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DEA Director Makes Bizarre Remark at Alberto Gonzales Farewell Ceremony

DEA Administrator Karen Tandy babbled incoherently at a going away reception for disgraced former (boy, that feels good) Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
KAREN TANDY: If you filled the stadium at FedEx Field, which happens to be the largest football stadium in the NFL, if you filled that will all of the teenagers who are no longer using drugs, you’d have to fill that stadium nine times. Empty it, and refill it. [ThinkProgress]
What on earth is that supposed to mean? In fairness, it must be excruciatingly difficult to think of nice things to say about Alberto Gonzales. But this is just weird.

I think she's trying to say that Gonzales stopped lots of teenagers from doing drugs, but I'm sure he was way too busy rationalizing torture and perjuring himself to do that. Personally, just thinking about Alberto Gonzales and his shameful legacy makes me want a drink.

Ironic Anecdotal Afterthought: I actually witnessed FedEx Field filled with teenagers once at a rock festival. It smelled like pot everywhere. Cypress Hill performed. Karen Tandy and Alberto Gonzales were nowhere to be seen, fortunately.
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Prohibition: Terror Groups Profit From Drugs, DEA Says -- Missing Forest For Trees

Nearly half of the groups officially listed by the US government as foreign terrorist organizations fund their activities through drug trafficking, a top DEA official said Sunday. Nothing is more profitable for terrorist organizations than drugs, said Michael Braun, the DEA's assistant administrator, speaking at a conference on "The Global Impact of Terrorism" in Israel.

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misleading DEA traveling exhibit on drugs and terrorism
The DEA has "linked 18 of the 42 officially designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) to drug trafficking activities of some sorts," Braun said. The resort to financing political violence through drug trafficking profits is a result of receding state support for terrorism, Braun said, as well as the fact that Al Qaeda has "shifted from a corporate structure to a franchise structure," making its affiliates pay their own way.

Money from the illegal drug trade is funding the FARC in Colombia and the Shining Path in Peru, Maoist rebels in India, and Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, while various Islamic groups on the terror list are also suspected of profiting from hash and heroin.

With an illicit drug trade estimated at $322 billion annually by the United Nations, the black market dollars are an irresistible source of income for such groups, which may then morph into something resembling traditional drug trafficking organizations. Braun pointed to the FARC, which originated in the 1960s as a leftist guerrilla army as "the case study for this evolution," and estimated its annual revenue from the drug trade at between $500 million and $1 billion each year.

"That's what the Taliban are doing now in Afghanistan," said Braun. "They are taxing farmers, but we have indications that they started providing security. That's what happened to the FARC 15 years ago," he added. "We'll have to deal with more and more hybrid" organizations in the future, Braun told the conference in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya. "When your job takes you to the swamps to hunt snakes, you can end up taking crocs too -- they live in the same place."

What Braun did not say is that this lucrative source of funding for political violence around the world could be effectively dried up by repealing the current global drug prohibition regime enshrined in the UN drug conventions. It is, after all, illicit drugs' status as a prohibited commodity that both makes them extremely valuable and leaves them to be trafficked by violent criminals.

Latin America: Colombian Vice-President Says Aerial Eradication is Failing

Colombia's vice president said Sunday that the US-backed efforts to wipe out Colombia's coca fields through aerial spraying have not stopped cocaine trafficking. He called for a change of emphasis in anti-drug efforts.

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coca seedlings
"After a five-year frontal attack against drug trafficking, the results aren't the most successful or the ones we hoped for," Vice President Francisco Santos told a Bogota news conference. "While Colombia is committed to waging war on drug traffickers," he said, "at the end of the day, the benchmark is whether the street price of cocaine in New York, London or Madrid rises or the quality falls. So far, we haven't found any statistics that bear this out."

Despite years of aerial eradication using the herbicide glyphosate, the US drug czar's office conceded in June that Colombia is producing more coca now than when Washington enacted the $5 billion Plan Colombia five years ago. Coca production is estimated to be up 9% this year over last, despite massive spraying efforts both years.

Santos said Colombia would concentrate on manual eradication of coca crops, which is more dangerous and labor-intensive, but allows the plants to be pulled out by the roots. Manual eradication would require the presence of Colombian military or law enforcement to protect eradicators.

