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Medical Marijuana: DEA Threatens San Francisco Dispensary Landlords, Dispensaries Sue, Conyers to Hold Hearings

In a reprise of a tactic first used against Los Angeles and Sacramento area dispensaries, the DEA this week sent letters to dozens of owners of buildings leased to San Francisco dispensaries warning them that their buildings could be seized. Dispensary operators responded by filing suit in federal court to stop the agency, and a high-ranking congressman has promised to hold hearings on the matter.

Medical marijuana has been legal in California since 1996, and currently, hundreds of dispensaries are operating in the state to provide marijuana to patients qualified under the state's admittedly loose law. DEA raids and federal prosecution have failed to blunt their growth, and the landlord letters are only the latest wrinkle in the agency's war on the will of California voters.

"By this notice, you have been made aware of the purposes for which the property is being used," said a copy of the letter sent to San Francisco landlords, signed by the special agent in charge of the DEA's San Francisco office, Javier Pena. "You are further advised that violations of federal laws relating to marijuana may result in criminal prosecution, imprisonment, fines and forfeiture of assets."

The letter gave no deadlines.

San Francisco once had as many as 40 dispensaries, although only 28 have applied for licenses under a city regulatory process that began in July. But dispensaries may also be linked to other buildings where medical marijuana grows or storage take place.

"The feds do as they please... (and) they've done it before," San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi told the San Francisco Chronicle, adding he would not be surprised at a crackdown. "I would only hope they would coordinate with local law enforcement and that they are aware of the new regulatory system we have in place, and are sensitive to it."

Dispensary operators, however, were not quite so sanguine. A previously little known industry grouping, the Union of Medical Marijuana Providers, last week joined the Los Angeles area Arts District Healing Center in filing a federal lawsuit charging the DEA with extorting landlords. The lawsuit seeks an injunction to bar the DEA from sending any more threatening letters.

Dispensary operators and their supporters are also looking forward to hearings on the issue in the House Judiciary Committee. In response to complaints from California, last Friday, committee chair Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) announced he would hold hearings on the issue.

"I am deeply concerned about recent reports that the Drug Enforcement Administration is threatening private landlords with asset forfeiture and possible imprisonment if they refuse to evict organizations legally dispensing medical marijuana to suffering patients," Conyers said in a statement. "The committee has already questioned the DEA about its efforts to undermine California state law on this subject, and we intend to sharply question this specific tactic as part of our oversight efforts."

"When I saw Representative Conyers statement regarding the DEA's abuse of their power in order to thwart California's law, I knew that our legal efforts were beginning to pay off," said James Shaw, executive director of the Union. "The DEA has alienated too many citizens with their heavy-handed 'above the law tactics' for too long. We welcome all the support we can find in our efforts to ensure our rights are protected."

Steven Schectman, the Union's chief counsel, said he has contacted Representative Conyers' office in order to provide his staff copies of the litigation that was filed in both state and federal Court. "I am hopeful we can support the Judiciary Committee in any way possible. As a result of our research and investigation of the DEA's threatening letter campaign, in preparation of our litigation, we have become the most knowledgeable group, outside the DEA, who best understands the scope and import of their tactics. We are here to help."

Why Doesn't the DEA Just Crack Down on Medical Marijuana?

Ever wonder why the federal government doesn't just go ahead and raid every medical marijuana dispensary in California? The DEA seems to conduct only enough raids to create the perception of risk, while completely failing to prevent widespread medical access. In an online chat, someone asked the Drug Czar about this, and you know what he said? Nothing. He may be afraid to answer, but I'm not.

First check out his lengthy response and note that it doesn't answer the main question:
Patrick, from San Francisco, CA writes:
Mr. Walters-- My son is a high school junior here in San Francisco, CA. A large percentage of high school students in San Francisco smoke pot on campus several times a day. Teachers and school administrators are powerless to stop it and simply look the other way, all due to state and local laws which make it almost impossible to control pot and thereby keep it out of the hands of kids. How serious is the federal government in its attempts to shut down the phony "medical marijuana" industry, which is really just an underhanded way to make it easy for people to use pot recreationally. Raiding pot clubs could be stepped up easily (with very few people), couldn't they? --Patrick

John Walters
I’m glad you raised this concern, Patrick. We’re hearing the same thing from many other communities dealing with the same issue.

