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Medical Marijuana: DEA Hits California Dispensary in First Raid of Obama Administration -- New President Promised End to Raids

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raided a medical marijuana dispensary in South Lake Tahoe, California, Thursday, marking the first dispensary raid during the brand new Obama administration. On the campaign trail, candidate Obama said repeatedly he would end such raids.

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DEA and SFPD dispensary raid, May 2008 (courtesy Bay Area Indymedia)
Neither the DEA nor the Obama administration had commented on the raid by Thursday evening. With the Obama administration mere days in office, many high-ranking Bush officials are still on the job, including acting DEA administrator Michele Leonhart, who has been responsible for numerous federal raids in California. The Obama administration has yet to name a new DEA head or permanent drug czar (head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy), and attorney general nominee Eric Holder is still undergoing congressional vetting.

"Whether or not this unconscionable raid on a medical marijuana provider is the fault of federal officials from the previous administration, President Obama has an opportunity to change this harmful and outdated policy," said Caren Woodson, director of government affairs for Americans for Safe Access, the leading national medical marijuana advocacy organization. "We are hopeful that these are the last remnants of the Bush regime and that President Obama will quickly develop a more compassionate policy toward our most vulnerable citizens."

During the Bush years, the DEA raided more than a hundred California dispensaries, sometimes merely seizing their medicine and cash, sometimes prosecuting their operators and sending them to federal prison. But the DEA has also gone after a medical marijuana organization in Washington state that supplied starter plants for its members, used a federal grand jury in Oregon to obtain patient records, and even threatened New Mexico officials planning to implement that state's medical marijuana distribution program.

In Thursday's raid, DEA agents hit the Holistic Solutions dispensary in South Lake Tahoe, seizing cash and medical marijuana. They made no arrests.

"President Obama must rise to the occasion by quickly correcting this problem and by keeping the promise he made to the voters of this country," said Woodson, citing Obama's repeated campaign pledges.

DEA’s Medical Marijuana Raids Continue Under Obama Administration

Uh-oh. Looks like Obama has yet to deliver on his promise to end the medical marijuana raids:

Oakland, CA -- The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raided a medical marijuana dispensary today in South Lake Tahoe, California, in the first days of the new Obama Administration. Even though President Barack Obama had made repeated promises during his election campaign to end federal raids in medical marijuana states, many high-ranking Bush Administration officials have yet to leave office. For example, still at the helm of the DEA is acting Administrator Michele Leonhart, who has been responsible for numerous federal raids in California, following in the footsteps of her predecessor Karen Tandy. Neither Eric Holder, President Obama's pick for U.S. Attorney General, nor a new DEA Administrator, have taken office yet. [Americans for Safe Access]

It’s too early to accuse Obama of turning his back on the patients he pledged to defend, but it’s a clear sign that the new president will have to take concrete steps towards ending the DEA’s controversial crusade in California. It won’t stop just because he said it would. He has to actually do something to stop this.

We’ll soon have new leadership at the Dept. of Justice and it will become perfectly clear to everyone what Obama’s priorities really are. Until then, we’re stuck with George Bush’s drug war under Barack Obama’s watch. The new administration has done its best to avoid publicly discussing marijuana policy, so let’s hope they understand that ending these raids promptly is the best way to avoid ugly headlines.

Feature: Politics Trumps Science as DEA Rejects Researcher's Request to Grow Marijuana for FDA-Approved Studies

The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Wednesday blocked the years-long effort of a University of Massachusetts-Amherst researcher to end the federal government's monopoly on the supply of marijuana available for research. In doing so, the agency overruled its own Administrative Law Judge, Mary Ellen Bittner, who nearly two years ago formally recommended that the project be approved.