Colombia has historically been loathe to criticize any aspect of Washington's anti-drug strategy, but with both the House and the Senate voting this year to make hefty cuts in the annual anti-drug aid package to Colombia, Bogota may feel that the era of aerial eradication is about to come to an end. The Senate voted last week to cut almost $100 million in military aid, while the House earlier this year passed even deeper cuts. The two bills must be reconciled before going to President Bush, who opposes any reduction in military aid to Colombia, the largest US aid recipient outside of Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Rising Cocaine Prices Don't Mean We're Winning the Drug War

After reading Donna Leinwand's cover story in USA Today, "Cocaine flow to 26 cities curbed," you'd think we've turned a major corner in the war on drugs.
Tough action by Mexico is driving down the cocaine supply in 26 U.S. cities, a recently declassified Drug Enforcement Administration analysis shows, an encouraging drop in narcotics crossing the border that law enforcement officials hope will continue.


This new Calderón government is really taking a tough stance, and it's really taking its toll on the trafficking organizations," says Tony Placido, the DEA's intelligence chief.
It just goes on like this. Cocaine is more expensive! The Drug Czar is optimistic! Mexico is kicking some serious drug trafficker ass! Amazingly, Leinwand entirely fails to explain that cocaine prices are still just a fraction of what they used to be. The real story behind cocaine prices is that they've rather consistently continued spiraling downward despite decades of drug war demolition tactics.

It is just so strange to leave this out because it actually makes the story more interesting. Wouldn't the rise in cocaine prices be more exciting if people understood how rare it is? It's like the drug war equivalent of a solar eclipse. For God's sake, don't stare directly at it or you'll fry your retinas. Such phenomena are best observed under expert supervision.

It is almost more frustrating, therefore, to read Leinwand's companion piece, which perfectly articulates how premature and overblown the Drug Czar's pronouncements truly are:
[drug policy expert Peter] Reuter says this isn't the first time the Mexicans have gotten tough on traffickers. "The Mexican government is clearly cracking down, but the government has cracked down before to no effect," Reuter says. "It's sort of early days for declaring that something important has happened."

Eventually, drug traffickers will develop new routes to get around whatever is stopping them, says Alfred Blumstein, a professor who specializes in criminology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

"It's a resilient process," Blumstein says. "I would anticipate that over a period of time, like six months to a year," the drug traffickers will "be back in shape."
These revealing perspectives are relegated to bowels of a different article on page 3, while Leinwand's above-the-fold cover story reads like an ONDCP press release. This is unacceptable. With opposing viewpoints safely quarantined in an entirely separate – and less prominent – article, ONDCP can now tout their USA Today coverage without directly exposing anyone to Reuter or Blumstein's skepticism. And that's exactly what they've done.

Everything we know about the cocaine economy tells us that it won’t be long before prices drop again to unprecedented new lows. That is just a fact, and I'm still not sure why anyone thinks it's worth their time to suggest otherwise.

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More Fun With Numbers at ONDCP

Press releases from the Office of National Drug Control Policy are so distorted and misleading, they are better suited to make paper airplanes than inform the public.

Yet another example of their ritualistic deception campaign occurred this week with the announcement that youth drug use has reached exciting lows:

New Survey Shows Youth Drug Use at Five Year Low, 25 Percent Drop in Pot Use Among Teen Boys

Overall illicit drug use among teens ages 12-17 is at a five year low, according to the largest and most comprehensive study of drug use in the United States, released today. [PushingBack.com]

You'd be forgiven for thinking this means youth drug use has been going down recently. But alas, it has not.

Illegal drug use among U.S. teens didn't drop for the first time since 2002, according to a government report released Thursday.


Overall drug use rates had fallen steadily before last year. But last year's slowdown threatens to undermine President Bush's stated goals to cut drug abuse by 25% by 2007. [WebMD]

Kudos to WebMD for doing some actual research instead of mindlessly repeating ONDCP's predictable propaganda. If there's a story here, it is that a downward trend in youth drug use may be leveling off and that ONDCP's goals might not be achieved.

Now, to be fair, ONDCP isn't really lying here. They're merely feigning excitement about a downward trend that actually ended a year ago. Ultimately, youth drug use rises and falls for reasons so far beyond the government's control that they should be neither credited nor blamed regardless of what happens.

Jacob Sullum has more.

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DEA Agent Admits Medical Marijuana Laws Work

This piece in the Providence Journal is remarkable for several reasons. The stories of the real people who benefit from Rhode Island's medical marijuana law are simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring. This is required reading for anyone who doesn't understand why medical marijuana advocacy is so important.