We believe that if there are elements of marijuana that can be applied to modern medicine, they should undergo the same FDA-approval process any other medicine goes through to make sure it’s safe and effective. In absence of that approval, the Federal position is clear: the smoked form of medical marijuana is against Federal law and we will continue to enforce the law.

Last year, the FDA issued an advisory reinforcing the fact that no sound scientific studies have supported medical use of smoked marijuana for treatment in the United States, and no animal or human data support the safety or efficacy of smoked marijuana for general medical use. This statement adds to the already substantial list of national public health organizations that have already spoken out on this issue, including the American Medical Association, the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society – all of which do not support the smoked form of marijuana as medicine. So who’s pushing for the smoked form of medical marijuana then?

Funded by millions of dollars from those whose goal it is to legalize marijuana outright, marijuana lobbyists have been deployed to Capitol Hill and to States across the Nation to employ their favored tactic of using Americans' natural compassion for the sick to garner support for a far different agenda. These modern-day snake oil proponents cite testimonials—not science—that smoked marijuana helps patients suffering from AIDS, cancer, and other painful diseases “feel better.” While smoking marijuana may allow patients to temporarily feel better, the medical community makes an important distinction between inebriation and the controlled delivery of pure pharmaceutical medication. If you want to learn more about this, we have information available that shows how medical marijuana laws increase drug-related crime and protect drug dealers. Hopefully you can help us educate more of our citizens about this fraud.
So it's clear that the Drug Czar opposes medical marijuana, but what about the raids? Well, I can think of a few reasons why a full-blown attack on medical access in California would be highly problematic:
1. Simultaneously raiding California's several hundred dispensaries would provoke aggressive protests and widespread bad publicity. The ensuing press coverage would highlight marijuana's well-known medical applications.

2. DEA's tactic of suppressing evidence in court that the marijuana is for medical use wouldn’t work if they raided all the providers at once. Jurors would figure it out and vote to acquit, wasting federal law enforcement and prosecutorial resources.

3. Black market violence would erupt immediately as criminals rush in to meet demand. This would prove to everyone that the medical marijuana industry actually made California safer.

4. Anti-medical marijuana statements from Republican presidential hopefuls have already jeopardized their chance at winning California's 54 electoral votes. An aggressive DEA campaign at this time would ensure a democratic victory there. Bush's Drug Czar knows better than to help democrats win California.

I suppose it's not very surprising that the Drug Czar declined to elaborate on this. He certainly wouldn't want to put ideas in anyone's head.

The point here isn't that providing medical marijuana carries no legal risks. It clearly does. But it's important for everyone to understand how hollow most of the DEA's threats really are. DEA's ongoing efforts against medical marijuana providers in California are designed to create the appearance of chaos, which is then cited as evidence that the medical marijuana industry is inherently harmful. This is purely political.

The Drug Czar's failure to answer this simple and common question reveals a great deal about his own reluctance to interfere with the will of California voters.

Location: 
United States

ASA: Judiciary Committee Chairman Conyers Opposes DEA Tactics

[Courtesy of Americans for Safe Access] Judiciary Committee Chairman Conyers Opposes DEA Tactics Pledges to Question DEA During Oversight Hearings Dear Friend, As many of you know, DEA recently launched an entirely new tactic in their continued efforts to undermine the effective implementation of medical marijuana laws in California. They have sent hundreds of letters threatening prosecution and asset forfeiture against property owners who rent to legal medical cannabis collectives – a strategy that could have ramifications for medical marijuana programs nationwide. ASA Government Affairs Director Caren Woodson has been talking to House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers’ (D-MI) staff and other Democratic leadership to encourage them to oppose these tactics and stand up for patients in states where medical cannabis is legal. Today, Chairman Conyers issued at a statement saying: “I am deeply concerned about recent reports that the Drug Enforcement Administration is threatening private landlords with asset forfeiture and possible imprisonment if they refuse to evict organizations legally dispensing medical marijuana to suffering patients. The Committee has already questioned the DEA about its efforts to undermine California state law on this subject, and we intend to sharply question this specific tactic as part of our oversight efforts.” In conjunction with more than fifty raids at medical cannabis collectives in California this year, the asset forfeiture threats against property owners represent the most serious challenge to patients’ access in the United States today. Conyers’ support signals the first significant Congressional opposition to the DEA’s attempted end run around voters and state lawmakers. ASA welcomes this statement and we look forward to working with Chairman Conyers to finally end DEA interference in state medical marijuana laws. Congratulations to the hundreds of ASA members who helped put grassroots strength behind our work! Keep your eyes open for an Action Alert next week to put even more support behind Conyers’ initiative, and visit www.AmericansForSafeAccess.org/Donate to make a contribution to support our effective advocacy today. Thank you, Steph Sherer Executive Director Americans for Safe Access -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Americans for Safe Access is the nation's largest organization of patients, medical professionals, scientists and concerned citizens promoting safe and legal access to cannabis for therapeutic use and research.
Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

