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Latin America: Bolivia's Morales Says Yes to Obama, No to the DEA

Bolivian President Evo Morales said at a Monday news conference at the UN that he would like to improve ties with the incoming administration of Barack Obama, but that the DEA would not be allowed back in Bolivia during the remainder of his term. The comments signal an effort to restore ties with the US that were badly frayed during the Bush administration while still retaining Bolivian sovereignty over its drug control policies.
Evo Morales, probably holding a coca branch
"My interest is how to improve relations with the new president," Morales said after addressing the UN General Assembly. "I think we could have a lot of things in common.
If we talk about change I have some experience now," he said, referring to the Obama presidential campaign's slogans based on the need for change. "I think it would be good to share experiences with the new president-elect."

Morales, a former coca grower union leader who became the first indigenous person to become Bolivia's leader, compared himself to Obama, who is the first black man to win the US presidency. Better relations between the two countries would have to be based on "respect from one government to another," Morales said.

There has been tension between the US and Morales over his "zero cocaine, but not zero coca" policies, under which Bolivian farmers in certain areas are allowed to grow coca for traditional and industrial uses. But because the Morales government appears committed to battling the cocaine trade, US criticism of his coca policies was muted until recently.

In response to what it called US meddling in its internal affairs, Bolivia has this fall undertaken a number of measures to hit back. It ordered USAID to leave the Chapare coca growing region, and after unrest from right-wing separatists resulted in bloody conflict in September, Morales expelled the US ambassador. The US retaliated by expelling Bolivia's ambassador to Washington and by "decertifying" Bolivia as not cooperating in US drug war goals. After that, Morales first barred over-flights by US drug surveillance planes and then, two weeks ago threw the DEA out of the country.

"The DEA will not return whilst I am still president," Morales said, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. Nor does he want US anti-drug aid. He said he was working with other countries in the fight against drug trafficking. "We've discussed matters with Brazil, Russia and France, where they manufacture helicopters," he said. "We want to buy some, perhaps using emergency loans. There is interest in South American countries and Europe to join together to fight against a common problem, which is drug trafficking."

And Washington is the odd man out. Perhaps overall relations will warm with an Obama presidency, but not if the US insists that the DEA be allowed back.

Will Bush’s DEA Launch a Final Assault on Medical Marijuana Before January?

President-elect Obama has pledged to end the federal government’s war on medical marijuana, but he doesn’t take office for several weeks. Meanwhile, the DEA has spent the last 8 years periodically raiding medical marijuana dispensaries in California based on undisclosed criteria, stealing money, scaring patients, and even convicting good people on harsh charges for activities that are legal under state law.

So what happens now? With their livelihood threatened, will the bloodsucking narc-warriors dive in for one last bite? They’ve got everything mapped out and they’ve spent years investigating this (which is embarrassingly easy since these are legal, storefront co-ops). No one really knows what the marching orders will be after January, so you can bet there are scores of pissed-off drug cops just dying to throw one last flurry before the bell rings.

You’d think the election of a more supportive president would enthrall the medical marijuana community, but I’m hearing that people on the ground in California are buzzing nervously about the coming weeks with no clear indication of what direction things will go. The potential withdrawal of prosecutorial resources could have a chilling effect, but prosecutions are only one dimension of the problem. Asset forfeiture is another major concern following DEA’s recent threats against landlords, and you can bet there’s no limit to the greed and spite that has defined the federal war on medical marijuana since its inception.

So while I’ll decline to speculate what’s to come, I keep reminding myself that the federal drug warriors’ actions always carry political consequences. These raids have long sought to create the perception of impracticality surrounding state medical marijuana laws, and that strategy has failed. Medical marijuana continues to gain momentum as a political issue, as evidenced by the strong showing in Michigan and universal support from candidates in the democratic primaries.

The faceless drug war army perched over California must consider the ramifications of any ugliness they unleash in the weeks to come, because any action they take will provoke tremendous rallying cries that will surely reverberate all the way to Washington, DC. A final exhibit in the repugnance of the federal war on medical marijuana might be exactly what it takes to bring about the burial of this bullshit once and for all. If DEA wants to play hardball, it would seem wise to wait until the new referee takes the field.

Latin America: Bolivia Suspends Operations By DEA

Already cool relations between Bolivia and the US grew even chillier over the weekend, as Bolivian President Evo Morales announced Saturday that he was suspending anti-drug operations by the US DEA within Bolivian territory. In making the announcement, Morales accused the DEA of interfering in internal Bolivian affairs and trying to undermine his government.
US-funded FELCN (Special Force for the Struggle Against Narcotics) checkpoint between Cochabamba and Chapare, search being conducted for cocaine and precursors (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith, 2007)
"From today all the activities of the US DEA are suspended indefinitely," Morales said Saturday in remarks reported by the BBC. "Personnel from the DEA supported activities of the unsuccessful coup d'etat in Bolivia," he added, referring to a September massacre of Morales supporters that left 19 people dead. "We have the obligation to defend the dignity and sovereignty of the Bolivian people."

