President Obama and Attorney General Holder's public statements in support of states determining their own medical marijuana, but remain concerned about the matter since the federal government has still continued raids in states that permit the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. This provision will provide Congress with the transparency we need to determine whether any further legislative action is needed. It's imperative that the federal government respect states' rights and stay out of the way of patients with debilitating diseases such as cancer who are using medical marijuana in accordance with state law to alleviate their pain."

The move was good news for medical marijuana advocates. "We are glad to see the federal government finally moving toward sanity on medical marijuana," said Marijuana Policy Project director of government relations Aaron Houston. "No one battling serious illness and following their state's laws should live in fear of our federal government, and we look forward to clear assurances that suffering patients will be left alone."

Americans for Safe Access (ASA) also praised Hinchey and the committee. "ASA applauds Congressman Hinchey's continued leadership on this matter and welcomes the support for this provision by the House Appropriations Committee," wrote Caren Woodson, ASA director of government affairs. "I hope that this provision helps to clarify who, under the new policy, will arbitrate whether there has been any violation of state law. This is especially important for medical marijuana advocates to the extent that federal defendants are still prohibited from providing any evidence during federal trial that the activities for which they stand accused were done in accordance with state law. As such, ASA believes it is absolutely imperative that any alleged violation of state law be handled strictly within the state."

Feature: The Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy -- More, Better Drug War?

The Obama administration last Friday unveiled its Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy to deal with the unremitting prohibition-related violence plaguing Mexico, and especially its border cities. Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon enlisted the military in his offensive against the so-called cartels in December 2006, some 11,000 people have died in the violence, and the streets of Mexican border towns have at times resembled battlefields.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/borderpatrol.jpg
US Border Patrol
In recognition of the continuing violence and heedful of Mexican criticism that the US is not doing enough on its end to undercut the cartels, the administration responded first with increased funding for border law enforcement in March and now with the new counternarcotics strategy. The new strategy will emphasize reducing demand in the US and targeting the flow of money and weapons south. It includes:

  • Building visual shields near border-crossing points so drug cartel spotters can't alert approaching motorists about inspections.
  • Improving non-lethal weapons technology to help officers incapacitate suspects and disable motor vehicles and boats used by traffickers.
  • Reviving an interagency working group to coordinate intelligence.
  • Using more intelligence analysts to uncover drug-dealing networks.
  • Helping Mexico bolster its judicial system through training in the United States.
  • Focusing on combating corruption among US law enforcement and elected officials.
  • Delivering an additional $60 million to border law enforcement agencies.

"This new plan, combined with the dedicated efforts of the government of Mexico, creates a unique opportunity to make real headway on the drug threat," said Gil Kerlikowske, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), at an Albuquerque press conference unveiling the new strategy.

"International cooperation is very, very key," said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, taking time to praise Calderon for his efforts. "We have an unprecedented opportunity to work on drug trafficking on both sides of the border," she said. "We should not let this opportunity go by."

According to the Justice Department, Mexican and other South American drug trafficking organizations are laundering between $18 billion and $39 billion a year in drug profits in the US. Some of that money then goes to purchase weapons in the lightly-controlled US gun market. Traffickers use those weapons against each other, as well as Mexican police and soldiers, as evidenced dramatically last weekend in the Acapulco shootout that left 18 people dead, including two soldiers, and the killings of 13 people in Ciudad Juarez last Friday despite the presence of more than 5,000 soldiers patrolling the city.

Reducing demand in the US is a key part of the struggle, said Napolitano. "We can't just fight drugs at the border. We can't just fight drugs by fighting traffickers. We must fight drugs in the United States," Napolitano said.

"This strategy is tough, it's strong, and it's balanced," said Attorney General Eric Holder, adding that it will be "an effective way forward that will crack down on cartels and make our country safer."

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/tunnel3.jpg
cross-border smuggling tunnel
Others weren't so sure that would be the case. "The new plan simply calls for rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic," said Aaron Houston, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project. "The plan ignores the central problem, which is that our policy of marijuana prohibition has handed the Mexican cartels a massive market that keeps them rolling in cash, not just in Mexico, but according to the Department of Justice, in 230 American cities."

