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Feature: In Strategy Shift, US Troops to Join Battle Against Opium in Afghanistan

The United States military is melding counterinsurgency with counternarcotics missions in Afghanistan in what officials called "a basic strategy shift" in its Afghan campaign. Up until now, the US military has shied away from anti-drug operations in Afghanistan, leaving them to the DEA, the British, and Afghan authorities in a bid to avoid alienating Afghan peasant populations dependent on the poppy crop for an income.

But with Afghan opium production at an all-time high last year and predicted to go even higher this year -- Afghanistan accounted for 92% of the global opium supply in 2006 and will account for close to 100% this year--despite nearly a billion dollars in US anti-drug aid, officials in Washington have decided after long discussion that the Afghan drug war must be ratcheted up.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/opium_poppy1986_2006.jpg
(source: state.gov/p/inl/rls/rpt/90561.htm)
US officials are increasingly concerned about links between drug traffickers, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda militants, especially in southeastern Afghanistan, where both the insurgency and poppy production are most deeply rooted. Some 70 US soldiers, 69 NATO soldiers, and hundreds of Afghan police and soldiers, Taliban fighters, and Afghan civilians have been killed in fighting so far this year, the third year of the Taliban resurgence.

The new policy was announced in a new report US Counternarcotics Strategy for Afghanistan released last week and rolled out at an August 9 State Department briefing by Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP--the drug czar's office) head John Walters and Acting Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Thomas Schweich.

"We know that opium, maybe second only to terror, is a huge threat to the future of Afghanistan," said Walters. "The efforts by the Afghan people to build institutions of justice and rule of law are threatened not only by the terror, but the drug forces that are both economic, addictive and, of course, support in some cases terror, not only through money, but through influence and moving people away from the structures of government toward the structures of drug mafias and violence," he said.

The new strategy is a combination of carrots and sticks, heavily weighted toward the sticks. Out of the $700 million budgeted for anti-drug activities this year, only about $120 million to $150 million will go to alternative development, with the remainder dedicated to eradication, interdiction, building up the Afghan criminal justice system, and going after high-level traffickers.

Some $30 million will go to farming communities that agree to give up poppy production, but this is a pittance compared to the $3.1 billion the trade is estimated to be worth, or even the roughly $700 million estimated to end up in the hands of peasant farmers. While most of the incentive money will go to the north, where production is down, the more Taliban-friendly east and southeast will get forced eradication and increased efforts to go after high-level traffickers. Ambassador Schweicher qualified the tougher approach as "substantially harsher discincentives" for those areas. And the US military will be involved.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/opium-smaller.jpg
the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
"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."

What exactly that means remains unclear. At the August 9 briefing, Walters dodged repeated questions about the exact nature of US military involvement. "We expect a more permissive environment for these operations, given the plans and commitments here," Walters said. "Again, what -- your question was what counter-narcotics operations is the military going to do. That's not what this is doing, is saying the military is going to become the eradication force or the interdiction force. What we're going to do is create -- we've now created, we believe, the structures to allow counter-narcotics operations, whether they're arrests of people by Afghans, whether they're interdiction, whether they're eradication to be integrated into the security effort that's going on."

It might work, but there are gigantic obstacles in the way, said Raheem Yaseer of the Center for Afghan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Improving the security situation is critical, said Yaseer.

"The bombers and the Talibans are crossing the border from Pakistan with all these weapons and getting across the checkpoints and getting in among the villagers, where they shoot at the allied forces. Then the allies bomb the villages, and that creates a lot of resentment, and the people won't listen to the allies," he said. "The US can track a bullet crossing the border, but they can't find the Talibans," he said, a note of frustration in his voice.

Alternative development could attract peasant farmers if the security situation were stabilized, he said. "It's the bigger warlords and drug lords who are the problem," Yaseer argued. "And yes, there are some high government officials, big shots, involved in drug trafficking, too. All of them have been nourished by this money for years and don't want to see it go away. But ordinary people would be satisfied with a little money because they know growing poppies is condemned by their tradition and religion."

Endemic corruption is another problem. Even anti-drug aid and alternative development assistance is likely to be siphoned off, said Yaseer. "The corruption is very deep, and a lot of money will vanish into people's pockets. You have to watch the people at the top, too, or it won't be effective," he said. "You'll only be spending money uselessly."