Morales, a former coca grower union leader who won the presidency in 2006, has embarked on a policy of "zero cocaine, not zero coca" in the Andean nation where the coca plant is widely chewed or drunk as a tea by indigenous people. Under Morales' program, farmers in specified areas are allowed to grow small amounts of coca for traditional and industrial uses.

While US officials earlier this year acknowledged Bolivian successes in the fight against cocaine trafficking, tensions have been rising -- not all of them to do with coca and cocaine. The Bolivian government limited DEA activities earlier this year, then expelled the US ambassador, charging that he had supported an effort to overthrow the government by separatist leaders of eastern provinces in September. The US retaliated by expelling Bolivia's ambassador to Washington, and last month, by adding Bolivia to the list of nations that had not adequately met US drug war goals.

Although Bolivia is only the third largest coca producer in the region, behind Colombia and Peru, it and Venezuela were the only countries in Latin America that were decertified. Venezuela kicked out the DEA in 2005, citing internal interference as well.

US officials denied Morales' claim of DEA interference. "These accusations are false and absurd," an unnamed senior State Department official told Time in response to Saturday's announcement. "The DEA has a 35-year track record of working effectively and professionally with our Bolivian partners," the official added.

Some 70 Bolivian citizens have been killed and about 1,000 wounded combating DEA-led coca eradication efforts since the late 1980s. Unrest over coca control policies helped vault Morales to the presidency in 2006.

The US currently funds Bolivian anti-drug efforts with $35 million a year. It is unclear what will happen to that funding.

Drug War Chronicle Video Review: "Prince of Pot: The US v. Marc Emery," Directed by Nick Wilson (2008, Journeyman Pictures)

Let me say right up front that Marc Emery sometimes pays me money to write articles for his magazine, Cannabis Culture, so I am not a completely disinterested observer. That said, "Prince of Pot" director Nick Wilson has done a superb job of explaining who Emery is, where he came from, and what he is all about -- and in tying Emery's trajectory to the larger issues of marijuana prohibition, the drug war in general, and Canadian acquiescence to US-style prohibitionist drug policies.
Marc Emery (courtesy Cannabis Culture magazine)
I assume that anyone reading these words already knows who Marc Emery is: Canada's most vocal advocate of marijuana legalization, founder of the BC Marijuana Party, publisher of Cannabis Culture magazine, operator of POT-TV, and former proprietor of the Marc Emery Seed Company. Emery made lots of money with his seed company, and plowed much of it back into the marijuana legalization movement, not only in Canada, but also bankrolling activists in the US Marijuana Party south of the border and putting some loonies (Canadian nickname for their one-dollar coin) into various Global Marijuana Marches. For Emery, the seed company was merely a means to an end, a method of raising money to subvert marijuana prohibition, or, as he nicely put it, to overgrow the government.

But all that came to a crashing halt three years ago, when Emery and two of his employees, Michelle Rainey and Greg Williams, were indicted by a federal grand jury in Seattle on marijuana trafficking charges for his seed sales. Now, the Vancouver 3, as they have come to be known, face up to life in prison in the US if and when they are extradited.

The documentary, which is available from Journeyman Productions, opens with some vintage Emery, addressing the crowd at a pro-legalization, anti-extradition rally in Vancouver, the headquarters of his operation. "The DEA says I am responsible for 1.1 million pounds of pot," he said to cheers from the crowd. "I would be happy to believe that. That's the problem -- the DEA and I agree on the facts."

"Prince of Pot" follows Emery's career from his beginnings as an Ontario bookstore owner who loathed stoners, but came to embrace their cause as he fought the Canadian government's censorship of "drug-related" magazines like High Times. Early on, Emery displayed the same qualities that propelled his meteoric rise to the heights of the pot legalization movement: a libertarian sensibility, "an ego that takes up 40% of his body weight," as one observer put it, an aggressive, abrasive personality, a penchant for the publicity stunt, and a mouth that never stops working.

The documentary also shows that Emery's exhibitionism isn't limited to the sphere of the political. Early on, viewers are treated to a shot of Emery's backside as he gets out of bed, and another scene shows him naked on a Vancouver nude beach being anointed with cannabis oil by his young wife Jodie in an experiment to see whether it could have an impact on "any cancerous or pre-cancerous cells." (No word on how that turned out.)

But if Marc Emery's ass is on the screen, it's also on the line, and this is where "Prince of Pot" really shines. The documentary makers interviewed the unrepentant US attorney in Seattle who indicted him and a Seattle DEA agent who justified the bust, and confronted DEA head Karen Tandy at a 2006 international DEA conference in Montreal.