"Rather than trying to make America's 15 million monthly marijuana consumers go away, we need to gain control of this market by regulating marijuana like we do beer, wine and liquor," Houston continued. "Any anti-drug effort that leaves the marijuana trade in the hands of the cartels is nothing but a full-employment plan for professional drug warriors and cartel bosses alike, not a serious proposal to address the problem," he said.

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) was a bit more diplomatic. "The violence on the US and Mexico border is spiraling out of control because of the Mexican drug war. We are hopeful that Obama's new strategy will bring real change, and not more of the same policies that are failing our nation and communities," said Julie Roberts, acting director of Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico. "It is disappointing that our federal officials today remained focused on targeting the supply side of the Mexican drug war. Of course we need solutions that improve public safety and keep our country safe, but we also need to develop a public health plan for safely reducing drug demand in this country."

"The time has surely come to give serious consideration to taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol," added DPA executive director Ethan Nadelmann. "That wouldn't solve all of Mexico's and America's prohibition-related problems, but it would prove invaluable in breaking the taboo on open debate and honest policy analysis, without which there can be no long term solutions to today's challenges."

While the criticism from drug reformers was blunt, some Latin Americanists had a more nuanced response. "This is the Obama administration's response to Mexico's criticism about the US not doing enough on arms trafficking, money laundering, and drug consumption," said Maureen Meyer of the Washington Office on Latin America. "The idea of enhanced cooperation among the different US agencies involved is an important step forward, and enhanced cooperation with Mexico is also important."

But while the administration is talking a good game, said Meyer, a look at the federal drug budget reveals a drug policy on cruise control. "The ONDCP drug control budget is a continuation of the same focus in US drug policy, with its objectives focusing a lot on interdiction and law enforcement, and not so much on arms trafficking. There is a slight increase in funding for treatment programs, but a reduction in funding for prevention. I don't see any shift in the balance," she said.

"When it comes to Mexico, what we need to see is a larger focus on some of the structural issues, such as reforming the police and the judicial system," Meyer said. "That is going to have more of a long-term impact than just providing more equipment for the police and the military."

For Larry Birns, executive director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, the new strategy appeared mostly symbolic. "I think the announcement of this strategy is way to put drug issues on the back burner for awhile while the administration deals with more pressing issues, like health care," he said. "The administration is trying to inoculate itself from criticism rather than undertaking an effort to effectively deal with drugs, which would involve the thornier border issues of immigration reform and the NAFTA traffic."

The border is a complicated place, affected not only by the drug trade but by licit trade, human migration, and weapons, among other issues. The drug trade in turn is driven by demand. Unfortunately, the Obama administration's Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy is largely more of the same old drug war, the critics suggest. Perhaps all the other issues would be better dealt without that drug war.

Medical Marijuana: California Dispensary Operator Charles Lynch Sentenced to a Year and a Day, Remains Free Pending Appeal

A federal judge in Los Angeles sentenced Morro Bay medical marijuana dispensary operator Charles Lynch to a year and a day in federal prison Thursday in one of the first sentences to be handed down since the Obama administration said it was adjusting federal policy on medical marijuana. Lynch was scheduled to be sentenced earlier this year, but US District Judge George Wu postponed that hearing with federal medical marijuana policy up in the air.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/charlielynch.gif
Charlie Lynch (from friendsofccl.com)
Lynch was convicted of five marijuana-related offenses last year for operating his dispensary in Morro Bay in San Luis Obispo County even though the dispensary was licensed and operated with the approval of local authorities -- except for the sheriff, who turned to the feds after being frustrated in his efforts to shut down the operation of which he did not approve, but which operated in accordance with state law.

Judge Wu showed some leniency in sentencing. Under federal law, Lynch faced a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence, but Wu said Lynch merited an exception. He also allowed Lynch to remain free on bail while pursuing an appeal.