Congressional leaders called the new strategy a "welcome recognition" that new initiatives had to be hatched to address the Afghan opium problem, but worried that it wasn't enough. "What the plan lacks is the recognition that Afghanistan is approaching a crisis point, and that immediate action is required to eliminate the threat of drug kingpins and cartels allied with terrorists so we can reverse the country's steady slide into a potential failed narco-state," said House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) and ranking minority member Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) in a statement responding to the new strategy.

Lantos and Ros-Lehtinen aren't the only members of Congress concerned. Others have called for an entirely different approach. Following the lead of the French defense and drug policy think tank the Senlis Council, which has been calling since 2005 for licensing the poppy crop, Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-MO) has suggested licensing Afghan farmers to grow the crop for legal pain medications, similar to the way the international community diminished the drug trafficking problem in India and Turkey. Senator John Sununu (R-NH) has suggested the US buy opium crops from the farmers and destroy them. Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) has suggested switching the focus away from poor farmers and toward disrupting the cartels that are moving the drugs.

But the drug czar and the State Department explicitly rejected licensing as an impractical "silver bullet" that would not work and have similarly rejected proposals to buy up the crop. And they will definitely be going after poor farmers as well as high-level traffickers.

But more of the same isn't going to do the trick, said the Drug Policy Alliance. "The so-called 'carrot and stick' approach has failed in every country it has been tried in, including our own," said Bill Piper, the group's director of national affairs. "As long as there is a demand for drugs, there will be a supply to meet it. Drug prohibition makes plants more valuable than gold."

More of the same may even make matters worse, Piper argued. "The US is dangerously close to turning Afghanistan into the next Iraq," said Piper. "Forced eradication of opium crops is driving poor Afghans into the hands of our enemies, strengthening the Taliban, and feeding the insurgency there. The war on drugs is undermining the war on terror and pushing Afghanistan to the brink of civil war."

The Bush administration has belatedly figured out it has a very serious problem in Afghanistan. The question now is whether this vigorous new strategy will calm the situation or only inflame it.

Feds Bust Former Portland Police Detective for Medical Marijuana

Location: 
Portland, OR
United States
Publication/Source: 
Salem-News.com (OR)
URL: 
http://www.salem-news.com/articles/august072007/federal_rogues_8707.php

A Peek Inside a Marijuana Dispensary

Location: 
CA
United States
Publication/Source: 
BusinessWeek
URL: 
http://images.businessweek.com/ss/07/08/0803_marijuana/index_01.htm

Illegal Crops Creep Into the Suburbs

Location: 
Washington, DC
United States
Publication/Source: 
The Washington Post
URL: 
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/08/04/AR2007080401388.html

Feds strike medical pot growers

Location: 
Portland, OR
United States
Publication/Source: 
The Portland Tribune (OR)
URL: 
http://www.localdailynews.com/news/story.php?story_id=118609925649231700#comment_section_container

Opposition to Medical Marijuana is a Conspiracy to Prevent Broader Legalization

An important fact to understand about the medical marijuana debate is that the federal government knows perfectly well that marijuana is an effective medicine:

*They've been providing it for decades to a select group of seriously ill patients, and continue to do so.
*They've approved a synthetic drug with the same active ingredient (THC).
*They commissioned a huge study in 1999, which explicitly said it works.
*They've been blocking research, which makes no sense if they think the results will favor them.

So the debate over medical marijuana isn't even about whether it has medical properties. It is about something else entirely, stated perfectly by ONDCP's Tom Riley just the other day:
"…a lot of the people who are behind this aren't really interested in sick people who need medicine, they're interested in marijuana legalization and they're playing on the suffering of genuinely sick people to get it." [Reuters]
As silly as it is, this argument explains everything there is to know about why the government actually opposes medical marijuana. Though countless mainstream medical, legal,  and religious organizations support medical marijuana, the federal government remains fixated on drug policy reformers and our role in defending the rights of patients.

The simple truth is that they are afraid that medical marijuana could lead to full-blown legalization of marijuana for recreational use. And it's not an irrational concern. If you're struggling to prevent accurate information about marijuana's effects from reaching the scientific community and the public, the last thing you want is a huge user population that can speak openly about their experiences with the drug.

Ironically, it is ONDCP's obsession with legalization that has turned medical marijuana into a great controversy, not ours. Similarly, it is ONDCP that exploits patients for political purposes, not us. Opposition to medical marijuana is not championed by doctors or scientists. It is funded and carried out by political operatives who want to keep marijuana illegal for everyone. That's the real medical marijuana conspiracy.