"Prince of Pot" hones in with precision accuracy on Tandy's post-bust press release where she bragged about how Emery's arrest was "a blow to the legalization movement." That press release may be Emery's best long-shot chance at avoiding extradition because it provides evidence that his prosecution was politically motivated.

All of the feds, of course, deny that was the case, but, in tracing Emery's career, his succession of trivial arrests by Canadian authorities, and growing US frustration with Canada's seeming indifference to his activities, the documentarians make a strong case that Marc Emery was busted not because he sold seeds, but because he was a burr under the saddle of Washington.

The documentary also features a strong cast of Canadian supporters, including former Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell ("The drug czar is an idiot"), Vancouver East MP Libby Davies, Toronto attorney Alan Young, Ottawa attorney and criminal justice professor Eugene Oscapella ("Why should we emulate the failed drug policies of the United States?"). Vancouver activist David Malmo-Levine, shown smoking a foot-long joint at one point, makes a compelling observation, too: "They want to send him to prison for life," he exclaims, recounting the DEA's argument about the harm Emery has caused by promoting marijuana production. "What harm? Show me the bodies," he demands. "There has to be at least one body if they want to send him away for life. There has to be at least one person who suffered more than bronchitis."

Washington state marijuana defense attorney Douglas Hiatt's brief appearance is also powerful and worth noting. Visibly angry at the injustice of the marijuana laws, Hiatt lashes out at prosecutors and the DEA. "If the DEA wants to talk about destroying families," he growls, "they can talk to me about the families they've destroyed for trying to use medical marijuana. The only thing I see ruining people's lives is the government's policies," Hiatt spits out. His righteous wrath is refreshing.

At one point in the documentary, film-maker Wilson says that for him, "It's not about seeds, it's about sovereignty." From the Canadian perspective, he's right, of course, but it's really about marijuana prohibition, and Wilson does a wonderful job of sketching its history and ugly current reality.

At the end, the documentary speculates about a possible deal for Emery to serve a shorter prison term in the US. That didn't happen. Neither did a proposed deal that would have seen charges dropped against Rainey and Williams and Emery serving a few years in a Canadian prison. Now, it's back to fighting extradition, and given that the decision to extradite is ultimately a political one made by the Justice Minister and given that the Canadian federal government is in bed with the US on drug policy, extradition remains the most likely outcome.

In a touching scene, Emery and his wife argue over whether he will serve his cause by martyring himself, something he seems determined to do. I have personally counseled him otherwise. I suggested that he become the marijuana movement's Osama bin Laden. No, not that he blow up DEA headquarters, but that he escape to a hidden cave complex somewhere in the Canadian Rockies and bedevil his enemies with communiques from his hidden sanctuary. I, for one, would rather see Marc Emery figuratively flipping the bird to the US government than disappearing, like so many others have, into the American gulag.

Check out this documentary. It's a good one. It'll give you goose bumps at some points, make you want to cry at some, and make you want to cheer at others.

South Pacific: DEA Mass Body Search of Plane Passengers Spurs Angry Reaction in Marianas

Lawmakers and travel industry spokesmen on the island of Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, are furious with the DEA over an October 4 incident where the agency conducted a mass body search of passengers arriving on a charter jet from China. Tourism officials have apologized to China over the incident, the local congress has passed a resolution condemning the searches, and in the latest reverberation, the Marianas government has pulled its police from the local DEA task force.
Northern Mariana Islands (map from
The Marianas, formally known as the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI), is a US territory situated roughly three-quarters of the way to Australia from Hawaii. The islands have a population of about 80,000 and rely heavily on tourism.

The October 4 incident occurred in the pre-dawn hours when a Shanghai Airlines charter flight arrived at Saipan International Airport. Acting on what it said was a tip about drugs on the flight, the DEA subjected 147 of 187 arriving passengers -- all Chinese nationals -- to intensive body searches. The agents forced passengers into a small room, then forced them to remove their clothing to be searched. No drugs were found, although the DEA reported it had seized some contraband plant and animal items.

Many of the passengers were outraged by their treatment and reported it to their government. They also vowed never to return to the CNMI again. That had local officials scrambling to undo the harm.

"I want to let you know that my administration is extremely displeased with the manner in which this activity was conducted," said Gov. Benigno Fitial in an October 10 letter to the tour company and hotel involved in the deal that brought the Chinese tourists to Saipan. "We did not approve of this and do not support such treatment of visitors to our islands."

That same day, Marianas Visitors Authority managing director Perry Tenorio sent a similar letter to the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles. "We hope that this regrettable and isolated incident does not alter your affection for the CNMI and its people," Tenorio said.

Late last week, still fuming over the DEA's actions and unresponsiveness, the CNMI House of Representatives passed a strongly worded resolution demanding that the US Department of Justice investigate the mass search. The resolution also called for the department to inform China that the DEA -- not local customs or immigration officials -- was responsible for the searches.