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Lyle Craker (courtesy aclu.org/drugpolicy/)
UMass-Amherst Professor Lyle Craker initially filed a petition in June 2001 seeking to cultivate research-grade marijuana for use by researchers in Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved studies aimed at developing the plant as legal prescription medicine. Currently, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is the sole source of marijuana for researchers, but that agency has repeatedly refused to make it available for privately-funded, FDA-approved studies seeking to develop smoked or vaporized marijuana into a prescription medication. Researchers have also complained about the quality of the marijuana produced at the federal government's Mississippi pot farm.

From the beginning, Bush administration officials have been unresponsive or sought to delay the proceedings in the Craker case. The DEA first did not respond to Craker's requests for status reports on his request, then told him it had lost his filing. When he submitted a photocopy, the DEA rejected that as improper. It took until 2004 for the agency to get around to rejecting Craker's request, and ever since then for that rejection to go through the administrative appeal process.

It was during that process that DEA Administrative Law Judge Bittner made her formal recommendation supporting Craker's request: "I conclude that granting Respondent's petition would not be inconsistent with the Single Convention, there would be minimal risk of diversion of marijuana..., that there is currently an inadequate supply of marijuana available for research purposes, that competition in the provision of marijuana for such purposes is inadequate, and that the Respondent has complied with applicable laws and has never been convicted of any violation of any law pertaining to controlled substances," Bittner wrote as she weighed the factors involved in her decision. "I find there that Respondent's registration to cultivate marijuana would be in the public interest."

Judge Bittner's recommendation was based largely on the fact that marijuana is the only Schedule I drug that the DEA prohibits from being produced by private laboratories for scientific research, which has resulted in a unique government monopoly that fundamentally obstructs appropriate research and regulatory channels. Other controlled substances, including LSD, MDMA, heroin and cocaine, are available to researchers from DEA-licensed private laboratories.

In contrast, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) remains scientists' sole source of marijuana, despite the agency's repeated refusal to make marijuana available for privately-funded, FDA-approved studies that seek to develop smoked or vaporized marijuana into a legal, prescription medicine.

As Judge Bittner concluded, "NIDA's system for evaluating requests for marijuana has resulted in some researchers who hold DEA registrations and requisite approval from [HHS and FDA] being unable to conduct their research because NIDA has refused to provide them with marijuana. I therefore find that the existing supply is not adequate."

But just as was the case with DEA Administrative Law Judge Francis Young's famous 1988 recommendation that marijuana was among the safest therapeutically active substances known to man and should be rescheduled, Bittner's recommendation was also ignored by her own agency. In the final decision issued this week, the DEA simply rejected most of Bittner's findings, and rejected Craker's petition.

"I am saddened that the DEA is ignoring the best interests of so many seriously ill people who wish for scientific investigations that could lead to development of the marijuana plant as a prescription medicine," said Professor Craker. "Patients with serious illnesses deserve legitimate research that might establish medical marijuana as a fully legal, FDA-approved treatment. Today, that effort has been dealt a serious blow."

Craker wasn't the only one protesting. The ACLU Drug Law Reform Project, the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) all supported Craker's quest, and all blasted the DEA decision.

"It's no surprise that an administration that has rejected science again and again has, as one of its final acts, blocked a critical research project," said MPP director of government relations Aaron Houston. "With the new administration publicly committed to respecting scientific research and valuing data over dogma, this final act of desperation isn't surprising, but the true victims are the millions of patients who might benefit."

"With one foot out the door, the Bush administration has once again found time to undermine scientific freedom," said Allen Hopper, litigation director for the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. "In stubbornly retaining the unique government monopoly over the supply of research marijuana over the objections of DEA's own administrative law judge, the Bush administration has effectively blocked the proper regulatory channels that would allow the drug to become a wholly legitimate prescription medication."

"The DEA and NIDA, but not the FDA, are clearly frightened of permitting privately-funded, scientific research into the risks and benefits of the medical uses of marijuana," said Rick Doblin, president of MAPS. "We need the Obama Administration to reverse this egregious suppression of scientific research that the outgoing administration so fears will reveal inconvenient truths."