Location: 
United States

Taking it to the Drug Warriors--Is It Time for Direct Action?

You know, a guy gets tired fighting for decades for the right to do something which should be our right anyway. Yeah, I know the litany: We've got to play the game...if you don't like the law, change it...the political process is slow...we can't be impatient...we have to educate politicians and cultivate law enforcement....blah blah blah. Well, in the face of the no-progress Hinchey-Rohrabacher vote and the continuing defiance of the will of California voters by the DEA, not to mention all the other drug war horrors, I'm prepared to once again make inciteful (if not insightful) calls for direct action against these downpressors. 1. Let's take the DEA's war on medical marijuana patients and providers to the DEA. Let's shut 'em down in California. Blockade their offices, and not for symbolic civil disobedience purposes, but for the actual purpose of disrupting their activities. 2. Let's really take it to the DEA. These black-suited, paramilitary-style goons presumably have homes in the area. I'd like to see protestors on the sidewalk in front of their houses. Ooh, but you say it's not polite or uncouth to do that sort of thing! Well, I frankly find DEA goons kicking down doors and arresting harmless people who didn't do anything to anybody pretty impolite and uncouth. Maybe they'll enjoy explaining to their neighbors (two out of three of whom voted for Prop 215) how they earn a living. These thugs need to pay a price for what they do, and I personally don't care if it offends the sensibilities of some of our more delicate members. And I don't buy their "I'm only following orders" excuse, either. It didn't fly at Nuremburg, and it shouldn't fly now. It's time for public shaming and shunning. 3. And maybe we should be focusing on a mass march aimed at national DEA headquarters one of these months. Again, the purpose would be practical--not symbolic--to shut the monster down. This is an agency that needs to be abolished, and until we can accomplish that, the least we can do it make it impossible for it to function properly. 3. More broadly, let's attack the snitch system that underpins the drug war. Last week, we did a newsbrief on the couple in Philadelphia indicted for posting flyers outing a snitch. They copied information from the Who's A Rat? web site, which is protected by the First Amendment. The folks in Philadelphia are charged with intimidating witnesses--by making public information about what they are doing--and I hope they fight that case all the way. Snitches have no right to have their exploits go unsung. In solidarity with the Philadelphia folks, and everyone who has suffered from drug war snitchery, I propose that DRCNet enter into a collaboration with Who's a Rat? by posting the information about one undercover officer (they list more than 400) or one snitch (they list over 4000) online each week. Personally, I would rather go after the narcs than the snitches, most of whom are victims themselves. ("You're gonna go to prison for 30 years and get raped by hardened cons if you don't give up the names..."). Snitches may be victims of circumstance (and a weak values system), but narcs do this horrid work for a living, either because they believe in or they like it. I want to see their names and mugs plastered across the internet. I don't suppose my boss will agree with me on this one, although I'd like to hear why not. 5. Police on a drug raid in Belfast this week were met by a rock-throwing mob. Mindful of the incitement statutes, I have no comment. Whaddya think, folks? I'm really, really tired of waiting for lamebrain politicians to protect me from these thugs. I guess I'm going to have to do it myself. With your help. More "responsible" members of our movement generally shy away from tactics like these. Let them be responsible. I want to fight back.
Location: 
United States

photos from LA raid aftermath on LAist web site

Photos from the aftermath of the raid on LA's Cannabis Patients Group coop, including the civil disobedience action, can be found online here.
Location: 
Los Angeles, CA
United States

Photo Essay: Hollywood Medical Marijuana DEA Raid

Location: 
Los Angeles, CA
United States
Publication/Source: 
LAist (CA)
URL: 
http://laist.com/2007/07/27/medical_marijuana_dea_raids.php

Feature: DEA Raids Ten Los Angeles Dispensaries Same Day City Council Asks It To Butt Out

In what appears to be the latest move in an ever-escalating campaign of attacks against California medical marijuana dispensaries, the DEA Wednesday raided 10 Los Angeles-area dispensaries, seizing marijuana, marijuana products, cash, and two guns. The raids came the same day the Los Angeles City Council introduced an ordinance to regulate dispensaries in the city and approved a resolution calling on federal authorities to quit prosecuting medical marijuana providers operating legally under California law.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/kcal9.jpg
local news coverage
The raids did not go unchallenged, either by local officials or by activists. When DEA agents raided the Los Angeles Patients and Caregivers Group (LAPCG) on Santa Monica Boulevard, they were met by more than a hundred protestors, who blocked access to the building and surrounded DEA vehicles to prevent raiders taking away people at the dispensary. Five people were arrested in that incident.