"The House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands hereby calls for a full and complete investigation into the activities and the causes of those activities that led to an episode at the Francisco C. Ada Saipan International Airport that embarrassed and degraded honored guests of the Northern Mariana Islands and may have violated their civil rights," stated the resolution.

"These searches, and the abhorrent treatment of the passengers subjected to it, caused extreme embarrassment, discomfort, fear, and a feeling of perverse violation to the affected tourists and other guests of the Commonwealth," the resolution said. It also called the searches "harsh and irrational" and said they had caused irreparable harm "to the reputation of the Commonwealth and to the psyches of the victims of this demeaning episode."

And that's the watered down version. After Federal Relations Committee Chair Diego Benavente expressed concern over harsh language, the House voted to remove a provision of the resolution containing the phrase "multiple fondling of the passengers' private parts."

The fall-out continued this week. The CNMI Department of Public Safety announced Monday that it was pulling four Saipan police officers from the DEA Northern Marianas task force. That comes just days after the CNMI withdrew six other police officers and one customs officer from the task force. That withdrawal will be in effect until the DEA provides a complete explanation of the October 4 incident, government officials said.

At this point, the government of the CNMI doesn't seem to care much what impact the withdrawal will have on the DEA's work. When asked if the pull-out would hamper DEA operations, a police spokesman replied only, "That remains to be seen."

Press Release: Hemp Advocates Ask Pro-Hemp Hedge Fund Manager for Help

[Courtesy of Hemp Industries Association] FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: October 21, 2008 CONTACT: Adam Eidinger at 202-744-2671 or Hemp Advocates to Andrew Lahde: “Can You Spare a Million to Make Your Vision Reality?” Hemp Food and Body Care Sales Stronger than Ever in 2008 U.S. Farmers Suing DEA to Grow Hemp are Back in Court November 12 BOSTON, MA – The Hemp Industries Association (HIA), a trade association made up of hundreds of hemp businesses meeting in Boston today, is appealing to millionaire retired hedge fund manager Andrew Lahde to use a portion of his recent windfall made betting against sub-prime mortgage-backed securities to help bring back hemp farming in the United States. Mr. Lahde garnered media attention for stating in a resignation letter that hemp is needed as an alternative food and energy source and should be grown again in the U.S. “Mr. Lahde’s perspective is right on the money,” says HIA out-going President David Bronner. Retail sales of hemp food and body care products in the United States have continued to set record sales over the past twelve months, according to new data released by the HIA. The strong sales of popular hemp items like non-dairy milk, shelled hemp seed, soaps and lotions have occurred against the backdrop of state-licensed hemp farmers in North Dakota fighting a high stakes legal battle against DEA to grow hemp for U.S. manufacturers. The new sales data validates U.S. farmers’ position that they are being left out of the lucrative hemp market that Canadian farmers have cashed in on for eleven years. The sales data, collected by the market research firm SPINS, was obtained from natural food retailers only, excluding Whole Foods Market and mass-market food and pharmacy stores, and thus under-represents actual sales by a factor of two to three. The new report shows that hemp grocery sales grew in the sampled stores by 65% over the previous year (from August 2007 to August 2008), or by $2.4 million, to a total of $6.12 million. Based on the representative growth of this sample, the HIA Food and Oil Committee now estimates that the total retail value of hemp foods sold over the past 12 months in North America grew from $20 million last year to approximately $33 million this year. In addition, the SPINS data show that sales of hemp body care products grew 10% over the past 12 months in the sampled stores to $12.24 million. Due to the large hemp body care line sold by The Body Shop, as well as the fact that many unreported leading mass-market brands of sun tan lotion and sunscreen products include hemp oil, the HIA estimates the total retail value of North American hemp body care sales to be at least $80 million. “Farmers who want to grow hemp to support the steady double-digit growth are mad as ever about being shut out by our backward federal government,” says Mr. Bronner, who makes Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps and uses hemp oil in all his top-selling products. “The HIA is confident that the total North American hemp food and body care market over the last 12 months accounted for at least $100 million in retail sales,” adds Mr. Bronner. Over the last three years, hemp food sales have averaged 47% annual growth, making hemp one of the fastest-growing natural food categories. "Last fall we expected the double-digit growth of the hemp food sector to continue in 2008, as the excitement about hemp milk had led to more brands in the market," comments Eric Steenstra, HIA Executive Director. "We project that growth in the markets for hemp food and body care will keep pace into 2009,” says Steenstra. CORRECTION: In Mr. Lahde’s letter, he said that; “Hemp is the ‘male plant’ [metaphorically speaking, hemp is, like the male Cannabis plant, useless as a drug] and it grows like a weed, hence the slang term." This is not quite correct, however, as hemp is both female and male, but is distinct from the drug varieties of Cannabis because it contains virtually no THC, the chemical that generates a high. # # #