That wasn't enough for drug reform advocates. "For Charlie Lynch to spend one night in federal prison, let alone a year, is a travesty," said Stephen Gutwillig, California State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "This dispensary operator followed all state and local rules and has been dragged into a legal nightmare right out of Kafka. He is caught between California's voter-approved medical marijuana system and the Bush administration's single-minded effort to smother it. That Attorney General Holder changed federal policy three months ago only makes this miscarriage of justice all the more disturbing. Charlie is like a forgotten prisoner of war, abandoned after a truce was declared."

"Years from now, Mr. Lynch may well be remembered as the last American to go to federal prison for a mistake, the final victim of an already repudiated policy well on its way to the ash heap of history, but whose mean-spirited effects still linger," said Marijuana Policy Project executive director Rob Kampia. "This sentence is a cruel and pointless miscarriage of justice. Mr. Lynch and his attorneys say they plan to appeal, and we hope they succeed. With federal law enforcement at the Mexican border so overwhelmed that traffickers coming through with up to 500 pounds of marijuana are let go, even one more penny spent persecuting a man who is not a criminal in any rational sense of the word is an outrageous waste of resources."

Holder Renews Pledge to Respect Medical Marijuana Laws

In case anyone forgot, the new administration promises to be nicer about medical marijuana:

ALBUQUERQUE — The nation’s top cop said Friday that marijuana dispensaries participating in New Mexico’s fledgling medical marijuana program shouldn’t fear Drug Enforcement Agency raids, a staple of the Bush administration.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking in Albuquerque during a meeting focused on border issues, including drug trafficking, said his department is focused "on large traffickers," not on growers who have a state’s imprimatur to dispense marijuana for medical reasons.

"For those organizations that are doing so sanctioned by state law, and doing it in a way that is consistent with state law, and given the limited resources that we have, that will not be an emphasis for this administration," Holder said. [New Mexico Independent]

Notwithstanding a couple of questionable raids that have taken place since Holder took office, it's good to hear him keep repeating this. The more he says it, the more scrutiny he'll be subjected to if DEA continues to push its luck. Personally, I'm not expecting the complete elimination of federal interference with state medical marijuana laws, but I think it will become clear over time that the situation has improved.

Still, Holder and Obama shouldn't get a pass on this ridiculous "limited resources" excuse for respecting state medical marijuana laws. The issue enjoys tremendous public support and there's no reason the new administration can’t come right out and acknowledge that the Bush policy was just cruel. Pretending it's about money is disgusting and wrong. Note to reporters: next time someone in the administration tries to portray the new medical marijuana policy as a matter of conserving law enforcement resources, ask whether they'd continue the raids if their budget was bigger.

Furthermore, the feds are still trying to put Charlie Lynch in prison for operating a perfectly legal dispensary in California. His sentencing will take place this Thursday, assuming it doesn’t get postponed yet again. Click here to email the Dept. of Justice and tell them to let Charlie go.

If these guys are sick of answering questions about marijuana policy, freeing Charlie Lynch is by far their best move.

Medical Marijuana: Veterans Administration Says Positive Marijuana Drug Screening Will Not Void Pain Contracts for Vets with Doctors' Recommendations

The Veterans Affairs watchdog group VA Watchdog reported last week that the VA will not remove veterans with medical marijuana recommendations who test positive for pot from its pain management programs. Just don't bring your medicine to a VA facility.

In recent years, vets who use marijuana medicinally have been thrown out of VA pain management programs as "drug abusers" after testing positive for marijuana. This policy shift will provide some solace, but only to those vets residing in states where medical marijuana is an option.

The VA has clarified its policy. While restating that it remains illegal to use or possess marijuana at VA facilities because of federal law, the agency will now accept medical marijuana use in states where it is legal:

"[I]t is acknowledged that testing positive for marijuana in a patient, based upon a random drug screening, will not serve as a breach of the current pain management agreement if the patient submits documentation in support of the marijuana being prescribed and dispensed in conformity with Michigan law," wrote Gabriel Perez, director of the Lutz Veterans Affairs Center in Saginaw, Michigan.