Despite the DEA rejection, these are the waning days of the Bush administration, and this isn't over yet. Look for another lawsuit or an appeal to the Obama administration, said Doblin.

DEA Blatantly Blocks Medical Marijuana Research

After stalling for two years, the DEA has conveniently chosen the final days of the Bush Administration to act on the Craker petition:

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Bush administration struck a parting shot to legitimate science today as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) refused to end the unique government monopoly over the supply of marijuana available for Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved research.  DEA's final ruling rejected the formal recommendation of DEA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Mary Ellen Bittner, issued nearly two years ago following extensive legal hearings.

"With one foot out the door, the Bush administration has once again found time to undermine scientific freedom," said Allen Hopper, litigation director of the American Civil Liberties Union Drug Law Reform Project. "In stubbornly retaining the unique government monopoly over the supply of research marijuana over the objections of DEA's own administrative law judge, the Bush administration has effectively blocked the proper regulatory channels that would allow the drug to become a wholly legitimate prescription medication."

The DEA ruling constitutes a formal rejection of University of Massachusetts at Amherst Professor Lyle Craker's petition, filed initially June 24, 2001, to cultivate research-grade marijuana for use by scientists in FDA-approved studies aimed at developing the drug as a legal, prescription medication. [ACLU]


Marijuana, unlike LSD, MDMA, heroin and cocaine, is almost impossible to obtain for research purposes and the DEA will do everything in its virtually infinite unchecked power to keep it that way. We all know why: they’re afraid of what the research will show.

The really disgusting part of all this is that the drug warriors actually go around claiming that we need more research before we can allow patients to use medical marijuana, all the while doing everything in their power right before our eyes to prevent that research from happening. There’s nothing secret about any of this. You can just watch them do it.

And the best part of all is that the DEA actually managed to churn out a 118-page monstrosity explaining their position, which can be summed up as follows:

Marijuana is bad and we are powerful, so f**k you. Furthermore…f**k you. And in conclusion, based on the aforementioned facts…f**k you.

I don’t know why it took them over a hundred pages to flesh it out. I guess they just love killing trees.

West Africa: Here Come the Narcs

In the last three years, South American cocaine traffickers aiming at lucrative European markets have increasingly turned to West Africa as a way station in the intercontinental trade. Now, the narcs are following them. Several countries, including the US, Brazil, and Colombia, are either increasing or establishing an anti-drug presence in the region in a bid to dent the traffic.

The countries of West Africa are poor, crime-ridden and beset with weak institutions, making them attractive to traffickers able to buy protection on the cheap. And with half of the world's cocaine now going up the noses or into the crack pipes of Europeans -- use rates there have doubled in the past four years, according to the UN -- traffickers are rushing to set up shop in places like Guinea-Bissau, Ghana, and Sierra Leone. One quarter or more of all cocaine headed for Europe now transits West Africa.

Colombian National Police Commander Gen. Óscar Naranjo said last week that he will soon send a 10-man anti-drug team to the region, with a headquarters in Sierra Leone. "We want to establish a common front with these countries, to help identify the Colombian traffickers who come and go," Naranjo said.

Brazil, which is itself a major consuming country as well as a transshipment point, is also sending narcs across the water. About a half-dozen agents are headed for West Africa, one foreign narcotics agent told the Los Angeles Times.

And the US DEA is getting in on the action, too. While for years, the DEA had only one office in the entire continent, in Lagos, Nigeria, it is now expanding its activities in West Africa, agency spokesman Garrison Courtney told the Times. "The drug traffic is now going both ways. Cocaine is moving through Africa and on to Europe, while precursor chemicals from China and India for making methamphetamines are now transiting through on the way to Central America and Mexico," Courtney said. Profits from the trade could be funding terrorists, he warned.