Latin America: Bolivia Blocks US Anti-Drug Flights, Says It Doesn't Need or Want US Help With Coca Crop

Relations between Bolivia and the US, already strained by Bolivia's expulsion of the US ambassador last month for allegedly helping to instigate anti-government protests and the subsequent US "decertification" of Bolivia for failure to comply with US drug war aims, grew even colder over the weekend. Last Thursday, Bolivian President Evo Morales rejected a DEA request to overfly the country, and on Saturday, he launched a rhetorical attack on US anti-drug policy.
Bolivian coca leaves drying in warehouse -- the sign reads ''Coca Power and Territory, Dignity and Sovereignty, Regional Congress 2006-08'' (photo by Phil Smith, Drug War Chronicle)
According to the Bolivian Information Agency, Morales last Thursday instructed his government to deny a written request from the US government to conduct surveillance flights over the South American nation. "Two days ago I received a letter from the US DEA asking a government institution for permission to fly over national territory," the agency quoted Morales as saying. "I want to say publicly to our authorities: They are not authorized to give permission so that the DEA can fly over Bolivian territory."

Bolivia is the world's third largest producer of coca, from which cocaine is produced. Since his election as president, Morales, who rose to prominence as a coca grower union leader, has embarked on a policy of "zero cocaine, but not zero coca." Under the Morales government, peasants are allowed to grow specified amounts of coca for traditional and industrial uses. In another sign of tension with the US, coca farmers loyal to Morales recently expelled US AID from the Chapare coca-growing region, saying its programs were ineffective.

On Saturday, Morales stepped up the rhetoric, saying Bolivia does not need US help to control its coca crop. He spoke before a crowd of coca growers outside La Paz.

"It's important that the international community knows that here, we don't need control of the United States on coca cultivation. We can control ourselves internally. We don't need any spying from anybody," Morales said in remarks reported by the Associated Press.

A State Department spokesman told the AP that the US had decertified Bolivia in part because it had chosen to follow its own path instead of Washington's lead. "We've certified Bolivia twice before under the Morales government, even though they have taken a very different approach to counter drugs, especially to eradication, than previous governments," said Thomas Shannon, the top US diplomat for Latin America. "But what we've noticed over the past couple of months," he added, "was a declining political willingness to cooperate, and then a very precise attempt by the part of some of the government ministries to begin to lower the level of cooperation and try to break the linkages" between US and Bolivian anti-drug efforts.

Although the Bush administration decertified Bolivia, it did not cut off anti-drug aid. It did, however, suspend Bolivia's exemption from US tariffs under a regional trade agreement. That could cost Bolivia up to 20,000 jobs, according to Bolivian business leaders. [Ed: What kind of jobs do people turn to sometimes when they lose their legal jobs?]

Feature: Venezuela, US Governments Spar Over Drug Fighting

The tense relations between the Bush administration and Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez grew even more strained this week as Washington and Caracas traded charges and counter-charges over Venezuela's fight against cocaine trafficking. While it seems indisputable that cocaine trafficking through Venezuela has increased in recent years, the two governments are trading barbs over the extent of official Venezuelan complicity in the trade, whether Venezuela is doing enough to combat trafficking, and whether it needs to comply with US demands in order to effectively fight the drug trade.
Venezuela (from the CIA World Factbook)
Venezuela does not grow coca or process cocaine, but like other countries in Latin America, it has been used as a conduit, especially by traffickers from neighboring Colombia, the region's largest coca and cocaine producer. The rise of the European cocaine market in recent years has undoubtedly made the country an attractive way station for cocaine headed east.

"The flow of cocaine through Venezuela -- both north particularly through the Dominican Republic and Haiti but also into Europe through Africa and other places -- has increased dramatically," US drug czar John Walters told the Associated Press in a recent interview. He said smuggling through Venezuela had quadrupled since 2004, to about 250 metric tons last year, or about one-quarter of total regional (and thus global) cocaine production.

The remarks come as the US is pressing Venezuela to renew cooperation with it on drug trafficking, and are probably laying the groundwork for a looming decertification of Venezuela's compliance with US drug war goals. Relations between the US DEA and the Venezuelan government have been almost nonexistent since Chávez expelled the DEA in 2005, charging that it was spying on his country. Only two DEA agents are currently stationed in Venezuela, and their activities are very circumscribed.

But Venezuela last weekend brusquely rejected renewed calls from Washington to accept a visit from Walters and resume cooperation on the drug front, saying it had made progress by itself and working with other countries. "The anti-drug fight in Venezuela has shown significant progress during recent years, especially since the government ended official cooperation programs with the DEA," Venezuela's foreign ministry said in a statement. Renewing talks on drugs would be "useless and inopportune," the statement said.