One seemingly minor point caught my eye, and raises issues that need to be discussed at the national level:
Anthony Pettigrew, agent for the New England field office of the DEA, said that while marijuana possession is against federal law, "the DEA never targets the sick and dying." The agency is more interested in organized drug traffickers, Pettigrew said. "I've been here for 22 years," he said, and "realistically, I've never seen anyone go to federal jail for possessing a joint."
This is a significant and unusual concession on DEA's part. Pettigrew's argument essentially refutes the typical ONDCP strategy of intimidating patients and legislators in prospective medical marijuana states by arguing that medical users will remain vulnerable under federal law.

If DEA won't arrest patients and state police can't arrest patients, then medical marijuana laws work very well. DEA continues to raid dispensaries in California, but the totality of this activity utterly fails to undermine patient access or the spirit of the state's medical marijuana law. In fact, dispensary raids continue for the sole purpose of obscuring the otherwise obvious benefits of laws that protect patients.

It doesn't matter whether DEA's policy of not arresting patients is motivated by compassion, political sensibilities, funding constraints, or some combination thereof. The fact of the matter is that state laws are effective at protecting medical marijuana users from prosecution, which is their intended purpose. This simple fact demonstrates the importance of these laws, while also revealing how empty and fraudulent the federal government's threats against medical marijuana states truly are.
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Feature: As Afghan Opium Production Goes Through the Roof, Pressure for Aerial Eradication, Increased Western Military Involvement Mounts

To no one's surprise, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced last week that Afghan opium production had reached another record high. The announcement comes against a background of continued high levels of violence between Taliban insurgents reinvigorated in part by the infusion of drug trade money and combined US/NATO/Afghan forces as the insurgency continues to regenerate itself.

The increase in poppy production is lending heft to increasingly shrill calls by the Americans to respond with a massive -- preferably aerial -- poppy eradication campaign. Now, there are signs the Karzai government's firm opposition to aerial spraying is weakening. But US foreign policy, Afghanistan, and drugs and conflict experts contacted by Drug War Chronicle all said such a campaign would be counterproductive -- at best.

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the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
According to UNODC's Afghanistan Opium Survey 2007, the extent of the poppy crop increased 17% this year over 2006, with nearly 450,000 acres under cultivation. But opium production was up 34% over last year's 6,100 tons, a figure UNODC attributed to better weather conditions, with total opium production this year estimated at what the UNODC called "an extraordinary" 8,200 tons of opium.

Afghanistan now supplies around 93% of the world's opium, up just a bit from last year's estimated 92%.

The UNODC reported that the number of opium-free provinces had increased from six last year to 13 this year. It noted that production had diminished in center-north Afghanistan, where Northern Alliance warlords reign supreme, but had exploded in the east and southeast -- precisely those areas where the Taliban presence is strongest. Half of the world supply comes from a single Afghan province, Helmand in the southeast, where, not coincidentally, the Taliban has managed to "control vast swathes of territory" despite the efforts of NATO and Afghan troops to dislodge it.

"Opium cultivation is inversely related to the degree of government control," said UNODC head Antonio Maria Costa in a statement accompanying the report's release. "Where anti-government forces reign, poppies flourish. The Afghan opium situation looks grim, but it is not yet hopeless," he added.

Costa called on the Afghan government and the international community to make a more determined effort to fight the "twin threats" of opium and insurgency, including more rewards for farmers or communities that abandon the poppy and more sanctions on those who don't, as well as attacking the prohibition-related corruption that makes the Karzai government as complicit in the opium trade as any other actor. [Ed: Costa of course didn't use the word prohibition -- but he should have.]

He also called for NATO to get more involved in counter-narcotics operations, something it has been loathe to do. "Since drugs are funding insurgency, Afghanistan's military and its allies have a vested interest in destroying heroin labs, closing opium markets and bringing traffickers to justice. Tacit acceptance of opium trafficking is undermining stabilization efforts," he said.

But this week, NATO appeared unmoved. "We are doing the best we can, we would ask others to do more," NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary-General for Operations Jim Pardew told a Brussels news conference Wednesday. "The fight against narcotics is first and foremost an Afghan responsibility but they need help."

NATO spokesman James Appathurai added that: "NATO is not mandated to be an eradication force, nor is it proposed. Eradication is one part of a complex strategy."