Drug busts are already on the rise in the region. In 2001, less than a ton of cocaine was seized in West Africa; by 2006, the figure was up to 14.6 tons, according to the UN. Last year, four tons were seized in Mauritania and Senegal alone, 2.5 tons were found on a Liberian freighter, and another half-ton on board a plane that crashed at Sierra Leone's international airport.

Guinea-Bissau has been an especially tempting spot for traffickers. One of the poorest nations in the world, it has a two-ship navy, no prison, and a few dozen police. Under last year, when tougher laws were passed, the maximum penalty for drug trafficking was a $1,000 fine, even if the quantity in question weighed in the tons. Two suspected members of the Colombian FARC guerrillas were arrested there in 2007 while on a drug trafficking mission -- and mysteriously released.

Now, West Africa will be treated to the tender mercies of the DEA and its homologues.

Feature: DEA Rejects Yet Another Rescheduling Petition, But the End Game Lies Far Down the Road

The DEA has rejected yet another petition seeking to remove marijuana from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), this one from Iowa-based marijuana reformer Carl Olsen. It is only the latest petition rejection by the agency in a glacially-paced struggle to reschedule marijuana that has been going on since 1972.

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marijuana plants
But Olsen and other advocates of the rescheduling tactic say that is to be expected, and the rejection is only the opening phase of this particular battle, not the end of the line. And while Olsen heads to federal court to challenge the DEA ruling, another petition to reschedule marijuana is still in process, as it has been for the past six years.

Richard Nixon was just beginning his second term in office when the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) filed the first rescheduling petition. It took 22 years and numerous court challenges before the DEA finally rejected that petition. In the meantime, the DEA rescheduled marijuana's primary psychoactive ingredient, THC, as a Schedule II drug in 1985 and loosened controls over THC even further by rescheduling it to Schedule III in 1999. That allows doctors to prescribe Marinol, but not marijuana.

Another rescheduling petition, filed by Olsen in 1992, was rejected years later, as was a 1995 petition submitted by former NORML head, researcher, and professor of public policy Jon Gettman. In 2002, Gettman, in association with a long list of supporters, submitted yet another Cannabis Rescheduling Petition, which remains pending.

Under the CSA, he argues, substances must meet several criteria to be placed in Schedule I, the most restrictive schedule. The substance must have a high potential for abuse, it must have "no currently accepted medical use" in the US, and there must be a lack of accepted safety for use of the substance. Both the Olsen petition that was rejected last month (although the decision was not published until this week) and the pending Gettman petition argue that marijuana no longer qualifies to be placed in Schedule I because it does have "currently accepted medical use" in the US, citing in particular the ever-growing number of states that have legalized its medicinal use.

But the two petitions differ in the way they seek to remedy the situation, and it is this difference that accounts for the vastly different pace at which they have been handled by the DEA. While the Gettman petition is still awaiting a ruling six years after it was filed, Olsen's petition was only filed this year. The Gettman petition seeks to reschedule marijuana through the administrative process, the Olsen petition argues that the issue is a matter of statutory law. Under the CSA, if marijuana is found to have "currently accepted medical use," it cannot be Schedule I.

"I filed in May, filed a federal lawsuit in September, and got a ruling December," said Olsen. "The DEA has never moved that fast on a petition in its history, and by denying the petition, it is avoiding the possibility of having to deal with it again because now it will instead go back to the court of appeals."

Olsen's petition was not a request, but a demand that DEA recognize the reality that marijuana cannot be a Schedule I drug, he said. "I didn't ask for anything; I demanded that they comply with the law. It's not a Schedule I drug, and they are breaking the law by keeping it there," he said. "The statute says it can't be a Schedule I drug if it has accepted medical use, and 13 states say it has accepted medical use. Doesn't that mean anything?"

Not according to the DEA it doesn't. "Your petition and notice rest on your contention that federal drug law gives states the authority to determine, for purposes of the CSA, whether a drug has a 'currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States,' and that marijuana has such a currently accepted medical use because 12 states have passed laws relating to the use of marijuana for medical purposes," wrote DEA Deputy Administrator Michele Leonhart in denying the petition.