A DEA spokesperson in Washington told the Chronicle five arrests were made during the raids, but it appears those arrests were of people engaging in civil disobedience to protest the raids -- not dispensary owners or employees.

"Some people were arrested for civil disobedience after barricading the facility itself because federal agents were detaining people inside," said Kris Hermes, communications director for Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the medical marijuana defense group whose rapid response network brings out protestors in response to such raids. "We had at least a couple of hundred people very agitated by what the DEA was doing, and some of them decided to obstruct the agents. The DEA was prevented from being able to process those inside and therefore released them," he said.

City officials who that same day had introduced an ordinance calling for a moratorium on new dispensaries in the city while it drafts regulations governing their operation, but who also called on the DEA to quit prosecuting medical marijuana providers, also reacted angrily. City Councilman Dennis Zine, who authored the letter, called the agency "bullies" at a pre-scheduled news conference that took place as the raids were ongoing.

"I am greatly disturbed that the Drug Enforcement Administration would initiate an enforcement action against medical marijuana facilities in the city of Los Angeles during a news conference regarding City Council support of an interim control ordinance to regulate all facilities within the city," Zine said. "This action by the DEA is contrary to the vote of Californians who overwhelmingly voted to support medicinal marijuana use by those facing serious and life-threatening illnesses," he said. "The DEA needs to focus their attention and enforcement action on the illegal drug dealers who are terrorizing communities in Los Angeles."

Despite the angry protests of patients, activists and elected officials, the DEA was unmoved. "The DEA is required to enforce the Controlled Substances Act," replied tight-lipped spokesperson Rogene Waite when asked about the opposition the raids are engendering. "There has been no change in our policy," she said when asked if the raids signaled a new offensive.

But despite the DEA's protestations, a ramping up of DEA activity directed at dispensaries seems evident. Dozens of dispensaries have been raided this year, including 11 in Los Angeles in January. Hundreds of medical marijuana cases are now pending in the federal courts in California. Last week, the DEA and the Justice Department announced the indictments of four dispensary operators, two in the Los Angeles area, one in San Luis Obispo, and one in Bakersfield. And earlier this month, the DEA and the Justice Department unveiled a new tactic in their war on medical marijuana: Federal authorities in Los Angeles sent a letter to dozens of dispensary landlords warning them they faced seizure of their property or even criminal charges if they continued to rent to the dispensaries.

"The DEA appears to be intensifying its campaign against medical marijuana," said ASA's Hermes. "There are not only the increased raids here in Los Angeles, but also the threats to property owners who choose to rent to medical marijuana providers. This is tantamount to intimidation, and it's a last-ditch effort by the federal government to undermine the state's medical marijuana law."

"It is an escalation, and it's very frightening," said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). "They can't stop medical marijuana's momentum because truth, common sense, and decency are on our side, but in the meantime they can cause a lot of suffering for a lot of people."

For California NORML head Dale Gieringer, the raids are like the final twitches of a dying dinosaur's tail. "It's a rear-guard action by the DEA," he said. "They went after the heart of responsible medical cannabis activism by going after the California Patients and Caregivers group. That's where people met to deal responsibly with the dispensary issue. This is a slap in the face to Los Angeles, and I think people there are going to end up being as angry as they already are in Northern California," he predicted.

Still, said Gieringer, the raids won't stop the dispensaries. "There are already 400 of them across the state, maybe more, who knows?" he said. "If the DEA is trying to wipe out the dispensaries, they are now several years too late."

The battle between the federal drug enforcers and the people, patients, and elected officials of California over medical marijuana continues. Congress could have taken the wind out of the DEA's sails by passing the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment, which would have cut off federal funding for the raids, but it chose not to Wednesday night, just hours after the latest raids took place. That means, at least for now, it's up to the people of California to protect themselves.

Medical marijuana supporters and fellow activists will be taking steps to do just that on Friday. ASA has called for demonstrations against the raids to occur across the state Friday morning. Civil disobedience has already broken out on Santa Monica Boulevard. Maybe there will be more to come.

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