According to VA Watchdog, the policy appears to be the same in all states where medical marijuana is allowed under state law. But the VA has not released an official policy statement on the matter.

Feature: DC Moves Toward Stricter Penalties for Khat

For hundreds, if not thousands, of years, residents of the Horn of Africa and the southern Arabian Peninsula have partaken of khat, an evergreen plant native to the region. When the fresh leaves of the plant are chewed, they produce a mild stimulating effect. Friends of the plant liken the high to the buzz achieved from drinking strong coffee; foes, typically in law enforcement, are more apt to liken it to an amphetamine high.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/khatcontainer.jpg
khat wrapped in banana leaves and smuggled in suitcase (usdoj.gov)
But with decades of war and internal strife in the late 20th Century, an East African diaspora occurred, with Ethiopians and Somalis scattering and creating new immigrant population centers across Europe, Australia, Canada, and the US. Not surprisingly, these emigrants brought with them their khat chewing habit.

Khat is not illegal under international law, although two of its active compounds are. Cathinone, the more powerful, is a Schedule I drug under the 1988 UN Convention on Psychotropic Drugs, while cathine, the less powerful, is Schedule IV. Cathinone is found only in fresh leaf, degrading rapidly once the plant is harvested.

With growing awareness of khat in recent years, a number of countries, including the US, have banned the plant. Here, fresh khat containing cathinone is a Schedule I controlled substance, the same schedule as heroin or LSD. Degraded khat containing only cathine is a Schedule IV controlled substance, like Valium, Librium, or Rohypnol.

Alongside the federal government, 28 states have criminalized khat. Washington, DC, home to one of the nation's largest East African communities, is not among them -- yet. Under current DC law, cathinone is not a controlled substance and people caught in possession of fresh khat face no local penalties. Oddly enough, the less powerful alkaloid cathine is a controlled substance under DC law, and possession with intent to manufacture or distribute carries a prison sentence of up to three years.

Last fall, at the urging of DC US Attorney Jeffrey Taylor, Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) introduced a proposal to criminalize fresh khat as a Schedule I drug, as it is under federal law. The DC City council is currently considering the proposal as part of its 2009 Omnibus Crime Bill and is likely to act on the measure before its session ends July 15.

"It's sad that they want to put the resources of crime fighting against individuals from a different culture who don't have anybody except their community and try to punish them for doing what they have always done," said Abdul Aziz Kamus of the DC-based African Resource Center. "It seems like DC wants to punish hard-working immigrant taxi drivers who are law-abiding citizens."

Kamus related the tale of an immigrant taxi driver who sought help from his office a few months ago. "This guy was a father of four, and he was terrified because they caught him buying khat and he had to go to court," he said. "He said: 'I didn't commit any crime, I bought this leaf to chew while I work 16 hours to support my family.' Why should the government want to punish him?"

Good question. The answer appears to be a combination of reflexive prohibitionist responses to new drug challenges, concerns about the impact of khat use on family life among elements of the East African community, and so far unsubstantiated fears that profits from the khat trade may be flowing into the hands of Al Qaeda-linked Islamic radicals in Yemen and Somalia.

"Law enforcement has intercepted fresh khat coming into the city, and it made sense to change the statute to reflect the more serious drug," Assistant US Attorney Patricia Riley told the Washington Times when the measure was introduced last fall. District law should be consistent with federal law, she said, adding that the potency of cathinone warranted the schedule bump.

DC Metro Police Detective Lorenzo James, who works narcotics and special investigations, told the Times that while he had not been able to develop evidence of khat profits funding terrorists, he was still suspicious. Khat traders in DC are using hawalas, or informal money transfer systems common to South Asia and the Middle East that have been tied to terrorists in the past, James said. "The money is not being kept here," he said.

Detective James was all for toughening the khat laws. "Why lock them up when you get a slap on the wrist for a schedule IV that the attorney's office does not want to prosecute?" he said. "I can tell you when you get it to a Schedule I, a lot of things are going to change."