Leonhart cited the Raich medical marijuana case in arguing that marijuana has no "accepted medical use" because the federal government doesn't recognize it, and even quoted from the decision: "The Supremacy Clause unambiguously provides that if there is any conflict between federal and state law, federal law shall prevail," and "Congress expressly found that [marijuana] has no acceptable medical uses."

Leonhart also quickly disposed of additional arguments presented by Olsen, summarizing her position by finding that "the existence of state legislation is not relevant to a scheduling determination." Thus, "there is no statutory basis for DEA to grant your petition to initiate proceedings to reschedule marijuana. Nor is there any basis to initiate any action based on your August 5th notice. The Petitioner's request is denied."

Now, it will be up to the federal courts to decide who is right. "The court has to rule on my complaint to enjoin the DEA from enforcing Schedule I," said Olsen. "If they rule in my favor, the DEA cannot claim it is a Schedule I drug; it will have to remove it from Schedule I."

In either case, the losing side will appeal. Look for a resolution of the Olsen case some time in the not-so-near future.

That's just how Olsen planned it, said Gettman. "I wasn't surprised at the DEA decision, and I don't think Carl was either," he said. "The whole point of his petition was to get this into federal court, and to do that, he had to be rejected administratively. This is really the beginning of Carl's legal challenge rather than the end."

Gettman credited Olsen with breaking new ground with the petition and even for inspiring Gettman himself to get involved with rescheduling. "Carl's arguments greatly clarify and build on state-level recognition of medical use, and set the stage for greater attention to this matter," he said. "And I have to say that Carl's activity and pioneering efforts are one of the things that inspired me to file the 1995 petition in the first place."

Meanwhile, Gettman's petition is still pending, although it has already moved through several stages of a lengthy bureaucratic process involving the DEA, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). "The last time we got a status report from FDA, they were nearing the end of their review," Gettman reported.

He is no hurry right now, he said. "We have deliberately decided not to pressure the government to complete the review. We would prefer to deal with the next administration instead of the current one," he explained. "Regardless of how the election turned out, we would have new personnel overseeing the process, and we think a fresh perspective would be beneficial."

Even if the FDA were to come down with a favorable review, there are many steps between that and actually rescheduling marijuana, and even then, the fight over marijuana will still be underway, said Gettman. "Rescheduling will not make medical marijuana available right away and it is not the end of deciding marijuana's regulatory status, it's the beginning," he said. "But it would change the regulatory environment and make it easier for states to accelerate the pace of reform, as well as make it easier for human studies to get under way and for companies to develop marijuana as a medical substance. Schedule I status discourages companies from doing that."

NORML founder Keith Stroup, who was in on the original 1972 rescheduling effort applauds Gettman's and Olsen's efforts, but said he has lost faith in ever gaining redress through that process. "I just don't believe anymore that the rulemaking process is ever going to work in our favor," he said. "We've been trying since 1973, and I think we're going to have to win this the old-fashioned way, through the legislative process or voter initiatives. I just don't think the people in those agencies have the principled courage to do the right thing," Stroup added.

"Still, I'm pleased that Carl and Jon continue to pursue these avenues," he said. "It's to our advantage to put pressure on the system wherever we can."

Whether it's a long-shot or not, the effort to change the marijuana laws through seeking rescheduling is not going away. And who knows? It might actually pay off big one of these years.

Feature: Gazing Into the Crystal Ball -- What Can We Expect in 2009?

In the other feature article in this issue, we looked back at last year, examining the drug policy high and lows. Here, we look forward, and not surprisingly, see some of the same issues. With a prohibitionist drug policy firmly entrenched, many issues are perennial -- and will remain issues until they are resolved.