Hemp: Court Rejects Bid By North Dakota Farmers to Get DEA Out of the Way

In Bismarck, US District Court Judge Daniel Hovland Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit filed by two would-be North Dakota hemp farmers seeking to end the DEA's ban on commercial hemp farming in the United States. Controlling opinions in the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals find that the federal Controlled Substances Act includes industrial hemp within the definition of marijuana, thus leaving hemp under the jurisdiction of the drug agency, Hovland wrote in his 22-page decision.

Backed by a state law permitting industrial hemp production and a friendly state Department of Agriculture, farmers Wayne Hauge and David Monson, the latter also a Republican state legislator, applied for licenses from the DEA to grow hemp. When the DEA failed to act on their applications, they sued in federal court.

Attorneys for the farmers said they are considering whether to appeal the decision. Among possible grounds would be the court's finding, following the DEA, that hemp and marijuana are the same thing.

While recognizing that industrial hemp could be a valuable commercial crop for North Dakota and that the farmers are unlikely to ever get DEA approval of their applications, Hovland wrote that the issue is one best resolved by Congress.

"The policy arguments raised by the plaintiffs are best suited for Congress rather than a federal courtroom in North Dakota," wrote Hovland, noting that a bill -- the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2007 -- had been introduced to address the issue. "Whether efforts to amend the law will prevail, and whether North Dakota farmers will be permitted to grow industrial hemp in the future, are issues that should ultimately rest in the hands of Congress rather than in the hands of a federal judge."

"Obviously we are disappointed with the decision," said Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, a grassroots group working to bring industrial hemp farming back to the US. "The court's decision shows it understands that the established and growing market for industrial hemp would be beneficial for North Dakota farmers to supply. Yet the decision overlooks Congress's original intent -- and the fact that farmers continued to grow hemp in the US for twenty years after marijuana was banned. If the plaintiffs decide to appeal the case, we would wholeheartedly support that effort. We are not giving up and will take this decision to Washington, DC to prompt action by Congress on HR 1009, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2007, which would clarify a state's right to grow the crop," added Steenstra.

While the farmers lost their case, it has apparently prompted the DEA to finally act on an eight-year-old application from North Dakota State University to conduct research on industrial hemp. During oral arguments in the case two weeks ago in Bismarck, the DEA's failure to act on the university's application came under discussion as the court weighed the likelihood of the agency ever responding to the farmers. Now, the DEA has sent a "Memorandum of Agreement" to the university which, if signed by the school, would clear the way for research to get underway.

"It seems our arguments about the DEA's delay in processing NDSU's application have resulted in the agency finally taking positive action to allow research," noted David Bronner, president of the Hemp Industries Association (HIA) and Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, a manufacturer of soap and other body care products using hemp oil imported from Canada.

But that's small solace for hemp advocates and North Dakota farmers in the face of a federal court system that has so far been unable to apply common sense to the hemp question.

Feature: Would-Be North Dakota Hemp Farmers Have Another Day in Court

A pair of North Dakota farmers who are suing the federal government over the DEA's failure to act on their applications to grow hemp will know by month's end if their case will continue, a federal district court judge in Bismarck said Wednesday. That comment from Judge Dan Hovland came at the end of a hearing on a motion by the government to dismiss the case.

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Wayne Hauge, David Monson, ND attorney Tim Purdon
Drug War Chronicle was there, sitting in the back of the courtroom as the farmers, the state of North Dakota, and hemp industry advocates took on a stubborn and recalcitrant DEA and its Justice Department mouthpieces. Besides the plaintiffs and lawyers for both sides, only a handful of hemp advocates and local media reporters were present.

Judge Hovland said he will rule on the motion within two weeks. He also stayed other motions before the court pending his ruling on the motion to dismiss.