Walters had tried to "impose his visit as an obligation," the foreign ministry complained. "The government considers this kind of visit useless and ill-timed and feels that this official would better use his time to control the flourishing drug trafficking and abuse in his own country," the statement said. "Venezuela has become today a country free of drug farms, neither producing nor processing illicit drugs, and which has smashed records one year after another for seizing substances from neighboring countries," it added.
That statement came one day after US Ambassador to Venezuela Patrick Duddy ruffled feathers in Caracas by saying that Venezuela's failure to cooperate with the US was leaving an opening for traffickers. "The drug traffickers are taking advantage of the gap that exists between the two governments," Duddy told reporters, citing the estimated fourfold rise in trafficking.

President Chávez responded to those remarks Sunday by calling them "stupid" and warning that Duddy would soon be "packing his bags" if he is not careful. Chávez also suggested that the US concentrate on its own drug use and marijuana production.

On Monday, Venezuelan Vice-President Ramón Carrizales echoed his chief, telling reporters in Caracas that Venezuela was cooperating internationally, just not on US terms. "The DEA asks for freedom to fly over our territory indiscriminately," Carrizales said. "Well, they aren't going to have that freedom. We are a sovereign country."

Venezuela has seized tons of cocaine in recent years and has some 4,000 people behind bars on trafficking charges, he added. Most US-bound cocaine moves north by sea, he said, largely along Colombia's Pacific Coast.

But the Bush administration wasn't backing down. On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormick said: "Our officials, including Ambassador Duddy, are going to continue to speak out on the state of US-Venezuelan relations... (and) what we see happening inside Venezuela. That does not foreclose the possibility of a better relationship... and certainly we're prepared to have a better relationship," he added, saying Washington first needed to see some unspecified actions by the Venezuelan government.

Good luck with that, said a trio of analysts consulted by the Chronicle. "There is little chance of increased cooperation," said Ian Vasquez, director of the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, who cited corruption within the Venezuelan government.

Prospects for a rapprochement on drug policy are low, said Adam Isaacson of the Washington-based Center for International Policy. "There is so much distrust between the two governments," he said. "Chávez's threat scenario is a US invasion, and a US military, security, or even police presence would be seen as probing for weaknesses. On the other hand, the US thinks Venezuela is on a campaign to bring Iran and Russia into the region, and Walters is an ideologue who thinks Venezuela is doing this to destabilize the region, you know, the idea of a leftist leader making common cause with drug traffickers. There is no trust, and there's not going to be any trust. The drug war stuff is really only one aspect of that larger context," he said.

"The Venezuelans have repeatedly stated they want to cooperate with the US on drugs, but Chávez deeply distrusts the US government," said Larry Birns, head of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington. "He has had a terrible time with activist US ambassadors and he feels they have intervened repeatedly in Venezuela's sovereign affairs, but this could be a propitious moment. The Bush administration will get nowhere with any new anti-Chávez initiatives, so they just might be interested in taking some steps toward normalizing relations with Venezuela simply to show that the US is capable of using diplomacy."

Still, said Birns, don't look for any dramatic breakthroughs. "There won't be any effective agreement on drug trafficking unless it's part of a larger mix of confidence-building measures," he said. "Hugo Chávez has a confrontational, combative personality, but he's relatively clean when it comes to human rights violations or other derelictions, and that's very frustrating for Washington. There will not be any comprehensive agreement on this issue, just some de facto improvements on a graduated basis because the necessary confidence between the two governments just doesn't exist."

All three agreed that cocaine trafficking through Venezuela is increasing, but none thought it was a matter of official policy. "It's true there is now a lot of cocaine going through Venezuela," said Isaacson. "While I don't think that Chávez is actively trying to turn the country into a narco playground, I haven't seen any major effort to root out drug-related corruption. Chávez also has problems controlling his national territory; there are security and public security problems, common crime is a serious problem, and organized crime is growing."

"Venezuela has an income of $100 billion a year from oil revenues, why would they be interested in drug revenues?" Birns asked. "I'm sure there are some rogue elements in the government, but this is not a matter of state policy," he said. "You can't deny there is drug trafficking in Venezuela, but I can't imagine that Chávez has anything to do with or gain from it. After all, he's giving away hundreds of millions of dollars a year around the world, including the US, in oil and heating oil, so this just doesn't seem like an income opportunity he would be interested in."

The war on drugs is just a waste of time and resources, said Vasquez. "Asking countries to enforce US drug prohibition is asking them to do the impossible," said Vasquez. "It hasn't succeeded in Colombia, Mexico, or anywhere in the Andes. You see some ephemeral victories -- you might kill a drug lord or shut down a cartel, but this is a multi-billion dollar multinational industry that can easily adapt to whatever is thrown at it."

Asking for more enforcement is only asking for trouble, said Vasquez. "The more prohibition, the more law enforcement, the more violent it becomes," he said. "There is no light at the end of the tunnel. To the extent that the drug war is more aggressively pursued, we can expect more violence and corruption."