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gazing into the future of drug policy reform '09 (picture from wikimedia.org)
Of course, America's drug war does not end at our borders, so while there is much attention paid to domestic drug policy issues, our drug policies also have an important impact on our foreign policy. In fact, Afghanistan, which is arguably our most serious foreign policy crisis, is inextricably intertwined with our drug wars, while our drug policies in this hemisphere are also engendering crisis on our southern border and alienation and loss of influence in South America.

Medical Marijuana in the States

In November, Michigan voters made it the 13th medical marijuana state and the first in the Midwest. Now, nearly a quarter of the US population resides in medical marijuana states, and it is likely that number will increase this year. Legislative efforts are underway in Kansas, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New York, among others, and chances are one or more of them will join the club this year. Interest in medical marijuana is also emerging in some unlikely places, such as Idaho, where one legislator has vowed to introduce a bill this year, and South Dakota, where activists who were defeated at the polls in 2006 are trying to get a bill in the legislature this month.

California's Grand Experiment with Medical Marijuana

As with so many other things, when it comes to medical marijuana, California is a different world. With its broadly written law allowing virtually anyone with $150 for a doctor's visit to seek certification as a a registered medical marijuana patient, and with its thriving system of co-ops, collectives, and dispensaries, the Golden State has created a situation of very low risk for consumers and significant protections even for growers and sellers.

With tax revenue streams from the dispensaries now pouring into the state's cash-starved coffers, medical marijuana is also creating political facts on the ground. The state of California is not going to move against a valuable revenue generator.

And if President-Elect Obama keeps his word, the DEA will soon butt out, too. But even if he doesn't, and the raids against dispensaries continue, it seems extremely unlikely that the feds can put the genie back in the bottle. The Bush administration tried for eight years and managed to shut down only a small fraction of operators, most of whom were replaced by competitors anyway.

The state's dispensary system, while currently a patch-work with some areas well-served with stores and other whole counties without any, is also a real world model of what regulated marijuana sales can look like. Despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth by pot foes, the dispensaries have, for the most part, operated non-problematically and as good commercial and community neighbors.

California's medical marijuana regime continues to evolve as the state comes to grips with the reality the voters created more than a decade ago. We will continue to watch and report as -- perhaps -- California leads the way to taxed and regulated marijuana sales, and not just for patients.

What Will Obama Do?

It will be a new era in Washington, DC, when President-Elect Obama becomes President Obama in less than three weeks. While the president cannot pass laws, he can provide leadership to the Congress and use his executive powers to make some changes, such as calling off the DEA in California, which he has promised to do.

The one thing we know he will not do is try to legalize marijuana. In response to publicly generated questions about marijuana legalization, his team has replied succinctly: No.

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What will President Obama do?
One early indicator of Obama's proclivities will be his selection of a replacement for John Walters, the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. While there has been speculation about some possible candidates, none of them very exciting for drug policy reformers, no candidate has yet been named.

President Obama will also submit budgets to Congress. Those documents will provide very clear indications of his priorities on matters of interest to the reform community, from the controversial program of grants to fund anti-drug law enforcement task forces to spending levels for drug prevention and treatment, as well as funding for America's foreign drug war adventures.

The conventional wisdom is that Obama is not going to expend political capital trying to undo decades of drug war policies, but perhaps the budget axe will do the talking. Goodness knows, we don't have any money to waste in the federal budget these days.

What Will the Congress Do?

Democrats now control not only the White House, but both houses of Congress. One area we will be watching closely is the progress, if any, of federal sentencing reform. There are now more than 100,000 federal drug war prisoners, too many of them low-level crack offenders serving draconian sentences thanks to the efforts of people like Vice President elect Joe Biden, a long-time congressional drug warrior. Several different crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity bills have been introduced. The best was authored by Biden himself, a sign of changing times, if only slowly changing. It is past time for one of these bills, hopefully a good one, to pass into law.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced a federal marijuana decriminalization bill last year. The best prediction is that it will go nowhere, but we could always stand to be pleasantly surprised.