NATO's reticence is in part due to rising casualties. So far this year, 82 NATO soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan, according to the I-Casualties web site, which tracks US and allied forces killed and wounded in both Iraq and Afghanistan. That's along with 82 US soldiers, at least 500 Afghan National Police, numerous Afghan Army soldiers, hundreds -- if not thousands -- of insurgents, and hundreds of civilians.

In all of last year, 98 US and 93 NATO troops were killed; in 2005, 99 US and 31 NATO troops were killed; and in 2004, only 52 US and six NATO soldiers died. The trend line is ominous, and with public support for intervening in the opium war weak in Europe and Canada, NATO reluctance to get more deeply involved reflects political reality at home.

It's not the same with the US government. Less than a month ago, and anticipating a record crop this year, the government released its US Counternarcotics Strategy for Afghanistan. The strategy called for integrating counterinsurgency and counternarcotics, a resort to mass eradication, and the increased use of the US military in the battle against the poppy.

"There is a clear and direct link between the illicit opium trade and insurgent groups in Afghanistan," the State Department report said. The Pentagon "will work with DEA" and other agencies "to develop options for a coordinated strategy that integrates and synchronizes counternarcotics operations, particularly interdiction, into the comprehensive security strategy."

Bush administration officials have long pushed for aerial eradication, and the UNODC report has added fuel to the flames. On Sunday, Afghan first vice-president Ahmed Zia Massoud broke with President Karzai to call for a more "forceful approach" to tackle the poppies "that have spread like cancer," as he and Karzai both have put it. "We must switch from ground based eradication to aerial spraying," he wrote in the London Sunday Telegraph.

But the British government begs to differ. Senior Foreign Office officials dismissed such calls, saying "it is difficult to envisage circumstances where the benefits of aerial eradication outweigh the disadvantages."

The Karzai government, while apparently now split on whether to okay aerial spraying, is turning up the pressure on the West to do more. On Monday, the Afghan government announced it had formally asked NATO and US forces to clear Taliban fighters from opium-growing areas before Afghan troops move in to eradicate.

"For a new plan for this year, we've requested that the foreign military forces go and conduct military operations to enable us to eradicate poppy crops," Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary said at a Monday press conference. "In areas where there's insecurity, we need strong military support to be able to eradicate poppy fields. Police can't eradicate poppies and fight insurgents at the same time," he said.

That request came on the heels of criticism of the West last week from President Karzai himself. He accused the international community of dropping the ball when it came to counter-narcotics in Afghanistan, noting pointedly that where his government had control, poppy production had dropped.

UNODC head Costa Wednesday kept up the pressure, telling that Brussels news conference: "There is very strong pressure building up in favor of aerial eradication in that part of Afghanistan. The government has not decided yet and we will support the government in whatever it decides to do," he said.

But while aerial spraying and increased US and NATO military involvement in the anti-poppy campaign look increasingly probable, that route is paved with obstacles, according to the experts consulted by the Chronicle.

"The change in the Afghan position is a direct response to the US upping the pressure on the Karzai government to adopt a Colombian-style model of aerial eradication," said Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. "Until very recently, the Karzai government really resisted that because they understood this will antagonize a good many Afghan farmers, but when you are the client of a powerful patron, the pressure is difficult to resist."

While massive eradication may indeed have some impact on the opium trade, it will come at a "horrific cost," said Carpenter. "That will drive farmers into the hands of the Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies, which is absolutely the last thing we need in pressing the war against Islamic terrorism," he said. "Afghanistan was hailed as a great success as recently as two years ago, but now it's looking very dicey, the security situation is deteriorating rapidly, and a massive eradication campaign will only make it worse."

"Eradication was stronger this year than last, but it still amounted to almost nothing," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution who specializes in drugs, insurgencies, and counterinsurgencies. "So now, the pressure for aerial eradication is almost at fever pitch. But there is real debate about whether this would really achieve anything or end up being counterproductive. I think it would be a disaster," she said, citing the now familiar reasons of humanitarian problems and increasing support for the Taliban.

When asked to comment by the Chronicle, Barnett Rubin, Director of Studies and Senior Fellow at New York University's Center on International Cooperation, pointed to his blog posts at Informed Comment Global Affairs. Calling eradication "the most photogenic tool" in counter-narcotics strategy, Rubin wrote that he was often forced to point out that: "The international drug trade is not caused by Afghan farmers."

The key problem is not drugs, Rubin argued, but drug money, which finances the insurgency and corrupts government forces. Embarking on a campaign of eradication does not effectively go after the drug money, he wrote, because 80% of it goes to traffickers. And it will increase the value of poppy crops, making them more attractive to farmers.