Still, there are things Venezuela could do to ease tensions, said Isaacson. "Venezuela could be more cooperative in monitoring its airspace, sharing radar information, even allowing occasional US verification flights like the other Latin American countries do," he said. "And as Fidel Castro has done, they need to take a hard line against drug corruption in the state -- it can eat a state from the inside out."

But if Chávez can be accused of playing politics with the drug issue, so can the US, said Isaacson. "US anti-drug goals look even more politicized. I'm sure Venezuela will be decertified, and people will fairly say they're singling out Venezuela because they're leftists and say bad things about the US. Meanwhile, Colombia, with the world's largest coca crop, and Mexico, which has a huge drug trafficking industry, will get a pass because they're pro-US."

"The US certification process on drugs is very tarnished," agreed Birns. "All of these annual mandates from Congress on drugs and terrorism and the like have been carried out in an archly political manner. The US minimizes the sins of its friends and maximizes those of its enemies."

Washington's problems with Venezuela are just part of an overall decline in US influence in the region, said Birns. "With countries like Peru having high growth rates because of the increased valuation of natural resources across the board and new resource discoveries, with Brazil on the verge of becoming a superpower, with various new organizations of which the US is not a part, like the Rio Group and the South American security zone, our leverage over Latin America is waning. The only way to achieve real results on any of these issues is earnest negotiation where real concessions are made."

Feature: California Attorney General Issues Medical Marijuana Guidelines -- Mostly Good But Some Problems, Say Advocates

After more than a decade of roiling confusion over what California's groundbreaking medical marijuana law and subsequent enabling legislation do and do not allow, state Attorney General Jerry Brown sought to clarify matters Monday by issuing a long-awaited set of guidelines for patients, providers, and law enforcement. In addition to clarifying what is permissible under state law, Brown also hoped to damp down the ongoing conflict between state and federal authorities over medical marijuana in California.
California medical marijuana bags (courtesy Daniel Argo via Wikimedia)
Under the guidelines, medical marijuana dispensaries must operate as not-for-profit collectives or cooperatives, and are prohibited from buying marijuana from growers who are not themselves patients or registered caregivers. The only fees dispensaries can collect are those covering overhead and operating expenses.

The guidelines strongly urge patients to obtain state medical marijuana ID cards and advise police to accept such cards as proof of legitimate medical need. The guidelines also call on police to return seized marijuana to patients who are later proved to be legitimate. They prohibit medical marijuana patients from lighting up near schools and recreation centers or at work, unless employers approve.

Affirming that California's medical marijuana law is not preempted by federal law, the guidelines further direct "state and local law enforcement officers [to] not arrest individuals or seize marijuana under federal law" when an individual's conduct is legal under state law.

But while providing protections to patients and non-profit dispensaries organized as co-ops or collectives, the guidelines could provide a green light for law enforcement to go after the store-front dispensaries that have sprung up like mushrooms in some areas of the state. In ballyhooing a Friday raid against a Northridge dispensary by California Bureau of Narcotics Agents, Brown signaled Monday that a crackdown could be looming.

Accusing the Today's Healthcare dispensary and its operators of criminal behavior by operating a profitable business, Brown went on the offensive. "This criminal enterprise bears no resemblance to the purposes of Proposition 215, which authorized the use of medical marijuana for seriously sick patients," he said. "Today's Healthcare is a large-scale, for-profit, commercial business. This deceptively named drug ring is reaping huge profits and flaunting the state's laws that allow qualified patients to use marijuana for medicinal purposes."

California law enforcement pronounced itself pleased with the guidelines. Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, praised Brown for promulgating them. "Since Proposition 215 was passed, the laws surrounding the use, possession and distribution of medical marijuana became confusing at best. These newly established guidelines are an essential tool for law enforcement and provide the parameters needed for consistent statewide regulation and enforcement."

Despite the apparent threat to non-compliant dispensaries and their suppliers, most medical marijuana advocates also pronounced themselves generally satisfied with the guidelines. The medical marijuana defense group Americans for Safe Access has been working with Attorney General Brown and his predecessor, Bill Lockyer, for several years in an effort to see guidelines promulgated. ASA spokesman Kris Hermes said this week that while the guidelines are not perfect, they are a step in the right direction.

"We've been urging them to come out with an official statement that can direct law enforcement and stop what has been rampant disrespect for state law in some areas," he said. "From that perspective, the guidelines are a huge step forward. They provide a blueprint for local law enforcement to develop sensible policies around patient encounters, and they recognize the validity and law-abiding nature of medical marijuana dispensaries in California. That's huge," said Hermes. "These guidelines are a boon for patients, police, and everyone else in the state and will greatly advance the implementation of state law."