Hemp products may be imported to the US, but a DEA ban on domestic production prevents US farmers from growing it, meaning domestic hemp product makers must turn to suppliers in countries where it is legal to grow, including Canada, China, and most of Europe.

Hemp is a member of the cannabis family, but unlike the marijuana consumed by recreational and medical marijuana users, contains only tiny amounts of the psychoactive substance that gets marijuana users "high." But the DEA argues that hemp is marijuana and that the Controlled Substances Act gives it authority to ban it.

The farmers and their attorneys disagree, pointing out that the CSA contains language explicitly exempting hemp fiber, seed oil, and seed incapable of germination from the definition of "marihuana" and are thus not controlled substances under that law. That same language was used to allow the legal import of hemp into the US as a result of a 2004 federal court decision siding with the hemp industry against the DEA.

The lawsuit filed by farmers Wayne Hauge and Dave Monson (who is also a Republican state legislator) is only the latest chapter in a decade-long struggle by North Dakota farmers to grow hemp. The state first passed hemp legislation in 1997, but things really began moving when state Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson, a strong hemp supporter, issued the first state permits to grow hemp to Hauge and Monson on February 6. One week later, Hauge and Monson sent a request to the DEA requesting licenses to grow their crops and noting that they needed a response by early April in order to get the crops in the ground this year.

The DEA failed to respond in a timely fashion. According to a March 27 DEA letter to Ag Commissioner Johnson, seven weeks was not enough time for the agency to arrive at a ruling on the request. That letter was the final straw for the North Dakotans, who then sued in federal court to get the DEA out of the way.

Just as the DEA appears determined to stall the hemp applications -- it has been sitting on one from North Dakota State University for eight years -- so the Justice Department seems much more interested in killing the case than arguing it. Wednesday's hearing in Bismarck saw Assistant US Attorney Wendy Ertmer try to make the case go away by arguing that the plaintiffs had no standing to sue the government because they had not been arrested or indicted and by arguing that district court was not the proper venue to hear it.

"The plaintiffs have suffered no injury," said Ertmer.

"Must they expose themselves to arrest to have standing?" asked an incredulous Judge Hovland.

"Generally, yes," Ertmer responded.

Hovland and Ertmer also tangled over the issue of jurisdiction, with Ertmer arguing that challenges to administrative rulings should be handled by federal appeals courts. Hovland seemed to differ, saying that district courts can indeed render declaratory judgements.

Judge Hovland also questioned Ertmer closely over the DEA's failure to act on either the NDSU application or Hauge and Monson's application. "There seems to be no realistic prospect that the DEA will grant the applications," he said.

"Why has it taken eight years and there is still no response to the NDSU application?" he asked. "Is exercising administrative remedies an exercise in futility? I see no prospect the plaintiffs will ever get a license," he said.

Throughout, Ertmer stuck to her guns and the government's official position that hemp is marijuana. She repeatedly referred to industrial hemp as "bulk marijuana" and derided North Dakota legislation that defines hemp as distinct from marijuana as meaningless. "It's still marijuana," she said.

Washington, DC, attorney Joe Sandler, who is representing the plaintiffs, provided a hint of arguments to come as he argued that neither the Supreme Court decision in the Raich case nor an 8th Circuit Court of Appeals case banning South Dakota Lakota Indian Alex White Plume from growing hemp on the Pine Ridge reservation should be controlling in the current case.

Hovland listened attentively, but then, noting that an industrial hemp bill had been introduced in Congress, wondered if a political solution were not the most appropriate. "Isn't the best remedy to amend the definition of industrial hemp under the (federal) Controlled Substances Act?" he asked. "To me, it seems like the easiest solution."

But Hauge, Monson, and their allies in the North Dakota state government and the hemp industry aren't waiting on Congress or the DEA. "If NDSU needed eight years and nothing was resolved, I think the DEA is trying to wait us out," Monson said. "It's a de facto denial of our license and that's part of our frustration."

Hauge and Monson said hemp could be a beneficial crop for North Dakota farmers. "We can start an entire industry with fiber, oil and meal," Monson said. "There are literally thousands of uses. This could be a huge economic benefit for North Dakota."