"More forcible eradication at this time," Rubin wrote, "when both interdiction and alternative livelihoods are barely beginning, will increase the economic value of the opium economy, spread cultivation back to areas of the country that have eliminated or reduced it, and drive more communities into the arms of the Taliban."

US policy is being driven less by what will work in Afghanistan than by domestic political concerns, Felbab-Brown said. "With presidential elections coming up, Afghanistan is going to be a political issue. The question Democrats will ask is 'Who lost Afghanistan'? Thus, there is a real incentive for the Republicans to demonstrate results in some way, and the easiest way is with aerial spraying. This is a classic case of policy being dominated by politics," she said.

"Lost in all the politics is the fact that eradication has never worked in the context of military conflict," Felbab-Brown noted. "It only comes after peace has been achieved, whether through repression, as in the Maoist model, through alternative development, or through eradication and interdiction. Since the security situation in Afghanistan is not improving, it is very unlikely eradication will work. Karzai likes to talk about drugs as a cancer afflicting Afghanistan, but by embracing aerial eradication, we are prescribing the treatment that kills the patient," she said.

"Counter-narcotics efforts will not be successful until security improves," said Felbab-Brown. "That's the priority, and that will require various components, one of which is inevitably more troops on the ground." But she said she sees no political will for such a move in NATO or in the US. "As a result of Iraq, there is no will to increase troops in this vitally important theater, so I am very skeptical about the prospects for that," she said.

"The situation is growing grimmer and grimmer, and the US response has been to move in the wrong direction," she summarized. "Now, it appears the train has left the station, and the voices that tried to stop it are falling by the wayside. American Afghan policy is being held hostage to domestic political concerns."

"Nobody has a good answer for Afghanistan," said Drug Policy Alliance head Ethan Nadelmann, who recently published an article calling for the creation of a global vice district there. "The question is what are the choices? One, we can keep doing what we're doing, which is not accomplishing anybody's objectives. Two, we could embark on an aggressive aerial eradication campaign, which would be a humanitarian disaster and push people into the hands of the Taliban," he said, summarizing the most likely policy options to occur.

"Three, there is outright legalization, but that isn't on anybody's political horizon," Nadelmann continued. "Four, there is the notion of just buying up the opium. That might work for a year or so, but it would almost inevitably become a sort of price support system with the country producing twice as much the following year. There's no reason why farmers wouldn't sell some to us and some to the underground; it would only inject another buyer into the market."

Finally, said Nadelmann, there is the Senlis Council proposal to license opium production for the licit medicinal market. "The Senlis proposal is an interesting idea, but there are a lot of issues with it, including the question of whether there really is a global shortage of opiate pain medications. It is good that Senlis put that provocative idea out there, but the question is whether it is workable," Nadelmann said.

There is another option, he explained. "Let's just accept opium as a global commodity," he said, "and let's think of Afghanistan as the global equivalent of a local red light district. It has all sorts of natural advantages in opium production -- it's a low-cost producer and there is a history of opium growing there. With global opium production centered almost exclusively in Afghanistan, as it is now, there is less likelihood it will pop up somewhere else, possibly with even more negative consequences," he argued.

"We are not talking about a place with a vacuum of authority that fosters terrorism, but a regulated activity serving a global market that cannot be eradicated or suppressed, as we know from a hundred years of history," Nadelmann continued. "We have to accept the fact that it will continue to be grown, but we should manipulate the market to ensure that the US, NATO, and the Karzai government advance their economic, political, and security objectives."

While the notion may sound shocking, the US government has historically been unafraid of working with criminal elements when it served its interests, whether it was heroin traffickers in Southeast Asia or the docks of Marseilles or cocaine traffickers during the Central American wars of the 1980s or Afghan rebels growing poppies during the war against the Soviets. "We've gotten in bed with organized criminals and warlords throughout our history when it served our objectives," Nadelmann noted.

Such a move would not require public pronouncements, Nadelmann said; in fact, quite the opposite. "Bush wouldn't come out and declare a policy shift, but you just sort of quietly allow it to happen, just as during the Cold War you made deals with strongmen because you were pursuing a more important objective. There have to be moral limits, of course, but to the extent you can semi-legitimize it you increase the chance of effectively regulating and controlling it," he said.