"Given the vagueness of the initiative and the statutes, the guidelines are pretty good," said Bruce Mirken, San Francisco-based communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "They establish parameters within which the distribution of medical marijuana is to be treated as legitimate and legal. That's important because some prosecutors have been adamant that there is no legal authority for dispensaries -- period. This cuts the legs out from under them," he said.

"They were about what we expected," said Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML. "Most of the guidelines are consistent with what our attorneys have been saying and advising their clients to do all along. There are a few problem areas, but these guidelines will help fill the vacuum."

One problem Gieringer pointed out was that the guidelines say dispensaries may possess and distribute only lawfully cultivated marijuana, and that they cannot purchase from or sell to non-members. "There is nothing in either federal or state law against purchasing marijuana, so we don't see any legal basis for saying it's illegal to buy from outside vendors," he said.

Another potential problem is that the guidelines say that co-ops and collectives should document their activities and record the source of the marijuana they purchase, Gieringer said. "That is going to be problematic until we have some assurance of protection from being arrested by the DEA, and we don't want to see the cops come in and seize the records, and then bust the growers."

"While there is much about the guidelines that is positive, we also have some worries about some of the dispensary language," Mirken said. "Requiring dispensaries to be non-profit is just silly. Is Jerry Brown going to demand that Walgreen's and Riteaid become charities, too? If society thinks private enterprise and the profit motive are a logical way to distribute goods and services, why not medical marijuana?"

Still, said Mirken, the guidelines are a step in the right direction. "Given that we have all these issues here in California, anything that moves us in the direction of an orderly system with some legal clarity is a good thing. When you have local authorities who just don't like medical marijuana and are looking for an excuse to bust people, which some of them have been doing all along, this is going to provide protection."

But at least one Bay Area dispensary operator was not so impressed. "Let's see how it all plays out," said Richard Lee, proprietor of Oakland's Bulldog Coffee Shop and SR-71 dispensary and key promoter of the Oaksterdam scene. "Hopefully, it will help people in more repressed redneck areas and not hurt people in more progressive areas like Oakland and San Francisco."

Although Brown's guidelines call for dispensaries to be organized as co-ops or collectives, Lee has not incorporated in that manner and has no plans to. "We've been here eight years," he said. "We were here before they even passed SB 420. Oakland has a system that allows reasonable profits; it's set up for the clubs to run like any other business, and we are fine with that. Does Jerry Brown really want to come in and mess with Oakland's system that works?"

While the guidelines could result in a temporary decrease in the number of dispensaries as non-compliant ones either close their doors or have them closed for them by law enforcement, the end result will most likely be more dispensaries opening in areas of that state that are currently underserved because of local law enforcement or official hostility.

"I'm not too worried about a short term decrease in the dispensaries if it brings a little more rigor," said Gieringer. "Things have been fast and loose, and we have some rogue operators who wouldn't normally be operating in a legal market. We will lose some of those people, which could result in a short term decrease in availability, but in the medium term, this should be balanced out by the increase in availability in currently underserved areas."

While not everyone is happy with all aspects of the guidelines, the state of California has now taken a big step toward legitimizing its medical marijuana industry, reducing the confusion surrounding the state's medical marijuana law, and sending a strong signal to the DEA that it intends to police itself.

Law Enforcement: LEAP Barred From Asian-American Cops Meeting in Virginia

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), the 10,000-strong organization of police, judges, prosecutors, DEA and FBI agents, and others calling for an end to drug prohibition, was declared persona non grata at the conference of the National Asian Peace Officers Association (NAPOA) in Crystal City, Virginia, on Tuesday. LEAP member Howard Wooldridge--best known as the guy in the cowboy hat with the "Cops Say Legalize Drugs" t-shirt--was forced to remove himself and his booth from the conference after federal agents there complained about his presence, LEAP said in a Wednesday press release.

According to the press release: "Acting under pressure from unnamed federal officials, Reagan Fong, president of the NAPOA, insisted on the immediate removal of LEAP from the conference vendor roster. It appears that some of the event's other exhibitors took exception to the LEAP message and put pressure on the event organizer to expel LEAP from the event."

Wooldridge reported that federal agency representatives, including DEA, Federal Air Marshals, and the Coast Guard had vendor booths at the conference. On Monday, Wooldridge visited the DEA booth and described the DEA agent there as "decidedly unhappy" with having to hear an opposing viewpoint.

Although NAPOA head Fong has not yet responded to LEAP requests for clarification and rectification, LEAP believes he took the action at the request of the DEA agent. LEAP is asking for an apology and demanding that Fong reveal the identity of the agent who leaned on him.

"We ask that Mr. Fong identify the individual, agency or group that lobbied for our eviction from the event," LEAP said. "If this was an independent effort then he or she was acting outside the scope of authority and should receive administrative punishment for unprofessional actions. If this action was sanctioned by upper level management then the managers need to explain their behavior in an open forum. If this was sanctioned official action by the US government it is a serious matter which requires serious and immediate attention."

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