Those reasons are not good enough for opponents of the measure, who are mobilizing to block it. Various groups and individuals have submitted testimony in a bid to kill it in the council's Judiciary Committee.

"We've learned from past examples that prohibiting a drug doesn't necessarily change use patterns; it just ensures that more folks go to jail or prison," said Naomi Long of the Drug Policy Alliance DC Metro program. "The primary users of khat are the East African community, and the people who would be impacted would be people from the East African community, who used it in their home countries much as we consume coffee here," she added.

"There is no evidence that recreational use is spreading among non-East Africans," said Long. "The use is based in the East African culture, and the idea that we have to clamp down on it to prevent its spread when it's not spreading is just silly," she added, deflating one argument for increased criminalization of the plant.

Long also challenged the alleged terrorist connection. "I don't think there has been any documented direct link showing a connection between khat users in the US and funding terrorism," she said. "We need to take a thoughtful approach to how we criminalize drugs here, given past experience."

"The federal government is talking about whether terrorist organizations are using the khat trade for cash money," noted Kamus. "If they are really worried about that, they should make it legal and regulate it and tax the people who sell it."

Kamus added another point. "It is the terrorist link they are talking about. They are not trying to say it causes crime or violence. It doesn't."

But that's not stopping the push to more deeply criminalize the plant. Taxi drivers' wake-me-up or terrorist drug threat? If we leave it up to the law enforcers and their cronies in government, we know what the answer will be.

Drug War Issues

Criminal JusticeAsset Forfeiture, Collateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Court Rulings, Drug Courts, Due Process, Felony Disenfranchisement, Incarceration, Policing (2011 Drug War Killings, 2012 Drug War Killings, 2013 Drug War Killings, 2014 Drug War Killings, 2015 Drug War Killings, 2016 Drug War Killings, 2017 Drug War Killings, Arrests, Eradication, Informants, Interdiction, Lowest Priority Policies, Police Corruption, Police Raids, Profiling, Search and Seizure, SWAT/Paramilitarization, Task Forces, Undercover Work), Probation or Parole, Prosecution, Reentry/Rehabilitation, Sentencing (Alternatives to Incarceration, Clemency and Pardon, Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity, Death Penalty, Decriminalization, Defelonization, Drug Free Zones, Mandatory Minimums, Rockefeller Drug Laws, Sentencing Guidelines)CultureArt, Celebrities, Counter-Culture, Music, Poetry/Literature, Television, TheaterDrug UseParaphernalia, ViolenceIntersecting IssuesCollateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Violence, Border, Budgets/Taxes/Economics, Business, Civil Rights, Driving, Economics, Education (College Aid), Employment, Environment, Families, Free Speech, Gun Policy, Human Rights, Immigration, Militarization, Money Laundering, Pregnancy, Privacy (Search and Seizure, Drug Testing), Race, Religion, Science, Sports, Women's IssuesMarijuana PolicyGateway Theory, Hemp, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Marijuana Industry, Medical MarijuanaMedicineMedical Marijuana, Science of Drugs, Under-treatment of PainPublic HealthAddiction, Addiction Treatment (Science of Drugs), Drug Education, Drug Prevention, Drug-Related AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis C, Harm Reduction (Methadone & Other Opiate Maintenance, Needle Exchange, Overdose Prevention, Safe Injection Sites)Source and Transit CountriesAndean Drug War, Coca, Hashish, Mexican Drug War, Opium ProductionSpecific DrugsAlcohol, Ayahuasca, Cocaine (Crack Cocaine), Ecstasy, Heroin, Ibogaine, ketamine, Khat, Kratom, Marijuana (Gateway Theory, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Medical Marijuana, Hashish), Methamphetamine, New Synthetic Drugs (Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Stimulants), Nicotine, Prescription Opiates (Fentanyl, Oxycontin), Psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Salvia Divinorum)YouthGrade School, Post-Secondary School, Raves, Secondary School