"You can call this suggestion Machiavellian," Nadelmann said, "or you can call it simple pragmatism, but given a lot of crummy choices, this could be the least worst."

Latin America: Nicaraguan Leader Asks for $1 Billion in Anti-Drug Aid

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has asked the US government for $1 billion to help Central American countries fight drug trafficking. Ortega has sent a formal request for funds to buy helicopters, boats, radar equipment and anything else necessary to fight the drugs war in the region.

The request comes only two weeks after Ortega said he didn't trust the DEA because its operations mask "unexpected interests" and "terrible things." Ortega could well have been recalling his first stint at Nicaragua's leaders in the 1980s, when the US attempted to portray his government as drug smugglers while -- at the least -- turning a blind eye to cocaine running operations connected to the US-backed Contra rebels attempting to overthrow his socialist government.

But Nicaraguan governments since 1990, including Ortega's current government, have cooperated with the DEA in the face of cocaine trafficking organizations using the isthmus as a smuggling corridor.

Ortega said US officials had "reacted positively" to his request, although the US government has not commented officially on the matter. "If the United States government has the luxury of spending more than $400 billion on the war in Iraq, it can give $1 billion to Central America," he said.

The US government has provided several billion dollars to the Colombian government to fight drug trafficking and leftist guerrillas there, and is on the verge on announcing a large anti-drug aid deal with Mexico. Despite his concerns about the DEA and US dislike for his government [Ed: and despite the failure and injustices of the war on drugs and the harm the program will undoubtedly do to people in his country], Ortega seems to want a piece of the anti-drug aid money pie.

Medical Marijuana: WAMM Lawsuit Hits Bump

A Santa Cruz medical marijuana cooperative that was raided by the DEA in 2002 was dealt a setback August 28 when a federal judge granted a US Justice Department motion to stop them from suing it. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM) and the city and county of Santa Cruz sought to sue US Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez to prevent his office from continuing raids on medical marijuana providers in California.

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2005 WAMM march, downtown Santa Cruz (courtesy santacruz.indymedia.org)
The lawsuit cited California's Compassionate Use Act, approved by voters in 1996, which makes the medical use of marijuana legal in the state. But the Justice Department successfully argued that marijuana remains illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act, and US District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel agreed, granting its motion to block the lawsuit.

"Naturally, we're disappointed. I had hoped for something better," said Mike Corral, who, along with his wife Valerie, were cofounders of WAMM.

WAMM and Santa Cruz may be down, but they're not out just yet. Judge Fogel left two of the county's claims intact: a 10th Amendment argument that the states -- not the federal government -- have say over marijuana, and an argument that medical necessity trumps federal drug laws. The county's legal team says it will continue to argue those claims while trying to build a stronger case that the federal government is improperly intervening in areas that should be the purview of the states.

Asset Forfeiture: ACLU Sues DEA Over Trucker's Seized Cash

A trucker who lost nearly $24,000 in cash after it was seized by a New Mexico police officer and turned over to the DEA is suing the federal drug agency to get his money back. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) New Mexico affiliate is handling the case. It filed the lawsuit on August 23.

On August 8, truck driver Anastasio Prieto of El Paso was stopped at a weigh station on US Highway 54 just north of El Paso. A police officer there asked for permission to search the truck for "needles or cash in excess of $10,000," according to the ACLU. Prieto said he didn't have any needles, but he was carrying $23,700 in cash. Officers seized the money and turned it over to the DEA, while DEA agents photographed and fingerprinted Prieto despite his objections, then released him without charges after he had been detained for six hours. Border Patrol agents sicced drug-sniffing dogs on his truck, but found no evidence of illegal drugs.

In the lawsuit, the ACLU argues that the state police and DEA violated Prieto's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful search and seizure by taking his money without cause and by fingerprinting and photographing him. "Mere possession of approximately $23,700 does not establish probable cause for a search or seizure," the lawsuit said.

DEA agents told Prieto that to get his money back, he would have to prove it was his and not the proceeds of illegal drug sales. That process could take up to a year, the agents said.

But New Mexico ACLU state director Peter Simonson told the Associated Press Prieto needed his money now to pay bills. "The government took Mr. Prieto's money as surely as if he had been robbed on a street corner at night," Simonson said. "In fact, being robbed might have been better. At least then the police would have treated him as the victim of a crime instead of as a perpetrator."

According to the lawsuit, Prieto does not like banks and carries his savings as cash.

That's not a crime. But what the DEA did to him is, or should be.

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