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), head of the House Judiciary Committee, has emerged as a strong critic of federal interference in state medical marijuana programs. Conyers could use his position to highlight that issue, and possibly, to introduce legislation designed to address the problem of federal interference.

One area where the Congress, including the Democratic leadership, has proven vulnerable to the politics of tough on crime is the federal funding of those anti-drug task forces. In a rare fit of fiscal sanity, the Bush administration has been trying for years to zero out those grants, but the Congress keeps trying to get them back in the budget -- and then some. We will be watching those funding battles this year to see if anything has changed.

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Coca Museum, La Paz, Bolivia
Mexico

With the death toll from prohibition-related violence topping 5,000 last year, Mexico is in the midst of a multi-sided war that is not going to end in the foreseeable future, especially given America's insatiable appetite for the forbidden substances that are making Mexican drug trafficking organizations obscenely wealthy. With the $1.4 billion anti-drug military and police assistance known as Plan Merida approved last year by the Bush administration and the Congress, the US is now investing heavily in escalating the violence.

The National Drug Information Center has identified Mexican drug trafficking organizations as the nation's number one criminal threat, and chances are the violence south of the border will begin to ooze across the line. That will only add to the pressure among law enforcement and political figures to "do something." But given the current mindset among policymakers, just about anything they may be inclined to do to "help" is unlikely to be helpful.

The cartel wars in Mexico are also having an impact on Mexican domestic politics, with President Felipe Calderón's popularity suffering a significant decline. The angst over the escalating violence has already provided an opening for talk about drug policy reform in Mexico, with the opposition PRD saying that legalization has to be on the table, and Calderón himself announcing he wants to decriminalize drug possession (although how that would have any noticeable impact on the traffic or the violence remains unclear).

Look for the violence to continue, and watch to see if the resulting political pressure results in any actual policy changes. Drug War Chronicle will likely be heading down to Tijuana before too long for some on-scene reporting.

The Andean Drug War

... is not going well. Despite pouring billions of dollars into Plan Colombia, coca production there is at roughly the same level as a decade ago. Cocaine exports continue seemingly immune to all efforts to suppress them, although more appears to be heading for Europe these days. During the Bush administration, the US war on drugs in Colombia has morphed into openly supporting the Colombian government's counterinsurgency war against the leftist FARC rebels, who have been weakened, but, flush with dollars from the trade, are not going away. Neither are the rightist paramilitary organizations, who also benefit from the trade. Will an Obama administration try something new?

Meanwhile, Bolivia and Venezuela, the only countries singled out by the Bush administration as failing to comply with US drug policy objectives, have become allies in an emerging leftist bloc that seeks to challenge US hegemony in the region. Both countries have thrown out the DEA -- Venezuela in 2005, Bolivia last fall -- and are cooperating to expand markets for Bolivia's nascent coca industry. Bolivian President Evo Morales acknowledged this week that some coca production is being diverted to cocaine traffickers, but said that he does not need US help in dealing with it.

And in Peru, where President Alan García has sent out the army to eradicate coca crops in line with US policy, unrest is mounting in coca growing regions, coca farmers are pushing into indigenous territories, causing more problems, and the Shining Path insurgency, once thought decisively defeated, has reemerged, although apparently minus its Maoist ideology, as a criminal trafficking organization and protector of coca farmers. The Peruvian government blames the Shining Path for killing 25 soldiers, police, and anti-drug workers in ambushes last year. Look for that toll to increase this year.

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Afghan opium
Afghanistan

More than seven years after the US invaded to overthrow the Taliban and destroy Al Qaeda, Afghanistan is the world's largest opium producer, and has been each year since the Taliban were driven from power. While US drug war imperatives remain strong, they are in conflict with the broader objectives of the counterinsurgency there, and any efforts to suppress poppy planting or the opium trade will not only have a huge impact on the national economy, but are likely to drive Afghan farmers into the waiting arms of the resurgent Taliban, which is estimated to make hundreds of millions of dollars a year off taxing and protecting the trade. That buys a lot of guns to point at Afghan, American and NATO troops.