He is already getting requests for product from people who mistakenly think he's already growing a hemp crop, he said. "At least weekly, someone is calling asking to buy fiber or seed," Monson said. "There is certainly a market, especially on the West Coast and especially in the food industry. We can benefit here in North Dakota from the fiber."

Hauge, who farms a spread near the Canadian border in the western part of the state, said hemp is a potential money-maker, especially when grown in rotation with his durum, pea, and lentil crops. "You can make a profit, it's not just an alternative," Hauge said. "This is a rotation with a profit."

Hauge was hopeful following the hearing, saying he expected a ruling in the plaintiff's favor. "I'm positive about this," Hauge said. "The judge asked good questions and it shows his insight."

If Hovland denies the government motion to dismiss, it's back to court, where the plaintiffs will seek a summary declaration in their favor. But the federal courts move slowly, and planting season is only a few months away.

Hemp On the Menu in Bismarck, North Dakota

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

Law Enforcement: Karen Tandy Resigns As DEA Chief

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drug Czar Opposes Effort to Reduce Drug Overdoses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DEA Director Resigns, Says She Had an Awesome Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Location: 
United States

Editorial: Yes, the Drug War Really is Still Failing, DEA and ONDCP

David Borden, Executive Director

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David Borden
When the drug czar announced a few weeks ago that cocaine prices had gone up -- a sign of success in the drug war, so he claims -- I was surprised but not shocked. I was surprised -- slightly -- because in most years for the last few decades the price has dropped and dropped and dropped. Retail, or "street" cocaine prices are about 40% of what they were in the early 1980s, and that's without adjusting for inflation. Factor in inflation and it's closer to 20%, a five-fold decrease.

The reason I wasn't shocked is simply because within this steep, long-term decline, there have been upticks now and then, maybe once every four or so years. I was surprised in the way that one is surprised when flipping two coins and seeing both of them come up heads. Most of the time that doesn't happen -- you either get two tails, one is heads and the other tails, or the first one comes up tails and the second one comes up heads. But in one out of every four tries, on average both of them will come up heads.

I was surprised again on Wednesday, when I saw the same story come up a second time a few weeks later, this time in the Los Angeles Times. But not very surprised -- ONDCP and DEA have an obvious incentive to continue to pitch a story that seems favorable to them for as long as there's interest in it.

Unfortunately, the key word here is "seems." It certainly seems like a big jump when you read what they told the Times: "[T]he cost of cocaine increas[ed] 24%, from $95.89 to $118.70 per gram over the six-month period ending in June." Okay, but when looking at the DEA information sheet, one learns that that number is an average including all cocaine purchases during the time period, both wholesale (trafficker to dealer) and retail (seller to customer). The retail average -- the meaningful quantity when it comes to the end result -- went from $145.42 to $166.90, a lesser 15% increase.

Ultimately, price is not really the end result to judge the drug program, of course. The final result of importance, setting aside civil liberties issues, is the net harm to society of both drugs and drug policies. Driving up prices can lead to more crime, for example, and more of those who are addicted suffering financial destitution and driven to extreme circumstances. Price -- in this case, the adjusted price for a pure gram -- is considered a measure of a drug's availability -- the higher the price of the drug, the less available it is, and the fewer expected users. Or at least that's the theory. In this discussion, retail price is defined as purchases of up to 10 grams, the range used by the DEA in its STRIDE data collection program.

If so, it seems pretty silly to talk about prices rising over half a year to $167, in light of this:

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/cocaine-prices.gif

(You'll notice I'm missing a few years. I had trouble finding 2001-2006 data online this morning. I'd appreciate if someone could point me in the right direction, and I'll post a complete chart back here then and in our blog. The price data is from the aforementioned STRIDE program, divided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Price Index figures.)

Given how small the street price of cocaine still is compared with the past, this recent news just doesn't seem to me like something to brag about. Also, the DEA's write-up says they analyzed data going back to April 2005, but only goes on to discuss what happened from December of last year. I wonder what that means.

Bottom line, when you're only presenting the last six months to reporters, after multiple decades of data show something different -- when you don't even present the entire time range that you analyzed in the very study you just completed, your argument is weak. Sorry, the drug war really is still failing, just like it always has.

You can learn more about the drug czars' data shenanigans by picking up a copy of "Lies, Damn Lies, and Drug War Statistics." Better yet, order one from us.

Update: Some good info on this from WOLA, and discussion in the Washington Post blog.

Drug War Issues

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