President elect Obama has vowed to reinvigorate the US war in Afghanistan by sending 20,000 additional troops, and NATO has reluctantly agreed to attack the drug trade by going after traffickers linked to the Taliban or various warlords -- but not those linked to the government in Kabul. Last year was the bloodiest year yet for coalition forces in Afghanistan; look for this year to top it.

Latin America: Venezuela Could Renew Cooperation With DEA, Chávez Says

In a Sunday interview, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said relations between his government and the US could improve dramatically under an Obama administration, including renewed cooperation with the DEA. Chávez, whose relations with the Bush administration have been tense and confrontational, threw the US anti-drug agency out of the country in 2005, charging it with spying and interfering with Venezuela's internal affairs.

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Chapare region, Bolivia, sign announcing construction of coca leaf industrialization plant financed by Venezuela (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith)
"There are winds in favor of relations between the Venezuelan government and the new president of the United States, Barack Obama. We must try energetically and with good faith to improve relations, and I am ready to do it," Chávez said on a Sunday political talk show, José Vicente Today, broadcast on a private television station. "But we can't be naïve," Chávez continued. "Worse than relations under Bush, impossible, but we must be cautious because Obama is the president of the empire, and all of its machinery is still intact."

The Bush White House has accused Venezuela of turning a blind eye to the trafficking of cocaine from neighboring Colombia -- a US ally and the world's largest producer -- but that is one of several areas where friendlier, more respectful relations could lead to renewed cooperation, Chávez said. "We are ready to work government to government on the energy issue, to combat drug trafficking," Chávez said. "We could even create a new agreement with the Drug Enforcement Agency."

But cooperation is a two-way street. Chávez is deeply interested in seeing fugitive terrorist Luis Posada Carriles extradited to Venezuela to face trial in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people. Posada escaped from a Venezuelan prison and showed up in the US years later, but US officials have refused to extradite him.

On Saturday, Chávez called on Obama to extradite Posada Carriles. "President Obama, send us the terrorist that we're requesting. He should be in prison and not free on the streets of the United States," Chávez declared.

Australia: Hemp Production Now Legal in New South Wales

American hemp consumers still can't grow their own, but as of this week, they now have one more choice of where to import it from. The state government of New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, Wednesday approved large-scale hemp farming and is set to begin considering license applications under the new plan.

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hemp plants (Luke Zigovitz for votehemp.com)
Hemp, the lanky, minimal-THC cousin to recreational marijuana, produces oils used in foods and balms, as well as fibers that are used in in clothing, cosmetics, livestock and animal feeds, and building materials, among other things. The US DEA considers hemp to be marijuana and bars its cultivation to the US, although due to a federal appeals court ruling, it has been blocked in its efforts to ban hemp imports or the sale of hemp products here.

Hemp is also environmentally friendly. It requires little water and grows quickly. In the US Midwest, feral hemp plants grow in abundance more than 60 years after fields were planted during World War II's "Hemp For Victory" campaign and then destroyed after the war.

"Industrial hemp has the potential to provide farmers with a much-needed additional fast-growing summer crop option that can be used in rotation with winter grain crops," said the Minister for Primary Industries, Ian Macdonald, in remarks reported by the Sydney Morning Herald. "It's a potentially lucrative industry due to its environmentally friendly nature."

Under the Hemp Industry Act regulations, farmers must be licensed, fields must be audited and regularly inspected, and police must test the crop to ensure that it has insignificant THC levels.

Some 200 people have contacted the Department of Primary Industries to inquire about growing hemp, the Morning Herald reported.

Australia will now join Canada, China, and a number of European countries as hemp producers. The US will continue to import the hemp it consumes. Tough luck, American farmers.

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.

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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.

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